Estelle: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin TalleyLies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: September 30, 2014
Publisher: HarlequinTeen
Pages: 304
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: historical fiction, 1950s, segregation, LGBT, family
Format read: Paperback ARC from HarlequinTeen. (Thanks!)

Summary: Sarah is one of the first African American students to enter a predominately white Virginia high school in 1959. The other students are not happy about it and are determined to make the black students feel as uncomfortable and unwanted as they can. When Sarah is paired with Linda and her best friend, Judy, on a French project, they are not expecting to become friends and Sarah is increasingly enraged by Linda’s close-minded proclamations. While it’s not so surprising being that Linda’s dad is one of the town’s most prolific supporters of segregation, Sarah sees little hints that Linda might not be like the other students in school; perhaps she can get why this treatment is not okay. As if things aren’t difficult enough, Sarah finds herself thinking about Linda in a way she doesn’t think God will approve of…

Imagine starting a brand new school with no welcome committee. Instead people are calling you names, telling you that you smell bad, not wanting to sit next to you, automatically thinking you are dumb because of what you look like, and even going a step farther than verbal abuse. They want to hurt you and they want to hurt you bad.

This is exactly the situation that Sarah and her friends are walking into as they step in Jefferson High School for the first time in 1959 Virginia. There is very little support from the administration a.k.a. the adults of the school, and even keeping your head down doesn’t stop them from singling you out. Sarah is miserable. She loved her old school, enjoyed her classes, got to sing in the choir, and now she’s stuck in remedial classes, doesn’t have any friends, and can’t participate in extracurricular anything. It’s hard to think she is “making a difference” like her parents remind her when she is dealing with this crap every single day. Scared for herself, her sister, and her friends. Instead, she feels lost and she’s not sure she will survive the few months until graduation.

Linda, a white girl in a few of Sarah’s classes and the daughter of someone who isn’t quiet about how these changes make him feel, feels like Sarah and the other African Americans have ruined her senior year. No prom, so much distraction. She can’t stand it. But so many of her opinions are formed from her father’s. A very busy man who has no time for his daughter and her opinions. Despite Linda not wanting Sarah and her friends in the school, she finds herself standing up for them a few times. When she is assigned a French project with her best friend (Judy) and Sarah, Linda acts like she has all the answers when it comes to Sarah returning to her old school and even why that school couldn’t afford enough books or equipment for all students. Calmly though passionately (most of the time), Sarah tries to explain why things are the way they are, and you can practically see the little cracks starting to affect Linda’s beliefs.

It was fascinating to watch Linda process what was happening around her and what was right vs. what she has always been told. So many times, I could see how close she was to realizing that her school’s treatment of Sarah and her friends was completely wrong. Then another wall would appear and we would move a few steps backward again. As much as people in this town and at Jefferson High did not want integration, it’s interesting to think how much of that was because they truly felt that way or because they were just listening to the arguments of others, believing that people with different skin type were actually lesser beings. Lies We Tell Ourselves does not shy away from how truly ugly people can get in the face of change and the unknown, and I had to close the book so much as I was reading because I was utterly disgusted. But by Linda’s character raising questions and asking why, we are able to gain more insight into this treatment without excusing it.

There is absolutely so much to discuss in this novel (book clubs and schools, take note!) but I wanted to say how nervous I was when I saw this book would also include a lesbian storyline. Conflicts because of integration is a lot to take on in the first place but to add in a plotline where Sarah and Linda fall for each other? Would it be too much? I shouldn’t have doubted Robin Talley and I won’t ever again; the feelings growing between the two never overpower the book and I thought that was a good move. It’s hard enough for the two to be seen in the same classroom, much less pursue a relationship but it was authentic and great to see each of their thought processes (was something wrong with them? were they going to hell?) and how the time period reflected their hopes for the future.

For all the pain and all the judgement in this book, there are also beautiful moments which shocked me with how much they affected me. (I would be crying and not even notice.) From the wonderful first moment Sarah shares her voice with two strangers, the bond between Sarah and her lil sister, Ruth, how Linda found strength in her own words, and the bravery that both girls had to tap into to move forward in ways I never would have predicted. Lies We Tell Ourselves  is an important book and not only for the treatment of this sensitive and confusing time in our history but for how well it manages to fold in the conflicts and changes between family, friends, and how we see ourselves.

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Estelle: Let’s Get Lost by Adi Alsaid

Let's Get Lost by Adi AlsaidLet’s Get Lost by Adi Alsaid ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: July 29, 2014
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Pages: 304
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: road trip, strangers, vignettes, connections
Format read: ARC Paperback provided by Harlequin Teen. (Thanks!)

Summary: Leila’s road trip to see the Northern Lights is peppered with chance meetings with strangers.

Road trip picks are super popular among the YA reading crowd. And how can blame them? New sights, new people, the open road! Out of all the ones I’ve had the pleasure of reading, Adi Alsaid’s Let’s Get Lost is definitely the most unique take on the road trip I’ve experienced. Not only in story structure (5 very separate stories strung together by the presence of one girl) but in tone, too. It read older and I almost pictured the characters aged more in their mid-twenties than their teens. This was more of a bonus than a detriment because the story is all about how people come into our lives for (sometimes) short periods of time and evoke change. See? It’s super universal and I liked that a lot.

Let’s dive in. Leila, the common denominator in all of these stories, is driving her red car through the United States with a main goal of reaching the Northern Lights. She’s very mysterious. She reveals very little to each of the characters, keeping info about herself super basic, but she is kindhearted, a good listener, and so open to adventure on the open road. Not everyone is going to bump into total strangers and want to befriend them, and offer to help them in some super challenging times. Leila was like this super fairy godmother.

There’s Hudson (a mechanic the night before a huge school interview), Bree (a free spirited runaway), Elliot (dealing with the aftermath of telling his best friend how he feels about her, and finally — my favorite — Sonia (struggling with moving forward in a heartbreaking situation). I’ll admit, it’s a little evil that Hudson and Leila hit it off romantically in the first section of the book because I spent the next few stories waiting for a glimpse of him! But that’s just not how the book worked. Despite my own anxiousness about it, the formatting worked because the meaningful yet fleeting moments were emphasized by Leila waving good-bye to the people she met and moving on.

Let’s Get Lost is a book you want to take your time with (especially because it takes a majority of the book to piece together all we want to know about Leila). I could picture readers throwing it in their beach bag, picking it up repeatedly during travel breaks, or maybe enjoying it like I did, sandals off and sitting in a great park. It makes you think about the significant impacts that people have had in your life, whether you still talk to them or not. You just never know how one act of kindness or honesty can make you look at life in a different way or change your path.

Best of all, this book revved me up for another adventure! I want to road trip again soon.

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Magan: Take Me On by Katie McGarry

book cover for Take Me On by Katie McGarry

Take Me On by Katie McGarry (twitter | website)
Previously Reviewed: Pushing the Limits // Dare You To // Crash Into You
Publication Date: May 27, 2014
Publisher: Harlequin TEEN
Pages: 544
Target Audience: Young Adult
Keywords: mixed martial arts, job loss, family injuries, fighting and kickboxing
Format Read: ARC from Publisher via Netgalley. (Thank you!)

Summary: After swearing she’d never date a fighter again, Haley finds herself in a “relationship” with West, the new guy at school, as she teaches him to become a mix martial arts fighter. She must teach him how to fight or else she puts her cousin and brother’s lives at risk of ongoing, life-threatening fights with her ex-boyfriend.

Take Me On by Katie McGarry was full of all the elements I felt were strengths in Pushing the Limits — great witty banter between Haley and West, real life complications and issues, an interesting setting (a gym with a lot of emphasis on kickboxing and mixed martial arts), and fantastic burning chemistry.

But there were also some setbacks for me, too. It took quite a long time for me to feel like the story was progressing because the tension and constant back and forth dance between Haley and West’s emotions took quite a long time to level out. I desperately wanted them to make a decision. Could Haley accept that West was nothing like her ex-boyfriend and revoke her decision to never date another fighter? Could West settle down and stop feeling like the world was against him?

Haley’s ex brought out the absolute worst side of her and turned her kickboxing passion into something she wanted nothing to do with. Her deteriorating home life leaves Haley constantly feeling like a lesser version of herself. She walks on eggshells around her uncle who disrespects women (and people in general) in the most awful ways. She’s witnessing her father spiral out of control while desperately wanting him to get his act together and protect her. Even one of her closest friends, her grandfather, doesn’t know exactly what Haley’s gone through; she’s completely secluded herself and withdrawn.

West’s home life is the exact opposite of Haley’s by comparison — he has everything money can buy, lives in a sprawling mansion, and attends one of the best private schools. But when you look beyond all the shiny material things, you see that West’s mother is just as detached as Haley’s father, that his father’s expectations are unnecessarily high, and his sister is in the hospital for something he blames himself for.

Seeing these two broken individuals come together as they figure out how to heal and move past their struggles was probably my favorite part of Take Me On. I loved the symbolism behind the fighting that Haley was teaching West to do (and hoped that she would find worth in herself and start fighting for herself, too). Sometimes I felt like the story was dragging along more slowly than would have been ideal, making the whole book feel a little bit too lengthy. I can understand how in a real-world setting, people with West and Haley’s struggles wouldn’t immediately be able to bypass them and embrace the love being extended to them.

Haley and West’s story was an enjoyable experience that took me into another world and really made my day-to-day issues seem meager by comparison. Katie McGarry did a great job branching out to explore this new fighting dynamic and continues to impress with her ability to heal two broken characters.

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Estelle: Played by Liz Fichera

Played by Liz FicheraPlayed by Liz Fichera ( web | tweet )
Part of the HOOKED series / companion novel.
Publication Date: May 27, 2014
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Pages: 352
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: racial discrimination, brothers/sisters, unrequited love
Format read: ARC from Publisher via NetGalley. (Thanks!)

Summary: At a teen leadership retreat, Sam and Riley are unluckily paired together. Sam’s hope of getting their time together over with quickly doesn’t come true when Riley gets hurt and he has to think quickly to get them both into safety. To pay him back for saving her, Riley agrees to help Sam get the girl of his dreams back — even if she’s the girl that her own brother is currently in love with.

After a lot of serious / emotional books, I chose Played to read next because I was in the market for something light. Here’s how it fared for me:

Pros:

  • Yay companion novels! I didn’t read HOOKED (Magan read + reviewed it last year) so it was nice to start fresh in a new story with a few references to Fred and Ryan’s story. It’s why I like Miranda Kenneally’s Hundred Oaks series so much!
  • The tension: Sam and Riley do not like each other at first. Not even a little bit. Sam doesn’t like Riley by association — she’s the sister of the guy who stole the love of his life. Riley doesn’t like Sam’s attitude and think he’s making fun of her the first time they communicate during their leadership retreat. She’s used to being in charge, and that’s when she gets the both of them in trouble. Things heat up between the two pretty quickly, but they resist oh-so-much and the build up is very steamy.
  • Sam is a good guy. He loves his family (though his relationship with his parents isn’t perfect), he’s super smart (scholarships in his future), and he’s dependable even when he doesn’t want to be. He’s there for his friends, and finds himself unable to resist Riley, especially when she needs him the most (which is a lot). I genuinely liked him. Plus he rides a motorcycle! That was pretty darn sexy.
  • Memorable supporting characters: Even though Ryan is (rightfully) downgraded to the supporting cast in this book, I really liked him a lot; he’s a good brother. Then there’ s Mr. Beringer (Riley and Ryan’s dad). Sadly, fathers don’t get the best rep in books but Mr. B has some key moments where I went “aww”. Then there is Martin, who felt like Sam’s brother and not just his best friend. I admired his honesty and his loyalty to Sam — especially later in the book.

Cons:

  • Riley: As someone who is practically perfect in every way and expected to be that way all the time (especially compared to her brother who was always getting in trouble), Riley is supposed to transform into a bit of a wild child in Played. I just didn’t buy it. If we had seen more of her as “the good girl” and there was  a distinct difference between before vs. after — I would have grasped it better. To go a step farther, I’m not sure what Riley had to complain about in her life. Her problems didn’t matter to me, especially because her only reason for acting out was because of her brother? She seemed more bratty than someone who was trying to figure herself out.
  • Leadership retreat: I was SO excited when I read the synopsis and saw this was a part of the book. So different! Except… we weren’t there very long. That was disappointing.
  • Playing Cupid: I get that Sam had a thing for Fred for awhile and he was bummed when they didn’t get together. Their friendship hadn’t been the same in a long time but it confused me that the main character of this book was trying to undue a majority of the action in the first book. Thoughts I had: 1) If Riley succeeded, we could dismiss Hooked entirely. 2) Duh. Riley is totally not going to pull this off so it will all be wasted time where the two main characters get closer. (Can you guess what happened?)
  • Crazy unbelievable events: Um, I think I could have accepted how insane things got for these two if there was more development in other areas of the book (especially character wise).
  • Girl friendship: Drew is Riley’s best gal pal and I’m sad their relationship didn’t get pushed to the forefront more. I think it really needed to be, especially toward the end.

Final thoughts: Unfortunately, I wanted to like Played more than I did. Even all the chemistry in the world couldn’t make me ignore how much I didn’t understand Riley or her motivation to act the way she did. Sam was a great guy, and I was totally rooting for him but, all in all, Played was underwhelming and had far too many holes for me to fully enjoy it.

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Harlequin Teen Double Feature: Two Reviews

Another Little Piece of My HeartAnother Little Piece of My Heart by Tracey Martin ( web | tweet )
Published 12/1/2013 from Harlequin Teen
Pages: 304
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: music, summer after high school, breakups
Format read: ARC from Publisher via NetGalley (Thanks!)

Summary: Despite the strength of her feelings for budding musician Jared, Claire decides to break up with him to make things less stressful for her dying mom. She’s totally devastated but thinks it is the right thing to do. Devastation turns to anger when a song based on their breakup skyrockets Jared to stardom. And what are the chances that on a family summer trip to New Hampshire she bumps smack dab into Jared and a million feelings come rushing back? Pretty good.

I stayed up until 3 a.m. finishing this book.

I think that sentence says it all but here are a few more details about this reading experience. It sounded a bit like Audrey Wait, but unlike Robin Benway’s super funny book, the main character Claire is a musician herself and music is something that her and ex-boyfriend/current rock star always had in common. So not only does she lose Jared when she breaks up with him because her parents never seem to accept him and she’s done dealing with their constant jabs, but when the money for her college is suddenly all gone, Claire doesn’t have much to look forward to when she graduates and Jared seems to be getting everything.

I didn’t love that Claire broke up with Jared because of what her parents wanted, but teenagers make those kind of mistakes so I get it. In the aftermath of her mother’s death, her dad’s poor financial choices, and not letting anyone find out she is the girl in Jared’s song, she takes life into her own hands during a summer vacation to New Hampshire. She gets a job in a grocery store even though her father thinks its beneath her, and she starts to set plans in motion for making her own music dreams come true.

Of course, of course, of course, Jared ends up being in New Hampshire too and with her cousin totally into him, she cannot seem to get him out of her head and out of her sight. The tension here is great because Jared and Claire barely speak to each other but every now and then there’s a little moment where the air was buzzing and I just wanted them to make out already and talk about what happened.

Martin really develops Claire and her background well, and I love how we get bits and pieces of Jared and Claire’s relationship. I wanted them so badly to work it out because their time together was so ultra functional (what?! in a YA?) and they just always had a blast together. My one complaint was the ending: it wrapped up way too fast and all that tension fizzled so quickly. But I still had such a fun time reading it; my exhaustion the next day was completely worth it!

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Anything to Have You by Paige HarbisonAnything to Have You by Paige Harbison ( web | tweet)
Published January 28, 2014 by Harlequin Teen
Pages: 304
Target audience: Young adult (FYI: drugs, alcohol, and sex)
Keywords: friendship, high school senior year
Format read: ARC provided by Publisher via NetGalley (Thanks!)

Summary:  Best friends Natalie and Brooke couldn’t be more different. While Natalie would rather watch movies and cook on a Friday night, Brooke loves to be the center attention at every party. Things change for both of of them after Brooke drags Natalie to a party and old feelings resurface and life as they know it will never be the same again.

Opposites totally attract, and I could see why Natalie and Brooke were such close friends. Brooke’s enthusiasm for everything was super addictive, and Natalie’s thoughtful nature helped to keep her friend grounded. But one party starts to unravel this friendship when Natalie wakes up near Brooke’s long-time boyfriend, Aiden, and she has absolutely no idea what happened between the two of them. Silence and many unanswered questions slowly crack the foundation of Natalie and Brooke’s relationship and the consequences are bigger than either of them thought.

It’s super intense, especially when Natalie starts to remember how she was into Aiden first. She feels totally helpless when it comes to her feelings and has no idea who to turn to.

Harbison utilizes dual POV and I gave a little scream when the book went from Natalie’s story to Brooke’s. I really liked Natalie! Unfortunately, Brooke’s portions of the book were not as well-developed as Natalie’s and I could not hear her as a unique voice. So many of the scenes we had already read are flipped to Brooke’s experiences in them and I’m not entirely sure that was always necessary. It was also very difficult to empathize with a character who would not take responsibility for her own actions, and I did not agree one bit with the blame she placed on others. (I most definitely didn’t agree with those characters accepting this responsibility either.)

Anything to Have You was super fast-paced and I was able to read the whole thing in a few hours. I wish there has been more of a spotlight on certain scenes (especially toward the end) and less of a neat ending. It didn’t justify all the action we had experienced in the book. Plus, the title. I’m still not understanding what it has to do with the book or the friendship between these girls. I wouldn’t have minded a longer novel with a bit more fleshing out because Harbison’s dialogue is so refreshing and spot-on and the intricacies of female friendships are so discussion worthy.

Despite the weaker points, I’m glad I tired out Harbison’s work; I’m ready to dive into her backlist!

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Estelle: Heartbeat by Elizabeth Scott

Heartbeat Elizabeth ScottHeartbeat by Elizabeth Scott ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: January 28, 2014
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Pages: 304
Target audience: Young Adult
Keywords: parental death, grief, step-parents
Format read: ARC paperback reviewed at BEA in May 2013.

Summary: When her pregnant mom dies suddenly from a stroke, Emma is completely distraught, and even more so when her stepfather, Dan, decides to have her mother’s body kept alive by machines in an effort to help their unborn baby survive. She completely shuts everyone and everything out of her life except Olivia (her best friend) and surprisingly, Caleb — a boy from school known for his rebellious acts.

“I think at a certain point you can choose to sort of fall from this or you can choose to rise.” – Lea Michele

I hope you don’t think it’s hokey that I’m using that quote to start off this review. But it just so happened Michele was making her first TV interview appearance a few days after I finished Heartbeat and everything she was saying aligned so well with the heavy subject matter tackled in Heartbeat: grief and what we do afterward.

Heartbeat begins shortly after Emma’s mom dies and Emma hasn’t gotten to that point that Michele talks about. Instead Emma’s life as she knows it — ruled by school deadlines and grades and the future — has taken a sudden nosedive into an abyss of not caring. Not caring about school, not caring about college prospects, and most definitely not caring about her step-father, Dan.

As far as non-biological parents go, it’s obvious from Emma’s memories and hurt feelings that Dan was a perfectly attentive and super loving father (she is so lucky). These good moments seem to disappear the minute Dan makes a very difficult decision without asking her opinion. In order to keep Emma’s unborn sibling alive, Dan chooses to keep her mother’s body hooked up to machines to ensure a better chance of survival for this child.

Can you imagine seeing your dead mother every single day, working enough to keep a baby alive but not quite enough to wake up and speak to you again? For Emma, it’s like part of the greiving process is put on hold because the small tiny possibility that her mom could wake up still pops up. So she’s angry at Dan — angry because she doesn’t think he knows how her mom really felt about anything and angry because of this baby that will never know his mother.

Scott’s book largely consists of Emma’s internalizations because most of her actions have become routine: make it through school, see Mom, ignore Dan, be comforted by her best friend, Olivia. Rinse and repeat. Misunderstood bad boy, Caleb, shakes things up when he shows up volunteering at the hospital. Emma is drawn to him, and it’s their budding friendship and his ability to relate to what she is going through that gives her something to think about other than her mother. Exactly the first tiny step she needs.

Emma’s journey of moving ahead and moving on is not smooth. Not even close. She is fixated on so many small details, probably trying to find a way to make such a non-sensical thing like death make sense. While understandable, I felt this was frustrating as a reader. It was like I knew what she was thinking before she thought it; even once she hit certain ephiphanies, Emma continued to go back and forth with her feelings. There were so many times I wanted Dan to rush in and pull rank; an adult really needed to. She was a struggling child, and blatantly disrespected Dan and her mom’s marriage on multiple occasions.

One thing I did appreciate was Emma’s friendship with Olivia (who hated all techy things; I loved this detail). I think Scott did a realistic job of portraying two girls who suddenly have very different lives. How do you give comfort to a friend when you haven’t experienced the same kind of heartbreak? How can you share your own problems when they seem so trivial compared to Emma’s situation? Emma and Olivia had a little bit of work, a bit of a struggle, and it was a conflict that felt so true to life.

None of the characters in Heartbeat are perfect, and while that portrayal felt spot-on (because who really knows how they are going to act until they are forced into this terrible situation), I wish I hadn’t felt quite so disconnected from Emma. The book is extremely fast-paced because the chapters are so compact, but Emma’s growth through the story didn’t progress quite the way I thought it should. I was never expecting her to be 100% okay but the “breakthrough” came very late in the story, and it felt off.

I do think Heartbeat is a very discussion worthy novel because of all the shades of gray it presents. Was Dan right in his decision? Is Emma being selfish? How do you figure out what the deceased wanted without second guessing yourself? There’s so much that’s intriging here and the chemistry between Emma and Caleb is great but, in the end, Heartbeat just didn’t have the emotional impact I was expecting.

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