Why in 5: Wins for The Winner’s Trilogy (So Far)

The Winner’s Trilogy is the best example I can think of when it comes to books I wouldn’t normally pick up but I was completely convinced by the lovely people in this community that I needed to. I’m addicted to contemporary fiction but even I couldn’t deny my intrigue when I saw all the 5-star reviews pop up on on Goodreads for The Winner’s Curse. Even though I was expecting some kind of dragon or weird creature in this series (Harry Potter has done this to me), I didn’t move from my couch until I got through it. So very good, and even better — the second book in the series was just as great.

I find it so hard to talk about series on a blog. I don’t want to alienate those who haven’t read it yet, but I also don’t want to skip chatting about it if it’s worthwhile. I’m going to do my best to toe that line with five reasons you should pick it up — especially those of you who favor more realistic fiction.

1. Even if its set in this lush, divided fantasy world, these books dive into relatable issues. Ever torn between pleasing a parent and hurting your heart? Did you ever fall for the very wrong person? Have you ever lost connection with your best friend? I loved that Rutkoski explores all of these conflicts in The Winner’s Curse. It doesn’t matter when or where you live — we all go through these things.

2. Rutkoski is unafraid to write a dark, bloody book. Sometimes I wonder why it takes me longer to get through fantasy books compared to contemporary. I’m sure one part of the reason is that the terrain is different but there’s always this — it’s not so easy to get through a book that is so doggone sad and bleak. With families separated, empires are at war, and secrets by the handfuls, it’s not easy to get through so much manipulation, betrayal, and death. (It’s worth it though.) This author wants you to experience the full picture from the best moments to the difficult ones. (Might be why this series might be good for those who are apprehensive about picking up YA.)

3. Unexpected allies. There are two characters I really enjoyed in The Winner’s Crime that I wasn’t expecting to. I love being surprised in my reading, and I absolutely enjoy being forced to see another side of a person when I think I have their number already.

4. The beauty of this world. Despite the blood, inequality, and lies, I wish I could jump into the pages of these books and see these grand balls, Kestrel’s beautiful dresses, and oh gosh even her makeup sounds amazing. A lot of bad might be going on, but these moments of grandeur only add to the epic feel of this series.

5. A kick ass heroine. Many times during my reading, I found myself wishing I was as smart and sharp as Kestrel. Holy crap. She’s fiercely independent; she’s brilliant at strategy and god, she must have the best poker face in the business. As I continue to wax poetic about her, let’s talk about her selflessness. She does so much for the better of everyone else even if it sacrifices her own relationships and happiness. I would follow her anywhere.

Bonus: The tension between Kestrel and Arin is off the charts. I literally stopped breathing.

The Winner's Crime by Marie RutkoskiThe Winner’s Crime by Marie Rutkoski ( web | tweet ) | Publication Date: March 3, 2015
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux | Pages: 417
Target audience: Young adult | Keywords: marriage, loyalty, war, betrayal
Format read: ARC from Publisher. (Thanks!)
♦
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In Some Other World, Maybe by S. Goldhagen | E Reviews

In Some Other World Maybe by Shari GoldhaganIn Some Other World, Maybe by Shari Goldhagen ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: January 13, 2015
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Pages: 288
Target Audience: Adult
Keywords: Pop culture, missed connections, growing up, 90s
Format read: Copy from Publisher. (Thanks!)

Summary: It all starts with a movie based on a popular comic. That’s the only thing tying these characters from different places together in December 1992 but as these individuals go off to college and to pursue their “dreams” their lives connect and reconnect in unexpected, heartbreaking, and happy ways.

What if? What IF? I’ve been muttering these two words to myself like a semi-crazy person since I finished In Some Other World, Maybe last night. How many times do we say this phrase during our lives? Wish we said or did something we didn’t, knowing it could have made the difference or maybe not knowing and noticing years later that it could have. It’s frustrating and it hurts but if we didn’t make choices (whether it means letting it all out or keeping something to ourselves), we’d never move anywhere. We’d always be bolted in place.

There are a lot of characters in ISOWM. They all share a common thread: they have an affection for a sci-fi comic turned movie and throughout their lives, it still seems to pop up. (It’s kind of amazing but in this world of recycling material for nostalgia sake — so familiar.) Eons & Empires is that one thing that takes these characters back to a time when their life was on the brink, everything was just beginning. Adam leaving his single mother in Florida to go to NYU; Phoebe leaving her lovable boyfriend to try her luck in Hollywood; Sharon living in New York and still  haunted by her own “what if” when she skipped high school to see E&E.

In a world similar to Love Actually, the lives of these characters begin to intertwine — in Los Angeles, in New York, on a plane ride to Chicago — in really surprising ways. All I could think was: this was hard work on the author’s part. How did she make this work, and so believably? But she did. We see these people affecting each other momentously — relationships, sex, friendships — and then in smaller ones too. Bringing to life the bigger picture: we have no idea what small tiny thing is going to motivate and affect us.

It’s both amazing and scary to think about, isn’t it?

Truthfully, I haven’t felt this engrossed in a novel’s world in a long time. If I could have put my entire world on pause to read it, I would have. (Nonetheless, I finished in a little over a day.) It’s both lovely and heartbreaking how the lives of these characters click together and crack; the missed connections weighed on me so much. As an overthinker, I can’t help but retrace conversations and moments in an effort to find the sense in them, find out where the situation may have gone south. The intensity of that emotional rollercoaster was utterly palpable here; you would have thought I was living it myself.

This is one of those rare books I want to dive right back into, and stock up on copies to hand out to friends and family as gifts. The concept of connection and disconnect is so relatable — from the barista you see everyday to the person you’ve known your whole life and not to mention bonds constantly formed and fractured through social media platforms. We’re always one step, one decision away from our choose-your-own-adventure life. Do you go left or do you go right? In Some Other World, Maybe explores these complexities in the best, most thoughtful way.

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Girl Before a Mirror by Liza Palmer • Estelle Reviews

Girl Before a Mirror by Liza PalmerGirl Before a Mirror by Liza Palmer ( website | twitter )
Publication Date: January 27, 2015
Publisher: William Morrow
Pages: 384
Target audience: Adult
Keywords: womanhood, friendship, empowerment, career, family
Format read: A brilliant gift. (Thank you!)

Summary: After a year off from dating and sorting through friendships to eliminate the bad, Anna throws her focus at her career and a new client that could finally set her apart from her colleagues. Armed with inspiration and a handful of complication, she finds herself at a romance novel convention — desperately trying to stay on top of her job and the added challenge of figuring out to do about a guy she uncharacteristically makes out with in an elevator.

Sometimes a book comes along at the perfect moment — when you are sad, when you are seeking a bit of strength, and when you are grappling to understand the changes going on around you. Girl Before a Mirror is that book. As someone who reads plenty, I’ll admit to saying this before but it’s funny — ever since I finished this particular title I find myself recommending it right and left. It’s so relevant to so many situations I’m hearing about and even — the world — where a major motion picture event is based on a self-published book about BDSM and people love standing on their high horse and judging what other people deem as entertainment.

Main character Anna is coming off a year of zero dating, she’s eliminating problematic friends from her life, and she’s taking control of her work situation. As an account executive, she seem the males at her job constantly patted on the back, and she determined to bring in a new account and make a splash. Without genuine support from her firm, she sets out with a rookie colleague (Sasha) to land a body wash account in a surprising place — a popular romance novel convention in Phoenix.

So how does this all connect?

Marketing is all about making two things click, and I don’t think Anna realizes just how great she is at this kind of thing. Taking a washed-up product (ha) and making it new? Sound familiar? This product, in ways,  is a reflection of her — uninspired, unsettled, and a bit lost. She, too, is in need of refreshing and the first part of her answer comes in an unexpected form – Be the Heroine, Find Your Hero – the current “it” book urging woman to be the heroes of their own stories. Anna decides to use it as a launching pad for her new campaign — which is how she finds herself meeting the Elaine Stritch-like author, attending pirate booty themed parties, making out with a hot guy in an elevator, and hanging with the mysterious yet capable Sasha at a romance novel convention.

Like many, Anna judges the readers who fancy romance novels and even begrudges the writers who write them. She believes them to be nothing more than a guilty pleasure, and not something people would actually admit to being great stories. So much of what Anna has built herself to be is challenged on this trip. Why does she have to stick her nose up at everything? When did she become THAT person who stomps on those things that make other people happy? Who is she to deem one thing better than another?

In ways, this passion project forces Anna to find her compassion. It forces her to be her own advocate, even when her decisions put her in precarious situations. She must let loose and truly listen to get what she wants, to find some kind of happiness. In truth, she’s only in Phoenix for a few days but it’s such a catalyst for the rest of the story. Ya know, Palmer could have decided to end her book when the conference did, but she pushed Anna to her breaking point. She pushed her to learn more about herself and her limits.

Life is this messy monster, and Palmer speaks that truth in the two books of hers that I’ve read. So much that I found myself questioning my own decisions and wondering if I tried enough, did I think enough about the other person, or was I right to think it was time for me to bow out and try something new? From career decisions to falling in love to friend breakups and fade outs, Girl Before a Mirror spoke to so many of my vulnerabilities but it also urged me to be strong. In a world where women are constantly brought down because of their emotions or mistakes, it’s a revelation to come into contact with characters who are feeling powerless, floundering a little bit, but making the big step to ask themselves the big questions and make things right — no matter how long it takes, no matter how many heartbreaks it takes to get there. Not only this deep stuff, but I can’t forget about how important it is to embrace what you love and continuing to hold it dear even when others don’t understand. There’s a reason why we are gravitate to certain things, and, we shouldn’t have to answer to anyone but ourselves.

There are limitless discussions and feelings to be unearthed in Girl Before a Mirror, and I have a feeling its not quite done with me yet.

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♥

Read our joint review of Liza Palmer’s NOWHERE BUT HOME

The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds • Estelle Reviews

The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason ReynoldsThe Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: 1/6/2015
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Pages: 272
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: death, NYC, grief, friendship, romance, jobs
Format read: ARC from Publisher via Edelweiss. (Thanks!)

Summary: After his mom dies from breast cancer, Matt discovers comfort at the local funeral home where he gets a job.

Before you read this review, I have to ask: have you read When I Was The Greatest yet? I reviewed it last year, mentioned it everywhere including my End of the Year survey, and, well, I just need you to read it before I can go on. So please buy it, request it from your library, or download it for your eReader.

Done? Okay.

The Boy in the Black Suit had me once again asking myself how Jason Reynolds does it. With a small page count, he brings such emotion and authenticity to his stories, and manages to develop his characters and their plotlines without giving away too much. Here we have Matt, a 17-year old who just lost his mother to cancer. He’s reeling from his own grief (he and his mother were super close) and at the same time, taking on such a grown up role in his household because his dad is not adjusting well to this tragedy. Matt never plans to take a job at the local funeral home, but when the opportunity presents itself, he scoops it up — anxious to keep himself busy somehow. (And after assurance that he would not have to touch dead bodies.)

What Matt does not expect to find is such support in funeral home owner Mr. Ray or comfort in the sadness he sees at these ceremonies. He finds himself seeking out the most upset person in the crowd, and hangs on to it. With the loss of his mom so fresh, he feels a bond with these strangers and relief about his own feelings and the fact that he is not alone. Yes, he has the support of his friend, Chris, and, occasionally, his father, but there’s something about facing these tragedies head on that makes him feel better about listening to Tupac’s “Dear Mama” every night before he goes to sleep. (Full disclosure: totally listened to this while I was reading.)

I’ve been to a lot of funerals (starting at a young age) and Reynolds had me openly weeping at some of the scenes Matt was experiencing. It’s certainly tough to read about them in any context but I guess I hadn’t realized how fresh my own memories of funerals were until I was deep into The Boy in the Black Suit. Personally, I had no idea how Matt handled it but when you are feeling alone and don’t know where to go, we can’t predict what’s going to bring us back and make us stronger. So there’s that.

As Matt deals with his grief, his dad’s ambivalence, and even the fact that he does not feel like cracking open a cookbook (a favorite hobby of his and a love he shared with his mom), a girl named Love comes into his life. As you may have expected, he meets her at a funeral and he is immediately taken by her strength. It’s funny how life works — who you meet and what builds you up when life hits its lowest point. I liked being alongside Matt during this time. He would always miss his mother, sure, but he was gaining the strength to pull through and press on.

Reynolds’s work continues to impress me and I am hoping other readers are going to catch on. In a world where we fight for diverse reads and the underdogs, he deserves our readership. The vulnerability and truth brought to his characters paired with solid dialogue — it’s like he has the secret recipe to a perfectly paced book (rhythmically and emotionally).

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♥
Review of WHEN I WAS THE GREATEST by Jason Reynolds

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Vivian Apple … by Katie Coyle | Estelle Reviews

Vivian Apple at the End of the World by Katie CoyleVivian Apple at the End of the World by Katie Coyle ( web | tweet )
Published January 6, 2015 by HMH Books for Young Readers
Target audience: Young adult
Pages: 272
Keywords: family secrets, cult, road trip, best friendship
Format read: ARC from Publisher. (Thanks!)

Summary: When Viv discovers her parents have disappeared in the Rapture, she sets off on a road trip with her best friend and a boy she just met to figure out the truth about the evangelical Church of America.

It’s not every day I pick up a book about the upcoming apocalypse, but a starred review in Publishers Weekly made me so curious and I am mighty glad I gave this book a whirl.

A possible Rapture has been threatened for awhile and no one in Vivian’s town really believes it’s going to happen until it does. After a party, Viv goes home to find two holes in her ceiling and her two parents missing. It seems all over the country loved ones have disappeared, Believers of the evangelical Church of America, and the end of the world is scheduled to arrive soon rather than later.

Before their disappearance, Vivian was continually harassed by her parents to receive her baptism and join them as Believers. They joined later in their life, and once they did, their relationship with Viv changed along with it. Vivian held out, determined to act like the best kid she could even if she wouldn’t officially become a Believer. Soon most of her close friends have converted and abandoned her. Although, the one positive, is meeting Harp, dealing with her own uber-evangelical parents, and they bond instantly.

Thank [insert name of higher power here] because the friendship between Viv and Harp is one of my favorite things about this book. In fact, I believe it’s the foundation of this story. Even though they are both so different — Harp is the more outgoing one, and Viv always following her lead — they compliment each other even in the most difficult of times. They give each other space, they pat each other on the back, and more than anything, they accept each other for who they are — warts and all. If you are facing the end of the world, I can’t imagine spending it with someone better than that.

Despite a false move on Viv’s part after the initial rapture, a road trip is organized when they realize certain strange clues are leading them to California and perhaps, some answers. Joining in is Peter, a boy Viv unsuccessfully tried to nab at a party the night before the Rapture and an “information guy” with connections to the church. Don’t worry. He’s trustworthy and an acceptable object of Viv’s affection. More than being a possible love interest, Peter proves to be a solid and understanding friend. In other words, perfect for a quest like this one.

As you can imagine, the road trip puts them in contact with many surprising (and dangerous) people and places but the most effective piece of the puzzle for me was the loneliness and not only because they had no idea who was alive and who was dead but because they were teenagers navigating this post-Rapture world alone. Viv had a lot of trouble dealing with this, and I didn’t blame her. Even though evidence was saying the adults had disappeared and many had gone off their rockers, she still believed in the authority of an adult and wanted to put her trust in them despite her history of getting burned. This parallel to growing up in general was a great one.

Despite the short page count, Coyle’s lush writing and intricate details made this book feel like an epic adventure — in a way that made me so anxious to get down to the bottom of the Church of America (clever usage of social media and consumerism that reminded me a lot of the underrated Bumped series by Megan McCafferty) and find out if Viv and her friends had the power to change their fates. The story continues in September 2015, and I’m so looking forward to it.

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Alex as Well by Alyssa Brugman | Estelle Reviews

Alex as Well by Alyssa BrugmanAlex as Well by Alyssa Brugman ( web | tweet )
Published January 20, 2015 by Henry Holt & Co.
Pages: 224
Target audience: Young Adult
Keywords: intersex individual, family, friendship
Format read: ARC paperback from Macmillan. (Thank you!)

Summary: Born with male and female genitalia, Alex has decided to become more public with the fact that she identifies more with being a female. Much to the surprise of her parents, Alex stops taking medication, enrolls in a new school, and is determined to get the sex on her birth certificate changed. In addition to the pressures of her parents and making friends at her new school, Alex is dealing day-to-day with her feelings and navigating a path to self-acceptance and happiness.

This is my first reading experience featuring an intersex character, and I’m mighty proud that Alex as Well is a young adult book. As difficult as it is to put yourself in Alex’s shoes as she stumbles through this monumental and difficult time of her life, void of much support, this book proved to be a fast read — very personable and intriguing — even if it dropped off at the end.

Imagine your parents made a decision about who you were before they should have. This is basically what Alex is dealing with. Deciding she was a male, Alex has been taking medication for a long time and finally decides to stop because of the fact that she identifies much more with being a female. I tried to give her parents the benefit of the doubt. They thought they were doing what was best for their child — making a choice but also filling Alex’s life with many neutralities. So when Alex makes her admission to her mom and dad — her dad bolts out of guilt and her mom acts like this is a personal blow.

It’s interesting, actually, because Brugman folds in chapters of blog posts by Alex’s mom, discussing how she feels about being a mother to Alex and her latest proclamation of her womanhood. Some comments are also included from the sensitive to the “who the fuck do you think you are” crowd, which felt like a true reflection of what people (and the peanut gallery) might be saying about intersexed individuals. Alex’s mom lets it all hang out, not afraid to sound totally unreasonable and make Alex’s life choice all about HER. It’s gross and disheartening, and all I hoped was that this family would receive professional help.

The one bright light in Alex’s life was Crockett, a lawyer Alex seeks out to help her with a change on her birth certificate. Their scenes together are few, but still meaningful, because he’s one of the only people that seems to listen to Alex and want to actually help her. Not in a way that helps himself, but in a way that actually puts her on a path to a happier life. (Smart move on Brugman’s part to tap into the legalities side of a situation like this one too.)

Even though Alex has a ton on her plate, she’s strong and I wish we could have tapped more into that with a longer, fuller story. There were so many aspects of this novel that skimmed the surface and with a lively voice like Alex’s, I would have gladly hung on for more.

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