The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord • Estelle Reviews

The Start of Me and You by Emery LordThe Start of Me and You by Emery Lord ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: March 31, 2015
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 384
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: friendship, family, grief
Format read: ARC borrowed from Elena @ Novel Sounds. (Thank you!)

Summary: Paige embarks on a plan to move forward from her grief over the death of her first boyfriend and the fears that have manifested since then.

After reading Open Road Summer, I’m always going to look forward to Emery Lord’s books. Why? Because she has a great way of bringing to life the important female friendships of teenage-hood. Sure, romance and family drama is folded into the fictional worlds she creates, but Lord understands that these friendships are the core of our lives. The difference between having strength and backing down when we don’t have the energy or the bravery to move forward on our own just yet.

From the cover and the title, you would be right to assume that The Start of Me and You solely focuses on a romance storyline but more than once during my reading, I found myself questioning both of these details because it was so much more than that. Paige is reeling from the death of her boyfriend and decides the only way to break out of it is to make a to-do list to help her focus. She wants to go out on a date and get comfortable around water again. But before those two, she decides to get involved with the Quiz Bowl club — where her pop culture knowledge will be of use and she finds herself befriending her crush’s cousin, Max.

Max is great. He just is. He’s the kind of boy we dream of meeting. Paige finds him easy to talk to and to joke along with but he’s also the nice boy so as she gets closer to Max, she’s still crushing on his cousin (Ryan) and somewhat intently focused on making that relationship happen. (It became cripplingly embarrassing at a certain point.) There are feelings floating around, but what’s really occurring is the creation of a new friendship circle — bringing together Paige’s best friends, Max, and Ryan. I love how this occurrence was so shocking to our main character but came together so organically at the right time. It’s the kind of love story I want to read about.

Speaking of love, Lord nailed the dynamics between Paige and her best friends. It’s difficult to write about a group like this one and make each girl feel like a real person and not a caricature. There were a few times I got them mixed up but, on a whole, she did well (yay diversity!) and also folded in important issues like naturally comparing between friends, and what happens when a close friend puts her boyfriend ahead of her gals and he’s just… not that great. Growing pains in friendships suck, they do, and I’m glad that Lord doesn’t shy away from them.

All in all, The Start of Me and You is another lovely, lovely book from Lord. Does it top my affection for Open Road Summer? No. It reads a bit younger, the writing wasn’t as layered and crisp, and there were a few too many pop culture references for me but I love how romance is not her big focus here and she works to develop friendships between all of her characters, especially the sweet bond between Paige and her grandmother.

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M’s review of OPEN ROAD SUMMER | Collaborative OPEN ROAD SUMMER Playlist

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

Dive into Diversity Reading Challenge

Wildlife by Fiona Wood | Estelle Reviews

Wildlife by Fiona WoodWildlife by Fiona Wood ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: September 16, 2014
Publisher: Poppy/Little, Brown for Kids
Pages: 400
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: Australia, friendship, sex, relationships, nature, grief
Format read: Borrowed from the library.

Summary: Sib and Lou are two students living in the wilderness for the semester while dealing with the past, old friends, and new love.

I was tempted to read Wildlife because the reviews have been such a mixed bag. Here are some of my thoughts organized in a pros & cons list:

PROS

  • The setting. I haven’t read another book where students took a semester to live in the wilderness. It very much felt like a camp (but with grades), and I enjoyed hanging out in a new setting and taking part in all the nature-y and physical activities that were part of their every day routines. (I don’t know if I ever would have survived a semester like this.)
  • Lou is dealing with some very heavy grief. She’s also brand new to this school, and is able to shrink in herself as she deals with a tragedy that totally shattered her world. I loved how realistically Fiona Wood handled this storyline. Lou has to come to terms with so much without a familiar shoulder to lean on. She’s independent but hurting, and I liked how her story was broken down in diary entries as a way for her to work through these hefty emotions.
  • I felt similarly about the sex in this book. Sib, who is dealing with some new treatment from her classmates because of a modeling gig she has, engages in a secret relationship with one of the most popular guys at school and she has so many questions about deciding to take the next step and what it means to her. This was some of the best inner dialogue I’ve seen about sex in a young adult book, and I wish there was more of it. What do you do when you think sex is a big deal and your partner doesn’t?
  • Michael — Sib’s true blue best friend who is sort of pushed to the side while she pursues other interests and also a new friend to Lou. He’s quiet but super solid and I had a lot of love for him throughout the story.
  • Short chapters! Again, something I rarely see in the books I’m reading but very welcome when I’m reading during lunch and only have a short amount of time to jump back into the story. It felt like I always had a stopping point. (Plus the chapter number art was beautiful.)

CONS

  • The pacing was a little slow. Wildlife takes place over a semester and because all of the chapters were so introspective, there was very little action. I kept wondering what was going to break the book wide open, and it took awhile. (Even when it got there, it felt more like a tiny fire than a full on explosion.)
  • I was reminded a lot of my reading of Paper Airplanes from a few weeks ago. Two girls become friends, one of them has a toxic best gal pal, and there seems to be only a little bit of time for a full-fledged friendship to develop. It was obvious Sib and Lou could help each other (especially because Sib’s best friend is a piece of work) and I wanted the seed for their friendship to be planted sooner so maybe they could be farther along as I came up to the ending.

Final thoughts: Wildlife is written so beautifully, and I loved the supporting character that nature played in the story. The author did such a commendable job bringing to life two girls going through so much: one dealing with questions of her own limits (in relationships and friendship) and another working to make peace with the past. It was real and emotional but also hopeful. Definitely looking forward to reading more of Wood’s work in the future.

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Estelle: The Summer of Letting Go by Gae Polisner

The Summer of Letting Go by Gae PolisnerThe Summer of Letting Go by Gae Polisner ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: March 25, 2014
Publisher:  Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Pages: 316
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: family, summer, secrets, new friends, romance, best friendship
Format read: ARC from Publisher via NetGalley. (Thanks!)

Summary: Four years after the death of her little brother at the beach, Frankie is still coping with the aftermath of his family tragedy. Her father is distant (and possibly off with their neighbor), her mom is dedicated to helping others and avoiding their home, and Frankie is left to her own devices. But the summer brings Frankie Sky into her life — a four year old boy that shares so many similarities with her brothers and makes her smile in way that she hasn’t in a long time. As a mother’s helper, Frankie spends a lot of time with Frankie Sky, who has a mother reeling from the lost of her husband. At the same time, Frankie is conquering past demons a little bit at the time, coming to terms with changes in her friendship with her best friend, Lizette, and trying not to fall harder for her Lizette’s boyfriend.

I told myself I needed to take a break from books about grief and then I started The Summer of Letting Go and could not let it go. Immediately I felt for Francesca, aka Frankie, aka Beans, who is still distraught over the death of her baby brother four years ago. She believes it’s her fault that he drowned in the ocean, and her mom’s incredible coldness toward her solidifies that her belief is the truth. With her dad secretly cavorting with their neighbor, Frankie’s family is falling apart and she doesn’t know how to fix it. She loves her dad and wants to believe her accusations are false so she follows their neighbor to the country club where an unexpected little fellow pops into her life — Frankie Sky — an adorable 4-year old who is so strikingly like her little brother that it takes Frankie some time to recover.

It seems that our Frankie has also struck a chord with Frankie Sky because he wants her to be his baby-sitter for the summer; this works out in the best interest of many people. Our Frankie needs to be kept occupied while her best friend, Lizette, is constantly spending time with her boyfriend and Frankie Sky’s mom has been stunted by her own grief and is not always entirely capable of taking care of her son.

There’s a lot of heavy sadness in The Summer of Letting Go, for sure, but bright lights like Frankie’s personality, enthusiasm for life, and his fitting dialogue paired with this anchor created by Frankie and Lizette’s friendship let so much hope into the story that I could not put it down. Even as Frankie went over and over again in her head the possibility of Frankie Sky being a reincarnation of her brother, as unbelievable as that was, I felt myself working through it alongside her as she was finally allowing herself come to terms with this tragic event that broke her family four years before. At 16 years old, she was making an active decision to be happy and move forward and live her life. This could not be easy for anyone to do, especially after watching her parents struggle in different ways as well.

The Summer of Letting Go is about those little miracles in our lives — sometimes a period of time, or in this case a person — who open our eyes to the past and also (maybe without them knowing) nudge us toward the future. Frankie Sky was that person for Frankie and I loved watching as their friendship grew over the summer. How protective she was of him, but at the same time how Frankie Sky helped Frankie to let go a bit and have faith in people, in nature, and in life.

I have to mention the incredible best friendship between Frankie and Lizette as well. It’s not easy when you want your best friend’s boyfriend, and it’s especially difficult when you feel like your best friend is everything you aren’t. It’s an interesting summer for the two of them because they don’t spend a lot of time together throughout the story, but for Frankie, Lizette is on her mind a lot. So many changes are already blossoming between them and I admired the loyalty and devotion these two had for one another. Even when things got tough and situations got messy and Frankie’s grief drove her to a lonely place, Lizette was there. Their differences never drove them from one another, but they also didn’t push and knew the importance of space.

There hasn’t been a book that broke my heart and put it back together quite like this one has. The Summer of Letting Go is so much about confronting truths from the past (even when they are uncomfortable) and finding the strength to heal. It’s about those small moments and people who come into our lives and turn everything upside down, teaching us more about ourselves then we ever could have thought. It’s about remembering those warm summer days at the beach with your best friend, the speed of your heart racing when the boy of your dreams looks your way, and making your home a safe and welcoming place once again.

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Estelle: The F-It List by Julie Halpern

The F-It List by Julie HalpernThe F-It List by Julie Halpern ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: November 12, 2013
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends (Macmillan)
Pages: 256
Target audience: Mature young adult (language, sex)
Keywords: cancer, death of parents, dealing with grief, bucket list
Format read: Borrowed from Alexa @ Alexa Loves Books. (Thanks!)

Summary: A few weeks after her father unexpectedly dies in a car accident, Alex finds out her estranged best friend, Becca, has cancer. She doesn’t let the fact that they are not talking stop her from rushing to Becca’s side. As her friend preps for chemo, she gives Alex the bucket/f-it list she has been composing since they were kids to accomplish “just in case.” Because she’ll do anything to make her friend happy, Alex complies and life gets interesting…

I really thought The F-It List was going to be more of a friendship story. When we first meet Alex and Becca, readers find out they were torn apart by a pretty major betrayal. I totally see how something as surprising and heartbreaking as cancer can wipe out petty problems, but still. Alex and Becca have so much to say, never hold back, but that click I was so desperate for them to have in the beginning? It just never happened for me.

While Becca is dealing with chemo, radiation, and the boy next door, Alex is determined to knock off as much of Becca’s F-It List as she can. Since the list has been around since they were young, there are some super silly things on there, and then some super racy. (This book is actually a lot racier than I thought it would be. It’s super sex positive but at the same time, ah! I was not expecting some of it to be that intense.) Alex is one of those people who puts up a lot walls and says and acts the wrong away a lot of the time. She does it with her mom and brothers, and especially with Leo, the guy she has crushed on forever who is suddenly so on her side.

A lot of Alex’s reactions are due to her lack of dealing with her father’s death. (She never seemed to grieve over it.) She also didn’t like being in control of the bad things happening to everyone around her. I totally got that. She dealt with all these life changes in unhealthy ways – sex, watching a ton of horror movies (her passion), or making a ton of jokes. As soon as she felt a little vulnerable, she would bail in any way necessary and I kept wondering when she would see what she was doing, what she was giving up by acting this way.

So it was a little hard to connect with her. Though I did like how mega-horror movie obsessed she was. It’s a rare passion to see in a young adult character and it all seemed so true to life. (Loved the Trolls 2 documentary mention and also the convention scene!) Another highlight: Alex was a high school student who had a part-time job, who interacted with her mom and brothers and was there for them.

The F-It List had so many contemporary elements that I love to see in these stories, but they didn’t gel for me. Maybe it was the lack of balance between Becca and Alex’s stories or how I wanted Leo to talk a little bit more? Being overwhelmed by the current pop culture references? Too much happening at once? (Especially for it to wrap up the way it did.) So while the premise does have promise, it was the execution that left me wanting more.

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