Thursday, June 26, 2014

Review: Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour

Title: Everything Leads to You
Author: Nina LaCour
Publisher: Dutton Juvenile
Publication date: May 15, 2014
Rating: ★★★★½

Summary (via Goodreads):

A wunderkind young set designer, Emi has already started to find her way in the competitive Hollywood film world.

Emi is a film buff and a true romantic, but her real-life relationships are a mess. She has desperately gone back to the same girl too many times to mention. But then a mysterious letter from a silver screen legend leads Emi to Ava. Ava is unlike anyone Emi has ever met. She has a tumultuous, not-so-glamorous past, and lives an unconventional life. She’s enigmatic…. She’s beautiful. And she is about to expand Emi’s understanding of family, acceptance, and true romance.

Nina LaCour has written a story that is dreamy and whimsical in all the right ways. Everything Leads to You is filled with charming, colorful characters – from Emi who has a passion for set design and makes you fall in love with it too; to Ava Garden Wilder who is a little bit enigmatic but becomes more familiar to us as Emi also learns more about her. There's Charlotte – Emi's awesome best friend who is supportive but tells it like it is – and Toby, Emi's lovely brother, the type who can woo a restaurant into supplying him with his own weekly pitcher of Ethiopian iced tea. Even the minor characters come alive, like Frank and Edie (who wants the plain cookies, goshdarnit) and Ava's best friend Jamal, with his own backstory and hopes and dreams.

At one point, Emi says something about how set designers want to create places that seem to go on even after the filming has ended... like the characters living in these spaces could just continue on with their lives once the movie is over. I feel similarly toward Nina LaCour's characters – they all seem so real that part of me believes they will carry on shopping at flea markets and drinking Ethiopian iced tea and working at Home Depot, even after I close the book. It's hard not to feel invested in their lives.

Emi's experiences in production design are so illuminating. (They also make me wish this book had existed when I was in high school because I swear it would have changed my career trajectory.) While reading, I had vivid pictures in my head of what everything looked like, which I know is sort of impossible because it's a book that came from somebody else's mind. But I could see the green couch and the music stand and the coziness of Toby's apartment. I could see the botanical prints, the portraits, how everything fit. All of that rich imagery coming right off the pages.

I can't take any chances with this sofa. It's everything I hoped it would be, only better: vivid green and soft, with these golden embroidered leaves, so delicate I didn't notice them when I first saw it from across the room. In the first music-room scene, when the daughter is practicing, it will seem pretty but plain. Later, though, once she's lying on it under the boy's weight, and there are close-ups of their hands or feet or faces, people will see the thread and the leaves. I can picture the girl's hair spilling over the side, blending with the gold, like she's tangled up in a forest. There's something fairy-tale-like about it, which is perfect, because fairy tales are all about innocence and ill will and the inevitability of terrible things. They're all about the moment when the girl is no longer who she once was, and with this in mind, I surrender all doubts and shreds of dignity and call Morgan.

Love is a big part of this story – as Emi deals with her on-off relationship with ex-girlfriend Morgan; as she develops feelings for someone new; as she negotiates the world of honesty and openness and bad timing. But friendship is important in this story, too. And Charlotte and Jamal are the type of people you want to have and keep in your life. They go to bat for their friends. They are supportive. They are true. And maybe they make Emi and Ava seem better, somehow – because you'd have to be a half-decent human being to be deserving of a friendship like that.

One of my favorite scenes occurs in Chapter 18, when Emi discovers how Ava lives. We learn what is important to Ava, what comes before having a mattress to sleep on or dishes to eat off of. Emi calls it "the opposite of the collapse of the fantasy." She begins to see Ava for who she is, stripped from the mystery of her family and the inevitability of fame. It's one of those wonderfully universal moments, when we see a person in a state of normalcy – maybe they're making toast, or writing their name on a piece of paper, or fishing their car keys out of their pocket – and yet they somehow seem larger than life in this utterly ordinary point in time. (Why is that, anyway? It's like our eyes are wonderstruck. Tinted with admiration. Colored by love.)

Chapter 21 was possibly my favorite to read – it's packed with so many emotions. Through Ava, we experience pain and abandonment and letdown. We learn that although we may be connected to other people, we can still be untethered sometimes. We learn that family is a blessing and a privilege and not a given, not something to be taken for granted. Those of us with great supportive families are lucky.

The part where Ava spends a few minutes wandering through Juniper's apartment is also a treat to read. It's a study in the things that make a place feel lived-in. A cup of tea in the sink. A crooked painting. An open book on a coffee table. The imagery is so warm and welcoming, but at the same time it's not. There's no dialogue – only motions. It's that feeling you get after you've had a long cry and all that's left is a sense of quiet. Emptiness, maybe. Some degree of clarity but mostly this feeling of blankness, like you're operating on auto-pilot. Maybe that's what gives this scene its significance, this idea that these are the small, subtle, instinctive things that make a place feel worn.

Everything Leads to You explores a lot of themes. Love and friendship and family – and all the different dynamics involved. What is good for us. Who is good for us. What passion looks like. Where we come from, and how we can come into our own. In some ways it's a very light-hearted read in which most conflicts are smoothly and neatly resolved – but it's still kind of realistic too, because there are relationships that remain broken. Because not everything can be fixed. And that's okay. It's life. Imperfect and disappointing sometimes, yes, but also sloppy generous with good things too, moments that Hollywood can only ever try to recreate.

Monday, June 23, 2014

An Open Letter to Jandy Nelson

Title: The Sky Is Everywhere
Author: Jandy Nelson
Publisher: Dial
Publication date: March 9, 2010
Rating: ★★★★

Summary (via Goodreads):

Seventeen-year-old Lennie Walker, bookworm and band geek, plays second clarinet and spends her time tucked safely and happily in the shadow of her fiery older sister, Bailey. But when Bailey dies abruptly, Lennie is catapulted to center stage of her own life – and, despite her nonexistent history with boys, suddenly finds herself struggling to balance two. Toby was Bailey's boyfriend; his grief mirrors Lennie's own. Joe is the new boy in town, a transplant from Paris whose nearly magical grin is matched only by his musical talent. For Lennie, they're the sun and the moon; one boy takes her out of her sorrow, the other comforts her in it. But just like their celestial counterparts, they can't collide without the whole wide world exploding.

Dear Jandy Nelson,

When I started reading your book a few weeks ago, I was a little bit… skeptical. I couldn't really get into the story for the first 70-some-odd pages. I just don't care for books about grief. I don't like reading about people feeling helpless. Or hopeless. Or guilty for things that are out of their control. It makes me want to yell at them, "SNAP OUT OF IT! DO YOU KNOW HOW LUCKY YOU ARE TO BE ALIVE!" (Sometimes I can be insensitive like that.)

For the record, I also don't do well with love triangles. Leading people on is for the birds; we are responsible for our choices; etc. I guess the Joe/Toby thing was a necessary evil. A way to help Lennie come into her own and learn some important things about herself.

But still. I hate love triangles. Hate 'em. Why can't we all just be open and honest with each other? If we're not sure, we'll say we're not sure. If we know we're being idiots but we don't know why we're being idiots, we'll say that too. Maybe people would be much more tolerant and forgiving if we extended that level of courtesy to one another. Or maybe I'm a naive anomaly who thinks honesty is a greater virtue than it really is. It's possible.

There were times throughout the book when I would read something you wrote and be like, "Ugh NOOOO. Please don't let this sentence turn into the literary cliché that I think it's about to turn into…" and yes, sometimes the sentence would turn into that cliché. But you would still be three steps ahead and somehow lessen the clichéness of the cliché. Like when Joe told Lennie about being cheated on in France. I thought to myself, "Joe is obvi going to walk in on Toby/Lennie going at it," because that's what always happens in books and on TV, and it's what we – or at least I – have come to expect as media consumers. But two sentences later, Lennie is expressing almost the same thought as I did, as if she knows just how typical an ending like that might be.

Does all that even make sense? Maybe not. I guess I am just reveling in the synchronicity and the fact that it feels like you were giving me some credit as a reader. It was much appreciated whether or not it was purposeful.

Anyway. Moving on... The poems were brilliant. I've read (and written) my fair share of cringeworthy poetry, but Lennie's writing was different. Heavy and light and sophisticated and current and romantic and Victorian and desperate and crazy and strong. All of those things came through in Lennie's voice. And all the scraps throughout the book – and their captions – make so much more sense now that I've read through to the end. It feels cohesive, like an a-ha moment as I thumb through all the pages and see the candy wrappers and the cups and the carved-up tree branches.

I was totally wondering if you'd include the last poem in the book. It would have made sense if you had decided to leave it out. For starters, a poem with the power of reconciliation? I mean, that just borders on black magic. Second, what if it was a terrible poem? My last thought reading your book could have been, "Wow. That was truly dildonic." But again – and here's what I meant above – you were three steps ahead and the poem was right and perfect and it's like you had thought through all these things and thought about it from the perspective of both a writer and a reader and you gave us something that worked and worked beautifully.

So I just have to say: You're an awesome writer and I completely respect and admire your artistry. Writing is a craft, and The Sky Is Everywhere was a really clear reminder of that.

Thanks for a thought-provoking reading experience.

My very best,

P.S. I made it through graduated from Cornell too, so we are basically soul sisters! Kind of. Not really.

P.P.S. I was also initially convinced you were an Aussie writer. I have this theory that there is something in the water that turns all Aussie writers into super-writers. Like Melina Marchetta and Vikki Wakefield and Lucy Christopher. But you're not Aussie. (You're still a super-writer though.)

Friday, June 20, 2014

Review: Raw Blue by Kirsty Eagar

Title: Raw Blue
Author: Kirsty Eagar
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia
Publication date: June 29, 2009
Rating: ★★

Summary (via Goodreads):

Carly has dropped out of uni to spend her days surfing and her nights working as a cook in a Manly café. Surfing is the one thing she loves doing... and the only thing that helps her stop thinking about what happened two years ago at schoolies week.

And then Carly meets Ryan, a local at the break, fresh out of jail. When Ryan learns the truth, Carly has to decide. Will she let the past bury her? Or can she let go of her anger and shame, and find the courage to be happy?

Let me just preface this by saying how much I wanted to like this book. When Melina Marchetta, goddess of everything, says she enjoyed a book, you must acquire it and read it immediately. But this book was just not for me.

Some of the writing was really lovely. At times, it almost felt as though Melina herself was coming off the pages, although I suspect she wouldn't use so much surf jargon, or say things like, "Oi, mate! Get stuffed." But what do I know? The closest I've been to Australia is a month-long unit in my sixth grade social studies class. Oh, and that Mary-Kate & Ashley witness protection movie. You know the one.

Anyway. Because of all that, I was able to make my way through this book while giving Kirsty Eagar, the actual author of Raw Blue, the benefit of the doubt.

The characters were all promising at first.

There's Carly, struggling with traumatic memories and trying to come up for air. And Ryan, with his own history – fresh out of jail, simply treading water, trying not to create any waves. (Is anyone else as amused as I am by my character sketches, which have somehow turned into swimming metaphors?) You have Hannah, a multi-faceted girl that I'm sure we all recognize from college. And then my personal favorites: Marty and Danny.

This is where things get a little rocky.

Marty, you may have forgotten, is one of Carly's co-workers at the cafe. She strikes up a tentative friendship with him. He's a little bit lascivious; has a drug problem; seems to lack a safe living situation; probably has some history with emotional and/or physical abuse (possibly sexual, as well?).

"But wait," you might say. "I don't remember Marty having much of a storyline in Raw Blue. Am I missing something?"

To which I would answer, no, dear reader. You are not missing anything. In fact, it is the book itself that is missing something – namely, development in any character besides Carly, who, despite everything, still feels very humdrum to me. (Colorless, if you will.)

Pretty much any way you slice it, Marty appears to be a total screw-up. But that's what makes him so captivating – perhaps even more so than Carly herself. Because sure, Marty is a mess, but every so often you get a glimpse of vulnerability in him. And that leads me to believe that, underneath it all, he is a soul adrift. Marty is ripe for redemption, but unfortunately he disappears a third of the way through the book. Lost forever. Sigh. Goodbye to another throwaway character.

And then there's Danny, a 15-year-old multi-ethnic surfer who becomes a bit of a sidekick to Carly. His synaesthesia causes him to associate colors with various environmental triggers. This sensory condition seems to be one of his defining characteristics, which I find to be a cop-out. It's like he only exists to tell us how Carly is really holding up. Is she peach today? No? How about blue? Mauve? Let's just say I don't like when characters are used as shallow plot devices. Throughout the book, Danny felt irrelevant, unreal – the manic pixie dream boy.

I will note, however, that I did like this quote:

"To me, Danny rocking up to surf with graffiti all over his face is magic. I want to tell him that I think he's precious, that the fact he talks to me is a gift. But of course you can't say things like that to people."

In addition to these promising but ultimately disappointing characters, I was also thrown off by the occasional comments from Carly that felt incredibly racist and ignorant and dismissive. Like this one – hard for me to articulate why, but it really rubbed me the wrong way:

"SVU, CSI, CSI: NY. These shows, they’re all about things being done to females and children. If they were full of things being done to say, Asians or black people, well, that probably wouldn’t be allowed... But females and children are okay."

Eurgh. She makes it sound as though Asians and blacks are a whole separate category, distinct from women and children. I just found it really jarring.

In spite of her problematic comment, I do immensely appreciate Kirsty Eagar's thoughtful discussion on rape and men and power. It was much more meaningful and blunt and realistic (be warned!) than in other YA books I've read. Still, in the end, this book was just not my cup of tea. Raw Blue did not feel like a cohesive story. The plot itself seemed to go around in circles; there were too many characters that came and went (such a waste); and I found myself not caring even a little bit about Carly or Ryan. And goshdarnit, I'm still really bitter about Marty.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A Brief Intermission: The Sky is Everywhere

I finally got my hands on a copy of Jandy Nelson's The Sky is Everywhere. Thank you, New York Public Library.

I had some major reservations about the story at first (I don't do well with love triangles), but the writing is lovely and the characters have grown on me. Still have 40-something pages left to read, but I wanted to go ahead and share this par which has cemented my belief that Jandy Nelson is an absolute artist:

When I get to the driveway, I see a man dressed all in black with a shock of white hair, waving his arms around like a dervish, shouting in French at a stylish woman in a black dress (hers fits her) who looks equally peeved. She is hissing back at him in English. I definitely do not want to walk past those two panthers, so I sneak around the far side of the property and then duck under the enormous willow tree that reigns like a queen over the yard, the thick drapes of leaves falling like a shimmering ball gown around the ancient trunk and branches, creating the perfect skulk den.

I need a moment to bolster my nerve, so I pace around in my new glimmery green apartment trying to figure out what I'm going to actually say to Joe, a point both Sarah and I forgot to consider.

Talk about the art of description. It's my favorite mix of lush words and conversational chatter with a touch of crazybrains. It's weird beauty and normalcy, majestic and completely ordinary all at once. Mostly I love it because the whole thing reminds me of something that Kiri (from Hilary T. Smith's Wild Awake) would say and do. Glimmery green apartment and the perfect skulk den...

Monday, June 9, 2014

Review: Obsidian (Lux #1) by Jennifer L. Armentrout

Title: Obsidian (Lux #1)
Author: Jennifer L. Armentrout
Publisher: Entangled Teen
Publication date: May 8, 2012
Rating: ★★★

Summary (via Goodreads):

Starting over sucks.

When we moved to West Virginia right before my senior year, I’d pretty much resigned myself to thick accents, dodgy internet access, and a whole lot of boring… until I spotted my hot neighbor, with his looming height and eerie green eyes. Things were looking up.

And then he opened his mouth.

Daemon is infuriating. Arrogant. Stab-worthy. We do not get along. At all. But when a stranger attacks me and Daemon literally freezes time with a wave of his hand, well, something… unexpected happens.

The hot alien living next door marks me.

You heard me. Alien. Turns out Daemon and his sister have a galaxy of enemies wanting to steal their abilities, and Daemon’s touch has me lit up like the Vegas Strip. The only way I’m getting out of this alive is by sticking close to Daemon until my alien mojo fades.

If I don’t kill him first, that is.

Obsidian reads like your typical YA novel – the narrator, Katy Swartz, is a teenage girl who loves books and even has her own book blog (and a shirt that says, "My blog is better than your vlog"). Basically, she's your average girl. Realistic. Accessible. Down-to-earth. Socially awkward at times, with a wicked sense of humor, to boot.

"I sort of felt sorry for her, being that she was related to such a tool."

Then there's Daemon, who is something of an enigma. Aside from his unfortunate name, Daemon is flawless – aren't they all? – with long dark eyelashes and brilliant green eyes. He's essentially Ian Smolderhotter Somerholder… Minus 17 years. (Geez, is Ian Somerholder 35 already?! I feel like it was just yesterday that I was watching Season 1 of Lost.)

What's compelling about Daemon is that he constantly seems charged, in more ways than one. There's the obvious – a physical tension between him and Katy that weaves its way throughout the book and makes you chew on your fingernails and think things like, "nOW KISS!!!1!!" even though you know the guy's just a jerk and will probably screw it all up as soon as you turn the page.

But beyond that, there's also something else, something more emotional and much more subtle, as Daemon seems to battle between what he's really thinking and what he's at liberty to say – who he wants to be and what he thinks the circumstances demand. I think Katy sees this, too. It's in his eyes, his posture... And this quality redeems him, ever so slightly.

At times, Daemon gives me Edward Cullen vibes. (I'm sorry, but it had to be said. And by the way... does Dee remind anyone else of Alice Cullen?) His protectiveness can feel stifling. He can be controlling and manipulative. And he has a smug know-it-allness that makes me rage. Fortunately, Katy seems to be capable of taking care of herself, at least where he is concerned. Sure, she swoons a little. But never does she chalk it up to love. In fact, she makes it clear that lust and like are very different things.

"My palms itched to have a close encounter of the bitch-slap kind with his face."

That's one thing that really works in Obsidian: Katy is a strong, realistic female protagonist. Yes, of course she still has weaknesses – she is, after all, only human. But I am intrigued by her reactions and responses to the situations she faces. It's a mix of loyalty to her friends; fear and bravery; intensity and even a little bit of unexpected snark. She is very much her own person.

I liked Steph's review on Goodreads because it sums up my thoughts quite well:

Another reviewer said, "It was as if the author felt obligated to fix Twilight catastrophe and tried make it right again" and I completely agree with her. I'll even take it a step further and say it was like Armentrout woke up one day and said, "I'm going to write a book using all the tropes and clichés people usually hate and they're still gonna love the shit out of this book."

Obsidian is kind of a funny thing. It doesn't read as a particularly sophisticated book – certainly not something I'd come back to again and again. But truth be told, I don't think it's meant to be. Obsidian is compelling and exciting and dreamy and infuriating. All of the characters are empathetic and flawed. And they don't resign themselves to being just the tropes that you recognize from other books you've read and TV shows you've watched. They come alive and take charge of their fate and don't let the hackneyed literary gods have their way. And that makes all the difference.