Thursday, August 28, 2014

Review: Open Road Summer by Emery Lord

Title: Open Road Summer
Author: Emery Lord
Publisher: Walker
Publication date: April 15, 2014
Rating: ★★★½

Summary (via Goodreads):

After breaking up with her bad-news boyfriend, Reagan O’Neill is ready to leave her rebellious ways behind... and her best friend, country superstar Lilah Montgomery, is nursing a broken heart of her own. Fortunately, Lilah’s 24-city tour is about to kick off, offering a perfect opportunity for a girls-only summer of break-up ballads and healing hearts. But when Matt Finch joins the tour as its opening act, his boy-next-door charm proves difficult for Reagan to resist, despite her vow to live a drama-free existence. This summer, Reagan and Lilah will navigate the ups and downs of fame and friendship as they come to see that giving your heart to the right person is always a risk worth taking. 

Open Road Summer is a lighthearted summertime read with a strong friendship and the kind of romance we've all probably daydreamed about at some point. However, there are a bunch of things that niggled at me, which made for less pleasant reading experience overall.

Reagan is an interesting narrator – aggressively defensive (how's that for an oxymoron?), rebellious but reforming, fiercely loyal. She reminds me of Nastya from Katja Millay's The Sea of Tranquility, which, incidentally, I disliked so much that I could not read past page 49. Both Reagan and Nastya are a little bit cynical. They wear this protective layer – a "don't mess with me" look on their faces – and it feels like they are constantly daring the universe to try and do its worst. Their affection is hard won, and they are both judgmental, often holding other girls to the same double standards that they scoff. There's quite a bit of condescending girl hate in Open Road Summer, which is one of my biggest pet peeves in a book.

Fortunately, Reagan is a little more tolerable than Nastya. I think a big part of it is that her friendship with Dee makes you see her in a better light, in spite of all her flaws. Dee is your standard all-American country singer. I equate her to Taylor Swift, except authentically Southern and possibly a bit more squeaky clean. Dee and Reagan seem to be complete opposites, so it makes their relationship unexpected but endearing.

The romance in this book isn't particularly electric, but it's definitely very sweet. There are a handful of passages that make you sigh and want to go listen to the old love songs from Taylor Swift's self-titled album. (Or was that just me?)

If we could capture feelings like we capture pictures, none of us would ever leave our rooms. It would be so tempting to inhabit the good moments over and over again. But I don't want to be the kind of person who lives backwardly, who memorializes moments before she's finished living in them. So I plant my feet here on this hillside beside a boy who is undoing me, and I kiss him back like I mean it.

Matt Finch of former boy band fame (he's somewhere between Hanson and the Jonas Brothers in my head) is your average Nice Guy™ – kind, witty, very persistent, quite sassy... He's normal, which makes him immediately likable. He's perhaps not a character you might fall in love with, but you can certainly see why someone else might. The banter between Matt and Reagan is well-written and realistic. In fact, most of the dialogue in Open Road Summer feels that way – realistic, candid, unforced – despite the fact that we're talking about a major country singer, a former pop star, and a summer-long cross-country tour.

Parts of this book do feel trivial – the conflict is somewhat self-imposed and you can't help but wonder why everyone's making such a big deal out of everything. At the same time, although they are kind of silly, the problems in Open Road Summer aren't the type that weigh heavy on your heart once you close the book. It's a carefree novel that makes you appreciate good friends and innocent love. Quick and easy to read, Open Road Summer is a solid debut from Emery Lord. Summer's almost over but this book helps it live on.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Review: Saving June by Hannah Harrington

Title: Saving June
Author: Hannah Harrington
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Publication date: November 22, 2011
Rating: ★★★★½

Summary (via Goodreads):

Harper Scott’s older sister has always been the perfect one – so when June takes her own life a week before her high school graduation, sixteen-year-old Harper is devastated. Everyone’s sorry, but no one can explain why.

When her divorcing parents decide to split her sister’s ashes into his-and-her urns, Harper takes matters into her own hands. She’ll steal the ashes and drive cross-country with her best friend, Laney, to the one place June always dreamed of going – California.

Enter Jake Tolan. He’s a boy with a bad attitude, a classic-rock obsession and nothing in common with Harper’s sister. But Jake had a connection with June, and when he insists on joining them, Harper’s just desperate enough to let him. With his alternately charming and infuriating demeanour and his belief that music can see you through anything, he might be exactly what she needs.

Except June wasn’t the only one hiding something. Jake’s keeping a secret that has the power to turn Harper’s life upside down – again.

The one perk of being home sick is that you have a lot of reading time. I read this book in one sitting, and it was perfect for helping me escape my stomach flu (for a couple of hours, at least). Great character development, a sophisticated exploration of family and friendship, a road trip to California, and some eclectic playlists, to boot – thank you, Hannah Harrington. I loved this book.

Saving June has a cast of complex, intelligent characters who are flawed in many ways yet still have redeeming qualities. Harper, our narrator, is something of a dark horse – tired of constantly being compared to her sister June who has recently passed away; unable to express the "right" emotions at the right times; unwilling to pander to her dysfunctional, broken family. She's dark and cynical but also extremely self-aware, which is the balance the story needs to make it still readable, rather than angsty.

Laney is Harper's best friend and so great to read about. She's very different from Harper but she's a great friend to her (and vice versa) throughout the story. There are a bunch of lovely moments between them, and their dynamic never feels false. They fight and they argue, but they also make up, and at the end of the day, they support each other and fight for each other and take care of each other and defend each other.

"You know, just because you think bubblegum pop on the radio represents all that is wrong with society, that doesn’t mean there’s not someone out there who needs that shitty pop song. Maybe that shitty pop song makes them feel good, about themselves and the world. And as long as that shitty pop song doesn’t infringe upon your rights to rock out to, I don’t know, Subway Sect, or Siouxsie and the Banshees, or whichever old-ass band it is you worship, then who cares?"

And course we can't forget Jake Tolan, the imperfect love interest. I hate to use the term "bad boy" because it's so cliché – plus, he's not really a bad boy in Saving June. He's just different from his suburban Michigan neighbors. There's a lot of things I like about Jake. I like that he's kind of a grouch but he's still sensitive and thoughtful and optimistic. I like that he comes alive when he talks about music. I like that he sings "Tears in Heaven" for Harper (but I still can't believe she's never heard that song before... I mean, really?). I like that his story is revealed slowly.

Moments like these make me want more from him than I have ever wanted from any guy – or even just another person, period.

I do wish his backstory with June were more interesting or compelling – it felt kind of trivial, when all along it was made out to be this huge life-changing secret. I also wish he didn't own a fedora (why, Hannah Harrington, just why?). But he is one of the more captivating male characters I've read in a while, so I guess I'll give him a pass... for now.

A word of warning – Saving June explores family dynamics, but things don't always get resolved. If you like everything wrapped up neatly, i's dotted and t's crossed, this may not be the book for you. Mothers don't come back, and absentee fathers don't wake up one day and realize what they've been missing. Stuff remains ambiguous here. Relationships aren't always repaired. Questions aren't always – can't always – be answered. And I'm okay with that. I hope you are too.

Saving June is a great book. It's engaging and funny and sad but never bleak. We get to explore what it means to be alive in a way that feels thoughtful and candid and, ultimately, hopeful. This is a story of imperfect people and what happens when they come together. It's about the weird things that happen on a road trip and how you never really know what you're going to get. It's about how you deal with those things, what you learn from them. It's about what you let go of and what you let in.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Mini-Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Title: Burial Rites
Author: Hannah Kent
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: September 10, 2013
Rating: ★★★★★

Summary (via Goodreads):

Set against Iceland's stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution.

Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes's death looms, the farmer's wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they've heard.

Burial Rites is best read at a slow pace, where you can linger over the evocative descriptions and the heavy events in Agnes Magnúsdóttir's life (as well as those surrounding her). Hannah Kent describes this book as a dark love letter to Iceland, which sounds about right to me. Everything feels painstakingly researched and written, and although much of it is speculative, it remains plausible enough that you convince yourself all of those things form the hidden truth.

Memories shift like loose snow in a wind, or are a chorale of ghosts all talking over one another. There is only ever a sense that what is real to me is not real to others, and to share a memory with someone is to risk sullying my belief in what has truly happened.

The ending of this novel is inevitable yet shocking. The writing is lush and captivating and the stories that are revealed will haunt you for days and days on end. But it's a beautiful work that has managed to bring Agnes back to life so that we can hear her side of things and remember her differently. In some ways, it's given Agnes a new legacy, where she is more than a murderess, more than an example to would-be criminals. She is a woman whose fate rested in the hands of those who were predisposed to punish. It is a true testament to Hannah Kent's storytelling ability that we walk away seeing her in a more ambiguous light.

Those who are not being dragged to their deaths cannot understand how the heart grows hard and sharp, until it is a nest of rocks with only an empty egg in it. I am barren; nothing will grow from me anymore. I am the dead fish drying in the cold air. I am the dead bird on the shore. I am dry, I am not certain I will bleed when they drag me out to meet the axe. No, I am still warm, my blood still howls in my veins like the wind itself, and it shakes the empty nest and asks where all the birds have gone, where have they gone?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Brief Intermission: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Here's a broad generalization based on my singular personal experience: The Unbearable Lightness of Being seems to be one of those contemporary classics (?) that everyone means to read but no one actually ever does, unless you're majoring in philosophy maybe.

I started reading this book while I was studying abroad in London a few years ago but didn't get very far – shortly thereafter I ended up buying a used copy somewhere but still never took it off my bookshelf.

Finally, three years later now, I've borrowed a copy from the library to read. I am really enjoying the story and the way it's written. If you're an Amélie fan, you might like it as well. It's very much about love and relationships and human nature. Kind of profound but also very quirky and clever.

I came across this passage over the weekend:

While people are fairly young and the musical composition of their lives is still in its opening bars, they can go about writing it together and exchange motifs... but if they meet when they are older, like Franz and Sabina, their musical compositions are more or less complete, and every motif, every object, every word means something different to each of them.

It may be hard to understand without some context, but in an attempt to provide some grounding... the narrator is referring to the way we sometimes encounter an object, an event, a theme, and turn it into a symbol or "motif" that follows us throughout the course of our lives and adds a layer of beauty and meaning to our day to day.

I just really love this par because I feel like, as human beings, we're constantly looking for people who will understand or can relate to us. But part of that depends on whether or not we speak the same language as the other person – not just verbally or physically but also experientially. And the older we get, the wider the gap becomes. Maybe I'm a little cynical. It's just something I've been pondering over a lot lately...

Monday, August 11, 2014

Mini Review: These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner

Title: These Broken Stars (Starbound #1)
Author: Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Publication date: December 10, 2013
Rating: ★★★★½

Summary (via Goodreads):

It's a night like any other on board the Icarus. Then, catastrophe strikes: the massive luxury spaceliner is yanked out of hyperspace and plummets into the nearest planet. Lilac LaRoux and Tarver Merendsen survive. And they seem to be alone.

Lilac is the daughter of the richest man in the universe. Tarver comes from nothing, a young war hero who learned long ago that girls like Lilac are more trouble than they’re worth. But with only each other to rely on, Lilac and Tarver must work together, making a tortuous journey across the eerie, deserted terrain to seek help.

Then, against all odds, Lilac and Tarver find a strange blessing in the tragedy that has thrown them into each other’s arms. Without the hope of a future together in their own world, they begin to wonder – would they be better off staying here forever?

Everything changes when they uncover the truth behind the chilling whispers that haunt their every step. Lilac and Tarver may find a way off this planet. But they won’t be the same people who landed on it.

Two words. Character. Development. These Broken Stars is chock full of it. It's glorious and magnificent, watching Lilac and Tarver slowly change their minds about each other. Their relationship is the most compelling part of the story, and its development is so well-paced that when you reach the end of the book you just want it to continue on for another 50 pages because their time together feels so hard-earned.

The story is written from two perspectives, but it feels cohesive – kudos to Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner. I didn't realize the book was co-authored until maybe halfway through; it was written that seamlessly. It must be the magic of Aussie lit – delicious, intense prose that makes your heart beat a little bit faster.

I'm somewhat disappointed that the next book in the Starbound series is about a different set of characters, because I don't feel that Lilac and Tarver's story is complete, and I don't know how much it can develop if it's told through someone else's point of view. At the same time, I'm glad that Amie and Meagan (yes, we're on a first name basis now, I've just decided) don't seem to be forcing them into a tired, played out, dystopian novel cliche. I'm happy to let them rest, so to speak. To me, Lilac and Tarver's relationship and personal growth are really the core of the story; everything else falls by the wayside.

Monday, August 4, 2014

A Brief Intermission: These Broken Stars

Over the past week or so, I've been slowly reading this monstrosity of a book. I call it a monstrosity because it's a freaking heavy 6x10 hardcover novel that barely fits in my bag and makes my fingers cramp up when I carry it in hand. Ha. Ha. Haaaa. The struggles of a walking life.

Anyway. Should we talk about books, and not the problems I invent for myself?

I'm really liking the slow burn of These Broken Stars so far. It's unexpectedly compelling, which is saying a lot, since I've been reading this on my subway commute to work and at various parks in the city – none of which are particularly great places to read somewhat dark, dystopian novels. Especially when you're easily distracted, like me. On the upside, I'm less likely to cry over characters when I'm in public spaces surrounded by tourists and dogs. So there's that.

I highlighted this quote over the weekend:

There are moments like this when I can actually imagine her at my parents' cottage. I can see her hauling wood with the rest of us, chopping vegetables, going for long walks and calling it entertainment. I think my parents would like her.

It's kind of an odd pick, and maybe doesn't mean much out of context, but still I keep rolling these words around in my head. Lately I've been having conversations with people about the dating scene in New York. I always bring up this Refinery 29 article, how dating is easy because there are so many people around you and so many things you could do, and how it's hard because there are so many people and you're not always willing to commit. And what Tarver says here is so different from all of that... It's about a simpler life, away from everything, from all the distractions and activities that preoccupy us... and it sounds nice, doesn't it? The idea of longs walks, nature, family, someone you love – all of that being enough to make you happy.