Saturday, June 27, 2015

Review: A Sense of the Infinite by Hilary T. Smith

Title: A Sense of the Infinite
Author: Hilary T. Smith
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Publication date: May 19, 2015
Rating: ★★★★

Summary (via Goodreads):

It's senior year of high school, and Annabeth is ready – ready for everything she and her best friend, Noe, have been planning and dreaming. But there are some things Annabeth isn't prepared for, like the constant presence of Noe's new boyfriend. Like how her relationship with her mom is wearing and fraying. And like the way the secret she's been keeping hidden deep inside her for years has started clawing at her insides, making it hard to eat or even breathe.

But most especially, she isn't prepared to lose Noe.

For years, Noe has anchored Annabeth and set their joint path. Now Noe is drifting in another direction, making new plans and dreams that don't involve Annabeth. Without Noe's constant companionship, Annabeth's world begins to crumble. But as a chain of events pulls Annabeth further and further away from Noe, she finds herself closer and closer to discovering who she's really meant to be – with her best friend or without.

I was so thrilled to receive my copy of A Sense of the Infinite – I had read Hilary T. Smith's debut novel, Wild Awake, last year and became obsessed with it. And I mean obsessed. (I made a playlist and everything.) So naturally I was really looking forward to reading her new book.

A Sense of the Infinite is a silently powerful read with strong writing. Hilary T. Smith is so good with words – she knows exactly how to romance a character's internal dialogue, how to take a feeling or a thought or a daydream and magnify it and give it a life of its own. The short chapters and vignettes that are interspersed through the book are especially striking. Short and (bitter)sweet. Sometimes the little things pack a punch.

I put my hand on a tree's bark and felt a quiet current of friendship there, like an underground spring.
Maybe it wasn't too late for me to freeze in a snowbank. It sounded almost dreamy, almost pleasant.
"Annabeth's wandered out and frozen," they'd say. "It's very sad."

The characters in A Sense of the Infinite all feel realistic, too – almost painfully so. Noe reminded me of all the mean girls I knew in high school, how they could be so friendly in your Spanish class one year and then see straight through you the next. I appreciated Bob, her school dietician, and how even as a "minor" character, he evolved in her eyes and become significant to her. I like that richness in character development in a story. I like when characters are meaningful.

I loved Annabeth's cousin Ava: the way she was so horrible early on, the changes we saw in her later. It's so true to life, isn't it? Sometimes people knock us down and want to hurt us and make our life hell, and then you encounter them again years later, and the circumstances have changed completely, and you just move on and move forward. Steven, Noe's boyfriend, was my most unexpected love – and I loved him fiercely, for his determination to befriend Annabeth, for his solidarity with her, for his vulnerability and emotional struggles. They have such a beautiful, supportive relationship, and it was so nice to read.

Steven's tears and snot were soaking into my sweater. The daisies in his hair were getting crushed, the white petals curling in. I pulled the vial of lavender oil out of my pocket and quietly anointed him on the wrists, forehead, and heart, thinking that the mysterious thing about love is that you don't have to know what you're doing in order to do it exactly right.

Be forewarned – this book covers some intense and gritty themes. Rape, pregnancy, eating disorders, depression, suicide, coming out, self-harm/mutilation... To be honest, this is one of the big reasons I didn't love this book. And it's not unrealistic, per se – in fact, between high school and my first year in college, I had to face all but one of those things in some capacity – but it just made this book feel so heavy and just too much. It's a somber book, for sure. But it's also a story of evolving relationships, and a story of transformation as we watch Annabeth struggle and grow, and that lightness helps balance out the rest.

If I'm being honest, I went in expecting nothing less than sheer and utter brilliance, which is a lot to ask of anyone but also just goes to show you how much I love Hilary's writing and how much I trust in her ability to tell a compelling story. This book feels a lot more YA in a way that Wild Awake didn't – it's so much about high school dynamics, being on the cusp of change, the fickleness and cruelty of people... But it's sophisticated and mature and kind of disturbing and kind of monumental.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Review: A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

Title: A Court of Thorns and Roses
Author: Sarah J. Maas
Publisher: Bloomsbury Children's
Publication date: May 5, 2015
Rating: ★★★½

Summary (via Goodreads):

When nineteen-year-old huntress Feyre kills a wolf in the woods, a beast-like creature arrives to demand retribution for it. Dragged to a treacherous magical land she only knows about from legends, Feyre discovers that her captor is not an animal, but Tamlin – one of the lethal, immortal faeries who once ruled their world.

As she dwells on his estate, her feelings for Tamlin transform from icy hostility into a fiery passion that burns through every lie and warning she's been told about the beautiful, dangerous world of the Fae. But an ancient, wicked shadow grows over the faerie lands, and Feyre must find a way to stop it... or doom Tamlin – and his world – forever.


It's not you – it's me. I wanted to be in a love affair with you. And don't get me wrong – there are so many things that I love about you. But we're just not compatible... or maybe the timing is off. Who knows? But listen – you'll do amazing things in the world, and I'm still going to be sitting there following along. I wish you every happiness in life.


The Story

This is a very loose re-telling of Beauty and the Beast, with layer and layers of secrets and twists. Dark and intense from the beginning and even more so at the conclusion of the book, once the end game is revealed to you and you start to retrace the strands of the complicated web that is ACOTAR. The last two-thirds of the story were the most interesting to me – maybe it's because by then I had come to care about the characters and understand the backstory. I will say that I was pretty disappointed to have figured out key parts of the story so easily. I like to have my mind blown, and to me, some things (like Amarantha's riddle) just seemed so obvious that it felt strange to have them as such crucial parts of the story.

The Romance

It was a slow burn, I suppose you could say. A slow burn with some glimmering coals. A slow burn with some glimmering coals and sparks that jump up high into the air and nearly burn off your eyebrows and you're like JESUS CHRIST SAVE ME IS IT HOT IN HERE OR WHAT. I guess you could say it was like that.

The Characters

As always, the characters are the most compelling part of the book, and Sarah J. Maas continues to be amazing at building out people who are strong in their own ways but also flawed – you can sympathize with them but maybe you're also frustrated by their actions or their attitudes or their human-ness or the way they choose to present themselves to the world. SJM is so stinkin' good at writing a complex character.

Tamlin, powerful faerie nobility and total babe (like I said, it's loosely based on Beauty and the Beast), is a remarkably likable person/faerie. After Feyre kills the wolf and sets off this chain of events, he gives her asylum, in what appears to be a display of sympathy – and continues to offer her kindness again and again. He holds a high position of power, yet he remains fundamentally good. We get to explore so many different facets of his character in ACOTAR – from seeing what he's like after the Fire Night celebrations, to his sincere conversations with Feyre in the garden, to his impassiveness Under the Mountain.

Feyre, I will admit, was the one character whose thoughts and feelings I disliked reading the most, especially in the last hundred pages of the book. It was like I turned the page in the book, and turned a switch, too – she went from a fairly neutral-to-admirable character in my eyes to suddenly unbearable, going against all the advice she'd been given, not thinking about the consequences to her actions, being so short-sighted. Maybe it's the result of having figured out the plot twists and other characters' motivations up front, or maybe it was just that she seemed unclever compared to some of Sarah J. Maas' other characters in other books (ahem, Celaena Sardothien)... I just couldn't gel with her in the end.

Rhysand, High Lord of the of the Night Court, is the one character who immediately intrigued me as soon as we met him through the end of the book. He's a dark horse, that one. He's someone who strategizes – intelligent, smooth, incredible at keeping secrets. He has a sharp sense of humor, he's incredibly self-confident, and while Tamlin may be the one who knows how to play a fiddle, Rhys is the one who knows how to play a person like a fiddle. I'm really excited to see what happens to him in the next few books. (God, I hope it is/isn't a 6-7 book series like Throne of Glass. My heart won't be able to handle it.)

So many other characters that I could talk about, but all I'll add is this: I've already decided that if ACOTAR ever becomes a movie, Amarantha will be played by Helena Bonham Carter. There is really no one else.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Saint Anything: A Few(-ish) of My Favorite Things

Title: Saint Anything
Author: Sarah Dessen
Publisher: Viking Juvenile
Publication date: May 5, 2015
Rating: ★★★★★

Summary (via Goodreads):

Peyton, Sydney's charismatic older brother, has always been the star of the family, receiving the lion's share of their parents' attention and—lately—concern. When Peyton's increasingly reckless behavior culminates in an accident, a drunk driving conviction, and a jail sentence, Sydney is cast adrift, searching for her place in the family and the world. When everyone else is so worried about Peyton, is she the only one concerned about the victim of the accident?

Enter the Chathams, a warm, chaotic family who run a pizza parlor, play bluegrass on weekends, and pitch in to care for their mother, who has multiple sclerosis. Here Sydney experiences unquestioning acceptance. And here she meets Mac, gentle, watchful, and protective, who makes Sydney feel seen, really seen, for the first time.

Normally I'd write this big long review about how much I liked Saint Anything, with what worked, what didn't, and some literary analysis mixed in – because that's just who I am and that's just what I do – but Saint Anything feels a lot like This Lullaby, my actual absolute favorite book from Sarah Dessen, and I've still never written or thought about writing a review for that. Some books just cannot be sufficiently described in six to eight paragraphs on a blog post. So instead of doing that, I'll just give you a list of some of my favorite things from this book:

1. Sarah Dessen's dedication: For all the invisible girls and for my readers, for seeing me. HI EXCUSE ME JUST GONNA GO CRY IN MY ROOM THANKS.

2. The way Sydney hears Mac say her name – "so familiar, the sentiment confident and reassuring, that was more touching, actually, than anything else he'd done so far."

3. Eric's artist statement (if that's what we're going to call it) about the band's ironic pop covers being more than just ironic covers. "It's about the universal experience of mass consumption of music. How a song can remind you of something specific in your own life, like it belongs to you. But how personal can it really be if a million other people feel the same way about it?" His friends all make fun of him for talking nonsense, but I GET IT, ERIC. Don't listen to the haters. I GET YOU.

4. Irv! What a guy! He reminds me of my high school friends and it warms my heart. "Can't get drunk, have to push the merry-go-round. Don't know why I even hang out with you guys." YOU GUYS. This book is really funny.

5. How Sydney savors moments that feel like magic. The writing slows down, the details feel richer somehow – even if it's just about eating frosting on top of Pop-Tarts.

6. Sydney eating Mac's Kwackers. And choking on them. But eating them anyway.

7. Layla. Layla, Layla, Layla. How she loves her family so much. How she wants to have more responsibility at the pizza shop so Mac can go to college and she masks it by highlighting how sexist it is to assume a girl can't be a leader. I LOVE IT. I LOVE HER.

8. Layla's obsession with fries. It's given me a whole new appreciation for them. I will never settle again. (Well, that's probably not true. But at least I'll be much more aware of when I am settling for subpar fries.)

9. Can I just reiterate how much I love Layla? She's not perfect by any means, but she is a good friend, fiercely loyal and protective from the very beginning. I mean, can we just remember how Layla sleeps over at Sydney's house for the first time and, in the middle of the night, moves her mattress to block the unlocked door to keep her safe from a certain creepy predator?

10. When Mac revisits the first time Sydney came into Seaside Pizza. OMFG. I DIED. STRAIGHT UP. RIP ME. I'm not even going to include the quote here because I want you all to have the same reading experience as I did.

11. Mac and Sydney's pizza deliveries, and how she is the pizza order whisperer. I love that she takes social analysis to the next level and that she wants to know what's behind each door. I RELATE TO THIS ON SO MANY LEVELS, and I love that he comes up with a system for efficiently delivering pizzas with her, but we all know that it's just a cover-up because he is a sweet precious baby.

12. Mac delivering pizzas to the middle school gymnasium and TRIGGERING THE HORMONE RUSH.

13. "Hate Spinnerbait." I die every time this comes up in any of Sarah Dessen's books.

14. The evolution of Sydney's relationship with Peyton. So much of her life and her self-perception are a side-effect of his actions. She says everything is always about Peyton, but it's a weird juxtaposition because Peyton's not here now. He's legendary in his own way, but here in Saint Anything, he's small – boxed up in prison, interacting with Sydney only in occasional, brief phone calls and in her memories. I love the way both of these things shift over time.

15. "I'm so sorry." There are a lot of sorry's in this book, but this one is different. Those three words represented so much to Sydney and they were unexpected, both to her and to me, but somehow a relief.

16. Sydney's dad at the very end of the book. My reaction (seriously though): HALLELUJAH, SYDNEY'S DAD.
    While I was reading Saint Anything, I found myself loving all of the other characters (Layla, Mac, Eric, Irv, Layla's mom) but not really being able to identify with Sydney herself. But in retrospect, I do understand her – a girl who feels like a ghost, a little bit pushed around by the current, who wants to be seen and recognized for her own person and not live in the shadow of someone else, burdened by what they've done, or resigned to a certain outcome. I see myself in Sydney a little bit – in the ways that really matter – and I think that's a really special thing.

    Tuesday, June 2, 2015

    Top Ten Tuesday: Books I'd Love To See As Movies/TV Shows

    Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

    I feel like I say this every time, but this was a challenging Top Ten Tuesday for me – one, because I generally like books better than their movies (exception: the Lord of the Rings trilogy), and two, so many YA novels and book series have been turned into films just in the past 5 years alone. I mean, The Little Prince has been made into a live-action film. (Yes, I watched the trailer, and yes, it made me cry a little.) I wouldn't be surprised if any of these books are in pre-production right now...

    1. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss – imagine this directed by Wes Anderson. Just tons and tons of vignettes. Alma and Bird playing their "what I am not" games. Herman and Alma holding hands. And of course it would start with a voiceover by Stephen Fry or Jude Law: "Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering."

     2. The Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas would be an amazing TV show. Diverse characters. Strong, imperfect leading ladies. Better than Game of Thrones, with less shock value and no token rape scenes. Chaol and Celaena and Rowan and Manon on a WEEKLY BASIS. YASSSS.

    3. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. The female version of Spy Game. (No, not Spy Kids. Spy Game. With Robert Redford and young Brad Pitt.)

    4. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. This would be dreamy like Sofia Coppola's Virgin Suicides, a little bit dark like Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, with a creepy-catchy instrumental soundtrack slightly reminiscent of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite.

    5. Stolen by Lucy Christopher. At the very least, this would have the BEST cinematography starring sunsets in the Australian Outback and some nice, poignant voiceovers.

    6. Unsticky by Sarra Manning. I know, it's a weird pick, but I could see this as a cross between 50 Shades of Grey + chick flick featuring Cameron Diaz and Amy Adams as the Supportive Best Friends. And this is one book where I think I might actually prefer the movie.

    7. The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles. First of all, this was one of my favorite books as a child. Second of all, it's written by Julie Andrews, yes, that one. This would be an animated film, hopefully done by Dreamworks or Pixar, featuring a cast of awesome voices including Seth Rogen, Aziz Ansari, and Angela Lansbury.

    8. Honey, Baby, Sweetheart by Deb Caletti. Another one of my longtime favorites. Unfortunately, this would probably end up feeling like a Lifetime movie, what with its token bad boy, grandma girl gang (actually it turns out that these ladies are just middle-aged... my ageist 15-year-old brain deceives me), and a road trip centered on true love, adventure, and liberation.

    9. A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Reptile Room. I DESPERATELY WANT THIS BOOK (OR ANY OTHER BOOK IN THE SERIES, REALLY) AS A SEQUEL. The first movie was such a great interpretation of the books – totally whackadoodle and fun, with an all-star cast of characters – I loved Jim Carrey as Count Olaf. Is Netflix still planning to do a TV series? I HOPE SO, I WILL WATCH IT.

    10. The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong. I think this may be one of those books that is vastly underrated but it's charming and inspirational and timeless the way The Little Prince is charming and inspirational and timeless. The Wheel on the School will probably never be made into a film, but if it were, it would have the same vibe as Nanny McPhee: a little bit dreamy and magical and lovely, with amazing landscapes (it is set in the Netherlands, after all) and adorable children playing major characters.