Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

Geekerella – Ashley Poston Review

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Rating: ★★★★★

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

This book was surprisingly good! I wasn’t expecting this book to make me feel as much as I did whilst reading it. I naively assumed that this book would be lighthearted – perhaps to the point of lacking substance – a bit of fun, but without much impact. Man, was I wrong. Of all the books that I would guess would make me start crying, it wasn’t Geekerella, but the characters and the story are so easy to delve into and get attached to.

Geekerella is, as you can probably tell by the title, a Cinderella retelling. I don’t mean this in the way that you often hear YA fantasies call themselves fantasy retellings whilst changing the story altogether, I mean it is literally a Cinderella retelling. Right down to a pumpkin carriage – albeit, a pumpkin food truck. Since her father’s death, Elle has been living a miserable life with her stepmother Catherine and her step-twin-sisters Cal and Chloe. All that she has left to hold onto is Starfield, the sci-fi television show that her father introduced her to as a child. She knows everything that there is to know about it, and runs her own little blog dedicated to it. When she sees a cosplay contest at this year’s ExcelsiCon, she knows that the prize money is exactly what she needs to get out from under her stepmother’s thumb and make her own way in the world. All she needs is to find a costume. Meanwhile, Darien Freeman, teen superstar actor, has been cast in the lead role, and is struggling with fan expectations. He has always loved Starfield, but being a nerd doesn’t quite fit with his image, and Starfield’s hard core fanbase are ripping into him, so judging this years’ cosplay competition is the last thing that he wants to do. Both Elle and Darien struggle in their respective worlds, only finding solace in the text messages that they swap with a mysterious stranger, as obsessed with Starfield as they are.

The characters in this novel had depth and detail, they were interesting and had their own struggles and storylines even apart from the romantic one. Elle’s friendship with Sage, her relationships with her sisters and step-mother, were all important. So was Darien’s struggle with his job and relationships. Apart from this, Starfield itself was also incredibly well-developed, which, for a novel which explores fandom so much, was vital to the characters feeling real. Although Starfield is a made-up television show, I found it easy to relate to how much the characters love the stories and the characters, their passion for it, and how much they care about the remake. I also liked how Starfield was the background against which the characters’ personal struggles play out against, because it meant that we understood their motivations and feelings. For Elle, Starfield is at the heart of all her memories of her parents, which explains not only why she cares so much about the remake but also why she is so desperate to win the cosplay competition – to make her parents proud. For Darien, his internal struggles with confidence are made clear in his playing the lead role in Starfield. He doesn’t believe that he is good enough to play his favourite character, and he finds it difficult to be surrounded by actors who don’t care about the show in the same way that he does. The characters, the story, and the show Starfield itself, were equally important in making Geekerella as good as it was, because they all bounced off each other to create a really moving and fun story.

I also loved how much this novel is inspired by Cinderella. Of course, there was still so much original content to this book, but it was fun to spot the comparisons. For example, instead of a pumpkin becoming a carriage, the pumpkin themed vegan food truck that Elle works at it her carriage, and her fairy godmother is her colleague Sage, who helps her to make her costume and encourages her to keep fighting for what she believes in. It was also nice to see more development to the characters, like in Darien and Elle’s own storylines, and also in the minor characters. Catherine, the evil stepmother, and the sisters Cal and Chloe were nuanced characters, and I especially looked forward to the scenes with Catherine where she showed a bit more of her human side, and the redemption arc for Cal. All of the references to the fairytale were interesting to find and made reading Geekerella even more fun to read.

Overall, Geekerella was a really enjoyable book and I sincerely regret leaving it unread for so long. The story is sweet and simple, with nuanced and interesting characters, and told in a fun way. Definitely give this book a chance, even if it doesn’t seem like it’s quite your type. You might find, like me, that you judged it too early.

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Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index – Julie Israel Review

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Rating: ★★★

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Juniper Lemon’s sister Camilla died two months ago, but the Happiness Index that they began together, where Juniper notes down all the positive things that have happened to her, helps her feel closer to her. When one of her cards go missing, one that holds a dark secret about the night Camilla died, it is as though Juniper’s life has lost all semblance of balance once again, and to make things worse, she discovers a secret love letter from her sister to an unknown lover. Juniper sets out on a desperate journey to find her lost index card and deliver her sister’s letter, one that brings new friends, more secrets, and possibly even the ability to find peace with herself.

There was nothing wrong with this novel, but it just didn’t hit the spot. Usually, stories about relatives dying set me off on a path of helpless sobbing, but for some reason this book didn’t have that emotional power with me. I think that one reason for this was that the plot felt a little disjointed. For example, Juniper makes various friends throughout the course of the novel, and although I did enjoy some of their scenes, sometimes it felt like their storylines were diverting attention from the main story, whilst not being strong enough to justify it. Her new friends were fun to read at times, with wit and jokes, but with the exception of Brand, they were pretty flat and felt irrelevant, and frankly, I didn’t really care about them. It felt like the story about Juniper’s grief and recovery was not only being left on a back burner but being completely forgotten at some points. On the other hand, I did really enjoy Juniper and Brand’s relationship. I am a sucker for bad boys who are actually not that bad, and Brand falls right into that category of a bad boy that is actually a softie. Their relationship felt sincere and loving, even if it did feel like it deepened a bit too quickly once it began.

What really weakened this novel though, was the completely unsatisfactory ending. Now, beware, because this next paragraph will be spoilery, so read at your own risk!

Here we go. The ending. Not only were there loose ends, but the story was left completely wide open, unfinished, and fraying at the edges. The mystery of the identity of Camilla’s lover was the driver of the entire plot, and after an entire book with Juniper hunting for clues, and us going along with her, at the end, we are simply not told. It felt like a betrayal to lead me along on a goose chase for answers only for the mystery to be left completely unanswered. I don’t care if Juniper moved on and saw her duty to her sister has been dispatched, I don’t care if she only cared about delivering the letter and not about finding out who the mystery person was, I WANT TO KNOW. I HAVE THEORIES. I HAVE SUSPICIONS. I DESERVE TO KNOW. Honestly, endings like this don’t feel emotional or poignant, they just feel like the author couldn’t figure out how to end their book. If a mystery is going be at the heart of your story, you should answer the mystery. Don’t make me turn on my detective brain only to not answer my questions.

So, this book was neither here nor there. I would have given this book 2 stars instead of 3, but the reality is that for the most part, this book wasn’t boring and it wasn’t bad. It was a little disjointed in tone, and the plot was disappointing, but mainly it was the ending that ruined it for me. Yes, I feel disappointed and misled by the book, but there were positives and until I began to suspect that the ending would disappoint, I was enjoying reading this book.

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Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

S.T.A.G.S – M.A. Bennett Review

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Rating: ★★★★★

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

WOW! I am still reeling from this book even though I finished it hours ago, and if I didn't have a serious need to get through some books on my reading list before school starts, I would delve right back into S.T.A.G.S again from the beginning to see how many more little details I missed. I've already tweeted and told friends that this book is like Hogwarts meets How to Get Away With Murder, but there is honestly so much in this book to get excited about, and I hope I can control my excitement enough to write a coherent review.

S.T.A.G.S stands for St Aidan the Great School. It is the prestigious boarding school that Greer, the protagonist, has won a scholarship to attend for sixth form. Intimidated and lonely, surrounded by children who are wealthier than her and know all the rules better than she does, she is intrigued and excited when she receives The Invitation. She has been invited to spend a weekend 'huntin, shootin, fishin,' at Longcross, the manor house belonging to the school's golden boy, Henry de Warlencourt, along with his gang, called the Medievals, and two other misfits. However, Greer's belief that she might have finally been welcomed into S.T.A.G.S begins to waver. As each of the bloodsports ends in a well-timed 'accident', the three guests begin to wonder whether they are the predators, or the prey.

This novel has a mystery feel to it from the beginning. I loved how Bennett uses foreboding so well, instantly telling us from the start that a 'murder' takes place, and that there is something ominous going on in S.T.A.G.S, and yet, like Greer herself, we can't quite figure out what it is. Just as she does, we're suspicious of characters, and then we see them in a slightly more flattering light and we wonder whether they're really the bad guys at all, or whether they're just misunderstood. I liked how she alternated tense scenes, like the hunting scenes, with Downton Abbey-esque dinners, more romantic scenes, or slightly friendlier chats with the Medievals. It meant that your idea of the characters was never set in stone, and they changed with every scene. Until the very last page, you can't quite put your finger down on the problem, you can't figure out who the real bad guy is, where the 'bad guys' end and the 'good guys' begin, and how Greer and her friends will ever be able to escape.

The plot moves forward constantly, and even where the pace of the story is slower, there is always tension bubbling away beneath the surface. Every conversation that the characters have, every room that we enter, every little detail means something, and you are kept on your toes throughout. I loved the way that the three guests at Longcross, Greer, Nel, and Shafeen, come together to try and figure out what is really going on at Longcross, and discover that the seemingly harmless traditions of not using technology hide something far darker underneath. I never felt that Bennett's writing dragged the story down, even though she often described things like buildings and dresses, because she did so in a way that felt natural to Greer's voice and fit in with the story, and always picked up details that she had mentioned and made them important later in the story. She has an excellent skill at weaving details and storylines together in a way that you suspect they will add up to something more significant, but can't quite figure it out. In fact, right up until the last page, she is pulling tricks out of her sleeve and shocking you.

Underneath all of this excitement, mystery, and suspense, there are deeper themes of class, race, and tradition. Even if the setting of S.T.A.G.S and Longcross is as establishment as it comes, and as alien to you as it was to Greer and me, this book is not Downton Abbey or Hogwarts-esque. It isn't even, as Greer jokes, Mean Girls-esque. It is dark, thrilling, and thought-provoking. It makes you question establishment and traditions, and also wonder what deep, dark secrets could be lurking in plain sight.

I've said this in a few reviews recently, but this is definitely one of my books of the year, and even after writing this review, I'm still reeling. I just know that I'll read anything that M.A. Bennett writes after this.

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Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

Piglettes – Clementine Beauvais Review

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Rating: ★★★

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Piglettes is a fun and comedic story about three young girls who over the course of a summer, find friendship, adventure, and courage. It both follows the recent trend in ‘feminist’ YA whilst also feeling more light-hearted and warm than many others. The novel has been translated from French, and as you can probably tell from the cover art, it is a feel-good summer read.

Piglettes is about Mireille, Astrid, and Hakima, three teenage girls who are awarded the prizes for three ugliest girls in their school in a competition hosted by their classmates. Whilst Mireille has experienced this before and wears an armour of sarcastic pride, she takes the two younger newcomers to the gang under her wing. The girls are all very different, and they discover that they are all seeking different things. Mireille wants to find her biological father. Astrid wants to follow her favourite band wherever they go. Hakima want a chance to avenge her brother’s trauma in war. When the girls discover that there is a chance for all of them to achieve these goals in Paris, they set out on a journey to do so, and prove a point while they’re at it. They cycle to Paris selling homemade sausages along the way, and amass a loyal following, but more importantly, build strong bonds between themselves.

I loved the light-hearted comedy of this novel. Mireille is a brilliant narrator, and she genuinely made me laugh at times. Clementine Beauvais did a really good job at creating a unique voice for Mireille and it really brought the rest of the novel to life. It was easy to get to know Mireille as a character, whether through her witty jokes to the other girls or her sarky backchat with her mother and step-father, or even just reading her thoughts.  I was also impressed at the breadth of issues that the novel explores despite keeping this light-hearted and funny tone. For example, the story of Hakima’s brother who suffered life-changing injuring serving in the army and is traumatised by what he sees as a failure on his part to save his friends.

This novel toed quite a thin line between being a ‘message’ book and being a light-hearted comedy. It was refreshing to read about three empowered young girls in an exciting story about proving others wrong and achieving their dreams without feeling like the author was waving a banner in your face. On the other hand, there were parts of the novel that seemed to drag on and without Mireille’s humorous narration, the novel would just have felt boring. Particularly, a sequence where the girls attend a party hosted by university students felt unnecessary and pointless. Further, there was little action or drama in the form of plot twists, and any tension or problems was quite low-level and so easy to ‘overcome’ for the characters.

Overall I still feel like the book as a whole works well enough. It is not particularly deep or serious, but not all books have to be. The characters set a goal and worked to achieve it. By the end of the novel, they had learned a great deal. I appreciated that the culmination of their stories is not necessarily what they were expecting at the beginning of the novel, and they came to terms with these new circumstances.

Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe – Benjamin Alire Sáenz Review

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Taken from: @inkdropsbooks

Rating: ★★★★

I had heard so much about this book before I read it, mostly in the form of raring reviews. When I finally landed a copy, I barely waited before starting to read it, and I was not disappointed. This is an example of a book really living up to the buzz around it, and now I completely understand why this book is so loved.

This book (I’m not going to write the whole title out again!) is narrated by Aristotle, or Ari. He is a lonely fifteen year old kid at the start of the book. He feels out of place in most places, uncomfortable with people his own age, and doesn’t know where he belongs. Then, one day, he meets the light, colourful and bubbly Dante. After initially bonding over their unusual names, they form a strong friendship, but as time goes on and Dante discovers that he feels more for Ari, Ari battles with his own feelings.

What made this book for me was that the relationship between Ari and Dante was more than your typical YA romance. Their friendship was real and founded on more than physical attraction. They actually have things in common and shared experiences that bind them. In fact, there is very little romance involved in this novel until near the end, and this means that we get to know the characters as themselves and appreciate their relationship to a deeper level. For someone who doesn’t always appreciate romantic storylines being the central plot of a novel, this made it much easier to appreciate the storyline.

I also adored the writing in this novel. The style is so calm and mellow, that it really let Ari’s emotions rise to the surface.  Benjamin Alire Sáenz has a way with words that really enables him to capture exactly what Ari is feeling and put it in a way that you understand it too. This is really important as the novel doesn’t have a clearly defined plot, it simply follows the central relationship over a few years. There are events over the course of the novel, of course, but they don’t form separate stories of their own. Without this excellent writing style, the book could have quickly become boring for me, but I was swept away by his writing and devoured the book in a single day.

The only reason why I haven’t given this book five stars is because I felt that the pacing could have been better. Ari’s own stubbornness and fear keeps him from coming to terms with how he feels, but I felt that there wasn’t enough foreshadowing or hints at how he really felt in the earlier parts of the novel, which meant that the ending of the story felt a tiny bit contrived and fake. I went along with it and enjoyed it anyway because I loved the characters and the writing style, but it did nag me a bit and I felt like this could have been done a bit better for the sake of consistency.

Overall, this book had well-developed characters and excellent writing, which are the most important things in a book for me. Although I found the plot to be a bit weak at points, I could look past these because I loved the other parts of the book. If you haven’t read this, I would definitely recommend it, even if you don’t typically read YA literature.

Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

My Heart and Other Black Holes – Jasmine Warga Review

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Rating:★★★★

I was concerned starting this book that it would fall into a lot of cliches, and to be fair, it did – a lot of cliches. However, I still enjoyed this book. The writing and the characters meant that the cliche plot didn’t stop me appreciating the book.

My Heart and Other Black Holes revolves around sixteen year old Aysel and Roman, who meet via a Suicide Partners website. Both want to die, and they agree to do it together, a month from their first meeting. They’re both running away from something, but as they spend more and more time together, Aysel starts to wonder if running away is really necessary, or if all you need is someone who understands you. Eventually, Aysel realises that there is more to live for than there is to run away from, but the clock is ticking, and Roman is much more committed to the plan than she is.

The first cliche that I was apprehensive of in this novel was the suicidal teen story. Obviously, suicide and depression are very important issues to address in fiction, but sometimes I worry that teen novels romanticise mental illness as characteristics and quirks. Warga addressed the feelings of both Aysel and Roman well enough that their problems didn’t feel like they were just being used to advance a plot. Aysel’s father committed a horrific crime a few years before, and she is running away from the fear that she is just as bad as he is. Roman is running away from guilt that he could have stopped a tragedy in his family. Warga wrote this after the death of a close friend and you can see clearly that her writing is influenced by real experiences. This novel is dark, because it honestly addresses the characters’ experiences, and while it is heart-wrenching at times, this means that overall, mental illness doesn’t feel like a prop.

Further, the characters both feel real and less like quirky caricatures than they sometimes feel in other teen novels that address characters with health problems. Instead of being one-dimensional and cookie-cutter characters that serve the author’s purpose of writing about their mental health problems, Aysel and Roman were multi-faceted and fun to read. Personally, I loved Aysel’s interest in physics and how it influences her narration of the story. She also talks us through some of her memories, and we see how these affect her, without an annoying info-dump or cringe-y flashback. Both Aysel and Roman have their own sense of humour and wit, and overall, they were just a lot of fun to read and very likeable characters.

All of these little cliches, however, developed into what felt like one big cliche. I don’t want to ruin the ending, but my feelings around the ending made me feel unsure about the  novel as a whole. On the one hand, all of the little cliches developed into a bigger cliche ending that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Lifetime movie. While this felt refreshing compared to other teen novels about mental health that sometimes feel like they romanticise huge tragedies, the ending isn’t objectively super happy. Rather, it is an open-ended and hopeful conclusion. However, the ending did feel a little rushed, and so the cliche aspect of the ending was emphasised until it was much stronger than it actually might have been.

Overall, it’s just my ambiguous feeling to the ending of My Heart and Other Black Holes that dampened my feelings to the novel overall. The characters were well-crafted and multi-faceted, and Jasmine Warga’s writing is excellent. While it was a really good read, I don’t feel like it made an impact in the same way that other novels on this topic has, but at the same time, I didn’t think that any aspects of her exposition of mental health and suicide was problematic or unresolved.

Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

Holding Up the Universe – Jennifer Niven Review

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Taken from: @inkdropsbooks

Rating: ★

I was so certain that I was going to love this book – after all, I adored All the Bright Places (also by Jennifer Neven) and heard a lot of hype around this title when it was released last year. However, this book was such a disappointment. The characters were one-dimensional, the story felt contrived, and I just couldn’t get into the story.

Much like All the Bright Places, Holding Up the Universe includes two teenage protagonists, each with their own ‘issue’. Here, Libby Strout is returning to school after years of battling with weight problems, which were so bad that she had to be rescued from her house with a crane and was dubbed ‘America’s Fattest Teen’. She is hoping to not only be a normal teenager again but also to pursue her dream of dancing. Meanwhile, Jack Masselin’s cool, popular, and slightly mean persona hides a secret – Jack has prosopagnosia, which means he can’t remember or recognise faces. He forgets a face the minute he turns away from it, meaning he can’t even recognise his own family.

I myself don’t quite understand where this novel went wrong, except that it all felt a little too formulaic, like Niven had followed a recipe for a good, angsty YA romance. Both protagonists have their unique traits, a goal, a secret and/or a tragedy. They meet and initially do not see eye to eye, but after being thrown together, they see past the mask that the other has put up to come to love the person underneath. Whilst they help each other in pursuing some goal, they also pursue goals independently, and so grow as people as well as as a couple. My issue was these characteristics all felt too pragmatic, like they were just there because Niven needed something to make her characters stand out, but the characters didn’t seem well developed outside of these traits. Libby is defined by her mother’s death, her weight, and her dancing, just as Jack is defined by his secret illness, his douche-y personality, and his goal of building a robot for his younger brother. They had friends outside of each other, and they had family members with their own problems, but these were all one-dimensional too. Jack’s girlfriend is just a cookie-cutter high school bitch, and I can’t even remember if Libby had one, two, or three friends because they were all basically just background characters that I couldn’t distinguish from each other. To make matters worse, the story’s development fell into huge cliches, like the characters happening to show up at the same party even though they operate in completely different circles, or like Libby’s being the only face that Jack can recognise (I almost choked).

I quickly grew disillusioned with this book because I could see from the beginning that this recipe for an angsty teen romance was being followed, and it felt like every other angsty teen romance where the characters are battling something feels. I kept pushing through in the hopes that something would happen that would perhaps change everything, a huge plot twist maybe, but nothing came. The characters that I met in the beginning were basically the same, and none of the problems that they faced felt that significant compared to what the characters had gone through before the story began. For example, the bullying that Libby faces is horrible, but compared to what we had been told she had already gone through (bullying on a national scale) and how she had gone on national television to defend herself, it didn’t feel like a big enough deal to drive the story. The ‘problem’ that the pair face as a couple is so negligible I couldn’t really understand why it was a thing, and I can’t even remember whether Jack faced any new problems that weren’t set out from the moment we met him, those being his prosopagnosia and his family situation.

Overall, this book was so disappointing for me. I expected so much more, but the characters were flat and didn’t come to life in the way that I saw Niven’s characters come to life in All the Bright Places, and the story was, frankly, bland. I always try to write as balanced reviews as possible, but this book just felt too run-of-the-mill and cliche for my liking.

Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

When Dimple Met Rishi – Sandhya Menon Review

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Rating; ★★★★★

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

I was so excited to read this novel and when I finally got a copy, I was overjoyed. The synopsis had me feeling some noughties rom-com meets Bend It Like Beckham vibes, and that’s exactly what I got. I loved the blend of the lighthearted teen romance with the infusion of Dimple and Rishi’s cultural backgrounds and their families, and the whole story really comes to life as you read it.

Dimple and Rishi have both been sent to Insomnia Con, a prestigious summer camp, to meet each other by their parents. The only problem is that only Rishi knows that this is a set-up. He is excited to meet his potential future wife and spend six wonderful weeks with her, but when he meets Dimple, he realises that she knew nothing of the plan. Dimple was under the impression that her parents were finally letting her focus on her career, and she’s furious that she’s been tricked. When Dimple and Rishi get paired together on a project, it seems like things couldn’t get any worse. Except they do. Dimple realises that perhaps she’s let her anger blind her, and she starts to wonder if perhaps she and Rishi and more compatible than she thought.

My favourite part of this novel was the characters. Dimple and Rishi are both so different. Dimple is feisty, independent, and stubborn. She dreams of being a web developers and I loved how passionate she is about her goals. Despite the romance storyline, I never felt like Dimple’s personality and goals were being sacrificed or like her character was being diluted in any way which I often feel in romance novels. Rishi on the other hand is a romantic and he loves all of the traditions that Dimple feels constrained by. He can’t wait to marry and have kids, everything that his parents want, but he doesn’t know if he’s following in their footsteps rather than pursuing his own dream – comics.  I loved reading about their families and their Indian culture. You can really tell that this novel is own voices in my opinion, because it never felt forced or superficial, the descriptions and conversations between family members felt real.

I loved that despite the storylines of the romance between Dimple and Rishi and the Insomnia Con competition there was also the interior battles that the characters are facing. Both Dimple and Rishi have to learn what it is exactly that they want, not what they’ve been told they should want or what they’ve told themselves they should want. It is a storyline that I think plenty of readers could relate to, and I definitely could myself.  I also love that despite the two of them obviously helping each other learn things along the way, neither one’s achievements were completely dependent on the other. Both Dimple and Rishi are extremely talented at what they do, and they both love it. Sometimes they just need a little shove to realise that they need to dive in.

When Dimple Met Rishi is a really fun and lighthearted novel, a great read for the summer. It gave me noughties romcom vibes to the extent that I was imagining  movie sequences in my head as I read it. It was easy to hand out 5-stars to this as I had such a good time reading it, and I hope you look into a getting a copy yourself soon!

For fans of: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before – Jenny Han

Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

The Way Back Home – Allan Stratton Review

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Rating; ★★★

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Way Back Home is about a young girl called Zoe Bird who loves her grandmother more than anything and is furious when she is put into a care home. Fed up with her own life in the town, where she is bullied relentlessly and her parents don’t listen to her, she decides to escape with her mother to Toronto, where her long-lost uncle lives. There were parts of this book that I really liked, and other parts that I just didn’t really feel made an impact on me, and overall it balanced out to be just that. Good, but not great.

Zoe’s relationship with her grandmother is one of the best parts of this novel. Zoe on her own was not a character that I liked. I really do not connect to characters who are rude for no reason, and I felt like, although I can relate to the struggles of seeing a loved one be put into a care home, Zoe’s anger and attitude to her parents felt a bit exaggerated at times. Generally, the parts of Zoe’s life that did not directly link to the story with her grandmother felt a little two-dimensional, like her cousin Madi’s character. I guess none of it felt real enough to me, it all just felt a bit too much of a caricature. However, seeing Zoe with her aunt on their trip was really endearing or Zoe’s character. We see that Zoe is kind and loyal behind all the anger that she harbours, and her desire to look after her grandmother isn’t a pipe dream, but she actually does it.

On the other hand, I felt like this is a perfect example of a character that is just too dumb to live. The whole way through this book I was waiting for the moment where someone would shake Zoe by the shoulders and ask her what the hell she was doing. I admire the way that Zoe and her grandmother’s relationship was written, but it also felt a bit ridiculous. Having seen Alzheimer’s in my own family, I know how difficult it is to deal with, and I find it hard even now, let alone when I was fourteen or fifteen. The whole story in this respects felt a bit naive, but once you look past the recklessness of it and how unreal the situation is, you can sort of enjoy the story.

Finally, the best part for me was the story with Uncle Teddy. I loved seeing the story unfold and the family come back together and especially Zoe discovering the truth of the family secret. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who goes onto read this book, but it was refreshing and I felt like it was handled well, exposing some common experiences whilst not being insensitive. However, I was really confused at how the rest of the storylines played out around this. Zoe’s family reunite with one side of their family, only to turn around to the other side of their family and completely cut them off. When you read the book, you do see that their relationships are not exactly healthy, but I felt like for a book about families coming back together and looking past each other’s problem, perhaps this could have made an effort at humanising Aunt Jess and cousin Madi a little more to make it feel more cohesive.

Overall, I didn’t love this book, but I didn’t not like it. It was okay, with good bits and bad bits. I think perhaps my own experiences with the subject matter made it difficult to connect to because it felt silly to me, but it didn’t ruin the book for me.

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Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

Spontaneous – Aaron Starmer Review

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Rating: ★★★

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

This book has a lot going for it. I went into this novel not knowing much about it, and was blown away by the originality of the concept. A town where teenagers begin spontaneously combusting? Well, you have caught my attention right there! The author really caught the voice of Mara, and there was a great balance between humour and the not-so-humorous concept of kids blowing up. However, the plot petered out about halfway through and I couldn’t find my flow with this book again.

Now, I usually keep my reviews as spoiler-free as possible, but there are some vague spoilers in this review, so if you want to be really surprised when you read this book, be warned.

Mara is a senior when one of her classmates blows up right before her eyes. Soon, kids are blowing up all over Covington. At school, at parties, at home, in cars. It’s a tragedy, a mystery, a curse – the Covington Curse. The police get involved, the President is sending messages of goodwill, reporters are flocking to Covington, but nobody can figure out how to stop the curse. It seems like all the youth of Covington are destined to a gory end. As if this isn’t bad enough, school has been closed down for safety reasons, Covington has become a quarantine town, and the senior students are pariahs in their own town. Can Mara get to the bottom of the curse, and will she survive?

The first half of this book was so much fun. This is going to sound really weird, but Starmer had a really great way of making these repeated cases of spontaneous combustion sound hilarious. Mara is a sarcastic, cynical girl with wit deserving of a daytime chat show. I loved reading her comments on the situation, her descriptions of the different people around town, and her crude sense of humour. However, at around the halfway point, understandably, the story became less about people randomly blowing up and more about trying to figure out why. This was where, in my opinion, the book started to drift, until by the end, it was just a bit of a mess.

I think my main issue was that the issue of the curse was left unresolved. There was so much mystery around the curse, and there were so many different theories being thrown around, from the students, from the police, from journalists and every single other character in the novel, that it felt like the author had just decided he couldn’t be bothered to finish the storyline. The middle section of the book completely abandoned this story. Instead, we read chapters and chapters of the seniors of Covington getting their lives back on track by reopening their school and convincing teachers to come back to teach them. This was cute for a few chapters, but eventually, I wanted to get back to the real story. Why were people exploding? Towards the end, people started exploding all over the place again, which made me think we would get somewhere, but we didn’t. All of this drama had happened for no reason! I feel like Starmer maybe intended for readers to come away with a message of making the most of your lives, but really, I was just annoyed. I felt ripped off, like the first half of the novel was leading me to something, tempting me with the lure of plot twists and shocking revelations, only to take it away. It’s like when a TV show opens with a really exciting premise, but 5 seasons later you’re still waiting for the explanation to a story from the first series.

Overall, even though I was really annoyed by route that this book took, I gave it 3 stars because Mara’s voice was so funny. I felt like even though she was snarky and rude, it didn’t feel forced and two-dimensional like it does for other ‘tough girl’ characters in YA literature. Instead of feeling like a caricature, she just felt like a real life Daria character, and I loved that. I also loved that she didn’t feel like a stereotype. She wasn’t a loner, but she wasn’t the most popular, she was very flawed, and very funny. I want a TV show about Mara. Not necessarily this story, but definitely Mara.