Monday, June 22, 2015

Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls

Title: Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls
Author: Lynn Weingarten
Simon Pulse
Release Date:
July 7, 2015

The Gist: June barely has time to mourn the death of her best friend Delia, before Delia's ex-boyfriend convinces her Delia was murdered, and June is swept into a tangle of lies, deceit, and conspiracy.

The synopsis for this book is just a couple of lines.  When I first saw that, I was nervous.  It means going into this book knowing next to nothing, but it is perfect.  Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls is a book where you think you know exactly what is happening.  Up until close to the halfway point I was thisclose to putting it in the DNF pile and moving on.  Am I ever glad I didn't.  Just when you think you have everything figured out and know exactly where this plot is going (and start getting annoyed at it for being so dang predictable) EVERYTHING CHANGES.  I mean it.  I can barely write this review because discussing the awesomeness of this book means also revealing some of the twists and turns that make it incredible.  And there are some twists and turns.  My entire view of the plot and the motivation of the characters changed several times.  Weingarten seems to have mastered the art of allowing the reader to get comfortable in the plot and then smacking them in the face with something they never would have expected but which makes a lot of sense on reflection. 
The plot in the beginning is a little slow which lulls the reader into a sense of security.  It starts to look like this is going to be just another run of the mill mystery with an easily guessed outcome.  But once the first big twist is revealed everything changes.  The plot becomes intriguing and exciting as we try to figure out exactly what is happening.  The writing flashes back and forth in time as we discover what led up not only to the "break up" between June and Delia but also to her suicide.  The side characters come off a little bland and could use some development but June and Delia are fantastic.  Everywhere that June is careful and thoughtful, Delia is wild and erratic.  It is really her character that is the standout.  Much of the novel concentrates on discovering just what motivates Delia's actions and examining the odd relationship between her and June.  

There are some issues within this novel that would stop me from recommending it for younger teens.  There is a great deal of underage drinking and drug use as well as crude sexual remarks and attempted rape.  Some of this is pivotal to the plot, but I'm not sure all of it was strictly necessary.   

Bottom Line: If you think this book is just an average, run of the mill mystery, stick it out.  It will surprise you in the most incredible ways. 

Teaching/Parental Notes:

16 and up
Sex:  Kissing, Sex between teens, Sexual Language
Violence: Death from fire, Fist fighting, Murder
Inappropriate Language: Shit, Fuck, Pussy, Dick, Tit
Substance Use/Abuse: Underage drinking, a great deal of drug use

Unanswered Questions: Once she had actual physical evidence that Delia's death wasn't suicide why didn't June go to the police?

Monday, June 15, 2015

Weightless by Sarah Bannan

Title: Weightless
Author: Sarah Bannan
St. Martin's
Release Date: June 30, 2015
Rating: 4/5

The Gist: When 15-year-old Carolyn moves from New Jersey to Alabama with her mother, she rattles the status quo of the junior class at Adams High School. A good student and natural athlete, she’s immediately welcomed by the school’s cliques. She’s even nominated to the homecoming court and begins dating a senior, Shane, whose on again/off again girlfriend Brooke becomes Carolyn’s bitter romantic rival. When a video of Carolyn and Shane making out is sent to everyone, Carolyn goes from golden girl to slut, as Brooke and her best friend Gemma try to restore their popularity. Gossip and bullying hound Carolyn, who becomes increasingly private and isolated. When Shane and Brooke—now back together—confront Carolyn in the student parking lot, injuring her, it’s the last attack she can take.

This first thing you will notice upon reading Weightless is that it is written in the first person plural.  We follow from the perspective of three (I think) girls in the popular clique of Adams High.  The girls are obsessed with image; wearing the right thing, hanging out in the right place, being seen with the right people.  They constantly name drop celebrities, brands, and television shows.  I will admit, this was irritating in the beginning, jarring me from the story each time it happened, but as the plot continued it revealed the mindset of these teens, hyper aware of how they stack up against their peers and the celebrities they idolize.  The first person plural does take some getting used to.  It is outputting at first, but it gives a strange sort of distance from the story as we see through the eyes of a bystander, rather than one of the main characters.  I was left continuously asking myself whether or not I felt the narrator was reliable.  It is a very interesting way of telling a story that allows the reader to examine the impact not only of the bullies, but also those who stand on the outskirts, who retweet, share, and spread gossip.  Unfortunately, it also doesn't allow for any deep development of the characters.  Instead, everything we see is just at the surface and we are left to guess at the feeling and motivation behind their actions.  

The plot of Weightless is slow at first.  There is a great deal of exposition and concentration on football, church, and pep rallys.  While this does show the obsessions not only of the teens, but of the town as a whole, it is also rather dull.  We catch glimpses of Carolyn at these events and must piece together stolen moments.  Through each event, our narrator is constantly commenting on how skinny or fat each person is and what they are wearing.  As I said earlier, it speaks to the mentality of these girls, but it gets tedious.  The plot unwinds very slowly and requires a patient reader.  It is pretty clear from the beginning where this plot will end, however knowing it is coming doesn't make it any less heartbreaking.

Bannan has created a frightening view of teenage life today.  It shows how the intrusion of social media into our lives has made it nearly impossible to escape the bullies.  When this is added to a town obsessed with religion and sports, where "boys will be boys" and teens present a perfect image to their parents and something completely different to their peers, it is a terrifying mix.  In the end, the most disturbing thing was the justification of our narrator.  The teens insisted that they had done nothing wrong, that Carolyn deserved what happened to her for being stuck up and an outsider.  That nothing she had experienced was different from what every other girl went through (a thought terrifying in its own right).  We know, from the narration, that the girls recognize their role, deep down, but as we all know, it is incredible what you can convince yourself of if you repeat it often enough.

Bottom Line: Weightless requires a patient reader, one that is able to sift through the day to day banalities in order to see what is truly happening beneath the surface.  Those who can accomplish this will be treated to a disturbing (and fascinating) view of how many teens today treat one another and the danger of a society where image is everything, "good girls" are held on a pedestal and "boys will be boys".

Teaching/Parental Notes:

16 and up
Sex:  Kissing, Oral Sex, Sex between teenagers
Violence:  Fighting with a broken bottle
Inappropriate Language:  Fuck, Shit, Prick, Bitch, Piss, Slut, Whore, Dyke, Faggot
Substance Use/Abuse: Underage Drinking, Smoking, Marijuana Use
Other Issues: Bullying, Self Mutilation, Bulimia, Anorexia, Suicide

This and other reviews can also be found on Young Adult Books Central

Monday, June 8, 2015

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Title: An Ember In The Ashes
Author: Sabaa Tahir
Release Date: April 28, 2015
Rating: 4/5

The Gist: 
Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

Sabaa Tahir presents a bleak and disturbing world.  With the conquered Scholars on one side and the terrifying Masks on the other.  Masks are trained as children in the most horrific of circumstances to best their peers and follow their superior's orders without question.  The Scholars watch as they raid, arrest and murder with impunity.  Thinking only of rescuing her brother from prison, Laia agrees to enter the Mask's world as a spy for the resistance, a position that proves more and more dangerous as she becomes more and more desperate.  Elias also dreams of escape.  He has never wanted to be a mask and has elaborate plans to slip away. This is, of course, until fate steps in in the form of a mysterious Augur who seems to know the secrets inside his heart and head.  As he tries to meet their demands while still maintaining his soul, he faces challenges that he never imagined and is continuously pulled towards Laia and away from the world he swore to uphold. 

An Ember in the Ashes is not for the faint of heart.  It is a terrifying world where the characters must make heartbreaking decisions.  Often, these choices mean suffering and death for those that they care about.  The masks are taught to fight and sometimes kill one another from the moment they begin their training.  Upon graduation, they are put in charge of a society where they will be forced to torture and kill Scholars without question.  There is a great deal of talk about prostitution and rape.  There are instances of attempted rape and points where the threat of rape is used as a plot device to spur on male characters, which I could have done without. 
The plot is exciting, with danger around every turn.  Laia is spying on the most terrifying woman in the empire, who always seems one step ahead of her enemies and takes a particular sort of pleasure in torturing and mutilating those that displease her.  Elias is facing a set of trials that threaten not only his life, but also his soul.  The odds are stacked against him as the trials seem designed to prey on his weaknesses more than anyone else's.  Despite this, there aren't really that many surprises in the plot.  It was just too easy to guess which characters had ulterior motivations and how the story would play out.  The only characters I was left questioning were the Augurs.  It still isn't clear what side they fall on and how much they manipulated the outcome for their own aims.
While I liked the characters, I didn't particularly LOVE the characters.  The only one I wanted to spend more time with was Helene and I really wish the narration had also been told from her point of view (fingers crossed for the next book!)  I was not really invested in any facet of the love triangle (love square?) and, as with the rest of the plot, it was pretty easy to predict which way things would go.
We know that there will be a sequel to this book, but it isn't yet clear if it will be a trilogy.  There are a lot of questions left to answer (who exactly is Cook?  What game are the Augurs playing?  Who betrayed Laia's parents?  Who is Elias' father?) which means lots of material for expansion in this series, whether it be through more books or novellas (I would love to see novellas telling Cook's story and the young life of the Commandant.)

Bottom Line:While I am definitely not on the "best book of the year" bandwagon.  I am also intrigued enough to say that I will read the sequel as soon as it comes out. 

Teaching/Parental Notes:

16 and up
Sex: Kissing
Violence:  LOTS, fighting with weapons, violent deaths
Inappropriate Language: Bastard, Whore, Bitch
Substance Use/Abuse: None

Great For Readers Who Loved:

Unanswered Questions:  WARNING: SPOILERS!

- How are masks chosen, is everyone stolen away like Elias or do some kids grow up knowing they will become masks?

- Why make the Masks slaughter each other in the trial? Clearly the empire has invested a lot into the YEARS of training and just when they have graduated and can start paying back in service, they are slaughtered to.... teach a lesson?

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Night We Said Yes by Lauren Gibaldi

Title: The Night We Said Yes
Author: Lauren Gibaldi
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release Date: June 16, 2015
Rating: 1/5

The Gist:
Before Matt, Ella had a plan. Get over a no-good ex-boyfriend. Graduate from high school without any more distractions. Move away from Orlando, Florida, where she’s lived her entire life.

But Matt—the cute, shy, bespectacled bass player who just moved to town—was never part of that plan.

And neither was attending a party that was crashed by the cops just minutes after they arrived. Or spending an entire night saying “yes” to every crazy, fun thing they could think of.

Then Matt abruptly left town, and he broke not only Ella’s heart but those of their best friends, too. So when he shows up a year later with a plan of his own—to relive the night that brought them together—Ella isn’t sure whether Matt’s worth a second chance. Or if re-creating the past can help them create a different future.

In alternating then and now chapters, debut author Lauren Gibaldi crafts a charming, romantic story of first loves, lifelong friendships, uncovered secrets, and, ultimately, finding out how to be brave.

No, no, no, no, no. I am so annoyed with this book that I can barely be bothered to write the review.  First of all, the whole premise is flawed from the start.  The characters are supposed to be reliving a magical, romantic night in which they promised to say yes to all suggestions and dares.  In theory, it sounds fun.  In reality, it was a mess of whiny teenagers fighting with each other, punctuated by occasional running from the police.  There were very few dares, and those were lame and boring.  We were treated to the drama of not one, but two couples and one or both of them was constantly bickering.  
The main character managed to be both boring and infuriating.  She showed zero personality and suffered from a serious case of "my life is incomplete without a boyfriend" syndrome.  She didn't seem to have any interests other than tagging along with her friend, Meg, and watching their friend's band play (Note: I always find it incredibly unrealistic when books feature teen bands that a) have actual gigs b) have actual fans and c) are provided enough autonomy by their parents to pull off the shit they do).  The most irritating part was that, after getting a more than reasonable explanation for her ex-boyfriend's disappearance and inability to tell her why (including some serious family issues that his parents did not want him to speak about) she continues to pout, whine, and stamp her feet in some childish temper tantrum because he didn't trust her enough to tell her anyway.  All this, despite the fact that they had dated for only a few months.  It was at this point of the plot (which was pretty early on) that I started to tune out.  

The rest of the story consisted of re-hashing their "one perfect night" and Ella convincing herself that she should give Matt another chance, despite the fact that she was leaving in 3 months.  UGH! whiny teenage crap.  This book was not romantic, it was not exciting, it didn't even have a point.  Leave it on the shelf.

Teaching/Parental Notes:

13 and up
Sex:  Kissing
Violence:  None
Inappropriate Language: Piss, Fuck, Bitch
Substance Use/Abuse: Underage Drinking, Smoking
Other Issues: Drinking and driving