Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Rating: 4 stars.6482837.jpg

Short Summary: Teen mystery thriller revolving around the life of Samantha Kingston, one of the most popular girls in school, waking up and replaying the same day where she sees that even the smallest of changes have life and death altering consequences.

So this is one of these books that I started years ago, quit, gave one star to and swore I wouldn’t pick up again. Why? I hated the main character at the beginning of the novel. I hated her so much I really couldn’t stomach the idea of spending a whole book listening to her self-absorbed horribly bitchy voice.

So what made me change my mind? Well, for one thing, I’ve read quite a few of Lauren Oliver’s books, most of which I’ve really enjoyed, so it always nagged at me, was I really right in dropping this book so soon? Even a friend of mine told me that this was her favourite of Oliver’s books (a friend with a pretty reputable book radar). I’d seen it on the shelf at my library, and it just turned into that book I never really connected with. But what really changed my mind? I’m totally ashamed to admit this, but it was the trailer for the film.

After having enjoyed her book Vanishing Girls, the trailer made me really second guess my opinion on this book, and that what I had initially thought was all wrong. Of course, starting from the beginning, I felt it again, that awful “I can’t stand this main character” feeling, but I forced myself through and I was so glad that I did.

It is a very character driven book and the way that Oliver puts these pieces together of this world, the many views and facets that we see of this day done over is really well done. You’d think with the excessive repetition with each day, it would get a little redundant but it kept me so captivated to watch Sam make all of these different choices to see what they did. I loved how we learned more about each of the characters in the book a little more, a little differently, each day in different ways. I loved Sam’s growing awareness of all aspects of her life, sensory and otherwise. She was also a character I did in fact grow to like.

Recommendations: It is a solid teen thriller with some mature content (drugs, alcohol, and some sexually suggestive material). I’d call it a realistic fiction with a twist and very worthwhile if you like something a little darker.

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What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe (2014)

Rating: 4 Stars.21413662.jpg

Short Summary: Humourous non-fiction science speculative book that seeks to explain the highly unlikely – yet questions that certainly plague our thoughts written by former NASA scientist and author of XKCD web comic.

What I liked: Not being a science or math specialist, I wasn’t sure how I’d take to this book. I am a follower of the XKCD comic, so I was certainly tempted to give it a chance. The humour was brilliant, and the explanations were clear enough for someone who isn’t heavily science minded to appreciate.

Here’s a snippet response from my favourite chapter:

“What would happen if you made a periodic table out of cube-shaped bricks, where each brick was made of the corresponding element?”

“You could stack the top two rows without too much trouble. The third row would burn you with fire, the fourth would kill you with toxic smoke. The fifth row would do all that stuff plus give you a dose of radiation, while the sixth would explode in a radioactive, poisonous fire. Do not build the seventh row.”

What I didn’t: This is more of a personal dislike than a criticism of the book itself. Although there were some scientific concepts that intrigued me, some that I was quite curious about, there were others that I did not have any interest in at all. In some cases, there are a lot of assumptions that are made to prove a point.

Recommendation: Enjoy this book not all at once, but in doses. You’ll get a lot more out of it if you read only a few chapters at a time over a longer period of time. If you have ever wondered “what if” – its definitely worth picking up to browse through a few chapters.

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The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner (2016)

25739281.jpgRating: 3.5 Stars.

Short Summary: Three senior high school students come to grips with the reality of their futures while trying to overcome their dark family pasts in small town Tennessee.

What I liked: Dill and Travis were really well written conflicted characters. I’d felt like I’d read about a kid like Travis before, but Dill was new. Dill had the kind of baggage you don’t often see in novels, but still exists within realistic fiction. The element of the religious followings and keeping of serpents was fascinating, but considering it was titled “The Serpent King” I had expected to see more.

What I didn’t: The book played a little too freely with time. There were moments when time passed slowly, and we were taken in through every day life. But in contrast, there were moments when time tended to pass quite quickly. Two week blocks, month long blocks flew seamlessly by and this inconsistency was unsettling

The ending seemed to drag. The last 30-40 pages could have easily been condensed. I’m not a big fan of when a book carries on for too long.

Although Lydia was an enjoyable character, her lack of conflict made for a little more boring storyline. Her most charming moments were her face offs against her other classmates (which weren’t that plentiful). I would have loved to see more of that kind of conflict in her storyline.

Recommendation: It’s a different kind of realistic fiction piece. I would save it for an older crowd. If you can get by the timing inconsistencies, its an alright read.

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The Romantics by Leah Konen (2016)

Rating: 3.5 Stars.29917071.jpg

Short Summary: Love tells the story of trying to restore a romantic teenager’s belief of love.

The fact that Love is the narrator gave the book a bit of a lighter, sweeter feel, and it’s nice to see that the voice had its own personality. It would have made an entirely different kind of story had Gael been the narrator. This choice of narrator provided a more omniscient kind of feel. Sometimes it’s nice going into a book knowing that it will inevitably end well.

The romance between the characters themselves was okay. I don’t think that comparing it to Rainbow Rowell is fair as this book doesn’t really provide the incredible emotional feelings attached with Rowell’s work. It’s fun, and the appreciation for love is there, but the little nuances that really make you feel for those characters is absent. I think that is a construction of the selection of narrator. It’s hard to create any more heart wrenching affection without making Love sound arrogant.

I think this whole concept of a “Rebound” is an important story to tell. So much of the time, especially teenagers, jump from one romance to the next without really recognizing the rebound signs.

I did appreciate the various footnotes and labelings of the different kinds of lovers within the book. Overall that was a good touch.

Recommendation: This was a quick read. If you’re in the mood for some light romance, this is a sweet one, very safe age level wise.

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Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland (2016)

Rating: 3.6 Stars28186273.jpg

Short summary: A cute fly through that’ll give you a window on what it really means to be the rebound guy.

I really liked Henry as a character. I thought he was sweet, and the kind of high school boy that you root for – you know, the nice guy who has a bit of nerd in him, a little clueless on how to do the romance thing right but certainly tries. His passion and adoration for Grace develops beautifully throughout the novel.

Grace was an interesting character to put in contrast with Henry. She was your typical flighty girl who makes herself unattainable for whatever reason (and Grace certainly has her reasons). The two characters do have chemistry, but as the story unfolds, and you begin to understand Grace’s character better, it she becomes even more of an enigma. I liked the strong confident version of Grace that we meet in the beginning of the story, and I wished that she had a bit more of that towards the end.

The ending got a little bit silly and over the top. I enjoy seeing characters come together when the stakes are raised, but when the odds feel so insurmountable, believability is an issue.

Recommendation: If you’re looking for a quick read on the realistic fiction front with characters who are a little bit damaged, its an alright pick. Its a more mature read as there is some mention of sex.

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Spontaneous by Aaron Starmer (2016)

Rating: 1.5 stars23587115.jpg

Short Summary: Darkly ‘humorous’ tale of a mouthy teen in small town that faces the realities of her spontaneously combusting classmates, one by one.

I had a really difficult time with this one. For me, I adore dark comedy, so when I see a book that has a dark twist to it and is endorsed by John Green, I’m keen to check it out. The book started out and I was anticipating it being a solid 3.5 star book. The fun snarky attitude of the main character had me sold. She seemed authentic, as did the life that she lived in this small town that she was from.

Unfortunately, the book took a progressive downturn from there. The romance went from 0-60 in seconds. It was neither believable, nor was it swoon worthy. It was rather lame and uninspiring.

As the book rolled on, the main character became more and more irritating. Her darkly funny comments came out more and more like sick jokes that lost their luster. Her side-tracked stories and anecdotes telling us “more about so and so” were so viciously irrelevant. I found myself repeating over and over “seriously, why are you telling me about this… I don’t care” out loud.

But as far as the “spontaneous combustion” thing, I was at a complete loss. At first I thought it was intriguing, but when teenage kid after teenage kid kept exploding for what seemed no discernable reason it became utterly ridiculous. It became so over the top I’m honestly surprised I finished the book.

I kept holding on to the very end, hoping that there would be some semblance of explanation to help make up the stars it lost, to help give this story something concrete, something plausible. It really just failed to do exactly that.

Recommendation: Its definitely a mature read. Horrifically descriptive at times. Skip it.

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Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart (2016)

Rating: 4.5 Stars

23203257.jpgLily and Dunkin meet on the eve of their grade 8 year, each with their own challenges to face with the year ahead. Lily – is trying to get the courage to show the world that she is not “Tim” the name she was born with in the body of a boy, but instead a sweet girl named Lily. Dunkin has just recently moved from New Jersey, he’s attempting to manage his bipolar disorder, overcome his birth name “Norbert” and keep something hidden deep within himself.

This book turned out to be so much better than I had anticipated it being. I’m always skeptical of transgender novels, as I’m just afraid that they either won’t do the story justice or keep it cliché. This book did not disappoint me.

The two contrasting characters superbly illustrate the challenges of being different in middle school, and how the desperation to gain acceptance can drive us to our emotional ends. It’s a very strongly written character driven piece. Lily is beautiful. She just reminds me so much of a 13-year-old girl in so many ways with all of her insecurities and desires, yet with many more struggles to face. Her tail is both heart wrenching and uplifting. Dunkin’s bipolar disorder really opens a window as to what it feels like to live through mental illness, both on and off medication. His inner turmoil is raw and believable. The two make a phenomenal contrast in voices, each telling their own story.

But it’s not just the main characters that suck you into this world, but the friends and family of both Dunkin and Lily that pull at your heartstrings. Lily’s stunningly supportive safety net of friends and family members is incredibly heartwarming to read and Dunkin’s grandmother is probably my favourite character. You are still left with a host of characters who are either opposing forces (Lily’s uncertain father and the school bully Vasquez) who raise the stakes and show that the world still has work to do.

Recommendation: I’d easily throw this into a middle school classroom, but younger than that, I’d be hesitant – not because of the “transgender” discussion, but there are other mature themes that are brought up. A brilliant book for those who feel a little different and want a little faith that there’s a place in the world for us all.

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