The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (2017)

Rating: 4.7 Stars

Short Summary: Senior year of high school forces Sal to examine the many aspects of his life that he does not understand against a backdrop of many of life’s hardships.

I’ve been so excited for this book for some time. I loved “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” – we even put it on our school book club list this year – I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this.

What I liked: What hits me most about this piece is the brilliantly developed relationships between characters. Finally, a brilliantly written book where the two main characters – a straight male and a straight female are actually REALLY GOOD FRIENDS and that’s it. It was refreshing and beautiful to see the way that Sal and Sam just understood each other on all the right levels. The writing of their friendship as siblings was superbly executed and at no part of the book did I find myself wanting more out of their incredibly close friendship.

Sal’s aimlessness is just so common, it was elegantly displayed in the book in a way that so many could relate too. I also adored how this book did not focus overly on romantic entanglements. Its hard to find a YA book without them that is done well, or worth reading, but this was certainly done well.

What I didn’t: Even though my favourite part of the book was the excellent character relationships – I found the relationship between Sal and his father to be a little too “Leave it to Beaver” at times, too perfect and too absent of conflict. It was beautifully idealistic, and adorable at times, but there were a few occasions where believability became an issue for me.

Recommendation: If you’re looking for a strong realistic fiction that’s a bit of a break from the usual formulaic drama/boy meets girl/snowflake syndrome type of books, this is a brilliant piece to add to your roster.

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Caraval by Stephanie Garber (2017)

Rating: 5 Stars.27883214.jpg

Well, let me just begin with this: Caraval will more than likely be one of my top five favourite books of 2017. I’ll probably go through about 100 more books this year and I still feel comfortable saying that so early on in 2017.

Short Summary: Scarlett is thrown into the show that is Caraval – a yearly magical performance piece, a game that turns into a lot more than she had expected when her sister is kidnapped.

Things I loved: There was a lot I loved about this piece. Firstly, the whimsical and magical writing style that pulled me in deep into the world of Caraval. The book plays with themes and images of night, colour, darkness, that are intricately woven throughout the piece creating a truly multisensory experience. It felt like this book gave me synesthesia.

“He tasted like midnight and wind, and shades of rich brown and light blue. Colors that made her feel safe and guarded.” 

The romance was beautiful. I haven’t had a romance that’s really made me feel feelings in a while, and it was really nice to get lost in the connection between the main characters. The tension was real, the conflict pushed the story forward, it was exactly what I’d wanted.

“Not quite sure how far she’d already fallen, she imagined loving him would feel like falling in love with darkness, frightening and consuming yet utterly beautiful when the stars came out.” 

“He mumbled words against her lips, too low for her to hear, but she imagined she got a strong impression of what he wanted to say, as he coaxed her lips apart, letting Scarlett taste the coolness of his tongue and the tips of his teeth as he grazed her lower lip. Every touch created colours she had never seen. Colours as soft as velvet and as sharp as sparks that turned into stars.”

Things I didn’t like: It’s hard to say. One of the greatest assets this book has is its ability to keep you guessing, keep you in the mystery of what it all means and how everything will fit together. Part of me wanted a few more hints throughout the book so there wasn’t such an info-dump so close to the end. But, it’s not unlike the way that Harry Potter all seems to come together in the end with information we didn’t know yet. Its more about personal preference.

One thing I hear a lot is its comparison to the Night Circus, which doesn’t surprise me. There is a lot that is similar, but this book sacrifices the descriptions for intrigue and character. While magic plays a central role, the main character wields no real magic of her own. The Night Circus is more of an extension of the reality we all know, understand and question, where Caraval is an entirely separate reality.

Recommendation: I would definitely throw this into my middle school library. I’d call it a mix between a character and setting driven book – so if that’s your thing, sink your teeth right into it, but be prepared for that book hangover.

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Our Own Private Universe by Robin Talley

Rating 2.8 Stars.22082082.jpg
Short Summary: Aki heads to Mexico on a church trip where she meets a girl and questions her own sexuality.

I’ve read a few of Talley’s book in the past, and Lies We Tell Ourselves blew my mind. That is definitely on my top five favourite gay YA ever. This is why every time her name pops up with a new book she’s high on my radar. I was skeptical about this book, because it didn’t seem like a new story or concept, but I did want to see what Talley made of it.

What I liked: The discussions of safe lesbian sex is not something I’ve seen in a teen fiction and is sorely missed. It does demonstrate the divide between how easy it is to find regular contraceptives, and yet, for teen lesbian girls, its really not addressed. I was happy to see some recognition here.

What I didn’t: The book was exactly what I was afraid it would be. There was absolutely nothing fresh about it whatsoever. I didn’t have any affection for any of the characters. They were all kind of just “there”. Every issue that was brought up (friendship fights, secrets, coming out, underaged drinking) felt forced and trope-y. It was so incredibly predictable I was really quite bored throughout the bulk of the book. Everything I thought would happen, pretty much happened. When I try to reflect on it and the “wow” factor, nothing comes to mind. It just feels like a bit of recycled lesbian fiction. Sure, its good to have these kinds of books out in the world, but its probably my least favourite Talley book. And my complete lack of affection for this book really isn’t about the author, I’ve really enjoyed her stuff in the past, but this piece is a real miss for me.

Recommendation: Its a mature read. That’s for sure. It deals with themes of safe sex and there are some lesbian sex scenes that I wouldn’t put in a middle school library. If you’re looking for a good teen lesbian fiction, I’d turn to Talley’s other pieces before I’d recommend this.

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Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth (2017)

Rating: 3.4 stars30117284.jpg

Short Summary: In a society where everyone has a gift, Cyra’s gift of pain leads her on a path with Akos, a farm boy from a warring nation, to try and stop her tyrannical brother’s leadership.

I had to give this book a little time to marinade in my head before I was truly ready to review it. My overall impression: its okay. Sadly, I can’t help but compare it to Divergent.

What I loved about Divergent, was that once I started, I couldn’t stop. I flew through the whole book in an evening and couldn’t believe how easily I’d swept away into the world. I was looking forward to more of Roth’s writing doing the same thing. This one didn’t, but there were a few reasons for that.

First of all, the world that she created in this series was far more complicated, and it took me a lot longer to sink into it. It required more patience and focus to understand the intricacies of the society as it is just a world so vastly different from our own. This was not what I was expecting.

I did like the switching between the characters Cyra and Akos, but I had a bit of a problem with the inconsistency of point of view. Cyra’s chapters were written in first person, while Akos was written in third. I could not understand the reason for this.

What I did like was the darkness of the piece. It was ripe with conflict, and it really helped move the story forward, keep the stakes high, and kept me interested in what was going to happen next. That being said, the world building could have been much stronger. There were a few traditions and elements to this piece that I really just didn’t understand.

Cyra’s and Ako’s relationship felt a bit forced. Having enjoyed the romance between Tris and Four, I was expecting something more along these lines. I’ll just say, you’re not reading this book for the romance.

Recommendation: If you’re looking for a dark dystopian/otherworldly fiction, this might fit your bill, but don’t expect a quick read.

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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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