Contemporary

Recommendation Tuesday: Happiness for Beginners by Katherine Center

I can't recall who specifically recommended Katherine Center's Happiness for Beginners, but I'm most glad that whomever that was mentioned it--because it's most definitely a Sarah book, despite that it involves **shudder** camping. (UGH!)

Recommendation Tuesday: Happiness for Beginners by Katherine Center

Subtraction: A "Family Poem" by Cordelia Jensen

As a companion to her marvelous guest post earlier this month, Cordelia Jensen sent me a selection of what she calls her "family poems" that inspired her debut novel, Skyscraping (which I loved). This one really struck a chord with me as capturing the essence of her novel. 

(My apologies for the delay in posting this--it's been a tough couple of weeks around these parts and I haven't been on top of anything.)

Subtraction: A "Family Poem" by Cordelia Jensen

Review: First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen

She couldn’t change who she was, and she no longer wanted to, even if she could. She knew that who you are is a stone set deep inside you. You can spend all your life trying to dig that stone out, or you can build around it. Your choice.

In Sarah Addison Allen’s Garden Spells, Sydney Waverley came home to Bascom, North Carolina with her own stone embedded deep inside her. She escaped a dangerous relationship to return to her family and to her roots. She brought her daughter, Bay, to her family home where both relished a newly found security. Syndney Waverely begins building her world around her family’s heritage and the love of her life, Henry. Garden Spells wove this beautiful tale of the Waverley with sheer elegance.

The unexpected sequel, First Frost, picks up the story’s thread with the family settled and waiting for the first frost of fall and what it may bring.

Review: First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen

Recommendation Tuesday: The Sweetest Thing You Can Sing by C.K. Kelly Martin

Recommendation Tuesday started as a joke and is now an official thing. Basically, this is my way of making Tuesday a little more awesome. If you've got a book to recommend on this or any Tuesday, tweet me at @FullShelves and I'll help spread the word.

View all of the past recommendations over here. 

Quiet books aren't the trend right now, but they're still my favorites.

One of the real masters of quiet YA novels is C.K. Kelly Martin, who's been writing for a long time, but is deserving of far more acclaim and attention than she receives. So, it's no surprise that her latest, The Sweetest Thing You Can Sing, is another excellent, subtle novel that fans of contemporary YA shouldn't miss. 

Recommendation Tuesday: The Sweetest Thing You Can Sing by C.K. Kelly Martin

Power & the "Tough Enough" Narrative: Rites of Passage by Joy N. Hensley

When listening to the audiobook of Joy Hensley's debut YA novel, I kept recalling a huge news story from my youth: Shannon Faulkner's two year-long fight to be granted admission to The Citadel, South Carolina's public military college. When the court finally forced the college to allow her admission to the Corps of Cadets, she lasted only a week, having spent much of her time in the school's infirmary.

Years later, Faulkner revealed that she was subject to intense abuse, and feared for not only her own life but the lives of her family members, thanks to death threats she received while at the school. 

It was a gut-wrenching thing to watch on the news when I was a teenager. I'd been rooting for Faulkner to succeed, to win for every girl who wanted to smash any number of boys-only clubs (institutional or social) that were inaccessible to us girls.

Power & the "Tough Enough" Narrative: Rites of Passage by Joy N. Hensley

Love, Hope & Empathy in Just Call My Name by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Holly Goldberg Sloan's beautiful 2011 novel I'll Be There is one of the novels I often recommend, especially to folks who shy away from the young adult label.

It's a magical little novel about a teen boy, Sam, and his young brother, Riddle, who spent their lives on the run with their abusive father until they meet Emily Bell and her family and everything changes. 

{Note: This post contains spoilers for I'll Be There. You've been warned.}

Could something be an anchor if it wasn’t weighing you down?
Was it possible to be anchored to the sky? 
Because that was how it felt to be with Emily: airborne. But with his feet on the ground.

 

Love, Hope & Empathy in Just Call My Name by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Recommendation Tuesday: More Like Her by Liza Palmer

There is more good than bad. Life and love win if you let them. If you believe in them.

Y'all know I've gushed quite a bit about Liza Palmer's books, especially last year's marvelous Nowhere But Home. As a result, I was surprised that I haven't written about any of her other novels beyond a vague, "Yo, this is awesome!"

I actually have a hard time picking a favorite of Liza's novels because I like them each for different reasons. More Like Her was actually the last Liza Palmer book I read, despite that I immediately bought her entire backlist after reading Nowhere But Home, and it sicks in my mind because it has one of my favorite final chapters (though, Liza pretty much kicks ass when it comes to last chapters).

That plus the fantastically well-done friendships and stickiness of work relationships makes More Like Her a can't miss novel and tied with Nowhere But Home for my favorite.

Recommendation Tuesday: More Like Her by Liza Palmer

Recommendation Tuesday: Biggest Flirts by Jennifer Echols

Recommendation Tuesday started as a joke and is now an official thing. Basically, this is my way of making Tuesday a little more awesome. If you've got a book to recommend on this or any Tuesday, tweet me at @FullShelves and I'll help spread the word.

View all of the past recommendations over here. 

Jennifer Echols is another relatively well-known author with a book I'm happy to include in my Recommendation Tuesday series. While Jennifer is well-loved by readers, she's generally under-recognized by gatekeeper types, despite having embraced positive depictions of teen girl sexuality and identity in her novels for many years.

Her latest, Biggest Flirts--the first in a new series of connected novels, is no different. 

Tia, the first person narrator of Biggest Flirts, is a senior at her Florida high school, drummer in the marching band and notorious flirt. She unashamedly prefers casual hookups, eschewing boyfriends, and even has a regular hookup buddy (Sawyer, who's going to be a main character in the third book in the Superlatives series).

Recommendation Tuesday: Biggest Flirts by Jennifer Echols

Recommendation Tuesday: Dangerous Girls by Abigail Haas

Recommendation Tuesday started as a joke and is now an official thing. Basically, this is my way of making Tuesday a little more awesome. If you've got a book to recommend on this or any Tuesday, tweet me at @FullShelves and I'll help spread the word.

View all of the past recommendations over here. 

Wouldn't we all look guilty, if someone searched hard enough?

Have you ever read a book that you wanted everyone you know to read so you can talk about it with them? 

Dangerous Girls by Abigail Haas, which Racquel over at The Book Barbies has recommended rather aggressively for some time now, is one of those books.

Dangerous Girls opens with a 911 call on Aruba. A group of privileged teenagers on spring break report that they've found their friend stabbed to death, blood covering her room and the glass door broken. Elise, the dead girl, is the best friend of narrator Anna, a relative newcomer to this ultra-wealthy crowd, with her "new money" contrasting with the old New England wealth of many of her friends, including Elise. Before she knows it, Anna is arrested and awaiting trial for her best friend's murder. 

As Anna's fighting the charges, the non-linear narrative explores the complicated nature of friendship, the very idea of truth, and how easy it is for court of public opinion to depict anyone as a monster.

Recommendation Tuesday: Dangerous Girls by Abigail Haas

A Solid Story Collection: The Firefly Dance by Sarah Addison Allen & Others

The title itself of this collection of novellas and short stories, The Firefly Dance, evokes an image of a warm summer evening—beautiful and breezeless, fireflies flittering in the dusk like jewels against a velvet sky. And like that quintessential summer scene, this unique collection brought me smiles, magical wonderment and even a few tears.

In My Dreams by Sarah Addison Allen

Sarah Addison Allen’s In My Dreams was the first novella I read--and the reason I snagged this collection from the library. I had read all of her novels with the exception of this one, and I couldn't bear to skip this one. I dove into it expecting a luscious read. Luscious does begin to express the beauty of In My Dreams.

This lovely tale told in the voice of Louise about her, her mother, her great aunt Sophie and a rich array of characters including her dog Lazarus that she seemingly brought back from the dead.

 

A Solid Story Collection: The Firefly Dance by Sarah Addison Allen & Others

A Feel-Good Novel with Surprising Weight: It Felt Like a Kiss by Sarra Manning

But then again, one kiss from someone could mean more than a two-year relationship with someone else. A kiss could change your life.

Sarra Manning’s Unsticky is a novel I recommend all the time—I love how Manning plays with common tropes and archetypes, subverting them into fresh and witty stories. Her newest novel, It Felt Like a Kiss, is no different. And, it has the added bonus of being something of a companion novel to Unsticky, as Vaughn from that novel plays an important role in this one as the owner of the art gallery where It Felt Like a Kiss protagonist Ellie Cohen works.

Ellie lives a carefully-produced life, a reaction to her chaotic, bohemian upbringing with her musician mother.

...when all around you was chaos, you needed to find some area of your life that you could control and let that define you. It didn’t matter that she was on free schoolmeals and had a mother who wore leopard-print catsuits and dressed her in charity-shop clothes, when Ellie had the neatest handwriting in her class and was homework monitor five years in a row. Or when she had a tidier bedroom and better manners than her many cousins, who all lived in two-parent, semi-detached splendour in Belsize Park. When your boss was giving you hell and your flatmates were fighting and you’d been dumped again, there was something cathartic and peaceful in spending the afternoon in your pristine, minimalist office, rearranging your reference books by height and colour. So, a girl who could parade around Glastonbury in a spotless white dress was a girl who was calm and in control. Sometimes you had to fake it to make it.

A Feel-Good Novel with Surprising Weight: It Felt Like a Kiss by Sarra Manning

The Sly Subversiveness of Molly O'Keefe's Wild Child

It's no secret that Molly O'Keefe's novels are my favorites in the very crowded contemporary romance genre.  Her books, which on their surface follow the norms of romance novels (since that's what they are), are brilliantly subversive. All of the novels I've read by this author riff on romance archetypes and conventions in a deliciously satisfying manner. Molly's latest, Wild Child, is no different.

Wild Child focuses on Monica Appleby, famous reality television teen wild child, who wrote a bestselling tell-all memoir of her raucous and destructive formative years. She's alone, her closest friend having recently died and not having a relationship with her mother, and has returned to the town of Bishop, Arkansas to write her follow-up book, this time chronicling the events of her parents' tumultuous relationship and her father's subsequent death. Monica is all hard edges and walls, unwilling to make even casual connections with anyone.

Monica ignored Jackson as he slid into the booth across from her. First the Cracker dude and now Jackson. Good Lord, weren’t the headphones a giveaway? Did she need to make a Do Not Disturb sign? This was why she so rarely went to coffee shops to work, preferring her own company and her own music.

 

The mayor of Bishop is Jackson Davies, who dropped out of law school and returned to his hard-luck hometown to raise his younger sister, Gwen, after their parents were killed in a car accident. Jackson never wanted to make Bishop his home; the town is dying, with an empty factory gathering dust and many of the town's residents struggling in the blighted economy. His father was mayor of Bishop as well, and his goal at the town's leader is the turn the economy around, make sure his sister is safely away at college and then get out of town.

The Sly Subversiveness of Molly O'Keefe's Wild Child

Podcast #11: Personal Agency in Fiction with Author Mindi Scott

We're super-excited to have a two-part episode of the podcast with our friend and a favorite author, Mindi Scott. Mindi is the author of two outstanding books for teens, Freefall (2010, Simon Pulse) and Live Through This (2012, Simon Pulse).

Mindi's novels are "quieter" stories focussing on characters taking control of their own lives--stories of personal agency. We thought it would be great to have her talk about this theme in the context of not only her own books, but those she recommends as well. Mindi brought up some fascinating concepts related to how these types of stories are constructed, so we hope you enjoy!

Read the rest --> 

Podcast #11: Personal Agency in Fiction with Author Mindi Scott

Love, Sex & Feminism (or not?) in Lauren Myracle's The Infinite Moment of Us

I wasn’t planning on writing about Lauren Myracle’s The Infinite Moment of Us. 

When I first picked it up, I only waded through three chapters before deciding it wasn’t for me. Then, glowing reviews piled up, and I thought that maybe I wasn’t in the right mood for this novel and gave it another shot. I slogged through all but the last couple chapters before abandoning the novel again. Finally, after chatting with Laura about the numerous aspects of The Infinite Moment of Us that frustrated and disappointed me, and deciding that my aggravations were probably worth noting on CEFS, I forced myself to finish those last chapters.

The Infinite Moment of Us is written in the popular dual narrative style from the point of view of recent high school graduates Wren Gray and Charlie Parker. Wren is a classic over-achieving people-pleaser, headed for a good college and a future her parents approve of. Except she comes to the realization that pleasing her parents means letting herself down by ignoring her own dreams. She’s also been accepted into an outreach-type program in Guatemala and wants to take a gap year and pursue that rather than start college immediately. The disappointment from her parents about this decision, however, is an overwhelming burden.

Read the rest! 

Love, Sex & Feminism (or not?) in Lauren Myracle's The Infinite Moment of Us

3 Recommended Creepy Reads

I enjoy novels with a bit (or a lot) of the occult and ghost-y elements. As you know, I am a fan of the creepy, so those elements fit the bill perfectly. I've recently read three that I enjoyed and thought I'd share my thoughts with you.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

•Portland, Oregon–––––October 14, 1918•
The day before my father's arrest, I read an article about a mother who cured her daughter of the Spanish flu by burying her in raw onions for three days. 

Thus begins a truly fine fantastic debut novel about sixteen-year old Mary Shelley Black. Her father’s been arrested for treason, her boyfriend’s fighting overseas, influenza threatens to deplete the population–it’s a fearsome world, a bleak reality for Mary.

Cat Winters captivated me with her unusual historical novel, In The Shadow of Blackbirds.

Interspersed throughout the book are photographs of the era. Images of this bleak period in American history bring stark life to the words skillfully woven into a story of a young girl who sees the spirit of her lost love crying out to her as she struggles to maintain her own balance in a world twisted with fear and injustice.

Read the rest! 

 

3 Recommended Creepy Reads

Uneven, Yet Compelling - Just Like Fate by Suzanne Young and Cat Patrick

I think about how Simone offered me the choice to stay or go—and how it so easily could have gone the other way. For a moment, I wonder what life would look like had I gone down the other path.

I’m a sucker for “Sliding Doors”-style stories. Even though much of the time, they don’t work for me, the concept of one decision or moment being the tipping point for a series of divergent events intrigues me. I guess, philosophically-speaking, I believe there’s something to that notion. 

Because of that, I was excited to learn that Suzanne Young—who’s novel The Program was a real surprise for me this summer—co-wrote a novel with Cat Patrick, Just Like Fate, examining this very concept. 

The novel introduces Caroline, a teenager who’s beloved grandmother, with whom she lives, is hospitalized with a stroke. She’s been at her bedside, panicky when she discovers that Gram won’t recover. All she can think of is escape, and her best friend provides just the chance by inviting her out to a party. At this point, the story diverges into two paths: “Stay” and “Go.”

Uneven, Yet Compelling - Just Like Fate by Suzanne Young and Cat Patrick

Review: Heart of Palm by Laura Lee Smith

Laura Lee Smith’s beautifully crafted novel, Heart of Palm is long, 449 pages, and each page illuminates the Bravo family, their home and Florida’s landscape. It captivated me with lovely language and beautiful storytelling. It’s alive, vibrant with a sense of  the people and place.

With each new twist in the novel, my admiration for Heart of Palm grew.

Heart of Palm brought me into the lives of the Bravo family, a family that at its core is like many families: difficult to define or understand, sometimes dysfunctional, yet complex with layers of love and hurt melding together. Its charm comes from characters and setting.

This is the Bravo family. Their world. Their uniqueness.

The Bravos live outside of St. Augustine, Florida in the fictional village of Utina. Their rickety and once-grand home, Aberdeen, stands along an intracoastal waterway that ebbs and flows to a slow southern rhythm. Named for the chief of the Utina tribe, the land of oaks and Spanish moss is enchantingly beautiful. Now it slowly slides into the 21st century with a culture solidly entrenched in the past. 

Real estate developers have no interest in the town’s colorful history. Instead, they have cast a hungry eye on the land, especially the Bravo’s: a marina, restaurants, Starbucks—ah, the endless possibilities to make money. The natural land must bend to progress as the moneyed class sees it. 

The plot develops less from this pull of money and more unfurls from the Bravo family, of how each has a secret that slowly unwinds toward resolution.

Review: Heart of Palm by Laura Lee Smith

Thought-Provoking, High-Concept - You Look Different in Real Life by Jennifer Castle

This is not a soap opera, folks. This is my life.
And it is absolutely, positively as unamazing as you can get.

You Look Different in Real Life is a high concept novel, one that at face explores the experiences of five teens who are the subject of an ongoing series of Up-style documentaries, but at its core examines the way we construct identities, or identities are assigned to us. 

We see this experience through the eyes of sixteen year-old Justine, accidental star of a documentary series following five classmates at six, eleven and now sixteen. Leslie and Lance, the directors, have crafted a story for these children, and they each have played into their roles. Justine is sarcastic and rebellious; Felix has been cast as the working class kid (but he also has a secret); Rory is autistic and loves Ren Fair; Keira is elegant and distant; and Nathan is the popular Golden Boy. 

The fact that I go right to thinking about people a.k.a audiences makes me mad, and the fact that I don’t know how to change that makes me even madder. But what can I do?

The thing is, Justine doesn’t feel like the star anymore and has to be dragged into participating in Five at Sixteen by Felix, who dreams of being the focus of this edition of the series. As they reunite once again, the years of their lives being woven together become harder to avoid, and old pain bubbles to the surface once again. 

Thought-Provoking, High-Concept - You Look Different in Real Life by Jennifer Castle

Satisfying & Believable, Though Imperfect - Burning by Elana K. Arnold

There's a lot to like in Elana K. Arnold’s sophomore novel, Burning. It’s one of the stronger dual first person point-of-view novels I’ve read since that narrative style has gained popularity. Its ending is incredibly satisfying and believable. And, Burning is a solid exploration of the idea of breaking free and forging one’s own path.

The events of Burning unfold during a single week the summer of Burning Man, around the nearby fictional (though realistic) town of Gypsum, Nevada. Gypsum is a company town, with everyone working at the local gypsum mine, shopping at a company store and living in company-owned housing. When the mine closes, the entire town shuts down with it, leaving its residents scattering. Local boy Ben is set to leave Gypsum thanks to a track scholarship in San Diego, while his family--along with most of his friends who aren’t so fortunate--are heading for Reno in hopes of finding work. 

Passing through Gypsum with her family is Lala, a Romani (Gypsy) girl from Portland, who’s traveling with her extended family when they make a stop in Nevada to earn some quick cash telling the fortunes of Burning Man visitors. Lala’s at a turning point in her life; once she turns 18, Lala will wed her betrothed through an arranged marriage and leave her beloved family. With her wedding date rapidly approaching, Lala questions if that’s the life she wants, and if she really has any choices at all. 

Satisfying & Believable, Though Imperfect - Burning by Elana K. Arnold

Different in a Good Way - The Story Guy by Mary Ann Rivers

Often, when a new book or author receives piles of advance praise, I find myself leery of marketing hype. I’ve just been burned too many times, so I proceed with caution these days. However, my interest in Mary Ann Rivers’ debut novella, The Story Guy, was piqued after a rave review from one of my favorite book pushers, Angie of Angieville fame.

A quick 120 pages later, and I can say, y’all, Mary Ann Rivers is an author to watch.

The Story Guy’s main character is Carrie, a midwestern librarian who lives a good life. She has a career she loves, parents with whom she’s close and friends she adores. Despite all this warmth, however, Carrie’s life is also lonely, as everyone around her has a partner and a rich home life.

One of Carrie's favorite distractions is reading the personal ads on a City Paper-type website. (Who hasn't done that, am I right?) These ads are usually pretty sketchy and Carrie finds them refreshingly authentic--these people aren’t playing games, they’re saying exactly what they want out of a relationship. One morning she comes across an intriguing request for a standing Wednesday rendezvous in a public park for “kissing only” and impulsively answers it before she can stop herself.

The following Wednesday, Carrie meets this stranger, Brian, and it sets in motion a radical change in both their lives.

Different in a Good Way - The Story Guy by Mary Ann Rivers

It's Not You, It's Me - Dare You To by Katie McGarry

Note: You’ll be amused that this started out as part of a group of mini-reviews. Whoops.

While I wasn't enamored with Katie McGarry’s Pushing the Limits as seemingly everyone else was, the character who intrigued me the most in that novel was Beth. Beth’s surly personality piqued my interest as a side character in that book, and her unusual dynamic with Isaac, another secondary character in that novel, made me curious about her story.

So, despite that Pushing the Limits wasn’t a hit for me, when I learned that Beth would be one of the two points of view in the companion novel, Dare You To, I was tentatively excited.

Unfortunately, I am starting to suspect that with McGarry's novels, it comes down to the fact that these simply aren't the kind of stories I enjoy. They are very dramatic. The characters consistently make poor choices that don't make a lot of sense, which nearly always escalates the drama. There are big mistakes and equally big gestures. All of these elements are trends in contemporary, romance-focused fiction at the moment, encompassing young adult, adult and the enigmatic “new adult” categories. 

When it comes down to it, I prefer quieter, more introspective reading.

Not dry, mind you, but I often find the little missteps and subtle, internal conflicts more compelling than grievous misunderstandings.

It's Not You, It's Me - Dare You To by Katie McGarry