Review: The Love Letters of Abelard and Lily

The Love Letters of Abelard and Lily
Laura Creedle
Published December 26, 2017 by HMH Books for Young Readers

“I am broken because I have a disability. I am broken because I am incapable of sitting still for hours at a time and performing the mind-numbing repetitive tasks that I am required to do. Abelard is broken because he can’t smile and say hello, and he doesn’t like crowds, which is basically what high school is–one giant, swirling, chaotic crowd.”

Lily is a high school student with ADHD. School is a daily chaotic torture for her. She’s skipping class, and she’s failing many of her classes, because her ADHD makes the bureaucratic nonsense of high school extremely difficult for her, even though she’s very smart. A mishap with a broken door lands her in detention with Abelard, a fellow student who’s on the autism spectrum. After Lily randomly kisses Abelard (she has definite issues with impulse control), the two form a connection and begin texting each, using quotes from the Letters of Abelard Heloise (a pair of star-crossed medieval lovers).

AbelardI really liked this book. It’s good to see ADHD and autism representation in a YA book. From my limited knowledge of ADHD, the portrayal seemed realistic. I really felt like I was inside the mind of a teenage with ADHD, and it showed how difficult life can be for someone with this condition. Some of the dialogue in the book is rendered as partial nonsense to show how Lily experiences it: “You’ll note, Miss Michaels-Ryan, that I have filled out a Skrellnetch form for you. Your mother will have to sign the kerblig and return it to the main office before you can be burn to clabs.” The portrayal of Abelard’s ASD felt realistic too, although we see less of his struggle since this is really Lily’s story.

Lily felt like a very realistic teenager. She’s not one of those extemely precocious, totally unrealistic YA teens. She’s a smart, but rather immature teenage with some serious impulse control issues. The mom in me wanted to shake Lily a few times, and say please tell someone that the drugs make you feel dead inside and that you have suicidal ideation. But her not telling anyone feels realistic and true to the character.

The romance is very sweet, and although it’s important to the plot, it’s not the sole focus. The book is just as much about Lily feeling broken and unfixable. I found Lily’s relationship with her mother a bit more compelling. Her mother is doing the best she can; she’s a single mom with limited resources and she’s in over her head. But she is really trying, and she leaps at the opportunity for a new treatment that might help Lily. Lily views all of her mother’s attempts to help her as merely trying to “fix” her, so there’s a lot of tension.

If you care about such things, the romance in this book is extremely chaste, on account of Abelard having issues with being touched. Although there is some kissing, most of the romance is over texts quoting the actual letters of Heloise and Abelard. (This is pretty swoony stuff for us medieval history buffs.)

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

 

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Review: A Million Junes

A Million Junes
By Emily Henry
Published May 16, 2017 by Razorbill

A Million Junes was sort of under the radar for me. I hadn’t seen reviews from anyone I follow, and although I’d seen the cover and thought, “Oooh, pretty,” I hadn’t added it to my TBR. I finally read the description and realized it’s got all sorts of things I love: star-crossed lovers, ghosts, magical realism, and family secrets, so I picked it up.

A Million JunesThis one is really good, and I want to start pushing it on people. “Read this. No, really, read this!” That said, this book won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. If you’re not into magical realism, this may not be the book for you.

June O’Donnell s starting her senior year of high school when Saul Angert returns to town. The O’Donnells and the Angerts have been mortal enemies for several generations, supposedly because of a feud over the land that was once the O’Donnell’s cherry tree farm. June’s late father Jack O’Donnell III (June is actually Jack IV, but most people call her Junior or June) raised her on stories of the O’Donnell men’s glory and the perfidy of the Angerts. The family’s cardinal rule is stay away from the Angerts. So, of course, there’s an immediate attraction between June and the newly returned Saul.

Having grown up in the O’Donnell’s magical farmhouse, complete with two ghosts (a pink benign one and a dark, possibly malevolent one), and being raised on the O’Donnell tall tales, June has bought fully bought into the family mythology. Saul is much more skeptical, doesn’t believe in the curse that supposedly brings harm to both families, and sees no reason to stay away from June.

The romance is lovely and fraught with the complications of family history. I really appreciated that although the romance was important to the plot, the other relationships were also very important. June has a great relationship with her best friend Hannah and a good but sometimes tense relationship with her mother. And then there’s her relationship with her late father, Jack III. Even though he’s been dead for 10 years, he’s still a huge part of her life, and the idea of going against everything he told her and getting involved with an Angert is hard for her to get past, even as she begins to learn that the family legends her father passed along to her may not be the whole truth.

The magical elements are really well done. There are ghosts, coywolves who steal shoes, and white balls of fluff that float around the house and contain memories. I know it sounds a bit twee, but it all works in the context of the book, and the writing is just lovely. 4.5 stars.

Review: Saint Death

Saint Death
Marcus Sedgwick
Published 2017 by Roaring Brook Press

I’m a big fan of Marcus Sedgwick’s work, and Midwinter Blood and Ghosts of Heaven are two of my all-time favorite books. I was really looking forward to Saint Death, and Sedgwick did not disappoint. This is an unflinching look at poverty, economic injustice, and violence.

Set in a small town called Anapra on the outskirts of Juarez, Mexico, Saint Death is the story of a young man named Arturo. Arturo exists on the edges of society. He’s basically alone in the world, he lives in a shack with no water or electricity, and he has only occasional work at a local garage. Anapra is a dismal place. People live in makeshift shacks, they’re terribly poor, and they’re at constant risk of violence from drug trafficking gangs.

SaintDeathOne day, Arturo’s foster brother, Faustino, shows up looking for help. Arturo hasn’t seen Faustino in a couple of years, and Faustino has gotten himself into trouble. He’s been working for a drug gang, and he took $1000 from a stash of cash that his boss left with him for safekeeping. He spent the money to pay coyotes to smuggle his girlfriend and their infant son over the border into the United States. But now he needs to replace the money, and he wants Arturo to join a high stakes card game to try to win cash for him. Arturo is an expert at the card game Calavera, and Faustino is convinced that he can win enough money to save him. Arturo is hesitant, but loyalty to Faustino wins out and he agrees to play the game.

Unsurprisingly, nothing turns out as expected, and Arturo and Faustino are in way over their heads. This book is very tense; you know things can’t possible turn out well when an unworldly kid goes up against some very bad men, but you’re rooting for Arturo even as he makes some very bad decisions (although it’s hard not to make some bad decisions when you have no good options). Although it’s just over 200 pages and hard to put down, I wouldn’t call Saint Death an easy read. Sedgwick doesn’t shy away from portraying the desperation and brutality that Arturo faces every day. Anapra is a grim, hopeless place, and if you’ve ever wondered why someone might risk everything to slip over the border into the United States, this book goes a long way toward explaining it. The poverty is grinding, the police look the other way while the drug gangs run the town, women disappear without a trace, and Mexican workers are paid a pittance in factories that produce components that are shipped to the United States and assembled into “Made in the USA” products.

There’s a lot of vivid imagery in Saint Death. The title refers to La Santa Muerte (literally Saint Death), a deity in Mexican folk religion whose iconography is a female skeletal figure. Her cult has grown in recent years, and Faustino insists that he and Arturo visit a shrine to her before the card game. Arturo is dubious about her, but his thoughts return to her throughout the book and he has the sense that she’s watching him. I’m fascinated by the Santa Muerte iconography, and the representation of the skull on the cover is really effective for the story.

This is a really important book given our current political climate. Highly recommended.

 

 

Review: An Enchantment of Ravens

An Enchantment of Ravens
Margaret Rogerson
Published 2017 by McElderry Books

I have to admit that I was first drawn to An Enchantment of Ravens by its lovely cover. The description made it sound rather like the A Court of Thorns and Roses series, and that put me on the fence about reading it. I read the first book in that series and enjoyed it, but I’ve never been motivated to read the rest of the trilogy, and the idea of yet another book about a sexy fae prince wasn’t really pulling me in. But I received a copy in the October Shelflove Crate, so I gave it a try. It turned out to be very different than I expected.

RavensIsobel is an artist living in a town called Whimsy. The human inhabitants of this town have a special relationship with fairies. Many of the townspeople make what is called the Craft, basically anything that involves creating: painting, baking, sewing. The Fair Folk have magic, but they cannot create anything, so they are obsessed with human Craft and many of them have commissioned 17-year-old Isobel to paint their portraits. The Fair Folk pay for Craft with valuable enchantments. Isobel is very careful in what enchantments she requests (one must be very specific or the enchantment can backfire), and she is quite popular with the Fair Folk because of her great talent.

One day, the Autumn prince, Rook, arrives and commissions a portrait. Isobel and Rook develop something of an attraction over the days that he poses for the portrait. But Isobel knows that nothing can happen between them, because love between and human and a fairy is forbidden by Fair Folk law. When the painting is done, Isobel assumes she will never see Rook again, but he returns a few days later in a rage because Isobel has inadvertently painted Rook showing human emotions, something that is anathema to the Fair Folk and puts his position as leader of the Autumn Court in jeopardy. He drags her into the fairy lands to stand trial for her supposed crime, but on their way to the Autumn lands, they are attacked and they end up going on a journey through different parts of fairy land.

This book was really delightful. I was a little worried that it was going to be instalove for Isobel and Rook, but although they’re attracted to each other while she’s painting his portrait, the relationship doesn’t really develop into love until they are running for their lives through the fairy lands. At times, Isobel finds Rook quite maddening, but it’s the sort of Mr. Darcy kind of maddening. Rook isn’t a polished, suave fairy prince. He can be abrupt and odd at times, but he’s also charming in his own way and quite funny. Take this line, for example: “It isn’t as though I’ve done it on purpose. Somehow I’ve even grown fond of your–your irritating questions, and your short legs, and your accidental attempts to kill me.”

I found the concept of Craft and the Fair Folk’s inability to create really interesting. The Fair Folk are clearly at an advantage over humans in terms of their great power, but they are dependent on humans for anything beautiful and artistic. There’s a sense of jealousy toward humans on the part of the fairies. Human emotions are alien to them, but they crave what humans create. When Isobel ventures into the Spring Court, there is a seemingly endless line of Fair Folk who want a portrait. Even though they have no magic, their Craft gives humans a small amount of power.

Another thing I liked about this book is that it’s a stand alone. I do like series, but it’s nice to finish a book and not have to worry about committing to six more books. The story felt very complete.

Review: Fragments of the Lost

Fragments of the Lost
Megan Miranda
Crown Books for Young Readers
Published November 14, 2017

Synopsis: Jessa Whitworth knew she didn’t belong in her ex-boyfriend Caleb’s room. But she couldn’t deny that she was everywhere–in his photos, his neatly folded T-shirts, even the butterfly necklace in his jeans pocket . . . the one she gave him for safe keeping on that day.

His mother asked her to pack up his things–even though she blames Jessa for his accident. How could she say no? And maybe, just maybe, it will help her work through the guilt she feels about their final moments together.

But as Jessa begins to box up the pieces of Caleb’s life, they trigger memories that make Jessa realize their past relationship may not be exactly as she remembered. And she starts to question whether she really knew Caleb at all.

Each fragment of his life reveals a new clue that propels Jessa to search for the truth about Caleb’s accident. What really happened on the storm-swept bridge?

Initially, I wasn’t sure what to make of this book. The description made it sound like a mystery/thriller, but when I first started reading, it felt much more like a very sad book about a young woman grieving for her dead ex-boyfriend. The mystery aspects slowly revealed themselves, and I was completely hooked about 50 pages into it.

FragmentsJessa is a high-school junior, and her ex-boyfriend Caleb died in a car accident a few weeks ago. They had only been broken up few a couple of weeks, and she feels very guilty about his death because he drove his car off a bridge during a storm shortly after seeing her at her track meet. Caleb’s mother asks Jessa to clean out his room, and because she feels so guilty, she agrees to do it.

As she goes through Caleb’s things, each item triggers a memory. At first, the memories are bittersweet and mostly happy, as she remembers the good times. But as the days go on, the things she discovers in his room cause her to question everything about her relationship with Caleb. How much did she really know him? Was he keeping secrets? What really happened the day he died? With the help of Caleb’s best friend Max, with whom she has a complicated history, she tries to figure out the mystery of Caleb and come to terms with her own grief.

Fragments of the Lost was an excellent mystery. I was sucked into it very quickly, and it was a quick read for me, because I couldn’t put it down (I’m always like that when I’m reading a good mystery). I find YA thrillers a bit hit or miss for me. Often, the plots are a little simplistic and I can figure out the culprit pretty easily (a lifetime of reading mysteries gives me an edge). But Fragments of the Lost kept me guessing. It’s obvious pretty early on that there’s much more to Caleb’s death than meets the eye, but the plot takes a lot of twists, and I was as much in the dark as Jessa until the whole truth was revealed. I really enjoyed this one, and I’m interested to check out the author’s adult mysteries.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

Review: Retribution Rails

Retribution Rails (Vengeance Road 2)
Erin Bowman
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt November 7, 2017

Retribution Rails is a companion novel to last year’s Vengeance Road. It’s not strictly a sequel, and according to Goodreads, you don’t need to have read the first book. So, I forged ahead without reading the first book. It’s true that this isn’t a sequel in the traditional sense, and the main characters are new characters who didn’t appear in the first book, but some characters from the first book appear in Retribution Rails and the book does contain spoilers for Vengeance Road.

Retribution RailsIt’s 1887 and the American frontier is rapidly changing because of the advent of railroads. In the Arizona Territory, Reece Murphy is an unwilling outlaw. He’s a member of the notorious Rose Riders, but he’s not an outlaw by choice. A few years earlier, the Rose Riders murdered the family Reece worked for, and they only spared his life because he may be able to lead the gang to the man who killed the gang’s former leader. He’s forced into the gang, and he quickly learns that escape attempts are futile and that he’s stuck with the gang until he can lead them to the mysterious cowboy.

Charlotte Vaughn is a young woman in search of trouble. Her father has just passed away, and her uncle is trying to steal the family business from her and her mother. He plans to force her mother to marry him. Charlotte runs away, thinking she can find some way to stop her uncle. Her life’s ambition is to become a journalist. It’s a lofty ambition for a teenage girl in 1887, but the pioneering Nellie Bly was working at this time, so the possibility was there, even if rather remote. Charlotte and Reece’s paths cross when the Rose Riders hold up the train she’s traveling on. Reece spares her life, and their lives quickly become entwined, something neither of them particularly wants.

I really enjoyed this book. It was fast-paced and exciting, and the story felt very true to the time period. I feel like the author did her homework (and the author’s note gives details about her research). There’s some exploration of what it means to be a woman at this time. Charlotte is smart and determined, but that may not be enough in a society where men have all the power.

Reece and Charlotte are both very interesting characters. Reece may be an outlaw, but he’s not really suited to the life. He wrestles constantly with the things he’s forced to do to stay alive. Charlotte is in many ways a proper young lady, but she’s also quite ruthless and thoughtless, much more so than the supposed criminal, Reece.

I loved the interplay between the two characters. She thinks he’s a worthless criminal at first, and he basically feels the same way about himself. But as their paths keep crossing and they end up having to work together, and their mutual dislike eventually turns into grudging mutual admiration. There’s none of the dreaded insta-love here. A connection does grow between them, but it’s not the main focus of the story.

Retribution Rails is a great read, and I will be checking out the first book soon.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

 

Review: 36 Questions That Changed My Mind About You

36 Questions That Changed My Mind About You
Vicki Grant
Published October 17, 2017
Running Press

I should admit upfront that contemporary YA is not my favorite genre, but I was intrigued by the premise of this book. It’s based on a psychology study that claims that two subjects answering a series of 36 questions can develop a level of intimacy that can lead to love. I had heard of the study and found the idea of it interesting (the New York Times had a piece in their Modern Love column about the questions). So, the idea of a YA book based on this study grabbed my attention.

36questionsHildy is a high school senior with major family problems that she blames herself for. She signs up for a university psychology study in an effort to learn something about herself. She’s paired with Paul, who’s just there to earn $40. The experiment doesn’t go all that well at first, since Hildy is an oversharer, and Paul doesn’t take things very seriously. They only answer a few of the questions before Hildy throws a fish at Paul (it’s a long story, but the fish is an integral part of the plot) and storms out. But Paul really wants his $40, so he tracks Hildy down online and they start answering the rest of the questions, which brings them closer.

I enjoyed this one, and it was a solid 3.5 stars for me. The two main characters felt a bit like stereotypes at first (Hildy seems like an adorable, klutzy manic pixie dream girl, and Paul is a snarky loner), but as the book went on, they felt more fleshed out. Hildy’s family is imploding, and she feels powerless to help them. Paul hasn’t had an easy life, which makes him guarded and more than a little sarcastic. More than half of the book is in the form of ongoing text message conversations, in which the pair attempt to answer the questions, get easily side-tracked, and learn a lot about each other.

I enjoy epistolary novels, and I guess novels in text are the 2017 equivalent. There are a few standard narrative chapters, but most of the book is in text format. Paul is an artist, and there are going to be illustrations in the final version of the book., (Unfortunately, the illustrations weren’t in the advance copy I read, but I think they’ll add a lot to the story. I’m all in favor of the trend of including illustrations in YA books. Or non-YA books. I like pictures.)

This book is a clever twist on the typical YA contemporary romance, and I think it may appeal to readers who don’t usually read this genre.

I received an ARC for review from Amazon Vine.