Book Review: The Loose Ends List by Carrie Firestone

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The Loose Ends List by Carrie Firestone. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. 352 pp. 

Seventeen-year-old Maddie O’Neill Levine lives a charmed life, and is primed to spend the perfect pre-college summer with her best friends and young-at-heart socialite grandmother (also Maddie’s closest confidante), tying up high school loose ends. Maddie’s plans change the instant Gram announces that she is terminally ill and has booked the family on a secret “death with dignity” cruise ship so that she can leave the world in her own unconventional way – and give the O’Neill clan an unforgettable summer of dreams-come-true in the process.

Soon, Maddie is on the trip of a lifetime with her over-the-top family. As they travel the globe, Maddie bonds with other passengers and falls for Enzo, who is processing his own grief. But despite the laughter, headiness of first love, and excitement of glamorous destinations, Maddie knows she is on the brink of losing Gram. She struggles to find the strength to say good-bye in a whirlwind summer shaped by love, loss, and the power of forgiveness.

Let’s start by talking about the NOVL newsletter, shall we? Not only are the folks at NOVL as ecstatic about books as I am — mayyybe even more so — they give away advance copies of books on a regular basis. There’s an entry form in the newsletter, and if you’re selected, you don’t get an email to notify you: a book shows up, out of the blue, at your door. This is the best. surprise. ever. I’m not one for unexpected company of the human variety, but if a book shows up at my door it will be welcomed with open arms.

It’s always a nice surprise to receive a free book, but it’s oh-so-much better when said book is good. And The Loose Ends List is better than good. It’s beautiful and fierce and heartbreaking.

The way that Maddie and her family joke, fight, and have the time of their lives together made me miss my cousins and how much time we spent together when we were kids. People move and life gets in the way, and all of a sudden the people you love so much become a thought bobbing in your brain: I wonder how she’s doing. I should really call her. And we (at least, I) never make the time. I admired Maddie’s grandmother for her desire to have the whole family together one last time, and I was envious of them all for having that opportunity.

Maddie’s relationship with her grandmother is touching: respectful yet irreverent, and so full of love. My mom is my best friend, and I can’t (don’t want to) imagine saying goodbye to her. I can’t imagine dragging a goodbye out for an entire summer, not knowing when it was gong to happen. I thought Maddie’s grief was portrayed well and realistically; she tries to distract herself from it for as long as possible, then it all comes slamming down.

Because all of the other patients on the ship are also terminal cases, I knew I was going to have to say goodbye to them all, but I still wasn’t ready when it started to happen. I was a mess for the last fifty pages or so of this book, and though I was sad, I was also moved to make every moment count with the people I love. The ship’s motto, “And still we dance,” captures this book in a neat four-word package that brings so many snapshots and “snow globe moments” to mind. The characters in this book aren’t perfect, but they are alive — practically leaping off the page — and they will worm their way into your heart.

All in all: A gorgeous book. Worth reading…then re-reading when you start to take life (and people) for granted.

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Series Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

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The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Viking. 402 pp. 

I remember when The Magicians Land came out and what a big deal it was. I kept seeing it everywhere, described as the conclusion to a bestselling trilogy. And here’s where I lose some nerd cred: I couldn’t remember ever even hearing about the series! A friend of mine recommended them when the first book was released, and I must’ve forgotten to write it down or something. (I only realized that he recommended it because of those “On This Day” things on Facebook a few months ago.) So I’m not the best friend. Or the best reader. And yet somehow I managed to find my way back to this series.

I scored a paperback copy of the third book at BEA and set it aside for future reading. Then, a couple of months later, I found a copy of the first book at Now and Then, my third-favorite used bookstore (second only to The Strand, which I feel doesn’t really count because it’s sort of its own category at this point, and Arcadian Books, which has an excellent selection and a kind proprietor and poses the added benefit of being located in the French Quarter). I figured that owning the first and third installments meant it was high time that I gave this series a shot. A hundred pages into The Magicians, I discovered two things: syfy was going to release a series based on the books, and my local library didn’t own a copy of the sequel. I promptly placed a request via interlibrary loan and decided to stay away from the TV series until I’d finished the books. (I’ve since watched the trailer and the pilot, and I’m almost inclined to stay away from the show entirely. It looks like they’re trying to have a hit — making it cutesy and trendy — instead of sticking to the books. However, Hank Green is obsessed with it, so I’ll give it another shot. We tend to like similar stuff.)

Sadly, the interlibrary loan took three weeks to come through, so I did something unthinkable: I stopped reading The Magicians halfway through because I didn’t want to wait if there was a cliffhanger ending. Then I flew through the first two and a half books, slowing down halfway through the third because I didn’t want it to be over.

This series is magic. Pure magic. And I’m not just saying that because it’s quite literally about magicians. I enjoyed the idea of magical ability as a hot commodity, practiced and protected by a select few. (Side note: I want to go to Brakebills! Magical grad school? Yes, please!) Any book about magic is about power struggles, but these books’ portrayal of that war is one of the best I’ve seen. The blend of high fantasy and modernity, the almost-winking references to other popular fantasy works, the way that old characters come back just when you thought you’d never hear from them again…I can’t say enough positive things. I guess the best thing I can say is that I bought a copy of the first book for a friend as a Christmas gift; that’s pretty much the highest endorsement I can give, right?

The world-building is intense. I mean, there are so many different worlds — and they all feel different without overwhelming the reader. None of the characters is terribly likable — except maybe Josh (and Eliot?) — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. They’ve got a lot going on over the course of the books, and they all grow and develop into entirely new people. It’s not a trilogy that spans six months, either; it takes place over about a dozen years, so there are many happenings and many chances for the characters to “become.”

Before I finish this raving, all-over-the-place review, I want to share my favorite passage with you. It’s from the final ten pages of the final book, but it won’t spoil anything for you. It’s just…well, this is what my life as a reader has been like. These words hit me hard.

“This is a feeling that you had, Quentin,” she said. “Once, a very long time ago. A rare one. This is how you felt when you were eight years old, and you opened one of the Fillory books for the first time, and you felt awe and joy and hope and longing all at once. You felt them very strongly, Quentin. You dreamed of Fillory then, with a power and an innocence that not many people ever experience. That’s where all this began for you. You wanted the world to be better than it was.

“Years later you went to Fillory, and the Fillory you found was a much more difficult, complicated place than you expected. The Fillory you dreamed of as a little boy wasn’t real, but in some ways it was better and purer than the real one. That hopeful little boy you once were was a tremendous dreamer. He was clever, too, but if you ever had a special gift, it was that.”

Quentin nodded — he couldn’t quite talk yet. He felt full of love for that little boy he’d once been, innocent and naive, as yet unscuffed and unmarred by everything that was to come. He was such a ridiculous, vulnerable little person, with so many strenuous disappointments and wonders ahead of him. Quentin hadn’t thought of him in years.

He wasn’t that boy anymore, that boy was lost long ago. He’d become a man instead, one of those crude, weather-beaten, shopworn things, and he’d almost forgotten he’d ever been anything else — he’d had to forget, to survive growing up. But now he wished he could reassure that child and take care of him. He wished he could tell him that none of it was going to turn out anything like the way he hoped, but that everything was going to be all right anyway. It was hard to explain, but he would see.

I don’t know. Maybe that doesn’t make you cry, but I’ve read it three times and it’s made my eyes tear every time. The hope of magic existing in the world can do wonders for a lonely kid who feels like he (or she) doesn’t fit quite right. And that, in itself, is its own kind of magic.

All in all: Highly recommended. One of the best series I’ve ever read; it finishes just as strong as it starts. Buy it. Now.

Review: The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. Alfred A. Knopf. 552 pp.

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. Alfred A. Knopf. 552 pp.

I bought The Book Thief when it first came out. And — horror of all horrors — I let it sit on my shelf for years. When I was packing for the move to our new house, I set aside a just-in-case stack of books. You see, I packed my library first and couldn’t bear for all of my books to be inaccessible for a couple of months, so I started a random pile of books that I would pack the week of the move. That way, if I had any time — you know, between packing the rest of the apartment, raising a toddler, getting the housework done, and driving 45 minutes each way to strip wallpaper and paint the walls of the new house before we moved in — I could read a previously-unread book. You can guess how well that went. But because it was the last box I packed and I had set it aside, it was one of the first boxes unpacked in the new place. My other books weren’t unpacked yet, so I spent a month and a half dipping into that just-in-case box. And it was wonderful, for the most part. (I struggled with A.S. Byatt’s Possession and still haven’t gotten around to finishing it.)

When I finished The Book Thief, I sat sobbing in a bath that had gone cold while I had been utterly immersed in Liesel’s world. Here’s what I can say without giving too much of the plot away: this book wrecked me emotionally in a way that few books have. Why? Because things like this ACTUALLY HAPPENED. I adore fantasy, but there’s something about realistic fiction — especially historical fiction — that hits me in a way nothing else can. Watching families send their sons off to war, watching adolescents struggle to understand the world of Nazi Germany in which they’re coming of age, hearing the fears of a young Jewish man during Hitler’s reign of terror, and gaining a new — and heartbreaking — understanding of the power of words made this a tough read for me. I kept putting it down and coming back to it later, because it was a lot to process all at once. But it was so, so worth it.

All in all: I’d recommend this book to anyone and everyone. It’s a brilliant examination of what it means to be human, at its best and at its absolute worst, and the writing is beautiful, too.

Review: The Next Breath by Laurel Osterkamp

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The Next Breath by Laurel Osterkamp. 313 pp. PMI Books.

“I kiss him, choosing love over honesty, which is a choice nobody should ever have to make…” 

Robin loves sweet, responsible Nick, with his penchant for Beethoven and Ben Folds Five. But she also still loves her college boyfriend Jed, an irreverent playwright plagued with cystic fibrosis. Now Robin is struggling to reveal her secrets and confront her past, as she finally performs in the play that Jed wrote for her, eleven years ago. Will Robin have the strength to keep her promise and stay true to her heart?

Alternating between present-day scenes, college flashbacks, and segments from Jed’s play, this tear-jerking yet uplifting tale illustrates how life is finite but love is infinite, and the road to recovery begins with the next breath.

***WARNING: This review gets pretty spoiler-y at the end, but I’ll warn you before we get there so you can jump ship if you so choose. I want to tell you how much I loved this book, but I can’t tell you why (at least, not entirely) without giving something away.***

The Next Breath tells the story of Robin, a character I first encountered in another of Laurel Osterkamp’s books, The Holdout. I flew through The Holdout because it was engaging and enjoyable to read, and I hoped that I’d be similarly sucked in to this book, especially since it’s a sort of companion piece (though you don’t need to read one to enjoy the other). When I like a book by an author, I’m always a little nervous about starting another of their books because I don’t want to set my hopes too high. I needn’t have worried in this case, though, because The Next Breath was just breathtaking.

There are so many things I liked about this book: the symbolism in Robin’s dreams, the clear differences between college Robin and Robin-in-her-thirties (some flashbacks can’t pull this off, and the characters feel exactly the same), Jed’s deeply touching play, and Robin’s struggles and failures and ultimate determination to pull through. There’s really nothing I didn’t like, except that sometimes the flashback segments ran a little long and I forgot what was going on “in real time.”

Robin is a character that I like quite a bit. Since the story’s told in the first person, the reader is privy to her thoughts, both deep and shallow, and this makes her immensely relatable. There are some books that I love because the protagonist considers the “big issues” in ways that make me think, but there are other books where the protagonist thinks about the silliest, most neurotic things in a way that makes me realize I’m not alone in my all-over-the-place brain. Robin is a nice middle ground, her thoughts a combination between the two that I loved. I also like the fact that Osterkamp allows Robin to make some really cringe-worthy mistakes and ultimately recover from (most of) them.

All in all: I’d definitely recommend this one. It’s a great story of love and life and letting others in, even when it’s scary.

Okay, here come the SPOILERS.

(Leave now if you wish!)

 

You know all those tear-jerking books about a young person who loses his or her beloved all too soon? (I’m looking at you, Me Before You and The Fault in Our Stars!) I’ve read a few of them and shed some tears, sure, but there’s something I always think when I finish reading: what will become of the surviving lover? Most writers end with the survivor making a valiant effort to come to terms with being alone. That makes sense, in a way, but I’ve always wondered what comes next. Did Hazel Grace ever meet someone else that caught her eye, or could nobody hold a candle to Augustus Waters? Love, loss, grieving, and loving again are tough subjects to write about, and most writers tend to write about one side of things or the other, i.e., an entire book about falling in love and losing that person or a book about a widow(er) who meets someone interesting and learns to love again. This is not to say that I disliked the books mentioned above; I was actually very moved by both. I just wanted to know what came next. And until now, I’d never read a book that included both the lost relationship and the newly-found one.

Obviously, this a tough order for a writer to fill. In the case of The Next Breath, in order to fully appreciate Robin’s loss, the reader needs to feel the intensity of her relationship with Jed (who, in case you hadn’t guessed, sadly doesn’t have a successful lung transplant). However, in order to root for Robin to move on, the reader also needs to see how well she works with Nick. Laurel Osterkamp manages the dynamics of both relationships well, so well that I could feel my heart breaking for Robin multiple times throughout the book. Add the touching material that Jed’s play deals with, along with Catherine’s heartbreak at losing her son, and I was a teary mess.

This is a beautifully moving book, one that I hope you find the time to read.

Summer Reading List: Fantasy

Next installment is a bit late; sorry about that. (The next one could be even later since I could go into labor any day now. We’ll see how this pans out!) Most of these books are ones that I selected, not ones that were given to me for review, and I really enjoyed them.

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. Roc. 212 pp.

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. Roc. 212 pp.

I bought this one when Borders was still alive and well, and it sat on my shelf for years before I got around to it. How many years? Well, the pages have started to yellow. :-/ I loved the animated film as a child and still watch it every few years or so. There’s something about unicorns that’s always pierced my heart; they’re beautiful, imperial, and pure, and I love thinking that they exist. (Please don’t rain on my parade…) Peter S. Beagle’s writing is just right for this tale: it’s beautiful and poignant and it made me want to kick myself for waiting so long to experience this treasure. It’s worth a re-read for sure.

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen. Harper. 434 pp.

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen. Harper. 434 pp.

This was a Goodreads First Reads win. I’m not sure that I’ll rush out to buy the sequel the second it hits stores, but I’m interested in reading it, which is more than I can say for the start of some series. Here’s what I liked most about this book: the heroine isn’t rendered differently because she’s a girl. Kelsea is plain, overweight, and (by the end of the book) scarred. She’s not perfect — not stunningly beautiful for no reason — and she becomes more “weathered” as she learns to fight and defend herself. The problems that she faces are real and complicated; there’s not much that’s pretty about this book, and I love that. Plus, there’s an invasion scene that made me heart leap up into my throat. Worth reading.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Anchor. 512 pp.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Anchor. 512 pp.

Can this be made into a film, and can Baz Luhrman please please please be the one to do it? He’d be perfect: he creates the lushest, richest images, and he knows how to work the whole star-crossed-lovers thing. I love stories about magic when they’re done well, and this one really was done well. The tricks, the characters, and the quandary…it was wonderful. My only complaint is that Le Cirque des Rêves doesn’t actually exist. (I have a suggestion for that one, too: Punchdrunk, please bring this circus to life! I’d pay good money to see that.) I’ll admit that I found the love story to be laid on a bit thick at times, but the circus saved the book for me. I could lose myself there for days. I’d say it’s worth reading if you like magic; if you don’t, you might want to spend your time elsewhere.

Review: Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaria

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Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaria. Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. 323 pp.

It begins as an assignment for English class: Write a letter to a dead person. Laurel chooses Kurt Cobain because her sister, May, loved him. And he died young, just like May did. Soon, Laurel has a notebook full of letters to people like Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, Amelia Earhart, Heath Ledger, and more — though she never gives a single one of them to her teacher. She writes about starting high school, navigating new friendships, falling in love for the first time, learning to live with her splintering family. And, finally, about the abuse she suffered while May was supposed to be looking out for her. Only then, once Laurel has written down the truth about what happened to herself, can she truly begin to accept what happened to May. And only when Laurel has begun to see her sister as the person she was — lovely and amazing and deeply flawed — can she begin to discover her own path.


I really wasn’t sure about this one. I mean, I’ll read almost any YA that sounds interesting and has a pretty cover. I was drawn in even more by the fact that I was seeing this one everywhere; I figured it had potential. But I still wasn’t sure, for no reason that I can put my finger on. But this book was stunning. It’s a coming of age tale that is destined to be a classic in the vein of The Perks of Being a Wallflower — which, by the way, is the book I’ll be giving out on World Book Night. (My first year as a giver! I’m a little nervous.)

In each letter, Laurel writes a bit about the celebrity’s life, struggles, etc. and why she can relate to them. That might make this book sound like it deals solely with trivial, superficial things, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Laurel is dealing with more than meets the eye, more even than the recent loss of her sister. I can’t say more without giving too much away.

I know I mentioned Perks earlier, but I’m bringing it up again. You see, Laurel is sort of a long-lost sister to Charlie: they both make new friends, deal with the loss of a beloved family member, experience a musical education, and write letter after letter as they strive to figure out who they are. And what does Laurel learn in the end?

…maybe what growing up really means is knowing that you don’t have to just be a character, going whichever way the story says. It’s knowing that you could be the author instead.

Laurel is simultaneously tentative and wise beyond her years. I wanted to hug her and tell her everything would be okay. And when the final letter was written to May, as I knew it would be, man, did the tears flow!

All in all: Worth reading if you like coming of age stories and don’t mind a bit of sadness. The cover is perfect for a book that feels like a beautiful sunset: breathtaking and a little sad.

National Poetry Month: Selection #3

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This poem breaks my heart every time I read it. Although I know I can’t (and shouldn’t), I still wish I could protect my son from all the painful, frightening things that life will bring his way. This is the part that fills my eyes with tears no matter how many times I read it:

She is doing nothing,
She never did anything harder.

It takes strength to let our children out of our arms.

For Julia, In the Deep Water

by John M. Morris

The instructor we hire
because she does not love you
Leads you into the deep water,
The deep end
Where the water is darker—
Her open, encouraging arms
That never get nearer
Are merciless for your sake.

You will dream this water always
Where nothing draws nearer,
Wasting your valuable breath
You will scream for your mother—
Only your mother is drowning
Forever in the thin air
Down at the deep end.
She is doing nothing,
She never did anything harder.
And I am beside her.

I am beside her in this imagination.
We are waiting
Where the water is darker.
You are over your head,
Screaming, you are learning
Your way toward us,
You are learning how
In the helpless water
It is with our skill
We live in what kills us.