Book Review

What the Fluff

Just FriendsJust Friends by Tiffany Pitcock

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thank you, Macmillan, for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Their past might be fake, but their future was real. It was theirs to build. It was real, unscripted, and unplanned.

If you’re also one of those readers whose TBRs vary per season, then you’re probably reading lots of contemporary novels like me. Only God knows why love stories are perfect for summer. It must be the HEAT. xD If you want to feel more of the latter, then by all means, pick up this cute book. However, Just Friends isn’t 100% fluffy, so it is actually worth your time.

Just Friends is about the complicated relationship between Jenny and Chase, two teenagers who both struggle with family-related problems. Jenny and Chase also have divergent personalities; the former is a stay-at-home nerd, while the latter has built a reputation of promiscuity at school. When a childish class requirement forces them to pretend that they’re best friends, Jenny and Chase decide to keep up the charade. Soon, sparks fly between them, and they have a difficult time being just friends.

YA contemporary novels are usually written in the first-person POV. Hence, I was surprised and delighted that this book was written in third-person. Also, the chapters were narrated by Jenny and Chase alternately, giving me a balanced understanding and appreciation of both genders. The author’s vocabulary was also very light and comprehensible, so I was able to finish the book rather quickly, in two sittings, to be precise.

Plot-wise, I wasn’t surprised by anything that happened. I bet most readers can also predict the ending of this book. However, I must say that the pacing was flawless. Each short chapter featured events that made me want more.

Despite their opposite personalities, Jenny and Chance were actually very compatible because they managed to bring out the best in each other. Jenny evoked a sense of loyalty in Chance, and Chance challenged Jenny to finally step out of her comfort zone. All in all, these two teenagers had a very healthy “friendship.” 😀

Sadly, I didn’t have a favorite character in this book. Jenny and Chase were very likable as a pair, but I wasn’t a fan of them on an individual level. Looking back, the main conflict of the book wouldn’t have dragged on if they didn’t take everything at face value. Furthermore, I also did not like the characters’ attitude towards their own virginity. I admit that this criticism is subjective, but I need to point it out for the sake of readers who might also be conservative.

I generally enjoy contemporary novels because they often contain a lot of family-related discourse, which I always find to be relatable. However, in the case of Just Friends, this feature backfired. As I’ve mentioned earlier, both Jenny and Chance had family issues. To be more specific, Jenny was quite envious of her divorced mother’s budding romance, while Chance resented his parents, who apparently couldn’t stand each other. Jenny’s hang-ups were somehow understandable, but I struggled to sympathize with Chance’s dilemma. I just couldn’t fathom how his parents supposedly argued 24/7. All that was said about them was that they loved to fight. Such a phenomenon seemed almost fantastical. Essentially, Just Friends delineated parenting in a very pessimistic manner. With that in mind, I probably would’ve liked this book more if it hadn’t bothered to include family-related discourse.

With all that said, I gave this book three stars primarily because of its entertainment value. It did make me smile and chuckle sometimes. Nevertheless, for the most part, it was predictable and even frustrating. Looking at the bright side, it’s possible to enjoy the book completely if you don’t read it too critically. It’s summer anyway, so I guess we readers don’t have to be so serious while reading fluffy literature. xD

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Book Review

You Found Me in a Constellation

Eliza and Her MonstersEliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thank you, HarperCollins, for giving me an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Like life, what gives a story its meaning is the fact that it ends. Our stories have lives of their own—and it’s up to us to make them mean something. —Olivia Kane

Before I read this book, I was a stranger to Francesca Zappia. I remembered that my previous boss at work told me to check out a book named Made You Up, but I only made the connection recently. If you’re planning to pick up this novel in light of your love for the said book, prepare yourself for moments of deep introspection. Also, I beg you not to read the blurb/summary on Goodreads because it contains a major spoiler. (I’m currently thinking of using my librarian privileges to fix the latter problem.)

Eliza and Her Monsters is essentially a character-driven novel. It is about a girl named Eliza (like..duh!), who is extremely introverted. Ironically, she has a massive presence online. Under the pen name LadyConstellation, Eliza publishes a web comic entitled Monstrous Sea. Her work turns out to be so popular, having more than a million readers. Despite her success as an artist, Eliza’s life is not perfect. Her relationship with her parents and siblings is unfathomably strained, and her social life outside of the Web is…nonexistent. Everything starts to change when she meets Wallace, the most popular writer of Monstrous Sea fanfic.

I honestly had a difficult time deciding how I should rate this book. For me, Eliza and Her Monsters is the epitome of the term “mixed feelings”. Even though I didn’t love it, the thought of giving it three stars made me feel unsettled, regretful, even. The strengths and weaknesses of this book played a game of tug of war in my mind. The beautiful writing and story were on one side, while the annoying characters were on the other. Basically, the struggle was real, people.

I have always been a fan of stories that emphasize familial relationships, so I had no trouble delving into this book. Being a devoted hermit, Eliza spent most of her time at home. Logically, she had plenty of opportunities to interact with her family. I loved that Eliza’s parents and two brothers (Church and Sully) were given a lot of screen time. However, I was annoyed by how she treated them. She always snubbed her parents, as if they were obstructions to her happiness in life. As for her brothers, she avoided them because she sincerely believed that they hated her. To put it mildly, Eliza was not a good daughter and sibling. Looking back, Eliza’s parents were not exactly victims. After all, they were so frustratingly permissive.

In a similar fashion, Wallace’s family was placed under the spotlight. His family was actually very fascinating because he had both step siblings and half siblings. (You have to read the book to understand how that happened.) Unfortunately, Wallace also had problems with his parents, particularly with his father. :l I will never get tired of expressing my disdain for this Bad Father Trope in YA. Can’t we have lovable fathers for a change? :p

Now in regards to Eliza and Wallace as a couple, I liked that their relationship was excellently fleshed out. If my memory serves me right, physical appearance wasn’t even described as a catalyst for their love. There were cheesy moments in the book, but romance really wasn’t the main focus of the story.

In the end, I decided to give this book four stars because of its depiction or exploration of mental illness. Wallace reminded me of Mouse from The Problem with Forever (one of my favorite books) because he was a selective mute. He was such an inspiring character because, like Mouse, he didn’t let his condition prevent him from living life to the fullest. As for Eliza, she didn’t show clear symptoms of paranoia (severe anxiety) until the climax, so I was initially confused by the book’s marketing. I realized that this was actually a good thing because it did not give a sense of “exoticness” to mental illness. Throughout the novel, Eliza seemed like a perfectly “normal” and angsty teenager. In other words, I loved that Eliza’s condition didn’t make her any less…human. I had a lot of issues with Eliza, but I understood that the story would have lost its essence if she weren’t such a problematic character. Her growth at the end of book thankfully eclipsed my negative feelings.

Ultimately, I did enjoy this character-driven novel because it made me reflect on significant things like family, introversion, and mental health. I encourage you to add this to your shelf of meaningful YA contemporaries. Now that I’m aware of the author’s talent for emotional play, I am excited to devour more of her works.

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Book Review

A Literary Tribute to K Dramas

I Believe in a Thing Called LoveI Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Thank you, Macmillan, for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Unexpected things happen, but it’s how we react to them, how we learn and evolve from these things that shapes us into who we are. —Desi

The moment I saw the blurb of this book, I was overwhelmed by the desire to get my hands on it. With the exception of Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, I hardly own YA novels that feature Korean/Asian protagonists, let alone characters who love K dramas. Being a fellow Asian and K drama fan, you can only imagine the happiness I felt when I was given the opportunity to read this book early.

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I Believe in a Thing Called Love has an engrossing premise. Desi, an admirable nerd, is used to setting goals and getting what she wants. She excels at everything academic, but she strangely sucks at love. Inspired by her favorite K dramas (and their formulaic happy endings), she devices a supposedly perfect plan to make Luca, her crush, fall for her.

This book had me hooked from the start. It was so funny, relatable, and downright entertaining. Desi’s romantic bloopers, aka “flailures,” were especially giggle-worthy. I felt sorry for her, but I had a hunch that her choleric (and adorably nerdy) personality would eventually pay off. I had fun analyzing her nearly “sociopathic” behavior; she was somehow similar to Amazing Amy of Gone Girl.

Desi’s remarkable intelligence was my favorite aspect of her personality. Basically, she was a well-rounded character; she was excellent in both academics and sports. As someone who took my education seriously back in my high school and college days, I was able to relate to Desi’s tendency to be adorably nerdy. Luca was erudite, too, in his own way, so I also became invested in his character development.

Desi’s relationship with her father was another thing that I enjoyed. They were practically best friends, but it was still apparent that she acknowledged his authority over her. It was also adorable that Desi’s father was the original K drama fan in their family. Without his influence, Desi wouldn’t have come up with a flawless plan to get herself a man.

The diversity in this book also deserved my applause. Both Desi and Luca were people of color, and Fiona, Desi’s bff, was lesbian. Wes, Desi’s second bff, exhibited behavior that made me suspect that he was gay, too. I apologize in advance if I was simply influenced by stereotypes while I analyzed his characterization. Nonetheless, this novel got an A+ from me in terms of racial and sexual diversity.

In retrospect, Desi’s “talent” for manipulation was the main reason why I didn’t give this book a higher rating. Desi was irrevocably an empowered female in light of her agency, but I found it hard to support her every time she intentionally toyed with Luca’s feelings. In totality, Desi was goal-oriented to a fault. Until now, I cannot decide if her story deserves a happy ending because I do not appreciate the objectification of any sex.

This book’s affirmation of the Bad Father stereotype also hampered my enjoyment. I generally liked Luca because of his sweet and artistic personality, but I was disappointed that he predictably had daddy issues. I can hardly wait for YA lit to overcome this trope! :3

Overall, I Believe in a Thing Called Love is a literary tribute to K dramas. Just like K dramas, it will monopolize your attention and give you tons of happy feels. I did not enjoy it to the fullest, but I would recommend it to readers who are looking for a cute and refreshingly diverse book.

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Book Review

Hi again, Sarah Dessen!

Once and for AllOnce and for All by Sarah Dessen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thank you, Penguin Random House, for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I’d had no idea I might be where I was now, on the edge of something with the last person I’d ever expect. —Louna

Once and for All was my second encounter with Sarah Dessen, who’s known as the queen of YA contemporary. Now, I already understand why many people love her books so much. Much like Saint Anything, this book is sweet, light, and pleasantly insightful. I really enjoyed it because it gave me epiphanies about the essence of love, family, and friendship.

Like most of the YA community, I was intrigued by the premise of this book. Louna, the only daughter of a successful wedding planner, harbors a cynical attitude towards true love. For reasons temporarily unknown to readers, she doesn’t believe that it lasts forever. Ambrose, a superficially typical playboy, hopes that he can break down her walls. You might already assume that Louna and Ambrose are endgame. However, there are plot points in this novel that will make you think otherwise. You have been warned. ^^

This book actually caught me off guard because it hit me in the feels so many times. Half of the novel is dedicated to recounting the events that made Louna so reserved and cynical. The said events made my stomach churn with a deep feeling of sympathy. These flashbacks were saddening, but I loved them nonetheless because they really helped me connect with Louna.

I also liked how this book explores the world of wedding planning, which is apparently both fun and stressful. Come to think of it, this book is quite satirical, in a sense that it cleverly depicts how people can be so obsessed with having a perfect and ostentatious wedding, as if it would ensure the success of their marriage. Even in real life, there are couples who spend so much money on wedding planning, only to end up divorced, annulled, or separated after a few weeks, months, or years. Such a high price to pay for a ceremony that affirms a potentially shallow relationship. 😦 Told ya this book is insightful! 😀

Ironically, the last strength of this book is its lack of romance. Essentially, Once and for All has some cheesy scenes, but it is more focused on character development. especially Louna’s. It was inspiring to witness her embrace a new outlook on life and love.

Honestly, the only thing I didn’t like about this book was the rather rushed ending. Louna hurt the feelings of a certain character, and she got away with it so easily. I didn’t want her to suffer, exactly, but I expected that she would experience a more serious consequence.

Overall, I can objectively say that Once and for All is not your typical YA contemporary book. I was pleased by its touching story, as well as its flawed yet well-developed characters. Personally, I will always remember this book because it made me reflect upon society’s misconceptions about weddings/marriage.

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Author Interview

Q & A with Brigid Kemmerer

I recently read Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer. I gave it 4 out of 5 stars in light of its intriguing premise and very meaningful content. You can check out my full review here. I hope that this interview will encourage you to read LTTL when it comes out on April 4, 2017 (next week).

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1. What was your inspiration for LTTL? Were you guided/motivated by a particular experience in life?

“I remember sitting on the couch watching You’ve Got Mail and thinking, “I wish I could rewrite this as a teen story. But darker. Like maybe if someone was leaving letters in a cemetery…” And then it just kept evolving from there until it became its own story.”

2. If you were in Declan’s shoes, would reply to Juliet’s emotional letter? If yes, what would you tell her?

“Well, I’m a 39-year-old mom, so I would probably write back to her with a mother’s perspective and tell her how her memories of her mother are nothing anyone can ever take from her. And I would tell her that grief takes time, and it wasn’t something she could rush. And finally, I would tell her to come over to my house for dinner and cry on my shoulder and it would all be OK.”

3. Both Declan and Juliet have big problems to overcome. With that in mind, which character was the most difficult to write about?

“They were both difficult to write about. Their stories are so emotionally charged. I sobbed over Declan, I sobbed over Juliet, and in Rev’s book, More Than We Can Tell (coming March 2018), I sobbed over him too.”

4. LTTL explores the repercussions of the human tendency to be judgmental or presumptuous. What do you think should we do to overcome it?

“I think that we’ve gotten to this place with society where everything is expected to be fast and immediate. We make snap judgments all the time, based on an incredibly small sampling of information. I think that’s beginning to take a toll on interpersonal relationships. I mean, a lot of people date using an app where you swipe left or right if you’re interested in someone. You’re making a dating judgment from a thumbnail picture! I’m not saying that’s wrong, but there’s no way it can’t bleed into our personal lives and how quickly we judge and react to others around us, and we should be aware of it.”

5. In LTTL, Rev is depicted to quote a verse from the book of Proverbs. How would you react if readers would classify your novel as “Christian”?

“I’d be surprised, since Rev is not the main character, but I’d be okay with it too. I was raised Catholic, and while I’m not religious now, I consider myself a spiritual person, and I love learning about others’ faiths. I find faith and religion to be fascinating, and I love hearing different people’s interpretations of it and learning about their relationship with God.”

6. If you became a teenager again, would you be able to fall in love with someone through an anonymous, pen pal relationship?

“Absolutely!”

7. Briefly describe Declan and Juliet’s perfect date.

“Oh wow. Probably somewhere quiet that they could walk and talk. I live near Annapolis, Maryland, where the book is set, and there are a lot of beaches and waterways here. (We’re on the Chesapeake Bay.) I can see them going to one of the local parks to walk by the water and talk. Holding hands, of course. 🙂

“Thank you so much for having me!”

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About the Author:

Brigid Kemmerer is the author of Letters to the Lost (Bloomsbury; April 4, 2017), a dark, contemporary Young Adult romance;  Thicker Than Water (Kensington, December 29, 2015), a New Adult paranormal mystery with elements of romance; and the YALSA-nominated Elemental series of five Young Adult novels and three e-novellas which Kirkus Reviews calls “refreshingly human paranormal romance” and School Library Journal describes as “a new take on the supernatural genre.” She lives in the Baltimore area with her husband and four sons.

Visit Brigid’s website

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Book Review

Letters to the Judged

Letters to the LostLetters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thank you, Bloomsbury USA Childrens, for sending me an ARC of this book (via NetGalley) in exchange for an honest review.

You were the first person to see all of me, Juliet. The first person who made me feel like I was worth more than a reputation and a record. —Declan

Have you ever experienced the pain of being judged? I bet you have. Sometimes, it can become so hard to ignore what other people say or think about us. We are naturally social beings, conditioned to value our so-called image or reputation. We tend to protect it at all cost in fear of being ostracized by the people in our lives. This shouldn’t be a surprise because we live in a judgmental world, after all.

Letters to the Lost is an insightful exploration of the latter truth. It is the story of Juliet (aka Cemetery Girl) and Declan (aka The Dark), two troubled teenagers who become intimate yet anonymous pen pals. They form a close, cathartic bond through their letters and emails, not knowing that they actually know (and hate) each other in real life. Each has preconceived notions about the other. Juliet sees Declan as a criminal. Declan, on the other hand, sees Juliet as a prima donna. This novel will surely keep you on the edge of your seat as you eagerly wait for them to put two and two together.

Between the two protagonists, Declan was the one who was judged the most. After he crashed his father’s car into a building, people started to see him in a completely negative light. His schoolmates, most of his teachers, and his step-father treated him as a hopeless case, if not someone to be avoided in either fear or contempt. To make things worse, Juliet was initially one of those who couldn’t see beyond his criminal record. In totality, Declan had a miserable life, and reading about it filled my heart with sorrow, as well as a sense of righteous anger. It was frustrating how most of the people in Declan’s life didn’t even bother to understand him nor get to know him.

Declan’s real identity was palpable in his letters/emails as The Dark. He retained his understandably negative outlook on life, but he also showed signs of kindness, intelligence, and even sweetness. His true, adorable character really shone through written communication. Hence, it was sad how most of the people around him caused him to conceal it.

As for Juliet, I found it difficult to like her because as I’ve implied/mentioned earlier, she unfortunately had a tendency to be judgmental. Her prejudices against Declan were often so mean that I found myself wanting to shake her. I was particularly pissed off whenever she took a step away from Declan because she irrationally thought he would hurt or kill her.

Furthermore, I disliked that Juliet was judgmental towards her own father. She idolized her late mother so much that she couldn’t help but see her father as an inferior parent. I felt so smug when a certain plot twist put Juliet to shame. Looking at the bright side, at least Juliet reminded me that it never pays to practice favoritism in your family.

Thankfully, like Declan, Juliet had a much more pleasant attitude in her letters. Since she didn’t know The Dark’s real identity, she was more honest, understanding, and encouraging. This might be insignificant to other readers, but I specifically admired Juliet’s eloquence; her metaphors for pain and loss hit me right in the feels. They were just so evocative!

I cannot end this review without mentioning Rev, Declan’s best friend. Despite his dark/emo facade, Rev was one of my rare sources of happiness in this book. I loved that he grew up in a religious foster family. I grinned when he quoted or alluded to passages from the Bible; I really didn’t care that Declan kinda resented him for doing so. Come to think of it, Rev’s name is not so different from the title “reverend.” Tee-hee. Ultimately, Rev was my favorite character because I admired how he managed to rebuke/edify Declan and “push” him in the right direction. Isn’t that what best friends are for? 😀

Overall, Letters to the Lost was utterly raw and substantial. It was definitely dramatic because Declan and Juliet had so many personal issues to overcome. Ultimately, I enjoyed this book because it perfectly conveyed how our tendency to be judgmental—towards others and ourselves—deprives us from forming meaningful relationships and living life to the fullest. With that in mind, I look forward to reading more of the author’s works.

*The featured image was contributed by Dessa Mae Jacobe (@dessatopia)

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Author Interview

Q & A with Christina June

Hi, booknerds! Dessa and I recently read an ARC of It Started with Goodbye by debut author Christina June.

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We genuinely enjoyed this contemporary retelling of Cinderella (both of us gave it 5 out of 5 stars), and we can hardly wait for the rest of the YA community to read it. If you want to know more about ISWG, feel free to check out our review. We hope that this written interview will encourage you to pick up ISWG when it comes out on May 9, 2017. Happy reading!

1. The title of your book is open to interpretation, so what does it mean to you personally?

The original title of the book was VALEDICTIONS, which is just the long word for saying goodbye, usually at the closing of a letter.  My publishing team came up with something a little more catchy, but the definition of a valediction will appear on the back of the finished copy–both what the dictionary says and Tatum’s more snarky explanation.  I’m glad it survived!  At the beginning of the novel, there are many goodbyes–Tatum to her father, Tatum to her best friend, Tatum to her summer of fun–that turn into new beginnings and opportunities, so I think the title fits well.”

2. What version of Cinderella do you like more, the Grimm version or the Disney version?

I grew up on the Disney version, and Disney-like versions in the fairy tale anthologies my mom would read from at bedtime.  I like that it has a hopeful ending and that Cinderella gets away from her unfortunate home.  But, I do enjoy the Grimm’s version as well.  I like the step-family getting a little justice.  I used an awesome website out of the University of Pittsburgh when I was doing research that lists the Cinderella trope in all the cultures where it occurs.  It’s fascinating how the same story cropped up, just different details, all over the world.”

3. Romance is a minor theme in your novel. Was this done intentionally, and would you describe Tatum and SK’s relationship as true love?

I would certainly say Tatum and SK are a great match and could definitely fall in love down the line.  While romance is pretty central to the original Cinderella story, I purposely made sure all the relationships in Tatum’s life–family and friends–were examined as well.  Not every teen falls in love, or is hoping to, but I believe we all need a strong support network.”

4. Tatum and her stepmother had a really tough relationship. What is your message to those who are in the same situation?

I would hope that readers would feel empowered to stand up for the things that are important to them.  Just because someone you love has a different idea of what happiness or success looks like doesn’t make your dream less valid.”

5. What is the story behind Tatum’s name? (It inevitably reminded us of Channing Tatum) xD

Honestly, it’s just a name I like and not one that I’ve seen much in YA.  It does make me think of Channing Tatum, though, and that’s never a bad thing.”

6. ISWG deals with family and friend issues. Is the book somehow inspired by a significant part of your life?

No, nothing specific from my own life informed this story, but universal emotions certainly did.  I observe a lot of teens struggling with the moment they discover their parents, or other important adults in their lives, come with their own baggage.  It can be a hard pill to swallow, but as we see from Tatum’s story, having that context can be really eye-opening.”

7. What did you like about the process of writing a fairy tale retelling?

I love that fairy tales are easily recognizable and make for a good starting place with a brand new story.  It was really fun taking the classic elements and turning them into something new.  A lot of retellings, especially in YA, are fantasy or science fiction, so I wanted to do a contemporary story with no magic.  It was important to me that Tatum feel like an “everygirl” and not a damsel in distress.”

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About the author:

Christina June writes young adult contemporary fiction when she’s not writing college recommendation letters during her day job as a school counselor.  She loves the little moments in life that help someone discover who they’re meant to become – whether it’s her students or her characters.

Christina is a voracious reader, loves to travel, eats too many cupcakes, and hopes to one day be bicoastal – the east coast of the US and the east coast of Scotland.  She lives just outside Washington DC with her husband and daughter.

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