A Kiss in the Dark

Image result for a kiss in the darkFirst Lines: It’s funny how they say a picture is worth a thousand words, because the one I’m looking at has me pretty speechless.  There’s nothing special about it.  Not to anyone else, anyway.

You know, I feel like it’s been a while since I’ve read a straight-up YA contemporary romance.  It seems like there’s always something else to it than just the drama of high school and I was (weirdly) kind of missing that.  Also, like, that car is really hot.  Growing up in a family where my brothers and dad are all into fixing up cars and me being a history buff, I love looking at old cars.

When the power goes out at a Friday football game, someone kisses Macy Atwood senseless in the dark–and then disappears before the lights come back on.  All Macy knows is that there was something special–and a bit familiar–about that kisser.  Noah Granger, resident bad-boy and recent transfer student, has no problem accepting credit for the kiss, but Macy thinks he’s lying about it.  Especially since a photo resurfaced of Macy and former star football player Joel Hargrove only days before.  It’s all a reminder of how she fell for Joel last year and how her lifelong friendship with Meredith Kopala and Ben Collins went up in literal smoke.  Somehow, what happened last year is tied to this secret kisser, Macy just knows it.  But discovering his identity means opening old wounds with Meredith and Joel and Ben–and discovering what Noah is hiding.  And Macy must ask herself…what if the boy who stole her heart and the boy who stole a kiss are two different people?

Having read Ciocca’s first book, I thought this one looked cute. And the premise behind it is pretty cute. Macy, a former cheerleader and current yearbook photographer, has had most of her friendships implode around her in the past year. She’s struggled to pick up the pieces and create a new identity for herself that didn’t include the best friend she lost and the boy who broke her heart, all in a single night. So when the lights go out and someone kisses her in the dark, Macy is startled to realize this felt familiar, even though she has no idea who did it.

Probably what drove me craziest was the timeline. It jumps back and forth between junior and senior year, which in and of itself is fine. (Even if it is what Ciocca’s last book did too.) But it got so slow sometimes that I went a day or two without reading the book. I get why books do it, but it slows the plot down so much.

I did like the characters, even if I was kind of meh at the beginning. When their personalities and their secrets come out more near the end of the book, that really got my attention. I’m just sad that for a few of them it took that long to get to something meaty.

But what I did respect was that there were times when the story actually did hit on some really interesting topics.  Friendship, responsibility, and trust were common, but also things about identity and forgiveness and what it really means to stand by someone.  And there were a few others that I can’t even mention without spoiling the book.  I respected that it did some things thematically that I don’t see very often.

So, the book was entertaining, even if it wasn’t the greatest. It’s fluff, but it does delve into deeper topics at times.

Something Real

Image result for something real heather demetriosFirst Lines: It took me four years, seven shrinks, three different hair colors, one Zen meditation retreat, and over six hundred mochas to get to this moment.  I step up to the blue velvet backdrop and face the camera.

This is a book that’s been on my to-read list for years, but I always just kind of passed it at the library because I usually already had an armful of books.  But for whatever reason, this time I made room for it.

Seventeen-year-old Bonnie Baker has spent most of her life on TV, along with her twelve siblings as stars of a reality show called Baker’s Dozen.  Since the show cancelled four years earlier, Bonnie’s actually been living a fairly normal life.  She’s gone to high school, she’s had friends, and she’s been able to relax.  And it’s been…nice.  No one knows who she is.  But everything falls apart when Bonnie learns that her mom has signed the whole family on for more seasons of the show.  Bonnie’s mom and the producers won’t let Bonnie quit the world that nearly destroyed her before, and everything Bonnie’s built for herself is now crashing down around her.  Bonnie needs to do something drastic if she’s going to live her life the way she wants to, even if it means exposing more than she wants to.

I’ll be the first to admit that I rarely watch reality TV (in the form of family reality TV, like what you find on TLC). I have no interest in watching families fight on TV or watching as a family of 20 go to the zoo or whatever. But do I watch reality competitions like America’s Got Talent? Yes. And of course, even though I don’t watch those other reality shows, I still hear about then on virtually every commercial break on every channel.

So that was what I was picturing going into this: a Duggar-style family with lots of drama.

I wasn’t far off, but the story exceeded my expectations.

It didn’t start off that way. I struggled through the first fifty pages or so, simply because I A) had a hard time with the invasion of privacy that Bonnie/Chloe (she changes her name to Chloe to avoid the notoriety) deals with on the show and B) Chloe’s spinelessness. She’s a yes-girl, with a complete inability to say no when the show wants her to do something she painfully does not want to. Me, I have no problem stepping on toes in those situations. And since I realized that the issues I was having had nothing to do with the writing or the story, I stuck with it.

I’m glad I did. It kind of rocked my world.

Chloe simply wants a normal life, something that’s virtually impossible when she has 12 siblings and grew up (literally from birth) on TV. But she’s had the last 4 years off-air to discover some version of normalcy: great friends, a crush, and a whole school of people who don’t know about her past. And that all comes crashing down when her mom and stepdad sign back on to do the show without asking any of the kids.

Some of the characters were great. I came to understand Chloe and fight for her. I loved her brother, Benson, and her friends Tessa and Mer. I especially loved her crush Patrick and their government teacher, Mr. Schwartz. But there were an equal number of characters that were disgusting, grasping leeches. Welcome to the world of Reality TV. After I started seeing how Chloe’s world was intent on forming her into a demented doll, I was 100% on her side. And it was so hard to fathom how some people could see the damage it was doing to her and ask her to give more.

We already knew there was a dark side to reality TV, but seeing it through a character that you start to fall in love with was really hard. Like, I’m pretty sure I will never be able to watch reality TV the same way again.

Worth the read.

Daughter of the Siren Queen (Daughter of the Pirate King, #2)

Image result for daughter of the siren queenFirst Lines: The sound of my knife slitting across a throat feels much too loud in the darkness.  I catch the pirate before his corpse hits the ground and gently lower him the rest of the way.

You know, there aren’t a lot of duologies out there, and it’s kind of interesting to see how a story arcs over only 2 books.  But like, I also wasn’t going to turn this down when it has female pirates and clever plot twists and sirens.  Can’t turn that down.

*Potential Series Spoilers Ahead*

Alosa has finally done it: she’s reunited the three pieces of the legendary treasure map and captured the pirates who tortured her.  The only thing that unsettles Alosa is that the devilishly handsome enemy-turned-first-mate, Riden, is loyal and taking orders from her…but she isn’t sure it’ll always stay that way.  Besides, he’s a distraction when all she wants is to have Vordan, the man who tortured her, face her father’s justice.  But when Vordan tells Alosa a secret her father has kept for years, she finds herself in a deadly race to outpace her father.  The Pirate King isn’t going to let Alosa wander free knowing what she does…but Alosa isn’t just the daughter of the Pirate King.  She’s also daughter of the Siren Queen, and she’s going to use it.

So when I read the first book in this series, I thought it was interesting. Pirates (which are awesome), sirens (which were interesting), and a hot first mate, OH MY! I noted that there were some issues with the writing from time to time, but it was something I could overlook.

Not this time.

Oh my God, the beginning was so slow. I struggled to even want to pick up the book for like the first sixty pages. It wasn’t because I’d forgotten what had happened or who the characters were; I read the first book only a few months ago and still remembered most of it. It was just irritatingly slow and the writing was frustrating to me. There were parts that just…ugh. It was a chore.

Thankfully, after I got past the beginning, things started to get more interesting. And this mostly came in the form of Alosa’s inner conflict. When she started being vulnerable to those around her, then I bought in. But for whatever reason (and I usually love a good fight), I just could not get very far into this whole Pirates vs. Pirates conflict without wanting to chuck the book across the room.

The book does do some interesting things. The pirate stuff and the siren stuff are expounded on more and we get to explore Alosa’s abilities more. Those were interesting. And there are some good cliffhangers that drew me in. I even started reading this during commercials while watching a show because I wanted to keep reading.

I know I sound pretty negative at the beginning, but don’t completely write this off either. Just make sure it’s actually something you’re interested in reading before committing because, if you’re like me, you’ll question your decision at least once.

A Very Large Expanse of Sea

Image result for a very large expanse of seaFirst Lines: We always seemed to be moving, always for the better, always to make our lives better, whatever.  I couldn’t keep up with the emotional whiplash.  I’d attended so many elementary schools and middle schools I couldn’t keep their names straight anymore but this, this switching high schools all the time thing was really making me want to die.

Let me just say this before we get started: I’m old enough to remember, vaguely, what it was like after 9/11 (a pivotal moment for Shirin, our main character).  And, even though I’ve read books about 9/11 before, this was from a completely different perspective and I was alternatively fascinated and terrified.  I loved that it would be a new perspective, but I was terrified that it either wouldn’t live up to my expectations or that it would rock my world more than I could handle.

It’s 2002, less than a year after 9/11 and sixteen-year-old Shirin, a Muslim-American, is tired of being stereotyped.  She is not a terrorist.  She was born in America so she can’t “go home” to the Middle East.  The rude stares, comments, and physical violence never stops, all because of her race, her religion, and the hijab she chooses to wear every day.  So she’s built up her walls and refuses to let anyone past her snarky defenses except her brother Navid.  To unwind, she spends her time listening to music and break-dancing in her brother’s crew.  But Ocean James changes everyone.  It seems like he’s the first person to actually see her in…well, ages.  The fact that he comes from an entirely different world than hers terrifies Shirin.  And it’s been so long since she’s let down her walls that she isn’t sure she knows how to.

This is the book I have been waiting for.

It started months (if not years) ago when my friend, a woman of Persian descent with two young teenage daughters, was looking for cultural YA books that they could read. She wanted something clean (her girls balk at anything too mature–one refused to watch It’s a Wonderful Life because the pharmacist abuses young George Bailey) but she wanted it to talk about diversity.

I can finally tell her I’ve found it.

Shirin likes to be invisible, but she won’t be the welcome mat that you walk on. She’s just learned that as a young woman of color who wears a hijab that it’s better to avoid notice. Those who don’t notice you can’t target you. But when someone does come at her, she knows to just let it roll off her. People are jerks and Shirin is happy to be a jerk back to them.

Ocean is pretty opposite of her. Happy-go-lucky and popular, Ocean has never dealt with the kinds of abuse Shirin faces daily. So he feels hurt every time Shirin puts up a wall toward him. She doesn’t understand why he’s talking to her–what’s in it for him?–and he doesn’t understand why she thinks he has ulterior motives.

This book is all about what makes us different, whether it’s Shirin or Ocean or even some of the other characters. (I’m particularly fond of Jacobi, one of Navid’s friends.) Sometimes those differences make us special and sometimes they make us a target. But this is about understanding why people belittle others, why they fear those who stand out. And it’s awesome.

I can’t even pretend to know what it was like being someone like Shirin in 2002, when the hate rhetoric was so fresh still. The stuff people say to her…it’s awful. And I know it can’t be all made up. It feels far too real for that. Even when it hurts the most, you know that most of this is based on something that happened to someone. There’s just this honesty about it that feels like Mafi is sharing her own story, in a way. And I’m glad we’re finally in a place where this book is not only accepted by seems to be garnering some pretty spectacular attention.

And for those of you (like me) old enough to remember what technology was like pre-2005ish, this is a total blast from the past and I found it hilarious.  Things like VCRs, AIM, even the fact that every single text message cost money.  I’d forgotten about some of this and I was totally giggling to myself about it all.  I had dial-up flashbacks.

This book was so moving and perfect. And for anyone who does have Persian/Muslim family members or friends, I think it connects in a different way. This was a delight.

The Comeback Season

Image result for the comeback season jennifer e smithFirst Lines: Opening Day at Wrigley Field isn’t always April 8.  It’s not like Christmas or the Fourth of July, with their dependable calendar slots, the reassurance of a fixed number.

This poor book has been languishing on my Goodreads since 2009.  Yes, 2009.  And it’s probably been living on my bookshelves since like 2015 or so.  I don’t even remember how I got it and I remember how I got almost every book on my shelves.  So…I decided it was probably time to read it, you know?  And while I’m not a huge baseball fan or a Chicago Cubs fan, I do understand sports fanatics, seeing as I am one for NFL football.

Ryan Walsh should be in class.  She should be anywhere but at Wrigley Field on opening day, to be honest, but here she is, skipping school to watch the Cubbies.  It doesn’t matter that she should be worried about failing classes or that this is the first time in five years she actually might be happy.  She’s finally returning to the place her father loved so much.  And this, the fifth anniversary of his death, seems like a fitting memorial.  Good luck is often rare at Wrigley, but it’s there Ryan meets Nick, the new kid at her school who loves the Cubs as much as she does.  But Nick carries a heavy secret that makes Ryan wonder if hope is dangerous and that this may not be the comeback season she was waiting for.

Being a Midwesterner myself (though not a Cubs fan), I am very familiar with Cubbies culture, being a fan of a team with a yearly losing record, and life in the Midwest. It was nice to see so many things in it that I could relate to.

For probably 4/5 of the story, I was totally with it. It started a little slow getting to know Ryan and Nick (the third person narrator didn’t always help that), but once we were following them for a decent amount of time, I liked them. Ryan is still mourning the death of her father, who was her hero and died five years ago. Nick is new to school, slightly popular, but finds a kindred soul in Ryan as they partner up to do a math project about the Cubs. But both of them are keeping secrets, things that are easier to pretend aren’t true when they’re with each other.

The story was interesting, a little on the slow side, but it kept me reading. The only part of the whole thing that lost me was the ending. It was so ambiguous that I wasn’t actually sure what happened and that really bothered me. Ambiguity can be a good thing, but there was too much of it here.  Ok, like, you remember in The Fault in Our Stars how Hazel and Gus were worked up about the ending of their favorite book and go to Amsterdam to meet the author to ask about it?  Because he just stopped it so abruptly, like in the middle of a sentence or something weird like that?  This was kind of like that, though there was, at least marginally, more closure than that.

A number of topics are covered in this and I thought they were well done. There was something sweet about this book while being tied down by some very heavy topics.

There’s Someone Inside Your House

Image result for there's someone inside your houseFirst Lines: The egg-shaped timer was on the welcome mat when she came home.  Haley Whitehall glanced over her shoulder, as if expecting someone to be behind her.

I checked this out in like, September, to read before Halloween.  Well, once I decided to do the Harry Potter rereads, this got pushed to the back burner.  And after renewing the book as many times as my library would allow me, it was time to either read it or return it.  So I read it.

Makani Young thought she’d left her dark past behind when she left Hawaii for the cornfields of Nebraska.  She’s found a few new friends and she’s starting to fall for the quiet Ollie Larsson, but her past won’t leave her alone.  Then, one by one, teens at her high school begin dying in gruesome murders, each more disturbing than the last.  As the danger draws closer to her, Makani realizes she needs to come to terms with her past and her growing feelings for Ollie.

I, admittedly, have never been much into slasher movies. I’ve seen maybe 1-2 in my life and I definitely fell asleep during one because there was no plot. But since this was Stephanie Perkins, I had higher expectations.

There was definitely plot here. Makani has a secret she doesn’t want to tell anyone. A killer strikes the town and at first everyone is just devastated at the senseless death. But as the bodies pile up, the fear in the town becomes tangible.  It sort of reminded me a little of In Cold Blood in some ways–“safe” town rocked by tragedy, brutal killings, etc.

I think that was actually my favorite part of this book: the pervasive fear that slowly grew. The town reacted slowly at first, thinking the typical things: it’s a terrible tragedy, a girl gone too soon, etc. And then as one body turned into two and two into three, the town gets a very real dose of fear. It’s not just the main characters that are freaking out–it’s everyone. Everyone does their best never to be alone. People come up with elaborate schedules to stay together. It’s things like this that really drill home the eeriness of the story.

And I did actually like that eerie feeling. We find out the killer much sooner than I had anticipated, but I guess I’m just used to the mystery novels of Agatha Christie and Mary Higgins Clark. I forgot that slasher stories and mysteries are not the same thing. But even once we knew who the killer was, the suspense didn’t diminish. We still didn’t know why.

So in terms of plot and suspense, this was really good.

As for the characters…I liked them. They were different than the leads you typically see in horror films. Makani is half-Hawaiian, half-African-American. New to Nebraska, it’s literally just corn fields to her. Her best friend is transitioning from female to male and her crush is a semi-goth dude with pink hair. Like, you would never see that in a movie. And I appreciated that diversity.  (Note: Apparently Netflix has acquired the rights to this and is turning it into a movie for 2019?  That’s what I hear.)

And admittedly, they didn’t do the stupid things most horror movie teens do, like going into the basement or the shed that weird noises are coming from. But with so much going on in the plot, it was hard to feel like I really got to know the characters. Especially when they’re all so secretive the whole time.

And I know that a lot of teens experience a lot of horrible things (hazing, absent parents, drugs, deaths in the family, etc.) but this was really dark on that front for me. Content should be rated M for Mature. There’s a veritable minefield here. Originally, I’d been hoping this was something I could recommend to my middle schoolers, but that’s a big fat NOPE.

It was good. Will I read it again? No. But it was worth the first read.