Top Ten Books That Changed My Life

Hey everyone!  So there was this thing on Twitter last week about YA authors talking about finding your own story.  And, one thing led to another in my brain, and I was thinking about books that have made me look at the world differently.  I’m not necessarily going to be talking about book series that I obsessed over or that are some giant awesome fandom.  I’m going to be talking a lot about YA books that made me realize things about life.  They’re the books I probably can’t stop thinking about.

While this is obviously a little more on the personal side for me, I hope that you find something here that can/has changed your life.

Oh, and if you’re worried about these all being heavy tear-jerkers, they’re not.  Some are quite light and/or funny.  That doesn’t mean they can’t be life changing too.

Top Ten Books That Changed My Life

Image result for life changing

1. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Let’s get the most obvious out of the way first.  I can’t even pretend that Harry Potter was not the most significant series in my entire life.  It was one of the earliest chapter books I can remember reading as a kid with my mom.  On top of that, there were all those themes about overcoming corruption and what it means to be a friend and the dangers of prejudice (mudbloods, etc.).  There is so much about life layered away in those books that I think I would be failing as a blogger if I didn’t include it.

2. Stolen: A Letter to my Captor by Lucy Christopher

This is not a widely known story, and I think that’s part of the reason it’s so life changing.  Written as a letter from a girl to her kidnapper, it details everything the girl was thinking and experiencing during her captivity in the Outback of Australia.  Not only is it beautifully written, but it shows us that even though people can be truly horrible and evil, they can have the capacity for goodness…no one’s entirely good or evil.

3. Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

I can remember reading this in the car on vacation years ago and trying not to let the five other people in the vehicle know that I was crying.  It’s so powerful to watch Sam discover that she’s been living her life all wrong and that she’d missed out on all these amazing people because she was too wrapped up in herself and trying to be cool.  It’s heartbreaking but soooo good.

4. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

An interesting choice for this list, to be sure.  But here’s why: Cath is the same shy, quiet, bookish, and occasionally lost girl that I was in college (and still can be today).  She was real.  And the fact that she was introverted and would ask for personal space and whatever else she needed was a revelation.  Everything in romantic comedies and love stories always had everything moving so fast.  When I knew that wasn’t me and that wasn’t how my life would go, I’d feel depressed.  But finding Cath and discovering that relationships can move at whatever pace the couple is ok with…that was life changing.

5. The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

Elisa is completely and totally the reason this book is on the list.  I connected with her self-conscious hopelessness from the very beginning.  She’s forced into a situation where she’s completely out of her element and she’s forced to adapt, even against her will.  Her personal revolution is undeniably inspiring and when you finish reading this book, you feel like you can move mountains too.

6. If I Stay by Gayle Forman

Whenever I need a tear-jerker, this is my go-to movie AND book.  It’s that ultimate question of what do you live for when it feels like there’s nothing left to live for?  I really like the way the story’s written and its powerful messages of family and love.  I don’t think I will ever recover from this book.  Nor do I want to.

7. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I teach this book every year, and I have to say it’s just so beautiful.  It’s all about the absolute power of the written word.  It shows the dangers of Nazi Germany and the systemic destruction of “other”.  It shows the pain of loss and the slow growth of hope.  It shows the power of the family you choose to call your own, not the one you were born into.  I just…like I am so in love with this book and its message that I have seriously debated about naming a child of mine Liesl.

8. The Goddess Test by Aimee Carter

There’s a reason that this is my go-to reread on my shelf.  Yes, I vastly enjoy the romance and the twist on Greek mythology, but it’s more than that.  Stay with me here: I grew up Catholic and I was never quite satisfied with what the afterlife was supposed to look like.  Pearly gates, streets of gold, etc., or an eternity of burning.  That’s it.  I didn’t care for that.  This book was the first book where I actually found a way of talking about life after death in a way that I could get behind.  So whenever I experience loss in my life, this is the first book I go back to because it helps me feel grounded in what I believe.  If that makes me some kind of heretic, then so be it.

9. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

I mean seriously, could I make this list without this book either?  I’ve legitimately used quotes from this book in college essays.  I’m not joking.  It’s cynical and doesn’t sound like any teenager I’ve ever met in its use of vocabulary or metaphors, but what Gus and Hazel are going through is all too real and shows you just how fragile life can be.  And how powerful love can be, even when it feels finite.  Love is infinite.

10. Sing Me to Sleep by Angela Morrison

This book destroyed me.  It’s very similar in themes to TFioS, but the tone is completely different.  Beth finally starts coming into some confidence and starts to realize her worth, especially as she begins to get close to someone else.  But love is always complicated and things get messy.  It just helps show that sometimes we think we know someone but there’s always more to learn.  And I also really love that music has been twisted into the whole story because music is also a powerful force.


Romeo Redeemed (Juliet Immortal, #2)

Image result for romeo redeemedFirst Lines: We reach the lonely hilltop just as the sun sets over Verona.  Golden light bleeds to a crimson stain that spreads across the city, dipping into every secret place, marking every shadow.  Just as her blood seeped from her chest…spread out to coat the stones of the tomb.  Cold, mute stones.  They will keep my terrible secret.  Juliet is dead, and her blood is on my hands.

After being pleasantly surprised by the previous book in the duology, I had to give this a go.  Besides, who doesn’t love when Romeo and Juliet involves immortals, good vs. evil, and more insta-love?

*Slight Chance of Series Spoilers Ahead*

Because of his actions, Romeo is doomed to spend the rest of eternity stuck inside a rotting corpse.  But when given the chance to redeem himself, he jumps at the chance, even though it’s not going to be easy.  He needs to travel back in time and save the life of Ariel Dragland.  Unbeknownst to Ariel, she’s incredibly important to both the Ambassadors of Light and the Mercenaries, the two powers of good and evil.  Romeo must make her fall in love and believe in love–all before her darker tendencies make her a target for the Mercenaries.  While it all starts as a lie, Romeo soon finds himself drawn to Ariel for real.  Soon, he’ll do what is needed to protect her.  But when Ariel is lead to believe that their love is a lie, her darker tendencies will put them both at risk and may end what they’ve started.

Hmm. I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t like this as much as the first book, but at least I think I can articulate why.

First of all, I thought it was nice to see Romeo’s side of the story. I liked seeing what was different, how things were flipped to fit his telling. He’s still a tortured, conflicted soul, but it was fun to get into his headspace for a change.

The trouble with this story started quickly enough for me. Because Romeo’s trying to save a girl that didn’t survive the first book, we’re basically in a parallel universe. There are variations to the characters, to the plot, etc., from what we learned about in the first book. I’ve never been a fan of parallel universe stories. I like linear timelines. I like knowing that what I know about the story is true, not that it will be different in this world. It’s a little thing, but it bothers me.

Look, I understand why changes needed to be made. In many respects, this is the same story as Juliet Immortal. Same characters, some of the same/similar events. If they weren’t changed, this would be incredibly boring. But as it was, I was still kind of bored by the whole thing.

And obviously, the characters are incredibly impulsive. In order for two people to fall in love in 3 days, yeah, they’d both have to be pretty impulsive. It actually gets a little annoying that they don’t think anything through before they do it.  I’m a planner and pretty much not impulsive at all.  So yeah, it irritated me.

Actually, what I ended up really liking were the very few scenes that happened in 1304 Verona, when the story jumped back in time. Those ended up being far more fascinating than anything else this story had to offer.

So yeah, it may not have been perfect. It wasn’t even always interesting. But I can still appreciate how she put her own spin on this classic tale and reinvented it. I did enjoy that.

Truly Devious (Truly Devious, #1)

Image result for truly deviousFirst Lines: Look! a riddle!  Time for fun!  Should we use a rope or gun?  Knives are sharp and gleam so pretty, Poison’s slow, which is a pity.  Hanging’s a ropy way to go, a broken head, a nasty fall, a car colliding with a wall.  Bombs make a very jolly noise.  Such ways to punish naughty boys!  What shall we use?  We can’t decide.  Just like you cannot run or hide.

So I love Maureen Johnson as a person.  Her Twitter account is outrageously funny.  But this book really wasn’t on my radar until I saw the hype it was getting.  I decided I probably had to read it, even though I feel like for the most part I’ve outgrown the mystery phase I went through in middle school.

Ellingham Academy is a famous private school in Vermont, where only the best and brightest artists and thinkers go.  It was a school started by Albert Ellingham, who wanted to make a place where learning was a game and students could focus on what interested them.  But shortly after the school opened, Ellingham’s wife and daughter were kidnapped.  The only clue was a riddle detailing different ways to kill someone.  (See: first lines.)  It was signed Truly Devious, and this case became one of the most famous unsolved cases in America.  Enter Stevie Bell, a true-crime aficionado whose greatest dream is to solve the Ellingham case and become an FBI agent.  But coming to school at Ellingham is going to take up a lot of her time, especially as she gets to know her strange housemates: the welder, the writer, the artist, the actor, and the video game designer.  Everything changes the moment Truly Devious returns and murders a student.  It seems Truly Devious has returned from the grave and gotten away with murder.

As I expected, this book retained some of Johnson’s quirkiness.  I like quirky, and it’s just odd enough to bring some humor and levity to this murder mystery.  It’s an incredibly clever story, modeled after the mysteries of Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, just to name a few. Having been an avid Christie fan as a teen, I saw many parallels to those specifically.

Stevie is a wannabe FBI agent. She’s obsessed with criminology, always reading about it and listening to podcasts and trying to solve cold cases. But it also means she’s well aware of how investigations work and what she needs to look for as a detective. In fact, she has traits similar to Sherlock, able to make huge deductions about a person based on scraps of evidence (a tan, an expensive watch, etc.).  So it was fun to read about a teenager who knew exactly what do to, even though she’s never actually dealt with a dead body before.

The story bounces between going back to 1936 when the Ellingham kidnappings happened and the present. Stevie’s obsession with the kidnappings shows us all the evidence of the case so we can get a better idea of what happened. And in the present, when Truly Devious returns, we see that unfold as well.

The mysteries were very clever. There are a lot of riddles in this book, a lot of loose ends that you need to try to put together. And, because this is a trilogy, there are cliffhangers that leave you feeling pretty unsatisfied at the end. I was hoping for more than I got. But I did enjoy the ride, considering there were little things along the way that didn’t feel right and then your instincts were proved right at the end.

There are quite a few characters that, because there are a lot of them, mostly come off feeling somewhat flat. But I enjoyed reading about them. Everyone who comes to Ellingham is quirky because they’re supposed to be passionate and great at whatever their passions are. Stevie’s is crime, but her roommates include a writer, a welder, a video game designer, an actor, and an artist. And every one of them is weird in their own rights. Some of them are likable because of it. Others are not, but that’s also kind of the point.  They’re being true to themselves.

I’m interested to see what the sequel brings. Hopefully I won’t have lost the thread of this story by the time it comes out.

Freya (Freya, #1)

Image result for freya matthew laurenceFirst Lines: I live in a mental hospital.  I’m not actually crazy; I just like it here.  The Inward Care Center has a lot going for it.  They give you clean clothes and neat slippers, feed you, and protect you, and nobody questions the bizarre.

Ok, so this was a book I had never heard of before.  I was walking through my library and thanks to The Last Kingdom, I’m more interested in Norse Mythology now.  A book about Freya?  I was willing to try it.  And let’s not forget to mention that this cover is absolutely awesome.  I love the bright colors, graffiti, and the absolute sass rolling off that model.  If the book was anything like the cover, I was in.

Sara Vanadi is more than she appears.  In her hey-day, she was Freya, goddess of love, beauty, war, and death.  But because of the direction the modern world has taken, she’s largely forgotten.  Believers are hard to come by, which really sucks when your power comes from believers.  She’s been laying low for decades when a corporation comes to her with a deal: join us and receive power and believers–or refuse and die.  It’s a tough decision for Sara to make, so she chooses neither and escapes with her new friend, Nathan.  With the power of humans growing so greatly that they are determined to control the divine, Sara knows she needs to fight back.  But first she needs real clothes.

I vastly enjoyed that. It was funny and exciting and suspenseful and interesting.

Sara and the other gods are delightfully flawed, but I’ll speak about Sara since she’s the main character. So even though (or perhaps because) she’s a goddess, she’s got a lot of flaws. She’s short-sighted, vengeful, impatient, and brutal toward enemies. But she’s also witty, clever, and able to analyze a situation from multiple angles in seconds. You really do start to like her from the very beginning despite her flaws. And it was actually fun to read about a character who was that flawed and really didn’t care. She wasn’t ever really questioning her decisions. If she made a mistake, she shrugged it off and kept going. It was kind of awesome.

Also, she’s incredibly sassy.  I adore that in characters, and this was great.  Her wit and cleverness really come out in her sass.

My one qualm with this book was her pal, Nathan. For being a main character, he is decidedly one-dimensional. I mean, even the villains feel almost three-dimensional but her best friend is flat? What kind of sense does that make? Nathan was a window dressing in this story, there for good looks and when Sara needed him. That was about it. I wish he’d had more of a role, or at least that we could see more about him.

The plot/premise is absolutely ridiculous and I loved every second of it. I mean, there’s an agency that collects old gods and goddesses? Ok, sure. Sara wants to go into hiding from them? Totally get that survival feeling. So where does Sara go to hide? Disney World. It’s just fantastic and so so funny.  And it makes some wicked good sense the whole time.  I loved the absurd feeling of the whole thing.

The action is definitely worth it. There are excellent fight scenes, there’s a lot of espionage and intrigue, and there’s a lot of set-up early on to stuff to come later and you just know it’s going to be good. I stayed up late to finish this book because I started getting to the really good stuff just before midnight. When there’s that much action, you can’t just put it down and pick it up tomorrow. That ruins the fun.

Anyway, this was absolutely delightful. I really enjoyed this.  And I’m really looking forward to the sequel, which promises to be equally ridiculous, and really, there are some days when you just need that complete lack of rationality.

Juliet Immortal (Juliet Immortal, #1)

Image result for juliet immortalFirst Lines: Tonight, he could have come through the door–the castello is quiet, even the servants asleep in their beds, and Nurse would have let him in–but he chooses the window, climbing through the tangle of night flowers, carrying petals in on his clothes.

When I did that Best Retold Fairy Tales post last week, I was reminded of my respect for Stacey Jay.  And I was reminded that she still had books I hadn’t read.  Since I’m a big Shakespeare fan and a lover of all things weird, I thought this sounded perfect.

Juliet Capulet didn’t take her own life.  She was murdered by the one person she thought she loved, that was her soulmate: Romeo Montague.  He killed her to ensure his immortality.  What Romeo didn’t plan on was that Juliet would become immortal as well–and his sworn enemy as a member of the Ambassadors of Light.  For seven hundred years, Juliet has fought to keep the love of soulmates pure, to keep them from falling to the darkness that destroyed her life.  Meanwhile, Romeo is trying to destroy these soulmates.  But now things are different.  Juliet has her own forbidden new love and Romeo will destroy their happiness.

There’s something about Stacey Jay’s writing that always engages me. No matter what she’s writing, I find myself drawn into the stories quickly and the action just keeps on coming. It’s fantastic.

In this story, the tale of Romeo and Juliet isn’t quite what Shakespeare wrote it as. Romeo killed Juliet to make himself immortal–and Juliet took a vow to be the eternal light to his darkness. They, along with others, are always drawn to soulmates. Juliet is supposed to get them to fall in love with each other while Romeo is supposed to turn them against each other with promises of eternal life if they kill their soulmate. It’s an interesting premise and plays out better than it probably sounds.

Both Romeo and Juliet are far more complex than you originally think them to be. Juliet isn’t the naive young girl she was in Verona. She’s bitter now, vengeful. But she desperately wants to keep soulmates together to give them the love she thought she had before it was ripped away. Romeo comes across as twisted and vicious, but throughout the story you see that he may not be as evil as he portrays himself to be.

And the plot was pretty exciting! I kept reading a chapter or so then getting pulled back in because something else happened that I wasn’t expecting. There are very few dull moments in this book.  There’s quite a bit of backstabbing and betrayal, there are characters of questionable allegiance, there’s world building (with the immortal groups), and there are some actual fight scenes.  It really was constantly interesting.

I will also say that there is a “twist” in this book that, if you’re very familiar with Shakespeare’s play, isn’t as surprising as it may be otherwise.  With a couple of brief hints, I pretty much had that one pegged.  Still, I liked that it was inventive enough to go there.  That sounds completely cryptic and good luck deciphering what I mean by that.

Stacey Jay is completely underrated as a writer. While this story did play into many cliches, it was still so fun to read.

Bookishly Ever After (Ever After, #1)

Image result for bookishly ever afterFirst Lines: I rocked forward, balancing my book on my knees and tried to ignore the yelling and chatter around me.  The edge of the cafeteria bench dug into my legs, practically cutting off my circulation, but I barely noticed.  Em elbowed me, leaning over to hiss in my ear, “Seriously, Feebs, put that down.  You look like a freak.”  “Uh huh.  Just one more page…it’s getting good.”

Let’s be honest.  Don’t pretend you have never been in the exact same position as Phoebe in these opening lines, where there’s mass chaos going on around you and you tune everything out to keep reading your book.  Been there, done that, would absolutely visit again.  But that’s what drew me in about this book: even from just the book jacket, it seemed to get me.  And I wanted to see if that continued.

If the world were perfect, Phoebe’s life would be like a YA novel, one with magic and a hot paranormal love interest.  Unfortunately, that does not match up with her experiences as a high school junior at all.  When Phoebe finds out her friend Dev, the hottest guy in the clarinet section, might actually have a crush on Phoebe, she does what she knows: she turns to her favorite books for help.  How should she act?  What should she say?  If her favorite heroines can do it, then so can Phoebe.  So she tries to overhaul her personality to match them.  But if her plan fails, can she go back to simply crushing on fictional boys again?

First of all, I don’t think I’ve ever read about a heroine as much like me as Phoebe. She’s the kind of girl who brings her book to lunch and ends up ignoring her friends because she can’t put the book down. She’s not great at social interactions, so she relies on book characters for help. She knits which is something I almost never see characters (especially YA characters) doing. I mean, nearly everything about her was me to a T, warts and all. It was kind of stunning.  (I don’t mean literal warts…just that she’s got my not-so-great traits as well.)

I also liked that the story’s romance took time. We start this story in like, November, and it ends in May. There’s time for Phoebe’s feelings to grow naturally without feeling stalkerish. There’s time for her to fall apart and piece herself back together. So I really liked that. It felt more realistic.

It did, however, slow the story down. Especially when Phoebe included excerpts of her favorite books (which are, unfortunately, completely fictional, as I would really like to read a couple of them). There were moments where it just felt like nothing was happening, or the same thing kept happening over and over.

There are a few reviews I’ve seen that have complained about how it follows so many YA/romance cliches and all that.  But like, I kind of expected it.  I was looking for a cute love story and that’s what I got.  Tropes and all.

It was just a cute story. It wasn’t perfect, but I did wholly appreciate the fact that the main character was a huge book nerd and that her friends/family reacted the way that many of mine react to my reading. I just thought it was nice that nerd girls were finally appropriately written about, rather than a lot of books where they say they’re readers but you never see them with a book the whole story. Phoebe gets it.

Before the Devil Breaks You (The Diviners, #3)

Image result for before the devil breaks youFirst Lines: Thick evening fog clung to the forlorn banks of Ward’s Island, turning it into a ghost itself. Across the dark calm of the East River, the glorious neon whirl of Manhattan was in full jazz-age bloom–glamorous clubs, basement speakeasies, illegal booze, all of it enjoyed by live-fast-forget-tomorrow flappers and Dapper Dons eager to throw off their cares and Charleston their way into tomorrow’s hangover.

So as you all know, I’m a fan of Libba Bray and books that are weird.  I’ve been following this Diviners series, which is definitely weird and sometimes super creepy.  So naturally, this was pretty high on my to-read list.

*Potential Series Spoilers Ahead*

It’s been a rough six months for the Diviners.  After overcoming the sleeping sickness that claimed two of their own, all the Diviners want are answers.  They want to know why they have these abilities–why this band of misfits?  But a new terror is brewing.  Out on Ward’s Island sits a mental hospital haunted by the ghosts of people long forgotten–ghosts that have ties to the man in the stovepipe hat, the King of Crows.  With stories of murder and possession captivating New York, the Diviners must take action.  They must take on these ghosts, which brings them face-to-face with the King of Crows.  But as secrets come to light, loyalties are questioned and the Diviners will question everything they’ve ever known about themselves.  All the while, a fight is brewing for the very soul of the nation–a fight that may claim the Diviners themselves.

This is a very very rare thing, but I felt like this Libba Bray book was kind of a miss for me. Not everything was bad, but I just couldn’t get into this the way I had the previous books.

Part of the problem, admittedly, is that I just hate the Roaring 20s.  The selfishness, the egos, the excess, the blatant disregard for rules.  It all drives me insane.  Everyone thinks they’re the coolest thing since sliced bread.  Ugh.  If it weren’t for Bray’s name being on this book, I wouldn’t be reading it at all.

But I very much like the characters. Evie and Sam’s banter is hysterical. Memphis’s poetry is beautiful. Henry and Ling’s optimism in the face of struggle is endearing. Theta’s struggle to overcome her past and make a name of herself is what most of us are trying to do in one way or another.  Each and every one of them has a struggle that pulls us in.

Although I will say it took me a while to get back to liking them. Part of it was because it’s been a long time since I read Lair of Dreams and I didn’t exactly remember everyone. But this book did a good job of casually reminding us about all of the characters and whatever their current goals are (like Evie keeping her radio show, Sam trying to find his mother, etc.).

What I really struggled with on this book was the fact that there’s this huge mystery in the book and it just kept dragging on and on without any progress, or so it felt. We have all of these big questions, which are absolutely crucial to the story, and it felt like we were never getting any answers. The fact that we’re following 6-8 character perspectives meant the pacing was even slower because they all have something else going on outside of Diviner business. It started to feel like a hamster wheel; we were moving but we weren’t getting anywhere.

And probably partially because I don’t remember the smaller details of the first two books, there were parts in this book that didn’t make as much sense as they could have. I mean, that’s what happens when you read books as they come out.

I still like the Diviners angle, how they’ve shown themselves to society and have to deal with that. I think all of that is pretty interesting. I like how different their powers are, but how well they interact with each other.

Oh, and something else that made this hard to read? Even though it is well done, many parts of this book have stark parallels to the news of the past 2 years. This seems to have been intentional, especially since much of what we’re seeing America revert to now is, in fact, something America already saw 100 years ago. But as someone who is struggling to make it through the news and frequently has to unplug from all the negativity, this was just more stress. There were times I had to put the book down because I just couldn’t deal with it anymore.

Libba Bray left a note in her historical note and I think it’s just so poignant.  It says:

“We are a country built by immigrants, dreams, daring, and opportunity.  We are a country built by the horrors of slavery and genocide, the injustice of racism and exclusion.  These realities exist side by side.  It is our past and our present.  The future is unwritten.  This book is about ghosts.  For we live in a haunted house.”

So yeah. It’s not a bad book, but it was sometimes a book that was difficult to want to keep reading.