Posted in Shattering Stigmas

Q&A with Erin Hahn, Author of “You’d Be Mine” and “More Than Maybe”

I’m so excited to welcome author Erin Hahn to the blog today. I talked to Erin about her heartbreakingly beautiful debut You’d Be Mine and her highly anticipated sophomore novel More Than Maybe. You can buy You’d Be Mine on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository and IndieBound. You can pre-order More Than Maybe, out May 12, 2020, on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository and IndieBound. You can find Erin on her website, Twitter and Instagram. And if you love music and You’d Be Mine, check out Erin’s playlist here. Heck, listen to it while you read this interview…

Taylor Tracy: One of the goals of Shattering Stigmas is to dismantle the stigma against mental illness by creating a safe space for people to discuss and raise awareness about mental health via their favorite mental health reads and personal experiences. What does mental health awareness mean to you and how does it intersect with your creative process?

Erin Hahn: I love the term “safe space”, because I was a teen when the internet first went World Wide and changed the dynamic of sharing personal experiences. The anonymity of the internet (particularly before social media) felt like a safe space to be real. It seemed at the time that you could blog your journey and strangers could read it and there was no judgment. Except there absolutely was! And that same anonymity that the bloggers felt, protected the often cruel readers too. It was a painful realization that hurt so many young people and adults alike and scared many people back into their shame-filled shells.

Books are different. You can’t talk back to a book. You can certainly vet your feelings about something an author has written, but there is no onsite-comments section. At least for the duration of the readers time spent in the pages, they are safe to understand and read and feel whatever the author evokes in their writing. I love this. It impressed upon me that I have this small window of opportunity to reach a reader where they are at with a taste of where I’ve been and maybe show them they aren’t alone. That what they are feeling or experiencing isn’t specific to them. Or if it is, perhaps it takes the loneliness away. It can validate. Let me say that again… VALIDATE. To me, validation is everything. Social media is full of people telling others HOW TO FEEL or telling them WHAT THEY ARE FEELING IS WRONG or telling them TO STOP FEELING THAT WAY RIGHT NOW and thats bullshit (pardon). I wanted to write books, particularly for teens, that showed people saying THIS IS HOW I FEEL and THAT’S OKAY because I AM SURVIVING THE BEST WAY I KNOW HOW.

Sometimes survival is therapy, or treatment or screaming your feelings in a cemetery. Sometimes its medication or journaling or activism. Sometimes its distancing yourself from hurtful people. Its imperative that we are offering up solutions for young people and allowing them the space to see what works for them.

Taylor: Part of what I love about You’d Be Mine is that it’s a steamy romance about fame and music, but it’s also an incredibly poignant story about loss and emotionally struggling in unhealthy ways. How do you balance these two sides of the story when you’re writing?

Erin: Goodness this was a tough one for me. I’m glad you think it worked. 🙂 I was extremely mindful of the all-too common trope of “love fixing all”. More than anything, it was important to me that Clay (and to a lesser extent, Annie) healed first. Love doesn’t fix all and it’s dangerous to let young people believe it can. Everyone has their own battles to face, even in a contemporary romance. Maybe it’s not as heavy as addiction and grief and celebrity, since not everyone is as famous as Clay Coolidge, but that doesn’t mean its not real. When I set out to write a story, I’m actually writing two. I always write a dual point of view, complete with dual character arcs. Every person has a journey and just because falling in love is a apart of that, doesn’t mean its the end of it. It’s taken me a while to reconcile this process… I realize when people are picking up a YA romance, they are looking for butterflies and sweetness and sometimes my version is too messy and raw for that readership.

But that’s okay. My version of events helps me to sleep at night, knowing I’m telling it like it is. My characters will always find their happily ever after, they’ll just have to work a little harder for it.

Taylor: Some of the mental health issues you explore in You’d Be Mine include substance abuse, suicide, the pressures of fame and panic attacks. How did you choose to write about these issues in this book and what was the process of writing them like?

Erin: Wow, when you list it all out like that… *whew*. To be frank, I didn’t set out to write any of those things when I started. I don’t choose issues for my characters to face, just as real people don’t necessarily choose their struggles. I chose to write Clay and Annie’s stories and those were natural motivations and ramifications of their journey. Annie was a traumatized mess when she came to me and thats BECAUSE her parents died the way they did. Clay was a borderline alcoholic at 18, that doesn’t just happen because he liked the taste of beer. He was burying some real grief. I think it’s vital that we as authors are mindful of digging into the whys. It’s irresponsible to give a character mental health issues without exploring what brought those issues about in the first place. One of my favorite parts of that book is when Annie finished performing the song “You’d Be Mine” for the first time in the recording studio and she’s talking to her cousin, Kacey. Kacey kind of scoffs at Annie for saying she and Clay together were a volatile combination. She says, “You’re barely 18, Annie, what on earth do you know about being volatile?” Annie looks at her and says, “I was raised on volatile!” I love how Annie had the sense of self and maturity to realize her and Clay’s emotional baggage was too much even when their friends and family and managers and label execs didn’t.

Taylor: Your upcoming 2020 release More Than Maybe, also explores music, fame and teen love. Can you talk a little about what emotional and/or mental health issues you address in that book?

Erin: Sure! Luke and Vada aren’t famous in the same way Clay and Annie are. That said, Luke is the soft-spoken son of a famous former British Punk Rock icon. He has natural song-writing and singing abilities that drive his father bonkers because he’d love nothing more for Luke to follow in his footsteps and Luke would love nothing less. More Than Maybe discusses a lot of Parent-Child angst. Parents who fail to see who their kids really are and love them as is. Parents who aren’t really parents at all and break their kids hearts. Adults who aren’t biological parents, but end up filling in those parent-shaped holes in a teen’s life. These were all things that I personally related to and while they aren’t super high on the Epic Mental Health Issue roster, I think they are real. Growing up, your first interactions and experiences with mental health involve those closest to you… your families. For better or worse, they form who you become and how you deal moving forward as an adult. Luke and Vada have their work cut out for them and I think they do a wonderful job advocating for themselves as they dive into young adulthood.

Taylor: What are some of your recommendations for great mental health representation, whether it’s in books, movies, TV, etc.?

Erin: Hm. This is a hard one for me, BECAUSE mental health is so personal and I feel like me, listing out specific titles and encouraging people to go there, could lead to someone being disappointed or hurt? If that makes sense. Ironic, I know, as someone who writes the books I do. To be perfectly honest, for me, the most universal mental health representation happens in music. A well-written song can reach a person exactly where they are at and both validate and sooth at once. This past summer, something kind of horrifying and extremely painful was revealed to me, sending me spiraling, even at nearly 37 years of age. I immediately went to music and listened to the same four songs on repeat, every day, until my eyes dried up and my throat hurt from screaming. Were those songs written about me? Or the specific things that were breaking my heart? Nope. But they did a bang up job of piecing me back together regardless. Those lyrics and emotions healed me where I stood. That’s the power of music. I don’t know a book or movie or TV show that can do that so perfectly.

PS The songs were “Waiting at the End” Linkin Park, “I’ll Find You” Lecrae and Tori Kelly, “Praying” Kesha and “Life on Earth” by Snow Patrol.

Taylor: Are there any mental health issues you wish were more widely represented in middle grade and YA, or issues you hope to write about but haven’t had the chance yet?

Erin: In my third book, I’m tackling religious trauma. There isn’t a day that goes by that there isn’t some story in the news about some scandal in the church, or about how many young people are distancing themselves from religion because of abuse, neglect, persecution or gaslighting. As someone who grew up in the church and has experienced some or all of these things, I want to write about them and shed light in a pretty lonely place.

Taylor: Do you have any self-care tips, tricks or secrets you’d like to share, especially for writers?

Erin: When I am writing heavy, I have to read light. Or watch TV, light, as the case may be. People assume that because my books are on the darker side, that’s where my interest lies. It might have been at one point, but in the process of writing deep, authentic, hurting characters, I have to also put myself in that place time and again and it’s a lot! I balance that with comedy and kissing books and cross stitch and watching musicals with my little girl. I take my dog for long walks and paint my nails. I have a playlist that is entitled “Just Erin, Not a Character” where its only music that belongs only to me. After finished a particularly rough draft or scene, I bury myself in that playlist and let it heal up the sharp aches. I enjoy coloring and Great British Bake Off. I’ll make confetti cake for my family.

I’ve learned that forcing myself to be social and generous with my time is self care, as contradictory as that may sounds. I’m such an introvert and I love spending time in my head with my characters, but for my sanity, I have to close the door on them and talk to real, live people, too. It’s always a battle, but once I’m there, I’m glad I’ve done it.

Thank you so much, Erin!
It’s been a pleasure to talk to you for Shattering Stigmas!

Erin Hahn spent the first half of her life daydreaming in a small town in northern Illinois. She fell in love with words in college when she wrote for the campus paper, covering everything from drag shows to ice fishing and took way too much liberty with a history essay on the bubonic plague.

She started writing her own books when her little sister gave her shade about a country music-themed Twilight fanfic. By day, Erin gets to share her favorite stories with her elementary students. By night, she writes swoons. She married her own YA love interest whom she met on her first day of college and has two kids who are much, much cooler than she ever was at their age. She lives in Michigan, aka the greenest place on earth and has a cat, Gus, who plays fetch and a dog, June, who doesn’t.She started writing her own books when her little sister gave her shade about a country music-themed Twilight fanfic. By day, Erin gets to share her favorite stories with her elementary students. By night, she writes swoons. She married her own YA love interest whom she met on her first day of college and has two kids who are much, much cooler than she ever was at their age. She lives in Michigan, aka the greenest place on earth and has a cat, Gus, who plays fetch and a dog, June, who doesn’t.

Posted in Shattering Stigmas

A Q&A with Jenn Bennett, Author of ALEX, APPROXIMATELY, STARRY EYES and SERIOUS MOONLIGHT

jenn.jpgI am so, so, so pleased to welcome Jenn Bennett, one of my favorite YA contemporary romance writers, to the blog today to talk about writing mental health into swoony rom-coms, self care and more. If you haven’t read Jenn’s books yet, I can bet you’ll want to by the end of this post and if you love Jenn’s books as much as I do, you’ll definitely want to read on. You can also find Jenn on Twitter or at her website.  

Tay: I’m interested how the pieces of a plot come together for you. A Jenn Bennett book seems to be one part complicated family relationships, two parts swoonworthy sex positive relationships, one part quirky work setting and one part poignant heart and representation of issues. What generally comes first for you, plot, setting or character? And at what point do you start weaving in mental health and illness representation?

Jenn: Every book is different. Usually, though, some kind of a plot comes first, and that’s only because I’m beholden to my publisher. I can’t pitch characters to my editor: “I have this great idea for a girl with urticaria who likes astronomy.” That doesn’t cut it. Publishers want a plot-based hook: “I have this great idea for a romance between two teens who get stuck in the wilderness together after a camping trip goes wrong.” So that’s generally what I start with, to generalize things. However, the mental health aspects…those usually pop up when I start writing and getting to know my characters.

Tay: Several of your books that feature mental health representation—ALEX, APPROXIMATELY, STARRY EYES and your upcoming 2019 release SERIOUS MOONLIGHT are contemporary romances and yet you strike a perfect balance between lightness and seriousness. As a writer, how do you balance these tougher, more serious issues in a genre known for its lightness and fun?

Jenn: I suppose I’m trying to do two things: (1) portray mental health issues in a non-glamorized or fetishized way, and (2) show my characters coping/dealing/facing their issues and living happy lives. Hope is everything to me. It’s my lens. No matter what genre I write, my books are always going to be full of banter, laughter, quirky characters, love, and hope. That’s just who I am as both a person and a writer. Don’t get me wrong: I think there’s great value in books that choose to focus on the grim realities of mental health issues. But stories that focus on a light at the end of the tunnel are equally important. That’s what I try to show. If you’re a character in one of my books, yes, you may struggle with depression or grief or PTSD…but you will still find love. You still have a sense of humor. You still have ambitions. You still get your happy ending. It doesn’t make you less worthy, and it doesn’t define you.

Tay: In several of your books, you work depression, PTSD and suicidal ideation/attempts into the worlds of your characters? Why are these important issues to include in your writing and what draws you to return to them again and again?

Jenn: I never set out to include them, not intentionally, but I suppose there’s some truth in writing what you know. I’ve struggled with anxiety and been on anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants. My husband struggles with depression and adult attention-deficit disorder. Writing, in a way, is digging into your own emotions and memories, so I sometimes feel as if every book I write is an extended counseling session with my ego, super-ego, and Id.

Tay: Building off my last question, in your next book, SERIOUS MOONLIGHT, you have an MC that deals very much with the psychological impacts of grief and you also have a plot thread in which suicide and comforting people we know who have struggled with suicidal ideation and attempts. What inspired you to write about these issues in a more foregrounded way than you have in past works?

Jenn: It’s strange how the title of this book was prophetic. It’s taken from a David Bowie lyric, but in a way, it influenced the tone of the story. Yes, this book is still frothy, funny, and romantic, but the mental health issues are more prominent than they were past books. If I had to guess why, I suppose it’s partly because it was written after the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Americans are living in a time of turmoil and divisiveness, and as an author, it’s pretty much my job to be sensitive, reflective, and observant of both myself and the world around me. When you’ve got your sensitive-artist antennae out, it’s hard to stop all that darkness from infecting you and leaching into your work. In addition to that, around the time I was writing this book, someone I grew up with as a teenager committed suicide, and I think perhaps his presence was a bit of a ghost inside my brain when I was writing this book.

Tay: A big part of the push behind putting on Shattering Stigmas this year was to continue the conversations we’ve started in the bookish community around mental illness. Why do you find it important to continue fighting the stigma against mental illness?

Jenn: Because I believe we’re all better off if we’re talking honestly and openly about mental illness—not ignoring or isolating it. We’re all in this together, learning to be better. I’m still learning healthier ways to think and write about mental issues. And probably still making mistakes! But I truly believe that stigmatizing mental illness makes all of us sicker.

Tay: What types of mental health issues would you like to see more widely represented in YA?

Jenn: No matter the issue, I’d like to see it being represented with more love and humanity, and less as a plot point that titillates or as a prop to make the protagonist more sympathetic.

Tay: Finally, do you have any self care tips, tricks or secrets?

Jenn: We’re all addicted to social media, and there are plenty of positive things to reap from it. But when your timeline is filled with triggers, anger, and stressors, it’s time to take a break. Even for a day—even for a few hours. Turn off your notifications, for the love of Pete! Did that? Okay, now watch a movie without checking your phone. Go for a walk. Play with your pets. Cook a meal that gives you pleasure. Read a book. Talk to your neighbor. BREATHE. Whatever you choose to do, I promise, all that breaking news and drama will still be there when you’re ready to come back. Take care of yourself first.

Thank you so much, Jenn! I’m so grateful for your time talking about mental illness!

Super interested in Jenn’s YA books now, if you weren’t already? Happy to send you down the Goodreads rabbit hole:

The Anatomical Shape of a Heart
Alex, Approximately
Starry Eyes
Serious Moonlight 
(out 4/16/19)

Enter our *international* giveaway for a mental health read of your choice!

Interested in more Shattering Stigmas posts? Check out this post that Ben, one of our amazing co-hosts, put together listing every single Shattering Stigmas guest post and giveaway so you don’t miss a thing!

Posted in Book Review

Review: Top Ten by Katie Cotugno

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Top Ten by Katie Cotugno, Balzer & Bray, 320 pp.

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/2

Content Warnings: social anxiety, brain injury & trauma, absentee parenting

I love cute and fluffy books with a streak of dark. However, I am also a bit tired of the childhood best friends falling in love trope. This sums up my complicated feelings about Katie Cotugno’s newest novel Top TenI really liked it. It has a bisexual female protagonist with social anxiety that was the first representation of explicit social anxiety I have read in YA. It has a cute, soft jock protagonist as well. The writing was good and the setting was lively. It is told in the format of a top ten lis and in a non-linear format. And yet, for me the spark just wasn’t there. The overarching reason for my review of this book is that I personally did not connect with it, but I feel like I there’s a lot of good in it that I want to gush about.

Top Ten is the story of Ryan and Gabby, who formed an unlikely friendship their freshman year of high school after they accidentally meet at a party. The novel begins with Ryan and Gabby hooking up shortly after their high school graduation and then jumps around to various major moments in their friendship. This is a book full of heart and heartbreak, friendship and romance. It’s cute and it’s fun and it has some serious discussions about issues that I haven’t seen widely represented in YA.

I loved the representation of Gabby’s social anxiety because it felt very similar to my own. I share her fear of social situation and parties. It was reassuring to see a character that was so similar to me on the page. I also loved the representation of Ryan’s struggles with concussions as a hockey player. Student athletics are so underrepresented in YA and I haven’t really seen the health issues associated with student athletics represented in YA, so that was something interesting to see.

Overall, I really liked the writing style of the book. The dialog was well-written. It was descriptive and the scenes flowed well. I just think the non-linear narrative didn’t work for me because it lacked the natural build up of a linear narrative. If you’re looking for a fun contemporary romance with quirky characters and a lot of heart, then I would definitely recommend this book.

Posted in Book Review

Review: The Wood by Chelsea Bobulski

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The Wood by Chelsea Bobulski, Feiwei and Friends, 320 pp.

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 

Time traveling is one of my favorite tropes in paranormal/SFF YA. The idea of people being able to move through the time-space continuum is a romantic one, and I always like to see stories that add a new twist to this time-tested beloved trope of fiction. Chelsea Bolbulski’s dazzling and suspense-filled debut novel, The Wood, adds a historical and ritualistic twist to time travel.

After the mysterious disappearance of her father, Winter becomes the guardian of the magical wood behind her house. During the day it is Winter’s job to make sure that lost travelers get back to where they belong. There are three rules: Do not travel from the paths, Do not linger after dark, do not ignore the calling. However, the appearance of a persistent traveler from eighteenth-century England and a mysterious disease attacking the wood’s magic call into question everything Winter has known about her duty, her family and the wood itself.

Lovers of strong female characters will quickly find themselves rooting for Winter. She doesn’t always make the best decisions, but she’s a girl who can fight, knows her fashion history and can speak multiple languages with ease. It was so much fun to read this book and see what she would do next to handle all of the obstacles that came her way.

I really enjoyed the other characters too. Winter’s understandably worried but devoted mother. Chivalrous and gallant Henry in his eighteenth-century British garb. The protective, but mysterious Joe. There were a lot of characters, especially the Council, the Old Ones and the other guardians, who I wish I got to read more about in this book.

Some of my favorite parts of the book were the world-building and the setting. Bobulski draws from various times and places throughout history in order to explain the various thresholds used for time traveling. I wanted more descriptions of these, too, because the moments we got to see Winter interacting with travelers were some of the best part of the book.

Description was such a strength of Bobulski’s writing. Readers who enjoy descriptive settings filled with fine details will enjoy this book. Fans of impossible love stories will also fall for the slow burn romance in The Wood. Equal parts poignant, amusing and intense, the writing is spot on and I enjoyed the read from beginning to end.

My only big issues were that the ending was ambiguous and the book felt a little rushed. The ending felt simultaneously too final and like it had too many loose ends for me to be fully satisfied by the time I reached the last page. I’m torn between wanting a sequel to find out what happens next and being content with the riveting tale contained within this one book. However, I wish that the novel was a bit longer, filled with a bit more context, dialogue and action.

Regardless, I really enjoyed this read and Bobulski’s style in general. The Wood doesn’t disappoint. It is an atmospheric paranormal thriller with perfect amounts of romance, monsters, difficult discoveries, action and more. I am excited to see what Bobulski has in store next for readers, be it a continuation of this world or a new dark tale.

Posted in Pitch Wars 2017

#PimpMyBio Post

 

IMG_7847.JPGThis post is going to be a bit of a mess because 1) I’m not really sure what y’all want/need to know and 2) this is my first time doing #PitchWars (and I’m highkey excited about it). Starting with the basics, my name is Taylor, I’m 22 and I live in New Jersey not far from NYC. I’ll be submitting Talk to Me, my YA contemporary romance that features queer, mental illness and disability rep. It tells the story of a socially anxious boy who meets a queer, aphasiac girl who steals his heart, but helps him find his voice. Now let me tell you a bit more about my book and then me! Since I love top ten lists (I have books of them), let’s try that format!

10 Facts About My Story!

1. Talk to Me is a YA contemporary romance about three teens who are all experiencing some kind of identity crisis and it’s only when their lives intersect their senior year of high school that they start to figure out. It’s an atmospheric, neurodivergent love story about art, secrets, pranks and kissing. 🙂

2. My three narrators are Grace, Zach and Mason. Grace is a sassy artist who has expressive aphasia and selective mutism, so she doesn’t speak or write. Zach is a math nerd and baseball player with social anxiety who can’t speak up for himself. Mason is Zach’s best friend; impulsive and brooding, him and Grace share a secret past.

3. My chapters are labeled one-point perspective, two-point perspective and three-point perspective based on how many of my characters narrate in each one. The names come from the systems of ocular perspective and I chose to do this because Grace is an artist!

4. Zach’s social anxiety is #ownvoices. It was interesting to write a character with social anxiety like mine and focus on the subtleties of it and how it affects the decisions he makes and relationships with other people.

5. The story takes place in Western New Jersey and is loosely based off a small town that I visit often because of its independent book store.

6. Grace’s experiences as a painter were very much informed by my own experiences as an artist.

7. Family is a huge part of the book. Grace, Zach and Mason’s families aren’t perfect, but it was interesting to write imperfect parents who really do love their children even if they make stupid or seemingly unfair choices. I wish parents were more present in YA!

8. The easiest part of writing this book was writing Grace’s voice, because her voice is most similar to me as a person, but still different. There are pieces of me in Zach and Mason, too.

9. The hardest part of writing this book was getting the plot down and figuring out the arc of each character. It was a fun challenge, though!

10. This manuscript is the one that made me want to really be a writer. It’s brought me to so many experiences from #CPMatch to #PitMad and now to #PitchWars. I’ll always be so grateful to this story and these characters for helping me evolve as an artist!

10 Facts About Me!

1. I recently graduated Drew University with a B.A. in English and Art History. I also minored in French, received specialized honors in English and graduated with Civic Honors. In September, I’ll be starting an individualized studies graduate program at NYU to study Intersectional Feminism in Contemporary Art and Literature.

2. I’m neurodivergent, which makes it difficult to write sometimes, but I get through it with the help of very patient and understanding friends and fellow writers. I try to bring my experiences of social anxiety, generalized anxiety and depression into my stories because they’re the stories I needed when I was a teen and didn’t always have.

3. I’m aro-spec and ace-spec and try to include LGBTQUPIA+ characters in all of my stories.

4. I love to knit and crochet! I always have waaaaay too many projects I’m working on.

5. I love to paint. Basically, I just love to be creative in as many ways as possible.

6. I’m a huge Broadway nerd. I love seeing musicals and plays in the city. Some of my favorites are Dear Evan HansenSpring Awakening, Rent and If/Then!

7. I’m always listening to music when I’m writing. I need background noise.

8. I’m a night owl, so you’ll usually find me writing at 2 am.

9. If I’m not writing, reading, sleeping, crocheting, knitting or painting, I’m probably riding my bike or down the shore.

10. I have ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder) so don’t be offended if I’m kind of pushy about where we go if we ever grab lunch. 😉

That’s all you need to know! If you want to know more or see what I’m up to, you can find me on Twitter @tayberryjelly.

Posted in Book Review

Review: Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer

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Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer, Bloomsbury USA Childrens, 400 pp.

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/2

There are some tropes I will never get tired of in YA. One of them is the trope of secret communication bringing unlike-minded people together. It’s even better when they exchange handwritten notes or letters. The use of that trope as the keystone in Brigid Kemmerer’s new novel Letters to the Lost made me super excited to read it, and I was not disappointed.

Kemmerer’s novel is about Juliet, a teen girl grieving the loss of her famous warzone photographer mother, and Declan, a boy assigned to community service after one tragic night that spiraled out of his broken past. At its heart, the novel is a beautiful, complex, funny and sad story about loss, grief, redemption and love. I also want to note that, in service of not spoiling anything because this is a book that truly reveals itself over time, my review might come off as a little bit vague.

I loved these characters. Juliet wasn’t the most “likeable” character but as someone who has lost a very close relative and spends a great deal of time with their gravestone I was really able to connect to her emotion and pain. I was also able to connect to Declan’s regret and pain over his past. I really loved how Kemmerer showed that the reckless actions and irresponsibility of adults have heartbreaking consequences on their children, which I think she captures with great complexity, depth and skill in his narrative.

I was also really able to connect to Juliet’s realization that the adults we look up to in our families aren’t always what they seem. This turned out to be a theme in the novel that connected Juliet and Declan’s story. I thought that was a great lesson to be inserted into a YA book and one that I wish more books would tackle.

Interestingly, one of the best parts of this book for me was the relationship that Juliet and Declan had with the adults around them. I was rooting for Juliet to sort out her emotions with not only her dead mother, but also her father who she’d been having difficulty communicating with since her mother passed away. Seeing their relationship unfold was one of my favorite parts of this book. I also loved seeing the friendship between Rowan and Juliet, and would have liked to see that developed a little more.

In Declan’s narrative, I found myself pleasantly surprised at how intricate and not-surface level his relationship was with his mother and stepfather. Kemmerer really pushes Declan beyond the trope of the “secretly sensitive bad boy.” His emotions towards his family and his best friend, Rev, came off the page. In short, Declan is one of the most complex male characters in YA that I’ve read in a while.

I also really, really loved how Kemmerer developed Declan and Juliet’s relationships with the teachers who helped them. I still remember the teachers who I felt saw and understood me in high school, the ones who helped redirect my path as a somewhat troubled teen into the success I’ve had today. It was a joy to see that unfold on the pages of this novel. I found myself hoping that teachers will pick up this book and understand how important it is to have empathy and understanding for students, especially the ones with a “reputation.”

Of course, Letters to the Lost was not without its faults. The writing style was a little clunky throughout, which occasionally took me out of the story. I also really wish that Kemmerer had been more specific and paid more attention to Juliet’s panic attacks and the specific symptoms of her complicated grief, as I felt that would have added more dimension and emotion to the novel. Honestly, this is the type of book where I keep realizing new things that I love about it.

However, these minor issues were largely easy to look past and admire all the beauty and strength that this story contains. Fans of Kasie West’s novel P.S. I Like You, who also enjoy the darker side of YA, will love this book that explores romance, friendship, family, grief and more. I could go on and on about it more, but I think it would be better if you read it or picked it up right now. You won’t regret it.

Have you read Letters to the Lost? Do you also like stories where the main characters get to know each other through secret messages? Let me know below!

Posted in Book Review

Review: Caraval by Stephanie Garber

 

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Caraval by Stephanie Garber, Flatiron Books, 416 pp.

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/2

 

As a self-professed lover of all books contemporary, I need to stop opening up every fantasy review I write with: “I don’t often read fantasy but when I do…” However, it works here so…I don’t often read fantasy, but when I do, the books I pick usually blow me away with dazzling world-building, high stakes, swoony romance and nail-bitingly juicy adventures. I got all of these things from Stephanie Garber’s debut YA high fantasy Caravalthe first book in a new duology that will capture adventurous readers from the first page.

Caraval is a scintillating tale of sisterhood, devotion, determination and mind-bending games. Scarlett and Donatella are sisters in near captivity under the gaze of their abusive father. Scarlett thinks the only escape for her and her sister is an arranged marriage until they get the opportunity to travel to a magnificent performance and game called Caraval. Scarlett has been yearning to go to see the spectacle since she was a child. But when the sisters take a leap of faith to see the show, things quickly go terribly wrong, turning their story into a race against time, odds and madness. A beautifully written performance in and of itself, Caraval is a gorgeous display of verbal splendor and nail-biting narrative.

However, please note that I’m keeping this review intentionally on the vague side. I went into this book with little background and I was amazed at how good it was. I heard the hype, but didn’t know details, and I want my review to keep that experience in tact for other readers.

If you like strong, multi-faceted female protagonists, then Caraval is the book for you. I was struck by dutiful but fierce Scarlett and bubbly, mischievous Tella from the beginning.  Their personalities jumped off the page and I quickly became invested in their story. Scarlett and Tella surprised me again and again and again with their strength and wit as well as their vulnerabilities. Their closeness was also endearing and the relationship between them made the book feel a little bit like Phantom of the Opera meets Frozen.  

The love interest (name redacted to make this review as spoiler free as possible), whose role in the story was predictable, but enjoyable. He was actually one of my favorite characters-brooding, snarky and surprising. Fans of slow burn romance or romance that is there but doesn’t take over the entire narrative arc will want in on this book as well. I’ll leave it at that. You’ll have to read the book if you want to know more. *wink*

In terms of premise, this book rocks it. In terms of world-building, this book hits it out of the park. Think Cirque du Soleil, but better and with magic. Garber is a master at describing colors and visual detail. You will feel like you are there in the story. Every detail was nuanced and careful. This book is just damn good storytelling and description. Garber is a talent and I can’t wait to read what else she writes in the future.

I did have a few qualms about the book. The very end gets very explain-y. I read some parts three times and I’m still not sure exactly what happened and who I can and can’t trust going into the second book. My other complaint is the fact that there’s a second book. I started this book thinking it was a standalone and was a bit mad when I found out I now have to wait for a sequel. But that’s a matter of personal preference.

Overall, this book was dazzling, a rare new gem in my library. The cover is amazing, the page design is beautiful, but it’s the story contained within the pretty package that’s the best part. Enjoy! And remember, it’s only a game. Or is it?

 

 

Posted in Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Books That Have Been Sitting on My Shelves (But Not For Long!)

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly book meme run by The Broke and the Bookish. Find out more information about it here.

This week’s topic:

August 23: Ten Books That Have Been On Your Shelf (Or TBR) From Before You Started Blogging That You STILL Haven’t Read Yet (this is going to be sad considering how many of those I have unread six years later…)

I’m SO guilty of this. I buy a lot of books but unfortunately I can’t buy the free time to read all of them, so some books get stuck in the bottom of my reading piles. There are quite a few sequels I haven’t gotten to and some mental health and LGBTQPIA+ reads I haven’t gotten to either. Here are the top ten books I really want to get to soon!

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1. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

I’ve wanted to get into this series for such a long time and now that the movie is coming out soon, I’m finally going to read it (soon!).

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2. The Winner’s Crime (and The Winner’s Kiss) by Marie Rutkoski

There really isn’t an excuse for why I haven’t read the rest of this trilogy yet. I loved the first book and loved it, so now I need to finish it off.

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3. Glass Sword by Victoria Aveyard

Again, I loved the first book so much but it’s so hard for me to get into a second book after waiting for a year. I definitely need to read this before the third book comes out!

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4. None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio

I really want to read this book about an intersex teen. I love YA that explores gender identity and expression, so I’m sure that I’ll love this one when I finally get around to it.

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5. All-American Boys by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds

I’ve heard so many great things about this book and I really need to get around to reading it! I know this book has a lot of important themes reflecting current events, so it’s definitely in the express lane on my TBR.

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6. When We Collided by Emery Lord

I’ve seen this book on so many lists of important mental health reads, so of course it’s one I’m going to want to read soon. I hope I like it as much as I hope I will!

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7. OCD Love Story by Corey Ann Haydu

This book has such a cute cover and such an interesting concept. I’ve been meaning to get around to it for forever, but just haven’t gotten around to it.

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8. Rites of Passage by Joy N. Hensley

I won this book in a giveaway and it’s been sitting on my shelves, but the concept is so interesting and I really love strong female characters. I hope this book doesn’t disappoint when I do read it.

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9. Tease by Amanda Maciel

This book has been on my shelf for years and I just haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. It seems like a bit of a heavy read, so I might save this one for later in the fall or early winter.

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10. The Infinite in Between by Carolyn Mackler

This is another book that has been on my shelf for way too long. I adore contemporary stories and I have heard great things about this one, so I want to get to this one soon.

 

What are some of the books that have been collecting dust on your shelves? Are any of these on yours?

Posted in Book Review

Review: P.S. I Like You by Kasie West

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P.S. I Like You by Kasie West, Point, 336 pp.

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/2

Classic young adult contemporary romance is like cotton candy. It’s saccharinely sweet, super cute and very fluffy. When done right, it’s a hit. When done wrong, it just doesn’t stick to the cone (aka its audience). Terrible summer metaphors aside, one of my favorite contemporary romances that I’ve read recently is P.S. I Like You by Kasie West. It was the first book I read by her and although I was skeptical from the cover and hesitant at first, I soon fell in love. This is a book you need to read this summer. Cute, smart and sharp. This book is a cutesy but very real and honest gem.

Lily hates chemistry. That is, until she begins a low-key note exchange with a boy who sits in her seat in another period. Her daily moment of peace amidst a vendetta against her best friend’s ex, her struggles as an aspiring songwriter and a hectic home life, Lily is torn whether she wants to know who her secret pen pal is and even more worried about the consequences of that discovery. Jump into this cute tale about a girl coming into her own, managing friendship and ogling at cute boys with so much heart that I couldn’t help but be swept away in it. It has friends, family and romance. There’s really no way to go wrong.

West’s cast of quirky characters make this novel. I loved Lily’s flaky, awkward character and immediately wanted to follow her along on her story. She felt like so many female protagonists I’ve read in YA (particularly by rockstar authors like Sarah Dessen and Sara Zarr), but different at the same time. She had her own quirks that made Lily herself. Still, I would’ve likes her character to be defined a bit more, as she felt rough around the edges at points. I also loved her best friend, Isabel, whose failed matchmakings were one of my favorite subplots in the book. Each of the boys-Cade, Lucas, David-all had their own personalities too and didn’t feel like flat characters, a frequent pitfall of more “chicklit” titles.

I also loved that Lily’s family was so present in this book, to the point that I wish they were in the book even more. It was nice to see a teen with a messy home life. Jonah and Wyatt, Lily’s younger brothers, were adorably mischievous and her older sister Ashley filled out the family cast well. All the scenes with the family were enjoyable, and it’s remarkable that West manages to depict so many complex relationships-with boys, friends and family in one reasonable length story.

The story itself had perfect pacing and ample suspense. It’s an easy read-perfect to read outside on a hammock or at the beach or on a long drive. Just give yourself time, because once you start, you’re going to want to finish. And my reviews are always spoiler free, but man are you going to adore this ending if you’re a hopeless romantic like me.

The notes that Lily and her secret penpal pass back and forth were fun and I looked forward to reading them whenever I saw them pop up on the next page. West took this trope and made it her own, made it something that worked with Lily’s character and didn’t feel cliché. I will note, though, that I already knew who Lily’s penpal was about eighty pages into the book. I was happy to see that I was right, though, and knowing didn’t take away from the steady build up of suspense (I may or may not have thrown the book down and shouted, “I KNEW IT!”).

The positive female friendship was an amazing part of this book, something I’m always on the lookout for in contemporary YA. I loved that they were best friends and acted like it. I loved that their trifles weren’t a major focus in the book. I only wish there was more of them in the book. Their unbreakable girl power was one of my favorite part of this story.

This book is also definitely a feel good read. I generally read books that are sad and intense, so this was a nice break from my norm. I can’t wait to check out what else West has written and maybe find a few more fluffy love stories to add to my TBR this summer. But you should all add this one, if you haven’t already.

Posted in Book Review

Micro-Review Monday [2]: The Possibility of Now

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The Possibility of Now by Kim Culbertson, Point, 304 pp.

Book: The Possibility of Now by Kim Culbertson

Rating Out of 5: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Up to 3 Pros: anxiety representation, stunning setting, cute boys

Up to 3 Cons: therapy negative, lack of fulfilling conclusions

Become best friends forever/punch in the face/kiss on the mouth: 

  • Become best friends: Isabel (so badass AND kickass)
  • Punch in the face: Beck (because he’s a douche)
  • Kiss on the mouth: Logan (hot AND nice)

Describe this Book in 3 Words: Self-Discovery, Swoons, Skiing!

You have ONE sentence to convince a total stranger to read/not read this book. GO! Check out this quirky story of a girl who handles the mountains in her life by learning how to ride one on skis, developing a relationship with her absent father and making some friends she didn’t know she needed.