Friday, December 12, 2014

To All the Boys I've Loved Before by Jenny Han

Lara Jean Song writes love letters. She addresses them to the boys that she loves, slips them into an envelope, and then hides them in a hat box. She never sends them. So when somebody does, five extremely private letters are hand delivered to five boys that Lara Jean never intended to know how she felt about them. 

Lara Jean's love life is further complicated by the fact that her oldest sister Margot is leaving for university in Scotland at the end of the summer. Margot has kept the Song family together - sisters Margot, Lara Jean, and Kitty, and their father - since the death of their mother several years before. She makes the meals, delegates chores and responsibilities, and keeps everything running smoothly. But before she leaves, Margot breaks up with her longtime boyfriend Josh. Josh, who has been a part of the Song family for as long as they can remember. Josh, who is the recent recipient of one of Lara Jean's love letters. 

And Josh isn't the only one who receives a love letter. There's also Peter Kavinsky, who Lara Jean kissed once in middle school and then never again. To save face with Josh, she convinces Peter to agree to being a part of a fake relationship (he's just broken up with his long term girlfriend Gen), one that becomes a lot more interesting (and a little less fake) as it goes on. 

I love teen romance books, and Jenny Han's was something special. I found To All the Boys I've Loved Before completely unpredictable. Even in the last quarter of the book, it was hard to guess who Lara Jean was going to end up with, or if she was even going to end up with anybody. Lara Jean's love life is complicated and messy, and it resists being tied up neatly with a bow. 

Overwhelmingly, To All the Boys I've Loved Before is a book about sisters, and the relationship between Margot, Lara Jean, and Kitty. Margot, away at university, is devastated when her family puts up the Christmas tree before she gets home for the holidays. Kitty and Lara Jean are shocked when Margot breaks up with Josh, because he's erased from their lives just as easily as he's erased from their sister's. Han's YA novel is fantastic (and so is the cover art!). 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta has been on my to-read list for years. Marchetta's Australian YA novel won the Printz Award in 2008, recognized for its excellence in writing for young adults. I purchased Jellicoe Road in a recent Amazon book order, and have started and stopped reading it about half a dozen times over the last three months. There are two intertwining story lines - one communicated through italics and one in real time - there are Cadets and Townies and a Hermit and a Brigadier and a boy in a dream. I found the first dozen pages or so disorienting, and put down the book several times instead of pushing through. Part of my reluctance to keep reading was the reality of a very busy semester where most of my reading was characterized as fast and easy. When the semester was over, I tried again, and I read all of Jellicoe Road in one sitting. The very aspects of the book that initially pushed me out were the same that ended up holding me captivated throughout. 

Taylor Markham is caught up in a war between the Townies, the Cadets, and the School students for territory around Jellicoe Road. She has just been elected the new leader of the School students, and it is up to her to negotiate with Griggs (a Cadet, the Cadet) and Santangelo (a Townie) for control over the Prayer Tree, the Club House, the trails, and the river. But Taylor has a history with Griggs, a Cadet she ran away with several years before on a search for her missing mother. 

When Hannah, the only real guardian Taylor has had in her life for the past few years, disappears suddenly, she finds her world slowly crumbling. The territory wars are the least of her worries, although they are the most pressing issue at hand. She must figure out to navigate her history with Griggs, and to understand the history between her best friend Raffaela and Santangelo. Meanwhile, there is the boy who keeps visiting her dreams, and Taylor knows he's trying to tell her something. Jellicoe Road is a giant question that Marchetta slowly answers, drawing out resolutions over the course of the book.

Marchetta's writing is fantastic, and I've already ordered another one of her books, Looking for Alibrandi, to read next. For example, she casts Taylor as a teenager without connections, who will do anything to understand how people make connections with one another and build a community of caring individuals. When Taylor's relationship with Griggs begins to evolve, she reflects, 
"I wanted to say that I didn't need to breathe on my own when Jonah Griggs was kissing me, but seeing he hasn't touched me since that night, I can't even bring myself to think of him. It's not like he's ignoring me, because that would be proactive. It's like I'm just anyone to him. Even when we were squashed in the back seat, our knees glued together and our shoulders touching and my insides full of butterflies, he was speaking over my head and the whole time with Santangelo about some ridiculous AFL/Rugby League thing. Somwhere along the way, Jonah Girggs has become a priority in my life and his attitude this week has been crushing" (245). 
Jellicoe Road is one of the most satisfying books I've read this year (and that includes Jandy Nelson's unforgettable I'll Give You the Sun), and the first time I've stayed up until two a.m. to finish a book in a long time. It presents a magical story that continues to surprise until the very end. Taylor's voice is strong and unwavering, even in the face of everything she has endured. There are more heartbreaking moments scattered throughout Jellicoe Road than I was expecting, as Marchetta constructs an emotional build that doesn't even really let go. I would have gladly continued to read Taylor's story well after it ended. Jellicoe Road became one of those books that made me understand why so many readers ask authors about sequels; there are some characters you want to hang onto, and never really let go.
"I watch them both and for the first time it occurs to me that I'm no longer flying solo and that I have no intention of pretending that I am. I have an aunt and I have a Griggs and this is what it's like to have connections with people. 'Do you know what?' I ask both of them. 'If you don't build a bridge and get over it, I'll never forgive either of you'" (400-401). 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty has been on my to-read list for several months. I love her books, including Three Wishes, What Alice Forgot, and The Hypnotist's Love Story. Liane Moriarty is sister of Australian YA writer Jaclyn Moriarty (who has the best author blog of any writer, even if years can go between updates), and both consistently write fantastic books. 

Big Little Lies begins with a murder during a parents' trivia night at Pirriwee Public School, although the victim is not identified. After a short prologue, the book rewinds to six months before and unravels the mystery. It focuses on three women living in the Pirriwee Peninsula, where their children attend kindergarten together: Madeline, who has just turned forty, rolls her ankle in her new stilettos while telling off a teen driver who texts and drives; Celeste, a beautiful woman who lives with her wealthy husband and her twins sons, and hides a devastating secret; and Jane, a twenty-four-year-old mother who is so young that she is mistaken as a nanny. The book revolves around kindergarten politics, especially as Jane's son Ziggy is ostracized on the first day of school for an act of bullying he claims he didn't commit. 

I loved when the book returned to Madeline's sections. She's described as "funny biting, and passionate; she remembers everything and forgives no one." She lives with her second husband Ed, and their two children Fred and Chloe. Her teenage daughter Abigail lives part-time with Madeline and Ed, and part-time with Madeline's ex-husband Nathan and his yogi wife Bonnie. Lately, Abigail is finding more to like at her father's house, and spends less and less time at home. Making matters worse for Madeline is the fact that Chloe is the same age as Skye, Nathan and Bonnie's daughter, meaning she not only has to live in the same suburb as her ex-husband, but that their children must attend the same school. When Abigail volunteers at a homeless shelter on Christmas Day with Bonnie and Nathan, Madeline can't quite believe it: "She's never peeled a freaking potato in her life," muttered Madeline as she texted back: "That's wonderful, darling. Merry XMAS to you too, see you soon, xxx!" She can't understand how Nathan's new wife is more appealing to Abigail than she is. 

Both Jane and Celeste have slow-to-reveal secrets and stories, and are more connected to both the murder and the mystery. 

I read Big Little Lies in almost one sitting. Moriarty elevates the ordinary, and makes the daily lives of Madeline, Jane, and Celeste must-read material. The screen rights have already been optioned by Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon. Moriarty continues to write outstanding stories, and luckily I haven't picked up The Husband's Secret yet, so I still have more of her writing to binge read over Christmas.