The Summer I Became a Nerd–Leah Rae Miller (May 2013)

14744489

 

Ever since a traumatic costume competition in middle school (cosplay turns out to not be the best idea), Maddie has hidden her love of comic books, superheroes, and sci-fi/fantasy and turned herself into the perfect stereotype of a “popular girl.”  When Maddie starts hanging out with Logan, a classmate whose parents own the local comic shop, she struggles to maintain her carefully constructed, stridently non-geeky façade and falls head over heels for not only the world of comic conventions, live-action role-playing games, and college radio but also for Logan himself.

Thoughts–This might be the fluffiest book I’ve read since last summer…not that it’s necessarily a bad thing.  The Summer I Became a Nerd follows a very predictable romance plot and traffics in some extraordinarily typical tropes, but I found it fun and VERY fast read.  Like, “I started this book at 9pm and finished it by midnight” fast.  And you know, sometimes you just want to read something that doesn’t take all your brain cells and isn’t too taxing on your emotions…kind of like when I watch Homeland and then have to watch reruns of Friends to cleanse my mental palate.  This book was a definite palate cleanser, and I liked the amount of detail and love for the geek subculture Miller wove into the story.

What I didn’t like so much was all the emphasis placed on how Maddie has been trying to hide her “nerdiness” from everyone in her small Louisiana town for basically her entire high school career, mostly because her primary method of hiding was to become a cheerleader.  This is one of my least favorite YA tropes ever–the nerd kids are secretly cooland the cheerleaders are not-so-secretly one-dimensional, superficial fluffheads–because it pits one group of kids against the other and totally ignores that *newsflash* EVERYONE is complex and EVERYONE has dimension.  Some cheerleaders think deep thoughts and some nerds are obsessed with appearances, and WHAT’S WRONG WITH BEING BOTH A NERD AND A CHEERLEADER AT THE SAME TIME??????  I do think Miller tries to address this issue somewhat, especially once Maddie decides to openly hang out with Logan and discovers that some of the “popular” people she’s been surrounding herself with do, in fact, like “nerdy” things as well.  I just wanted the author to stretch a little more.  Maybe that’s asking too much from a summer read, but I don’t think so.

I did love all the attention Miller paid to the nuances of geek culture and how descriptive she was when it came to things like the live-action role-playing and the comics store.  I also thought she did a good job of weaving in the “shop local” message of small town life; I would have liked to see the town more fully realized, more of a character in the story, but that’s probably just my personal affinity for “setting as character” coming out.

Overall, I’d recommend The Summer I Became a Nerd to readers looking for something light-hearted, fast-paced, and fun to read this summer.  The chemistry between Logan and Maddie is great, and it has some very funny parts (the antics at the role-playing games spring to mind).  If you like floofy, escapist romances, you’ll eat this one up.

Gorgeous–Paul Rudnick (May 2013)

*NOTE–I read this book as an Advance Reader’s Copy…it was just recently released to booksellers*

When Becky 9780545464260_p0_v4_s260x420Randle’s mother dies, Becky discovers a small ring box with just a New York City phone number inside.  Thinking this might be her ticket out of East Trawley, Missouri, Becky calls the number and finds herself on her way to New York to meet with the mysterious designer Tom Kelly.  Kelly offers Becky a proposition–if she allows him to make her three dresses, he will turn her into the most beautiful woman in the world.  What follows is a hilarious romp through high fashion, royalty, and the power of beauty–both outer and inner.

Thoughts– I picked this ARC up from the Scholastic rep at TLA, and given the two blurbs on the cover (Dave Sedaris and Meg Cabot), I was STOKED to read it.  After its early May release date, I began seeing all the raves about it on Twitter from authors, bloggers, and friends whose opinions I definitely value.  I started reading it with very high expectations…and was kind of disappointed at first, to be completely honest.  I didn’t really think Becky was all that great of a narrator, I had absolutely no clue what was going on with Tom Kelly, and it took me a good 50 pages to get used to the hyper-realistic, satirical tone of Rudnick’s writing.  I just didn’t get it.

And then all of a sudden–it clicked.  The story kicked into high gear, every other page had a legitimate LOL, “OMG, I can’t believe he wrote that!” moment (or two or three), and I began to really care about what happened to Becky, Rocher (named after the candy, natch), Prince Gregory, and even smarmy old Tom Kelly.  I very rarely literally laugh out loud at books–it’s usually more of a sardonic smirk–but this book had me cracking up with its banter and over-the-top antics.  Rudnick is really at his best when he’s crafting scenes solely for comedic relief, like many of those between Becky and Rocher, and you can definitely see his roots as a satire writer in Gorgeous.*

Two little caveats for me about this one:  One, the story is pretty pat and predictable, but when it’s this much fun, I pretty much don’t care about that.  Two, there is an exorbitant amount of use of the F-word and other swear words in this book.  And listen–I worked at an inner-city high school for 5 years, and The Departed and Dazed and Confused are two of my favorite movies.  I’ve also been known to use “colorful language” myself a time or two…or perhaps more than that.  It takes A LOT for me to say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa…that’s maybe too much cussing,” and this book did.  I mean, I don’t ever need to see the C-word in print.  Ever.  That being said, I did see how Rudnick was kind of using that language as a characterization device (it’s mostly Rocher saying those things), and so I get it.  I just think it was maybe a bit too much…and would probably offend those with more delicate sensibilities.

Overall, I found Gorgeous hilarious and a fun summer read; it’s a perfect pool- or beach-side book to make you laugh and maybe think a little, too.

*He writes a column for Entertainment Weekly (my favorite magazine OF ALL TIME) under the pen name Libby Gelman-Waxner, and it’s HYSTERICAL.

Siege and Storm–Leigh Bardugo (June 2013)

*Note–I read t14061955his book as an advance uncorrected proof*

Book 2 in Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy, Siege and Storm takes readers back to the land of the Grisha a short time after the battle on the Unsea, picking up with Alina and Mal’s journey to get themselves as far away from Ravka as possible, a journey that unfortunately ends when they are discovered and recaptured by the stronger (and more evil) than ever Darkling.  With the help of Sturmhund, a mysterious privateer, Alina escapes from the Darkling and returns to Ravka on a quest to find the other Morozova amplifiers and save the country from civil war.  Struggling with the ambition that comes with growing power, Alina finds new alliances and further troubles in the wake of devastation the Darkling has left behind.

Thoughts I was so excited to win an ARC of this book and then I had to wait over a month to read it! (Grad school and whatnot…) The wait definitely paid off.  All of the wonderful world-building and characterization from Shadow and Bone are present in Siege and Storm, but because it’s the second book in the series there is way, WAY more action.  So much happens in this book and I don’t want to give any of it away (especially since it won’t be out for another month or so), but I will say this–there’s romance, terror on the high seas, deeper and darker magic, swoony guys, and a helluva cliffhanger.  I really liked how much growth Alina experienced over the course of the book, and the relationship struggles she and Mal went through seemed completely realistic and authentic to me.  I also enjoyed learning more about all the court intrigue at the Big Palace, and the introduction of another complicated man into Alina’s life.

My only complaint, and it is very minor, is that I wanted MORE OF THE DARKLING.  He’s my favorite character in the series, although Sturmhund is now a close second, and he doesn’t appear in the flesh as often in this book.  Plus, he’s pretty much the embodiment of pure evil this time around…but I’m still holding out hope that he can be redeemed in book 3.  It could happen–look what JK Rowling did for Draco Malfoy!

Overall, I was extraordinarily pleased with Siege and Storm–it totally lived up to my extremely high expectations.  I think Leigh Bardugo has created such an intricate and fantastical, yet still accessible, world, and her characters are so complex and nuanced.  I can’t wait to see how she wraps it all up in Book 3, but unfortunately it won’t be out until 2014!

PS. I’ve tweeted back and forth with Leigh Bardugo a few times and she is super nice…plus if you follow her on Twitter or Pinterest, she’s always posting cool art and quotes related to the world of Ravka.  FUN.

Eleanor and Park–Rainbow Rowell (2013)

tumblr_mku319JDHf1rr0s0uo1_500

Rowell, Rainbow.  Eleanor and Park.  St. Martin’s Griffith, 2013.  336p.  Realistic Fiction (maybe Historical? Are books set in the 1980s considered historical now?)

Set in 1986, Eleanor and Park tells the story of two very different teenagers who discover an extraordinary love in that most ordinary of places–a school bus.  Eleanor is the new girl at school; big, redheaded, with a figure “like a barmaid” (her words), Eleanor has moved back in with her mother, her abusive stepfather, and her four siblings after a year of sleeping on a family friend’s couch.  Park is the local; half-Korean, into music and comic books, forever a member of the almost-popular crowd, Park doesn’t expect anything much to come of having to share his seat on the bus with this unusual newcomer, except maybe a little embarrassment.  Throughout the course of the school year, Eleanor and Park’s relationship deepens from friendship into something much, much bigger, reminding readers of the intensity, absorption, and frequent futility of first love.

Thoughts– I finished this book two days ago, and I’ve been trying to process it ever since.  My thoughts and feelings about it are complex because, on the one hand, I really loved Rowell’s writing style, the setting, the details, and the character of Park; on the other hand, I felt very perplexed by the tone and the character of Eleanor.  I wanted so badly to say, “Home run!  This is a Mary Poppins book* for me!” and I can’t.  What I can do is try to tease out both the stellar qualities and the difficulties I found in Eleanor and Park.

First, the awesome:  Rainbow Rowell is a badass writer.  Her prose is filled with quirky little nuances and references that breathe so much life into the characters and provide little puzzles for the reader if, say, you don’t get the reference.  Also, the setting is incredibly well-done.  A lot of times in realistic YA fiction, the setting is just a backdrop for the story; you don’t really get much world-building.  That is SO not the case here–you feel like Marty McFly gave you his Delorean and plopped you down smack in the middle of Omaha, Nebraska circa 1986.  Every detail of the setting and time period is so pitch-perfect…I vividly remember the perms, frosted lipstick, and music of the 80s, and I think Rowell nails almost everything.  She does a particularly good job with the character of Park; it’s easy to see why Eleanor falls so hard for him.  Park is a complex, achingly real teenage boy, and I especially liked the shifting narrative between the two main characters because it allowed us into his head, something that doesn’t often happen in YA romances. (Usually the entire book is from one or the other partner’s perspective.  While this makes it easy to swoon over great male characters, like Augustus Waters in The Fault in Our Starsit’s nice to see both sides of the story every now and then).

Now for the less awesome:  I have to say, straight up, I just didn’t like Eleanor very much.  I wanted to so, so desperately because I mostly loved the book otherwise, but I just didn’t get her.  At all.  I felt like maybe the reveal as to WHY Eleanor behaved the way she did towards Park in the beginning happened too late in the narrative for me.  Or maybe my lack of experience with the things in Eleanor’s life kept me from connecting with her as a character.  I still am not sure, but I know it cast a shadow over this book for me.  In addition to my difficulties with Eleanor, I had trouble with the overall tone of the book.  I felt this sense of impending doom THE ENTIRE TIME I WAS READING.  I knew an ugly cry was coming for me, and it was like a weight on my brain that I just couldn’t shake.  I kind of thought I was missing something because I had read so many great reviews talking about how wonderful the romance was between Park and Eleanor, but I just couldn’t help thinking to myself, “This is going to end badly.  I just know it” and that kept me at a distance.

By now you’re probably thinking, “Dude. Lauren. Just tell us whether we should read it or not.”  So–you should read it, especially if you like the heartbreaking thing John Green has going on in a lot of his books.  I did very much enjoy Rowell’s writing, and it was fun to be back in a time before Web 2.0 and cell phones and all the tech-y things we have going on today.  Also, I want to say that just because a book is problematic for me doesn’t mean it’s “bad,” per se.  Obviously, it made me think, and that’s always a good thing.  And the sentence-level writing is just so very glorious.  I’m about to read an e-galley of Rainbow Rowell’s upcoming book Fangirl, so I hope to post a glowing review (one where I just adore everything) for that one–I guess we’ll see!

*”practically perfect in every way”…if you don’t get the reference, then your childhood was obviously lacking in coolness.