Book Review: Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson

I picked up this book because it had been on my radar for a while and I was in the mood for contemporary romance and I found myself in a bookstore. I did not expect it to affect me as much as it did.

4.5/5 stars

cover since youve been gone

Amazon description

Before Sloane, Emily didn’t go to parties, she barely talked to guys, and she didn’t do anything crazy. Enter Sloane, social tornado and the best kind of best friend—someone who yanks you out of your shell.

But right before what should have been an epic summer, Sloane just…disappears. There’s just a random to-do list with thirteen bizarre tasks that Emily would never try. But what if they can lead her to Sloane?

Apple picking at night? Okay, easy enough.

Dance until dawn? Sure. Why not?

Kiss a stranger? Wait…what?

Getting through Sloane’s list will mean a lot of firsts, and with a whole summer ahead of her—and with the unexpected help of the handsome Frank Porter—who knows what she’ll find.

Go Skinny Dipping? Um…

My Review

This book was great. I love the premise, especially because the “you” that is missing isn’t a guy. I liked that so much of the book was driven by friendship–even the romance. The strong friendship theme helped to keep Since You’ve Been Gone from falling flat as a cliche contemporary romance–which it could have been, if the only plot line running was the romantic one.

Emily was the perfect protagonist for the story. She was a naturally introverted person who had been pulled out of her shell by the extremely extroverted Sloane. When Sloane disappeared, she reverted back to her awkward, unsocial self. I could easily relate to Emily, and I found the things that Sloane’s list pushed her to do sort of inspired me. I appreciated that though Sloane’s list pushed Emily out of her comfort zone, Emily’s character never fundamentally changed. If she had suddenly become an extrovert, it would have made the book feel fake. Instead, it felt real, as Emily pushed herself to take chances and live a little without losing her personality.

I liked the way the list played out. Each chapter was titled with whatever item on the list would be completed in those pages, but often the title did not match the item Emily was planning to cross off. The fact that plans went wrong and randomly helpful events that occurred instead added to the sense that this book could actually happen. I also liked the things Sloane chose for the list; they were random and embarrassing enough to push Emily out of her comfort zone, but there were also ones that were personally tailored for them and that tied into the friendship. The inside joke nature of these dares made me appreciate Sloane and Emily’s friendship more.

The book starts with Sloane already gone, so the only glimpses the reader gets into their relationship is through flashbacks. The long flashback scenes the author included were as full of life and energy as the others, but they did not clearly tie in to the scene that was happening around the flashbacks. I would have appreciated it more if the flashbacks clearly echoed or tied in to what was happening in the “actual” story. That could have made what was a fairly well written book into something really special.

Ahh, but the romance. I loved it. It did not dominate the plot, but it pushed it along. Emily and Frank genuinely started out as friends, and I liked that Frank had a girl friend when the book began. It sounds horrible, but it let Emily and Frank develop a friendship that felt real and solid before the signs started showing that they were developing feelings for each other. They were not the perfect OTP-type couple, but they felt honest and good for each other. Frank actually had a personality, and the relationship developed with just the right amount of drama. All in all, very well done.

I would recommend this book to anyone in the mood for a contemporary romance that pushes beyond the cliche boundaries. The plot is well-paced and entertaining. I loved the focus on friendship. And in the world of inspiring books, I think this one actually pushed me to try to do things that are outside my own comfort zone.

Book Rant: The Western Heritage

In honor of the AP European History exam I took last week, I thought I’d take a moment to review the textbook that taught me the material.

And by “review” I mean “scream in rage about” and by “taught me the material” I mean “sucked at teaching me the material.”

If you’ve ever had a horrible textbook, this will speak to your soul.

I read the Eighth Edition of The Western Heritage by Donald Kagan, Steven Ozment, and Frank M. Turner, chapters 10-31, which encompass European history from 1300 to present day.

cover western heritage

First and foremost, this book has an identity crisis. Half of the time, it acts as a textbook, explaining the who/what/where/when/how of European history to those who have essentially no background knowledge. The other half of the time, it seems to be making a point of being as mean to students as possible: leaving out sentences that could have clarified motivations, referring to things by names that they had never been called before (or were when they were originally explained), and acting like it was talking to an old friend who had already studied the history for years on end. It is clear that the book had different authors, and that these authors wrote different chapters, because things would be referred to by different names and titles between chapters. Sometimes, this was a slight annoyance (such as when they alternated between writing ‘Hapsburg’ or ‘Habsburg’), but other times, it was seriously confusing (such as using about ten different words to refer to the Netherlands, and never clarifying the nuances between the terms–if there were actually any). These problems should have been fixed by some sort of editor, but it seems as if no one cared enough to read the book start to finish and realize that continuity had been sacrificed to the deity of giving students headaches.

The images and “extras” included in each chapter only made this problem worse. The Western Heritage includes lots of maps, which at first sounds like a blessing for students. That is, until the text mentions a city or region that IS NOT INCLUDED ON THE MAP. More often than not, the cities on the map were never mentioned in the text, and any geographical markers the text included were no included on the maps. Essentially, the maps served no purpose besides taking up space–a trend continued by the countless “extras” included in each chapter. The textbook includes anywhere from half a dozen to a dozen “Documents” scattered throughout a chapter. In these boxes–which take up around a half a page–quotations from people or documents being discussed are included and then discussed. I never read any of these, mainly because they didn’t add anything meaningful to the text. There were also “Art and The West” pages included between chapters, discussing specific pieces of art, and “Encountering the Past” full-page explanations of cultural phemonima (such as Dueling in Germany or Table Manners).

All of these features were just space-fillers, making sure that the textbook–that students often carry around–was twice as heavy as necessary. I wouldn’t have minded if these “extras” actually helped me understand the text, but they were distracting more than anything.

The book also features basic images–portraits of important people, pictures of posters, sketches of inventions. These images were actually useful and well-chosen; however, their placement was a joke. Honestly, pictures were sometimes included in the text a page (or more) after the person/thing had been talked about. I would be reading about something, then turn the page and start reading about a different section. Then, when I glanced at the caption for the image included on the page I was currently reading, it would be referring to the person I read about on the previous spread, sending my brain back to that section and confusing me once I refocused on the text.

In all honesty, the textbook is fairly well-written. It features complex diction and sentence structure, making it enjoyable to read on a linguistic level. Sometimes, the sentence structure made things more confusing than they had to be, but as this was my first textbook that did not feel like it was written at an elementary school level, I did honestly respect that the writers had erred on the side of complexity.

I feel like most of the problems of this textbook could have been solved if it had been read by a copy editor and an average high school student before being published. The editor could have fixed continuity issues, and the student could have pointed out the things that made the book needlessly confusing.

Of course, these problems are not contained only to this textbook. They are issues that most textbooks probably have, encouraged by a textbook industry that thinks changing the colors in a diagram warrants a new edition of their book and that focuses more on “extras” than the actual text students try to learn from. However, this is the first textbook I’ve ever actually read all the way through (usually I just read the select parts of chapters that the teacher assigns), so this is the first time these issues have really hit me in the face.

Did I learn about European history this year? Yes, more than I had ever imagined. But that was from the help of numerous review books and another textbook (shoutout to the wonderful being that is History of the Modern World), as well as The Western Heritage. I’m glad that AP Euro was hard–I wanted it to be a hard class–but I don’t see why overcoming the nonsensical nature of this textbook had to be one of my trials.

Book Review: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

This book impressed me with the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of its social message, but I think I would have enjoyed the story more if I hadn’t read it in school.

4/5 stars

cover to kill a mockingbird

Amazon Description

The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it, To Kill A Mockingbird became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film, also a classic.

Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, To Kill A Mockingbird takes readers to the roots of human behavior – to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos. Now with over 18 million copies in print and translated into forty languages, this regional story by a young Alabama woman claims universal appeal. Harper Lee always considered her book to be a simple love story. Today it is regarded as a masterpiece of American literature.

My Review

Unlike everyone else who has recently read this book (or so it seems), I didn’t pick up To Kill A Mockingbird because of the announcement of Go Set a Watchman. I read it for school–10th grade Honors English–and it is easily my favorite book we’ve read this year.

It’s hard to talk about a book that is so popular, so influential, and so timeless. It feels strange to break it down as I do other books into plot, characters, themes, and writing style. But I’m not sure how else to talk about it, so here goes.

I loved Scout. I connected to her on many levels–she is an endearing child, her innocence and optimism make the book what it is today, and her simple rejection of Southern femininity speaks across decades to my feminist side. Rarely do I pick up books with young protagonists, mainly because I feel I’ve outgrown middle grade, and it was a pleasure to read a book whose themes were adult and whose plot pulled no punches, narrated by an elementary-school age child who made the whole book bearable. I feel like authors today don’t break the rules governing the relationship between the age of a protagonist and the content of the plot as often, and I wish they did. It is wonderful to read about young, innocent, energetic protagonists who get in fistfights and make up “haunted” houses.

And then there’s Atticus. He is amazing. Many people in my class had trouble with his somewhat distant relationship with his children, but I understood and loved it from the beginning. He couldn’t have been the lawyer or righteous character that he was if he was a super hands-on father, but that isn’t to say that he was a bad father. He was actually the best father that Jem and Scout could hope for–teaching them lessons so subtely that they followed them instead of rebelling against them. This, incidentally, also made sure that the reader didn’t want to strangle Atticus for being “preachy,” something I was afraid would happen if Harper Lee had not been such a gifted storyteller. Atticus’s relationship with guns was one of the most powerful parts of the book for me (and not just because it is where the title came from). The scene where he shoots the dog was one of the most dramatic and thought-provoking scenes in the book, and I know that in “X” amount of years it will be one of the moments that stays with me.

The rest of the characters in Maycomb were simple but alive. Though there are tons of side characters, each one of them is memorable and well characterized. Miss Maudie was one of my favorites; I loved the solidarity we got to see with Atticus and her sweet relationship with the children. Miss Stephanie Crawford and Aunt Alexandra drove me crazy, but in a good way–the story would not have been believable without their deeply Southern input. Jem and Dill, honestly, were some of my least favorite characters. I liked them, and they obviously contributed to the story, but their treatment of Scout bothered me, and I just never connected to them the way I did other characters. Calpurnia, on the other hand, was one of my favorites.

On to the plot of this book. It is a complex plot, not the kind of thing that can be described with any other term than “growing up.” The beginning’s focus on Boo Radely did a good job establishing a basis for Maycomb and Scout, though I preferred the scenes that focused more on Scout’s personal life than the Boo Radely “myth.”

Of course, the trial was the most powerful portion of the plot in terms of social commentary. I admire that Harper Lee didn’t shy away from making it a rape case, and that she was willing to make the truth of the case as “scandalous” as it would have been during the 30’s (when it is set) and also the 60’s (when it was published). Tom Robinson’s plight got to me, as well as the horrible position Mayella was in. The hatred I feel for Bob Ewell surprised even myself–I am extremely emotionally invested in this book. Atticus came into the spotlight and validated the hero-worship that comes his way. And Scout was simultaneously forced to grow up and strengthened by her youthful innocence.

The repercussions of the trial were important, but it was clear to me that the book was winding down. The attack scene, which I guess functions as a climax, felt like it was in the falling action portion of the plot, and ended up being lost a bit for me. Still, I loved that Harper Lee brought Boo Radley back, just to validate the beginning of the book and to show Scout’s growth. I was genuinely proud of Scout in the last pages of the book.

I think I would have enjoyed the book more if I hadn’t read it in school. Not because of annotating it or of beating it to death with class discussions, but because of how slow we read it. The plot felt very disjointed as we read it, chapter by chapter, with shot breaks between sections of the plot. I’d like to reread it at some point, on my own time, to really absorb the story as a whole. I think the plot would seem more continuous, and I would enjoy the impact of the story more fully.

Poetry: Single Player Chess

chess

I’ve never understood

Single-player chess

I don’t understand

How you keep yourself

From taking sides

Isn’t there something

That makes you choose:

Black or white?

And then you try to make them win.

We’re ruled by our

Love of underdogs

By the tiny voices

Pulling strings in our minds

 

Choosing sides

And watching the rest fall apart

From there

 

Unless

You love the game

Rather than the victory

Unless

Your love of the intricacies

Of playing so well

That you can’t beat yourself

 

It all depends what gives you

Satisfaction, I guess.

Book Haul #5: Catching Up on New Releases

I had kept myself from buying new books because I got so many during the holiday seasons. However, some sequels came out and I couldn’t resist.

Firefight (Reckoners #2) by Brandon Sanderson

cover firefight

I loved Steelheart so much! The characters, the plot, the world-building, the romance–everything worked. The ending was such a cliffhanger (but in a good way) and I can’t wait to read the next installment. Brandon Sanderson’s writing is horribly perfect, so I can’t wait to see where he takes this series. And I’m ready for more stunning reveals and plot twist. *clicks seatbelt*

Shadow Scale (Seraphina #2) by Rachel Hartman

cover shadow scale

Seraphina was so unique, managing to pull off a dragon story and a star-crossed romance all at once. I will definitely have to reread Seraphina to remember all the specifics, but I remember being impressed by Seraphina in a way few books impress me. I have no doubt that Shadow Scale will be just as enjoyable.

Miss Mayhem (Rebel Belle #2) by Rachel Hawkins

cover miss mayhem

Rachel Hawkins is a master of hilarious and ridiculous paranormal romance. Her light, saracastic style was great in Rebel Belle and I can’t wait to read more in Miss Mayhem. It’s vampire slaying meets Southern belles–who wouldn’t want to read that?

Black Dove White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

cover black dove white raven

Technically, this isn’t a sequel. But after reading Code Name Verity, Wein is an auto-buy author of mine. This book, WWI historical fiction with a heavily racial focus, promises to be exactly as heart-wrenching as Code Name Verity. However, I’m willing to cry when the writing is this amazing.


Have you read any of these books? Are you as excited as I am to continue these amazing series? What books have you recently added to your TBR shelf?

 

Top Ten (Six) Reasons I Won’t Read a Book

top ten tuesday

 Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish. Every week, they post a new Top Ten topic and other bloggers respond with their own lists. I take part in this meme when I have something to say for the topic and I remember what day it is.

This week’s topic was supposed to be “Top Ten Books I Will Probably Never Read”–but that’s really hard! How can I guarantee that I’ll never read a book? So I’m reinterpreting the topic by just taking about things that make me not want to read a book, rather than specific titles I’m currently avoiding. When I could think of examples, I listed them at the bottom.

1. Books With a lot of Hype

Probably my biggest “turn off” when it comes to books is when a book gets a lot of attention, especially from people who don’t usually read. While some people may champion these books as books that are so good that they overcome teens’ dislike of reading, I generally find that my peers choose fairly unimpressive books to get excited about (eg Hunger Games, Divergent). Also, maybe I’m just an unwitting hipster, but I find super popular books just don’t appeal to me; I like more obscure ones rather than the books that show up on Pinterest infographics and billboards.

  • Any of the new books by Rick Riordan

2. “Classics” (That aren’t on a school reading list)

Classics are often enjoyable reads, but not in any way that drives me to go out and read them in my own time. I trust the English classes I take to expose me to a few highlights, but on my own time, I want to read more current books. I find them more relatable and enjoyable, and while I’m still a bit defensive about this, I keep trying to tell myself that these are valid reasons. Anyone agree?

3. Overly dramatic continuations or conclusions of series

You know the type–the plot is headed toward some type of conclusion but then it swerves toward a cliff, leaving the reader dangling by their fingertips right at the end. I guess that this makes some people excited to read the next book in a series, and occasionally it does, but most of the time I get overwhelmed and annoyed. I like books with conflicts and suspense, but I have a limit of how much tension I can handle, especially when the beginning of the series (that I fell in love with) was more moderate and readable. Consistency people!

  • The One (Selection #3) by Kierra Cass
  • Never Fade (The Darkest Minds #2) by Alexandra Bracken
  • The Death Code (Murder Complex #2) by Lindsay Cummings

4. Books With Cliche or Overwrought Plots

You know the type: a dystopian world with a love triangle where the girl with mysterious powers she can’t control has to choose between the revolutionary or the royal and discovers a shocking truth about herself…

It’s too much. I want original plots that rely on strong characters and good writing. I feel like so many authors today focus only on drama, and it’s just not my thing. Even if its well written–I still can’t handle it a lot of the time.

The problem with this one is that I forget this about myself and I’ll go to a bookstore and buy a ton of books that when I get home I realize…This sounded good? I’m never going to read this.

5. Books that focus on really sad topics

This is not always true; I have read some books that I knew going in would be sad and that totally delivered on their promise. However, most of the time, I don’t want to pick up a book that promises sadness, especially if the story is set in contemporary times. I don’t want to read about people dying of cancer or recovering from car crashes or surviving intense trauma. I read to get a break from the world, and I really don’t want to be hit over the head with the horrors of modern life. Historical fiction from WWII is in the same vein, especially if it revolves around concentration camps or some other horrific thing people had to endure.

That’s not to say that I don’t like it when books make me cry. I actually really enjoy that. But I want there to be more to a book than making me cry. I want it to be a surprise when books make me cry, not a foregone conclusion.

  • The Fault in our Stars by John Green

6. Books that try too hard to be unique

I know, I know! I complained about cliche plots just a second ago. But at the same time, books with plots that are obviously trying to be unique, especially in contemporary books, just annoy me. It’s hard to explain, but it is kind of the same as books that go cliche to get readers. Elanor and Park did this for me; the “un-stereotypical” protagonists felt like a desperate attempt at diversity that fell flat (for me at least, I know others love this book).

Book Review: For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund

Having accidentally read this book’s companion novel first, I was pleasantly surprised by the complexity and uniqueness of the plot and world-building in For Darkness Shows the Stars.

4/5 stars

cover for darkness shows the stars

Amazon description

In the dystopian future of For Darkness Shows the Stars, a genetic experiment has devastated humanity. In the aftermath, a new class system placed anti-technology Luddites in absolute power over vast estates—and any survivors living there.

Elliot North is a dutiful Luddite and a dutiful daughter who runs her father’s estate. When the boy she loved, Kai, a servant, asked her to run away with him four years ago, she refused, although it broke her heart.

Now Kai is back. And while Elliot longs for a second chance with her first love, she knows it could mean betraying everything she’s been raised to believe is right.

For Darkness Shows the Stars is a breathtaking YA romance about opening your mind to the future and your heart to the one person you know can break it.

My Review

For all that this book says that it is dystopian, in all honestly it does not belong in that genre–and I am sooo glad. The setting feels fresh and unique, a wonderful break from the mold of dystopias today.

On that note, I loved the world-building Peterfreund employed. It was simple and believeable, an interesting critique of the 21st century’s obsession with genetic modification without sounding preachy. The Luddite’s fear and hatred of technology made sense, as well as their juxtaposed willingness to turn a blind eye to new technology if it presented itself. I like that so much of this book’s setting focused on human nature and its interaction with technology rather than complex specifics of the new world.

Elliot was a great protagonist. Her character was relatable and loveable; I understood why she didn’t leave with Kai four years ago. Her sense of duty was believable, and her role as a leader was subtle but complex. I liked her interactions with technology and her discomfort with the social status quo of her estate. Her interactions with her family were tense, presenting the right conflicts to drive her character into desperation. She was appropriately heart-broken over losing Kai without it dominating her character. I loved that we got to see how having and then losing Kai had influenced her growth in the four years of his absence.

Kai comes back as a captain the infamous Cloud Fleet, a set of Post (lower class citizens who are treated like serfs on estates like Elliots) explorers who want to use the shipyard in Elliot’s family’s estate to build their next vessel. The tension between the two of them was instant and palpable–I was sucked in immediately. The romance drove the plot but didn’t dominate it; Elliot’s interactions with the other members of the Fleet and the various conflicts they presented her were also important. However, the reason I kept reading the book was the romance between Kai and Elliot–or the lack thereof. It was painful and literally drove me to tears at times. The forces keeping them apart were more than the stereotypical ones I’ve read in other books. Though the romantic tension could have made me hate the book, Peterfreund managed to balance enough conflicting forces and motivations for me love it instead.

We get periodic glimpses into Kai and Elliot’s past with a series of letters they wrote each other as they grew up. This simple story telling technique worked so well to convey their relationship. I understood that they were honestly in love, and that it had been developing for years before Kai left.

Honestly, the letters were the biggest source of insight into Kai’s character. In the present, I felt like his characterization was reliant on Elliot’s memories and explanations. Still, in the end, I felt like I knew and liked the guy.

None of the characterization was exceedingly complex. None of the side characters felt flat, but they weren’t exactly deep either. I would have liked to get to know the others on a more personal level, instead of just through Elliot’s eyes.

Probably my biggest complaint with this book (the reason it didn’t earn 5/5 stars), is the ending. It felt too easy, too sudden, after the strife and conflict of the 400 pages before. Of course it made me happy (though I kind of knew it would happen because I’ve already read Across a Star Swept Sea) but I wanted more from it. Peterfreund set me up for a super dramatic reveal of emotion that I felt like I never got.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants a fresh take on a dystopian world and a dose of well-written romantic tension.