book recommendations

Read-a-Romance Month

August is Read a Romance Month! What’s that?  Simple–a month to celebrate readers, writers, and lovers of romance!  If you’re already a romance reader, be sure to check the link above to see 93 great authors sharing guest posts on the Celebrate Romance blog.  If you’re new to the genre, maybe you’re looking for a place to start.

Maybe you’re not the kind of person who ever pictured him or herself reading a romance novel with “one of those” covers.  But if you’re also the kind of person who’s ever enjoyed a tear-jerker romantic movie, or can’t resist watching a romantic comedy every time it’s on, you might be surprised by how much you can enjoy a romance novel.

Not surprisingly, I tend to look at romance through the Young Adult (and now New Adult) lens, so I wanted to share a few recommendations with you.

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My Own Personal Book Awards

I’ve read some spectacular books this year.  So spectacular in fact, that I couldn’t resist giving out a few awards in some categories of my very own creating.  

There are five books in each category, and I swear to you, they could really go in any order, and their ranking here does not reflect anything but the order I found them on my reading list.  Looking at them now, I’m pleased to see what a diverse list this is.  My taste usually runs to the Contemporary side, but it just goes to show you never know what’s going to rock your world.

So without further ado, I give you…

My Five Favorite Reads of 2011

1.  The Name of the Star 
Maureen Johnson

Johnson hit this one out of the park.  (You can see my full review on Goodreads)  I was a little nervous how it would play, since she’s one of my favorite contemporary writers.  But I am here to tell you, this is now my gold standard for what paranormal must be.  The characters still had all the layers and humanity of a contemporary, and their experience with the ghost world fit right in.  Fast-paced and compelling.  I can’t wait for the next one!

2.  Divergent
Veronica Roth

The moment I finished this book, I ran to my mom’s house and told her she had to put down whatever else she was reading and start it.  She finished the next day.  This book is straight up addicting from the get-go.  It’s intense, fascinating, and so unexpected.  Everything you think you know about dystopian will be turned on its head.  Is INSURGENT out yet?!

3.  Chime
Franny Billingsley

I read this book only after reading Mandy Hubbard’s blog post about what editors were looking for.  When asked, more editors said they wished they’d edited CHIME than any other book.  For that reason, and in spite of the cover and the jacket flap, I read it.  Oh. My. God.  It was NOTHING like I expected.  It was brilliant and painful and so different from anything else I’ve read.  I couldn’t put it down.  If you don’t believe me about any other book, please go get CHIME as soon as you possibly can.

4.  I Capture the Castle
Dodie Smith

My friend Johnny recommended this book to me.  It’s older–written in the 1940s, and first published in 1949.  Strangely enough, the author is also the author of ONE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIONS.  This book is pure magic.  Bizarre, and hilarious, and romantic, and wonderful.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Another one I forced my mother to read as soon as I finished.

5.  Putting Makeup on Dead People
Jen Violi

I was excited about this book based solely on the title.  Violi delivered an amazingly layered story that pulled me in from the start and made me want to stay longer in her world.  It was quirky, and unexpected, and tapped themes I haven’t seen handled so delicately in YA.  Intricate as lace.  You should definitely put it on your to-read list.

The Five Books That Made Me Feel 
Like a Hack As a Writer in 2011

3.  Chime
Franny Billingsley

Billingsley’s story is a master class in world building.  The language, the voice, the characters, the setting, the structural devices…there was nothing here that didn’t work for me.  It was like being miniaturized and settled comfortably in an old-fashioned music box, watching wide-eyed while the mechanisms did their magic.  I could die happy if I ever wrote something half this good.

2.  Ashes
Ilsa J. Bick

Holy action movie on paper, Batman!  This one left me breathless.  It was particularly harrowing to read for me since it was set so close to where I live.  Bick even referred to local restaurants by name.  I loved the realism, and the believability of this awful future.  She even gave explanations for her character’s survival skills that rang so true I didn’t question her for a moment.  Amazing.

3.  My Invented Life
Lauren Bjorkman

Bjorkman’s use of language left my mind spinning.  This book was actually challenging to read at times because of the stream-of-consciousness style (though that’s not even really the right description).  I felt like I was never given a full hand in a high-stakes poker game.  I’m not sure I loved this book, but it certainly gave me a lot to think about.  YA is NOT dumbed down, and this book is proof.

4.  Imaginary Girls
Nova Ren Suma

I have rarely loved to hate a character as much as I hated Ruby in IMAGINARY GIRLS.  Suma created a David Lynch-like atmosphere in this book where I never felt like I had both feet on solid ground.  This was another one of those books where I was never sure if I was enjoying it or not, but I couldn’t help admiring Suma’s skill.  Characters, voice, setting…everything wove together.  And I love that some mysteries were never fully explained.  (But I still hate Ruby.)

5.  The Replacement
Brenna Yavanoff

Wow, this book gripped me from the first page.  It was like reading a book set in a Tim Burton movie.  Like others on this list, I never felt completely at home in this world, but it was so rich and believable I couldn’t help turning pages.  Only the ending let me down in any way.  I’d still highly recommend it.

My Five Favorite Female Characters for 2011

1.  Cassandra from I Capture the Castle
Dodie Smith

I really don’t know how to put words to my adoration for Cassandra.  She’s totally of her own time, yet delightfully madcap and modern.  I could easily imagine a teenager from today having the same kind of adventures Cassandra and her family went through.  She’s a complete delight, and you will never regret reading her story.

2.  Ruby Oliver from Real Live Boyfriends: Yes. Boyfriends, Plural. If My Life Weren’t Complicated I Wouldn’t Be Ruby Oliver 
e. lockhart

Ruby has been one of my favorites since I read the first installment in her series a couple years ago.  She’s funny, and smart, and self-centered, and confused, and good-hearted, and quirky without wearing it like a badge of honor, and her footnotes just make me want to be her best friend.  Sometimes, I wanted to strangle Ruby for being so stupid, but all her decisions were so human and relatable, in the end I still wanted to hug her.

3. Clio from Girl at Sea
Maureen Johnson

Clio is everything I love about Maureen Johnson’s writing.  She’s smart, unsure of herself, wise beyond her years, but somehow naive.  Best of all, she was dropped into the middle of a story that screams out to be made into an action/comedy, like, now.  Are you listening, Hollywood?  Clio’s observations of her world, and the other characters were laugh-out-loud funny.  Yay for girls in action roles!

4.  Rory in The Name of the Star
Maureen Johnson

And oh look, another Maureen Johnson character!  Feel free to take the reasons above and apply them to Rory.  Her near-death experience by humiliating choking episode, love of processed cheese-food-product, and willingness to use her paranormal abilities to get her homework done make Rory a character you can absolutely get behind.  Trust me, you’ll love her.

5.  Donna from Putting Makeup on Dead People
Jen Violi

Donna is definitely the quiet one on this list.  I loved her introspection, and the way she dedicated herself to her interests, whatever they were and however outside the norm.  She made me root for her so hard, right from the beginning.  She reminds me of a friend of mine, so of course I want to climb inside the pages and squeeze her to bits.

My Five Favorite Male Characters for 2011

1.  Roger from Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour
Morgan Matson

Roger is fun, and self-assured, but totally broken at the same time.  I loved the way he didn’t question Amy’s fear of driving, and went along with every strange twist in their journey.  I also loved the restraint he showed, and of course, his awesome taste in music (By the way, if you search some of the songs on his playlist on YouTube, you’ll find a ton of the others suggested in the side bar.  How cool is that?).

2.  Eldric from Chime
Franny Billingsley

Eldric was like a small sun dragged down to earth.  I could just picture him vibrating with energy and bubbling with laughter.  I loved his bad boy side, and his humor, and the way he “played” with Briony when she needed him to.  Such an amazing, rich character.

3.  Cricket from Lola and the Boy Next Door
Stephanie Perkins

Cricket was unique and weird, and adorable.  I am a sucker for a smart boy, and Cricket fit that bill to a T.  I loved the way he dove into anything that came up, from pie-making, to pizza box sliding.  A great, romantic lead that would have any girl with a thing for nerdboys swooning.  Loved him.

4.  Tobin from “The Cheertastic Christmas Miracle” 
Let It Snow 
Maureen Johnson, John Green, Lauren Myracle

Tobin is everything I like about John Green’s writing.  Funny and sarcastic without delving into snarky, full of joy at the wonderment of life, and not even completely embarrassed about it.  Totally willing to dive straight into a bad plan and ride it out, no matter what.  Green writes about the kind of kids I knew in high school, and Tobin was no exception.  A lovable delight.

5.  Shakespeare Shapiro from Spanking Shakespeare
Jake Wizner

Rarely have I read a character who could pull off self-pity as successfully as Shakespeare.  He made me care about what happened to him, even though he saw himself as a victim of circumstance.  Hilariously honest and self-depricating to a fault.  I loved his relationship with his parents, and the way he was so utterly inept with the girls in his life.  Hilarious and adorable.  Hidorable.

Best Love Stories of 2011

1.  Tris & Four from Divergent
Veronica Roth

Oh, the understated sexual tension!  Oh, the forbidden aspect of the student-teacher attraction!  Oh, I am so going to kick Veronica Roth’s ass if anything bad happens to Four, I swear to God!

2.  Briony & Eldric from Chime
Franny Billingsley

Mmmmm, animal magnetism in a repressive historical time period!  Eldric and Briony simmer together and you just want them to finally let it happen!  So good.  Romantic without being sappy, obstacles you can actually believe, only a little bit wanting to clock one of them over the head with something heavy and scream, “Can’t you see he/she loves you?! AG!!”  So so so so good.

3.  Anna & Will from Sixteenth Summer
Michelle Dalton

This book is everything sweet and wonderful about that first real love.  All that wrapped up in a spectacular oceanside setting that made me want to move to Georgia.  And if you know me at all, that is REALLY saying something.  Love how this one ended.  And I won’t spoil it for you, so there.

4.  Mia & Adam from Where She Went
Gayle Forman

Adam and Mia have made my heart ache since IF I STAY.  I was going buggy for most of this book, so desperate was I to know everything would work out okay.  Amazing character development from the first book, and I bought every word of it.  It will fill you with longing and ennui, but in a good way.

5.  Lola & Cricket from Lola and the Boy Next Door
Stephanie Perkins

Okay, who doesn’t love Stephanie Perkins?  If you haven’t read ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS you have obviously got to get your priorities straightened out.  I didn’t love Lola as much as I loved Anna (the characters, not the book), but still the romance was so honest and realistic I couldn’t help putting this book on my list.  Plus…Cricket.  I mean, yum, right?  As much as I wanted to thump Lola over her head with a book a few times, I suppose it would have been dishonest of her to see the light too soon, right?  Even when that light is Cricket.  If you love romance, this is the one for you, trust me.

So, there you have it!  For more Year-End goodness, may I recommend checking out YAHighway?

Leave your favorites in the comments!  My To-Read list can never be long enough.

– Liz

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Summary: (from the publisher)
In the spring of her senior year, Donna Parisi finds new life in an unexpected place: a coffin.
Since her father’s death four years ago, Donna has gone through the motions of living: her friendships are empty, she’s clueless about what to do after high school graduation, and her grief keeps her isolated, cut off even from the one parent she has left. That is until she’s standing in front of the dead body of a classmate at Brighton Brothers’ Funeral Home. At that moment, Donna realizes what might just give her life purpose is comforting others in death. That maybe who she really wants to be is a mortician.
This discovery sets in motion a life Donna never imagined was possible. She befriends a charismatic new student, Liz, notices a boy, Charlie, and realizes that maybe he’s been noticing her, too, and finds herself trying things she hadn’t dreamed of trying before. By taking risks, Donna comes into her own, diving into her mortuary studies with a passion and skill she didn’t know she had in her. And she finally understands that moving forward doesn’t mean forgetting someone you love.
Jen Violi’s heartfelt and funny debut novel is a story of transformation—how one girl learns to grieve and say goodbye, turn loss into a gift, and let herself be exceptional…at loving, applying lipstick to corpses, and finding life in the wake of death.
Due out:  May 24, 2011  Click here to preorder from Barnes & Noble.

My thoughts:
The title of this book had me at hello.  The jacket flap sealed the deal.  The reading made me full of long and joy and delight.

From page one, I climbed into Donna’s back pocket and was totally wrapped up in her journey though this book.  I haven’t rooted so hard for a character in a long time.  I just wanted everything to be all right for her.  She makes some great decisions, some terrible ones, but they all seemed really necessary at the time.  

I loved the naked honesty of the narrative, and Donna’s views of other people throughout.  She’s very observant, even though she’s stand-offish.  I even enjoyed the impact of Catholicism on the book, which I did not expect.  Normally, I’m not taken with religious characters.  But here, Donna’s faith and relationship with religion were an integral part of her journey without defining her or constraining her.  Violi played her hand beautifully here.

The secondary characters in this book, especially Liz, were as real as Donna herself, and I really enjoyed how Violi kept them from being stereotypes.  Yes, Liz was the independent, free spirit, but she was not predictable.  Yes, her sister, Linnie, was the angsty goth type, but she turned out to be more open-minded at the end than almost anyone.
There were so many delightful things about this book, I could wax poetic for pages.  But I’d rather you just read the book and experience it for yourself.  You won’t regret it. 

Recommended for:
I am officially putting this on the must-read Contemporary YA list for 2011.  If you liked Emily Horner’s A LOVE STORY STARRING MY DEAD BEST FRIEND, if you like Laurie Halse Anderson’s style, if you still have a soft spot for Vada Sultenfuss from the movie My Girl–you’ll like this book.

As always, let me know what you think if you read it!

– Liz

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Book Recommendation: Bumped by Megan McCafferty

BUMPED by Megan McCafferty

Summary: (from the publisher)

When a virus makes everyone over the age of eighteen infertile, would-be parents are forced to pay teen girls to conceive and give birth to their children, making teens the most prized members of society. 

Sixteen-year-old identical twins Melody and Harmony were separated at birth and had never met until the day Harmony shows up on Melody’s doorstep. Until now, the twins have followed completely opposite paths. Melody has scored an enviable conception contract with a couple called the Jaydens. While they are searching for the perfect partner for Melody to bump with, she is fighting her attraction to her best friend Zen, who is way too short for the job. 

Harmony has spent her whole life in religious Goodside, preparing to be a wife and mother. She believes her calling is to bring Melody back to Goodside and convince her that “pregging” for profit is a sin. But Harmony has secrets of her own that she is running from. 

When Melody is finally matched with the world-famous, genetically flawless Jondoe, both girls’ lives are changed forever. A case of mistaken identity takes them on a journey neither could have ever imagined, one that makes Melody and Harmony realize they have so much more than just DNA in common. .

Order the hardcover from Barnes & Noble.
Get your Kindle edition here.

My thoughts:
The jacket flap does not do this book justice.  Since I read it, I’ve tried to describe it to a number of people.  Over and over I come back to this:  It’s like a really disturbing sci-fi, maybe The Matrix, but narrated by Cher from Clueless.  I know…but trust me.

The pregnancy-dominated slang was hard to take at first, kind of hard to understand, but once I decided to just let it in and wait for answers later, I really started to enjoy it.  I couldn’t believe how many slang terms McCafferty could come up with!  The language did so much for the world-building, I can’t imagine the book without it.  

While the plot should have been far-fetched to the point of intolerance–I mean, identical twins separated at birth? Come on–but McCafferty made it work.  It all made sense in the weird world of Melody and Harmony.  The characters at first read more like caricatures than real people, but ultimately that felt like the point.

The whole purpose of the novel, I believe, was to hold a mirror up to the extremes of our culture and add a whopping dose of Miracle Grow and about 25 years to mature them.  Harmony represents the extreme of religious devotion, with an obsession for purity, salvation and conversion.  Melody represents the extreme of consumerism, with an obsession for status, micro-celebrity and commodity.  The duel pictures McCafferty creates are not so extreme they seem impossible, or even so very distant.

Give the world a progressive virus that causes infertility, and I could easily see this happening.  Way too easily.  And that discomfort is exactly the point.  Making pregnancy trendy?  Um, we’re already halfway there.  But as another reviewer pointed out, McCafferty managed to deliver (ha ha, pardon the pun) this biting warning against such a society without being completely anti-sex.  You’d think the two would go hand-in-hand, but instead she managed to send a lot of positive messages about sexuality, and especially being in charge of your own.

Can’t complain about that!  At least, I can’t.

I’m not too surprised this book isn’t getting the credit it deserves.  It’s more satire than entertainment.  But if you are someone who reads for more than just escapism, I think you’ll find something to like in here.

Recommended for:
Have you seen the movie Idiocracy?  If not, maybe check that out.  If you like it, you’ll like BUMPED.  Also, the movie Heathers.  I apologize for all the movie references, but sometimes they’re just easier.

Has anyone else read this yet?

– Liz

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Book Recommendation: Wrapped by Jennifer Bradbury

WRAPPED by Jennifer Bradbury

Summary (from the publisher):
Agnes Wilkins is standing in front of an Egyptian mummy, about to make the first cut into the wrappings, about to unlock ancient (and not-so-ancient) history.

Maybe you think this girl is wearing a pith helmet with antique dust swirling around her.

Maybe you think she is a young Egyptologist who has arrived in Cairo on camelback.

Maybe she would like to think that too. Agnes Wilkins dreams of adventures that reach beyond the garden walls, but reality for a seventeen-year-old debutante in 1815 London does not allow for camels—or dust, even. No, Agnes can only see a mummy when she is wearing a new silk gown and standing on the verdant lawns of Lord Showalter’s estate, with chaperones fussing about and strolling sitar players straining to create an exotic “atmosphere” for the first party of the season. An unwrapping.

This is the start of it all, Agnes’s debut season, the pretty girl parade that offers only ever-shrinking options: home, husband, and high society. It’s also the start of something else, because the mummy Agnes unwraps isn’t just a mummy. It’s a host for a secret that could unravel a new destiny—unleashing mystery, an international intrigue, and possibly a curse in the bargain.

Get wrapped up in the adventure . . . but keep your wits about you, dear Agnes.

Due out:  May 24, 2011
Click here to get a copy from Barnes & Noble.
Click here for the Kindle edition from Amazon.

My Thoughts:
I got this book from GalleyGrab, and I didn’t know what to expect.  To be honest, the cover art did not give me much hope.  While it is beautiful as a piece of art, it really seemed more in line with the kind of covers I’m seeing on Middle Grade books right now.  More graphic novel than traditional fiction.  I thought the voice would be younger than it turned out to be.

Really, on all front, this book surprised me! After reading the jacket flap, I was expected paranormal. Instead, it was a delightful historical mystery and I completely enjoyed it. Agnes is an infectious main character–exactly what you want from a Victorian heroine: a little too smart for her own good, totally constrained by her society, and willing to tiptoe outside those social norms when adventure is at stake. The pace was just right, and kept me turning pages. I felt really immersed in Agnes’s world, without too much explanation that would ruin the voice. 

Bradbury struck just the right balance between historical accuracy and creative license. I wanted to believe everything she told me, and her storytelling made that possible.

I won’t ruin this for you all with spoilers, but if you have ever loved the Victorian era, you need to read this book. The whole time I was reading, I kept thinking of Anne Perry’s Pitt series, which I devoured in younger days. Agnes brought me back there, with a nice sprucing up for today’s reader in the YA genre.

There had better be more where this came from, Jennifer Bradbury! More Agnes!

Recommended For:
Anyone who likes Historical Mysteries, especially Victorians.  Anyone who ever wanted to be Indiana Jones (like me!).  Anyone who liked Amy Adams’s character in Sherlock Homes.

Let me know if you like it!

– Liz

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Book Recommendation: Stay by Deb Caletti

STAY by Deb Caletti

Summary:  (from the publisher)

Clara’s relationship with Christian is intense from the start, and like nothing she’s ever experienced before. But what starts as devotion quickly becomes obsession, and it’s almost too late before Clara realizes how far gone Christian is—and what he’s willing to do to make her stay.
Now Clara has left the city—and Christian—behind. No one back home has any idea where she is, but she still struggles to shake off her fear. She knows Christian won’t let her go that easily, and that no matter how far she runs, it may not be far enough….
Click here to order a copy of your very own from Barnes & Noble.
My thoughts:

I had the privilege of reviewing a galley of this book, and I could not have been luckier. This book is amazing. A bit slow to start but after ten pages or so I was in so deep I didn’t want to put it down. 

The story reads as if it is really Clara telling her story. Her voice is impeccable, and smart, even when she’s making decisions that drive you crazy. I liked the very adult language and the relatable imagery. I’m not normally one for a lot of poetic language, but Caletti’s imagery and introspection were so real, so…right, I found myself wishing she’d explain the world to me. 

Clara and Christian’s relationship is all too recognizable, and such an important and underexplored area in Young Adult literature. Despite the poisonous nature of the relationship, I found myself 100% in Clara’s corner. I could understand every step she took deeper into the dangerous waters of Christian. 

The subplot between Clara and her father, while not inconsequential by any means, didn’t distract from the main story. I wanted to know how both threads wove together in the end. 

An atmospheric story of love, loss, coping, growing up and forgiveness. Read it in the rain, and probably not by yourself. There are moment of genuine creep-out intertwined with moments of genuine joy. One of the best contemporary YA novels I’ve ever read. I’ll be catching up on Caletti’s back catalogue post-haste. 

Recommended for:

Anyone who loves contemporary YA.  Anyone who has been in, or been friends with someone who has been in one of those poisonous relationships.

If you read and enjoyed, Jandy Nelson’s THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE, Sarah Ockler’s TWENTY BOY SUMMER, Gayle Forman’s IF I STAY, or Kirsten Smith’s THE GEOGRAPHY OF GIRLHOOD, you will devour this book.

Come back and tell me what you think when you’re done, okay?

– Liz

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Book Recommendation: The Last Little Blue Envelope


Summary: (from the publisher)

Ginny Blackstone thought that the biggest adventure of her life was behind her. She spent last summer traveling around Europe, following the tasks her aunt Peg laid out in a series of letters before she died. When someone stole Ginny’s backpack—and the last little blue envelope inside—she resigned herself to never knowing how it was supposed to end.
Months later, a mysterious boy contacts Ginny from London, saying he’s found her bag. Finally, Ginny can finish what she started. But instead of ending her journey, the last letter starts a new adventure—one filled with old friends, new loves, and once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Ginny finds she must hold on to her wits . . . and her heart. This time, there are no instructions.
Due out:  April 26, 2011  Click here to preorder from Barnes & Noble.

UPDATE:  Right now, you can preorder (in Kindle format) the first book  in Ginny’s story, THIRTEEN LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPES for FREE.  That’s right–FREE.  Maureen Johnson is giving it away from April 12-26, 2011.  Other formats will be available starting the 12th of April.  Don’t miss out–FREE BOOK, PEOPLE!!

My thoughts:
It was pure pleasure to go back to Ginny’s world, and the ride was just as dizzying and wonderful this time. I really enjoyed the character development in Ginny. She greeted this journey with so much more confidence. She was really the kind of girl you wish you could be in high school. It was also interesting to the see the changes in Keith. I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone, so I’ll leave it at this:  English boys are still sexy.

If anything, the descriptions were even better this time around. As rich as Ginny’s experience was the first time she traveled through Europe, this one made me feel like I was really there with her. And I want to go to the Coo Coo Clock. Like now.

At the end of the book, all I wanted to do was be fifteen years younger, with a disposable income and a zany treasure hunt of my own. Definitely the kind of book that reminds me why I read and write YA. 

Recommended for:
Anyone who likes contemporary YA, but you absolutely must read the first book first. You’ll want to know all of Ginny’s story before you dive into this one, and the wait will be totally worth it.

If you haven’t read any of Maureen Johnson’s books, you’re definitely missing out.  Don’t let her girly covers deceive you.  She has all the depth and honesty you could want from a YA writer, and then for added lovability, she’s the best Twitter personality I know.  Go follow her.  No, seriously.  Go.

So, how’d I do for my VERY FIRST BOOK REVIEW (on my blog)?

– Liz

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