Book review: The Education of Margot Sanchez by Lilliam Rivera

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Margot was thrilled when her parents enrolled her in Somerset Prep, an elite upper-class high school.  All she wanted was to fall in with the right crowd, and after changing nearly everything about herself, she befriended the popular and wealthy Serena and Camille.  But keeping up with Serena and Camille proved difficult, and Margot resorted to stealing her father’s credit card so that she could continue to look the part.

This was supposed to be Margot’s summer.  She’d planned to spend it in the Hamptons with her new friends, chatting up cute guys and working on her tan.  But when her father finds out about the credit card, he sentences her to a summer of free labor in his supermarket, where Margot meets a cute community activist with a troubled past.  Moises wouldn’t fit in with the image Margot has so carefully cultivated at Somerset, but she feels a true connection with him.  Can she reconcile the two halves of her life?

I read this book solely for my 2017 Debut Author Challenge.  I’d fallen pretty far behind in my goal of 12 debuts this year, so I went through Overdrive and checked every currently available debut I could find.  This is my favorite of the bunch so far.

I was immediately struck by how unlikable Margot is.  She is the very definition of an unsympathetic heroine, and Rivera does an amazing job of making her feel real.  Margot is infuriating.  She’s shallow and spoiled and petty.  She thinks that she deserves the world simply by virtue of existing.  Her nickname is “Princesa,” for goodness’ sake!  But despite all of this, I did not hate her.  She felt like a real teenage girl.  This is how you do an unsympathetic heroine right.

I really liked how Margot grew as a person, both as a result of her interactions with Moises and just as a natural part of getting older.  I could feel her frustration with keeping up her different personas and was rooting for her to just be herself.  I could’ve done with a bit more of it, but let’s be honest.  This girl is still in high school.  The growth she went through over the course of the ten weeks of this book is pretty great.

The issues that Lilliam Rivera deals with in this book are also pretty heavy for YA.  She doesn’t shy away from conversations about race, drug use, gentrification, classism, sexism, or extramarital affairs.  These all feel like natural pieces of the plot and are never preachy or out of place.  Kudos to Rivera for weaving all of these themes together pretty seamlessly.

As for negatives, there are two main conflicts in this book.  The first is that someone is stealing from the family’s supermarket.  The second is some drama with one of the cashiers and a mystery man.  I had quickly figured out the identity of both the thief and the mystery man, so the dramatic reveals seemed a little anticlimactic to me.

I would have also liked a chapter or two of Margot back at Somerset to get a sense of whether what she learned over the summer stuck with her.  Was she able to stand up to Serena and Camille?  What ever happened with her and Nick after that night on the beach?  Did she ever get to join the fashion club like she so wanted to do?  The ending with Margot and Moises was fairly open-ended, and I was fine with that, but I would have liked just a bit more resolution of some of the other plot threads.

Overall, this was a strong debut, and I have no doubt that Rivera is going places.

Final rating: ★★★☆☆

ARC review: Artificial Sweethearts by Julie Hammerle

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Tinka and her best friend-slash-roommate Jane head home to Minnesota for the summer after spending the year at their South Carolina boarding school. Tinka is looking forward to some relaxation.  To shedding the party girl persona she wears all year. To just kicking back and catching up with her friends from home.  What she doesn’t expect is the shocking revelation from her parents that they’ve moved to North Pole, a town where it’s Christmas all year.

Tinka’s parents have bought a wreck of a house.  It’s falling apart around them, but they seem convinced that with enough help from Tinka and Jane, it’ll feel like home by the end of the summer.  Tinka, still reeling from the revelation that her childhood home isn’t hers anymore, is less than thrilled at the prospect of a summer of manual labor in a town where she knows no one.  She’s also pretty embarrassed that her BFF has to be a part of this.

Throw into the mix parents who’ve completely changed – partying like teenagers, trying to set her up with their friends’ very attractive but highly annoying son, throwing caution to the wind and leaping before they look – and Tinka is pretty miserable.  She’s never been particularly happy at home, feeling like she must constantly compete with her brother Jake, but this summer takes the cake for the actual worst  The one bright spot in the summer comes in the form of Sam, her new neighbor.

Out of the four Anderson siblings, Sam has the reputation for being the good guy.  He never complains. He goes with the flow. Tease him as much as you’d like and he’ll never do anything but smile. Sam is the glue that holds the Anderson family together, and his older brother’s upcoming wedding has only increased his family’s expectations.

Sam and Tinka click almost instantly.  Tinka likes Sam because he doesn’t judge her for the mistakes she made at school.  He just accepts her as she is.  Sam likes Tinka because she’s honest.  She might feel pretty guilty about what happened back at school, but with Sam, she can own up to it and try to become a better version of herself.  When Tinka grows tired of her parents’ matchmaking efforts and Sam gets fed up with his siblings’ relentless teasing over his perpetually single status, the two agree to a fake relationship.

But what happens when a fake relationship starts feeling more and more real?

This book was very cute and I really liked both Tinka and Sam. It’s an incredibly fast read that kept me entertained throughout, but it does fall victim to one of my least favorite tropes: Poor Communication Kills.  Sam and Tinka are great about communicating.  Early on in their friendship, they lay everything on the line, no matter how embarrassing. It’s a shame that these two crazy kids couldn’t communicate about their actual feelings.  If they had, this could have been a five-star review.

But even with that complaint, I still really enjoyed this book.  The secondary characters, particularly Hakeem and Dottie, made this book great.  (And for very different reasons!)  This is a great book for those times you’re looking to wind down after a hard day. It’s easy to read with just enough tension to keep you going.

Final rating: ★★★★☆

I received a free copy of Artificial Sweethearts from Entangled Crush via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

ARC review: Faithful by Alice Hoffman

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One snowy night, in their senior year of high school, best friends Shelby and Helene are involved in a terrible car accident. Shelby escapes physically unscathed and emotionally scarred, but Helene’s injuries have put her into a permanent vegetative state.  Helene’s parents keep her in her bedroom and word spreads far and wide of Helene’s supposed “healing” powers. As a line of faithful followers forms outside of Helene’s house every day, Shelby is admitted to an inpatient psychiatric ward where she falls deeper into depression and self-destructive behaviors.

some spoilers below.

I loved Hoffman’s Seventh Heaven and was unimpressed with The Museum of Extraordinary Things, so I was really hoping that I would enjoy this book.  I was so excited to see this available as a “Read Now” on Netgalley, but it’s been more than six months since I downloaded my copy. I’ve finally read it, and I don’t really know what to think. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it, either. I really just didn’t see the point.

As always, Hoffman’s writing is beautiful.  Unfortunately, beautiful writing doesn’t stand in for the absence of plot. Although this book follows Shelby for a good decade or so of her life, very little actually happens.

At the outset of the book, and I want to mention this because I am quite sure it will turn off some readers, Shelby is regularly raped by one of the orderlies in the inpatient psych ward. This understandably undoes any progress that she might have made while hospitalized, and it carries over to how she views relationships for the next several years.

Out of the program, Shelby shaves her head and wears shapeless black clothes and combat boots that she knows make her look unattractive and scary.  She’s trying to look bad because she doesn’t deserve to look good. Her best friend is in a coma because of her, and why should she be enjoying her life when Helene can’t?

Shelby abandons all hope for a good life.  Although she’d been accepted to NYU, she never moves into her dorm. She moves down to her parents’ basement, where she sleeps on the couch and smokes a lot of weed. Her only semi-meaningful relationship is with her dealer, Ben, who she eventually begins dating.  Shelby doesn’t actually like Ben, but she feels that she doesn’t deserve to be in love because Helene is in a coma. Eventually, Shelby and Ben move to New York City together.

Shelby is awful to Ben.  She feels that he deserves better than her, and maybe if she yells enough, if she’s crazy enough, if she treats him poorly enough, he’ll leave. But Ben loves Shelby, and it’s not until she cheats on him with a handsome, charismatic veterinarian that he snaps. It’s not even the cheating that bothers Ben, it’s the fact that Shelby is going to leave him for this smarmy doctor.  When things don’t work out with the vet, Shelby realizes what a good person Ben was.  At this point, it’s too late.  Ben wants nothing to do with her.

At some point, Shelby realizes that she needs to get a job. She begins stocking shelves at a pet store, a dead-end job she picked so that she wouldn’t have to talk to people. Shelby is quickly promoted to manager for no real reason and becomes best friends with one of her coworkers. Although Shelby is a self-professed child-hater, her coworker tells Shelby that she will be babysitting her three children for several days while she goes out of town. (Why you would leave your three children with someone who doesn’t know the first thing about kids and admittedly hates them is beyond me, but this made for a really good couple chapters.) It turns out that Shelby is amazing with children. She knows exactly what to say to all of them so that they will become better versions of themselves. She calms fears and tames wild teenagers, all while letting them eat forbidden food and stay up past their bedtimes.

While working at the pet store, Shelby also learns that she loves animals. I guess she didn’t know this before. When she sees an animal being mistreated, she liberates it from its current owner and takes it home with her. By the end of the book, she has a motley crew of four dogs, ranging from a teacup poodle to a Great Pyrenees. Shelby is amazing with these dogs and can turn the worst-behaved animal into an angel almost instantly.  I’m glad that she saved these dogs because I, too, have a very big soft spot for animals, but I don’t know how she kept getting away with stealing them!

Shelby also goes to college at some point, where she’s admitted without much effort on her part. I suppose it’s possible that her old SAT scores and high school grades helped, but it seems like it should have taken a bit more work given that she hadn’t been in school for so long.  Of course, Shelby turns out to be absolutely brilliant and she gets great grades without even trying. Shelby is so brilliant that the state of New York actually pays her to go to school. Everything comes naturally to her and she ends up applying to (and being accepted at) UC-Davis for vet school. As the book ends, Shelby moves to California with the love of her life as Ben begs her to take him back.

I guess I didn’t really understand the point to this book. Shelby tries so hard to have a horrible life, but good things just keep happening to her. She tries to have a terrible, low-paying job and is promoted to manager. She tries not to have any friends, but good people insert themselves into her life. She tries to hate children, but ends up playing the part of the cool aunt. She tries not to succeed and ends up with a pretty perfect life.  I was happy for her, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t understand what the reasoning for all of this was.

The book is very emotional, and I often wanted to cry while reading it. But, as I’ve said with other books like this, what’s the point in making me cry? You haven’t made me realize anything new. You haven’t made me see things from a new perspective. You haven’t shed light on any underrepresented topics. You just want me to cry.  Congratulations, chunks of this book felt like punches to the chest. But why?

Now, this book has a fairly high average rating on Goodreads. It’s a book that many thousands of people have absolutely loved. Personally, it didn’t do it for me, but please don’t let that stop you from reading it.

Final rating: ★★★☆☆

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the ARC!

#mmdreading: a book you were excited to buy or borrow but haven’t read yet

Book review: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

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Can I tell you how much I loved E. Lockhart when I was younger?  I remember eagerly anticipating her next release.   I checked out every book of hers that my library had, and then inter-library loaned the rest.  As I got older and she released more books, they were always on my wishlists.  I just moved, but somewhere in a box, you’ll find a whole lot of hardcovers of her books.

What I’m getting at is that Lockhart was a big part of my childhood, and when I heard that she’d released a new book, I had to read it as an adult to see if the magic was still there.

It was.

Now, We Were Liars is a different sort of story than her Ruby Oliver or Frankie Landau-Banks books.  Whereas those were light young adult books, WWL is a mystery that messes with your head. Cadence Sinclair is a deeply troubled young woman. She’s got some obvious problems going into the story (unexplained illness, amnesia), and as you get further into the book, her various issues become more pronounced.

This book is still young adult, I guess, but it’s totally different from anything of Lockhart’s that I’d previously read.  It seems that people either liked that or hated it.  Scrolling through my friends’ reviews, I see lots of five-star and lots of one-star ratings. There’s not a whole lot in between. And I can understand that. I think that you have to be in the right mood for this book, and, in general, you need to like this kind of story.

Personally, I loved it.  I cried.  Like, tears streaming down my face, unable-to-think-straight-because-of-what-just-happened crying. I’m not going to tell you about the plot. This is the kind of book that’s better to go into blind.  Had I known anything about the plot, I can’t imagine that I would have enjoyed it as much.

Final rating: ★★★★☆

#mmdreading: a book with an unreliable narrator or ambiguous ending

ARC review: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Saenz

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The Inexplicable Logic of My Life is, like Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, a beautifully written book. However, unlike Ari and Dante, it’s a book about absolutely nothing. Unlike with Ari and Dante, I was so bored by this book that I nearly fell asleep on multiple occasions. And I’m not even being that dramatic when I say that this is heartbreaking, because Ari and Dante was such a good book, and it kills me when an author’s follow-up doesn’t live up to my expectations.

This book has basically no plot. I mean, sure, things happen. I guess you could call it a coming-of-age novel. Sal and his friends are confronted with death, grief, homophobia, anger, and violence. Some might call this a character-driven story. At its core, it’s about Sal and his friends during their final few months of high school. That’s fine. I read and enjoy coming-of-age novels all the time. But what’s not fine is that this book is 450+ pages of very pretty-sounding metaphors and musings of a teenage mind, and not much else.

I might have gone into this book a bit annoyed because the publisher insisted on sending it to me as an .acsm file. (I know, I know, I shouldn’t complain about free books.) I’m always annoyed when I have to deal with .acsm files, particularly because it means that I have to read it on my phone, and even though I’m only in my mid-twenties, I think that phone-reading is best suited to the youths. I’m too old for that nonsense. Give me a physical copy (or at least my Kindle) any day.

Anyway, as I was saying, I was already a bit annoyed when I finally got the file to open. I went into it with a “this better be worth it” attitude, so part of my distaste is most definitely my fault. But in addition to my pre-existing annoyance and the lack of plot, there are just some weird things that happen throughout this book. I don’t want to go too much into details here, but we have Sal’s anger issues but no real root cause. We have Sam and her “bad boy” problem that never really gets dealt with. We have some oddly offensive side plots and throwaway comments that seem to come out of nowhere and leave a lot to be desired.

Originally I had rated this book four stars, but upon thinking it over, I really have to take it down to three. Who knows, with time it might change again. All I can say is that right now, this book was very middle-of-the-road for me. Certainly not awful, but also not much more than pretty writing. Mostly, I think I was just disappointed that it wasn’t Ari and Dante, part two.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the ARC!

Final rating: ★★★☆☆