Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

everythinginevertoldyou A story that has been told a dozen times before:

A perfect daughter dies under tragic circumstances. Her family reels with shock, and then struggles to pick up the pieces.

The premise of Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng may seem simple – familiar, even – but this story is far from what you’d expect.

Set in a small town in Ohio in the 1970s, Everything I Never Told You follows the Chinese-American Lee family. James Lee is a Chinese man working as a college professor (of history, specifically westerns and cowboys); his wife, Marilyn, is a white woman whose dreams of becoming a doctor were swept under the rug with the birth of her first child.

The three Lee children are Lydia, an overachieving, straight-A, student with many friends; Nathan, an equally-intelligent loner overshadowed by his sister; and Hannah, a quiet younger child who craves attention from her family.

When Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed. Old wounds are reopened. Crushed dreams are realized. Allegiances are questioned.

Word gets out that Lydia may not have been the popular girl her family thought her to be. While Nath and even Hannah begin to investigate the person that was their sister, Lydia’s parents refuse to listen and cope with their grief in vastly different ways.

“The things that go unsaid are often the things that eat at you–whether because you didn’t get to have your say, or because the other person never got to hear you and really wanted to.”

Everything I Never Told You is a haunting debut from an author who understands the nuances of relationships and renders them both painfully, and beautifully, on the page.

You may think you’ve read this story before, but this debut is all new.

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.

Review: Steady is the Fall by Emily Ruth Verona

Steady Is The Fall Cover A few weeks ago, Emily Ruth Verona visited BiblioSmiles to share her thoughts on her first novel, which is set to publish on October 29th.

That first novel is Steady is the Fall, and I was lucky enough to receive an e-copy of Verona’s book in exchange for an honest review.

I’m familiar with Emily’s writing since we took some classes together during our time as undergrads at SUNY Purchase. For those of you who are not familiar with her writing, I find her voice to be accessible, honest, and eloquent. This style carries through the entirety of Steady is the Fall. Every word is important and every sentence is meticulously crafted, making Verona’s work a pleasure to read.

The cover of Verona’s novel evokes feelings of contemplation, and a little bit of unease. I found myself returning to the cover on more than one occasion while reading. (I’m normally all for saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but this cover is really well-matched to its contents.)

Larry used to say death ran in our family. When I would tell him that it ran in everybody’s he’d simply hunch forward, hold up a finger and shake his head. “Not like in ours,” he’d say, “Not like in ours.”

Steady is the Fall follows once-hopeful photographer Holly Dorren in the aftermath of her cousin Larry’s suicide. Larry was Holly’s closest friend, and the two were inseparable since childhood. When the two cousins were young, they were in a severe car accident that caused resentment between their families and ultimately jump-started Larry’s fascination with death. Why had they been spared? What was this thin line that separated living from dead?

As they grew up, Larry continued to fixate on the car accident and the fragility of human life. He attempts to take his own life on multiple occasions, which terrifies his friends and family and puts a strain on his relationships with them all. Holly’s loyalty to Larry is fierce, and she tries very hard to keep a grasp on her cousin.

Hence her brokenness at the start of the novel.

Larry is a central character in Steady is the Fall, yet he only lives in flashbacks and memories. We are only able to see Larry as Holly wants us, as the readers, to see him. Because of this, I found the way I connected to Larry to be an incredibly interesting experience. I felt distanced from him as a character, but I also felt Holly’s acute longing for him, and her defeat of having been left alone.

As a narrator, Holly pulled me into her headspace, and I found it very hard to shake her feelings when I would put the book down for the day. She is reflective, and moody, and numb with her grief. She’s having difficulty coping with her loss, and it affects how she interacts with her family, her friends, and her coworkers. She has little interest in her hobbies or in taking care of herself. She chooses to fixate on things that have little do with her life or her situation – she becomes obsessed with a laundromat that closes after a fire – and there’s something incredibly sad about that. There’s something incredibly real about that, too; Holly’s grief is understandable. Verona writes Holly Dorren’s sadness in a way that is startlingly real: it is raw, and it hurts to look at, but at the same time you can’t look away. This experience is further complicated by the fact that Holly’s nickname growing up is “Holly-full-of-holes.” How much of what she says is true, and how much is a fabrication? A lie?

Steady is the Fall has a handful of strong supporting characters. Holly’s relationship with Bryan, one of Larry’s college roommates, is fraught with drama and tension. Her relationship with her own brother, a seemingly-directionless young man taking on a big responsibility, was also incredibly interesting to me. I found Holly’s interactions with others to be intriguing, as they offered a glimpse of Holly outside of her own head: out in the world of the living.

Steady is the Fall is a quiet, yet powerful debut. I urge you to add the novel to your Goodreads list or pre-order it through Black Rose Writing.

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.

Review: Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin

rainreign Twelve-year-old Rose Howard loves following the rules. She obsesses over homonyms and prime numbers, and frequently shouts both out loud, especially when she’s upset.

Rose has Asperger’s syndrome, and she stands out in her small town of Hatford, New York because of it. Rose wants to “belong” in a world she can’t quite grasp. Her father wants her to “be normal.” Her teacher and school aide struggle to help Rose adapt. Only Rose’s uncle, Weldon, and her pet dog, Rain, accept her as she is.

When a super storm wipes out the area and the roads flood, Rain goes missing. When Rose attempts to track down her dog, she’s faced with a lot of situations that normally unnerve her (speaking to people on the phone, for example). When Rose finds out some startling information about Rain, she must make a tough decision. Should she listen to what her father tells her because he’s her father, or should she do what feels right?

Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin is told in Rose’s first-person point of view. There are some interesting things about this narration because of Rose’s developmental disorder; for example, Rose refers to certain chapters before their happen by their chapter title name:

I will tell you more about the rain my father brought [Rain] home in another chapter, Chapter Five, which will be called “When We Got Rain.”

Homonyms in parentheses are interspersed throughout the narrative, reminding the reader of how Rose’s mind works:

When Rain and I are at home… Rain puts one (won) of her front feet (feat) in (inn) my lap.

I found the supporting characters of Rain Reign to be incredibly strong figures. Rose’s father, Wesley, is a single parent. Gruff and quick to anger, he shows obvious frustration at Rose’s outbursts and often pleads with her to be “normal.” This seems to stem from a feeling of helplessness in his situation. He is neglectful as a parent; he spends his time at the Luck of the Irish bar down the street. He gives Rain, who he finds behind the bar, to Rose as a present, in the  some love and trust from her. Wesley and his brother, Weldon, were placed in foster care when they were younger after a teacher found burn marks on Wesley.

Uncle Weldon is Wesley’s younger brother and Rose’s confidant. He is gentle and kind to Rose, and does not dismiss her like father does. Weldon encourages Rose’s love for homonyms and helps her works on the list of words she keeps. When Rain goes missing, Weldon offers to drive Rose around to various shelters. He is timid around his brother and does not want to step on any toes as far as Rose’s upbringing is concerned, but he’s always looking out for his niece’s best interest.

If you’re looking for a book with a lot of action and character development, this book may not be for you. Rain Reign is more of a character study, and while certain new character traits come to light, no one really changes. However, if you’re looking for a lens into a new perspective, and a story with a lot of heart, I recommend picking up Ann M. Martin’s book.

The suggested age range for Rain Reign is grades 4 through 6, but you’re never too old to enjoy a good middle grade novel, you know?

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.

Review: In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

unlikelyevent After attending the Judy Blume panel at BookCon and getting my copy of In The Unlikely Event signed by Ms. Blume herself, I was eager to dive into this hefty novel by the author of Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.

(I wrote about the BookCon panel here. I loved hearing the author’s thoughts on her own work!)

I read In the Unlikely Event slowly, struggling to keep the characters straight as I went along, as the perspective switches frequently between a cast of children and adults. Despite this trouble, I persevered, knowing it would be worth it in the end. And it was.

I fell for Judy Blume’s newest novel not so much for the characters, who were complex but not necessarily interesting, but for the time they lived through. Blume’s descriptions of the 1950s in Elizabeth, New Jersey, a town not too far from my own, had me feeling nostalgic for a time period I wasn’t around for.

I wanted the giggly thrill of visiting a lingerie store to pick out stockings or nightgowns. I wanted to attend a party in someone’s dining room where I could purchase compacts or cosmetics. I wanted to be escorted to a dance at the Y, and maybe even get asked to go steady by someone’s football-playing brother. I wanted to wear a sweater set! The 1950s may have been a time of fear, of communists and conspiracies, but it is also a time that begs for wholesome nostalgia, in my opinion. Blume had me feeling this nostalgia most acutely.

In the Unlikely Event begins in 1987, when Miri Ammerman returns to her hometown of Elizabeth for a commemoration ceremony of the tragedies that struck her town. Thirty-five years earlier (when Miri was fifteen), three airplanes had crashed in her town in a matter of months, sending the community into a spiral of grief and despair.

These plane crashes really happened, and they were a huge part of Blume’s own childhood (the author is from Elizabeth). Knowing that these crashes really happened had me scrambling to research, which I think is a mark of a compelling read.

All of the characters in Blume’s novel react to these tragedies differently. Miri becomes fearful, but also conscious of the conspiracies at play. Her uncle is a newspaper reporter who receives quite a bit of attention thanks to his articles on the crashes, and Miri latches onto his inquisitive nature, questioning everything about the crashes as she in turn has questions about growing up and becoming an indvidual.

(Would it really be a Judy Blume book without this questioning? This maturing? Reading about Miri’s personal journey made me nostalgic for Blume’s young adult books.)

Miri’s best friend, Natalie, becomes strange and terrified, believing her body is being used as a host by a young woman who perished in the first plane crash. Miri’s mother, Rusty, clings to others for comfort, while trying to protect her own daughter.

There is romance in this story, and there is heartbreak, too. There is growth and death. There are life lessons you don’t mind taking because they’re administered by Judy Blume, who has always made growing up seem a little less scary.

“Life is a series of unlikely events, isn’t it? Hers certainly is. One unlikely event after another, adding up to a rich, complicated whole. And who knows what’s still to come?”

Have you read In the Unlikely Event yet?

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.

Review: More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera

morehappythannot The New York Times called Adam Silvera’s debut novel, More Happy Than Not, “mandatory reading,” and I’m inclined to agree. This novel turned everything I thought I knew about the young adult scene on its head, and I’ve been recommending it to everyone I meet. So if you see me in the next year or so and ask me what you should be reading, here’s your answer.

Aaron Soto is a sixteen-year-old boy living in the Bronx of the near future. He lives in a housing project with his mother and older brother, all three of them skirting around their grief and disbelief over Adam’s father’s suicide and Adam’s attempted suicide.  Why should they live with their feelings when there’s a procedure that wipes away your memories? The Leteo Institute offers a memory-wiping (“memory relief”) procedure for those who have gone through trauma. In Aaron’s own community, one friend underwent the procedure after his twin brother was killed, effectively wiping out all memories of his sibling’s existence and their shared childhood.

Aaron has a scar shaped like a smile on his wrist, but he doesn’t have much to be happy about: his father killed himself, his mother is overworked, and the neighborhood he lives in is poor. While the support of his girlfriend, Genevieve, is a comfort, it doesn’t always seem like enough. He’s never quite sure of how he’s supposed to act.

But then Thomas shows up, and Aaron’s whole world turns upside-down. Thomas is not like Aaron’s friends from his project; Thomas is sensitive, and funny, and likes the same comic books as Aaron. Aaron starts finding more and more  excuses to hang out with Thomas, until he realizes he’s falling for his new best friend. In a neighborhood where being gay is enough to get you jumped, Aaron struggles with this new realization. Maybe there’s hope for him, still, if he can just get his mom to agree to a Leteo procedure. But is the process of erasing memories enough to change a person?

“Memories: some can be sucker punching, others carry you forward; some stay with you forever, others you forget on your own. You can’t really know which ones you’ll survive if you don’t stay on the battlefield, bad times shooting at you like bullets. But if you’re lucky, you’ll have plenty of good times to shield you.”

You may think: “I’ve seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This kind of seems like the same thing.” But aside from the idea of a memory-wiping procedure, More Happy Than Not is entirely unique. Its diverse cast of lovable (and not so lovable) characters, realistic, gritty setting, and surprising plot twists make this a story all its own. I wept, unabashedly, through the last third of the book, because the writing is so good and the characters are so easy to care for.

Have you read Silvera’s debut yet? I’d love to hear what you think! If you haven’t had the chance to pick it up yet — do it now. You won’t regret it.

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.

Review: The Boy Most Likely To by Huntley Fitzpatrick

boymostlikelyto Published on August 18th by Dial Books, Huntley Fitzpatrick’s The Boy Most Likely To is an exciting companion read to My Life Next Door.

Tim Mason was The Boy Most Likely To . . . find the liquor cabinet blindfolded, need a liver transplant, and drive his car into a house.

Alice Garrett was The Girl Most Likely To . . . well, not date her little brother’s baggage-burdened best friend, for starters.

Tim’s wild ways have finally caught up with him. Though he went through rehab and is now a willing participant in the AA program, his father still insists he get out of the house and turn his life around before Christmas. If he can’t get things together by Christmas, his college fund will be given to his sister, Nan, who has Ivy League dreams.

Tim moves into the garage apartment at his friend Jase’s house. Where Tim’s family life is pretty nonexistent, family life at the Garrett house is the only thing that exists. Mr. Garrett is recovering in the hospital after a car crash, so all of the family managing lands on his wife; however, Mrs. Garrett is overworked, pregnant, and worried about her husband, so the brunt of the duties falls on nineteen-year-old Alice Garrett.

Where Tim is reckless, Alice is over-prepared. Naturally, the two of them have a connection that confuses and frustrates them both. But The Boy Most Likely To is not a simple, straight-forward summer romance story. No: there are a lot of serious elements at play here. When a mistake from Tim’s past forces him to own up and grow up really fast, he questions the choices he’s made so far and how he should approach his future. Alice, who is struggling with her own future plans, must decide where and how she fits into Tim’s life. But wait: isn’t he just her brother’s friend who lives in the garage? Or is he a whole lot more?

The Boy Most Likely To asks you to forget what you know about cliches and high school superlatives, and instead to re-examine what makes a person who they are. The Boy Most Likely To is about the definition of family, self-love, and responsibility.

And for those of you crossing your fingers for a bit of summer romance: don’t worry – you’re not totally missing out. Fitzpatrick writes some swoon-worthy moments.

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.

Review: The Invaders by Karolina Waclawiak

theinvaders The cover of Karolina Waclawiak’s The Invaders is misleading. The bright colors and sunny scenery conjure up visions of an idyllic beach getaway, a life where the hardest decision one has to make is what wine to order with dinner (or what hour to start drinking). But this is a gritty story, full of shiny facades that are dull up-close and the futility of covering deep wrinkles with makeup.

Little Neck Cove, Connecticut is a community obsessed with appearing young and effortless – a prim beauty queen of a beach town. The women of the town wear bright colors in bold patterns. Like mating birds pruning their feathers, they sport colorful prints and dramatic necklaces in the hopes of appearing youthful and desirable. The men are aging in their polos and boat shoes, working their New York City jobs and coming home to drink and drive around on their golf carts. They have dinner at the club. They enjoy their beaches. They crave exclusivity. At one point this was a community of swingers, of husbands and wives in their prime, of virility. But now everyone is aging, and everything is done for appearance’s sake.

The chapters of The Invaders are split between the perspectives of Cheryl and Teddy, and both of the characters’ voices shine through in their narration. Cheryl is a forty-something housewife who seems to be fading out of favor. She was considered a prize, once: an adventurous beauty that men fell for. The beach community of Little Neck Cove has never let her fully into their circle, though; they favored Cheryl’s husband’s first wife much more, even if she was a tragic drunk. Teddy is Cheryl’s do-nothing stepson, who doesn’t pay attention to much of anything except his drug supply. When Teddy is kicked out of school, he comes to stay for good in Little Neck Cove, threatening the already-precarious state of Cheryl’s marriage.

Cheryl and Teddy, both crippled in their own ways, become unlikely allies as the beach community starts to crumble. A violent attack on a nature trail has everyone concerned for their safety. A neighbor’s hysteric demand for privacy results in the building of a wall around the beach, shutting others off from the pleasure of the view. A hurricane brews off the coast, threatening to send Little Neck Cove underwater. As the town unravels, Cheryl and Teddy unravel with it, questioning their roles and the expectations placed upon them.

While I couldn’t connect with Cheryl or Teddy on the basis of their experiences, the feelings they suffer from are universal; the desire to fit in and the overwhelming, frantic feeling of being cast-out are written beautifully here. The characters are placed under an unforgiving lens. We as readers get to see every crack in the surface, every weakness, and every unflattering angle. Did I tire at moments of Cheryl’s paralyzing fears? Perhaps. But as the story spiraled to its conclusion, I only wanted to hold on and get swept up in it all.

I was given a copy of The Invaders courtesy of the author, in exchange for an honest review.

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.