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A Review of Firsts, by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn

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Seventeen-year-old Mercedes Ayres has an open-door policy when it comes to her bedroom, but only if the guy fulfills a specific criteria: he has to be a virgin. Mercedes lets the boys get their awkward, fumbling first times over with, and all she asks in return is that they give their girlfriends the perfect first time- the kind Mercedes never had herself.

Keeping what goes on in her bedroom a secret has been easy- so far. Her absentee mother isn’t home nearly enough to know about Mercedes’ extracurricular activities, and her uber-religious best friend, Angela, won’t even say the word “sex” until she gets married. But Mercedes doesn’t bank on Angela’s boyfriend finding out about her services and wanting a turn- or on Zach, who likes her for who she is instead of what she can do in bed.

When Mercedes’ perfect system falls apart, she has to find a way to salvage her reputation and figure out where her heart really belongs in the process. Funny, smart, and true-to-life, FIRSTS is a one-of-a-kind young adult novel about growing up.

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Rating: 5/5 Stars
Quick Reasons: a sensitive, well-done examination of “slut-shaming” and the harm that comes with it; a deeper insight into the double-standard placed upon females compared to males of the same age; a realistic, caustic look into high school, sex, friendships, love, and personal growth; witty, snarky, intelligent prose; a main protagonist with a unique and individual voice and the power to both disarm and charm readers

I used to like my name. Mercedes. That is, until I figured out I was named after a car. The shiny red car that my dad loved more than anything—the one he waved from as he drove away. I remember liking that car, too. My dad used to let me sit in the front seat and pretend to steer. “You’re going to have a lead foot,” he would say over my childish vroom, vrooms. “Somebody’ll need to teach you how to slow down.” But he didn’t stick around long enough for that person to be him.

I read 99 Days, by Katie Cotugno, recently. If you’re interested, you can find my review here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show…

Now, if you pay attention to books, you might realize these two reads share a common, heavy-handed, mature subject matter: what is otherwise known as “slut shaming,” though to be honest I really despise this phrase myself and refuse to use it if I don’t absolutely have to. I gave 99 Days four out of five stars.

When I discovered Firsts, by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn, on netgalley… I LITERALLY could not stop myself from requesting it. The blurb was intriguing, the character seemed almost mythical in that “I know who I am and I don’t care if YOU know it, too” way… I HAD to read it. I HAD to read it, right then. So when I was approved, I knew I couldn’t wait to crack it open (on my kindle, obviously). Having devoured this read… I’m now wishing I’d read it before Katie Cotugno’s novel. Because while I enjoyed her writing and story… THIS book blew me away.

To start with—I had an almost instantaneous connection with Mercedes, our main character. Her voice is so unique, so different and confident at the start of this book. She knows who she is, she takes no shit from anybody, and she has—despite perhaps some moral ambiguity—at least a small sense of what she’s attempting to achieve (wrong as it seems when all is said and done). The prose is snarky, intelligent, and had me giggling to myself throughout. Basically, Mercedes took names and kicked ass in this book—and that really, really drew me to her. It made me WANT to know more about her, to know more about her life, to see the world more through her eyes. I haven’t had such an intimate connection with a book in… Well, it’s been a while now.

On top of this, Laurie Elizabeth Flynn approaches this subject from a DIFFERENT direction than I’ve seen recently—because Mercedes isn’t the prodigal daughter, the eternal goody-two-shoes, the girl who gets manipulated and used and tossed away to be trampled on. Mercedes is NOT the narrator I was expecting—and the story, when the climax builds and things start falling apart, became so much more heartbreaking for it. Somehow, seeing this new spin on the tried-and-true double standard made it MORE real to me as a reader.

There are so many things done RIGHT with this book, I don’t know that I should start listing them all out—we’d be here a while, and none of us have time for that these days. I loved—let me reiterate this, LOVED—almost all the characters (well…except a few slimey, snivelling bastards I wish I could kick like footballs). The fact that not everybody abandons Mercedes when shit gets real—that there are, just like in life, people who stick by her instead of shaming her with the rest of the world—was realistic and wrenching.

The relationships in this book—and this time, I do mean all of them, because despite the icky characters they did what they were meant to—were human, easy to relate to, and at times all too close for comfort. Laurie Elizabeth Flynn went out of her way to include as many different human interactions as she could; this is a melting pot of contemporary, the prose easy to read and get sucked into, the story both harsh where it needs to be and light-hearted enough to still HURT the way it should. Because this doesn’t ONLY explore the taboo; this is also a sort of quasi-coming of age. Mercedes’ character growth is brilliant and inspiring, the morals not just for girls in her situation but for girls everywhere: Acceptance of self. Confidence. The fact that this book breaks so many stereotypes, pushes the boundaries, strives to put acceptance ABOVE everything else… I just can’t explain the many ways this impacted me with a clear head.

I can control what happens in the chemistry lab. There’s a formula and an equation, and I know exactly what the reaction will be when I mix one thing with another. Life, not so much. Love, not at all. No matter what elements you combine, you really have no idea what happens next.

I should throw in some of this might be considered triggering to certain people. Please really consider reading this if you are uncomfortable with sex, rape, or sexually abusive relationships. I’d say this is more for “mature” readers.

This is probably my FAVORITE contemporary book ever. It’s caustic, it’s heavy-handed and so so difficult to read at times…and it’s absolutely gorgeous. It is SO, SO worth the read. If you’re seeking your next contemporary, and you’re not sure what you’re looking for, keep this one in mind! I’d recommend to lovers of Rainbow Rowell, Jay Asher, and Katie Cotugno.

 

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A Review of Everything, Everything, by Nicola Yoon

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My disease is as rare as it is famous. Basically, I’m allergic to the world. I don’t leave my house, have not left my house in seventeen years. The only people I ever see are my mom and my nurse, Carla.

But then one day, a moving truck arrives next door. I look out my window, and I see him. He’s tall, lean and wearing all black—black T-shirt, black jeans, black sneakers, and a black knit cap that covers his hair completely. He catches me looking and stares at me. I stare right back. His name is Olly.

Maybe we can’t predict the future, but we can predict some things. For example, I am certainly going to fall in love with Olly. It’s almost certainly going to be a disaster.

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Rating: 5/5 Stars
Quick Reasons: enthralling read; wise, poetic prose; a close examination of first loves, chronic illness (sort of?), familial relationships and codependence; easily relatable moral; unique characters; realistic and hard-hitting

Gaaaaah. This book broke me. I’m going to attempt to put the shattered fragments of my thoughts into some sort of coherency, but… Just bare with me if I get a little crazy, alright? Okay.

Sometimes I reread my favorite books from back to front. I start with the last chapter and read backward until I get to the beginning. When you read this way, characters go from hope to despair, from self-knowledge to doubt. In love stories, couples start out as lovers and end as strangers. Coming-of-age books become stories of losing your way. Your favorite characters come back to life.

First things first: THE COVER. This cover is gorgeous, and absolutely perfect for everything that happens in this book, and I just… When I saw this cover, before I even read the blurb way way back when (what was it, a few months ago? that’s a long time in my world) I KNEW I had to read this book. I didn’t even care what the book was about: I had to read it. And having just finished the book, I adore how perfectly the cover design encapsulates the story hiding within: white walls, white clothes, and nothing…into everything. Everything. All at once. The cover is gorgeous, and I tip my hat to the designer that came up with it for a job well done.

I was trying so hard to find the single pivotal moment that set my life on its path. The moment that answered the question, ‘How did I get here?’

But it’s never just one moment. It’s a series of them. And your life can branch out from each one in a thousand different ways. Maybe there’s a version of your life for all the choices you make and all the choices you don’t.

The characters are realistic and complex and unique and wonderfully portrayed. Because this is written in Madeline’s POV, obviously we only get a sense for the other characters through her eyes, her ears, her senses…but Nicola Yoon did such a spectacular job on Madeline’s voice, you won’t find anything lacking in the descriptors. These characters leap to life, bringing new adventures and surprises to each page, at turns breaking hearts and mending them with just a few words. With just one small gesture. Honestly, reading this book was like getting a tiny glimpse into these characters’ souls. I loved every single minute of it.

The story is also gorgeously done. Near the 80% mark, when I knew something was bound to happen to bring everything to a close, I had a pretty good idea that the climax for this journey could only go one of two ways. And I was right…but I was also so, so wrong, because it didn’t go JUST one way. It went, unexpectedly, both. Nicola Yoon anticipated, foreshadowed, and divulged with brilliance—every piece was delivered at the right moment, nothing was too much or too little. Everything came to a startling and genius close and I applaud her for that.

One thing I’m certain of: Wanting just leads to more wanting. There’s no end to desire.

This is a book meant to be devoured. Preferably in one sitting, because once you start, I doubt you’ll be able to put it down for any extended amount of time. The morals are strong, wisely-developed, and brilliantly delivered; this is a book that’s bound to stay with you, make you think about your own life, make you wonder if you’re going about living all wrong. I definitely recommend the read to lovers of YA contemporary/realistic fiction! This is a book I will most assuredly be returning to for a re-read in the future.

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A Review of Finding Hope, by Colleen Nelson

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Hope leaves her small town for a fresh start, but her plans are derailed by an online romance and the appearance of her brother.

Hope lives in a small town with nothing to do and nowhere to go. With a drug addict for a brother, she focuses on the only thing that keeps her sane, writing poetry. To escape, she jumps at the chance to attend Ravenhurst Academy as a boarding student. She’ll even put up with the clique-ish Ravens if it means making a fresh start.

At first, Ravenhurst is better than Hope could have dreamed. She has a boyfriend and a cool roommate, and she might finally have found a place she can fit in. But can she trust her online boyfriend? And what can she do after her brother shows up at the school gates, desperate for help, and the Ravens turn on her? Trapped and unsure, Hope realizes that if she wants to save her brother, she has to save herself first.

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Rating: 3.75/5 Stars
Quick Reasons: heart-wrenching, gut-churning contemporary; this is not a novel for the faint of heart!; complex, flawed, and realistic characters; compelling prose; moments of beautiful, wise writing; tragic backstory that is not heralded with “so this makes it okay!”

Shame isn’t a weight or something that gets worn. It’s elastic, stretching and strangling anything in its reach. But slowly, slowly, the noose was being loosened.

Each day would get better. I had to believe that.

Huge thanks go out to Netgalley, Dundurn Publishing, and Colleen Nelson for sending me an ARC of this in exchange for an honest review! (This in no way changed how I read or considered this book)

First, I feel I need to preface this with a trigger warning: this is a HEAVY read. The following subjects are touched on or detailed throughout the read: drug use/addiction; homelessness; rape; sexual assault; abuse (mostly emotional); slut-shaming; bullying; cyber-bullying; violence. If you are triggered by or made uncomfortable reading about those things, I don’t suggest picking this read up unless you feel you can handle it.

The characters for this book are realistic, flawed, and complex. The story is two-person POV: Hope, who is leaving her home town to go to a boarding school nearby, and her brother Eric, who is struggling with his addiction to meth. I found myself almost immediately liking Eric’s POV more; I don’t know WHY, I can’t honestly explain why—it’s the harder of the two to read, to be honest. Something about his snarky stream of consciousness, perhaps, drew me closer to him and his journey. There is SO MUCH that happens in this story, though, it would be unfair of me to say that I didn’t also connect with Hope. I did. It just took a little bit longer; she needed a bit more “warming up to” from me.

Twenty eight days in a hospital, sixty seven days and counting as an outpatient, and I still crave the high meth gave me, gritting my teeth sometimes for the want of it. Some days, I miss it like a friend who’s died, mourning its absence. And other days, I fly into rages, ranting against what it did to me. I don’t remember the ugly days and nights of withdrawal in the hospital, and I won’t let Mom tell me about them. It’s all just a fog of pain now, a black hole I don’t ever want to go back into.

While the prose is pretty simple, the read was quick, and there was more than one moment where “simple” became “wise” in the middle of a sentence. Where the words shifted, taking me by surprise with their depth. I wish there had been more of this, to be honest—Hope lauds herself a poet, and while the later poems begin hinting at the talent she possesses for words, the first few had me wrinkling my nose. I wish the wisdom moments had happened more often; it’s those quotes that stood out to me the most from this read.

Despite the fact they’re siblings, though, I wasn’t real convinced of their closeness. It’s apparent Hope cares for Eric, and obviously I know (from my own experiences) that in the midst of his addiction he won’t quite portray the same amount of caring, but… Something about it felt a bit stiff, I guess? A bit off? Perhaps it’s just that Hope had finally reached her breaking point; she just didn’t seem quite as concerned about him as I expected her to be. It felt a bit unrealistic or rehearsed. Of course, Hope had her own things to worry about, so perhaps this is to be expected.

I wasn’t going to be another victim. I’d left Lumsville to find a place where I fit in, that made sense for me. To escape Eric. Going back meant giving up, resigning myself to the idea that this was all my life would be.

This was a harrowing, hard-hitting read, and I saw myself in a LOT of it. Again, I wouldn’t recommend to those who are easily triggered; I’d also say more mature readers only should pick up this book, as it deals with some very heavy and emotionally-charged situations. I’d recommend for those who enjoy books from the likes of Jay Asher or Jodi Picoult—or reads like The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I definitely can’t wait to see what’s next from Colleen Nelson!