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Sarah Dessen, Revisited

Whenever I finish reading a new Sarah Dessen book, I want to reread some of her earlier work. Usually I resist because I want to keep up with my reading goals. Not to mention, with thirteen books published, there are almost too many choices. However, this summer saw me with more free time than usual, which meant more reading. In a time of transition I once again turned to a favorite book. And then another. And another. It was all Sarah Dessen, all the time.

The Truth about Forever

I reread The Truth About Forever, Just Listen, and Saint Anything. The Truth about Forever is a fan favorite, one that I loved at the age of 15 and had certainly read more than once in the past. Just Listen is one of the few Dessen novels that I had mediocre feelings about, only to hear multiple coworkers and friends list it among their favorites. Saint Anything is her second-to-last book, released in 2015. I really liked it at the time but had only read it once. It was an interesting cross-section of her work, which I’ve been wanting to revisit for years.

Back in 2004, I remember being nervous about The Truth about Forever. I had loved This Lullaby with such a passion, and I didn’t want my favorite author to disappoint me. Then she published a novel that was equal to, if not better than the previous book. As an adult reader, the premise is still appealing. The crew at Wish Catering is one of Sarah’s best supporting casts, and who wouldn’t want to be whisked away into a quirky new social group. Wes is also one of her most swoon-worthy love interests: the thoughtful, artistic boy with a checkered past. It’s still a humorous and touching book with amazing character details.

Just Listen

Just Listen was her very next novel, and in my mind the stakes finally got too high. It may have been the similarities of Annabel’s problems to those of the previous narrator, or I may have been bothered by the made-up musicians and band names. Quite possibly I was just a jaded seventeen-year-old who was a bit of a music snob and transitioning to adult fiction. For whatever reason, Just Listen flopped for me in 2006, and I hadn’t read it since. In 2017 I’m still a music lover but significantly less snobby about it. I also have an easier time accepting a fictional reality in a realistic fiction book. More than ten years later, I could finally see why so many other readers connected with this story.

I wasn’t planning to move on to Saint Anything, especially since I noticed during my first two rereads that all three of these books cover themes of holding in emotions and feeling unheard. I also remembered drawing comparisons between Mac and Wes when I first read Saint Anything, along with some of the other supporting characters. Of course, there’s a limit to the varieties of floppy-haired teenage dreamboats, and authors tend to touch on similar themes throughout their work. Despite having just read the other two books, the similarities in Saint Anything didn’t really bother me. And not just because I’m completely biased! Isn’t the struggle to feel understood and to be seen the way we want to be seen a central part of the adolescent experience? Nobody ever got mad at Hemingway for writing about the psychological aftermath of the First World War.

Saint Anything

I was curious, and admittedly somewhat afraid, to see how my tastes had changed over the years. And while there were moments that affected me differently, I found myself more open to enjoy plotlines and characters that had once disinterested me. As a teenager, I also considered The Truth about Forever to be quite profound. The philosophizing didn’t seem as mind-blowing now, but it didn’t prevent me from enjoying the story. Finally rereading Just Listen reminded me that I probably wasn’t very attracted to Owen as Annabel’s love interest. But tastes change—thank God—and it’s easier to see the appeal of a boy with a penchant for honesty and a beyond-obscure public radio show.

Rereading these books was a way to get back in touch with myself, to see how I’ve changed and how I’ve stayed the same. It always helps to feel grounded in yourself when your life is going through changes. I’m so glad that sixth-grade Courtney picked up her first Sarah Dessen book and found an author whose work would be with her sixteen years later.

 

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Best of 2015: Book Edition, Part 1

With a little help from my friends at the library, I was able to read so many awesome new releases this year. If you like young adult or literary mysteries, there’s probably something on one of these lists for you. Here are my best books read in 2015, numbers 10 through 6!

10. The Shadow Cabinet, by Maureen Johnson

The Shadow Cabinet

The Shades of London series is a sneaky favorite of mine. I tend to forget about it, but when the third book came out this year, I was all over the library waitlist. (It didn’t hurt that the second book ended on a torturous cliffhanger.) The moody London atmosphere combined with Maureen Johnson’s irreverent humor make this series unique, and The Shadow Cabinet is the most exciting installment yet.

9. Saint Anything, by Sarah Dessen

Saint Anything

Sarah Dessen, my first love in YA, came out with a wonderful offering this year. Saint Anything follows Sydney’s struggles to get out of her older brother’s shadow—a brother who is now in prison for a drunk driving accident. As Dessen protagonists are apt to do, she finds a dynamic group of friends to help her. Since Sarah is a master of characterization, it’s not a bad pattern. Bonus points for a creeper character who truly made me cringe. (You can read my full review here.)

8. Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell

Carry On

Rainbow Rowell’s first fantasy novel is already cause for excitement. Her first fantasy novel that’s also a clever critique of Chosen One narratives—that’s even better. The story is full of complicated friendships and uneasy alliances. As always, Rainbow has a knack for putting her characters in exactly the situation you want to see them in. I’m also seriously envious of the art throughout the book, from the cover art to the section break illustrations to the beautiful map of Watford School of Magicks. (You can read my full review here.)

7. Yes Please, by Amy Poehler

Yes Please

Yes Please is one part personal anecdotes and one part sage advice. I love the design of the book with its color photographs and reproductions of various mementos. My favorite chapter is about performing on Saturday Night Live while pregnant with her first child. It’s just the right combination of behind-the-scenes details and broader commentary on the female experience. I set down Yes Please feeling motivated to “do the thing.” (You can read my full review here.)

6. Career of Evil, by Robert Galbraith

Career of Evil

I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to have new J. K. Rowling in my life, pseudonym or no. It stands to reason that she can write a good mystery, but I didn’t expect to fall so completely in love with her detective characters. Career of Evil is my favorite book of the series because it reveals more details of Cormoran and Robin’s pasts. I was in serious denial for days after finishing this book because I didn’t want it to be over. (You can read my full review here.)

Tomorrow is the grand finale: my top 5 books of 2015!

 

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It’s Not Summer Without Sarah Dessen

Saint Anything

Between The Moon and More and Saint Anything, Sarah Dessen was very open about the fact that she had to set aside a novel that just wasn’t working. She seemingly shared this to warn her fans that, in contrast to her typical two-year spacing between publications, there might not be a new novel in 2015. Instead, she channeled her feelings of helplessness into the story of Sydney, a girl whose charismatic older brother is sent to prison after a drunk driving accident.

Saint Anything is Sarah Dessen’s twelfth young adult novel. She’s a key role model for me, so I tend to pay as much attention to her career choices as the books themselves. The press for this book hinted that it was darker than her previous work. As something of a Sarah Dessen connoisseur, I found this claim irritating due to its improbability. As if she never wrote a novel about an abusive relationship. Or teen pregnancy. Or parental abandonment. However, her book covers and marketing in recent years have been fairly bright and cheery, focusing on the romantic aspects despite other storylines that are also present. Barnes & Noble also started shelving her books in Teen Romance, which I found reductive and possibly sexist. Her books always always have more going on than just the romantic relationship.

Of course, I had no way of knowing if Saint Anything takes a darker turn until I read it. Now that I have, I can confidently say that it does not. Sarah was in a more vulnerable place while writing it, which perhaps colored her perception of the book itself. All marketing schemes aside, I would deem this novel a success. She deals with themes that I’ve tried to explore in my own writing, particularly as Sydney struggles to become her own person in relation to her brother. There’s a South Park episode that’s primary joke is “The Simpsons already did it!” My personal equivalent is “Sarah Dessen already did it!” After twelve young adult novels, you can cover a lot of contemporary teenager topics. Sarah has said that she doesn’t know how many more high school stories she will write. I admire her for being brave enough to consider a new career direction.

The make-or-break moment for me with any Sarah Dessen novel is whether the characters gel. There have only been a few times where the world didn’t feel real, like I could see the mechanisms at work instead of getting lost in the final product. To be fair, I probably pay more attention to the mechanisms than the average reader. In the case of Saint Anything, the characters clicked within the first few chapters. Focusing on a character who’s struggling to be heard within her own family could have been a massive flop, as passive narrators can be risky, but Sarah pulls it off by raising the stakes and surrounding Sydney with a dynamic supporting cast. If anyone can pull that off, it would be her.

I was sad to reach the end, which makes me want to reread some of her others. What I would really like to do is reread all her books and do a personal ranking, but that’s too big of a time commitment. I may indulge the whim to reread one or two. I think I hear The Truth About Forever calling my name…

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Best of 2013: Book Edition, Part 1

This year my goal was to read two books a month, and I managed to stick to that goal for the most part. That means I have a great pool of books from which to pick my top 10. I hope you enjoy numbers 10 through 6!

10. East, by Edith Pattou

East Cover

In keeping with my teen section focus at work, I read more young adult than ever in 2013. East was recommended by my friend Jenny. It’s a fairy tale adaptation that feels different from others I’ve read, perhaps because it’s based on the lesser-known Norwegian tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.” I enjoyed the variety of settings, from a Norwegian farm to the polar bear’s underground castle to the troll queen’s ice palace. Most of all, my imagination was captured by the idea of a polar bear companion, which led to YouTube searches for videos of polar bears running. You can read my full review here.

9. The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

Night Circus

The strength of The Night Circus comes from its luscious details. And in a novel about a magical circus and the people who created it, you had better have some good details. Celia and Marco are young magicians who have been trained to duel with the circus as their battleground. Naturally they also find themselves inconveniently in love, but The Night Circus is about more than star-crossed lovers. Morgenstern gives the story great scope in both time and geography. Add to that the fanciful Victorian setting, and it’s a novel to savor.

8. The Moon and More, by Sarah Dessen

The Moon and More

The Moon and More is a return to form for my girl Sarah Dessen. It delivers the amusing characters and complex relationships that I expect from her writing, while still managing to tread some new thematic ground. When I read the first chapter, which describes Emaline working for her family’s beach rental business, I immediately settled into the novel. As I said in my full-length review, it explores themes of family loyalty versus personal achievement that should resonate with many young people. It certainly did for me.

7. A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin

A Game of Thrones Cover

When I read a fantasy novel, I want to get lost in it. The intricate story that begins with A Game of Thrones is perfect for doing just that, whether told in TV or book form. As I previously mentioned, watching the show first was actually helpful in giving me a framework for Martin’s fantasy world. Then I could enjoy the depth of the first book, which provided me with a detailed map and a better understanding of the history that preceded the series. You have to admire an author who can provide you with generations of history from before his series even starts. Reading the book took me long enough, but it was worth it.

6. The Psychopath Test, by Jon Ronson

The Psychopath Test

This year another goal for me was to read more nonfiction. The Psychopath Test was by far my favorite of the ones I picked up. Jon Ronson has a background in journalism, which can probably be credited for his ability to both excite and inform the reader. Each chapter examines a different facet of madness, from a successful businessman believed to be a psychopath to failed treatments for psychopathy. The chapters could almost be stand-alone articles, but Ronson brings them together through the evolution of his own understanding of mental illness. You don’t have to be a psychology major to enjoy this book.

Come back tomorrow for the final chapter: my top 5 books of 2013!

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Dessen Delivers the Moon and More

The Moon and More

The Moon and More is Sarah Dessen’s eleventh novel. I have eagerly anticipated many of their releases, going back to my middle school days. When a person has written eleven books, they can’t all be brilliant. Even Sarah Dessen, one of my favorite young adult writers, has a few books that don’t work for me. I will admit that I was afraid The Moon and More would be one of them.

It was the book’s description that concerned me. Emaline lives in Colby, the beach town featured in several Dessen books, and she seemingly has a charmed life with a long-term boyfriend and supportive mother, stepfather, and sisters. Of course, her biological father thinks that she deserves more, in the form of an Ivy League education. And so does Theo, the boy in town for the summer with a documentary film crew.

Okay, I thought, so what exactly is this girl’s problem? She has a great boyfriend and the chance to go to a great college? Fortunately this plot summary belies a lot of the book’s drama. Emaline’s mother became pregnant as a teenager when her father was spending the summer in Colby. She thinks of her stepfather as her real dad, and her biological father only becomes involved in her life when they can relate in the safe zone of academics. The Moon and More deals with the tension between remembering where you come from and imagining how far you can go. Those themes of family loyalty versus personal achievement certainly resonate with me, and Dessen has crafted a story that explores them beautifully.

One of my favorite aspects of the novel is the parallels Dessen draws between Emaline’s romantic interests and her father figures. Her boyfriend Luke is a working class guy like her stepfather, both good-natured and practical. Theo is a visitor to Colby, just as Emaline’s father was years ago. Dessen picks the perfect details to bring her characters to life, and that skill serves her well in illustrating the similarities and differences between these men.

On her website, Sarah Dessen shares her inspiration for The Moon and More. Plus there’s an adorable video with her daughter playing in the background. I also enjoyed this Slate article where she and her editor discuss—what else?—the editing process. Just when I think I couldn’t love Sarah more, she gives me another reason.

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Best of 2011: Book Edition

I wish that I had read enough books this year for a top 10, but that just wasn’t the case. I mean, I read more than ten books, but most of them weren’t worthy of the list. And I suspected that you didn’t want to hear about the Christopher Marlowe plays that I read for a class last winter. You will notice that three of my five choices are young adult novels. What can I say? I know what I like.

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

John Green has become a very big part of my life. He and his brother have been exchanging video blogs since 2007, and an entire community has grown around their videos. My friend Jenny told me about the “vlogbrothers” months ago, but I didn’t really investigate until after reading Katherines. Now my Christmas list contains John Green’s two other novels available in paperback. It’s already evident to me that he’s one of the great talents in young adult literature today. Katherines got its blog moment in the sun here. For the purposes of this list, I will just reiterate that it is intelligently written with an engaging premise and hilarious characters. Any YA lover (or book lover, really) will appreciate this novel.

What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen

Sarah Dessen is an author about whom I can probably never be impartial. After all, she has been near and dear to my heart for 10 years now. What Happened to Goodbye was one of the most highly anticipated books in my reading life this year. While I can’t count it as her best work, I will say that it definitely lives up to her past novels. This book focuses in part on the world of restaurants. As a hardcore Dessen fan, I know that the behind-the-scenes knowledge comes from her days as a waitress at the Flying Burrito. I would recommend the book to Dessen fans of yore, along with her other two most recent novels.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I have to say, I’m a sucker for this kind of story. The kind where most things seem almost normal, except for the one detail that makes it all feel horribly wrong. At first glance the narrator could be a woman reminiscing about her days at boarding school. However, from the first pages Kathy makes references to more mysterious aspects of her world. The novel is slow-moving, but Ishiguro is adept at doling out enough hints to keep the reader interested until the full purpose of the boarding school children is revealed. Written in a beautiful and impressively subtle style, it raises many questions about morality in medical science and the nature of personhood.  There’s also a lovely film adaptation that I would recommend — after reading the book, of course.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

I reviewed this book very recently on the blog, so I won’t go into much detail here. Suffice to say that I have great respect for what Margaret Atwood has done in this book. It reminds me of her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, but for all that they both portray dystopian futures, Oryx and Crake has a very different vision. I, for one, found it wildly compelling.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

There was really no contest for number one. I could have easily included the entire Hunger Games Trilogy on this list, but instead I picked my favorite book in the series. In keeping with the unintentional theme of the book list, it’s both young adult and science fiction. Collins uses the best facets of the YA genre to her advantage, presenting fast-paced novels that still manage to be thought-provoking. There’s a rebellious teenage girl and a love triangle, but there’s also a critique of the voyeuristic tendencies in our culture, particularly a fascination with other people’s suffering. I like Catching Fire the best because it deepens the characters and complicates relationships before the action-packed third installment. These are books that inspire passion in readers. They were certainly my most exciting reading experience of 2011.


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10 Years with Sarah Dessen

Last week I got a package from Amazon. This is always cause for excitement, but this particular package was special. It contained the latest Sarah Dessen novel.

As mentioned in a previous post, Sarah Dessen is my favorite young adult author and the person who inspired me to love the genre. She proves that books written for and about teenagers don’t have to be dumbed down. She fills her novels with humor and thoughtfulness and characters that I always remember. She even got a shout-out in my Comps talk — not to her knowledge, of course.

What Happened to Goodbye is her tenth novel, which honestly just makes me feel old. When I first read Keeping the Moon in sixth grade, she was only on her third. That was ten years ago! I continued to read each new book as it came out, developing an impressive collection on my bookshelves. When we’re talking about one of my favorite authors of all-time, I’m happy to pay the hardcover price.

Then in college I fell a little behind. Two more books were released between my freshman and junior year, and I never found the time to read them. I suspect there may also have been some English major guilt about still wanting to read young adult novels. Well, at some point I realized that was ridiculous. As a result, I spent a happy winter break reading both Lock and Key and Along for the Ride. When her tenth novel was released this spring, it started to feel like an embarrassment of riches in my YA world.

As always, reading Sarah’s novel feels like being with old friends. Being a long-time reader of her blog, I also notice plotlines that are drawn from her own life and interests, which makes me feel all insider-y. And you know, I miss having reading experiences like this. I read so much for my English classes that I rarely felt like doing it during my free time at school. Even during breaks, it would usually take a couple of weeks before I wanted to read for pleasure. Maybe that’s why I began to explore my interest in film:  it scratches that same storytelling itch, but in a different form.

Now I can finally read books that aren’t assigned on a syllabus. Heck, I can write my own syllabus. Actually that sounds like exactly the kind of thing I would do. I shouldn’t be giving myself ideas.

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