Review: The Lonesome Young by Lucy Connors

The Lonesome Young Book Cover The Lonesome Young
Lucy Connors

Get swept away in the first book of the sensational romantic drama that is Romeo & Juliet meets Justified.

WHAT HAPPENS when the teenage heirs of two bitterly FEUDING FAMILIES can’t stay away from each other?

The Rhodales and the Whitfields have been sworn enemies for close on a hundred years, with a whole slew of adulterous affairs, financial backstabbing, and blackmailing that’s escalated the rivalry to its current state of tense ceasefire.

IT’S TIME TO LIGHT THE FUSE . . .

And now a meth lab explosion in rural Whitfield County is set to reignite the feud more viciously than ever before. Especially when the toxic fire that results throws together two unlikely spectators—proper good girl Victoria Whitfield, exiled from boarding school after her father’s real estate business melts down in disgrace, and town motorcycle rebel Mickey Rhodale, too late as always to thwart his older brothers’ dangerous drug deals.

Victoria and Mickey are about to find out the most passionate romances are the forbidden ones.

. . . ON A POWDER KEG FULL OF PENT-UP DESIRE, risk-taking daredevilry, and the desperate actions that erupt when a generation of teens inherits nothing but hate.

Review:

I find myself growing increasingly frustrated with instalove and other clichés in YA romance. It never used to be more than a mild annoyance to me, but lately I seem to be reaching the edge of my tolerance. There are only so many times I can read about someone feeling an immediate, unexplainable connection with some impossibly sexy stranger before I lose my cool.

Unfortunately for The Lonesome Young, it was the book that finally sent me over the edge. It’s got a lot of redeeming qualities, but I’ve been so inundated with YA tropes that I’ve reached my saturation point and couldn’t get past The Lonesome Young’s flaws.

Basic summary of this book? There are two families, the Rhodales and Whitfields, who’ve been at war for ages. They’ve got all kinds of beef with one another – romantically, financially, and otherwise. The feud, which has been at a tentative stand-off for a few years, is suddenly reignited when a new generation of Whitfields moves to town and shakes things up.

In this story there is Victoria Whitfield, the poor little rich girl who nobody understands. Then there’s Mickey Rhodale, the swaggering boy with a bad rep and secret heart of gold. Naturally, Mickey is dark and ripped and gorgeous. Naturally, Victoria is blond and curvy and gorgeous. Naturally, they immediately fall head over heels in love. Naturally, I wanted to hurl the book out the window.

“The powerful feeling of instant connection between us ran too deep to be pleasant, or even casual.”

Come on, guys. I understand instant attraction, but hitting it off with someone doesn’t mean you have to go straight to being fated lovers.

Another trope I’m beginning to loathe is the whole “sweet but spunky girl saves the damaged, undeserving guy with her angelic goodness.” Why are there so many tortured-soul boys in YA? And why can their demons only be exorcised by the power of a perky blond girl’s love?

“But where I was mad at the world, she was compassionate as she confronted the demons of a guy she’d been told to avoid and even fear.”

I’ve seen all of this before. It’s like Connors took a bunch of YA clichés and made an effort to check each one off the list. Guy calling the girl “princess”? Check. Tucking a strand of hair behind her ear? Check. Connors even went so far as to do the cheesy “admire the stars and say how beautiful they are while actually talking about the girl” bit. I’m not kidding. Here it is:

“‘Oh my gosh, that’s beautiful,’ I whispered.
‘Yeah. Beautiful.’ Mickey’s voice was husky and I turned my head and saw that he wasn’t looking at the scenery at all.
He was looking at me.”

The Lonesome Young is super melodramatic, too. In a way, some drama is justified – the mess the Rhodales and Whitfields get mired in over the course of the book is serious, life-or-death trouble. The stakes are high, and there’s no easy way out. This would actually be a strength of the book if Connors didn’t overdo it with hysterics. The events of the book speak for themselves; the characters don’t need to hammer the points home by wailing things like “This might explode into an inferno that could burn down the entire county.”

“Mickey Rhodale, for all of his dangerous, bad-boy exterior, had a hint of damaged vulnerability about him that I was pretty sure he didn’t let anybody else see, and he’s shown it to me.

Something inside me, in a very small voice, was saying, ‘Yes, of course. Finally. Here you are.’

And it scared me to death. But I had to face it head-on.”

It’s possible I’m being overly critical. Despite my raging, The Lonesome Young isn’t completely terrible. As I mentioned previously, there are several aspects I liked about this book. If it weren’t for the fact that I’ve been up to my eyeballs in instalove recently, I probably wouldn’t have been nearly so harsh in this review.

One noteworthy plus of The Lonesome Young is the complexity Connors weaves into the Whitfield and Rhodale families’ dynamics. Mickey and his half-brother Ethan share a complicated relationship, one that I was actually invested in. Mickey’s negative, dangerous experiences with Ethan in the present are countered by their more pleasant childhood memories. Like Mickey, you’re forced to wonder how the boy who used to play Three Musketeers and protect Mickey from harm came to be the person Ethan is during the events of the book.

Victoria’s family is believably flawed as well. There are moments when they’re vulnerable and human, and there are moments when they’re unreasonable and completely self-centered. They’re your classic terrible relatives without being caricatures.

Another thing I liked in The Lonesome Young is that Mickey’s not truly a bad boy. He does have some violence issues to work out, but for the most part his bad-boy reputation is an unfair one, caused by his association with his drug-dealing brothers. Mickey works hard, is honest with his parents, and stands his ground against his brothers’ negative influence. He tries to toe the line, and when he does get sucked into trouble it’s usually because his family gives him no choice in the matter. It was a relief not to have him be the typical tough guy with an attitude.

Because of these positives, I grugdingly awarded The Lonesome Young two whole stars. This is pretty generous, considering I was practically foaming at the mouth in rage for much of the book.

Review: My Best Everything by Sarah Tomp

My Best Everything Book Cover My Best Everything
Sarah Tomp

You say it was all meant to be. You and me. The way we met. Our secrets in the woods. Even the way it all exploded. It was simply a matter of fate.

Maybe if you were here to tell me again, to explain it one more time, then maybe I wouldn’t feel so uncertain. But I’m going back to the beginning on my own. To see what happened and why.

Luisa “Lulu” Mendez has just finished her final year of high school in a small Virginia town, determined to move on and leave her job at the local junkyard behind. So when her father loses her college tuition money, Lulu needs a new ticket out.

Desperate for funds, she cooks up the (definitely illegal) plan to make and sell moonshine with her friends, Roni and Bucky. Quickly realizing they’re out of their depth, Lulu turns to Mason: a local boy who’s always seemed like a dead end. As Mason guides Lulu through the secret world of moonshine, it looks like her plan might actually work. But can she leave town before she loses everything – including her heart?

The summer walks the line between toxic and intoxicating. My Best Everything is Lulu’s letter to Mason – though is it an apology, a good-bye, or a love letter?

Review:

(Actual rating: 3.5 stars)

Lulu wants nothing more than to ditch her dead-end hometown in Virginia and escape to a new life at the University of San Diego. She’s just a few months away from making these dreams a reality when her dad drops a bomb: the family doesn’t have money for tuition, and Lulu will have to defer her college plans for at least another semester. Unwilling to delay and get stuck at home for good, Lulu turns to a wild scheme to earn huge amounts of cash in the short time before school starts: making moonshine.

Lulu has the drive to be a moonshiner, but what she lacks is the know-how. To remedy this, she enlists the help of Mason Malone, a former ’shiner with a questionable reputation. As the two work together and money starts to roll in, their relationship evolves from business partners to something more. Moonshining is a perilous venture, though, and it’s not long before it begins to take a toll on Lulu, Mason, and their friends in ways Lulu never expected. Soon Lulu is faced with a choice: how much will she risk to save her future?

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to decide exactly how I feel about My Best Everything. There were parts I absolutely loved and parts that I absolutely hated, which made for a confusing reading experience. What it comes down to, though, is that a week after I finished the book, I still can’t stop thinking about it. Despite all the frustrating parts, I was deeply impressed with Tomp’s portrayal of alcoholism, selfishness, and how people can love each other but not necessarily be good for each other.

What I Liked:

Mason: Mason’s got a troubled past, and not in a sexy bad-boy kind of way. He’s had some serious problems, the kind that could have ended up with him either dead or in jail. Sarah Tomp does a great job of portraying Mason’s struggles, regrets, memories (or lack thereof), and temptations. She makes Mason’s hardships real, and my heart went out to him as he fought to turn his life around, a fight that was made increasingly difficult as Lulu’s scheme dragged him back into the world from which he’d tried to break free.

The suspense: My Best Everything is written as a letter from Lulu to Mason and recounts the events of their summer from her perspective. At the beginning, the circumstances in which the letter is being written are unknown to the reader. Is the letter an explanation? An apology? What happened between Mason and Lulu to make her feel the need to tell him her side of the story? Where is Mason, since Lulu keeps saying things like, “Maybe if you were here…”? All of the questions build anticipation and make you want to keep reading until you find answers.

Because Lulu is relating the story with the benefit of hindsight, she seasons her letter with sentences like, “I heard you. Honest. I’m not sure why it was hard to remember later,” “I was in way over my head. And you were getting pulled under,” and “I also figured that if you – a high school drop-out and ex-waster extraordinaire – knew what to do, I could figure it out, too. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.” This foreshadowing feels very dire, warning of things to come that Lulu and Mason have already been through but that the reader can only guess at. It provided great suspense, and I couldn’t wait to find out where the story would lead.

The fascinating world of moonshine: I never knew how interesting the process of making moonshine could be! My Best Everything is chock-full of details about ’shine, and I found myself enthralled by every last one of them. There was so much to learn, from safety precautions – apparently you need to caulk the joints of a still to keep flammable vapors from exploding – to methods for checking the proof of the alcohol once it’s done fermenting. I learned about moonshiner superstitions, that it’s a good idea to dig a pit for a still’s fuel tank to make it less conspicuous, and that harmful methanol needs to be separated out from the moonshine to make it drinkable rather than poisonous. It’s a riveting world!

What I Didn’t Like:

Lulu: If I loved Mason, then I loathe Lulu. In fact, I’d say she’s one of my least favorite narrators, ever. She struck me as an entitled, self-absorbed brat who threw away her principles as soon as things got tough. Ok, so you don’t want to defer college for a semester – that sucks, but it’s not the end of the world. You don’t need to pout and act like the universe owes you something. And you definitely don’t need to turn to a life of crime and put the futures and wellbeing of the people you care about in jeopardy.

“I was too miserable to see beyond my own reflection in the window.”

Lulu treats Mason more like a means to an end more than like an actual person, which infuriated me. She falls for him, sure, but that doesn’t change the fact that she’s taking advantage of Mason and using him to get what she wants. As she admits at one point in the letter, “To get out of town, I had to drag you through the muck.” Nice, Lulu. Real nice.

The limitations of the perspective: Although the format of My Best Everything provides great suspense, it has its limitations. Because the book is written to Mason and recounts events he’s already lived through, there’s a lot of summarization and not as many specific details as there’d be if the novel were written from a different perspective. There is also less insight into Mason as a character than I would have liked. In a way, the narration acts like one of those stand-up screens that can be used as a room divider; through it, you can see general outlines, but not distinct features.

The ending: The conclusion of this book enraged me. Of all the ways My Best Everything COULD have ended, the way it DID end seemed the least apropos. It was rushed, implausible, and didn’t fit with the rest of the story. Also, some parts seemed far too convenient and easily wrapped up. For example:

[START SPOILER]

After Lulu sacrifices her tuition money to get Mason out of Dale, there are a couple of lines hastily thrown in about how Lulu’s priest happens to hear she needs money and is magically able to get her a scholarship just in the nick of time so she can go to college after all. WHAT?! If it was that easy, then what was the point of this book, which was 100% driven by Lulu’s inability to get money for school?!?! ARRGH!!!

[END SPOILER]

Bottom line, there are parts of My Best Everything that are infuriating, but the parts that are great more than make up for them. It’s a fascinating book and one that’s sure to leave you thinking about it long after it’s over.

Review: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Salvage the Bones Book Cover Salvage the Bones
Jesmyn Ward

A hurricane is building over the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and Esch’s father is growing concerned. He’s a hard drinker, largely absent, and it isn’t often he worries about the family. Esch and her three brothers are stocking food, but there isn’t much to save.

Lately, Esch can’t keep down what food she gets; at fifteen, she has just realized she’s pregnant. Her brother Skeetah is sneaking scraps for his prized pitbull’s new litter, dying one by one. Meanwhile, brothers Randall and Junior try to stake their claim in a family long on child’s play and short on parenting.

As the twelve days that make up the novel’s framework yield to a dramatic conclusion, this unforgettable family – motherless children sacrificing for one another as they can, protecting and nurturing where love is scarce – pulls itself up to face another day

Review: 

The way I feel about Salvage the Bones, a National Book Award winner, is the same way I felt about the classics they made me read in high school English: I know I’m supposed to love the book, I just don’t know why.

I’m sure that that some of you might read Salvage the Bones and appreciate it in a way that I did not. While reading it, you might pick up on, and enjoy, the symbolism and the themes of love, motherhood, and destruction. You might glean gems of wisdom and hope from this tale of devastation and loss. You might find Ward’s story “poetic,” “moving,” “beautiful,” and “deep,” all words that I’ve heard others use to describe this novel. You might even decide that it’s one of the best books you’ve ever read. If this is the case, then more power to you. This is how I wanted to feel, but it just didn’t happen for me.

My issue with Salvage the Bones isn’t that it’s rough and bleak and graphic, although those characteristics certainly didn’t do much to make me feel positively towards the novel. My problem is that I didn’t feel a connection to Ward’s story in any way.  Despite how tough and lonely and unfair life is for the family at the center of the novel, I didn’t feel sorrow or pity for them. The extent of my emotional response to this book was remarking, “Well, that’s unfortunate,” on a few occasions. I didn’t dislike the characters, but I wasn’t drawn to them, either, and for this reason I was mostly ambivalent toward the story.

In only two circumstances did I feel strong emotion while reading this book. The first circumstance was any scene involving Skeetah’s pitbulls, and in this case the emotions I experienced were all negative. I was sickened by the gruesome dog fights that were portrayed and even glorified in this book, and I felt such strong disgust that I had to skim over some sections of text. The second circumstance in which I felt strong emotion was at the very end, when Esch is surveying the utter devastation brought about by Hurricane Katrina. I felt grief and pity quite sharply then, but this scene accounted for not even a tenth of the story and therefore didn’t do much to change my opinion of the book.

Review: Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

Beautiful Creatures Book Cover Beautiful Creatures
Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

Lena Duchannes is unlike anyone the small Southern town of Gatlin has ever seen, and she’s struggling to conceal her power and a curse that has haunted her family for generations. But even within the overgrown gardens, murky swamps, and crumbling graveyards of the forgotten South, a secret cannot stay hidden forever.

Ethan Wate, who has been counting the months until he can escape from Gatlin, is haunted by dreams of a beautiful girl he has never met. When Lena moves into the town’s oldest and most infamous plantation, Ethan is inexplicably drawn to her and determined to uncover the connection between them.

In a town with no surprises, one secret could change everything.

Review:

It took me longer than it should have to get through Beautiful Creatures. I’d been looking forward to reading the book ever since I saw the trailer for the movie, but the novel turned out to be quite a letdown.

Don’t get me wrong – this is far from the worst book I’ve ever read, and there are some aspects of this novel that are praiseworthy. For example, I got a kick out of Ethan’s ancient, eccentric great-aunts, Mercy, Grace, and Prudence. They were always good for a laugh. I also appreciated that Ethan, despite being a popular jock, is a character capable of thinking for himself rather than letting his peers determine his actions for him.

Regardless of the bright spots mentioned above, though, I just wasn’t feeling Beautiful Creatures. One major problem was the romance between Ethan and Lena. I was originally planning to write that as “the romance that develops between Ethan and Lena,” but I realized that was inaccurate. The romance doesn’t develop at all, which is the problem; it simply appears and doesn’t seem to grow or change or improve in any way.

There seems to be no basis for Lena and Ethan’s attraction to one another. Ethan goes on and on in the book about how wonderful Lena is and how drawn he feels to her, insisting that they share a fated and unbreakable connection, but there is no real depth there. I felt no spark between them and wasn’t emotionally invested in their relationship. I was bored and didn’t feel excited in any way.

Another reason I couldn’t give this book a better rating is that the writing is just plain bad. This is especially the case in the scenes that take place during the Civil War (the book is set mainly in the present, but there are a few scenes that flash back to the past). The dialogue in these scenes sounds very stilted and unnatural, as if the authors are trying too hard to sound historically authentic. On top of that, what is actually said in that dialogue is simply absurd.

In one scene, for instance, a woman is zapped by a lightning bolt (don’t ask). She acts as if this is no big deal, and when her companion begins panicking and shouting that the woman’s eyes are changing color, her untroubled response is, “If there’s something wrong with my eyes, I’m sure it was because I was struck by lightning.” C’mon, really?

I’m still interested in seeing the film adaptation of Beautiful Creatures, but only because I don’t see how it could be any worse than the book. I definitely don’t recommend this to anyone.