Newest review: Where It All Lands by Jennie Wexler

By Ekta R. Garg

July 14, 2021

Genre: YA fiction

Release date: July 6, 2021

Rated: Binge it! / 5 stars

A trio of teens navigate young love and personal challenges while trying to figure out how to balance their friendships with one another. Just as the culmination of their story is revealed, a coin toss changes the entire scenario. Author Jennie Wexler makes the subject of first love sweet and refreshing while navigating her plot in the most subtle yet dynamic of ways in her excellent debut novel Where It All Lands.

High school sophomore Stevie Rosenstein arrives in New Jersey knowing one thing for sure: being the new girl sucks. She’s lived in so many places and had so many friends that it doesn’t even seem possible anymore to become good friends with anyone. And she’s never sure whether the kids who do want to be her friends are sincere or trying to score tickets to football games, all because her father is a coach for the NFL. It doesn’t matter how good she is on the saxophone or that she loves music and is basically a normal teenager.

As she walks into her new school, her guard is up. Then Stevie meets best buds Drew and Shane, and all of a sudden she discovers that both of them know how she feels. Drew’s dad is a famous music producer, leaving Drew to struggle with the same questions about friendships. Shane is a talented musician, a beast of a drummer, and he knows how music is the one thing that can make the world seem all right for a little while.

The boys spot Stevie at band practice at the start of the year, and they’re both drawn to her. They know, though, that fighting about who’s going to ask her out is dumb. Their friendship has survived more than a crush—Drew’s dad had an affair with an assistant and is on the verge of moving out. Shane’s dad died, leaving Shane with a huge hole in his life. The friends have supported each other through the worst; they’re not going to let a girl come between them.

There’s no denying that they both like her, though, and they both want to ask her out. In a moment of inspiration, Drew suggests flipping a coin for it. Shane is reluctant at first, but even he can’t argue with the logic that it’s basically the way they decide everything. They know it might seem a little skeevy, but Stevie never has to know.

As they call heads and tails, the boys have no idea just how their lives are going to change. Life is about to challenge each of them and the strength of their friendship. Both of them want to get to know Stevie better. Both of them have a fair reason to ask her out. But none of them will ever be the same again.

Debut author Jennie Wexler manages to navigate the tropes of YA romance without falling into a stereotypical plot. Telling the story first from when the coin lands on heads and then when it lands on tails, Wexler gives each of the boys an opportunity to explore a relationship with Stevie. In the hands of a less confident writer, the result might have felt caricaturish or melodramatic. Instead, Wexler provides depth and heft to the storyline both times she tells it.

Moreover, she’s able to find new details to share about all three of her main characters in both storylines, no easy job at all. As readers progress through Stevie’s budding relationship with one, they might think they’ll find out everything there is to know about Drew, Shane, and Stevie. Yet Wexler manages to hold back several surprises, both in terms of character development as well as the plot.

The biggest surprise may come in the fact that the stories with each of the boys ends in the same climactic moment, yet here too Wexler wields a deft hand that allows her to navigate possible story traps with ease. There’s no doubt readers will be reading as fast as possible to find out what actually happened.

Those who enjoy YA novels about first love and solid friendships that don’t follow the stereotypes will definitely want to check this out. I recommend readers Binge Where It All Lands.

Newest review: You Have a Match by Emma Lord

By Ekta R. Garg

January 13, 2021

Genre: YA fiction

Release date: January 12, 2021

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

A teen makes a startling discovery after signing up to get her DNA sequenced. As she grapples with the results, a number of other secrets come to light. Through it all, the teen will need to decide what family and friendship really mean to her. Author Emma Lord brings to life her complicated characters with minor hiccups in the endearing novel You Have a Match.

In the little Seattle suburb of Shoreline, Abby Day is trying to deal with reality. Before her junior year of high school started, her grandfather, Poppy, died, causing Abby’s grades to slide. Her parents are freaking out and have scheduled Abby for every tutoring and prep session available.

Abby feels like she doesn’t have time to breathe. She also doesn’t have time for her photography anymore, a passion she shared with Poppy. Abby wishes she could explain to her mom and dad that if she could just take pictures, she’d actually do better in school. She can’t tell them that, though; they’ve rearranged their busy legal careers so someone is always at home with her and her brothers. Poppy used to take care of them. Now her parents are around all the time, and it’s driving Abby insane.

Her best friends, Leo and Connie, make life a little more bearable. Of course, things have been awkward with Leo after the BEI, otherwise known as the Big Embarrassing Incident, where Abby misread some signals. Now she can’t be her normal, goofy skateboarding self around Leo.

When a class at school sparks a conversation about family trees, then, it seems like the good old days when Abby and Connie practically dare Leo to take a DNA sequencing test. Because he and his sister were adopted, he’s always been curious about his heritage. In a bid of solidarity, all three friends spit into vials from their kits and mail them off.

Leo doesn’t get the answers he was looking for, but Abby gets some she didn’t even know existed. Apparently, she has a sister—a full-blooded sister—who lives in the area and is only a year-and-a-half older than her. Worse, when Abby looks up her new sister, Savannah “Savvy” Tully, online, she discovers that her new sibling is an Instagram influencer for the personal health industry. She’s put-together, well-heeled, and has a mad number of followers. She’s the exact opposite of Abby.

The girls meet, wary of one another and full of questions. Why would Abby’s parents give Savvy up? How do their parents know one another? Why didn’t they tell the girls about Savvy’s adoption?

The only way to get any answers, they decide, is to execute a plan that involves summer camp and hacking into parental email accounts. As Abby begins to spend more time with Savvy, she learns that the “what ifs” life throws at a person can sometimes become the “what nows.” Neither of those, she discovers, are bad things.

Author Emma Lord builds characters who are real and refreshing. Abby shares her uncertainty about Leo after the BEI proving how teens, just like adults, care so deeply about their friendships that they’re not willing to risk them for something else, even if that results in a broken heart. Lord does a great job, too, juxtaposing Abby’s lack of confidence with Savvy’s cool and collected manner. Even when the girls get into scrapes together, Savvy manages to pull herself together within moments.

If the book can be faulted anywhere, it’s in leaving the secondary characters less developed. Abby talks often about her three brothers, but readers don’t really spend any time with them. It’s a testament to Lord’s careful crafting that readers will still care about Abby’s brothers, even when they’re almost always off the page. A love interest for Savvy surprises her at camp, but, again, what’s known about the relationship is what Savvy shares. The full impact of the unfolding events doesn’t land nearly as much as they might have if readers had more information. Even the other best friend, Connie, gets relegated to the background once Abby arrives at camp.

Despite all this, the book is warm, funny, and offers a slow romantic burn that will make readers’ toes curl with delight. Those who like books about young love and finding one’s identity all in the same summer will enjoy this one. I recommend readers Bookmark You Have a Match.

Brand new review: It Came from the Sky by Chelsea Sedoti

By Ekta R. Garg

August 5, 2020

Genre: YA fiction

Release date: August 4, 2020

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

In order to get out of trouble for a science experiment gone wrong, two teens convince their entire town that aliens have landed. Soon the hoax spins out of their control, and the brothers have just as hard a time as anyone else remembering that the aliens “came” because of them. Author Chelsea Sedoti treats her characters with humor and compassion in the funny YA novel It Came from the Sky.

Gideon Hofstadt has one simple rule for involving his older brother, Ishmael, in science experiments: not to involve him. Even at 16, Gideon is a serious scientist, and Ishmael is…not. He’s a goofball, more interested in enjoying his senior year of high school. It’s better not to let him help so that Gideon can conduct his experiments and work toward admission to MIT and his dream job at NASA.

Except Ishmael keeps badgering him to help with the one experiment that’s truly a two-person job. Gideon caves and lets Ishmael set the explosives around their family farm in Lansburg, Pennsylvania, so he can create literal waves on a seismograph in Ohio. Doing an experiment that will manifest on a scientific instrument hundreds of miles away makes Gideon so excited he doesn’t consider what could possibly go wrong.

And it does with a blast. Instead of a small explosion, Ishmael’s “help” craters the farm. As in, an actual crater is blown into the land. When their parents and the police arrive, Ishmael blurts out that aliens visited the farm. The news starts to spread like wildfire.

Before long people from across the region and then across the country start to trek to the site of the “alien landing.” Some totally believe the aliens were there; others are just curious about all the fuss. They’re coming to town in droves, though, and setting up camp, waiting for the aliens to come back.

One of these people is J. Quincy Oswald, the creator and CEO of a line of health products called myTality. Gideon can’t stand the guy, but his mother is enamored with the man. As a top distributor of the myTality product line, Gideon and Ishmael’s mother swears by the stuff.

Things really start to get weird when Oswald claims to have been visited and even abducted by aliens himself. Gideon doesn’t know what to make of it all at first, but he figures out soon enough that Oswald must be running a hoax of his own. The more he digs, the more he realizes that hoax might have darker implications. Now it’s a matter of who out-hoaxes who…that is, if Gideon can keep ignoring that little voice in the back of his head that urges him to give himself up and do the right thing.

Author Chelsea Sedoti builds a three-dimensional, relatable character in Gideon. His frustration with his brother is balanced by his affection for him. The two of them created the mess together, and even as Gideon’s discomfort with the hoax makes him hesitant to perpetuate it he can’t deny that Ishmael is right there with him every step of the way. The focus on the brothers’ relationship is refreshing and fun to watch.

Sedoti also gives Gideon a love interest and all the trappings of teenage love with it. Gideon views himself as a loser and doesn’t know why anyone would want to stay with him. As the hoax grows by leaps and bounds, so does his lack of confidence in his ability to keep his relationship intact. The juxtaposition Sedoti offers is an interesting one and true to life for the book’s target audience.

On the surface, the book’s premise might seem a touch incredulous but Sedoti backs up every single outlandish development with a real-life scenario just plausible enough to make it happen. While Sedoti might be faulted for making Gideon a little too much like characters from “The Big Bang Theory,” she still gets full marks for rounding out Gideon’s superior intellect with uncertainty. He’s a smart kid, but he’s also fully aware that even his most intelligent experiment is having consequences in a big way.

Readers who enjoy a fun book with a plot that blurs the lines of reality will certainly like this. I recommend they Bookmark It Came from the Sky.

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