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Review: Never Always Sometimes by Adi Alsaid

Title: Never Always Sometimes
Author: Adi Alsaid
Genre: Fiction
ISBN: 0373211546
Published: Harlequin Teen, August 2015
Purchase: Amazon

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Main Characters: Dave, Julia, Gretchen

Synopsis: Dave and Julia are best friends. Nothing strange about that. Prior to the beginning of their high school careers, desperate to avoid turning into the cliché high schoolers you see on TV, they collaborate on a list: things they should Never Do. With three months left of their senior year, they decide that maybe it’s time to give the Nevers list another look…

Memorable Quotes:

  • “Well, it’s part of a longer quote, this really beautiful passage about how the best anyone can ever do is to leave the world a little better than you found it. It doesn’t matter how you do it. Invent a new toaster or reach out a helping hand; just, you know, leave it a little better than you found it.”
    Dave noticed that their knees were touching. Amazing what kind of warmth could come from such slight contact. “What book is it?”
    Timbuktu by Paul Auster,” she said. “I know it’s weird to say or even think this, but that book has made me who I am. Not entirely, obviously. It didn’t help me at soccer, or make me so good at telling jokes with a straight face. But certain lines felt like they were thoughts I’d had my whole life that just hadn’t taken shape yet until I read them. ‘A little better than you found it’ is how I see everything now. Not just the world, but everything. People, too. I want people I know to be a little better off than when I found them. God, that sounds pretentious, doesn’t it?”
  • How Julia had felt something so deeply for so long without knowing it herself was a mystery. As if love was a fugitive harboring in an attic, hidden even from the people residing in the house.
  • “That’s not enough,” Gretchen said after a moment. “To be sorry you hurt me is not enough for me to forgive you.”
  • Gretchen took a step closer to Dave, so she was less of a silhouette, the details of her face coming into focus. He couldn’t tell what she was feeling, if she was about to slap him or hug him. The moment stretched on and on without a clue as to what was on Gretchen’s mind. People walked all around them as if on fast-forward, like a film-editing trick. Dave realized he had no idea what was on anyone’s mind, not even a little.

Review:

It’s been a long time since I’ve read something so good that I actually wanted to accumulate the energy to review it. (It’s really hard to do this when your job sucks the life out of you, you guys. Hold out as long as you can.) But this book, especially the last third, resonated with me on a level that a novel hasn’t in quite a good while.

Spoilers ahead!

So, let’s face the facts: Dave and Julia are best friends. The book starts off in third-person-Dave, so we know right off the bat: he’s in love with her, he’s been in love with her as long as he can remember. He’s memorized her face, he’s tortured by her touch, he adores when she smiles (especially if he’s the one who caused it). When he and Julia decide to start breaking the Nevers, he can’t tell her that he’s been breaking one this whole time: #8. Never pine silently after someone for the entirety of high school.

Most of the Nevers are silly, things that most kids in high school take for granted. Never go skinny-dipping. Never hook up with a teacher. Never go to a beer party. They’re fun to break, and any time spent with Julia is time well-spent, no matter what they’re doing. But when they get to the lower Nevers on the list, things start to get complicated. Never date your best friend. Can that one be broken? How? Why?

Dave meets Gretchen at a party and a few things fall into place: one, Julia is never going to feel for him the way he feels for her, and two, Gretchen is pretty awesome. She’s smart, funny, pretty, and genuine. And she’s interested in him.

Naturally, it takes the lightning bolt of seeing Dave and Gretchen together for Julia’s heart to kick-start into motion: she’s in love with Dave. Of course she is. But she can never tell him. Not now, not that he’s finally found someone he loves. Who wouldn’t love Dave? Julia expresses surprise that no one’s ever taken an interest in him before. He’s handsome, intelligent, funny… oh God, she’s so in love with him.

The dance of love/not-love/platonic love that follows in the wake of this revelation is fantastic, especially as someone who’s been through (is in the throes of) a similar scenario. Julia can’t hold down her feelings for long, and this culminates in a night of passion on a beach– a cliché to end all clichés, if we’re keeping score! Waking up with Julia in his arms was just as he’d dreamed it would be: perfect. It was perfect.

Before, when Dave had dreamed about love, this is what it looked like:

It was lazy. Love was lazy as hell. Love laid around in bed, warm from the sheets and the sunlight pouring into the room. Love was too lazy to get up to close the blinds. Love was too comfortable to get up and pee. Love took too many naps, it watched TV, but not really, because it was too busy kissing and napping. Love was also funny, which somehow made the bed more comfortable, the laughter warming the sheets, softening the mattress and the lover’s skin.

But. (There’s always a but.)

It isn’t long before Dave realizes something is off. As much as he loves Julia, as perfect as this friendship-turned-relationship has turned out, he can’t escape from the fact that when he’s looking at Julia, sometimes, just sometimes, he’s thinking of Gretchen. The doubts manifest into a dark cloud that follows him around, and he has to face the truth: that his affection for Gretchen had grown into something that not even this finally-requited love from Julia could squelch. For so long, Julia had been all he wanted– and now he’s gotten it, and he wants something else.

Gretchen gets hurt along the way, of course. It was unavoidable. As someone who is currently standing in Gretchen’s shoes and hasn’t gotten her happy ending yet, I almost couldn’t bring myself to finish this book because I couldn’t bear to find out how it ended. (Seriously, there were tears.) Would Dave make the right decision? Would he follow his heart to Gretchen, and where it would be truly happy? Or would his guilt, obligation, and fear of breaking Julia’s heart make him stay with her?

Spoiler: he makes the right decision.

In a scenario like this, someone getting hurt is unavoidable. But there comes a point where you can’t worry about the other people who will be hurt: you have to decide what’s best for you. It took a lot of courage for Dave, to break off this relationship with this person he’d wanted for as long as he could remember, who’d finally given him her entire heart. How could he ever hurt her? He’d already hurt Gretchen; that wasn’t the issue. But he had to figure out where his heart truly lay, and it was with Gretchen. To stay with Julia because… that was how he’d always wanted it, or because that’s how she wanted it, or because he didn’t want to hurt her… isn’t fair to either of them.

You’d be surprised how difficult this decision is for some people. Some people never make it. They settle. They never get to live a life less ordinary, or experience the difference between great love and mediocre love.

Jump. If you take one piece of advice from me, ever, it is to jump. Take that leap.

I’ll never fault anyone for following their heart.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: The One by Kiera Cass

Title: The One
Author: Kiera Cass
Genre: YA Fiction
ISBN: 0-06-205999-8
Published: May 2014, HarperTeen
Purchase: Amazon

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Main Characters: America, Maxon, Aspen

Synopsis: There are only four girls left, and Maxon has to pick soon. But the rebels are looming on the horizon, attacking from both the north and the south, and the entire Selection hangs in the balance. Can Maxon save the country? Can he save his future wife? Can he even save himself?

Memorable Quotes:

  • “Would you regret it?” he asked. “For the rest of your life, it would be like this. Beautiful walls, but walls all the same. My mother scarcely leaves the palace more than once or twice a year.” … “And if you think the public is intrusive now, it would be much worse when you’re the only girl they’re watching. I know your feelings for me run deep. I feel it every day. But what about the life that comes along with me? Do you want that?”
  • I thought of the mouselike boy in the corner of the room that night. He willingly ran out into the fray for me, for all of us. Bravery hides in amazing places.
  • I can imagine you sitting here, smiling at my idea, maybe shaking your head at me as if to say I’m being silly. You do that sometimes, did you know? I like that expression on you. You’re the only person who wears it in a way that doesn’t come across like you think I’m completely hopeless. You smile at my idiosyncrasies, accept that they exist, and continue to be my friend. And, in seven short hours, I’ve started to miss that.”

Review: You know that thing that happens when you’re reading a book, and you start to run out of pages, and you’re like, “Oh god, all the plot points can’t possibly be wrapped up in this many pages, there’s going to be another novel”? Well, that definitely happened with this book. So look forward to the fourth book in The Selection Series by Kiera Cass!

Er… wait. No, I’ve got that all wrong. There isn’t going to be a fourth book.

So where the hell is my wrap-up?

Don’t get me wrong, I’d been completely enjoying the book up until the very end. It was a helluva lot better than the second book, that’s for sure. It didn’t seem haphazardly thrown out of Kiera’s fingers to appease her editors. But when the book ended, I was completely floored by the complete waste of potential.

I still have so many questions. The story ends (SPOILERS!!!!) with Maxon promising to undo the caste system, which is apparently something he’d been planning even before America opened her big mouth on national TV. (Sure, buddy. Sure.) And then he and America get married. Fantastic! Lovely! I mean, we all knew it was coming!

But… what about the rebels? In this third novel, we learn that the northern rebels are on Maxon’s side. They want to protect the monarchy, and like Maxon, they want to dissolve the caste system. It’s the southern rebels that are the dangerous ones. They’re the ones that resorted to killing people in the castes of the Elite because they refused to quit the Selection. They’re the ones that lead armed raids on the castle. We don’t want the southerners in power, because they’ll overthrow the monarchy and put a crueler one in its place.

So… what happened with them? Was every single southern rebel killed in the last assault on the palace? Speaking of which, how on earth do rebels manage to get in and out of the palace so easily? (Even the “good” ones?) Let’s not even mention how so many rebels (disguised as guards) slipped past the regular guards. Did no one ever say, “Hey, I don’t know this group of guards. Where did they come from?” Check their papers. There’s gotta be some record of their arrival if they’re legit, right? Better safe than sorry, right?!

We also learn at some point that the leader of the northern rebels is a descendant of Gregory Illéa himself. But… why bother? That revelation has literally no bearing on any other part of the story. He goes to a couple meetings with Maxon and that’s it. He doesn’t want the crown. Maxon doesn’t even seem particularly impressed by it; it’s not like knowing the boy is an Illéa grants instant trust with the monarchy.

There was so much set-up with the outside world that never amounted to anything at all. America kindles a friendship with the Italians, right? That’s all well and good, and it turns out to be a reason why King Clarkson even considers not kicking America out of the Selection outright. But what does it ever do? America convinces the Italian princess to give some money to the northern rebels for weapons. But did she? Do they ever use them? It’s hinted that the northerners use some artillery against the southerners in the final battle, but who knows where that came from. Elise is kept around because her family is from New Asia, and an alliance could be useful there, too. But an alliance for what…?

Something that is also revealed late in the book is that America’s own father was part of the northern rebels. (Apparently, northern sympathizers have a thing for North Star symbols. Necklaces, tattoos, tittles*. But that’s literally all we ever learn about that in regards to her father. How did he come to be a northern rebel? What did he do in service of the cause? Was their mother in on it, too? Did he have plans to induct America into the society before she was Selected? Yet another lovely plot point setup that went absolutely nowhere.

Let me bring your attention back to the ending of the second book. Do you remember that revelation? That Maxon is being abused by his father, King Clarkson? Well, here’s another spoiler for you: the King is killed in the final battle of the third novel. Surprised? I can’t say that I am. I was pretty sure he was going to die, but I didn’t know at whose hands. He’s simply killed by a southern rebel, if you must know. His wife, the loving, wondrous, oblivious Queen Amberly, is also killed. She was trying to save her husband.

But what is Maxon’s reaction?

Literally nothing. Nothing. There is nothing.

One could argue that in the hours after it occurs, he’s simply in shock. All right, I’ll give you that. People all grieve in different ways. He says something along the lines of, “I can’t believe it’s real.”

But… to not give us any sort of reaction after the fact? This man is the King of Illéa and he’s been mentally and physically tormenting Maxon for at least the last year, if not for his entire fucking life. Maxon, your tormentor is dead. Does that not elicit ANY SORT OF REACTION? Happiness? Relief? Bitterness? Sadness, in spite of himself?

What about his mother? The woman who was benign, benevolent, and loving, but ultimately completely blind to the abuse that was inflicted on her son by her husband? That’s gotta arouse some feelings too. Resentment?

I think the lack of reaction to his parents’ death is what pissed me off the most.

I am glad, though, that the silly love-triangle shenanigans was mostly absent in this book. Aspen finally falls in love with someone else (I won’t tell you who, but it’s pretty obvious it’s happening), and early on, America finally realizes she’s completely head-over-heels for Maxon. Of course, though, the love triangle ends up blowing up in her face even after all this is revealed, but you’ll have to read the book to find out how it happens and if it manages to be resolved.

Another thing that was missing from this book was the bland, vapid version of America we met in Book 2. You remember her. Constantly weeping because of the choice she had to make in her heart. Skulking around the castle hiding from both of them. Honestly? The way this third book is written pretty much pretends that the second book doesn’t exist. America makes a few references to sleeping next to Maxon in the safe room, but that’s about it.

If I’d reviewed this book in the middle of it, it’d probably be getting four stars. But the completely awful ending wrecked it all. If you manage to make it through the travesty of a second book and start reading this one, do yourself a favor: pretend it ends right after Maxon and America profess their love for each other. That way NOTHING is wrapped up and you can mentally write your own ending, instead of getting like pieces of one wrap-up and none of any others.

Rating★★½

* Before you giggle, a tittle is the term for the dot in a lowercase I or J.

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Review: The Selection by Kiera Cass

Title: The Selection
Author: Kiera Cass
Genre: YA Fiction
ISBN: 0-06-205994-7
Published: March 2013, HarperTeen

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There are a lot of excuses I could give you as to why I haven’t been updating, but instead, I’ll just hop right to it. (I did enjoy my cruise, though!)

Main Characters: America, Maxon, Aspen

Synopsis: In a futuristic United States (which has been through a few wars, conquerings, and is now known as Illéa), a King and a Queen live in a palace with their young son, Maxon. Tradition says he’ll marry a girl from the country, one not of royal blood. Country folk are sorted into castes; Maxon’s future wife could be from any of them, though he is a One (on a scale of One to Eight). Girls of eligible age submit applications to be part of the Selection. One girl from each of the thirty-five provinces is chosen to live in the castle and compete for Maxon’s affections– and to become the future Queen of Illéa. America Singer, nineteen years old and a Five, is one of the chosen few. However, America is already in love! Oh, what’s a girl to do…

Memorable Quotes:

  • “Listen to me, kitten. Win or lose, you’ll always be a princess to me.” “Oh, Daddy.” I finally started to cry. That was all it took to unleash the fear, the sadness, the worry, the nerves– the one sentence that meant none of it mattered. If I came back used and unwanted, he’d still be proud of me. It was too much to bear, to be loved that much. I’d be surrounded by scores of guards at the palace, but I couldn’t imagine a place safer than my father’s arms.
  • “I hit your thigh!” “Oh, please. A man doesn’t need that long to recover from a knee to the thigh.”
  • Before I could ask about me coming to him, Maxon strolled across the room with my jar in his hand. “What in the world is this about?” I sighed. “That, I’m afraid, is beyond explanation.”
  • “I’m sorry, America. I don’t…” His face shifted a little. “Is this a good time to pat your shoulder?”
  • “It was so cute, America. He measured the oil wrong and the first batch burned. He had to call someone to clean it up and try again.” I rolled my eyes. Smooth, Maxon, real smooth.

Review: Honestly, I completely enjoyed this book. Since I finished it the other day, I’ve seen that it garnered a number of poor reviews (although admittedly I haven’t looked at any professional reviews, just the ones on Goodreads), and I’m not sure I understand it. Sure, it’s never going to win a Newbury award. Sure, it’s akin to The Bachelor, and everyone knows reality TV has to be looked down upon. (That last bit was sarcasm, in case you missed it.)

The world it’s set in, foremost, is pretty fascinating. That the United States would one day be ruled by a Queen and King and they would preside over a caste system is not a setting you usually see pictured in dystopian-esque novels. Castes are based on bloodlines, and there’s not really any way to jump castes unless you marry up. (Naturally, though, it’s a lot easier to go down– just be caught breaking one of the many strict laws, and boom! you’re an Eight.) Castes are limited in their professional choices. America is a Five, and her whole family are artisans. Her older brother is on the verge of becoming a renowned sculptor, and America herself is a great singer, violinist, and pianist. Their whole lives are built around cultivating their tasks and getting bookings to perform their talents at the homes of the upper castes. America’s younger brother, though, doesn’t seem to have any aptitude for the arts. He wants to play soccer and learn science. Except… he won’t be allowed to. What’s a family to do?

Traditionally, women try to marry up a caste. Makes sense, right? Except America is in love with Aspen, and he’s a *gasp* Six. Aspen and his siblings work around the clock to bring home the bacon, and sometimes they barely have enough for dinner. America helps out when she can, saving some of her dinner portion to sneak to Aspen in their late-night treehouse meetings. But Aspen’s ashamed of his inability to provide for America, and urges her to apply for the Selection (against her wishes– why would she want to marry a prince? She’s got all she wants right here).

Naturally, as these stories go, America is chosen to represent her province at the Selection. That’s not a spoiler. It’s the title of the book. But America is definitely the only girl in the palace that doesn’t want to be there. Except, suddenly, she does. She’s dumped by Aspen on the eve of her travels and well, now she’d rather be in the castle than at home, having to deal with the feeling she still has for her ex. Except she still doesn’t want Maxon. Now what?

America is a fantastically written character. She comes off as a bit Mary Sue-ish initially, because she’s the only “true individual” blah blah, she’s unique and smart and special etc. But she IS smart, and witty, and she’s not going to take any shit from any of the other girls in the competition. Or Maxon, for that matter. Some of the quotes I listed above may not seem to have much impact from someone who hasn’t read the story, but I like them because they speak volumes about her character. She’s not fawning over Maxon, she’s rolling her eyes at him because he’s a doofus. She kneed him in the groin, for Pete’s sake. She is the opposite of princess material. (Or is she?)

I love her family dynamic, as well. She has mother issues; her mother pushed her into the Selection against her wishes, much the way Aspen did. She’s pretty terrible at saying the right thing to make sure America feels loved and appreciated. But America does know, deep down, that her mother only wants the best for her. America’s adulation for her younger siblings is lovely to see, too. And the relationship she has with her father is fantastic. I thought it was exemplified most in the first quote listed above: that no matter what happens, even if she’s shamed by the royal family in front of the whole country, that her father will always love her.

Maxon is a good character, too. At first he comes off as stiff and uninteresting, and he definitely is stiff. He’s an only child, and this is the first time he’s really been with people besides the maids and advisors, who naturally are upheld to standards of decorum. But he’s supposed to be getting to know these women, and to eventually marry one, and he has absolutely no idea what he’s doing. The fourth quote above is a pretty good representation of that. He doesn’t know what to do when women cry! (Although to be frank, most men don’t.)

There are a couple plot twists I’m not going to mention, because it’d take a lot of explaining and I don’t want to give this a spoiler tag. But know that we’re not done with Aspen yet. Naturally, this is the first book in a dystopian trilogy, so we have to have a love triangle as the central story, even if we… don’t actually need a love triangle.

This book made me laugh out loud, it made me cry, and it made me think, and those are all very good things.

Rating: ★★★★

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