Faking Normal

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Certain situations can impress into our mind, leaving certain feelings depending on what it is. Getting assaulted is a traumatic experience that can leave someone with a sense of constant fear and anxiousness. This is the focus of Faking Normal, the debut novel of American author Courtney C. Stevens.

Alexi Littrell may seem like a normal 16-year-old: she has two best friends, an older sister, and the attention of a couple of cute guys at her high school. But what people don’t know is that something terrible happened to Alexi over the summer, and she hasn’t told anybody about it. She maintains her facade of “faking normal” by compulsively scratching the back of her neck in private, and trading written song lyrics on the underside of her desk with the anonymous “Captain Lyric.”

Her life is further altered when acquaintance Bodee Lennox comes to live with her family after he experiences a family tragedy. The two bond over their shared secrets, and Alexi finds that Bodee gives her the strength to admit what happened to her and to do something about it.

While the plot may sound similar to Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, which is also about a girl who’s assaulted over the summer and doesn’t tell anyone, Alexi’s relationship with Bodee is what makes the story unique. Instead of being attractive to the popular, athletic guys that most female characters would be, Alexi finds solace in Bodee’s calm demeanor. Bodee, in turn, provides Alexi with an unbiased, undemanding perspective about her situation.

Stevens also portrays Alexi’s anxiety and insomnia realistically- the way she sleeps in her closet to feel safe and counting the vent slits to concentrate on something. She doesn’t try to sugarcoat Alexi’s experience and even emphasizes the importance of speaking up, even including a passage at the end of the novel about what resources are available.

I definitely recommend this novel to people who enjoy reading stories about healing and the significance of saying something.

Once and For All

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About two months ago, I heard that Sarah Dessen was coming to a bookstore near my city to do a reading and signing for her latest novel, Once and For All. Since I had never been to a signing, I decided to go and check it out. Of course, driving to the suburbs of the nation’s capital at rush hour is not easy, and I didn’t arrive until after she had finished the reading. Fortunately, I still got a chance to meet Sarah (me being the very last person in line) and get my book signed by her. It was a cool experience.

For me, reading a wedding-themed novel couldn’t have come at a better time. My older brother got married about three months ago, and I got a small glimpse as to what he and his wife did to plan for the big day. I wasn’t too involved with the process myself, but I found myself fascinated with all the work of 14 months that culminated in just one entire day, or really just a few hours. Anyway, on with the book review.

Louna is the teenage daughter of a wedding planner in South Carolina. Being in the business of happily-ever-afters, she’s seen it all- reluctant brides, stressed out wedding parties and uninvited guests. However, Louna herself doesn’t believe in love, partly due to her own first love ending in tragedy, something that soured her perspective. During one of her wedding events, she meets Ambrose, a charismatic guy who isn’t committed to long-term relationships. When he comes to work for them for the summer, Louna finds herself struggling to maintain her perspective of love while dealing with Ambrose’s contrasting views.

I liked the wedding element of the novel. Dessen portrays how many details go into the planning of the big day, not just the guest list and the wedding party, but everything from from the caterer and the decorations to making sure everyone is present for ceremony and the timing. There’s also details about how ceremonies can range from a courthouse wedding to a huge 300-person gathering.

That being said, I didn’t find the actual plot of Louna and Ambrose’s relationship to be that appealing. After reading Dessen’s 2015 novel Saint Anything, which centered more around family love and inclusion than romantic relationships, I guess I expected her next book to have as much depth as that one did. But truthfully, I found that this novel lacked substance and felt more like recycled material from her previous books. Dessen is still a great writer, but I wish Once and For All had been a more complex and layered story.

 

Five Year Anniversary

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Five years ago this summer, I was halfway through my college career, majoring in journalism. I had been taking the typical classes- writing and reporting, editing, and composition and critical thinking. I still had two more years of college to look forward to and more classes to take.

One of the requirements of my journalism degree was 400 hours of internship. The previous summer, I had held an internship with my hometown newspaper, covering local stories and learning the publishing process. Summer 2012 however consisted of me only working my job as a cashier, wanting to earn money for my study abroad semester that fall. I was still covering some town meetings for the newspaper, but I still felt restless and wanted to be doing something to keep my writing skills sharp. This was something I mentioned to my brother while he was up visiting from D.C.

“If you’re a journalism major, you should probably have a blog.” he suggested.

“But what about?” I asked. “People with blogs seem to have a focus, but all I’m really doing is college right now, and there are already a million ones about being in college.”

“What’s something that you like that you could write about?” he said.

I thought about it for a little bit, glancing over at the book I had been reading. Books. Reading.

“Maybe I could write about books.” I mused.

“That’s something,” he said.

And thus Books By Betsy was created. I came onto WordPress and made my account, choosing the notebook theme because I liked the look. Since then, I have reviewed over 100 books, although I’m pretty sure I’ve read more than that in the past 5 years. A few years ago I started to promote my blog through my Twitter account, tagging the authors, and even get a shout out from them once in awhile. As an aspiring author myself, it’s great being able to read different kinds of books and sharing my thoughts about the story.

A few months after I launched this blog, I began to document my experiences of studying abroad in a foreign country that fall. I called that blog Experiencing England, As you can tell, I like alliteration in my titles, but I also chose that title because I didn’t find it used anywhere else.

Thank you to those who have read my blog. If you have any books you want me to review or any other comments or suggestions, please leave them below. Keep reading!

 

 

Always and Forever, Lara Jean

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The third book in Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before trilogy, the final novel is entitled Always and Forever, Lara Jean. My reviews of the first and second book can be found in previous posts.

Lara Jean Song Covey is in her senior year of high school, and life is good. Her and Peter’s relationship is stronger than ever, her father is getting married and her older sister Margot will be coming home for the summer soon. With graduation coming, the future is on her mind: starting college and a new beginning, preferably with Peter. Their plan is to attend the University of Virginia together. But when Lara Jean unexpectedly doesn’t get in, it makes her wonder what her future will really hold- and whether or not it will include Peter. Further doubts arise when she realizes that she has to say goodbye to the friends she has known since childhood.

First of all, what’s interesting about this novel is that it wasn’t originally planned. According to an interview with Bustle, Jenny Han stated that after writing the second book, she was focusing on other projects but kept going back to Lara Jean. She realized that writing the end of Lara Jean’s high school career would serve as a good conclusion to the series.

One of the elements the novel most focuses on is college admissions. Senior year is usually when most high schoolers apply to colleges and make their decision by the unofficial date of May 1. Sometimes, people don’t get in to the school they want and have to go with their second school, a decision that’s not always easy. This is the kind of situation that Lara Jean finds herself in. The plot also focuses on how an existing relationship can be affected if the two people decide to go to two different colleges. Long-distance relationships can be hard to maintain.

Another difficulty Lara Jean deals with is having to leave her family, friends and home for college. While her older sister Margot has been at college, Lara Jean took on her role of helping around the house and taking care of their younger sister Kitty. But now she realizes that she’ll be away from her sister, father and new stepmom. Change is a major theme of the novel, and I liked how Han handled it realistically- having Lara Jean talk to her friends about their futures and how things will be different.

I definitely recommend this novel to those who enjoy a story about the end of one chapter and the start of another.

Sammy’s Hill

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Novels set in D.C. continue to fascinate me, particularly because of all the different genres and author interpretation of the city. In my search for stories set in my current city, I came across Sammy’s Hill, a novel by Kristin Gore, the second oldest daughter of Al Gore, the Vice President under President Bill Clinton from 1993-2001.

The eponymous “Sammy” is protagonist Samantha Joyce, a 26-year-old health care analyst for Ohio Senator Robert Gary. Life on Capitol Hill can be demanding and stressful, but Sammy’s dedicated to her job, complemented by her somewhat neurotic personality. Sammy’s social life is minimal, but when handsome speechwriter Aaron Driver comes in to her life, Sammy quickly falls for him and forms a relationship. But as she soon finds out, mixing work and romance is not always a good thing. A presidential election also throws her into the hectic and crazy life of campaigning across the country.

What I enjoyed the most about this novel is that there was an actual plot and story, unlike Jennifer Close’s D.C.-set novel The Hopefuls, which reads more like a nonlinear diary than a book. Gore presented Sammy Joyce as a likeable, realistic character set against the backdrop of D.C., and accurately portrays the majority of Washington’s employees who are transplants from other states. Written in first person, Sammy makes humorous observations about D.C. color cast of characters.

Sammy’s experience on the campaign trail echoes Gore’s firsthand experience of her father running for Vice President and President. It always intrigues me when the author incorporates his or her personal experiences in to their stories, as it adds substance and authenticity.

I recommend Sammy’s Hill to anyone who enjoys a good romantic comedy set in the capital city. I will most likely be checking out the sequel, Sammy’s House, pretty soon.

 

 

 

Absolutely True Lies

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Visiting Los Angeles is on my to-do list. I’ve never been past Chicago, so a trip to Hollywood itself would be my first journey out west if I ever get there. For now, I feed my perception of the place with movies, TV shows and books set in that part of the country. Absolutely True Lies is one of those novels set in L.A. Written by American author Rachel Stuhler (from the same area I am!), the book offers a perspective of La La Land from a Northeasterner.

Twenty-five-year-old Holly Gracin has lived in Los Angeles for four years, having taken a job there right out of college. She writes for a small magazine, reviewing movies and other low-key events. When the magazine ceases publication and she loses her job, she finds herself facing the possibility of returning to her hometown. That’s when she’s hired to ghostwrite the autobiography of Daisy Mae Dixson, an eighteen-year-old starlet who’s spent most of her life in front of the camera as a Nickelodeon child star. As she shadows Daisy as research for the book, Holly is thrust into the life of the luxury, meeting producers and insiders, traveling to foreign cities and trying to keep up with the world of fame.

I really liked Holly’s character. I’m just about the same age as her and also a (somewhat) struggling writer. I live in a studio apartment in a big city just like she does, and hope to write a full-length book one day. (For now, I’m content with this blog and my day job as a communications coordinator.)

One of the more important topics of this novel is the dark side of fame. Holly discovers that although Daisy seems to be living the dream, her actual life is not what it’s perceived to be. Daisy struggles with depression and the pressure of maintaining an image. This is a reflection of the all too familiar story of child stars having difficulties later in life. Holly also finds that parts of Hollywood are one big “facade,” or having a fake “front” to hide an unpleasant truth.

What also fascinated me is the concept of ghostwriting in the story. Every chapter starts with an excerpt in Daisy’s autobiography. I liked how Stuhler included these passages as a way to contrast what really happens in Daisy’s life versus what’s written. There are countless books in the market that are supposedly written by celebrities, everything from memoirs to self-help books. I’ve always wondered which ones were really written by them and how many are written by someone else. It’s interesting to know that there’s a whole business behind putting someone else’s name on another person’s work (with compensation and permission of course.) Some sources say that ghostwriters can make as much as $50,000 per project. 

Overall, Stuhler’s novel is worth reading, a writer’s journey through the crazy life of Hollywood stars and what being famous is really like.

 

Until We Meet Again

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Time travel is a popular genre that dates back to literature from almost 200 years ago. Hundreds of mediums use it as a plot device, from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine to the popular film Back to the Future. Renee Collins’ novel Until We Meet Again uses the element of time travel, but in a unique way.

Cassandra is a rebellious teenager who is dreading spending the summer on the Massachusetts shore with her family. Though they rent a historic old estate, Cassandra is more interested in taking risks with some of the local troublemakers. Then one night, out on the estate’s private beach, she meets an intriguing stranger, Lawrence. Through multiple meetings, the two soon discover they are living in different years, him in 1925, her in 2015, and can somehow see each other only on the beach. Their friendship soon develops into love, but living in different times makes their relationship complicated. Through her research, Cassandra soon learns the awful truth about Lawrence’s fate, and is determined to do something about it.

The story is written in first person and alternate perspectives, with Cassandra and Lawrence each narrating certain chapters. This added some historic depth, as you can see the contrast in how people spoke, acted and dressed in the different eras. Cassandra considers Lawrence’s time to be “simpler” than hers, anticipating how much will go on throughout the rest of the twentieth century.

The interesting part about this novel is how it seems to fall under multiple genres. While the plot definitely has romance, there’s some science fiction with the time travel aspect. The 1920s scenes also adds history to the mix, with references to speakeasys, flappers and more. I admire Collins for doing the research on the lifestyle and being able to write dialogue consistent with that time period.

I would definitely recommend this novel for anyone who enjoys a summer love story with some sci-fi and history mixed in.

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