No Filter by Orlagh Collins

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Sometimes it just takes A LONG TIME to get into a book. That's why I always try to make it at least 50-75% through before giving up, rather than risking really missing out on something good. No Filter by Orlagh Collins is the prime example for sticking it out and really finding a gem (and one of the characters is named literally, a gem!).

No Filter follows two teenagers, Liam and Emerald. After finding her mother after an attempted suicide, Emerald is shuttled off to Ireland for the summer while her parents in England try to handle everything going on. She is devastated that she won't be spending the summer with her Instagram-perfect friends, but rather in Ireland with her grandmother. But then she meets Liam, a boy with big dreams but a family wrong to right, even if it will cost him the future he wants. As Emerald's home life becomes even more strained and Liam can't seem to find a way to make his dreams a reality, they cling to one another, until they discover the truth about the tumultuous connected past of their families. It's then that they have to determine what really matters, old feuds or new romances?

This book really bugged me at first and I almost DNF'ed it. Between the difficult to understand accents and purely disgusting point of view towards social media, it took a lot to make me power through this book, but I'm glad I did. While the first half was a challenge, the second half was fantastic. I actually got used to the accents, and ended up being really happy that they were written authentically as it really gave more insight into who Liam and Emerald are. As characters they unfolded before themselves and each other, pushing buttons they didn't know they had and teaching one another the true value of things they might have missed before. I thought the irony of a character named Emerald spending the summer in Ireland was super cute, and the island scenes with the wallabies were a nice addition of a little real life magic in an otherwise bland environment.

I am still displeased with the way that Collins wrote Emerald's relationship with social media. Being invested in social media isn't a bad thing, and it's how many of us make a living today, but it was written distastefully, as if the author thinks that any form of new technology is a thorn in the side of civilization. Overall No Filter is a cute contemporary read that emphasizes forgiveness, second chances, and the importance of the truth-even when at first you or others around you are blind to it.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

A huge thanks to Bloomsbury for an early digital copy of this book. No Filter by Orlagh Collins releases in hardcover on March 6, so be sure to pick up a copy!

Island Games by Caleb J. Boyer

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Island Games by Caleb J. Boyer follows two teenage boys, Matthew and Ryan, after they are randomly dropped on a desert island and forced to survive a series of traps and solve puzzles to try to escape the island. The boys soon discover that truly working together is their only hope for survival. As the story progresses, the boys are transported to different quadrants on the island, ranging from tropical to desert, prairie to frozen tundra. Each quadrant comes with its own set of challenges, which when successfully passed results in a bounty of supplies for the boys designed only to last until the next test.

I think this book is decent as a middle grade, but way too juvenile to be really considered young adult. The reading level and vocabulary just aligns much better with 6-8 grade than 9-12. The characters to me also acted more in the middle grade age range than high school range. Matthew and Ryan were smart, but also acted incredibly juvenile. In a life or death situation like survival on an island, I would hope there would be more seriousness and planning and less joking around. Yes, humor is a way to make light of a difficult time, but sometimes it just didn't suit the situation in this story.

The plot and overall concept were excellent. I think it's an interesting survival mix of the plot and excitement of The Hunger Games and the relationship building and conflict in Lord of the Flies. The writing, however, was less than fantastic. It was basic and extremely repetitive. Yes, I do have to acknowledge that the author is only 12 years old, but unfortunately that's pretty obvious from the writing. Boyer uses the exact same phrases over and over within the same paragraph, and I'm pretty sure if one of the characters said "Wow!" one more time I would have thrown the book across the room. Boyer would have greatly benefited from the use of a thesaurus.

I was also really displeased with the ending. It ended as if there was going to be another book, but there was no clarity in the author's note or anything else as to when that is actually happening (although the Amazon page definitely says this is the first in a series). So many questions were left up in the air without any clarification. I hate finishing a book and not knowing what happens, especially if I don't know when I can anticipate the next installment. Island Games was still an interesting and fun story, but unfortunately just didn't live up to my expectations of good writing.

Overall Rating: 2 out of 5 Stars

Thanks to Online Book Club for digital access to this novel! Island Games by Caleb J. Boyer is out now.

The Secrets We Bury by Stacie Ramey

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I've read a few books lately that had hiking at the center of the plot, but it wasn't until this one that I actually got inspired to research a hike of my own. The Secrets We Bury by Stacie Ramey follows Dylan, seventeen-year-old who has run away from home and decided to hike the Appalachian Trail. Dylan believes that his mental issues are what caused his father's death, and afraid of having to attend a school for special kids decides to flee and pursue this journey to process his grief. 

Along his journey, he meets a girl his age, Sophie, who seems to be running away from her own problems just like he is. They also meet Rain Man, a seasoned hiker who, like both Dylan and Sophie, has experienced a devastating loss. Throughout the story, Dylan learns to connect, and even care for, others, while getting out of his own head and facing his fears for the safety and well-being of his new companions.

I really enjoyed this story. I read it in a few short hours, and thought the plot was solid. You could also tell that Ramey did a good amount of hiking research. I really enjoyed both Dylan and Sophie as characters, and respect both of them for the journeys they took and what they learned along the way. I would have loved to have seen this story told from both Dylan's and Sophie's point of view. I really appreciated seeing the relationship between Dylan and Sophie develop without any of the typical tropes that many YA novels have: yes Dylan saved her but that's not why she liked him, and they bonded on a level much deeper than physical attraction and desperation.

My only real issue with this book was the ending. I feel like everyone was so nonchalant about Dylan saving the lives of two people and coming home, and that things would never actually play out this way in the real world.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Thanks to Sourcebooks Fire for access to a digital arc of this book! The Secrets We Bury by Stacie Ramey releases March 1st so be sure to pick up a copy!

Honor Code by Kiersi Burkhart

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***Let me start off this review by saying that it may be the most disorganized review I've ever written, and give a huge trigger warning for rape/sexual assault. I'm writing this not caring about grammar, or flowy writing, or anything else, because I walked away from this book so rage-y that I can't really put into appropriate words all the things I felt. Also my reviews usually do not contain spoilers, but this one does because it's the only way to accurately express my full range of emotions. If it turns out you love this format of review, let me know because this is different than what I normally do but I'm happy to change up my style if that's what you guys like reading!***

Honor Code by Kiersi Burkhart follows Sam, a fifteen-year-old girl who gets into an elite private school, where behind closed doors she learns and experiences things she never expected. From having to line up naked and be ranked by upperclassmen, to being forced to join a sports team, Sam isn't sure she's ready to handle what's in store for her, but her desire to earn a scholarship to college keeps her motivated to tough it out. When she gets matched with the hot upperclassman she's been drooling over for the school mixer, she thinks that she's finally fitting in, until that upperclassman takes advantage of her attraction to him and her naivety and rapes her when she went to him for help with schoolwork. Wanting to keep the school honor code sacred, Sam seemingly tries hard to avoid exposing the incident or identifying herself or the prosecutor, but she still fights in her own way to seek justice.

My thoughts through the first 2/3 or so of this book were all positive. We need more books about rape culture to bring the issue to light. This showed why girls don't come forward when they've been sexually assaulted, and details all the fallout that happens when they finally do. YAASSS, I thought, this book is everything. Until the plot twist happened that had me raging until the very last page (and I'm still raging, as evidenced by this review).

SAM DIDN'T ACTUALLY GET RAPED. It was her roommate Gracie that went through that traumatic incident, and Sam in some deranged quest to help her decided to make the story her own and go public with it. Yes, the boy who raped Gracie attempted to rape Sam too, but she was able to escape before anything happened. THIS MADE ME SO ANGRY. DO NOT TAKE SOMEONE'S SEXUAL ASSAULT EXPERIENCE AND MAKE IT YOUR OWN. I don't care if you want to help them. I don't care if you're trying to expose someone and make them seek justice. Rape is such a terrible and deeply personal occurrence that if the person who experienced it doesn't want to pursue reporting/exposing it or do anything about it, THAT IS THEIR DECISION, not yours. Please, come forward with your own experience of how he attempted to rape you, and make him face justice for that, but DO NOT MASQUERADE. 

Now I do think this book had some great themes. Exposing corruption in private schools, showing how girls are treated cruelly after coming forward with this type of information, and how rich white male privilege is unfortunately alive and well today are all things that it is important to address, and it did all these things extremely well. That being said, I just couldn't wrap my head around what Sam did and why this is ok. I'm not sure if it was her fifteen-year-old mind and care for her friend that made her think this was a good idea, or if she just wanted the spotlight, but this just does not sit right with me. And judging by the Goodreads reviews, I'm the only one that thinks this.

I've struggled a lot with my rating for this book because while the false rape report really set me off, I think it tried and succeeded to shine light on the overall rape culture issues our society faces today. I originally wanted to rate it as 2 stars, but I think I'm going to bump it up because despite the problematic plot twist, the message was good and the writing was fantastic, and I did really enjoy reading it.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

Thanks to Lerner Publishing Group for allowing me early digital access to this book. Honor Code by Kiersi Burkhart releases on March 1st!

Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan

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The cover of this book is what drew me to it, but it was the story that kept me interested. Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan was a thought-provoking, beautiful read that emphasized the power and importance of both holding on and letting go.

The story follows Ren Ishida, who has recently moved to Akakawa, Japan to pick up the pieces following the murder of his older sister Keiko. He quickly falls into his sister's old routine: taking her job teaching at a cram school, moving into her former room, and befriending her coworkers-finding comfort in the things she used to do. But it turns out that Ren didn't know his sister as well as he thought he did. Through building relationships with those his sister was close with, Ren begins to discover bits and pieces of information that when combined with unique dreams lead him to the discovery of Keiko's killer and the motive behind it all.

While the plot does center around a murder, it's not at all a thriller or even really a murder mystery. This story is more about Ren finding himself through the relationship he had with his sister, discovering when it is important to move forward and let go, as well as what memories are worth holding onto. You see Ren grow as a character as the story progresses, identifying things from his past that are no longer relevant (his sex-crazed friend from high school), and learning the importance of what could be in his future (his desire to reconnect with his girlfriend Nae). He takes the lessons his sister always taught him and actually begins to apply them to his life, realizing that he needs to move forward.

The writing was absolutely beautiful, and I found myself lost in the story. The chapters are short and flow together well. I've heard others say that this mirrors the style of Haruki Murakami, and as I've been curious about his work for a while I think it's time to pick up something of his!

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

A huge thanks to Soho Press for sending me an ARC of this beautiful book! Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan releases on March 6th, so be sure to pick up a copy!

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

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I think I may have been the last person in the world to read this book. But just in case I wasn't, I wanted to write a review anyway on the off chance that one of you reading this has been hesitating about picking up this novel. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is one hell of a read, which is probably why a movie version is releasing next month. Like your typical bibliophile, I wanted to make sure I read the book before seeing the movie, so I made it a priority on my TBR and I'm so glad I did.

This story follows Wade Watts (username Parzival), your average teenager looking for an escape. It's set in the future, and we're out of space and almost out of resources as a human race. Trailer parks have turned into trailer towers to maximize land, and food rations are doled out on a voucher system. The only comfort is the Oasis, a completely immersive (and free) virtual reality, containing schools, jobs, shopping, and almost everything else you need to live. When the creator of the Oasis dies and leaves his fortune to whoever solves the puzzle hidden within the Oasis itself, Wade knows that winning this fortune is his only way out of his daily hell. 

But with about half a trillion dollars and complete Oasis control at stake, obviously Wade isn't the only one seeking out the prize. Powerful industries have also taken an interest in the winnings, wanting control of the Oasis with plans to start charging for access, and companies have created special "gunter" departments who dedicate every second of their time to solving the puzzle. These people will stop at nothing to win that prize, even killing off their competition if that's what it takes.

This book was fantastic! I don't even know where to begin with everything I liked. The amount of 80's references was wonderful, and the descriptions of this world were elaborate and painted an intense picture of life in the future...both inside and outside the Oasis. I felt for Wade...he was a good kid that just wanted a better life for himself, which really made you root for him to win. I really liked Art3mis as a character as well and wish we learned more about her. 

My biggest complaint is how abruptly it ended. There's a lot of debate as to whether this will have a sequel or not...nothing has really been confirmed by Cline one way or another. If this really will be a standalone, I would have liked to see it go a little more into what happens after the big battle. If it is intended to be a duology/trilogy/whatever, knowing that would have alleviated some of that disappointment.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

This Heart of Mine by C.C. Hunter

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It's been a while since I've read a damn good contemporary. But that all changed with this book. This Heart of Mine by C.C. Hunter made me laugh, it made me cry, but most importantly it taught me a lesson that is so easy to forget.

This book follows Leah, a high school student with an artificial heart. She carries her heart around in a backpack until one day she is fortunate enough for a transplant. Enter Matt, the charmingly handsome boy who's twin brother Eric's heart Leah was fortunate to receive after Eric committed suicide. After Leah gets her transplant, she starts to have dreams hinting that it may not have been a suicide after all. She and Matt bond over this unsettling notion, because like Leah, Matt is also having dreams and feeling's regarding Eric's demise. Leah promises to help Matt get to the bottom of what really happened to Eric...after all, she did get his heart, and the fact that she's falling for Matt doesn't hurt.

This book was way more than I ever hoped for. There's love and passion, mystery, fear, and above all else, hope. Hope to get to the bottom of what happened to Eric. Hope that Leah's body won't reject her new heart. Hope that Matt and Leah's relationship really is the real deal. And an underlying but ever present hope for tomorrow. This book teaches us to not give up that hope, and to take advantage of what time we are given. Life is too short to waste it worrying about what could happen rather than actually living our lives. I sound like a complete cheese ball, but really this book was incredibly cheesy and I wouldn't have it any other way. As a 28 year old, it takes a lot for a YA contemporary to touch me, but this one not only touched me but violently grabbed at my heartstrings and pulled until I was drained of all emotion after both laughing and crying my way thorough this book.

And to top it all off, not only is this just about the best contemporary I've ever read, but it's an own voices novel! The author's husband had a kidney transplant that saved his life, so all the emotions, both hope and fear, packed into this novel are 100% genuine. 

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

A huge thank you to St. Martin's Press for allowing me early digital access to this book. This Heart of Mine by C.C. Hunter releases on February 27th, so be sure to pick up a copy!