Review: TEASE by Amanda Maciel

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

I can’t really put my finger on why I was so eager to read Amanda Maciel’s debut Tease. I read Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why last year, and remember feeling like it was a book that was important for high schoolers — and people of all ages, really — to read. Despite the difficult subject matter (teen suicide), I thought that book did an amazing job of showing how words and actions have consequences, and how many times people aren’t as strong as you think.

When I heard about Tease, written from the perspective of a bully following her 16-year-old classmate’s suicide, it seemed like it would be another challenging but eye-opening book that wouldn’t be easy to read, but would be important. So when I got the chance to read and review it, I snapped it up.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Emma Putnam is dead, and it’s all Sara Wharton’s fault. At least, that’s what everyone seems to think. Sara, along with her best friend and three other classmates, has been criminally charged for the bullying and harassment that led to Emma’s shocking suicide. Now Sara is the one who’s ostracized, already guilty according to her peers, the community, and the media. In the summer before her senior year, in between meetings with lawyers and a court-recommended therapist, Sara is forced to reflect on the events that brought her to this moment—and ultimately consider her own role in an undeniable tragedy. And she’ll have to find a way to move forward, even when it feels like her own life is over.

With its powerful narrative, unconventional point of view, and strong anti-bullying theme, this coming-of-age story offers smart, insightful, and nuanced views on high school society, toxic friendships, and family relationships.

My Thoughts:

From the opening pages of TEASE, I knew I wasn’t going to like Sara — and that it was okay. It’s a rare YA book that has such a purposely unlikable narrator (the only other one I can think of off the top of my head is Lauren Oliver’s BEFORE I FALL) but when you’re reading about a girl that bullied her classmate to the point of suicide, you don’t really expect her to be all sweetness and light.

If you are looking for sweetness and light, a warning: there is none of that in these pages.

Sara is self-centered, whiny, and seems to lack even a trace of empathy for everyone around her. Her rolling eyes and her “like, whatever” attitude immediately set the tone for the rest of the book. This wasn’t a girl I wanted to root for. This was a girl I wanted to take by the shoulders and shake every time she repeated her “But I didn’t do anything” mantra — which she does for almost the entire novel, which alternates chapters between the months leading up to Emma’s suicide and the months following.

In the flashbacks, we get to watch Sara and her BFF Brielle (think Regina George from ”Mean Girls,” except worse) be utterly, inexcusably horrible Emma. They’re vicious and cruel and infuriating. But what’s interesting is that we also get to see that Emma was no saint herself. She made mistakes. She did some underhanded stuff. In Sara and Brielle’s eyes, she earned every bit of vitriol they spit at her. From Sara’s perspective, she was the victim of Emma’s cruelty, since Emma “stole” her boyfriend. Sara and Brielle were certain that Emma’s tears were a stunt to grab attention, and that everything she did was intended to irritate them.

Now, does that excuse what they did to Emma? No. Not in the slightest. I thought Brielle was an absolutely horrible person (and totally undeserving of Sara’s devotion to her) and that despite Emma’s missteps, the punishments that Sara and Brielle doled out were far, far worse. They were toxic in every way. Watching them revel in their constant abuse of Emma was sickening and horrifying, especially since we kept flashing forward to the period after Emma had died and Sara still couldn’t see that she did anything wrong.

That was the most disturbing part for me. How even after Emma was dead, Sara still couldn’t understand the role she played. She still thought that Emma deserved what they’d done, and that the main problem was her lack of ability to take a joke.

It may sound like I’m trying to discourage you from reading this book, but here’s the thing — I thought TEASE was brilliant. I spent the majority of it furious with Sara and Brielle, but I thought it did an amazing job of showing how bullying happens without romanticizing either the perpetrators or the victims in the slightest. Sara is a terrible bully, but then we get to see her be a wonderful big sister to her two brothers (although let’s be clear – I never really liked her). Emma is absolutely a victim, but she also purposely provokes them on a few occasions. Brielle is…well, Brielle is awful. But her awfulness is still somehow raw and real. Every character in TEASE was fully-formed and utterly believable, which is one of the things that made it so challenging. It wasn’t like reading a story. It was like watching these events unfold in real life, and watching these kids self-destruct, and being unable to do anything about it.

But that’s the beauty of a book. Because despite the fact that Emma, Sara, and Brielle don’t exist, there are kids just like them who do, and maybe after reading TEASE, they will think twice about pulling a prank or starting a rumor. I think it’s good that TEASE is infuriating, because maybe if a reader is furious with Sara, she will try harder to avoid being like Sara.

The prose is far from poetic, peppered with frequent, “like”s, “I don’t know”s, “whatever”s, and ”or something”s from Sara, who narrates exactly like the bored, insecure, self-centered teen she is. Her voice gives the whole book an authenticity that I don’t think could have been achieved with a more lyrical style. It’s a book where I thought the writing was perfection, even though it kind of made me want to rip my hair out.

Which is kind of the theme with every part of TEASE. Infuriating brilliance. Flawless abhorrence. Frustrating authenticity.

TEASE is not an easy book to read, but I found it impossible to put down. It’s beautiful and ugly and terrifying and real, and I think there should be a copy in every high school library. It’s not a book that made me cry, but it’s a book that made me think. I never really came to root for the characters, but I’m not sure that was the point of this book. I hope that in a strange way, this book about these kids who totally lacked empathy will be able to inspire empathy in the Saras and Brielles who are reading. Not toward these fictional characters, but to the real people they encounter every day. I hope they’ll be able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and choose the higher road. The one that Sara and Brielle never took.

And to any Emmas out there, hang on. There is always hope.

Review: PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG by Anne Blankman

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

So a few months ago, I joined Young Adult Books Central (have you been there? You should visit. Fantastic site) as kind of a behind-the-scenes gear-greaser. I poke around in the parts of the site that you don’t see and help it all run smoothly. My role is mostly helping the site function, not reviewing, BUT when I signed on, the incomparable MG Buehrlen (site admin) also told me I could review books for the site if and when I felt like it.

For the most part, I haven’t requested any review books from YABC. Reviewers have to jump right on reading and getting reviews posted in a timely manner, and I knew I couldn’t commit to that if I didn’t feel SUPER excited about a book. Most of my time lately has been devoted to my own writing, critiquing works-in-progress for my friends, and OH YES, SUMMER VACATION. (Parents who homeschool, HOW DO YOU DO THIS? I am in awe. These children are going to be the death of me.) I haven’t done much pleasure reading, much less pleasure reading on a deadline.

But the last batch of review books that came in contained PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG, and I knew I had to request it. Not only was the concept intriguing (Hitler as a main character? A member of his inner circle as the protagonist? Veeeeery eeeenteresting. *strokes metaphorical beard*), but one of my critique partners is working on a WWII manuscript, and I wanted to brush up on the genre. So I requested. And I have no regrets.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

In 1930s Munich, danger lurks behind dark corners, and secrets are buried deep within the city. But Gretchen Müller, who grew up in the National Socialist Party under the wing of her “uncle” Dolf, has been shielded from that side of society ever since her father traded his life for Dolf’s, and Gretchen is his favorite, his pet.

Uncle Dolf is none other than Adolf Hitler. And Gretchen follows his every command.

Until she meets a fearless and handsome young Jewish reporter named Daniel Cohen. Gretchen should despise Daniel, yet she can’t stop herself from listening to his story: that her father, the adored Nazi martyr, was actually murdered by an unknown comrade. She also can’t help the fierce attraction brewing between them, despite everything she’s been taught to believe about Jews.

As Gretchen investigates the very people she’s always considered friends, she must decide where her loyalties lie. Will she choose the safety of her former life as a Nazi darling, or will she dare to dig up the truth—even if it could get her and Daniel killed?

From debut author Anne Blankman comes this harrowing and evocative story about an ordinary girl faced with the extraordinary decision to give up everything she’s ever believed . . . and to trust her own heart instead.

My Thoughts:

I’m no historian by any means, but I have a deep appreciation for a well researched piece of historical fiction. Even when I know very little about a time period, I think that when an author does her homework, it shows. This is especially essential when the subject matter is one about which many readers already have formed opinions — in this case, the Nazi (National Socialist) Party and Adolf Hitler. I was excited, but a little wary, to see how Anne Blankman would approach such a delicate topic. I knew the protagonist starts the book very close to Hitler, but surely she couldn’t actually like Hitler? Surely the author wouldn’t dare paint Hitler as a nice guy who’s been horribly misunderstood?

I needn’t have worried. While, yes, protagonist Gretchen Müller is very fond of Hitler when we meet her, referring to him as Uncle Dolf, I found PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG very thoughtful in its approach to her beliefs and her interactions with the infamous Führer. I could see how this young, intelligent girl would have been won over by Hitler’s charisma and propaganda. It was clear a lot of care had been put into Hitler’s portrayal, and Gretchen’s perception of him, and I found it extremely believable.

It was chilling to see characters that truly seemed like good people embrace Hitler’s horrifying ideals. Some of the Nazi characters in this book were, indeed, monsters, but many were otherwise decent folk who didn’t seem to see how wrong their beliefs and actions truly were. One by one, they all turn against Gretchen when they realize she’s pulling away from the Party, in a series of events that becomes more and more terrifying as Gretchen sees how deep Hitler’s poison has sunk into the hearts of her German friends and neighbors. Watching as Gretchen slowly has the wool pulled from her eyes was both compelling and heartbreaking, especially when I considered that this story takes place before World War II, which meant opposing Hitler would only become more difficult for Gretchen.

The murder plot is exciting, but I have to admit, it wasn’t much of a mystery. The reveals that shocked Gretchen I found somewhat predictable, but I didn’t mind, because I wasn’t really reading to learn who killed Gretchen’s father. The answer was interesting — and tied brilliantly into a real historical event — but the aspect of the story that gripped me the most wasn’t the ten-year-old crime, but how Gretchen would survive once she knew the truth.

Likewise, I loved watching Gretchen’s interaction with Jewish reporter Daniel. It was fascinating to watch Gretchen grow from someone who mindlessly accepted that Jews were subhuman into someone who understood the value and humanity in all people. The love story was sweet, but much like the murder mystery, it was secondary for me. I was mostly invested for Gretchen’s internal change and growth. It’s rare to read a book where the protagonist wholeheartedly buys into the rightness of society’s harmful ideals, and then is forced to change her mind and heart completely when she is faced with the truth. I thought PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG handled that transformation wonderfully.

As I mentioned before, the attention to historical detail in this story is commendable. While Gretchen, Daniel, and several other important characters are fictitious, many of the characters in this book were real people, in addition to Hitler himself. Similarly, many of the events and locations referenced also were based on true historical accounts. I thought Anne Blankman’s thorough research and her thoughtful portrayal of history helped the fictional events leap off the page, and gave her story a real air of believably. I don’t think anyone should pick up a historical fiction novel expecting a 100% educational experience, but I do think PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG helped shed a light on a period of history that isn’t often taught in schools, and did so with a lot of care and respect to the time period. The plot of the story may be fictitious, but the backdrop was real, and I thought the balance between the two was lovely.

Overall, I found PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG a fascinating read, full of compelling characters and challenging questions, set in one of the most intriguing and terrifying periods of history. If you enjoy well-written, thoughtfully researched historical fiction, or simply great characters making hard choices against overwhelming odds, I highly recommend you give it a try.

Film Review: The Fault in Our Stars

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to attend an advance screening of the film The Fault in Our Starsbased on the novel of the same name by John Green. I had thoroughly enjoyed the book (as much as one can enjoy a book about kids dying from cancer), and although I had a few reservations about the film’s cast (having recently watched Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, TFIOS’ star-crossed lovers, play siblings in Divergent), they were mostly dispelled when I attended the Demand Our Stars event in Nashville last month.

Naturally, I went into the movie pretty excited. I knew the film had the resounding support of author John Green, the cast was made up of enthusiastic fans of the book, and the few people I’d talked to who had already seen it unanimously agreed that it was an excellent adaptation.  So armed with a TFIOS-themed packet of tissues, I settled into my seat for what I guessed would be a solid two hours of sobbing.

Nutshell reaction:

The early reviews were right. This movie is well cast, beautifully acted, expertly scored, and faithfully adapted. Book fans should be extremely pleased, and those who haven’t read the book will walk away with tear-streaked faces and a solid understanding of what all the fuss is about.

Longer reaction:

From the opening scenes of the film, it’s evident that everyone involved in this production was trying to be true to the spirit of the book. Everything from the script to the costumes to the set design seemed lifted straight from the pages. That dedication carries through the entire film, and nearly all of the tentpole lines and scenes are present and accounted for (one notable exception being the lack of the Shakespearean reference from which the story draws its title, but considering the indifference to the source material that often happens when translating a book into a film, such small omissions are forgivable).  The tone also carried through, which was no small task. This is a story about kids with cancer, and in some cases kids dying of cancer, but never becomes maudlin. It’s interspersed with levity and humor and the kind of irreverent joking — from both the teens and the adults — that make it more a story about family and friendship and first love and growing up than a story about cancer.

Although I had my doubts about the chemistry between the two leads, Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort won me over with genuine performances. The dialogue in the book was often flowery and a bit pretentious, and I’ve often heard critics bash it with the claim that “no one talks like that, especially not teens.” (The fact that I knew teens who talked and thought very much like this just proves how much of a story’s believably relies on the consumer’s personal experience, which is an element totally outside of the writer’s control — but that’s a topic for another time.)

My point is that the two young actors, and Ansel Elgort in particular, did an excellent job of portraying exactly the sort of person who would talk like this. He would probably think of himself as loquacious, not necessarily pretentious; at one point, he asks Shailene Woodley’s character, Hazel, not to interrupt him in the midst of his “grand soliloquy,” which is a perfect example of just how much his character, Gus, likes to hear himself talk. He played it in such a way that I could feel the character’s need to matter, to say something worthwhile, in an effort to thwart “oblivion,” which is Gus’ worst fear. It made me wonder if Gus would be prone to such epic monologues if cancer never found him. Maybe. But it was questions like this, along with little touches like his insecurity about his amputated leg, or his initial fear and then subsequent childlike wonder at his first time on a plane, that kept him from becoming a caricature.

Shailene Woodley is a bit of an anomaly for me. I can never picture her as the characters she gets cast as, but then when I see her performance, she wins me over. She’s one of those actors that never seems like she’s acting, which may be why I always have a hard time imagining her outside her most recent role. Hazel was no exception. Her portrayal of a teen living with cancer is compelling and authentic, and she’s able to infuse lightness and humor into the role while never downplaying the gravity of the situation (the oxygen tank she has to cart around for the entire movie is a constant visual reminder of her struggle, but even if the tank wasn’t there, the tightrope Hazel has to walk between “normal teen” and “cancer kid” is always present).

Then Nat Wolff fills out the teen cast as Isaac, who starts the film with one working eye and ends it with zero. His role is reduced from what it is in the book, but he is able to make the most of the screen time he’s given, stealing every scene he’s in. While also a kid suffering from cancer, Isaac’s biggest struggle in the movie isn’t the loss of his sight, but the loss of his girlfriend, which adds both levity (as Isaac works through his frustration by smashing Gus’ basketball trophies — with Gus’ blessing, of course — and by egging his ex’s car, in full view of her mother), and perspective: These are kids living with cancer, emphasis on living. They have cares and hopes and struggles and heartbreaks that have nothing to do with their illness, even when it takes their eyesight, or their leg, or their ability to breathe.

As in the book, the parts that got to me the most weren’t the parts with the teens — though several scenes, particularly the fake-funeral, predictably tugged on the tear ducts — but the ones with the parents. This is probably because I’m an adult, and a parent, myself, but even teens or adults with no kids should be able to empathize with the powerful adult performances in the movie. The  one with the most screen time is Laura Dern, playing Hazel’s mother, but pretty much every scene where we get a glimpse into Hazel’s and Gus’ parents struggle as they watch their children fight their diseases was heart-wrenching. There were very few parent scenes that I made it through with dry eyes, and the fact that Laura Dern and Sam Trammell (playing Hazel’s father) could convey so much with a quiver of their chin or a sideways glance made their strength and their grief beautifully palpable.

Much like the book, The Fault in Our Stars is sad, but not melancholy; romantic, but not sappy; heartwarming, but not saccharine. It sensitively addresses hard questions, like is it possible to live fully while you’re dying, or can a parent still be a parent once their child is gone, without providing easy answers. The performances are sincere, the film making is straightforward, and the lessons are layered. It’s a film about kids with cancer without being a cancer film, where even the sickest characters are defined by so much more than their disease.

Augustus has a line early on in the film when he asks Hazel, “What’s your story?”

She starts in, “Well, I was diagnosed when I was thirteen…”

And he interrupts her, “Not your cancer story. Your real story.”

I think that line is one of the main themes of the movie, and the book. There’s the cancer story, and then there’s the real story. I thought the film did an excellent job of focusing on the real story.

Review: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

I knew literally nothing about E. Lockhart’s WE WERE LIARS when I settled down to read. It’s better when you know nothing, is the phrase that was repeated to me by friend after friend. But they all insisted that I simply must read it, and that when I had, we would DISCUSS, but no, they would not tell me what it was about.

I was intrigued, so I read.

They were not wrong. It’s better when you know nothing.

That said, I need to write a review. This may be tricky.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

A beautiful and distinguished family.
A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.
Lies upon lies.
True love.
The truth.

We Were Liars is a modern, sophisticated suspense novel from National Book Award finalist and Printz Award honoree E. Lockhart.

Read it.
And if anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE.

My Thoughts:

Obviously, the summary gives you very little to go on to decide if you want to read this book. For me, it worked for friends to shove it into my hands saying, you will like this. But that’s because they know my taste. You probably need a little more to go on, because I actually don’t believe this book is for everyone.

So here’s the most non-spoilery summary I can give:

WE WERE LIARS is about a group of four teens (three cousins, one friend) who grow up spending their summers with their families on a private island. When they are fifteen, the narrator, Cady, has an accident. She hits her head and loses her memory, suffers a traumatic brain injury, and spends two years convalescing under the watchful eyes of her parents. She never can recall what happened to her, but she misses the island and begs to return. So when she is seventeen, she does.

Only this time, everything is different. And no one will tell her why.

This is a hard book to peg down. It’s not the suspenseful page-turner I thought it would be, given the back cover copy (although it is a speedy read). Nor is it the quiet literary fiction that it feels like in parts. It’s a mystery that doesn’t read like a mystery. It’s a modern story that feels vaguely historical because of the isolated setting (Internet, phones, cable all don’t seem to work on the island). It’s psychologically manipulative, but then again, maybe it’s not.

It’s an enigma. It defies categorization.

The prose is gorgeous, but detached. It took me a while to become completely engrossed in this book because I couldn’t emotionally connect with the narrator. I was always interested in the plot and wanted to see what happened; I just wasn’t invested until about the halfway point. (Take this with a grain of salt – I have many friends who were utterly riveted by page 1.)

That said, once I was in, I was all in. This book solidly staked its claim on the “There Were Tears” shelf in my brain, and let me tell you, that is a small shelf.

There are twists and red herrings galore in WE WERE LIARS, and whether or not you see them coming or find them satisfying is part of the draw of this book. I found it smart and well-executed and original, but I also was able to call some of the surprises early on. However, that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book.

This is a book you can only really discuss with others who have read it, and it’s one of very few books that I’ve heard people recommend even if they didn’t like it, just because they wanted to be able to talk about it. It’s well crafted, beautifully written, and unlike anything else I’ve read. It’ll leave you thinking for days (and, if you’re like me, you’ll flip back to the beginning and start reading again immediately after you finish, looking for the things you missed), and talking about it over dinner with your friends.

You know, the friends who read it because you made them read it because you just had to talk about it.

I will give you the disclaimer that this book isn’t one for people who need clear answers. There is a lot open for interpretation, and there is a very valid way of reading the book that could leave the reader in a pretty dark place. There’s also a more uplifting way to read, but if you prefer your endings unambiguously positive, this may not be the book for you.

That said, if you’re up for a ride into the twisting dark unknown, I hope you’ll give it a try.

Review: The Fifty-Seven Lives of Alex Wayfare by MG Buehrlen

I’m going to be honest – Sci-Fi/Fantasy has not been my thing lately. This pains me to say, because I adore those genres, and it’s absolutely not the books’ fault. It’s totally a problem with me. The book I’m trying to write (I say “trying” because I’ve rewritten the ending so many times I’ve lost count, and it is still not right) is very plot-heavy and intricate, and my poor brain is just not capable of processing the world-building that’s necessary in speculative fiction.

Contemporary. That’s all I can do. Because although contemporary fiction can still be smart and intricate, at least my brain is already familiar with the world and the laws of the universe. Plus, contemporary fiction is often focused a lot more on emotion and character than plot. I can handle emotion and character. But plot? I am up to my ears in plot. I have reached my capacity on plot. No more plot.

You’re wondering where I’m going with this, aren’t you?

ALL THIS TO SAY, I was wary about reading MG Buehrlen’s debut, THE FIFTY-SEVEN LIVES OF ALEX WAYFARE, because it is not only sci-fi, but it is the epitome of mind-bendy sci-fi, which is TIME TRAVEL SCI-FI. I didn’t know if my poor brain could handle it.

But I knew I had to at least give it a try, because MG is delightful (I haven’t met her in person — YET — but we converse often enough on Twitter that I feel like I know her. Creepy? Let’s hope not.) and because I have friends who know her and share my taste who swore up and down that her book is brilliant and I would love it. I trust these friends. And I really, really wanted to enjoy MG’s debut. So even though I was pretty sure it would break my brain (again), I gave it a shot.

The verdict? I should never have doubted. I loved it.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

For as long as 17-year-old Alex Wayfare can remember, she has had visions of the past. Visions that make her feel like she’s really on a ship bound for America, living in Jamestown during the Starving Time, or riding the original Ferris wheel at the World’s Fair.

But these brushes with history pull her from her daily life without warning, sometimes leaving her with strange lasting effects and wounds she can’t explain. Trying to excuse away the aftereffects has booked her more time in the principal’s office than in any of her classes and a permanent place at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Alex is desperate to find out what her visions mean and get rid of them.

It isn’t until she meets Porter, a stranger who knows more than should be possible about her, that she learns the truth: Her visions aren’t really visions. Alex is a Descender – capable of traveling back in time by accessing Limbo, the space between Life and Afterlife. Alex is one soul with fifty-six past lives, fifty-six histories.

Fifty-six lifetimes to explore: the prospect is irresistible to Alex, especially when the same mysterious boy with soulful blue eyes keeps showing up in each of them. But the more she descends, the more it becomes apparent that someone doesn’t want Alex to travel again. Ever.

And will stop at nothing to make this life her last.

My Thoughts:

THE FIFTY-SEVEN LIVES OF ALEX WAYFARE does all sorts of things I don’t see often in YA, and especially in this kind of intricately-plotted, genre-bending, world-building-heavy YA.

It gives our main character, Alex, an entire intact family unit, complete with parents, grandparents, and siblings, that is not dysfunctional in the slightest.

It puts at the center of the book a relationship that is in no way romantic, and a male lead who isn’t even kind of swoony (unless you are about 40+ years older than the book’s target audience, in which case 1) GOOD FOR YOU, and 2) go right ahead and swoon).

It presents three possible love interests for the main character, but at no time ever resembles a love triangle, square, hexagon, dodecahedron, or any other geometric shape. And of those three, not a single one is an obviously terrible choice.

Yet at the same time, Alex is not a She’s-All-That-esque swan-in-ugly-duckling-clothing. When she takes off her nerd glasses, she is — shockingly — still a nerd. She never becomes magically popular. She isn’t stunningly beautiful underneath her rumpled appearance. And she actually turns out to be less of a Chosen One than she originally thought.

This all brings me to the main reason I loved this book: It put characters first. A lot of time, even in good books, when there’s this many EVENTS that have to happen on the pages, writers almost seem to run out of room to develop the characters. But with ALEX WAYFARE, the thing that kept me turning pages well past my bedtime wasn’t the thrilling missions through time or the looming menace of the ever-nearing villain — though those were fun too — it was the heart in the characters. It was the fact that the characters rang true.

They reacted illogically. They made mistakes. They carried unfair prejudices. But these weren’t just quirks. They weren’t a laundry list of imperfections so that the characters could be more interesting. They gave the characters depth and history, even when I didn’t agree with them.

Take Alex herself. At one point, she tells a boy that he should know that most girls are “shallow, shallow creatures.” At first glance, a reader might be turned off by that line. That’s an awfully sweeping statement to make about half the human race, isn’t it? Isn’t she a girl? Isn’t her sister, who she adores, also a girl? Why does Alex think she’s such a special snowflake?

But then you realize, Alex literally has no friends. Her only encounters with other girls are with the couple popular girls at school who bully her and gave her an ugly nickname. Everyone else seems to pretty much ignore her. She’s under the impression that the entire school is constantly whispering about her, but in reality, they’re probably not. It’s just her perception of reality. As a result, she closes herself off and tries not to interact with anyone. Ever. So of course she thinks all girls are awful. Her only encounters with them have been negative, and as a coping mechanism, she’s made sure that the only way she will continue to have contact with girls is if they seek her out. And who seeks her out? The bullies.

Vicious cycle.

This isn’t the only example where Alex, or the other characters, rang true in their shortcomings. It’s just one that stood out, because I remember going through a whole circuit of reactions when I read that line. Plus it’s toward the end of the book, so it’s fresh in my memory. I liked that MG Buehrlen didn’t shy away from the less appealing aspects of her characters, but instead explored them and allowed me to see why they’d come to think or act the ways they did. In addition to being a bit prejudiced against her own gender, Alex is impulsive, naive, and kind of shockingly short-sighted at times.

But then these moments of weakness are balanced with strengths. Alex is also clever, inventive, brave, caring, and loyal. Her good points really do outweigh the bad, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching her develop and mature throughout the story. And she’s not the only one. I loved her family, and how involved they all were in each other’s lives. I loved Porter, her middle-aged mentor who teaches her about herself. And I loved Blue, the boy she meets over and over again in each of her lives, and Jensen, the boy on whom she blames her social misfit status.

Outside of the characters, though, I loved the story itself. I loved the creative spin on a reincarnation story, and how each journey into Alex’s past highlighted a different point in history. The narrative weaves seamlessly through different eras, jumping from the modern day to Prohibition-era Chicago to a train heist in the Wild West. It kept me constantly on my toes, wondering where I’d be transported to next, and opened the door to endless possibilities in the future. And I followed the logic of the time travel pretty easily, with most of my questions being answered just a few pages after I asked them.

All in all, I loved the timey-wimey goodness that is THE FIFTY-SEVEN LIVES OF ALEX WAYFARE. It was a fun, energetic  romp through history with characters I enjoyed following on their various (mis)adventures. It helped me rediscover my love of the genre, and made me excited for what’s to come in the series. It ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, and when I turned the final page, I was left simultaneously satisfied and yearning for the next chapter in Alex’s story. If you’re a fan of time travel and adventure and history and heart, I highly recommend this one.