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.

 

The Fault In Our Stars: Demand Our Stars Nashville Event Recap

Last night, I had the pleasure and privilege of watching hundreds of teenage (and adult) fans go absolutely bonkers over the stars and author of the the latest upcoming teen movie. Except that this time, the movie isn’t about sparkling vampires or teen wizards or futuristic freedom-fighters. It’s about a girl dying of cancer, a boy with one leg, and how they fall in love as they make a trek to meet the author of their favorite book.

The movie is The Fault In Our Stars, the author is the ubiquitous John Green (who was recently named to TIME Magazine’s list of the Top 100 Influential People), and the story is one that, quite possibly, some of the young fans in attendance last night could relate to. (Read my review of the book here.)

Nashville was fortunate enough to win a stop on the Demand Our Stars tour, where John Green would meet fans, answer questions, and show exclusive clips from the movie, accompanied by young stars Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, and (the almost equally ubiquitous) Shailene Woodley.

Due to some serendipitous string-pulling by some well-placed friends, I was able to snag a Media pass to the event, which meant:

1) I didn’t have to stand in line all day. (Tickets to the event were free, but entry was on a first-come-first-serve basis, which meant some fans lined up before dawn that morning to ensure their spot.)

2) I was this close to the stars as they walked the red carpet. (How close? Well, you’ll see in a minute.)

By the time I arrived at War Memorial Plaza around 5:45 (the stars were set to arrive at 6:30), the crowds were INSANE. The general admission line stretched the entire length of the courtyard and looped back around itself. The fans were mostly teenage girls, many in groups, many with a parent or two in tow. Lots of them clutched copies of The Fault In Our Stars, and some held other copies of John Green’s other books as well, hoping for signatures. Mix 92.9 had a tent set up where they’d been doing giveaways of wristbands and other YA books all afternoon. Despite the fact that some fans had been standing all day (and possibly awake all of the previous night), it was an overwhelmingly festive atmosphere.

 
After I checked in, I was put in the media pen by the red carpet. Teenage girls pressed all around the edges. Some in the pen had seen the movie that morning and said it was fantastic. The girls on the perimeter couldn’t wait to see it, telling stories of how much they loved the book. One girl relayed enthusiastically how she finished it during social studies class and cried so hard she had to be sent to the guidance counselor.

The stars were supposed to come down the red carpet at 6:30, but unbeknownst to us outside, Nat Wolff (who will also be playing the lead in the upcoming movie adaptation of John Green’s PAPER TOWNS) and his brother Alex surprised the crowd waiting inside with an impromptu live musical performance. Sadly, I didn’t get to see this, but I hear they were amazing.

At around 7:00, a roar went up from the crowd closest to the street. The stars had arrived. In a way, it was good I wore my tall and highly uncomfortable shoes, because there was no way I would have been able to see through the field of waving hands as fans strained for signatures. I just had to hold my camera over my head and hope for the best.

John Green came down the line first, and the crowd reaction was spectacular — which would be expected if he were, say, Chris Hemsworth or Jennifer Lawrence or a member of One Direction. But this was an author. A 30-something guy in glasses and a checkered shirt who types words into a computer and makes videos on YouTube. Yet when he arrived, many of the young fans burst into tears, and I heard several gasp excitedly, “It’s him, it’s really him!” It was kind of a magical thing to watch these kids get just as excited about the author of a book as they would a movie or rock star.

John was very gracious and tried to sign as many things as possible, but he couldn’t get to everything because there were just so many. He joked with a fan about how crazy it was to have events like this since he suffers from anxiety, and talked to reporters about how much he loves this movie and the cast.

Ansel Elgort followed next, far more dapper and charming than I would’ve ever expected him to be after seeing him as Caleb in DIVERGENT. Watching him in person, I suddenly understood exactly why he was cast as Augustus Waters. He radiated charisma, speaking kindly to the fans while smiling and signing and waving. When he spoke, he was charming and intelligent. I didn’t get to ask him a question, but I heard him mention to a reporter that he loves being in movies that have been adapted from books, because he understands so much more about the character. With a script, all he has is what’s in the movie, but with a book adaptation, he has so much more to draw from. It was clear that he had a great fondness for Gus, and I’m excited to see what he’s done with the character.

Shailene Woodley came next, soft-spoken and beautiful as she sincerely thanked the multitudes of fans who were excited to see her as Hazel and praised her performance as Tris. She too talked about how much she loved working on this movie and with this cast, and it was very evident that the three leads of the film and John Green had all grown very fond of one another.


Nat Wolff (who reminded me a bit of a seventh-year Neville Longbottom) came last, full of smiles and laughs. He mentioned later that the show he’d performed inside with his brother was his favorite show he’d ever done. He echoed Shailene and Ansel’s sentiments about loving his experience on TFIOS, and talked about how excited he was to be starring in PAPER TOWNS.

After the stars finished working the red carpet, they were ushered inside. I went up to the balcony and collapsed into my seat, my feet throbbing. The floor was the general admission area, and it was PACKED. The chairs had been taken out in order to accommodate more people, but the screaming audience didn’t seem to mind, even though they’d already been standing all day. Ten minutes of the film and behind-the-scenes footage was shown, highlighting text from the book interspersed with scenes from the movie. The sound was cranked up to ear-splitting levels, which was the only way the dialogue could be heard since crowd went crazy every time they saw one of their favorite scenes brought to life.

Without giving away much in the way of spoilers for those who haven’t read the book, the scenes we were shown included:

  • Isaac egging a car
  • “It’s a metaphor.”
  • “I’m in love with you, Hazel Grace.”
  • Hazel’s wasted Wish
  • “Okay?” “Okay.”
I’ll let you guess which one got the biggest reaction from the crowd.

 
After the preview finished playing, John and the stars came onto the stage for a Q&A, and the crowd went wild again. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the audience is functioning without a voice today. I haven’t heard a crowd scream like that since the New Kids on the Block concert I attended last summer.
 

The questioners in the crowd brimmed with enthusiasm (some with tears), and the topics ranged all over the place, from the movie to the book to interesting tidbits about the folks on stage. Probably most people’s favorite response was when Ansel was asked if he had any hidden talents, and he did this:

(Video by YouTube user Carrie Germain)

One person asked what their favorite part of filming was. Ansel answered that his was the days they spent in Amsterdam. He and Shailene would walk around the city together, getting to know each other as friends. Shailene’s was the egging scene, which was also Nat’s first day on set. John loved them all, but he skipped the day they filmed the love scene. Because there is getting-your-book-made-into-a-movie weird, and then there is…that. (That was the only day he skipped — he was fortunate to have the opportunity to be invited to the set for the entirety of filming.)

The cast was asked their feelings on John, and they promptly had A Moment on stage. “John is probably my favorite person in the world to talk to,” Ansel said. Shailene agreed. “You really are unprecedented,” she said in obvious awe. “There’s no one in the world like you.”

None of the cast were Nerdfighters, or knew about vlogbrothers, before they started working on the movie. However, now they all would consider themselves part of Nerdfighteria. Ansel even threw up a Nerdfighter gang sign, which promptly endeared him to everyone who hadn’t already been wooed by his killer dance moves.

John was asked who his “John Green” was as a teen. The one author who spoke to and inspired him more than anyone else. He answered Kurt Vonnegut. “He reminded me I was real.”
 
They answered questions until 8:00, then left after giving the audience their heartfelt thanks.

It was an amazing night, and not just because that’s the closest I’ve ever stood to a movie star. It was inspiring to see the impact that books — and not just TFIOS, but all books — had on these young people. While we waited outside for the event to start, the girls near us chattered about the other books they’d read and loved. At one point, a girl behind me yelled to someone across the courtyard, “Talk nerdy to me!” in reference to the sticker she was wearing promoting The Fifty-Seven Lives of Alex Wayfare. It was moving to hear the crowd go bananas over their favorite scenes from a book. It was lovely to watch the young stars on stage express their wonder and admiration for an author.

I’ve heard from a few who have already seen the movie that it’s wonderful, and I’m excited to see it. But I’m more excited about the spirit that prevailed in War Memorial Plaza last night, and the unquenchable excitement of a generation of readers.

All photos used in this post were taken by me. 

 

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.

 

Review: Faking Normal by Courtney C. Stevens

I received an ARC from the author.

I’ve been wrestling with how to write this review for months. On the one hand, anyone that follows me on Twitter knows it’s no secret that Courtney Stevens is one of my dearest friends. Can you really objectively review a book written by one of your dearest friends? I don’t know. Maybe not.

But on the other, I loved this book with my whole heart, and it’s only partly to do with my love for Courtney. When I read it, it gave me goosebumps thinking of how many people’s lives would be touched once it was out in the world. So I simply must talk about it. And this is my blog, so I’m gonna.

As a sidebar: Courtney is going on tour in a couple weeks with Robyn Schneider, Kate Cotugno, Melissa Kantor, and Lauren Oliver. If you can make it to one of their tour stops, you should. Even if you’re not sure if you can handle the heavy subject matter of FAKING NORMAL, Courtney is one of those people I wish everyone could meet. She has a beautiful, beautiful heart, and is a wonderful encourager to everyone around her. So if you’re on the fence about the book, or you love the book, or you have no interest in the book – go to the tour anyway. (Read here about her inspiration for FAKING NORMAL.)

Plus, I hear the other four authors – and their books – are lovely. I’m really bummed that the tour isn’t coming to Nashville, even though I see Courtney pretty regularly, because those other four books sound pretty amazing too, don’t they?

SO now that I’ve totally embarrassed Courtney (who may not even read this because she KNOWS I will totally embarrass her), let’s get to the review, shall we? Which I promise I will try to make as objective as possible.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Alexi Littrell hasn’t told anyone what happened to her over the summer. Ashamed and embarrassed, she hides in her closet and compulsively scratches the back of her neck, trying to make the outside hurt more than the inside does.

When Bodee Lennox, the quiet and awkward boy next door, comes to live with the Littrells, Alexi discovers an unlikely friend in “the Kool-Aid Kid,” who has secrets of his own. As they lean on each other for support, Alexi gives him the strength to deal with his past, and Bodee helps her find the courage to finally face the truth.

A searing, poignant book, Faking Normal is the extraordinary debut novel from an exciting new author-Courtney C. Stevens.

My Thoughts:

FAKING NORMAL is one of those books that sucks you in from the first page and doesn’t let you go. It’s a quiet, introspective story, but the connection I felt with the characters and the truth that radiated from every page made it impossible to put down. Alexi isn’t like me, but her voice rang so true that I practically felt like I was her. No matter your personal experience going into FAKING NORMAL, she is written with such honesty that it’s impossible not to empathize with her. Even when she’s making bad choices. Even when she’s hurting herself. Even when she’s too petrified to speak up, no matter how much she should.

Alexi isn’t strong in the way we often think of “strong characters.” She is broken and she is scared and she is silent. She doesn’t seethe about what happened to her, she doesn’t cast blame on the people who wronged her, and justice doesn’t fuel her. She carries her burden alone, even though it weighs her down, because she feels she has no other choice. And though I spent the book yearning for her to take action and seek justice — because that’s what happens in books, right? — her strength was in her empathy, her selflessness, and her perseverance in putting one foot in front of the other. It wasn’t that her actions (and often, inactions) were right or healthy — arguably, they were neither — but that while some people would completely shut down after an ordeal like Alexi’s, she keeps going.

Then there is Bodee, who also doesn’t fit into the typical YA hero mold. He has his own struggles and fears and doubts, and he needs Alexi just as much as she needs him. He doesn’t swoop in and fix her problems, and she doesn’t fix his. Rather, they help each other find the strength to face the dark marks on their own souls. Readers will love Bodee not for his strong jaw and chiseled abs (neither of which he actually possesses…at least not in my mind), but for his gentle heart and quiet encouragement. I appreciated that Bodee was a friend more than a love interest, and that romance never dominated the story. FAKING NORMAL is a story of friendship and loss and betrayal and hardship and healing, and while there is romance, it is at most a supporting character, never the star.

FAKING NORMAL tackles difficult topics without ever seeming like an “issues” book. It’s not a “self-harm book” or a “sexual assault book” or a “domestic violence book,” even though at the surface, one might assume it is. But at its core, FAKING NORMAL isn’t about events and moments and trauma. It’s about healing and friendship and trust. It’s about finding light in the darkness, strength in unexpected places, and triumph in moving forward. It’s about being honest with yourself, and with the people who love you.

FAKING NORMAL isn’t the easiest book to read — although the clean, truthful prose certainly helps — but it’s worth the pain and the tears. While the events of Alexi and Bodee’s pasts are not universal (although for too many, they are), every reader can find themselves in the pages of FAKING NORMAL. Maybe not in action, but in heart. Everyone has dealt with dishonesty and helplessness and heartbreak, and everyone can use the (not so) occasional reminder to channel their brave.

I’ve read a lot of Contemporary YA fiction that was good, moving, even inspiring. But as I was turning the pages of FAKING NORMAL, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this book was something special. Important. Empowering. I remember thinking, “I can’t wait until this book is in the hands of teenagers and can start changing lives.” Because I really believe it will.

Fortunately, I don’t need to wait much longer. It comes out tomorrow (February 25, 2014), and you should check it out. I can’t recommend it enough.