Winter Town

Winter Town by Stephen EmondWinter Town by Stephen Emond
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Number of pages:  336
My copy: hardbound, ordered from Book Depository

Every winter, straight-laced, Ivy League bound Evan looks forward to a visit from Lucy, a childhood pal who moved away after her parent’s divorce. But when Lucy arrives this year, she’s changed. The former “girl next door” now has chopped dyed black hair, a nose stud, and a scowl. But Evan knows that somewhere beneath the Goth, “Old Lucy” still exists, and he’s determined to find her… even if it means pissing her off.

Garden State meets Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist in this funny and poignant illustrated novel about opposites who fall in love.

* * *

Winter Town is one of my most anticipated reads of 2011, mostly because I loved Stephen Emond’s other novel, Happyface. It was one of my favorite contemporary novels in 2010, with drawings to boot! So I was really very excited when my copy finally arrived, and just in time for Christmas. Don’t you think the cover makes this book fitting for December? ((Of course, I forgot the book in the office during Christmas weekend, so I didn’t finish this until after Christmas.))

Evan and Lucy are childhood best friends. Evan is this straight-A, all-around good guy who has a seemingly perfect family even if his dad is pretty demanding and has too many high expectations with him. Lucy, on the other hand, is this confident girl who’s not afraid to say what she thinks and the brains behind all her and Evan’s crazy antics during their childhood. Lucy moves away one winter after her parents’ divorce, and they barely kept in touch, until Lucy tells Evan that he’s visiting. Evan’s world practically stops and he drops everything to be with Lucy, even with the risk of his dad’s wrath. But Lucy is not the same confident brown-haired girl that he’s known now. Lucy is now dressed as a Goth, is quiet, and swings from one mood to the other. Evan is confused, but he’s determined to make the Old Lucy come out, even if it means going to extreme measures. But the thing is, does New Lucy want Old Lucy back? Or maybe it’s all just Evan?

Winter Town is the kind of book that quietly creeps up on you because it’s so…normal. I mean, it is meant to be normal because it’s contemporary, but there are no too many flashy things about it save for the illustrations. There’s no love at first sight, or magic, or ya jock and an unpopular girl or a popular girl and a geek getting together. It’s just about…best friends. Who secretly pine for each other. But first they had to deal with the changes and issues between them that they do not want to deal with first in fear of rocking the boat. This story set in winter time in a New England town was just so shockingly normal that it feels like it’s a breath of fresh air.

If you’d allow me to digress a bit. In my Catholic community, I often heard people share about their life, and how God changed it. More often than not, the sharing usually comes from people whose life was in total disarray until they find God and then things start to get better because they get a different perspective. The people with more or less normal lives, the ones who do not come from as dark of a past as the others, often listen rather than share, because let’s face it: people who had to go through bigger things often have a bigger lesson to share compared to those whose lives are normal and okay. Reading Winter Town and getting to know the two main characters reminded me of that. The book is told in two perspectives, which I was pleasantly surprised to find out later in the book. On the normal side, there’s Evan — and when I say normal, I mean absolutely normal. Save for the fact that his dad gives him a bit too much pressure in school, and despite his grades, he has no idea where to go or what to do or what he wants to be in the future. He’s perfectly okay going with the flow because it’s easier than swimming against the current. And oh, how I related to Evan so much because I pretty much had the same life. Not that I’m complaining now, because I sort of know better now that I’m older, but my dear Evan, I know how it feels to be so lost in the normalcy. Lucy, on the other hand, is on the other side of the spectrum, at least when she shows up a year after she left. It’s been a bad year for Lucy and all she wants is to forget, but she makes a mistake of relying too much on the stability of her best friend so her own world would be stable. I couldn’t relate to Lucy but I wanted to hug her and tell her it will be better because she just seemed so sad. And when her problems were finally revealed, it really made me feel sorry for her, not because it was particularly earth shattering, but it’s just something that anyone should experience, especially with how I’ve gotten to know her with how Evan described Lucy. The differences of these two main characters make Winter Town easy to relate to, because I’m pretty sure we are all Evans and Lucys at some point in our lives (and maybe until now).

Like I said, the story was pretty normal but that doesn’t mean it’s too ordinary not to warrant enough attention. I liked how the author tackled some questions about being up front with your past and dealing with your problems rather than running away from them, finding out what you really want and going after them even if it means not doing what other people expects of you and of course, friendship and romance and the thin line between that. It’s about time someone deals with that, and I think Stephen Emond manages to do that quite realistically.

Winter Town chapter spread

But the real highlight of Winter Town is really the illustrations. I wouldn’t expect anything less from someone who made me a fan of his work with just one book (and someone who generously drew me a picture of myself with a sunflower and books — look up at the banner!). I had to admit, I was expecting the book to be a little like Happyface, you know, sort of like a scrapbook/journal type of thing, so I was kind of surprised to see that it’s a prose with illustrations on the side. Which isn’t bad, of course. The illustrations were amazing, as expected, and they were a good complement to the text, especially because there were some times when I felt a little bit disengaged with the story. I guess I was kind of expecting an atmospheric read, something that would make me really feel winter as I read it ((Especially since it never snows here!)), but sometimes it didn’t really feel that way. There were times when I felt a little bit disconnected with the text, like I wish there would be a bit more description of the things happening and the places and the events, but then the illustrations would pull me back into the story. It makes me wonder now how the reading experience with the book be if the illustrations were removed. While I think the story will still be able to stand on its own, I bet it wouldn’t be as entertaining. Then again, removing the illustrations is pointless because Winter Town was made to be with illustrations. So…maybe I should stop nitpicking and just need to read more novels with pictures.

Comics in between the chapters

But enough blather. Overall, I liked Winter Town. While I wasn’t really as enamored with this as I was with Happyface, I still think Winter Town was still a very good read. It kind of breaks the mold of contemporary YA by…not really breaking it, if you get what I mean. I think that everyone will be able to find something to relate to in this book, whether you’re an Evan or a Lucy. The lessons of the story were pretty solid, and I really liked the ending: sweet, hopeful and open ended — just the way I like it. :)

Rating: [rating=3]

Other reviews:
Forever Young Adult
Midnight Bloom Reads

Protection for Hire

Protection for Hire by Camy TangProtection for Hire by Camy Tang
Protection for Hire # 1
Publisher: Zondervan
Number of pages: 336
My copy: ebook review copy from Netgalley

Tessa Lancaster’s skills first earned her a position as an enforcer in her Uncle Teruo’s Japanese Mafia gang. Then they landed her in prison for a crime she didn’t commit. Now, three months after her release, Tessa’s abilities have gained her a job as bodyguard for wealthy socialite Elizabeth St. Amant and her three-year-old son.But there’s a problem or two … or three …. There’s Elizabeth’s abusive husband whose relentless pursuit goes deeper than mere vengeance. There’s Uncle Teruo, who doesn’t understand why Tessa’s new faith as a Christian prevents her from returning to the yakuza. And then there’s Elizabeth’s lawyer, Charles Britton, who Tessa doesn’t know is the one who ensured that she did maximum time behind bars. Now Tessa and Charles must work together in order to protect their client, while new truths emerge and circumstances spiral to a deadly fever pitch. Factor in both Tessa’s and Charles’s families and you’ve got some wild dynamics—and an action-packed, romantic read as Tessa and Charles discover the reality of being made new in Christ.

* * *

What do you get when you cross the niece of the head of the Japanese mafia with a Southern belle in need of protection and a straight-edge lawyer who hates the said mafia? Tessa Lancaster is the niece of Teruo Ota, the head of the San Francisco yakuza. Left by her dad when she was young and living with a difficult relationship with her mom and sister, she becomes some sort of mercenary to her uncle’s mafia, working as an enforcer for her mafia cousins. She was doing fine just like that until she decided to take the fall for her cousin Fred’s careless murder of his girlfriend, landing her in prison. Seven years later, Tessa is out, and she’s turning over a new leaf, after meeting Christ in prison. But her reputation precedes her that everyone’s still afraid of her, making it hard for her to live a normal life. Until she meets Elizabeth St. Amant with her three-year-old son on the run from her husband who’s trying to kill her. Elizabeth hires Tessa to be her bodyguard, which would be a fine job if not for Elizabeth’s lawyer, Charles Britton. Unbeknownst to Tessa, Charles was the reason why Tessa served extra years in prison, and Charles does not trust her…but he can’t deny the attraction that he feels for her. Throw in Tessa’s Uncle wanting her to work for him again, her mom, her sister and her new found faith, and…well, God only knows what could happen.

I’m not just saying this because Camy is one of my favorite authors, but really, Protection for Hire was such a fun book. This book is reminiscent of her Sushi series with all the wackiness and hijinks that the characters get into. But because Tessa had such a shady past and a heavy responsibility on her shoulders, there were more risks involved for her. She’s not one who’s worried about things such as zafus or make-up, but life and death situations. Tessa reminds me a bit of Venus, my favorite Sushi sister, but a bit more vulnerable especially since she’s been trying to live her faith. Her vulnerability is what made Tessa so endearing, and I rooted for her from the start up to the end.

The other characters surrounding Tessa were a hoot, too. Camy’s characters are one of my favorite things to read in her novels. They always feel so real, and I felt like I could easily be friends with them. In Protection for Hire, I loved Charles’ family, especially his mom and his brother! Such a darling family, and I don’t care if Charles’ mom cooks all the random food. Plus, she was a breath of fresh air from Tessa’s annoying (yet, well meaning…most of the time, anyway) mother. As always, there’s the heroine’s crazy family, which seemed to be a staple in Camy’s stories. I thought Tessa’s immediate family would be similar to the Sushi sisters’ clans, but I was glad that it turned out to be different, and dare I say, more entertaining to read. The Japanese mafia aspect was very interesting too. It was the first time I’ve read about the yakuza, and while it wasn’t really discussed in detail here, I liked the overall mafia/The Godfather-like feel that the story had.

Now, I wouldn’t have liked this so much if the plot wasn’t as good as the characters. There’s lots of action, funny moments and yes, romance, in Protection for Hire, enough to keep me glued to the pages. There were moments of shock, too — the good kind, the one that made me sigh and smile with delight when it happened. :) There was enough suspense in the story to have me guessing about what exactly were they up against. It almost came to a point where I was a bit overwhelmed with all the plot twists but in the end, I think it still paid off well. The wrap up at the end felt just a teensy bit rushed for me, but I guess it was still in character given Tessa’s family.

Protection for Hire is a fun, action-packed and romantic book that will definitely satisfy those who crave for that kind of stuff. If you’re wary of the faith aspect of the novel (being that it is a Christian novel), don’t worry — it’s never preachy or in-your-face. If you’ve ever been one who has tried to move on and make up from past mistakes and yet still find yourself under a microscope and slapped with your mistakes on the face over and over again, then you will be able to relate to Tessa. Throw in the a cast of hilarious, gripping plot and good writing, and…well, you have yourself a really awesome book. :)

Rating: [rating=5]

Other reviews:
USA Today
Librarian Laura’s Book Reviews

Faves of TwentyEleven: The Covers

And we’re at the last installment of the Faves of TwentyEleven series, hosted by Nomes of inkcrush! In case you missed the others, here are the other posts in my Faves of TwentyEleven series:

I had so much fun coming up with this list, and this last one is the first time I’m doing this. I’m not much of a cover person, as I have stressed in several posts before this, but I’m also one who can still appreciate nice covers. I think my opinion of covers is just a little better than my opinion about other things…like say, basement tiles. So now, here are some of my favorite covers for the books I read in 2011.

Day Five: The Covers

Continue Reading →

Faves of TwentyEleven: The Random

I’m a few days late to this part of my Faves of TwentyEleven post — sorry! Christmas got me a little too busy, so yeah. Too much food and time with friends will do that do you. But anyway, I have a few more days left of 2011 (Can you believe it!) and so I still have time to do this. :)

Faves of TwentyEleven is hosted by Nomes of inkcrush. And in case you’re interested, here are my other Faves of TwentyEleven posts:

Day Four: The Random

Continue Reading →

The Sugar Queen

The Sugar QueenThe Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen
Publisher: Bantam
Number of pages: 276
My copy: Kindle edition, gift from Monique

Twenty-seven-year-old Josey Cirrini is sure of three things: winter in her North Carolina hometown is her favorite season, she’s a sorry excuse for a Southern belle, and sweets are best eaten in the privacy of her hidden closet. For while Josey has settled into an uneventful life in her mother’s house, her one consolation is the stockpile of sugary treats and paperback romances she escapes to each night…. Until she finds it harboring none other than local waitress Della Lee Baker, a tough-talking, tenderhearted woman who is one part nemesis—and two parts fairy godmother…

Fleeing a life of bad luck and big mistakes, Della Lee has decided Josey’s clandestine closet is the safest place to crash. In return she’s going to change Josey’s life—because, clearly, it is not the closet of a happy woman. With Della Lee’s tough love, Josey is soon forgoing pecan rolls and caramels, tapping into her startlingly keen feminine instincts, and finding her narrow existence quickly expanding.

Before long, Josey bonds with Chloe Finley, a young woman who makes the best sandwiches in town, is hounded by books that inexplicably appear whenever she needs them, and—most amazing of all—has a close connection to Josey’s longtime crush.

As little by little Josey dares to step outside herself, she discovers a world where the color red has astonishing power, passion can make eggs fry in their cartons, and romance can blossom at any time—even for her. It seems that Della Lee’s work is done, and it’s time for her to move on. But the truth about where she’s going, why she showed up in the first place—and what Chloe has to do with it all—is about to add one more unexpected chapter to Josey’s fast-changing life.

* * *

I read and enjoyed Sarah Addison Allen’s Garden Spells a few months ago and ever since then, I’ve had her other books on my wish list. I’ve seen some of them around, but never The Sugar Queen. I know friends have seen copies of this everywhere, but it remains elusive. So I figured, if other people can see it more than I do, then they can probably get it for me for Christmas right? Imagine my delight when Monique sent me this book as a Kindle gift. Squee! Thank you! :) I wasn’t planning to read this anytime soon, but Chachic‘s Christmas Reads post got me craving for something Christmas-y. Unfortunately, I don’t have a book that specifically fits the season, unlike last year when I had Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares. The next best thing was to look for books that had the closest atmosphere to Christmas and wouldn’t be so taxing to the mind. And that brought me back to my first Kindle gift, The Sugar Queen.

Josey Cirrini had always lived in the shadow of her mother, because she felt the need to repay her for all the grief she had put her mother up to when she was a kid. Now at twenty seven, she lives at home, answers to the beck and call of her mom, eats her secret stash of sweets and reads romance novels in the privacy of her bedroom closet. Until one night, she finds Della Lee hiding inside her closet, threatening her of blackmail of the contents of her closet if Josey didn’t do what she asked. Della urges Josey to befriend Chloe Finley, a young woman who just came from a break-up with her boyfriend Jake, who also happens to be the best friend of Josey’s crush, mailman Adam. Josey’s world opens up and she discovers things about herself and her surroundings that she never knew, and also builds a friendship and a romance she never expected. Della’s work is now done, but it wasn’t long before Josey finds out the real reason why the older woman was hiding in her closet.

Now there is really something about Sarah Addison Allen novels that is just so comforting. It’s like she brings magical realism into real life, and it makes me want to believe that the things happening in her books were real.

Like Clare in Garden Spells, Josey tends to keep by herself, but this time not because of her routine, but because she felt that she needed to be good after all the embarrassment she made her mom go through. Josey was kind of a tough character to like, but that’s mostly because I’m don’t think I have too much in common with her. But then, I also think Josey’s mom is a tougher nut to crack. I really didn’t like her especially with how she puts her daughter down if only to keep Josey home to order around. However, it was fairly easy to like Della and Chloe. Della was a bit of an oddball, but I liked how random she seemed to the point of nonsense but ends up making sense in the end. Chloe is my favorite character, though, if only for her special “ability”. No, it’s not sandwich making (although from the descriptions, she seemed to make very good sandwiches), but how books tend to follow her everywhere. Imagine how a book would just magically appear to you whenever you need it, depending on how you feel? The bookworm in me (which is really…well, me) would be delighted with that kind of magic — maybe I should choose that as my superpower instead? But other than that, Chloe was also a strong character and a perfect complement to Josey.

I liked how the relationships of the people unfolded out here. Josey’s friendship with Chloe and Della, Josey’s relationship with her mom, Chloe and Jake’s romance and Josey and Adam’s. While I wasn’t a fan of what Jake did, I really couldn’t think of any other way for his relationship with Chloe would go. I’m no judge of course, but I don’t know what I’d do if I were in Chloe’s place. On the other hand, I loved Josey and Adam’s banter. I loved the uncertainty, the push and the pull, the smiles. I was positively thrilled when someone finally made a move, and how natural the progression of their relationship felt.

The ending kind of took me by surprise, but it wasn’t entirely unpredictable. The ending provided a good tug at the heartstrings, though, which I think is the perfectly sweet way to end this book. While The Sugar Queen didn’t have that same magical feel that Garden Spells had, I thought it was still a very good and comforting –  and yes, Christmas-y — read. I’m really glad that I have Sarah Addison Allen’s next book on my TBR because I think I already know what to read the next time I need something comfortable and easy and magical. :)

Rating: [rating=4]

Other reviews:
Chachic’s Book Nook
Janicu’s Book Blog
Good Books and Good Wine