Tag Archives | Melissa Carpenter

YA Book Review: Divergent by Veronica Roth

Today’s post by our YA book reviewer, Melissa Carpenter | @MelissaCarp

DivergentVeronica Roth’s DIVERGENT series has taken the YA literary world by storm, comparable to the popularity of TWILIGHT and THE HUNGER GAMES in previous years. Some readers are eager to jump on the bandwagon and experience the latest all-the-rage series, while others are left with questions:

  • Does it really stand up to the hype?
  • Could it really be as good as The Hunger Games?
  • Is it worth reading the book if I already saw the movie?
  • Can I go see the movie with young adults without feeling awkward?
  • Is the movie more than just a reason to go watch Theo James on the big screen for a few hours?

The answer is a whole-hearted YES on all counts.

DIVERGENT is a dystopian trilogy taking place in a far-future Chicago. War has left the city in disrepair, and in an effort to keep peace people are divided between five factions: Abnegation (the selfless), Candor (the honest), Amity (the peaceful), Erudite (the intelligent), and Dauntless (the brave). When the story opens, the main character, Beatrice (Tris) Prior is preparing for the test that will help her choose which faction she’ll enter for her adulthood: Abnegation, which she was born into, or one of the other four. The drama begins, though, when Tris’s test results are inconclusive and she has to navigate society as one who doesn’t fit with just one faction; she is what they call Divergent, and that makes her a target of society leaders.

As a writer, Veronica Roth is incredibly talented. She has created a future world that is fascinating and believable, yet far-fetched enough that it feels not like home. There are references to known Chicago landmarks, making the setting recognizable and relatable. Her characters, while futuristic, are also completely relatable – it only takes a few pages to get drawn into Tris’s story, which starts in DIVERGENT, continues in INSURGENT, and resolves in ALLEGIANT. I’m also intrigued by the fact that she started writing this in college and, even now, with three books out, a major motion picture, and a fourth book coming soon, is only twenty-five years old. That’s crazy!

I saw the movie on opening night, and it was great. Really. But, it didn’t get anywhere near the level of detail that you find in the books. I know that’s a common complaint with movies based on books, but in this case it’s not just a casual observation about the movie; it’s a compliment to the depth of Roth’s writing. I love the way she has broken people down into factions to describe personality types and how that forces you think about human nature as you read. I love that there’s plenty of romantic appeal in Tris’s relationship with Four (played by Theo James, as seen in the movie poster) and that their relationship is supportive and exciting without being sexual. I love the suspense and intrigue that keep you reading without being able to stop – I blew through all three books in a week and just couldn’t get enough.

Basically, I just love this trilogy. This is one case where, whether you see the movie before or after reading the books, you really need to read the books. I won’t say they’re an easy, lighthearted read – the emotional rollercoaster is a wild one, and the characters and storyline will dominate your thoughts even while you’re not reading – but I will promise that they’re worth your time!

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Editors note (Ariel here): I’ve not yet read the novel (even though I own it) or watched the movie though I’m very eager to do both. But I wonder about the rest of you. Have you read DIVERGENT? Have you watched the movie yet? What are your thoughts?

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YA Book Review: Better Off Friends By Elizabeth Eulberg

Today’s post by our YA book reviewer, Melissa Carpenter | @MelissaCarp

Better Off FriendsElizabeth Eulberg is the author of four previous contemporary YA titles, and I’ve had her on my radar since I read Revenge of the Girl With a Great Personality (a super funny and actually sweet YA behind the scenes of children’s beauty pageants and the families of the girls who compete).

Eulberg has an ability to tell a great story full of poignant, really valuable moments that also make you laugh out loud. When I saw she had a new book coming out, I knew I had to read it… especially when I saw it compared to When Harry Met Sally! I mean, come on. Who can resist that?

In Better Off Friends, we get to follow the friendship of Macallan, an eighth grade girl dealing with the still-recent death of her mom, and Levi, an eighth grade boy transplanted from California to Wisconsin. When Macallan is given the task of showing Levi around on their first day of school, she mostly just barely tolerates him until they realize they both love the same quirky British TV show. From there, Levi and Macallan become good friends over the course of the school year.

When high school hits, everybody thinks they’re dating, but they’re still just friends… best friends. The banter between the two of them, and the way they retreat into their own world throughout various situations in the book, is just nothing short of magical in quality. In addition to the alternating point of view between Levi and Macallan as they go back and tell their story, there are also snippets of their present day conversations in between chapters. Eulberg has written a couple of characters here that I would honestly want to hang out with if they were real; they are full of life and so much fun.

The book spans over about four and a half years, which seemed at first like it was moving too quickly, glossing over important things, but by the time I finished I realized the pacing had been perfect – watching Levi and Macallan basically grow up together over those years made the experience even more enjoyable.

Another great thing about Eulberg, and particularly Better Off Friends, is that she tells great stories for a range of YA audiences without profanity or glorified drinking/drug use and sexual situations. This book could be enjoyed by 7th and 8th graders looking forward to good, healthy friendships (and romance) in high school, high school students in the thick of it, college/early career readers reflecting on high school relationships, and moms hoping their kids have people like these in their lives as they navigate young adulthood.

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YA Book Review: The Fault In Our Stars

Today’s post by our YA book reviews, Melissa Carpenter | @MelissaCarp

The Fault In Our StarsJohn Green has been a huge name in the YA world for years, thanks to stories and characters seemingly straight from the brains of teenagers and a popular YouTube channel with his brother, Hank, that features videos about every topic you can imagine. While I’ve read and can appreciate the appeal of his other books, this is really the first one I’ve felt such a strong connection to. It’s really a special novel.

I first read The Fault in Our Stars last year when it was released, and while I fell instantly in love with it, I’d say my appreciation for this book has grown more since then as I watch people love the characters as much as I do. My once pristine hardcover copy is now worn with use as it has gone home with countless students and coworkers, and each new reader has brought it back talking about how much they loved it. I hear students talk about rereading it again, and it makes me want to go back and read it over again, too.

The crazy thing is that this isn’t what you’d typically think of as a book people would WANT to read over and over again. It’s about teenagers with cancer. Doesn’t that sound like the most depressing book in the history of the world? You’d think so. And yet, the pages are full of life and personality and humor as we read the story of these characters who have an illness but are far from lifeless. In an interview John Green did with NPR last year, he talked about the time he spent working as a chaplain at a children’s hospital and how the kids, though they dealt with illness and disease, were not dead. They were very much alive.

Hazel Grace Lancaster, the protagonist in TFiOS, is far from your average seventeen year old girl. Her battle with thyroid cancer rules her life, and she is wise way beyond her years. Her diagnosis has never been anything but terminal. Deciding that her daughter must be depressed, Hazel’s mom sends her to a Cancer Kid Support Group where Hazel forms relationships that will, quite literally, change the rest of her life.

And a romance? In a book about teenagers with cancer? Yes. Absolutely yes. And you’ll fall in love with Augustus Waters just as much as I did, regardless of the fact that he’s way too young for you. In addition to Hazel and Augustus, there’s a whole host of fascinating characters you’ll love spending time with. They’re unforgettable.

Recently, filming wrapped on the movie version of TFiOS, which is set to release in June 2014. Through twitter and the YouTube channel, John Green shared tons of pictures and video from the set, so if you’re interested in seeing the making of a book’s transition into a movie, go stalk him online.

I hope you read it, and love it, and pass it on.



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The Teacher Recommends: Dirty Little Secret by Jennifer Echols

Today’s post by middle school teacher and YA book reviewer, Melissa Carpenter | @MelissaCarp

Dirty Little SecretFirst of all, let’s take a second to love this book cover. There’s not even an ounce of musical talent in me, and yet I look at this and I want to BE that girl. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t even love country music, but… it’s just too cool.

In Dirty Little Secret, Jennifer Echols (who’s quickly becoming one of my favorite authors ever) takes us on a trip to the heart of Nashville’s music scene to watch the heartbreakingly beautiful beginnings of a great romance.

Bailey, an eighteen year old with unbelievable fiddle-playing talent, has been sent to live with her grandfather while her parents tour around with her younger sister, Julie, who was picked over Bailey for a recording contract. As part of Julie’s coming rise to fame, their parents and the recording company have essentially asked Bailey to give up what she loves best — playing music. When Bailey meets Sam, who just happens to be both devastatingly handsome and also the front man of a band in need of a fiddle player, she can’t quite resist being pulled back into the music scene.

The resulting story is a fascinating one full of characters I’d love to spend a week with, enjoying the Nashville music scene and hearing what must be some excellent music. Echols is a master at writing romantic relationships — from the moment the two characters meet each other, discover the chemistry, all the way up until they’re finally actually together — you feel like you’re there with them. Like you’re a part of the story instead of just watching it.

Echols writes romantic dramas (like this one) for MTV Books and romantic comedies for Simon Pulse. She also writes adult novels, one of which is the beginning of a series involving PR agents for celebrities behaving badly, called Star Crossed. No matter which Echols book you pick up, you’ll enjoy it, but I can’t recommend Dirty Little Secret enough. It’s definitely my favorite of hers so far!

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The Teacher Recommends: The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen

Today’s post by our Young Adult book reviewer and current middle school teacher, Melissa Carpenter | @MelissaCarp

I have to admit, I’ve only recently become a fan of Sarah Dessen. My students have read her books non-stop for years, but I never really gave them a fair chance. I just assumed they’d be simple and have stereotypical plots.


I’ve read several of Dessen’s books now, but the one that absolutely solidified my status as a legit fan was The Truth About Forever.

The protagonist of this novel, Macy, maintains insane control of her life as she strives to achieve perfection in everything she does. She is sickeningly successful. This drive stems from the traumatic death of her father and the way that her family has dealt with that loss. And though, on the outside, it looks like Macy has a pristine model of the perfect life, she doesn’t. Her relationship with her boyfriend is sad. Her relationship with her mom is sad. Her life in general is just sad.

Luckily, Macy meets an entirely new group of people who are everything she needs. She learns to act like she’s alive again. She laughs and argues and smiles and talks. It’s a good thing… especially as a relationship begins with Wes, leaving her to decide what to do about her “perfect” boyfriend.

Dessen’s style is unique. Her writing is charming and enjoyable, but also very real and authentic. Life’s not always sunshine and roses, but you have to find some sunshine to warm your face and some roses to delight your senses in every rough spot you go through. You just have to. Dessen has an understated, graceful way of putting that life lesson into her books, and the result is addicting and inspirational.

Her latest book, The Moon and More, released on June 4th. Of course I got it and read it immediately, and while I did enjoy it, I think The Truth About Forever is a better starting point for anyone new to Dessen’s books. It’s wonderful in ways you’d never expect, as you’ll see in this quote I’ll leave you with:

“Life can be long or short, it all depends on how you choose to live it. It’s like forever, always changing. For any of us our forever could end in an hour, or a hundred years from now. You can never know for sure, so you’d better make every second count. What you have to decide is how you want your life to be. If your forever was ending tomorrow, is this how you’d want to have spent it? ”

― Sarah Dessen, The Truth About Forever

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The Teacher Recommends: This Is What Happy Looks Like

Today’s post by YA book reviewer and middle school teacher, Melissa Carpenter | @MelissaCarp

Here’s my confession: I have a HUGE crush on this book. In fact, I’ll tell you what happy looks like — my face when I’m reading Jennifer E. Smith’s sweet, funny, and cleverly written exchanges between Graham Larkin and Ellie O’Neill.

In this story, a simple mistake in typing an e-mail address leads to a correspondence between two teenagers from opposite sides of the country. The teenagers don’t know much of anything about each other, and yet it’s that anonymity through e-mail with a stranger that allows them to open up to each other about things they’d never tell anyone they actually knew. What results is a conversation of thoughts and feelings in the moment — things they can’t say out loud but can say to each other. This ranges from seemingly insignificant observations about the annoyingness of smiley faces used in e-mails (J) to the soul-searching question of what happiness looks like.

Each still holds an important secret, though.

Graham Larkin is a teen heartthrob movie star, trapped in a world of paparazzi and feeling like nobody really wants to be around him for him, but only for his looks and his fame. In his correspondence with Ellie, he gets to be himself and get to know her without the trappings of fame. He’s just a witty, smart, normal guy who’s falling for a girl he’s never met.

Ellie O’Neill is a seemingly typical small town girl, but she and her mom have changed their names to keep a scandalous past hidden. Ellie is the only child of a single mom, and life gets lonely even with her friends to keep her company. This anonymous pen pal deal is exactly what she needs — a guy she can be honest with and dream about.

Only, what if it doesn’t have to be a dream anymore? When Ellie lets her town’s name slip, Graham starts pulling strings and gets the location for his next movie shoot changed… to Ellie’s small coastal town. Sounds like every girl’s dream — what teenage girl doesn’t want the teen magazine centerfold showing up on her doorstep, ready to sweep her off her feet? For Ellie, though, Graham’s fame and constant media attention complicate and change everything.

Watching these two characters navigate the challenges they each face as they explore the possibilities the future holds is great summer fun. The characters are great to spend some time with, the writing is full of smart romance and beautiful description, and the story holds enough excitement to keep us all daydreaming about our teenaged selves opening the door to find our adolescent celebrity man-crush there, declaring his love for us. All in all, I highly recommend you check out This Is What Happy Looks Like… and soon!

What was the last great YA novel you read?

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