Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined by Danielle Younge- Ullman
Overview: As the final book I got from the bookstore, I wasn't sure what exactly I would think of it, but after the first chapter, I was more than sold. This is the story of Ingrid, a girl who traveled the world with her famous opera singer mother, who never knew her father, and who lost everything, along with her mother, when Margot- Sophia's voice finally failed. Living in the house Margot- Sophia inherited from her parents in Canada becomes the duos new reality along with assuming the last name Burke again. Ingrid starts sixth grade at a regular school for the first time in her life and is eager to set down roots, while her mother assumes a plain, resigned identity and does not again flourish until she meets Andreas. This new family unit navigates the ups and downs of school, friendships, relationships, and Ingrid's love of music. Ingrid's past story is beautifully, and somehow not annoyingly, sandwiched between chapters of her present life at a three week wilderness camp her mother had forced her to attend. And I'll just say, it doesn't turn out as the brochure advertised. Overall: 5
Characters: 5 Younge- Ullman presents a well rounded, dynamic group of characters in the novel. Ingrid's fellow campers are good example's of the author's talent with character development. The group of teens, all with their own problems and reasons for being there, all labeled 'At risk youth', grow and change along with Ingrid, though in a very organic and meaningful way. I was especially a fan of Ingrid and Tavik's friendship.
I also thought that the flashback chapters, all told like regular chapters but labeled with ages, were well done and compelling as well. Her rising to burnt out star mother that always shown too bright, her caring, adoptive mother, her best friend, and the boy who could never seem to fall out of her life.
Also mentioning Ingrid herself who has a very compelling, authentic, identifiable, and enjoyable voice as she narrates her story is now one of my favorite protagonists.
Plot: 5 While the characters stun, the plot does not disappoint either. I was kept on the edge of my seat, eager to get to the next chapter of both interwound plots. The author creates the perfect roadblocks and obstacles to overcome that seem to nearly mirror the emotional issues the characters face. Each scene is entertaining and each scene has a purpose.
Writing: 5 As with any 5 star book, the writing is impeccable. It has to be to execute all the moving elements in this story properly. Younge- Ullman takes on the ultimate challenge of intertwining two plots because this tactic often falls on its face. But in her capable hands, the device soars making the book all the more impactful as Ingrid slowly gains more and more lays and the audience gets a deeper understanding of Ingrid's attitudes and actions.
It is also a great feat that she managed to create two casts, and almost plots, that I liked nearly equally. I never found myself wanting to only read one storyline or being upset about reading the next chapter. Also, the author throws in the most stunning twist at the end of the book that I'm not going to talk much about because I don't want to spoil it, but it is defiantly one of my top favorite books now and would have had me crying if I hadn't been sitting on an airplane.
The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schnider (335 pages)
Overview: Ezra Faulkner was always the golden boy, prom king, captain of the varsity tennis team, and generally popular guy. That had been his place since freshman year, so when his wrist and knee are destroyed in a hit and run accident at the end of junior year, the new Ezra, who can never play sports again, wears a wrist brace, and carries a cane, must reevaluate his place in the world. As a senior he realizes that the popular kids might not be the group he belongs to. Spending more time with his friends from debate, Ezra meets Cassidy Thorpe who really changes everything. Opening his eyes to life and living, Cassidy becomes an important part of Ezra's life, so when she disappears the night of homecoming, Ezra is rightfully jarred and confused. The reader gets to see Ezra realize that what he thought he wanted, what everyone said he wanted, was not the life he wants to lead. While the themes of this novel are wonderful and beneficial to readers, some of the execution left me a bit disappointed. Overall: 4
Characters: 4 These characters started the novel pretty solid. Ezra is a funny character and quality narrator, though there was some places where you could hear the female author's voice coming through. I loved the character of Cassidy until they reach homecoming (About 2/3 through the book). Afterwards the characters seem to blur and start acting in strange ways that feel out of character even if some of their past actions justify the plausibility.
The popular group, and sadly some of the debate team remains a bit plastic in my opinion. Of course, humanizing or adding depth to the popular crew goes against Ezra, the POV character's, stance, but making them seem a bit less cardboard would have been nice. It seems Cassidy was the only character that really exhibited complexity.
Plot: 4 Again, I really enjoyed the story until homecoming. Afterwards the plot started to go a bit haywire as Ezra jumped from one place or idea to the next. Despite it being a bit flimsy, the overall story is pretty good and shares quality messages.
Writing: 3.5 In my opinion, this book has a problem that could stem from one of two things: the author lacks faith in her writing or she lacks faith in the ability of the reader to assume deeper meanings and draw conclusions. This, unfortunately, leads to the issue of chronic over explaining. After nearly every important moment, Ezra gives a long, drawn-out monologue about what moral lessons he learned from the situation and how he has grown. The scenes communicate this information to the reader well without the explanation, and reading the following paragraphs makes the impact less strong. Also, there are only so many times "Deadpanned" can be used as a speaker tag.
Royce Rolls by Margaret Stohl (393 pages)
Overview: Margaret Stohl shares the story of Bentley Royce and her family of reality TV stars, Bach, Porsche, and Mercedes, with the world. It tells of the family reality show falling on hard times and the insane lengths the family is willing to go to in order to save their empire. In constructing a fake love story and wedding for Porsche, making it seem Bentley has fallen off the deep end once and for all, and playing up Bach's gambling addiction, the show is able to scrape up enough material for a sixth season which thrills the family despite the fact they are bringing themselves to a new level of exploitation. As the story continues and plots unravel, it seems that Stohl makes a desperate attempt to humanize these cardboard figures but, ultimately, falls flat. Overall: 3.5
Characters: 3 Stohl crafts each of the reality TV personas of the Royce family players to match common ones seen on reality TV today. Each one is familiar to the reader, and they make sense in the context of the Royce world. That is not what I take issue with. Where the problem arises is when Stohl tries to give these characters more depth and humanity, trying harder with some more than others. This is clearest with Bentley, the protagonist, who is supposed to have layers and secret desires like her yearning to go to college and her life spent feeling like a stray member of society because her true identity did not match the one that had been handed to her. These could have been very effective and compelling points if Bentley didn't wreak shallowness even in the moments that were supposed to be sincere.
As for the other characters beyond the family and even in the family, they felt like cardboard cut outs of characters with possible potential. The problem was that the development just wasn't there making each character feel a bit flat and worn out.
Plot: 4 The plot is where this book shines. While at some points confusing with it's jumpy time lines and abrupt scene changes within chapters, the overall story is an interesting one on paper. From the family antics to the reality of the behind the scenes manufactured reality, the plot moves along nicely with plenty of interesting twists and turns even if some parts were a bit stale.
Writing: 3 The first problem I take with this was the choice to write it in first person. It comes off as Bentley trying to tell her story, but by having a third person limited narrator instead of a first person direct account from Bentley made the story feel removed and Bentley's voice feel distant. I feel that this could also be a contributing factor to Bentley's less than stellar development as hearing her authentic voice could have helped humanize her.
My next comment is that I never quite figured out what this book was supposed to be. When I first picked up the book, I was under the impression that it was a personal, perhaps diary-like, account of Bentley Royce's true life as told by Bentley Royce. It became apparent that that was not the case from the first page of the book. Nearly every page is punctuated with notes from Dirk about changing the story or the branding or marketing mentioned in the pages like it was for a book or screen or some edit even when the main page was written like a regular third person novel. To add to the confusion, after some scenes in the book it was explicitly stated in the dialogue that the public would never find out about that. I found it very confusing.
Finally, this book seemed to aim to both show that reality TV is far from reality, and the people on screen aren't always that way in real life. This message came through somewhat, though in a still and insincere manner. But it seemed that there was also the goal of lampooning our reality TV culture. The groundwork for both these objectives were set and the meaning was clear, but the story and development just didn't quite make it enough to manifest any true meaning unfortunately. I was captivated by the concept, but the delivery just fell a bit flat.
Random Note: I do want to mention that this might be one of my favorite book covers I have ever seen. Ever since I saw a picture of this book as an ARC, I knew that I had to read it.