10 PRINT “Heart of Code: The Impossible Fortress”

The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak

Published: February 7th, 2017
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
Genre(s): Young Adult, Fiction, Coming-of-age
Format: Audiobook
Length: 7 hrs and 23 mins

The Impossible Fortress hits the exact right notes of eighties nostalgia without turning into a catalog of bygone pop culture. It definitely opened a flood of memories for me. I wasn’t a teenager in 1987, but I did spend my childhood teaching myself BASIC on my Apple IIGS and keying in machine language programs printed in the backs of my dad’s computer magazines.

Billy, Alf and Clark just want to see Vanna White in the May 1987 issue of Playboy, and they’ll try just about any harebrained scheme to get it. When they go into a local typewriter repair store and try to convince the owner that they look like serious businessmen who are definitely old enough to buy it, Billy meets Mary, an overweight social outcast who not only shares his love of computer programming but also his interest in making games, not to mention the fact that she has talent to spare.

Mary tells Billy about a contest judged by their personal game design hero, and it isn’t long before they’re heads-down, working feverishly to finish the titular game – an unfinished, unpolished concept created by Billy in his free time – all while Alf and Clark think he’s working a scam to get the Playboy.

The characters are so sharply drawn that they leap off the page. Rekaluk makes them both relatable and unique with only a few key details as well as a strong sense of the time and place. I fell in love with these characters, rooting for them to figure things out and make something out of themselves.

That’s why I was especially invested when the book took a turn for the dramatic and the stakes became much higher. Suddenly The Impossible Fortress wasn’t just a teenage sex comedy filled to the brim with programming nostalgia; it was also a story about how one wrong choice can ruin your life and how easy it is to watch your dreams slip through your hands. When things started going south for Billy, my stomach dropped, and I didn’t want to stop reading.

In fact, I listened to most of this book in one long sitting while I cleaned and packed for my holiday travel. I rarely get the chance to listen for such a long, uninterrupted period, so it’s especially nice to find a book compelling enough to warrant the attention. I highly recommend The Impossible Fortress, and can’t wait to read Jason Rekaluk’s follow-up, whatever it might be.

LOVED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley, but I listened to the audiobook version instead.

Amazon | Audible | Book Soup | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound

The Girl Who Wasn’t: LIFEL1K3 by Jay Kristoff

LIFEL1K3 by Jay Kristoff

Published: May 29th 2018
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Genre(s): Young Adult, Science Fiction
Format: eBook
Length: 402 pages

LIFEL1K3 is the rare book that I mostly enjoyed until the end soured me on the whole thing. It’s a mash-up of a lot of genres and tropes, which gives it a certain amount of madcap charm, but it squanders that good will with some draggy pacing, an overload of teenage angst, and a final twist that feels like a gotcha moment designed only for shock value. It’s also overstuffed with plot and world-building, so it’s almost impossible to summarize succinctly.

When you live in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, you have to make ends meet in whatever way possible. Eve builds and pilots homegrown battle-bots from spare parts and pits them against challengers in gladiator battles with the help of her trusty little robot, Cricket, and her best friend, Lemon Fresh. She has a cybernetic eye and a “memdrive” installed in her brain to help her remember her past life, cut short when she was shot and left for dead.

When the book opens, she’s about to fight a malfunctioning corporate bot to get medicine for her ailing grandfather, Silas. The battle goes south, but she’s saved at the last minute when she unleashes some kind of telekinetic power that fries the malfunctioning bot.

Only problem is, gladiator battles are broadcast throughout the local area, and her performance brings her to the attention of some unsavory types, including a religious sect who kill “deviates” on sight and a corporate bounty hunter who wants to capture her for nefarious purposes.

Lucky for her, she’s saved by a beautiful “lifelike” robot named Ezekiel, designed to resemble a handsome young man with super-strength, who she salvaged when his ship crashed nearby. When they try to make their getaway, another lifelike named Faith captures her grandfather, so Eve and her friends have to save him while also running from the bounty hunter hot on their tails. Complicating things is the fact that Ezekiel and Faith both seem to recognize her and call her by another name, Ana.

Now, it’s kind of hard to explain my criticisms of the book without spoilers, so I’m going to warn you now that the rest of this review will be full of them. When Faith damages Eve’s memdrive in a fight, Eve starts having flashes of another life different from the hardscrabble one she thinks she knows. It turns out that Eve isn’t who she thinks she is, which becomes a running theme.

Eve begins remembering her life as Ana, who lived in a corporate tower with her father, the inventor of the lifelikes. She knows the lifelikes and has a shared, tragic history with them! Also, her grandfather isn’t her grandfather. Instead, he’s an engineer who gave her fake memories so that she could have a fresh start.

Ezekiel was the boy of her dreams, Faith was her best friend, and the lifelikes (except possibly Ezekiel) betrayed her family and killed them in a revolution. The angst and the drama build as Eve tries to reconcile her identities and histories, deal with her buried feelings for Ezekiel, and fumes about people lying to her.

You might think that everything I’ve summarized up above is more than enough for one book, and you’d be right. However, Kristoff still has a few twists left up his sleeve. The first few twists just stir up more drama and angst, but the final twist is what soured me on the book.

It turns out that Eve isn’t even the real Ana – she’s secretly a lifelike designed to think she was Ana. After she was shot, Silas installed the memdrive to give her a fresh start as someone new. This revelation puts her over the edge, and she pushes her friends away and slides into apparent villainy in the final sentence of the book.

By that point, I’d already lost a little bit of patience with the number of plot twists and the angsty in-fighting characters, but I wouldn’t have minded the final twist so much if Eve’s decision was less black-and-white. If she’d gone out into the world to find herself with mysterious motivations, I’d at least want to find out more about who she decides to become. Instead, she seeks out another lifelike with clearly villainous motivations and tells him that they have a lot of work to do.

It felt like Kristoff was trying to force Eve’s decision to BE EVIL, and it made me not care about her journey. LIFEL1K3 was a bit of an exhausting read thanks to its everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink storytelling, but that final twist just felt like it sold out the main character for a cheap shock.

DISLIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

Amazon | Audible | Book Soup | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound

Harrison Squared: Attack of the Teenage Fish People

Harrison Squared by Daryl Gregory
Published: March 24th, 2015
Publisher: Tor Books / Audible Studios
Genre(s): Fantasy, Horror, Young Adult
Format: Audiobook
Length: 8 hrs and 10 mins

Daryl Gregory’s Harrison Squared is a much sillier book than its cover implies. The sinister Lovecraftian overtones suggested by the tentacles looming behind the protagonist are present, but the book’s overall tone is actually pretty goofy even though it’s about a kid trying to find his missing, possibly kidnapped mother.

Most of the goofiness comes from the random literary jokes and pop culture references that Gregory includes throughout, but it doesn’t help that Harrison Squared feels pitched at a younger audience than I was expecting. Instead of a Tor SF&F novel with a teenaged main character, it reads more like a young adult novel in adult packaging.

Of course, I read plenty of YA, so I don’t necessarily have a problem with the book’s reading level. The real issue is that I was expecting something deeper and richer than Gregory delivered. The book’s town of Dunnsmouth is sketchy and underdeveloped, and Harrison barely spends any time going to the school at the center of the story.

Gregory also sets up a number of threads that don’t really pay off. The other students at Harrison’s new school speak in a complicated sign language that he never actually learns. They also take part in a religion that seems to consist mostly of singing in an unknown language. More damning is a late revelation about Harrison himself that feels superfluous to the story. All of these details hint at a world without actually making it feel lived-in.

Harrison Squared ends in a way that seems to require a sequel, but it turns out that a semi-sequel already exists. One of Gregory’s previous novels, We Are All Completely Fine, includes an adult Harrison in its ensemble, although the summary makes him sound very different from the version portrayed here.

Harrison Squared is a quick read, and I did laugh a few times, so I’d be willing to give Gregory’s work another chance. Ultimately, though, I thought this book was a bit forgettable. It just doesn’t break any new ground in the fashionable mini-genre of Lovecraft pastiches.

LIKED

Full disclosure: Although I did receive a free review copy of this book from NetGalley, I listened to the audiobook on Audible.

Amazon | Audible | Book Soup | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound

Girl vs. Ash: Darla’s Story by Mike Mullin

DarlasStoryCover-HighResDarla’s Story by Mike Mullin

Published: February 2, 2016
Publisher: Mike Mullin
Genre(s): Young Adult, Science Fiction, Apocalypse
Format: Audiobook
Length: 1 hr and 35 mins

Darla’s Story is a novella that provides a bit of back-story for a character in Mike Mullin’s Ashfall trilogy. I haven’t read the trilogy, but the author meant the novella to stand alone as a complete work, so I read it with that in mind.

I instantly liked the fact that this story features an Iowan farm girl as its main character. I also liked that it doesn’t take place in a far-flung dystopian future. Instead, it occurs immediately after an apocalyptic volcano eruption (with a real-world basis!) covers the entire US in falling ash. Midwesterners and the mid-apocalypse aren’t common tropes in YA (at least not the books I’ve read), so I found the novelty intriguing.

The story follows Darla and her mother as they work to survive in the aftermath of the eruption. Theirs is very much a contained apocalypse, focusing as it does on the minutiae of day-to-day survival for two people stranded in the country. Luckily, Darla is mechanically inclined thanks to her late father’s influence, so she’s one of the best people to get stuck with in an apocalypse. As soon as the eruptions stop, she starts fixing necessities like the water pump and her tractor.

Ultimately, volcanic ash is the primary antagonist in Darla’s Story. Interpersonal conflict only comes into play very late in the action, and it’s really just a complication in Darla’s fight against the endless ash-fall.

To be honest, a little man versus nature went a long way for me. After a few chapters of fix-it work, I was impatient for a more personal conflict. I wanted something to happen that might push Darla out of her bubble.

When the outside world does finally intrude on Darla’s life, it feels more like a frustrating inconvenience than a dire misfortune. In fact, a lot of the stakes in this story feel strangely low. Despite the apocalyptic setting, Darla is both capable and determined, and it never seems like she is in immediate danger.

I think a lot of my impatience with this story stems from the fact that it really does only function as a prequel to a larger work. If Darla’s Story was a screenplay, this novella would be maybe 90% of the first act. It’s everything leading up to the part where Darla finally leaves her ordinary world and goes on a quest. The problem is that Darla can’t get to that point here because the meatier action happens in the main trilogy.

Even though I feel like Darla’s Story doesn’t actually work as a standalone piece, I enjoyed the character and setting. Reading Darla’s Story was enough to piqué my interest in Ashfall, but I’m not sure it’s a great starting place for the overall series. It probably works better as a way to fill in back-story after you’ve read the main series.

As for the audiobook, I thought the narrator was perfect for the character. I’d definitely recommend listening to Darla’s Story in audio form if you do pick it up.

LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the author.

Amazon | Audible | Barnes and Noble

Wrong-Headed: Noggin by John Corey Whaley

NogginNoggin by John Corey Whaley

Published: April 8, 2014
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
Genre(s): Young Adult, Science Fiction
Format: Audiobook
Length: 8 hours and 45 minutes

I wanted to like Noggin more than I did. It has a clever premise, it’s definitely funny, and it delivers on more than one genuinely touching moment. Unfortunately, despite everything the book does right, I just wanted to wring the main character’s neck after a certain point. During one scene late in the book I actually grimaced in horror at his stupidity.

Travis Coates starts out with a lot of sympathetic qualities. Noggin opens as he awakens from a surgery to attach his severed head to a donor body. In his former life, Travis was a sixteen-year-old kid with inoperable cancer. When it became clear that he was going to die, he volunteered for an experimental program with a chance to save his life.

The program worked, but that catch is this: five years passed while his head was cryogenically frozen. He’s still mentally sixteen, but his friends are in college and his parents lived with the grief of his loss for years.

That mental age ends up being Travis’ biggest obstacle. Everyone else has grown up and moved on, but he’s still petulant and selfish and unwilling to let go of the past. When he discovers that his best friend and girlfriend didn’t wait around for him to come back, he proceeds to blow up their lives and friendships with his behavior.

Travis spends most of Noggin trying to win back the love of his former girlfriend, Cate, who is now five years older than him and engaged to another guy. It’s obvious from the start that Travis’ quest is a huge mistake. He’s going to fail, and when he does, he’s going to ruin his relationship with someone he claims to love.

There’s probably a way to tell this story that would make it feel like Travis and Cate are star-crossed lovers, but I never found myself sympathizing with his wish to win her back. He just seemed like a pathetic asshole. His self-delusion lasts for so long and goes to such extremes that I lost all patience for his idiocy.

Travis is exactly the sort of “nice guy” who just won’t take a hint, and the Cate is so forgiving that she just keeps giving him the benefit of the doubt. When Travis makes a completely boneheaded “grand gesture” near the end of the book, Cate actually forgives him… and then a few chapters later he ignores her feelings yet again. I groaned aloud.

Honestly, I’m not sure I believe that Travis learns anything over the course of the book. Instead, it feels like he just decides to blame everyone else for not understanding what he’s going through.

Although I might be willing to give John Corey Whaley’s books another chance, I’m glad I’m done spending time with Travis Coates.

DISLIKED IT

Amazon | Audible | Book Soup | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound

The Awesome: Sex, Blood & Monster Hunters

The Awesome by Eva DarrowsThe Awesome by Eva Darrows

Published: May 26th, 2015
Publisher: Rebellion / Ravenstone
Genre(s): Young Adult, Fantasy, Monster Hunters
Format: eBook
Length: 352 pages

The Awesome has a fantastic cover. Even though the main character is a monster-hunting teenage girl, she isn’t pictured striking a pose in skin-tight jeans. Instead, we’re treated to a stylized green vampire skull and the title in hot pink graffiti. This cover is by far one of the book’s best assets, and it also does a great job of setting the tone for the book itself: fast, loud and a little punk.

Maggie Cunningham’s mother, Janice, hunts monsters. Janice is fully licensed to hunt, and Maggie is her apprentice-in-training. In fact, monster-hunting is fully above-board and regulated by the government, which means there are rules and requirements before you can take on bigger bounties and tougher monsters. Maggie wants to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a badass monster hunter, but there’s one problem, and it’s a big one: she’s a virgin.

Turns out vampires can smell a virgin’s blood from across the room, and it sends them into a blood rage. Maggie can’t hunt vampires until she’s “devirginized”, which is actually kind of a challenge because she’s home-schooled and spends most of her time socializing with no-one but her mother and other hunters. The solution? Maggie decides to go to a party with her best (only) friend and find a (hopefully) nice boy to deflower her. This goes about as well as you might imagine, and things only go downhill from there.

The Awesome is raunchy and vulgar from the get-go. The Cunningham women have a very frank approach to their sex lives (not that Maggie is thrilled to know about her mother’s sexual proclivities). That frankness paired with Maggie’s wry sense of humor make the character leap off the page, although she does fall prey to the cliché of identifying herself as “not like other girls” early in the book.

Maggie’s quest to lose her virginity actually ends up being a very original way to approach a romance storyline, and probably aligns way more closely with the sorts of mishaps that plague actual teenagers. Maggie’s fumbling social disasters start off raunchy and end up sweet, which is difficult to do well.

The supernatural aspects of The Awesome are a bit more jumbled, however. The conflict isn’t introduced until reasonably late in the book, and it always feels secondary to Maggie’s romantic entanglements and her relationship with her mother. The result is that the supernatural parts of the book feel a bit undercooked.

Darrows also raises the issue of Maggie’s prejudice against supernatural beings (instilled in her by her mother) but never quite addresses it head-on. Maggie meets vampires and zombies and eventually learns to respect them as people instead of just targets, but it never feels like she has a true eureka moment where she understands the situation in more than black and white terms.

As I was reading, it also occurred to me that the traditional urban fantasy story would probably focus on Maggie’s mother, the monster hunter. Instead, we’re given a peek into the world of someone who wants to get to that place but doesn’t have her shit together.

Tone and characterization are the best parts of The Awesome. The plotting is a little loose, but I’m sure future installments in what I assume is a series will only improve in that area. Darrows sets up a few things that I’m sure she’s planning on paying off in later books, and I’m definitely going to check them out.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley.

Amazon | Book Soup | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell: Fan for Life

FangirlPublished: September 10th, 2013
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Genre(s): Young Adult, Coming of Age
Format: eBook
Length: 445 pages

Fangirl tells the story of twin sisters Cath and Wren from the start of their freshman year in college. Even though they are going to attend the same school, Wren unexpectedly decides not to room with Cath, throwing her sister for a loop. Wren, it seems, wants to break out and make a life of her own without her sister.

Wren is the outgoing one, easily fitting in at college and making new friends. Cath is painfully introverted, crippled with social anxiety that, among other things, drives her to eat protein bars in her room instead of going to the cafeteria because there are too many people and too many social pitfalls waiting for her there. Cath is too much in her own head, worrying about potential disasters and clinging to her only comfort zone – the world of Simon Snow fandom.

Cath, it seems, spends most of her free time writing Simon Snow fan fiction, but she’s not just any fan writer. In fact, she’s one of the most popular writers in the entire fandom, and she’s best known for her slash depicting a romantic relationship between Snow and his roommate/nemesis, Baz. Cath and Wren started out writing together, but as they got older, Wren stopped collaborating with her sister even as Cath’s star rose in the fan writer community. As the book opens, Cath is deep in the middle of writing her own alternate version of the upcoming eighth and final Simon Snow book.

Cath loves writing about Simon and Baz, loves writing so much that she signs up for a fiction writing class normally reserved for upperclassmen. Anyone who has ever attended a college fiction course can guess what kind of disaster is heading Cath’s way, so deep is she embedded in the world of fan fiction. That said, Fangirl is a thoroughly even-handed depiction of fan writing; Cath clearly writes her Simon Snow stories as an escape from the real world, but it’s also apparent that her prolificacy and storytelling skills only improve thanks to her constant remixing of the Simon Snow universe. Fangirl doesn’t condemn fan fiction, but does point to it as a stepping stone towards learning how to tell your own stories.

At its heart, though, Fangirl is a character study of a girl who I’m sure many socially awkward readers can recognize and identify with. As we slowly learn more about Cath’s relationship with her family members – her bipolar dad, her absentee mother, and her suddenly distant twin – she becomes a fuller and even more powerful character. At first her fears seemed outrageous even as I could imagine myself inside the same kind of toxic mindset; once I came to understand where Cath was coming from, however, the book packed a palpable emotional punch. Her coming of age over the course of her freshman year is both realistic and stirring.

I also loved Fangirl’s depiction of Cath’s burgeoning romantic relationship. The love scenes are tentative and believable, and felt so true to life. Cath’s growth as a person depends on her learning to open up and trust others after experiencing so much heartbreak at a young age. Where so many young adult novels seem to include romance by default, Fangirl makes the romantic storyline crucial to Cath’s development, and the difference is incredibly refreshing.

The highest compliment I can pay this book is that once I sat down and truly devoted myself to reading it, I didn’t stop until I had thoroughly blown past my bedtime by several hours. My sleep schedule is still recovering, but I don’t regret a minute. Rowell is definitely an author to watch.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

Amazon | Audible | Indiebound

Stealing Hearts and Paintings: Heist Society by Ally Carter

Heist SocietyPublished: February 9th, 2010
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Genre(s): Young Adult, Crime, Thriller
Format: Audiobook
Length: 6 hrs and 6 mins

First, a confession: I was mostly inspired to pick up this book thanks to an incredible cover re-design done for Maureen Johnson’s #coverflip challenge a few months ago. I’d seen Ally Carter’s books on the shelves before and was vaguely intrigued by the titles and premises, but never enough to actually read them. I try to be open-minded about books that look like they aren’t “meant for me” but it’s all too easy to forget. Heist Society is a good reminder that I oftentimes thoroughly enjoy books that someone in a marketing department decided only a woman would read.

Heist Society is the first in a series of books about Katarina “Kat” Bishop, a teenage girl who comes from a long like of con artists and thieves. The book opens with her getting kicked out of a prestigious boarding school that she’d scammed her way into in the first place. Her motivation? No schemes or plans but her desire to get out of the family business and live a normal life. Unfortunately for her, the family business won’t let her go that easy. When it turns out that her father is in trouble with a very dangerous man who wants his paintings back, Kat assembles a crew and plans a heist to save her father’s life and put things right.

The tone throughout is arch but not snarky, brisk and cool and thoroughly engaging. There’s a bit of romance, even a love triangle by the end of it, and the heist is appropriately convoluted and clever. One of the things I liked most about Heist Society is the way Carter uses real historical details to flesh out the back story and give the heist meaning and weight. I was already enjoying the book, but when Kat learns exactly what kind of paintings she’s dealing with, Carter had me thoroughly hooked for the long haul.

My only criticism of the book relates to a character named Nick. Nick’s appearance late in the story adds a nice bit of romantic tension, but his motivations and back story never make sense. He feels like a slightly too-obvious late addition designed to raise the stakes of the relationship between Kat and her friend Hale.

However, I’d consider that a minor quibble, and it certainly didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of Heist Society. I’ll definitely be picking up the next book in the series.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

Audible | Amazon | Indiebound

Memories of a Ghost: The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson

The Madness UnderneathPublished: February 26th, 2013
Publisher: Brilliance Audio, Inc.
Genre(s): Young Adult, Mystery, Fantasy
Format: Audiobook
Length: 7 hrs and 53 mins

The Name of The Star, the first book in Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series, ends with the main character, Rory Devereaux, discovering new powers that may change everything about her relationship to the spirit world. It’s an exciting end to an intense book, and it definitely sets up potential new storylines for what felt like a fairly self-contained story.

Johnson has publicly stated that she has a total of four books planned for the series, so The Madness Underneath needs to both follow-up on the first book and set up enough threads to make books three and four worth reading. With all that on order, does it deliver? The short answer is: kind of.

The Madness Underneath picks up a few weeks later as Rory is living with her parents and recovering from her ordeal. She’s been going to a therapist, which she hates because she isn’t allowed to actually talk about the truth. The government has covered up what actually happened with the Jack the Ripper copycat from the first book and nobody would believe her if she told them the truth in any case. Rory mostly just wants to return to Wexford to be with her friends and maybe get back in touch with Stephen and the rest of his ghost-hunting squad.

When Rory accidentally exorcises a ghost with her new powers, it doesn’t take long before she’s back at Wexford and under the watchful eye of the government’s secret paranormal squad. At this point it would be safe to assume that the main mystery plot would get underway, but instead the book largely focuses on Rory’s PTSD. She’s way behind in school and can’t work up the urge to get caught up. She’s dating Jerome but she’s no longer sure why. Eventually Rory goes to a new therapist after Charlotte, her overachiever classmate, gushes about how much the therapist helped, but the mystery plot remains elusive throughout.

Rory does eventually have to use her talents to exorcise some more ghosts, but those exorcisms never amount to a major story thread. By giving Rory the ability to banish any ghosts with a touch, Johnson has made it so that no ghost like the Ripper could ever threaten her again. The problem with that is that it means Rory needs a new, more serious threat to fight against, and for most of the book the only threat is her depression and general lack of direction. It doesn’t make for very compelling reading.

Ultimately the book just felt like a transition. Rory deals with her PTSD, deals with Wexford and then gets a reason and a purpose to pursue in the next book. The book ends on a cliffhanger that leaves a few major threads unresolved, and although I probably will continue reading the series, I’m disappointed that this installment doesn’t have enough to recommend it and make it stand alone.

LIKED IT
LIKED IT

Audible | Amazon | Indiebound

Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn

Dash & Lily's Book of DaresPublished: October 11th, 2011
Publisher: Ember
Genre(s): Young Adult, Romance
Format: Paperback
Length: 272 Pages

One day, while browsing in the Strand bookstore in New York City, Dash finds a red Moleskine notebook hidden next to a copy of Franny and Zooey. He opens it and discovers that the owner, a girl named Lily, has left a series of mysterious clues and instructions for anyone who reads the book and passes certain requirements. Dash passes the test, does as instructed by the notebook, and the epistolary adventure at the heart of Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares are underway.

The story unfolds in alternating viewpoint chapters narrated by Dash and Lily, two bookish, lonely teenagers living in New York City. Dash responds to Lily’s initial challenge with a challenge of his own, and they begin building a relationship through increasingly personal notes left in the Moleskine journal along with dares that put them right in the middle of Christmas-shopping crowds in downtown New York. Levithan writes Dash’s chapters while Cohn writes Lily’s, and although each character has a fairly distinctive voice, the two styles mesh together well and the book never feels disjointed.

The thing I liked most about Dash & Lily is the way it juxtaposes the main characters’ romantic ideals with reality. Dash and Lily both begin to idealize each other through their written interactions, but we also get to see the versions of themselves they keep hidden. Dash is a bit of a loner, possibly too clever for his own good, and Lily is a bit high-strung in stressful moments. Neither of them quite matches up to the other’s romantic ideal, and their experiences as they learn to navigate the differences between fantasy and reality are what make this book more than a fluffy rom-com conceit.

However, compared to some of Levithan’s solo work, Dash & Lily is admittedly still a bit fluffy. The stakes in the core relationship are never too high, and the dares are ultimately fairly benign. On one hand, you could argue that keeping stakes low for a high school romance is more realistic, but I have to admit that I missed the emotional punch of Every Day and The Lover’s Dictionary. Even still, I enjoyed the book, and will probably pick up the other Cohn and Levithan collaborations at some point.

LIKED IT
LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley.

Amazon | BookPeople | Indiebound