4.5 star, YA

Review: You’ve Reached Sam by Dustin Thao

Seventeen-year-old Julie has her future all planned out—move out of her small town with her boyfriend Sam, attend college in the city, spend a summer in Japan. But then Sam dies. And everything changes.

Heartbroken, Julie skips his funeral, throws out his things, and tries everything to forget him and the tragic way he died. But a message Sam left behind in her yearbook forces back memories. Desperate to hear his voice one more time, Julie calls Sam’s cellphone just to listen to his voicemail.

And Sam picks up the phone.

In a miraculous turn of events, Julie’s been given a second chance at goodbye. The connection is temporary. But hearing Sam’s voice makes her fall for him all over again, and with each call it becomes harder to let him go. However, keeping her otherworldly calls with Sam a secret isn’t easy, especially when Julie witnesses the suffering Sam’s family is going through. Unable to stand by the sidelines and watch their shared loved ones in pain, Julie is torn between spilling the truth about her calls with Sam and risking their connection and losing him forever.

Bring out all those tissues, because I was completely right and You’ve Reached Sam jerked those tear ducts. HARD.

I have absolutely no words to use to describe this beautiful story. It made me cry (during work of all places!) and my heart ache for Sam and Julie.

This is a story about grief. But it is so much more than just what that word may imply. When Sam died tragically, Julie was left with a world that was devoid of the one person she was literally planning her future with. On the brink of high school graduation, what does one do?

In a series of flashbacks that presented as Julie’s dreams mixed with memories, we get to see Sam and Julie’s story from the first moment they met and all the little moments that made up their relationship. I loved this part because it made us understand who they each were, but also how they were together. And of course, it made me fall in love with Sam and their relationship even more.

Julie’s first reaction to handling grief was to cut everything out of her life that brought memories of Sam. That meant his clothes, his presents for her, everything. Some of it may have come with feelings of guilt for how Sam ended up dying, but it definitely was different from how the others in Sam’s circle were dealing with his death.

And that is ultimately a big thing explored here: everyone handles their grief differently. But that doesn’t mean they each have to be isolated in finding their way back to some semblance of living.

I love how it explored Sam’s closest relationships and how their relationship with one another changed and evolved after such a tragedy. And a tragedy this sure was because he was so young, he had barely lived out his dreams yet.

But back to the heart of the story. This is about Julie’s connection with Sam. And in some magical way, they were able to connect from the beyond and be able to still talk to each other. This is what made the story special, and also super heartbreaking. Because we all know it – this can’t possibly last forever. Julie will have to learn to let him go at some point.

The prose was beautiful. I loved Sam and Julie’s conversations so much. I loved seeing how she struggled with doing things in her life that felt like moving on in some miniscule way but only to fall away from it because of her still-present connection with Sam. Their relationship wasn’t always sunshine and rainbows, as it wouldn’t realistically be, but these were two people who loved one another deeply and made my cynical heart believe could’ve survived a high school romance into adulthood.

We were two parts of a song – he was the music and I was the words.

The ending almost broke me, in the best of ways, I suppose. I had to listen to this as an audiobook – I was so afraid I’d be crying so hard I wouldn’t be able to see the words. I needed to be able to get through the ending faster that would inevitably have me in a puddle of my own tears.

I won’t ruin the beauty of the conversations and the growth in Julie and those closest to Sam. I would want you to experience that firsthand yourself if this review has piqued your interest. I normally avoid books that I know will break my heart, but there was just something about this book that drew me in from the start.

I wondered why someone would want to intentionally experience [something that’d make you cry in a way you’ve never cried before]. I think I figured it out.

You want to feel something. Something meaningful and intense. You want to feel that thing in your heart and stomach. You want to be moved, to care about something or fall in love, you know….It makes you feel alive.

Dustin Thao, you’re a genius and your gut-wrenching story deservedly launched to #2 on the NYT bestseller list. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Overall Recommendation:

You’ve Reached Sam is a heartbreaking story of loss and grief in a young life tragically gone too soon. Dealing with the aftermath of her boyfriend’s death, Julie struggles to move on when a magical connection through their phones allows them to communicate with each other, even from the beyond. Mixed with flashback dreams of their relationship and the present day haze of grief, this story will unlock those tear ducts as Julie inevitably needs to learn to let him go. Explorations of the different ways people handle grief, especially among those who were all near to the same loved one, was one of the highlights of this novel. But ultimately, Julie’s journey navigating life after Sam is one that was written with the most beautiful prose fitting for her story. I am overjoyed I found my way to this book, and you should definitely find your way here too.

mini review, YA

Mini ARC Reviews: All I Want for Christmas Is… by Chelsea Bobulski

Morning everyone! It is almost Christmas and I can almost smell it in the air. Whether you celebrate it or not, I hope you are feeling the festivity in the air as the year ends for a new one to begin.

With that said, I am here to bring a set of 4 mini reviews on Chelsea Bobulski’s All I Want for Christmas series in time for the holidays. Almost all of these books have been released, with the fourth and last novel coming out on December 22, 2021!

I don’t know if you read holiday themed books at the time of said holiday, but this was a fun experience for me this year. I have decided to group all the reviews together in one post for your enjoyment.

Merry almost Christmas, friends!

Thank you Netgalley and Wise Wolf Books for these copies in exchange for an honest review.

Book 1

It’s a Wonderful Life meets Wish Upon A Star in this Christmas-themed young adult contemporary romance.

Graham Wallace has been in love with the girl next door for a decade. Unfortunately, she’s been dating his best friend for the past two years. Out of sheer desperation, Graham makes a wish on a shooting star—all he wants for Christmas is Sarah Clarke.

When Graham wakes up the next morning, everything has changed, and he’s the one who’s been dating Sarah for the past two years, not his best friend. Graham assumes the wish would have only come true if he and Sarah were meant to be together, but as it becomes clear that he and Sarah bring out the worst in each other, not the best, and as he starts to fall for the new girl in town, Graham wonders if some wishes come true in order to show us what’s not meant to be.

It’s not often that I find myself stuck in a teenage boy’s mind, but here I am with All I Want for Christmas is the Girl Next Door. Graham is your average teenager living in small-town Virginia. However, this town isn’t just any town, but a literal one named Christmas. With Christmas in the air 365 days of the year, Graham is itching to get out.

But that may also mostly stem from his unrequited crush on his best friend, Sarah Clarke, who lives next door.

I love the angst initially as we follow Graham’s longing whenever he sees his best friend and Sarah together. Who of us (mostly) hasn’t ever had an unrequited crush? But with his deep heartbreak after coming to the inevitable realization that Sarah may never choose him, he wishes upon a star in the sky and wakes up the next day in some warped alternate reality. He has been dating Sarah for the last two years, not his best friend.

I also appreciate the message that comes with this story as Graham navigates his new reality. Soon, he realizes that perfection isn’t all that he thought it would be. What if he had fallen in love with the idea of Sarah Clarke instead of who she really was? What if he spent so much time focusing on her and his longing for this relationship that he closed his mind off to the very real girl he was always meant to be with? Maybe love, the real kind of love meant for the long run, is known not by the feelings we initially get, but by how much we make one another shine to our brightest potentials.

This was a fun Christmas story with a lesson wrapped in a bow. It’s light, cute, and the kind of book to curl up with by the fireplace while it’s snowing outside.

Book 2

It’s the holiday season in this young-adult contemporary romance, and all Beckett Hawthorne wants is to make his way across the country and try to find some semblance of a life that looks nothing like his past…until he meets Evelyn Waverly.

Evelyn Waverley, Christmas High’s Senior Class President, volunteer at every Christmas charity drive, and basic overachiever, has a problem – she’s co-directing and starring in her dream role as Elizabeth Bennet in her high school’s production of A Pride and Prejudice Christmas, but Greg Bailey, the boy who was supposed to play Darcy broke his leg.

Enter Beckett Hawthorne, Aunt Bee’s nephew, former child prodigy, and recent juvenile delinquent. Beckett has arrived in Christmas, Virginia to spend his community service hours working at his uncle’s Christmas tree farm, as well as to get away from his heroin-addicted mother and abusive stepfather.

Of course, Beckett doesn’t have any interest in the role of Darcy either, but when he (mistakenly) mentions the play to his social worker, she presses him to do it. He agrees to play Darcy, not expecting Evelyn’s joyful attitude about life and all things Christmas to melt the permafrost that has formed around his heart. Soon he finds himself imagining a very different kind of future, one that is filled with the sorts of things he always thought were too good for him-hope, love, family-and he has Evelyn to thank for it.

All I Want for Christmas is the Girl in Charge brings the next installment in the series, and it is written in dual POV alternating between Beckett and Evelyn. Oddly enough, I didn’t connect as well with Evelyn as I would’ve hoped. I understand with her type A personality and how much her college applications relied on the success of the play she’d written that she would be absolutely anal about everything. But that’s not really my style and it was a little stressful reading just how stressed SHE was.

Beckett, on the other hand, I liked well enough. He’s your typical misunderstood bad boy with a gooey inside. We don’t know too much about why he needs to serve some community hours – obviously something bad happened that required such punishment – but he ends up stuck with the play in the lead role of Mr. Darcy. I didn’t emotionally connect with him much better than Evelyn, but I loved seeing his interactions with his Aunt Bee and Uncle Bill (who were a big enough part of the first book).

Graham and friends make cameos in this book too, set during Christmas time the following year after Graham’s story. There’s a little less focus on Christmas than book 1 but it’s in the little pieces, like Beckett working at the Christmas tree farm.

I wish I could’ve invested more in the relationship to have made this a more enjoyable Christmas read, but it was a light read either way for this time of year.

Book 3

The holiday season continues in this captivating third novel in Chelsea Bobulski’s All I Want for Christmas young-adult contemporary romance series.

What happens when you take a chance on someone unexpected?

Isla Riddle has been obsessed with True Love for as long as she can remember. Books, TV, movies-if it’s a story about star-crossed lovers, ill-fated love, or love conquering all, Isla has read it, seen it, and talked nonstop about it. She’s also dedicated her life to it by helping her mom build up Riddle’s Bridal Boutique and Wedding Planning, a business they started together after her dad left town … and they’ve just received their biggest break yet: a high society bride with a million-dollar budget.

August Harker doesn’t have to think much about his life-it’s already been planned for him. He has the parent-approved heiress girlfriend, the 4.0 GPA at an elite college preparatory school, and over a dozen lacrosse and debate team trophies. He has no reason to think his life won’t turn out just like his dad’s, which is exactly why he isn’t into planning weddings, parties, or any other event where hundreds of his father’s closest clients and legal associates discuss affidavits, jurisprudence, and all the things that make his father the most sought-after criminal defense attorney along the Eastern seaboard. It only reminds August that he’ll be discussing the same things with the same people in ten years’ time between glasses of champagne and unfortunate run-ins with the electric slide. However, planning a wedding is exactly where he finds himself as his older sister prepares to walk down the aisle.

As Isla works with August behind-the-scenes, she becomes more and more convinced that he’s the one: the soulmate she’s been waiting for. August feels it, too, that rightness of being with Isla, and as August hears Isla talk about dreams like they’re real possessions that can be achieved, he dares to hope for another future entirely, one in which he can become what he’s always wanted to be.

But can their love-and August’s newly-resurrected dreams-survive the layers of expectations and ambitions that have been placed upon him?

This must be the favourite of the bunch, but All I Want for Christmas is the Boy I Can’t Have was the perfect amount of romantic angst, miscommunication and unrequited love.

August Harker was the perfect kind of guy for a girl who’s as in love with love as Isla Riddle. We’ve already been introduced to Isla from book 2 and I definitely liked her outlook on love. Full of references to the best romantic comedies of the last few decades, this was an ode to love and the stories that bring people together.

I love the idea of a Christmas wedding, and what’s more romantic of a backdrop to set this story to? Isla and her mother have a wedding planning business and it was so much fun seeing their plans for August’s sister’s wedding.

But more importantly, the romance was cute even though it frustrated me at the same time. August was kind, considerate and a great friend. The instant love feel at first was a bit unrealistic as Isla just fell for him immediately, but their interactions over time sold me on their connection and by the end I just wanted the happily ever after for them.

If you want a cute winter read, with admittedly less focus on Christmas than just a winter romance, this is the one!

Book 4

College freshman Savannah Mason doesn’t believe in magic or true love. She believes in science, and science tells her that love is nothing more than a biological impulse to breed—an impulse that can, thankfully, be ignored. Which is a good thing because no woman in her family has ever been lucky in love. In fact, all of them have ended up broken hearted and insistent on blaming a mysterious, vengeful curse. But Savannah is determined to rewrite her story, and as far as she’s concerned, she’s never going to fall in love.

Jordan Merrick is a junior at William & Mary and on the fast track to obtaining his life’s goal: becoming the next Ron Chernow. He vaguely imagines that, someday, he’ll have a wife and kids. But like Hamilton himself, Jordan’s drive is to accomplish his goals as quickly as possible. Love can come another day once his career is cemented.

What neither Savannah nor Jordan planned on is meeting each other, and as they keep crossing paths on campus and Savannah finds herself helping at Jordan’s archaeology site, all their reasons for putting their love lives on the back burner start to blur.

Forged together, Savannah and Jordan investigate Savannah’s family’s curse on love and explore a collection of love letters between a revolutionary soldier and the girl he left behind. But when they come face-to-face with the truth about themselves—and with the truth about what they’ve become to each other—Jordan’s outlook on love starts to waver, and he begins to wonder if he can convince Savannah that love is real. But will Savannah run before her heart is able to let go of cynicism and believe in the power and magic of love?

At once thought-provoking and charming, All I Want for Christmas is the Girl Who Can’t Love will stir a longing in every reader’s heart for the hope in magic and romance that can only be found during the holiday season.

It’s not often I find a protagonist who dislikes love as much as Savannah did in All I Want for Christmas is the Girl Who Can’t Love, but I can understand why she has guarded herself from the emotional/higher power aspect of love beyond the scientific mechanism of hormonal chemistry in our bodies if it meant losing herself seeing how her mother does with each boyfriend.

I really enjoyed the dual POV between Jordan and Savannah. If I wanted a cute, romantic story that showed us love can be more, can actually be like magic, then this is the one to read. Jordan can definitely woo a girl and has the maturity of the college-age boy that he is, which is rare in YA novels.

The archaeological aspect where the two of them try to figure out the mystery behind a couple from the Revolutionary War era was a great way to look at history in the beautiful colonial Williamsburg (which I really need to visit someday) and to showcase love beyond genetic survival. As a scientist, I can understand how some people may like to think of it in this way, but as a hopeless romantic, I am 100% like Jordan too, rooting for love in every way.

One quick shoutout for the rep in highlighting Savannah’s struggle with dyslexia that cannot stop her from pursuing her dreams to be a travel writer someday. I love that it focuses on how studying can be hard for her while also not letting it be a foregone stumbling block to her dreams.

The ending wrapped well, with plenty of faces from the whole series that connects us full circle. I love seeing everyone together. Also, Jordan made a cameo in book 1 (that was SO cool) so it really is a full circle moment and I’m super glad I read this series in time for Christmas.

How’re you celebrating the holidays this year? Do you read holiday-themed books in December?

2 star, YA

Review: Last Chance Books by Kelsey Rodkey

Don’t you just love the smell of old books in the morning?

Madeline Moore does. Books & Moore, the musty bookstore her family has owned for generations, is where she feels most herself. Nothing is going to stop her from coming back after college to take over the store from her beloved aunt.

Nothing, that is—until a chain bookstore called Prologue opens across the street and threatens to shut them down.

Madeline sets out to demolish the competition, but Jasper, the guy who works over at Prologue, seems intent on ruining her life. Not only is he taking her customers, he has the unbelievable audacity to be… extremely cute.

But that doesn’t matter. Jasper is the enemy and he will be destroyed. After all—all’s fair in love and (book) wars.

I’m a sucker for books about bookstores, and this definitely drew me into Last Chance Books. And as the title suggests, this story is all about saving an indie bookstore from closing when a larger chain store moves across the street from them.

Okay, full disclosure, while I absolutely ADORE indie stores (I get all the best secondhand books from such wonderful places where I literally can spend a whole afternoon among its stacks), I have also been an employee of such large chain bookstores. I can see the place for both types of stores, so this won’t be a review that bashes large chain bookstores (sorry).

With this premise, it automatically sets up an enemies to lovers story when indie store employee, Madeline, does everything to keep her beloved family store Books & Moore afloat. Jasper Tanaka, aka the absolute enemy, had to be terminated at any cost.

And I do mean literally at ANY cost.

It’s one of the things I felt the book took too far. Her pranks weren’t always harmless. Whether that meant almost physical harm to a Prologue employee or slightly shady dealings to keep profit from going their way, Madeline’s obsessive behaviour wasn’t endearing in any way. I understand her want to keep the store going when it seemed like everyone else, even her boss and aunt, were willing to give it up and throw in the towel. It just wasn’t a lovely thing to read about constantly.

I know typically people love enemies to lovers, but I’m a lot pickier when it comes to this trope and not just any book with it will win over my heart. However, I will say this romance didn’t really have anything special in it to make them memorable even for those of you who love anything with this trope. Jasper was definitely the nicer of the two, but that’s not hard when the other one was constantly thinking of ways to sabotage the rival business.

What I will say I did like, even in a minor way, was the character growth and family focus. As Books & Moore is a family business, we spent a lot of time with Madeline’s family which consisted of her aunt, half-brother, half-brother’s dad, and her estranged mother now coming back into all of their lives. First thing, I really enjoyed seeing such a unique family dynamic. I loved the portrayal of a good single father figure who also ended up adopting Madeline into his love and care even though she wasn’t his by blood.

But the focus was on their relationship with Madeline’s mom. She was always given the impression of being flighty and selfish, dropping her kids with her sister to take care of all these years so she could pursue her own acting career across the country. Having to deal with her rare and temporary presence in their lives was an interesting root issue to dig into and explore.

At the heart of this, Last Chance Books was still about saving an indie store and sharing the love of books with people. As a former bookseller (and even as a reviewer), that is something I stand by and I love to see in stories. How it was executed wasn’t the best, but I wouldn’t write off this book completely just because I wasn’t excited by it at all. I read half of this as an ebook and the other half as an audiobook. I definitely feel the audiobook helped make it come more alive for me (and probably why I finished through some of Madeline’s less-than-stellar inner monologue). It has potential, and I will still be checking out more from Kelsey Rodkey in the future.

Overall Recommendation:

Last Chance Books delivered on the family dysfunction piece as the Moore family (or rather, mainly Madeline) fought to keep the family bookstore afloat. But where the plot was supposed to be interesting when a rival large chain bookstore is fighting them on profits, it fell flat. Madeline was too intense in her rivalry against rival bookstore employee, Jasper, and regularly took things a bit far for just a rivalry. While there was character development, most strongly in Madeline, it made getting through the middle parts rather difficult. Overall, I always love a book that talks about bookstores and the beauty of reading (and its loyal communities), and this definitely has that in spades but its execution could’ve been better. With a lackluster enemies to lovers romance and a slow pace throughout the middle, the parts I liked couldn’t quite carry it through for my expectations.