Review: Always and Forever, Lara Jean

 

Always and Forever, Lara Jean
Always and Forever, Lara Jean by Jenny Han

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Cards on the table: I am an action over romance girl any and every day of the week.

Give me blood and battles and armies. Give me fighting and intrigue. Tales of deception and danger. Of people kicking ass and taking names, usually (maybe even preferably) without mercy. Grand epics or back-alley brawls — I am all about it.

But sometimes, just sometimes, I stumble upon something sweet. Something that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Something that tugs at my heartstrings and has me suppressing high-pitched squee-ing sounds that really are rather undignified coming from a young person in their mid-twenties…okay maybe it’s not that undignified, but you get where I’m coming from.

These are not my usual books.
These are special.

The first book in this series, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, was my introduction to the fictional world of Jenny Han. I remember hearing the pitch for the book and thinking, “Huh…well that sounds interesting.” And when I saw that Jenny Han would be having an event here in my city for the book, I knew it was clearly meant to be: I had to read this book.

Now, putting the books aside for the moment: Jenny Han is a gem. She is a human ray of sunshine that I’m not sure this world truly deserves. When you look up the term “sweet cinnamon roll,” it’ll say: c.f. Jenny Han. I’ve now been to all three events she’s had here for the Lara Jean series and I have left every single one smiling, eager to read whichever book was in my hands, and full of kind words of advice and encouragement.

And then we have the books. Oh do we ever have these books. These charming, sweet tales of Lara Jean and her sisters; Lara Jean and her dad; Lara Jean and all the everyday, seemingly mundane things that can happen to young teenage girl. And yet it’s those seemingly mundane and ordinary things that are the best parts of the story: how everyday life suddenly feels so technicolor. How there’s even great moments that talk about serious teenage topics, without it feeling it was contrived for the purpose of creating drama in the narrative. How family bonds, especially between siblings, are some of the closest and most loyal, even when they’re complicated at times. And how life is sometimes weird and strange things doesn’t always work out the way you want them too.

But we do. We make things work. We carry on. We live our lives and we live them as full as we can, savouring every moment. We live, we laugh, we love.

As always, Lara Jean, Peter Kavinsky, their friends, their families — all of them! — have brought a smile to my face and warm fuzzies in my heart. Thank you.

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Author Thank You: Jennifer Niven

“The thing is, there are good days and bad days. I feel almost guilty saying they aren’t all bad.”

Dear Jennifer Niven,

We’ve actually met once, back in 2015 at NoVa Teen Book Fest — I had an ARC of All The Bright Places with a billion little blue and green post-it flags sticking out of it. I’m not very great at meeting people whose work I admire; I tend to go bright red in the face and start anxiously babbling and word-vomiting whatever runs into my mind first and it doesn’t usually end well. But you were so very kind and sweet, and meeting you was the high point screen-shot-2016-10-19-at-12-23-12-pmof my time at NTBF15, not only because of this meeting and all the talks I heard you give over the course of the day, but because of your book — the very thing that brought me to NTBF15 in the first place.

I picked up that ARC of All the Bright Places in the very start of 2015 and was left in pieces. There I was, 23 years old and recently unemployed, going to therapy every week to recover from an eating disorder while being told that, in addition to the depression I’d suffered from on-and-off for some time, I was also suffering from anxiety along with ADHD. I was a molotov cocktail of emotions, a powder keg about to explode, and I suppose one wouldn’t think that a book like yours, so tragically beautiful and heartbreaking, would be the very thing I needed in that moment.

But it was, because in that moment I needed to feel and scream and rage and bang my head and hands against the wall. Through Finch, I found all that tumult — he was as close to my own swings in temperature as I’d ever found in a character. All those post-it flags, they were probably 90% Finch — they were the moments I recognised in myself in some way, shape, or form. So many authors, especially in the Young Adult writing community, have attacked the topics of mental illness, suicide, loss, and grief…but very few had done it with some elegant ecstasy and subtle passion as you did with this book. And Violet — lovely, lovely Violet — it was through Violet that I found that way to do more than cope with things that ripped me apart. Her story, seemingly so much quieter than Finch’s, was just as powerful, just as helpful.

I didn’t get the chance, I don’t think, to say thank you during that brief meeting with you. That your book, in a way, helped save my life. That Finch and Violet, these broken and flawed human beings, were what I needed in that very moment, and in so many moments after that first read. I can see the marked improvement in my own mental health and ability to recognise my own “temperature fluctuations,” as it were, because I experienced it through them.

You wrote such a bright book that holds a very bright place in my heart. And I can’t say thank you enough for that.

Sincerely,
Madeleine

Author Thank You Note: Pierce Brown

Outgoing transmission: Pierce Brown
Subject: Thank You

Of all the authorial thank you notes that I wrote for this month — several of which are wholly ridiculous in tone — yours proved the most difficult to write. You are currently reading the results of attempt number nine ten

Where to begin? I regret to say I went into Red Rising with a good deal of reservations: it was blurbed to appeal to fans of The Hunger Games and Ender’s Game (I am, alas, a fan of neither), and its jacket description made it sound like every other class system-based dystopia that had flooded the market for the past few years, or so it seemed to me. But that cover was so striking — a bright red wing on matte black — that I did what I usually tend to do in situations like these: I shrugged and bought it while thinking “Eh, why not?” (This seems to be how most of my best and worst ideas start.)

I began with the audio — I can’t remember what exactly I was doing that fateful evening, but I needed to be hands-free — and from the moment Tim Gerard Reynolds read that first line, it was like one of those moments in a film where the protagonist pauses what they’re doing and the camera pushes in with a tightening, shadowy ellipse to form a spotlight, the world around them having faded away.

“I would have lived in peace. But my enemies brought me war.”

I’m a sucker for a good revenge plot; I stand by my opinion that The Count of Monte Cristo is probably the best revenge plot ever crafted. I love me a good revolution tale; American Revolution history is some of my favourite from this country and, oh yeah, Star Wars Rebel Alliance all the way. I also cannot resist a war story; I’m a rather odd child who knew Homer’s Iliad before Harry Potter.

So getting your story, complete with Classical allusions and pop culture easter egg-like references that kicked my high-functioning ADHD mind into full-on literary analysis mode was like getting the book I’d never dared to want, because there was no way in heaven, hell, or earth that it could exist.

And I don’t just love your trilogy because you’re a master of your craft and tell a heart-stopping story; or because you created and developed characters so beautifully flawed and tragically human that they transcend the confines of the page; or even because finding all those little allusions and references brings me inexplicable joy. I do love your trilogy for all those things, but I really want to thank you for how thoughtful your books are.

Your books dared to ask a great deal of deep and difficult questions. What happens after revolution? What happens when you gamble and fail? When you lose a battle but must continue the war? How do you deal with grief and rage and hate?

How do you not only live, but live for more?

I got to question and consider the world of your own making and the consequences of every small action, or even the lack of action. And then I got to apply it to my own life — which, in the wake of everything that has happened in 2016, meant an awful lot of thinking and drinking and more thinking.

But there is also a part of the story I didn’t mention, about when I picked up your first book back in 2014…it wasn’t a great time for me. I was going through what can only be described as a complete existential, quarter-life crisis. I’d graduated university without a job in my field, was working full-time at a bookstore which, while not terrible, was not what I wanted. I was just entering treatment for an eating disorder, which would lead to me (finally) getting diagnosed with anxiety and adult ADHD alongside depression, which I knew I’d dealt with since high school. Everyone around me was getting married, buying houses, raving about their dream-jobs and, well, needless to say, I felt very stuck and worthless and useless.

You didn’t really need to know all that, I suppose, but it’s the only context I can offer so that when I say your books were not only what I needed in that moment, but were what helped to spark a little fire to dare, to try, and to at the very least pretend to be brave…I’m not trying to be sycophantic. I may be prone to hyperbole in some things, but I don’t exaggerate when I say that your books had a profound impact upon me — upon my behaviour, my thought processes, philosophies, and just overall personhood. I can look at my short twenty-five years and find that point at twenty-three in late 2014 that denotes the shift of “before Red Rising” and “after Red Rising.

I hadn’t been able to live in peace but I started to find a glimmer of it in Darrow’s war. 

And as if that wasn’t enough, it wasn’t too long after I got diagnosed with Bertolotti’s Syndrome in late 2015 that I got to read Darrow scratching and clawing and working his own way back to recovery in Morning Star…just as I was going through physical therapy so I could go through everyday life with minimal pain or discomfort. It was this strange sort of inspiration, the rationale of “Well Darrow could come back from that, so surely I can grit my teeth and push through whatever’s happening here.” It’s not that I hadn’t thought that way before Morning Star, but something about the visceral way in which you wrote Darrow’s journey put everything happening in my own life into sharp perspective and helped me to hone my focus.

Simply put: your books changed my life.

So, thank you, Pierce Brown. Thank you for crafting this story. Thank you for writing it down and sharing it with all of us. In this all too often dark and terrifying world that sometimes likes to knock us down and basically beat the shit out of us, you gave us a trilogy about a rising tide of sons and daughters whose grit and humanity and glorious hope blazed with such ferocity that they shone brighter than the morning star itself.

And it’s a bloodydamn, gorydamn beautiful thing.

Per aspera ad astra and sincerest thanks,

Madeleine C.

PS. Also, you like Star Wars and puppies, so I should have known that would mean your books were going to be amazing.

Author Thank You: Baroness Orczy

There are books stacked left, books stacked right
Their covers gleaming in the light
I scan through their pages, trying to tell
Which book report will be less like Hell

I find a book with the French Revolution
A mysterious figure at its core
Who’d spoil every gruesome execution
Sold! Do tell me more…

To the Estimable Baroness Orczy,

I was going to try and just keep going with that bit of silliness, playing upon the delightful poem you gave to Sir Percy Blakeney in your classic adventure novel. But it does set the stage: I was in eighth grade and had been assigned my first ever book report project. My English teacher had said it would take up the entirety of our final quarter of the school year and that we would work in groups although, if we wanted, we could opt to work alone at her approval. The kicker of it all was that she had a selection of books already laid out upon a table, so we were not only limited to her selection, but she was going to limit how many people could work on each book. I suspect this is because the majority of my class wanted to read Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury.

I, on the other hand, made a point to pick up each book and flip through the first few pages. It’s like going on a first date with the book: you’re getting to know the writing style, pacing, and tonal gist of the whole thing. Near the end of the line I picked up a book with a cover I already knew I liked: A man, half-hidden in shadows, with a piece of paper bearing a seal that looked like some kind of red flower. He was clearly in France, given the decor of the soldiers who also graced the cover, and it was clearly sometime in the late 1700’s, one of my favourite eras of history. But then I quickly scan the back and it mentions something about a rogue character, known only as The Scarlet Pimpernel, snatching aristos from the fate of the guillotine.

Well colour me intrigued.

I opened your book and by the very first sentence I was completely hooked — I remember that sentence even now because the dark, mellifluous cadence of the words rings in my head like music:

“A surging, seething, mumuring crowd of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate.”

The effect those words had upon me was instantaneous: chills, inexplicable glee, and a physical need to know more. I took that book home and read it in one sitting which, while not wholly unusual for me, had never really happened a “school book” before. But your story transported me, and that was something I desperately needed in that moment. Thirteen wasn’t a great year for me: I had a bully, I was lonely and angry and had developed bad behaviours as coping mechanism (hello, Dad’s liquor cabinet)…and I was thirteen, full of all those hormonal changes, physical developments, and general state of confusion that comes with being thirteen. Yeah, it just wasn’t a great year.

But it was also the year I discovered your book; it was the year I first met Sir Percy and Lady Marguerite Blakeney. The first year that I got swept away on a swashbuckling, high-stakes adventure of cat-and-mouse, with people’s necks quite literally hanging in the balance. I laughed, I cried, I held my breath, I fell in love, I shook my fist at Chauvelin, and when all was said and done, I started it all over again. Your book gave me my own private adventure, and also made me first think the thought “I’d love to make a movie version of this,” which, in retrospect, is a pretty big deal.

To some people it may seem funny that I say a classic adventure novel is one of the best books I’ve ever read in my life, and that I make a point to re-read it every year without fail — especially when, if you really look at the novel, it’s not some milestone in literature. It’s considered a classic and it’s an adventure, but nobody hailed you as the successor to, oh I don’t know, Dickens or something. But I don’t think you get enough credit for the characters and story that you created. I don’t think enough people have had the chance to enjoy the ride you wrote down in The Scarlet Pimpernel.

But I did. And it’s one of those books that shines bright in my memory as a literary milestone: a place where I can mark my life as “before this book” and “after this book.”

So thank you, Baroness Orczy. Thank you.


Nota bene: The poem at this letter’s start was a pastiche of the musical number “They Seek Him Here” from the 1997 musical adaptation of Baroness Orczy’s novel, The Scarlet Pimpernel. The song itself is adapted from the poem included in the novel. Please forgive the author of this letter for her general silliness.

Author Thank You: J.K. Rowling

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

Dear Ms. Rowling,

Mr. and Mrs. Cassier of 103 Burbank Drive were proud to say that their daughter was a book-dragon, thank you very much. She was never one to be found without a book or two, because she just didn’t hold with their absence.

Okay, enough with the silliness. Firstly, it’s very difficult to sustain; secondly, it’s hard to joke when talking about the importance of Harry Potter upon my life. I chose that quote from Deathly Hallows for a big reason: I think it perfectly summarizes what I try to tell people when I attempt to talk about how much your positively radiant Harry Potter series means to me. Ever since Harry & co. walked into my life one evening — I actually was home sick with strep the night I first opened Sorcerer’s Stone and can recall that first reading experience with vivid clarity — it was like being possessed and entranced and in love and in pain all at once. Ecstasy is the word that springs to mind, though I didn’t know it then. I, like so many people of my generation, quite literally grew up with Harry, Ron, and Hermione. We battled our own demons while they battled the Dark Lord.

I don’t make it much of a secret, but I suffer from bad bouts of depressive episodes, and they were particularly bad during some years of high school. And back then, when I was a teenager and feeling like the real world had lost its colour and its vibrance, that I was wholly alone…I would crawl back into the pages of Harry Potter and wrap myself up in them like a security blanket. Re-reading those books became a way of coping and trying to understand what was happening — to try to bring myself out of any “low” that I was in. Of course I understood that, reading these books, it was all happening inside my head — it was my imagination running wild in order to bring life to your words…

But, to me, it not only was, but still is real.

Harry, Hermione, and Ron are people with whom I empathised or with whom I agreed and disagreed — they weren’t just words on a page or scratches of ink. They, and all the others of the Wizarding world, were people. And what was best for that teenage me, was that in the world of Hogwarts and beyond, no matter how dark or wild it could get…it was still kind of real to me.

And it remains real to this very day.

It all being inside my head didn’t make any of the emotions I felt meaningless. And, so, your series has a very special place in my heart and in my life because it not only shaped my childhood, my adolescence, my young adulthood, and has been in my life longer than it hasn’t…but because it was the one place I could turn to when I felt there was nothing else, whether or not that was true. It’s part of why I make a point to reread and re-listen to the series every single year, usually more than once.

Because Hogwarts was always going to be there to welcome me home.

Forever grateful,
Madeleine

Author Thank You: Jennifer Donnelly

“I tried to be goodly. I tried to be godly. But I got so tired of being ignored. Cry your grief to God. Howl to the heavens. Tear your shirt. Your hair. Your flesh. Gouge out your eyes. Carve out your heart. And what will you get from Him? Only Silence…Because God loves us, but the devil takes an interest.”

Dear Jennifer Donnelly,

2014 was a strange and tumultuous year for me. When I read your book, Revolution, I had only just learned that the full-time job I was in was not going to exist by the end of the year. That I was soon to be 23 and unemployed, unmoored in life, and suffering inside. It was an emotional maelstrom, and then suddenly, while audiobook-surfing my library’s website at midnight, I found Revolution. I found this novel I knew nothing about, but that presented me Andi and Alexandrine, two young women fighting against hatred, inaction, despair, and the ever-elusive search for hope.

I suddenly felt alive, torn apart one thread at a time by the glorious harmonic dissonance of your writing — as if you had transcribed the beauty of the diabolus in musica and minor keys into words. The angry splatters of red blood was my own roiling confusion and rage; the swooping blackness of these characters’ true despair was my own disillusionment and self-loathing. It was beautiful and terrifying all at once.

It was the full-colour spectrum of my emotions displayed out before me: taken apart and then, as if by magic, put ever so slowly back together. Because what you wrote, Ms. Donnelly, rang so profoundly true to real life that I had never at that point been so cathartically and emotionally wrung-out in a long time, and it was everything I needed in that moment. It was ecstasy, in all the pain and joy that word implies.

I suppose that means you were the “devil” of this story — who broke the painful silence and, just by writing this book, took an interest.

And so, thank you for writing this. For giving me a novel that, even thinking back now, reminds of the pain it put me through — how it amplified my own darkness and forced me to stare into the void in order to confront it, to deal with it in a healthy way: through fiction, through And and Alexandrine by proxy.

And thank you, also, for writing stories of young women trying to be themselves when the world or even their own mind tries to sway them otherwise. Young women like myself greatly appreciate everything you bring to us.

Sincerely,
Madeleine, who also wears a red ribbon

Author Thank You: Jonathan Stroud

Mr. Stroud,1

I was 12, I believe, when I first picked up The Amulet of Samarkand on a whim2 during a school book fair. I didn’t know anything about it save what little it told me on its back cover — curiously enough I noticed something a little different about that description.3 I’d seen footnotes before, sure, but never in so…snarky a fashion,4 and certainly not in fiction. I was curious; I was intrigued. I was also pretty much sold the moment I saw “A London run by magicians” on the back cover.5

And, sure, your book absolutely gave me a London run by magicians6 and an Amulet of Samarkand,7 but it and the rest of the series was so much more than that.8

Through the absurdly delightful and absolutely brilliant Bartimaeus,9 you introduced an almost-teenager to probably the first antihero that made me laugh,10 while also making me think long and hard about enslavement and the role of government and power.11 Combining Bartimaeus’ spirituous wit with Nathaniel’s stubborn ambition gave me a dynamic antihero duo who were equal parts understandable, relatable, and at times even hateable.12 But, come the conclusion of the trilogy…I was left speechless.13

Totally bittersweet, with characters oftentimes teamed up for reasons of convenience as opposed to genuine feeling for each other.14 The multiple sacrifices made by every character at the end of the final novel rang out incredibly true, even moreso now, I think, as I listen to yet more vitriolic rhetoric in this world. The beautifully flawed characters of your trilogy were perfect for me when growing up, and perfect for me even now as a “grown up.”15

Thank you for writing these characters who, in their very imperfections, are damn near perfect.16 My adolescence, my teenage years, and my so-called adult life are all the better for it.

Sincerely,
Madeleine


Footnotes

  1. I don’t think we’re on a first name basis yet, given we’ve never met, but this does sound terribly formal.
  2. Can you blame me? The cover was blue and had a shiny piece of jewelry as its centrepiece.
  3. I’m sure you can guess…hint: I’m poorly imitating it right now.
  4. Bartimaeus is now my posterchild for prime “snarkentary” in novels.
  5. What can I say? I’ve got a type.
  6. Eyyy, Natty boy.
  7. Shiny!
  8. Augh, this is where I get a little sappy. Feel free to shield your eyes.
  9. Bartimaeus of Uruk, Sakhr al-Jinni, N’gorso the Mighty and the Serpent of Silver Plumes who rebuilt the walls of Uruk, Karnak and Prague; who spoke with Solomon and ran with the buffalo fathers of the plains; who watched over Old Zimbabwe till the stones fell and the jackals fed on its people. Yes, that Bartimaeus.
  10. He gets all the good one-liners.
  11. Don’t get me wrong: obviously slavery is wrong and I knew this. But it made me reconsider it on a fantastical level — the idea that the spirits were slaves and that they experienced physical consequences from their time on Earth. That they might be friends or enemies outside of their masters’ biddings. That was a new one for me. And, of course, with the events of 2016, thinking about the role of government and power is more pertinent and important than ever.
  12. Oh, Nathaniel. You really needed to learn that both humans and spirits had bad things about them.
  13. Okay, that’s a small fib: I was actually sobbing, but let’s pretend that indignity didn’t happen.
  14. Although I like to think that maybe Nathaniel earned a few points in Bartimaeus’ book for his actions in Ptolemy’s Gate, it was both entertaining and illuminating to see these two band together because it was necessary…even while they actively disliked each other.
  15. I’m still fairly certain being a “grown up” is a myth.
  16. I have a feeling Bartimaeus would be objecting to me even considering he has “imperfections.”