August 30, 2013

Review: Perfect Fifths by Megan McCafferty

Perfect Fifths by Megan McCafferty
Series: Jessica Darling, #5
Published: 2009, Crown
Format: Hardcover, 258 pages
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Source: Borrowed from library
Contains spoilers for Sloppy Firsts (my review), Second Helpings (my review), Charmed Thirds (my review), Fourth Comings (my review)
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Gone for a while
Hoping, always, to return
If you will let me 

Now that the end has finally come, I'm a bit in denial about it all. While readers now have the opportunity to read about Jessica Darling's pre-teen years in the Jessica Darling's It List series, it looks like Perfect Fifths is the end of the road for Jessica's adult life. And maybe that's a good thing. In some ways, the series started dying (or at least going in a way different direction) after Jessica graduated high school. There are highlights and great moments peppered in the third, fourth, and fifth books but the transition from high school is a difficult one to record in any medium, not just books. I like that even by the end of Perfect Fifths, Jessica is not a perfect character and still questions what she wants out of her life, albeit with slightly more of a direction.

Twenty-six-year-old Jessica Darling is tired. She still lives with her best friend Hope in Brooklyn, but her job as a literacy/writing mentor for various high school students requires her to be on the road for much of the year. Mentoring, however, has also given Jessica a sense of purpose and she's started setting up plans for her next career move. It is because of her job and the connections she's made with some of her mentees that Jessica finds herself late for her flight out of Newark airport. Her good friends Bridget and Percy are getting married in St. Thomas the following day and now it appears that Jessica will not be there in time to celebrate.

But it's also in Newark airport that Jessica (literally) bumps into a reminder of her past: Marcus Flutie. Marcus is returning to his final semester at Princeton after spending a few weeks of winter vacation rebuilding houses in New Orleans. This chance meeting brings up thoughts and topics that neither have discussed for years, but, over the course of the day, their meeting seems less and less like a chance encounter and more like it was meant to be.

The most major change is the style in which this book is written. No longer are readers (and one Marcus Flutie) privy to all of Jessica's internal thoughts and conflicts via dairy entries. Instead, McCafferty makes the bold choice of telling this story in alternating first-person present between Jessica and Marcus. On the one hand, I can completely understand the need to change the literal format of the book: during her high school years, Jessica journaled as a way to maintain her sanity in a town/school where no one seemed to understand her once her best friend moved away. During college, Jessica journaled infrequently, and primarily about things and people related to her high-school life. A few months after graduating, Jessica spent a week recording the current events of her life and her state of mind for her boyfriend Marcus. Now Jessica is presumably too busy to write in a journal. Not only that, but the current events in her life seem not to inspire that desire in her.

And that's fine. I think it makes sense that Jessica would have given up journaling. My main complaint is the writing style that McCafferty chooses to use: first-person present. I have made it no secret how much it annoys me to read a book written in this tense. Not to mention it's just confusing and it doesn't make sense that this story needs to be told with this degree of immediacy. And not only that, but I found the dual narrative strange and unnecessary. Marcus Flutie has always been an important fixture within the series, of course, but it's one thing for him to be one of the centers of attention and quite another to now hear half the story from his point of view. It felt a little like maybe McCafferty was placating her fans who demanded more Marcus after him being in mind but out of sight for the majority of the past two installments. Marcus' voice was interesting, but not particularly revelatory.

I thought the time span for Fourth Comings was short (a little over a week), but this wins by far. This story takes place over about twenty-four hours. Twenty-four hours low on in-the-moment action but high on flashbacks. Perfect Fifths gives the sense that everything is, in fact, coming full-circle. Jessica believes she's found her purpose in life mentoring high school girls and encouraging them to use writing to express themselves. There are mentions of those who have been important parts of her life, friends and family alike, even if none actually make an appearance in this book. At its core, Perfect Fifths seems to be about Jessica and Marcus and their "resolution in irresolution" (not a quote from the book, but it seems applicable).

Perfect Fifths does not quite contain the luster and excitement present in previous installments. The short physical amount of time spent with an isolated Jessica and Marcus is nice, but really just too brief. It's almost as if Jessica has not only outgrown her journaling habits, but my interest as a reader (not completely, but to some degree). But it was good to see Jessica one final time, and the ambiguous ending is fine with me (because then I can let my inner Jessica-Marcus shipper believe that after going through so many challenges over the past ten years and then reuniting the way they did, nothing will ever be able to come in between these two again). And I definitely do not regret the experience of watching Jessica grow and learn over the course of this series. 

Rating: 2.5 stars
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August 28, 2013

Review: Ascendant by Diana Peterfreund

Ascendant by Diana Peterfreund
Series: Killer Unicorns, #2
Published: 2010, HarperTeen
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Format: Hardcover, 392 pages
Source: Borrowed from library
Contains spoilers for Rampant (my review)
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Domitare Unicorne Indomitum: To Vanquish the Savage Unicorn.
Animam Cognoscere Animalis: To Know the Soul of the Beast.

I'll never doubt the genius of books centered around killer unicorns ever again. Seriously. Diana Peterfreund has made me a believer, which is something I'm certain few authors, given the same task, could have accomplished.

Although Astrid and her fellow unicorn-hunters have successfully eradicated the killer kirin that were hiding out in Italy and stopped their collaboration with the biomedical company Gordian, their problems are far from over. Unicorn attacks are becoming more frequent and, thanks to her mother's publicity stints as a "unicorn expert," Astrid and her fellow hunters are inundated with work. Life inside the convent itself has become increasingly complicated as Astrid struggles with her legacy as a "Llewelyn" hunter, Cory's powers are fading, no new eligible girls are wiling to join their ranks, and Phil, donna of the unicorn hunters, advocates to protect the rights of the unicorns.

Rampant imagines an alternate world where killer unicorns exist and can only be controlled by female virgins of a certain lineage. Ascendant then focuses on the implications of their actions, and the role that unicorn hunters should have within their society. It is in many ways a quieter, more introspective novel. And it's far darker than its predecessor. The focus here isn't on Astrid becoming a unicorn hunter, but rather on the responsibility that Astrid should have to humans, to unicorns, and to herself.

On the whole, I found Ascendant to be an even stronger novel than Rampant. I think the main reason I feel this way is because, at its core, Ascendant isn't really about killer unicorns, virgin huntresses, or a world where the magical clashes with the mundane; rather it is an examination of choice, and how our choices define us much more so than our destinies ever can. Astrid and the other girls originally enter the convent out of curiosity, a knowledge that they're different, special, the only ones who can provide any sort of aid against the killer unicorns. By the end of Rampant, however, it's become abundantly clear that there's no quick fix to the conflict between humans and unicorns, and the girls choose to stay. It's their choice, and many struggle with that knowledge. Astrid certainly does.

Actually, the vast majority of this book can be summed up in two words: Astrid struggles. She struggles to find a balance between her wants and her duties. She struggles to accept that her current life as a unicorn hunter means that she's a high school dropout, that she cannot pursue her dream of becoming a doctor, that she cannot be fully intimate with her boyfriend, that every day she risks her life. That's a lot for anyone to process, and for the most part Astrid handles it all with remarkable aplomb. It is through her questions and small acts of rebellion, however, that Astrid is able to come into her own. Perhaps not all of her choices make sense to me as a reader, but they make sense within the context of Astrid's characterization and situation. Astrid may be blue-eyed, blonde, and reluctant to utilize her power at first, but over the course of these two novels she's grown into a heroine who is far from derivative.

Ascendant introduces new moral dilemmas for Astrid and her fellow hunters, specifically with in the form of how far their duties extend. Are they trying to simply prevent unicorn attacks on humans? Is there a way that humans and unicorns can coexist, or are the hunters meant to drive the unicorns into extinction? Astrid's unease at the systematic killing of unicorns, along with her desire to use the reemergence of unicorns for some good, causes her to leave the convent for a significant portion of the book. Being away from the Order of the Lioness and working with a new type of unicorn, einhorns, makes for a slower-moving plot, but one that is more compelling for all the questions of morality that surface.

The small issue I had with Ascendant was related to the romance. I actually enjoyed the romance between Astrid and Giovanni in the first book, and the questions and implications it brought forth were well done. Here, Giovanni and Astrid are forced into a long and drawn-out long-distance relationship. Not only that, but a love triangle forms. The relevant and important questions related to female agency, sexuality, duty, and more feel a bit rehashed in this book, and it just doesn't seem as important to Astrid's development here, certainly not for the length of time that the novel devotes to this love triangle.

One of the primary reasons I decided to give Peterfreund's Killer Unicorn series a try was because it was a duology, but I'd be very happy if another installment gets written at some point. The conclusion itself is very fitting, but a lot of subplots are left unresolved. 

As should be clear from my reviews of Rampant and Ascendant, I was quite surprised by this duology. Surprised, but pleased. There are so many different ways in which this series could have turned cliched, campy, or flat-out terrible, and yet the story only got better as it progressed. Peterfreund skillfully weaves together history, mythology/folklore, and her own elements in a well-crafted and intelligent story. I'll do my best to make sure it gains the recognition it deserves, and I encourage you to do your part by giving this book a chance.

Rating: 4.5 stars
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August 27, 2013

Review: Rampant by Diana Peterfreund

Rampant by Diana Peterfreund
Series: Killer Unicorns, #1
Published: 2009, HarperTeen
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Format: Hardcover, 402 pages
Source: Borrowed from library
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Amazing how being bathed in arterial blood can wash out any lingering romantic disappointments.

Killer. Unicorns. Together now: killer unicorns. Those are two words that should not and could not be paired together, at least in my mind. Yet Peterfreund does just that in her novel Rampant, and with no small degree of success.

Astrid Llewelyn has grown up being the one girl who didn't enjoy hearing about unicorns. Ever since she was little, her mother has filled her head with supposedly true stories of evil unicorns who attacked humans with their sharp teeth and venomous horns. And the knowledge that they are descended from the greatest unicorn hunter of all, Clothilde, who drove the unicorns to extinction a few hundred years ago. Her mother's obsession with the history of unicorns and unicorn-hunting hasn't afforded Astrid the most stable life. Her mother chose to focus on stories of unicorns rather than complete her PhD, and with an absent and unknown father, Astrid has had to rely on her mother getting part-time jobs and her uncle's support. Astrid, however, has carefully cultivated a future for herself over recent years and plans on eventually becoming a doctor.

But when Astrid runs into a unicorn one night in the woods that bows to her in deference and then attempts to kill her boyfriend, she realizes that not only are all of her mother's stories have to be true, but as a descendent of hunters she's at risk. She therefore begrudgingly follows her mother's wishes in traveling to Rome to learn how to become a hunter, for self-defense if nothing else. There she meets other girls in similar situations and becomes involved in a life she never thought possible. 

When I was younger, I had a bit of an obsession with horses and their mythical unicorn and pegasi counterparts. I loved the original My Little Pony TV show and movies (although don't get me started on the more recent adaptations). I had tons of figurines of the equine variety on my shelves. I gobbled up Bruce Coville's Unicorn Chronicles (and apparently two new books have been released in this series since then...I know what I'll be picking up soon!), and, later, Peter Beagle's lovely The Last Unicorn. I took horseback riding lessons. The Unicorn Tapestries are my favorite, ever. Through all of this, I've only ever experienced gentle unicorns, so upon hearing the premise of Rampant, I was more than a little flustered. Unicorns aren't evil; they can't be!

Fortunately, however, Peterfreund doesn't necessarily want her readers to think so, either. Sure, the unicorns that she creates are dangerous and predatory, but that's more due to their nature than to any malicious intent. Or at least that's how I'm choosing to interpret this, and it's the gradual conclusion that protagonist Astrid herself forms over the course of the novel. Unicorns eat meat and simply aren't bothered by the fact that what they sometimes eat may be human-owned or a human itself. They also find themselves drawn to hunters, just as hunters can sense the presence of nearby unicorns. Peterfreund establishes the idea that unicorns can certainly be a major threat to humans, but not that they're evil per se, which I appreciated.

What I loved best about Rampant was its focus on gender roles/expectations in our modern times. On the most basic level, Rampant is about empowerment. The only people who are able to kill unicorns are young females, which is pretty awesome. By looking just a little bit more into this form of empowerment, however, there are quite a few troubling aspects. Sure, young females descended from the line of Alexander the Great himself are the only ones able to take on unicorns, but only if they're eligible. What this essentially means is only if they're virgins. Here Peterfreund plays on the old and well-known trope of unicorns being attracted by virginal maidens. But this story takes place in modern times, and so the focus on virginity becomes both antiquated and problematic. The characters, however, are aware of the stereotypes and unfairness of their situation. They gripe. They rebel. At one point Astrid even considers finding an "Acteon" (a man to sleep with simply to lose her eligibility as a hunter). The hunters' individual decisions to stay, regardless of their beliefs in destiny and the personal sacrifices they must make, is ultimately what empowers them.

For the most part, the inclusion of unicorns in our modern-day world is not wholly unbelievable. Peterfreund certainly does have tons of historical and artistic materials to use in validation of the existence of unicorns within this world, and all that history is put to good use. In Astrid's world there are four types of unicorns: the zhi (they seem the most like what we typically expect unicorns to look like), the kirin, the re'em, and the karkaadan. I enjoyed learning about each of them and figuring out how these various unicorn itinerations can be found throughout history.

The irony here is that if the story was instead about the life of Astrid's ancestor Clothilde, I would have been much more interested in the novel. I did quite enjoy the reading experience as it was, but I prefer my fantasy to be high fantasy and take place in an older sort of world. Nonetheless, Astrid is a strong and likable protagonist, even if she does fit into the mold of the reluctant heroine. I really appreciated Astrid's love of medicine, from her trying to reproduce the Remedy (which would save non-hunters pierced by an alicorn from death) to her worries about missing school and how that affects her chances to get into med school. 

Rampant pleasantly surprised me. This is a refreshingly unique fantasy that retains quite a bit of depth and manages to avoid becoming campy or ridiculous. Recommended for those who are tired of traditional paranormal tropes and are seeking a fantasy outside of the usual high fantasy fare.

Rating: 4 stars
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August 23, 2013

An A to Z Survey

Two weeks ago, The Perpetual Page-Turner created an A to Z survey on all things book-related and encouraged other bloggers to take the survey themselves. When I was a young teen I loved participating in various surveys and questionnaires about anything (although most were related to some fandom or another). I thought it would be fun to participate in this as well! Once again, credit for the creation of this survey and graphic above goes to The Perpetual Page-Turner. Here goes nothing!

Author you've read the most books from:
I was never into super long series at any point, so my best guess here would be Tamora Pierce. I've read all of her Tortall series to date (Song of the Lioness, The Immortals, Protector of the Small, Daughter of the Lioness, and Beka Cooper); that's 17 books total from her.

Best sequel ever: 
The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner. This sequel just upped the stakes to such an incredible degree. And each subsequent book in the series since then has continued to do so. 

Currently Reading:
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.

Drink of choice while reading:
Nothing, generally. When I'm reading I don't want to be distracted with food, drink, noise, or anything, really. 

E-reader or physical book:
Physical books! I love my Kindle and the ease of ebooks, but it's never going to get read as much as physical books will. I love being able to pick up old books and flipping to certain passages. I like to refer back to earlier chapters or scenes as I'm reading. Neither of these habits translate well to ebooks, and the whole DRM/licensing issues that ebooks currently face make me wary. 

Fictional character you probably actually would have dated in high school:
I suppose the wording of this question means that my answer should refer to a book that takes place in a contemporary setting. That limits my potential options significantly. But hmm, I think I'd have to go with Jessie de Silva from Meg Cabot's The Mediator series. He's attractive, quite the gentleman, and I loved how he always called Suze "querida." I want to be called querida. I had a legit crush on him when I was a teen and the series he's part of is modern-day, if not completely contemporary.

Glad you gave this book a chance:
Dairy Queen, The Off Season, and Front and Center by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. These books are about the daughter of a dairy farmer in a small town in Wisconsin who plays football and basketball. Sports are not really my thing, nor are contemporaries. But a few trusted reviewers raved about this series and I liked the fact it's set in my current state, so I gave them a try. So very worth it!

Hidden gem book: 
Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst. I actually have no idea what sort of reception/awareness it has with readers, but being a standalone fantasy puts it at a distinct disadvantage. Not many bloggers I know of seem to have read this, but I will continue to sing its praises until it gains the recognition it deserves.

Important moment in your reading life:
Discovering the Harry Potter books along with my fourth-grade class. One of my classmates had gone to London and returned with copies of the first two books, which my teacher proceeded to read aloud to us. Not only was I super early to the Harry Potter craze, but the stories really spoke to me. I just loved everything about them, and it was then that I began reading primarily fantasy and was inspired to start writing myself.

Just finished: 
Austenland by Shannon Hale. Now I have a craving for some Jane Austen, but unfortunately I'm away from my collection. I'll have to read one of her books shortly after returning home!

Kinds of books you won't read:
Erotica. Biographies or auto-biographies. Hard science fiction. Most non-fiction. There are certainly exceptions here, but for the most part I tend to know what I'll like in books and what will turn me away. I just don't want to have to spend time reading a book I'm not that interested in from the beginning.

Longest book you've read: 
I've read my fair share of chunksters. This isn't really a surprise as I have already professed my love of lengthy novels. My best guess, according to Goodreads and scanning my shelves would be A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin (1177 pages).

Major book hangover because of:
Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta. As soon as I finished, I realized that I couldn't just move on to another book--I needed to re-read it and piece everything together myself.

Number of bookcases you own:
Only one! I've never been a huge book-buyer; well, at least not before I started my blog. And I've been fine with leaving my current favorites on my shelves and then moving the rest into easily-accessible boxes in our storage room. Recently, though, I've been looking into buying another bookshelf.

One book you have read multiple times:
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. This is my absolute favorite fairy-tale retelling ever and I find such comfort in returning to Ella's story over and over again. 

Preferred place to read:
My bed. Nine times out of ten, this is where I'll be found while reading.

Quote that inspires you/gives you all the feels from a book you've read:
“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” 
 J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets 

I think basically any Dumbledore quote would work just as well here.
Reading regret:
My biggest reading regret is always going to be the knowledge that I cannot possibly read every book I want to, and that some that I would in fact love are going to get passed by.

Series you've started but need to finish (all books are out in the series):
The Lumatere Chronicles by Melina Marchetta. In 2012 I read and enjoyed Finnikin of the Rock enough to buy a copy of that, along with copies of Froi of the Exiles and Quintana of Charyn. I plan on doing a series binge and reading all three in a row.

Three of your all-time favorite books:
Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.
Graceling & Fire by Kristin Cashore.
The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner.

Unapologetic fangirl for:
The Lord of the Rings series. I'm not as big a fangirl as I used to be, but I have read the original trilogy, the its prequel The Hobbit many times, watched the film versions countless times, own dozens of board game and book tie-ins, and have a shrine devoted to Orlando Bloom as Legolas... Okay, the last one was a joke. But there was a time not that long ago where I devoured everything LotR-related that I could, and I still have a heavy appreciation for Tolkien's epic fantasy saga.

Very excited for this release more than all the others: 
Shadowscale by Rachel Hartman. February, come sooner!

Worst bookish habit:
Probably how anal I am about the maintenance of my books. I get upset if I own books from series in different formats, different sizes, different editions, etc. It also upsets me when my book spines get broken, so I end up reading trade paperbacks opened as little as possible. These OCD tendencies many times lead me to spend extra money on books (I'd rather have new and matching) and super judgmental of the conditions of others' books. The only exception here is with library books, whose varying conditions don't bother me. 

X marks the spot: Start at the top left of your shelf and pick the 27th book: 
The Oxford Book of American Poetry edited by David Lehman. I bought this chunkster for a poetry-based creative writing course. I've read only a small fraction of its contents, but I do love returning to poetry when I'm in the right mood.

Your latest book purchase:
Preordering Rae Carson's The Bitter Kingdom! I'm looking forward to reading the final two Fire and Thorns installments back-to-back. 

Zzzzz-snatcher book. Last book that kept you up way too late:
I don't really end up staying up super late to read books anymore. I have work during the week and on the weekends I still am used to going to bed at a relatively decent time and then waking up on the early side. So I'm guessing the last one was Neal Schuesterman's Unwind. After that one scene, I needed to see how everything resolved. Also, I knew that if I fell asleep after reading that I'd have nightmares.

That was fun. If you've also done this, please link me up to your survey! 
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August 21, 2013

Review: Front and Center by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Front and Center by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Series: Dairy Queen, #3
Published: 2009, Graphia
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Format: Paperback, 254 pages
Source: Borrowed from library
Contains spoilers for Dairy Queen (my review) & The Off Season (my review)
· Amazon · Barnes & Noble 

Lying in bed that night, I almost started crying. Who knew a date would be so much work? It was never like that when I went out with Amber, hanging out with her at Taco Bell. That was just fun. And sure, I'd laughed tonight, and even cracked a couple of jokes. But I was just so aware every second of what I was doing and how I was acting. Worrying I wasn't doing it right. Is this was being popular meant? Getting ulcers? Instead of being a background nobody with Amber?
Maybe Brian had been smart to stay away from me in public. Maybe he understood me better that I'd even thought. Maybe he'd been right after all.

I must admit that after concluding this trilogy, Dairy Queen remains my favorite of the three. That's not to say that I haven't enjoyed The Off Season or Front and Center, but they did not manage to affect me quite the way the introduction to D.J.'s life did. Still, what a wonderful trilogy this is. Wonderful and unexpected. I'm not generally a fan of contemporaries, nor do I always love reading series, but powering straight through this series was refreshing and reinvigorated my love of contemporaries done right. I am exiting this series a little maternally, actually, as I've fondly watched D.J. and those around her grow to such incredible but believable heights. I know that they will be fine in their lives, even though Murdock has officially penned their last words. 

D.J. is ready for a sense of normalcy to return to her life once more. She spent the last month and a half out of school, staying with her brother Win as he began his slow road to recovery following a severe spinal cord injury. Before that, she had to give up playing boys' football due to a shoulder injury that could have ruined her basketball game. And for the six months prior to that, D.J.'s grades suffered and she was forced to quit playing on the basketball team because her father's hip injury meant that all the daily Schwenk dairy farm duties fell upon her. Things seem to be stabilizing now, however, and D.J. is ready to retreat to the background and focus on playing basketball once more.

But nothing is simple for D.J., even when everything seems to be going well. As a junior and the star basketball player of her high school, D.J. finds herself overwhelmed by the amount of pressure put upon her to get a basketball scholarship for college. Her brother Win tries to encourage her in his own way, her coach tries to get D.J. to speak up and became the leader her team needs, the school and team depend on D.J.'s playing abilities, all while D.J. is very much aware of the fact that any chance for her to go to college is dependent on her receiving a scholarship. On top of that, she's getting attention from friend who wants to become more than a friend, and from Brian Nelson, who still won't leave her alone, even in her thoughts. D.J.'s family is proud of what she's accomplished so far and she has a better relationship with them all. But going from everything being wrong to everything suddenly being overwhelmingly good and focused on her future does not make for an easy transition.

After the two books focused on D.J. trying to gain her voice and confidence, all the while being limited by the needs of others, here, as the title so aptly pronounces, readers are finally able to witness D.J. take the front and center stage in her life. But front and center is definitely a difficult place to be, especially with someone as uncomfortable being noticed as D.J. is. A large portion of this book is dedicated to D.J.'s uncertainty and tendency to waffle over decisions. Does she really like Beaner? If so, why doesn't she feel the same spark that she still feels for Brian? Does she want to play Division I basketball? Is she even good enough to do so? How can she become a better leader on her school's team? What does her family want her to do? And, most importantly, what does she want to do about everything?

In pursuit of answers to some of these questions, D.J. makes many, many mistakes. Despite the significant praise and acclaim D.J. has received from friends, family, teammates, college recruiters, and more, D.J. continues to lack self-confidence. While certainly understandable, the intense focus on D.J.'s indecision has a tendency to become frustratingly overwrought at times. By this point in the series, readers and supporting characters alike know that D.J. is more than capable of handling any task thrown her way; she's just not quite at the point where she can admit that to herself. And that's okay. D.J. is only sixteen years old and, appropriately, does not have her life planned out just yet. All of her waffling brings her closer and closer to figuring out what she really wants, and, at the end of the day, that is what matters.

The best part of this book - of the whole trilogy, really - is the strength of character development. D.J. feels wonderfully real, as do all the other characters she comes to interact with. The Schwenk family is not one I'll easily forget. And, much to my surprise, the relationship between D.J. and Brian has become one of my favorite YA romances. It would have been so easy for me to dismiss Brian, for so many of his actions are seemingly unforgivable. Yet, he's crafted with the same attention to detail as everyone else, thus becoming fully three-dimensional and understandable, even if I cannot condone all of his actions. D.J. and Brian really do bring out the best in one another, and I really enjoyed witnessing their mutual growth. And the growth of all the characters within this story.

Front and Center is a worthy conclusion to D.J.'s story. Although I almost wish that Murdock would write more, I am content with using my imagination from here to see how the lives of the Schwenk family and all those they touched would continue. I never would have thought that stories about a girl who lives on a dairy farm, plays football and basketball, is self-sacrificing in the aid she provides to her family, and is forced the pitfalls and uncertainties of college sports scholarships would make its way to my favorite contemporary series, but it has. Murdock's series is one that should not be missed by fans of sports, strong female protagonists, or just anyone who enjoys a well-told story. 

Rating: 4 stars
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