Book Review: Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

Book Review:  Swimming Lessons by Claire FullerSwimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
five-stars
Published by Tin House Books on February 7th 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 350
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  Ingrid Coleman writes letters to her husband, Gil, about the truth of their marriage, but instead of giving them to him, she hides them in the thousands of books he has collected over the years. When Ingrid has written her final letter she disappears from a Dorset beach, leaving behind her beautiful but dilapidated house by the sea, her husband, and her two daughters, Flora and Nan.

Twelve years later, Gil thinks he sees Ingrid from a bookshop window, but he’s getting older and this unlikely sighting is chalked up to senility. Flora, who has never believed her mother drowned, returns home to care for her father and to try to finally discover what happened to Ingrid. But what Flora doesn’t realize is that the answers to her questions are hidden in the books that surround her. Scandalous and whip-smart, Swimming Lessons holds the Coleman family up to the light, exposing the mysterious truths of a passionate and troubled marriage.

 

MY REVIEW

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I picked up Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons, but wow, what an incredibly beautiful and engaging read it was for me.  In fact, I think it’s my first 5 star read of 2017. What I loved about Swimming Lessons was that while it contains a great deal of suspense, it was not at all what I would classify as a typical thriller.  Instead of nonstop, heart-pounding action, this story was a quiet exploration of a troubled marriage and its impact on an entire family.

When the novel opens, Gil Coleman has suffered an accident.  When his two daughters, Flora and Nan, hear of his accident, they rush home to be by their father’s side but are distraught when they hear him say that he hurt himself while following their mother, Ingrid.  Why?  Because Ingrid Coleman was presumed dead in a drowning accident twelve years earlier. The fact that Ingrid’s body was never found has always haunted the family.  Was there any way she could have survived, but if so, why would she then have disappeared for twelve years?  Nan chooses to believe that her mother is dead so that she can move on with her life and chalks her father’s story up to the delusions of an elderly man, but Flora and of course Gil, still seem to hold on to a sliver of hope that Ingrid may be out there somewhere.  At one point, Flora even swears that she sees her mother and starts trying to follow her across town.  The discrepancy in how the family members feel regarding Ingrid’s disappearance introduces a thread that runs throughout the novel – is it better to know the truth even if it’s not the truth we wanted or is it better to keep hope alive even if it means we may spend our entire lives hoping for something that may never happen?

 

LIKES

 

One of the elements of Swimming Lessons that I really loved is that the story is revealed to us in two parts, through alternating chapters – we see the present from the viewpoint of Flora, but then we are also given a rich portrait of the past from the viewpoint of Ingrid.  How? Because unbeknownst to Flora and Nan, and perhaps even to Gil, Ingrid has written a series of letters and hidden them in books strategically around the Coleman house.  In these letters, she lays out for Gil the way she viewed their lives together – from the moment they first met when Ingrid was a student in one of Gil’s writing classes in college through all the years of their marriage leading up to the moment when Ingrid presumably drowned.  Honestly, Ingrid’s letters are the backbone of this story. They add layer upon layer of rich detail and history that, especially with regard to Gil, are often quite different from the present-day version of Gil that we see through Flora’s eyes.  What Ingrid’s letters give us is the portrait of a young woman who wants to be a writer but then gets so caught up in an affair with her charming college professor that she ends up not graduating from college, getting pregnant instead, and settling into what eventually becomes a very troubled marriage.  Gil wants her to be a baby-making machine and little more than that and she resents it.  Since he won’t listen to her, Ingrid resorts to writing these letters to him in hopes that he’ll find them someday in his precious books which fill nearly every room of their house.  What we see as we get to read the letters is that their relationship becomes so stifling to her over the years, it becomes easier and easier for the reader to wonder if perhaps there is any truth to the idea that she may still be out there somewhere.  Could she have faked her death so that she could have a fresh start somewhere else?  Or are we just getting caught up in the same line of wishful thinking that Flora and Gil are in?

Another thread that runs through Swimming Lessons that I loved was the idea that readers bring their own meaning and interpretations to a book.  One of Gil’s favorite pasttimes is to collect books and study the marginalia (i.e. what readers have written or doodled in the margins, what they’ve left behind, while they’re reading).  He believes that those little pieces of themselves that readers leave behind are what give insight into the character of the book and add meaning to the book itself.  It therefore makes it all the more meaningful that Ingrid has chosen to leave behind these little pieces of herself in so many of his books.  I loved the idea that she had left clues right under his nose for years and that if he were to find them all and follow the evidence, he might have a definitive answer as to what happened to her or at least a definitive why anyway.

I think my absolute favorite aspect of this novel was the author’s writing style.  Fuller’s writing is just so elegant and simple – the story felt very organic as it unfolded.  It wasn’t this huge melodramatic event, more just the quiet reveal of a troubled family.

 

DISLIKES

The only dislike I had in this book was Gil himself.  At first I was somewhat indifferent to him or maybe even felt a little bad for him that he was imagining seeing his dead wife. But then once I started reading Ingrid’s letter, I felt a strong dislike for pretty much everything about him.  As much as I disliked him though, I still very much appreciated the rich character portrait we were given of him so hats off to the author for doing such an incredible job portraying him, his warts and all.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS?

 

Swimming Lessons was a powerful read for me, not just because of the ‘Is she really dead or could she possibly be alive?’ mystery that runs through the novel, but also because it embraces those threads that are woven through it and leaves the reader to interpret what really happened to Ingrid.  We all bring our own meanings to the books we read, and as Gil says, no two of us read the exact same book.  Want to find out what really happened to Ingrid?  Read Swimming Lessons yourself and find your own meaning.

 

RATING:  5 STARS

 

 

five-stars

About Claire Fuller

Claire Fuller trained as a sculptor before working in marketing for many years. In 2013 she completed an MA in Creative Writing, and wrote her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days. It was published in the UK by Penguin, in the US by Tin House, in Canada by House of Anansi and bought for translation in 15 other countries. Our Endless Numbered Days won the 2015 Desmond Elliott prize.

Claire’s second novel, Swimming Lessons was published in early 2017.

Book Review: Roseblood

Book Review:  RosebloodRoseBlood by A.G. Howard
three-stars
Published by Harry N. Abrams on January 10th 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 432
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  In this modern day spin on Leroux’s gothic tale of unrequited love turned to madness, seventeen-year-old Rune Germain has a mysterious affliction linked to her operatic talent, and a horrifying mistake she’s trying to hide. Hoping creative direction will help her, Rune’s mother sends her to a French arts conservatory for her senior year, located in an opera house rumored to have ties to The Phantom of the Opera.

At RoseBlood, Rune secretly befriends the masked Thorn—an elusive violinist who not only guides her musical transformation through dreams that seem more real than reality itself, but somehow knows who she is behind her own masks. As the two discover an otherworldly connection and a soul-deep romance blossoms, Thorn’s dark agenda comes to light and he’s forced to make a deadly choice: lead Rune to her destruction, or face the wrath of the phantom who has haunted the opera house for a century, and is the only father he’s ever known.

 

 

MY REVIEW

 

As soon as I started reading A. G. Howard’s Roseblood, I had a vague sense of déjà vu.  Déjà vu, not because of the obvious expected connection to the original Phantom of the Opera story upon which it is based, but more so because main character Rune Germain’s story starts to follow a predictable pattern that I seem to keep running into when I’m reading YA fantasy.  You know the one – YA heroine has a magical ability that may be a gift or it may be a curse because she can’t really control it.  She is sent away some place where she can be trained to better control the ability, meets a boy along the way, and so on.  Rune’s gift (or curse as the case may be) is that she can’t hear opera without literally bursting into song wherever she is.  She has an angelic, mesmerizing singing voice but truly has no control over this overwhelming draw to opera.  Then as if spontaneously bursting into song isn’t embarrassing enough, she also typically faints once she has finished these little outbursts of song.  Weird, right?

Anyway, so Rune’s mother has been searching high and low for a way to “cure” Rune of this problem and decides to send her to Roseblood, a school for the Arts in France that happens to be located in an old opera house rumored to have ties to The Phantom of the Opera.  I was a little skeptical about the choice of a music school over something a little more medical or psychological in nature, but whatever, I decided to just roll with it and see what happened next since this obviously got her to this old opera house and closer to the Phantom roots of the story.

Where I was a little disappointed was that I didn’t feel like I really connected much with Rune for the longest time and part of that had to do with the pacing of the story.  So much of the first half of the book was devoted to Rune getting settled in at her new school that I really started to get bored waiting for something more exciting to happen.  Thankfully the second half of the novel moves along at a much faster clip.

I think the other reason for my initial lack of connection with Rune was my feeling that her musical gift, curse, whatever was just so odd.  I didn’t really start to feel any connection to her at all until she finally meets the boy that I knew would eventually appear in the story, Etalon (or Thorn as he is called by his adopted father, The Phantom! Yes, you read that right. The Phantom has a son in this story.)

* * * * * *

Now, where Rune’s story didn’t really tug on my heartstrings, A. G. Howard got me hook, line, and sinker with Etalon.  Etalon’s story is just so heartbreaking.  Etalon was orphaned as a young child, sold to the gypsies by his neighbor, and ended up imprisoned and abused by men who were known to sell children to those who wanted them for sexual reasons.  Like Rune, Etalon possessed an angelic singing voice, which annoyed his captors so much that they poured lye into his throat to permanently damage his vocal cords.  He lives at the mercy of these men until the Phantom finds and frees him, killing his captors and setting all of the other children free.  The Phantom takes Etalon in and they live together as father and son, underground and in the shadows of Roseblood.

Etalon lives most of his life feeling indebted to his “father,” which leads to the biggest conflict in the story.  The Phantom is desperate to be reunited with his lost love, Christine, and has actually come up with a pretty shocking way to make this happen.  I can’t go into any details, but what he has come up with is truly O.M.G.  The one catch though is that the Phantom needs Rune and her voice to make it happen. He charges Etalon with the task of getting close to Rune by convincing her that he can help her control her compulsive need to sign.  Then he is to gradually gain her trust so as to eventually lead her to the Phantom so that he can use her to achieve his goal.  As he gets closer to Rune, however, he realizes that they share a connection that he has never felt before, that she is his soul mate.  This puts him in the impossible position of having to choose between the only father he has ever known and the girl that he loves.  For me, Etalon’s internal conflict was what really made the story.  I think I might have given up on the book if I had not found his story so compelling.

* * * * * *

In spite of my disappointment with the pacing and with the somewhat predictable storyline of Rune, there were still some things that I really liked about Roseblood.

Howard does an incredible job of conveying the creepy Gothic atmosphere that you would expect to find in a story about the Phantom of the Opera.  I also liked that Howard stayed pretty true to the original Phantom story, actually using many of the details as a backstory for Roseblood, which seemed more like a sequel to the original Phantom story set in modern times, with the Phantom alive and well in 21st century France. I won’t get into how exactly that is even possible because that would probably be the biggest spoiler of the entire story, but it adds quite a twist and breaks up that predictable pattern that Rune’s story had started down.

I also really liked the chemistry between Rune and Etalon. Their chemistry is undeniable – the intense bond they share actually reminds me a lot of Feyre and Rhysand in A Court of Mist and Fury – and even though I’m not typically big into romance, I was all about hoping that somehow things would work out and these two would end up together.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I went into Roseblood expecting to absolutely love it because The Phantom of the Opera is such an incredible story.  I don’t know if my expectations were just too high, but I have to say I came away a little disappointed.  Don’t get me wrong – it’s a good solid read that I would still recommend to fans of the original story, but it just didn’t blow me away as much as I thought it would.

RATING:  3 STARS

three-stars

About A.G. Howard

International and NYT best-selling author, Anita Grace Howard, lives in the Texas panhandle. She is most at home weaving the melancholy and macabre into settings and scenes, twisting the expected into the unexpected. She’s inspired by all things flawed, utilizing the complex loveliness of human conditions and raw emotions to give her characters life, then turning their world upside down so the reader’s blood will race.

Married and mother of two teens (as well as surrogate mom to two Guinea pigs and one Labrador retriever), Anita divides her days between spending time with her family and plodding along or plotting on her next book.

When she’s not writing, Anita enjoys rollerblading, biking, snow skiing, gardening, and family vacations that at any given time might include an impromptu side trip to an 18th century graveyard or a condemned schoolhouse for photo ops.

Book Review: The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis

Book Review:  The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnisThe Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis
four-half-stars
Published by Katherine Tegen Books on September 20th 2016
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 341
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:   Alex Craft knows how to kill someone. And she doesn’t feel bad about it. When her older sister, Anna, was murdered three years ago and the killer walked free, Alex uncaged the language she knows best. The language of violence.  While her crime goes unpunished, Alex knows she can’t be trusted among other people, even in her small hometown. She relegates herself to the shadows, a girl who goes unseen in plain sight, unremarkable in the high school hallways.

But Jack Fisher sees her. He’s the guy all other guys want to be: the star athlete gunning for valedictorian with the prom queen on his arm. Guilt over the role he played the night Anna’s body was discovered hasn’t let him forget Alex over the years, and now her green eyes amid a constellation of freckles have his attention. He doesn’t want to only see Alex Craft; he wants to know her.

So does Peekay, the preacher’s kid, a girl whose identity is entangled with her dad’s job, though that does not stop her from knowing the taste of beer or missing the touch of her ex-boyfriend. When Peekay and Alex start working together at the animal shelter, a friendship forms and Alex’s protective nature extends to more than just the dogs and cats they care for.

Circumstances bring Alex, Jack, and Peekay together as their senior year unfolds. While partying one night, Alex’s darker nature breaks out, setting the teens on a collision course that will change their lives forever.

MY REVIEW

Wow, what a book! I hardly know where to even begin so I’m going to start off by saying Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species is a book that definitely isn’t going to be for everyone.  This is not a light contemporary read by any stretch.  The Female of the Species is dark, violent, and incredibly intense.  It’s also one of the most powerful takedowns of rape culture that I’ve ever read.

LIKES

For me, the most fascinating part of The Female of the Species is main character, Alex Craft.  Alex has always had a dark side. She can feel the violence bubbling beneath the surface, just waiting to be unleashed.  For most of her life, she has been able to keep this dark side under control.  However, when her older sister Anna is sexually assaulted and murdered and the murderer goes free, the beast within Alex awakens and she takes matters into her own hands to get justice for her sister.  Alex gets away with her crime but feels like she could easily do the same thing again if she encounters another predator so she doesn’t really trust herself to be around other people.  Because of this, she doesn’t really make any friends at school and is mainly known by her classmates as “the girl with the dead sister.” That is, until she unexpectedly becomes friends with Jack and Peekay, her first real friendships, and it suddenly becomes a lot harder to hide her true dark nature.

I loved the complexity of Alex’s character.  On the one hand, she’s a straight A student in line to be valedictorian of her class and she also volunteers at the local animal shelter and is super gentle with all of the animals that she cares for.  On the other hand, she’s a stone cold vigilante who will go after anyone she views as a predator.

The first time her new friends witness vigilante Alex in action is in the hallway at school when a guy makes a really bad sexual joke in front of Alex.  The joke is stupid, hurtful, and offensive and it earns the guy a punch in the groin from Alex that brings him to his knees.  The reactions of those who witness the punch are a mixed bag: some are shocked and appalled, while others pretty much cheer her on.  I count myself as one of those who cheered her on.

At first I thought that perhaps her friendship with Peekay (aka Preacher’s Kid, but whose real name is actually Claire) would help to settle Alex and help her live a more normal day-to-day life as they worked at the shelter together and bonded so well.  Instead, however, it actually makes the vigilante behavior escalate because the more Alex begins to care about Peekay, the more protective she becomes of her.  When Peekay gets drunk at a party and some guys try to take advantage of her, Alex swoops in like a hawk and violently attacks the guys, actually drawing blood and disfiguring one of them.  I have to admit that I cheered Alex on here as well but at the same time was a little uncomfortable with just how violent she got.  Or maybe my discomfort was more with myself for thinking “Yes! Get them, Alex!” while she was pulverizing them.  Either way, this was kind of a ‘Holy crap!’ scene for me.

To fully flesh out Alex’s character, McGinnis structures the story so that it is told from three different points of view, each of them giving us a slightly different look at Alex.  Alex, of course, is one of them, while her friends Peekay and Jack are the other two.

It is through Alex’s chapters that we see how dark of a character she really is.  One standout moment for me was when she thinks back to a time when she tried reading a bunch of psychology textbooks trying to figure out what’s wrong with her because she knows the way she feels isn’t normal but doesn’t think she’ll ever feel differently:  “I’m not fine, and I doubt I ever will be. The books didn’t help me find a word for myself; my father refused to accept the weight of it. And so I made my own. I am vengeance.”

Alternating Alex’s dark chapters with those of Peekay and Jack allows us to not only see how Alex views herself, but also how others around her see her and how their views of her change the more they get to know her and see her darker side showing itself more and more.  While Alex views herself as this monster who can’t be trusted around others, Peekay sees her as a wonderful friend and as the one who can work magic with even the most hostile animals at the shelter where they work.

Jack, along the same lines as Peekay, sees Alex way different from how she sees herself.  He sees her as a girl he wants to know as more than just the girl with the dead sister. He becomes attracted to Alex because he sees her as having so much more substance than other girls their age. Eventually Jack and Alex do become romantically involved and their closeness gives Alex a glimpse at what a normal life could look like and she starts to wonder if it’s possible to control the darkness within her and live happily ever after with Jack.

Seeing the story from these three different points of view made for a very suspenseful read because as that darkness kept showing itself and giving Jack and Peekay little glimpses into Alex’s violent nature, I couldn’t help but want to know if these relationships would survive if they were to find out the whole truth about Alex and what would happen to Alex if she were to lose these two people who had become so important to her.

DISLIKES

My only real dislike was that there was one scene that contained animal cruelty, which is always a turnoff for me.  Thankfully it was a small scene, but it just didn’t feel necessary to the plot so I was disappointed that it was in the book.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Even though I’ve said this isn’t a book that will appeal to everyone because of the darkness and the violence, The Female of the Species is still such an important book that I wish everyone would go outside of their comfort zones and read it anyway.  It makes a powerful statement about rape culture and how it affects people.  There shouldn’t need to be Alex Crafts in the world to take matters into their own hands.

That said, I can state without hesitation that Alex Craft and The Female of the Species are going to stick with me for a long time.  They’ve given me a lot to think about.

RATING:  4.5 STARS

four-half-stars

About Mindy McGinnis

Mindy McGinnis is an Edgar Award-winning author and assistant teen librarian who lives in Ohio. She graduated from Otterbein University with a degree in English Literature and Religion, and sees nothing wrong with owning nine cats. Two dogs balance things out nicely.

Mindy runs a blog for aspiring writers at Writer, Writer Pants on Fire, which features interviews with agents, established authors, and debut authors. Learn how they landed their agents, what the submission process is really like, and how it feels when you see your cover for the first time. Mindy does query critiques every Saturday on the Saturday Slash for those who are brave enough to volunteer.

Beat the Backlist Book Review: When We Collided by Emery Lord

Beat the Backlist Book Review:  When We Collided by Emery LordWhen We Collided by Emery Lord
four-stars
Published by Bloomsbury USA Childrens on April 5th 2016
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Purchased
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  Seventeen year-old Jonah Daniels has lived in Verona Cove, California, his whole life, and only one thing has ever changed: his father used to be alive, and now he is not. With a mother lost in a deep bout of depression, Jonah and his five siblings struggle to keep up their home and the restaurant their dad left behind. But at the start of summer, a second change rolls in: Vivi Alexander, the new girl in town.

Vivi is in love with life. Charming and unfiltered, she refuses to be held down by the medicine she’s told should make her feel better. After meeting Jonah, she slides into the Daniels’ household seamlessly, winning over each sibling with her imagination and gameness. But it’s not long before Vivi’s zest for life begins to falter. Soon her adventurousness becomes all-out danger-seeking.

Through each high and low, Vivi and Jonah’s love is put to the test . . . but what happens when love simply isn’t enough?

MY REVIEW

Emery Lord’s When We Collided is a beautiful and moving story that follows teenagers Jonah Daniels and Vivi Alexander as they meet and fall in love in Verona Beach while on summer vacation.  What makes When We Collided such a standout novel for me, however, is that it’s so much more than just a contemporary romance.  It also offers up fully fleshed out, flawed and therefore realistic characters that I immediately connected with and wanted to know more about, has a strong focus on family, and most importantly, it gives the readers an honest and poignant look at what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder and depression.

 

LIKES

Emery Lord does an incredible job of crafting a dual point-of-view story where each point of view is distinct and equally compelling.  From the moment we meet them, we learn that each character has a secret they’re trying to hide – Vivi is trying to hide the fact that she has a mental illness while Jonah and his siblings are hiding the fact that their mother has been practically catatonic since their dad passed away seven months ago.  It’s easy to see that Vivi and Jonah’s decision to keep these facts hidden probably isn’t the best course of action in the long run, but at the same time, I can see where they’re coming from and why they’re not ready to let anyone know what they’re going through.

Jonah Daniels – I fell in love with his character from the first moment we encounter him as he’s walking his little sister down to the pottery shop so that she can paint a mug.  He’s such a sweet and devoted brother and son and he’s incredibly mature and responsible for his age, almost too responsible honestly.  His father’s death and his mother’s subsequent depression has forced Jonah to become an adult and the head of their household even though he’s only 17 and the third of six children.  It should be his summer vacation, but instead of enjoying his summer like his classmates are doing, Jonah spends every waking moment juggling work and taking care of his three younger siblings.

Vivi Alexander – Vivi has this vibrant, larger than life personality and so she blows into Verona Beach like a whirlwind and makes it her mission to spread her love of life all over the town. She is a free spirit who wants to see and experience everything that life has to offer.  As light and buoyant as Vivi seems, we do learn early on that there was some drama back at home and she and her mom are spending their summer at Verona Beach as a way to basically give Vivi a fresh start.  We also learn, when we witness Vivi make a production about tossing a pill out into the ocean, that she is supposed to be taking medication for something and has clearly chosen not to do so.  Seeing her do this so early on let me know right away that there’s way more to Vivi than meets the eye and I felt that things would not be all sunshine and rainbows for her during the course of the story.

Exploration of Mental Health – One of the things I really liked about When We Collided was that even though on the surface it looked like it was going to be summer romance story, it’s really so much more than that. Emery Lord explores many aspects of mental health, including bipolar disorder, grief, and depression.  Her exploration is thorough in that it not only allows us to see what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder and/or depression, but it also shows us what it’s like to live with and/or love someone who has either bipolar or depression.

In my mind, Vivi and Jonah aren’t so much in love with each other in this story as they “collided” at a time when each had a void in their lives that they needed filled.  For Jonah who has barely been living his own life since his dad died and his mom got too depressed to really function, Vivi arrives and brings much needed excitement, fun, spontaneity, and romance, giving Jonah somewhat of an escape from his all too serious life.  For Vivi, Jonah is someone she can focus her attention on this summer – she can have a fun summer fling with someone who isn’t watching her like a hawk for signs of mental illness and who knows nothing of the drama that her illness apparently created back home for her.  Since no one in Verona Beach knows of her history, everyone just assumes that her over-the-top enthusiastic personality is just that – her personality.  They don’t see it as a sign of untreated mental illness and so Vivi can live her life with a clean slate… well, as long as she can keep her disorder in check anyway.

Focus on Family – I loved Jonah’s whole family just as much as I loved Jonah.  Each sibling is well drawn and even though the story is mostly about Jonah and Vivi, Jonah’s family members don’t just function as a backdrop.  Lord really does a wonderful job of fleshing out the complexities of the Daniels family dynamic and I especially loved seeing Jonah’s relationship with each of his siblings.  He really does have a special bond with each of them, especially the older siblings that share the burden of trying to keep their family together.  While it was a little frustrating that they didn’t just go to someone to get help for their mom, I did admire how they all banded together to take care of each other.

The Setting:  Verona Beach is this charming small town on the California coast. I fell in love with the town because it reminded me so much of my own hometown.  It’s one of those places where everyone knows everyone else and there’s just a real sense of community.  There are also lots of quaint little shops all over town, like the pottery studio where main character Vivi ends up working and the diner where the waitress calls everyone nicknames like sugar and honeybun.  Everything about Verona Beach is just picture perfect.

DISLIKES

Because I saw this novel as more of an exploration of mental illness, I kind of wish it didn’t have a romance in it. What Jonah and Vivi each really needed was a good friend to confide in more so than they needed someone to flirt with and date.   Their relationship was still cute at times, but I think the story could have been even more powerful and memorable than it already is if it had been more about friendship.  Just a personal preference though and the romance didn’t diminish my love of the story.

FINAL THOUGHTS

If you’re looking for a fun summer read, I’d honestly say that this probably isn’t the best choice.  Even though that romance is there, it’s definitely not the focus of When We Collided.  If you’re looking for a thoughtful read that gives an honest look into what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder and/or depression, then When We Collided would be a great choice.

RATING:  4 STARS

four-stars

About Emery Lord

Hi! I’m Emery. I’m the author of four novels about teenage girls:  OPEN ROAD SUMMER, THE START OF ME & YOU, WHEN WE COLLIDED, and THE NAMES THEY GAVE US.  I was born near a harbor on the East coast and raised near a beach, an ocean, a great lake, and the Ohio River. I’m a longtime Cincinnatian, where we love good beer, good music, and our public library.   I’m married to a scientist who shuts down every wedding dance floor, and we are owned by two rescue dogs.  I believe in the magic of storytelling, Ferris wheels, and you.” – Emery Load, in her own words

ARC Review: How to Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake

ARC Review: How to Make a Wish by Ashley Herring BlakeHow to Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake
four-stars
Published by HMH Books for Young Readers on May 2nd 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 336
Source: the Publisher
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  All seventeen year-old Grace Glasser wants is her own life. A normal life in which she sleeps in the same bed for longer than three months and doesn’t have to scrounge for spare change to make sure the electric bill is paid. Emotionally trapped by her unreliable mother, Maggie, and the tiny cape on which she lives, she focuses on her best friend, her upcoming audition for a top music school in New York, and surviving Maggie’s latest boyfriend—who happens to be Grace’s own ex-boyfriend’s father.

Her attempts to lay low until she graduates are disrupted when she meets Eva, a girl with her own share of ghosts she’s trying to outrun. Grief-stricken and lonely, Eva pulls Grace into midnight adventures and feelings Grace never planned on. When Eva tells Grace she likes girls, both of their worlds open up. But, united by loss, Eva also shares a connection with Maggie. As Grace’s mother spirals downward, both girls must figure out how to love and how to move on.

MY REVIEW

How to Make a Wish is a beautifully written heartfelt story that follows the journey of seventeen year old Grace Glasser as she tries to follow her dreams in spite of the many obstacles placed in her path.  Grace’s dream is to move to New York City after graduation and study piano at the Manhattan School of Music. Cost is, of course, an obstacle, so Grace is counting on performing well enough at her upcoming audition to not only be accepted to the school but also to secure a scholarship.   Grace is a gifted pianist so this is well within the realm of possibility.  The biggest obstacle standing in Grace’s way, however, is actually her mother.  Grace’s mother, Maggie, lost her husband when Grace was just a toddler and has never been able to put the pieces of her life back together.  She has no sense of responsibility whatsoever and basically flits from man to man, moving in with them at the drop of a hat, and dragging Grace along with her.  Because Maggie is so unreliable, the roles in the Glasser household have ultimately become reversed, with Grace acting more like the parent and Maggie acting like the boy crazy irresponsible teen.

When the story opens, Grace has just come back from a two-week music camp and learns that in just those couple of weeks she was gone, Maggie has met yet another man and has packed up everything they own and moved in with him.  As if that wasn’t awkward enough, the man has a teenage son – a teenage son who happens to also be one of Grace’s ex-boyfriends.  Her mother is completely oblivious as to how awkward that’s going to be and pretty much tells Grace that she needs to suck it up because this guy could be “the one.”  As much as Grace wants nothing more than to move out and start living her own life, she’s also terrified of what’s going to happen to her mother if she leaves her alone.

One afternoon Grace is out walking on the beach, thinking about how complicated and messed up her relationship with her mother is, and she comes across Eva, a teenage girl about her own age crying on the beach.  Eva is grieving over the loss of her mother, who has just recently passed away. She has come to Grace’s town to live with her legal guardian and is feeling lost and alone.  She and Grace connect immediately and a beautiful friendship and maybe even a little something more develops between them.  The rest of the novel explores their growing relationship, while at the same time, highlighting the messy relationship between Grace and her mom and how it truly infiltrates every aspect of Grace’s life.  Can Grace break free from her mom’s hold on her so that she can follow her dreams?

LIKES

Grace:   Grace is such a complex character and I loved following her as she navigates her way through the obstacles that she encounters throughout the novel.  She’s strong and she’s mature beyond her years because of the situation with her mother, but she’s also simultaneously vulnerable for the same reason.  It’s almost like she has grown up without a mom or a dad even though her mom is right there.  My heart broke for Grace so many times along the way, especially early on when she learns that her mother sold her piano. As a mother, I seriously wanted to grab Maggie and shake her. I mean, seriously, you know your daughter’s main passion in life is music and you also know she has a major audition coming up to get into the school of her dreams and you decide that selling her piano while she’s out of town is a good choice?  What kind of parent does that?

That said, there were moments when Grace frustrated me too though. Most of the time I just wanted Grace to pack her bags and move out because the vibe I was getting from Maggie was that even if Grace didn’t pursue her musical dreams and instead stayed home to play the responsible one and keep her mom out of trouble for the rest of her life, Maggie wouldn’t even appreciate Grace’s sacrifice.  As frustrated as I was, however, I understood why Grace was so conflicted about it.  Maggie is all Grace has in terms of family, so if she walks out on her, she has no one left.  It’s an impossible situation.

Grace’s Relationship with Eva:  This relationship was my favorite part of How to Make a Wish.    Their moments together are just so lovely, sweet, and pure in comparison to the drama that makes up the rest of their lives.  They are the calm in each other’s storm.  I loved their quiet adventures sneaking out late at night and climbing up the local lighthouse together, the stolen moments when Eva would sneak into Grace’s room through the bedroom window whenever she couldn’t sleep, and even their silly moments together snacking on peanut butter straight out of the jar.  As messed up as Grace’s life is because of her mother and as sad as Eva is because of her loss, this relationship cuts through all of that heartache and brings hope for a happy ending with it.

Luca:  Luca is Grace’s best friend and he is seriously the most precious friend a person could have.  He’s loyal to a fault, funny as hell, and just so supportive when it comes to Grace.  He and his mom, Emmy, are really the closest thing to a family Grace has ever had and they would take her into their home in a heartbeat if she ever decided to leave her mom and the drama behind.

Diversity:  Author Ashley Herring Blake does a wonderful job with diversity in How to Make a Wish. Eva is biracial and she also likes girls, while Grace is bisexual.  Blake’s characters are realistically portrayed and do not feel like stereotypes at all. Not only is the growing relationship between Grace and Eva beautifully portrayed, but I also loved how everyone around them readily accepted their attraction to one another and supported them wholeheartedly, no questions asked.   Grace’s mother was completely clueless that her daughter was bisexual, even though Grace had told her before, but this was more a case of Maggie being too wrapped up in Maggie to pay attention to what Grace was saying than her being negative about it.  Once she took a moment to focus on her daughter instead of herself, she got right on board with it too.

DISLIKES

Maggie:  I guess it’s obvious that I didn’t care for Maggie for much of the novel, but even though I didn’t like her, I still think Blake did a marvelous job of  realistically conveying just how complicated a mother-daughter relationship can be.  She captures Grace’s conflicted feelings towards her mom in a way that I think we can all relate to.  No matter how bad things get – how many of Grace’s birthdays Maggie forgets, no matter how many strange guys she brings home, no matter what — Grace still remembers little moments when things were good between her and her mom, like painting their nails together and sitting and talking about wishes. There’s always that hope in the back of Grace’s mind that things will get better and so she gives her mom chance after chance after chance to step up and act like a mother.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I think How to Make a Wish would make the perfect summer read for someone who is looking for a romance but who also likes a story with some layers to it.  The relationship between Grace and Eva by itself made this book worth reading, but I really loved the depth that the mother-daughter relationship added to the overall story.  That dynamic really made the story resonate with me all the more.

RATING:  4 stars

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  This in no way impacts my opinion of the book.

 

four-stars

About Ashley Herring Blake

Ashley Herring Blake is a reader, writer, and mom to two boisterous boys. She holds a Master’s degree in teaching and loves coffee, arranging her books by color, and watching Buffy over and over again on Netflix with her friends. She’s the author of the young adult novels SUFFER LOVE and HOW TO MAKE A WISH.

Book Review: Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova

Book Review:  Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida CordovaLabyrinth Lost (Brooklyn Brujas, #1) by Zoraida Córdova
four-stars
Series: Brooklyn Brujas
Published by Sourcebooks Fire on September 6th 2016
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 324
Source: Purchased
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  Nothing says Happy Birthday like summoning the spirits of your dead relatives.

Alex is a bruja, the most powerful witch in a generation…and she hates magic. At her Deathday celebration, Alex performs a spell to rid herself of her power. But it backfires. Her whole family vanishes into thin air, leaving her alone with Nova, a brujo boy she can’t trust. A boy whose intentions are as dark as the strange marks on his skin.

The only way to get her family back is to travel with Nova to Los Lagos, a land in-between, as dark as Limbo and as strange as Wonderland…

MY REVIEW

Zoraida Córdova’s Labyrinth Lost is the first book in the Brooklyn Brujas series and it follows sixteen year old Alex, who is just trying to live her life as an average teen in Brooklyn, New York.  Alex, however, is anything but average.  She comes from a long line of magical brujas and brujos, which are witches, so everyone in her family is eagerly anticipating the moment when her magical powers finally awaken.  The problem is that Alex doesn’t want her powers. Her family doesn’t realize it, but Alex’s magic has long since awoken and she thinks she accidentally caused something bad to happen with it since she couldn’t control it.  Because of that, she wants to parts of this magic and so has hidden her magic from others  for as long as she could.

Eventually, however, her family finds out and they throw her the traditional Deathday celebration. This celebration is a family blessing of sorts, including both living family members as well as the spirits of those who have died, which ensures every bruja and brujo’s magic works as it should.  As they are preparing for the Deathday celebration, Alex meets a new friend, Nova.  She is immediately drawn to Nova, although she’s not sure she trusts him because he acts so mysterious.  She confides in him that she doesn’t want her powers and he suggests a spell she can use to eradicate them during the Deathday ceremony.  Alex attempts the spell during the ceremony and, much to her horror, it backfires and banishes her entire family to another realm, an in-between world of sorts, called Los Lagos.  The rest of the book focuses on Alex’s quest to travel to this other world and to right her wrong and save her family.

LIKES

There were so many things I loved about this story that it would take me all day to list them, but here are some standouts for me.

Unique WorldbuildingLabyrinth Lost feels like a cross between Alice in Wonderland and Orpheus’ journey to the underworld to save Eurydice, and then on top of that, it is also filled with a rich history of Spanish and Latin American legends.  Córdova uses this unique combination of ingredients to create one of the most incredibly original worlds I’ve encountered since I started reading fantasy novels.  It’s equal parts creepy and magical and you can’t even begin to guess from one moment to the next what Alex will face on her journey across Los Lagos.  There’s a portal to the other world that must be traveled through, then there’s a ferry that must be taken across a river of souls where souls actually try to grab at the ferry’s passengers, not to mention fierce monsters that are prowling around just waiting to attack, and there’s even a random a tea party, complete with little toad stool chairs, in progress.  I really flew through these pages because I just couldn’t wait to see what Alex would encounter next.

DiversityLabyrinth Lost scores high marks in diversity. In addition to use of Latin folklore, the main character is a person of color and she is also bisexual.  (For those who are fans of love triangles, there’s one in this book and it’s f/f/m).

Family Relationships – I loved how Labyrinth Lost had such a huge focus on family and how important one’s family is.  Even though their relationships tend to be complicated, as most families are, Alex is so close to both her mom and her two sisters and it kills her to think they are suffering because of what she did.  She is willing to risk everything, including her own life, to do whatever she needs to do to free them from Los Lagos.

Coming of Age Story – I love reading journeys of self-discovery and Alex’s journey definitely fits the bill.  When the novel first opened, I honestly didn’t even really like Alex that much. She came across as very selfish and spoiled, and so in many ways, she was my least favorite character. That said, however, she shows such tremendous growth as she devotes herself to saving her family and learns to embrace her magic and all it entails along the way.  By the end of the novel, I ended up loving Alex.

DISLIKES

I won’t really call this a dislike because it’s more “Man, I really wish there was more of this” and that involves Alex’s friend and eventual love interest, Rishi.  Rishi is so devoted to Alex that when she sees this random open portal in Alex’s backyard and can’t find Alex anywhere, she dives into the portal without hesitation because she wants to make sure Alex is okay.  Beyond the fact that she’s totally devoted to Alex, however, we don’t really learn that much about her.  I loved the little glimpses of her personality that we did get and really wanted more.  I’m glad this is just the first in the series so there’s hope for more about Rishi.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Labyrinth Lost is such a unique and memorable read. I loved learning about the Latin folklore and look forward to exploring it further when the next book in the Brooklyn Brujas series is released.

RATING:  4 STARS

four-stars

About Zoraida Córdova

Zoraida Córdova is the author of The Vicious Deep trilogy, the On the Verge series, and Labyrinth Lost. She loves black coffee, snark, and still believes in magic. She is a New Yorker at heart and is currently working on her next novel. Send her a tweet @Zlikeinzorro.

ARC Review of The Leavers by Lisa Ko

ARC Review of The Leavers by Lisa KoThe Leavers by Lisa Ko
four-stars
Published by Algonquin Books on May 2nd 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  One morning, Deming Guo’s mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant named Polly, goes to her job at the nail salon and never comes home. No one can find any trace of her.

With his mother gone, eleven-year-old Deming is left with no one to care for him. He is eventually adopted by two white college professors who move him from the Bronx to a small town upstate. They rename him Daniel Wilkinson in their efforts to make him over into their version of an “all-American boy.” But far away from all he’s ever known, Daniel struggles to reconcile his new life with his mother’s disappearance and the memories of the family and community he left behind.

Set in New York and China, The Leavers is a vivid and moving examination of borders and belonging. It’s the story of how one boy comes into his own when everything he’s loved has been taken away–and how a mother learns to live with the mistakes of her past.

This powerful debut is the winner of the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for fiction, awarded by Barbara Kingsolver for a novel that addresses issues of social justice.

 

MY REVIEW

The Leavers is a very compelling and timely read that explores what happens to a Chinese family living in New York when immigration suddenly becomes an issue and one of them is forced to leave the country.  It follows the life of Deming Guo, an eleven year old Chinese American boy who lives in Brooklyn, New York.  He shares an apartment with his mother, Polly, who is an undocumented Chinese immigrant, Polly’s boyfriend Leo, as well as Leo’s sister, Vivian and her son.   Things are a little tight, but they all do the best they can and it’s the only family Deming has ever known so he’s comfortable with the arrangement.

Then one day Polly doesn’t come home from work.  No one seems to know what happened to her.  Days, weeks, even months go by without a word from her.  Deming vaguely remembers his mother talking about wanting to move to Florida for a better job and sadly assumes that she has chosen to do so and just left him behind.  Then Leo disappears as well, and soon after, Vivian decides she can no longer take care of Deming and surrenders him so that he can be adopted by someone who can.  Deming ends up being adopted by an old white couple and thus begins a new life in upstate New York where the couple lives.  The rest of the novel explores how being left behind by his mother shapes basically every aspect of Deming’s life.

LIKES

Deming’s Journey:  I just found Deming’s story so heartbreaking because he seems so lost most of the time, like he has no idea who he really is and just doesn’t really fit in or belong anywhere.  Even as he moves into adulthood, no matter where he goes and what he tries to do – whether it’s attend college or even to pursue his passion, which is music, the question of what happened to his real mother always casts its shadow over him. He grows up feeling it’s somehow all his fault that his mother abandoned him.  In this sense, Lisa Ko has crafted The Leavers into a coming of age story because Deming (or Daniel as his adoptive parents have renamed him in an effort to ‘Americanize’ him) spends much of the story trying to figure out who he even is.  This search for identity is a major theme.

Flawed Characters:  The older Deming/Daniel gets, the more determined he becomes to find out the truth about why his mother left him.  Lisa Ko adds another layer to the story at this point by adding in Polly’s point of view and having Polly fill in the gaps in the original story that we’ve been following.  We learn what really happened to her and what she has been doing ever since and why she didn’t make more of an effort to get back to her son.  It’s a painful story and Polly definitely made some regretful choices along the way that she has been forced to live with, but her flaws are what make her human and what make her story so moving.  Even though I was angry with her at first for not figuring out a way to reunite with her son, by the end of her story, I found myself forgiving her.

DISLIKES

The only reason I haven’t given this novel full marks is that even though seeing the effects of deportation on both mother and son made for a powerful read, I felt like it sometimes made the story too broad in scope, especially when there were alternating chapters between the son as a boy, the same son as a grown man, and then partway through, we suddenly had chapters from the mom as well. It sometimes took me a few minutes to figure out who the narrator was as I began a new chapter. Even though it confused me at times, however, I still thought it was wonderful read overall.

FINAL THOUGHTS

With its poignant exploration of how deportation can rip families apart and ruin lives, it’s very easy to see why Lisa Ko’s The Leavers won the 2016 Pen/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.

RATING:  4 STARS

 

Thanks so much to Netgalley, the author, and Algonquin Books for providing me with an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review. This in no way impacts my view of the book.

four-stars

About Lisa Ko

Lisa Ko is the author of The Leavers, a novel which won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction and will be published by Algonquin Books in May 2017. Her writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2016, The New York Times, Apogee Journal, Narrative, O. Magazine, Copper Nickel, Storychord, One Teen Story, Brooklyn Review, and elsewhere. A co-founder of Hyphen and a fiction editor at Drunken Boat, Lisa has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the MacDowell Colony, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, Writers OMI at Ledig House, the Jerome Foundation, Blue Mountain Center, the Van Lier Foundation, Hawthornden Castle, the I-Park Foundation, the Anderson Center, the Constance Saltonstall Foundation, and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center. Born in Queens and raised in Jersey, she lives in Brooklyn.

Book Review: Stalking Jack the Ripper

Book Review:  Stalking Jack the RipperStalking Jack the Ripper (Stalking Jack the Ripper, #1) by Kerri Maniscalco
four-stars
Series: Stalking Jack the Ripper #1
Published by Jimmy Patterson on September 20th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 326
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  Seventeen-year-old Audrey Rose Wadsworth was born a lord’s daughter, with a life of wealth and privilege stretched out before her. But between the social teas and silk dress fittings, she leads a forbidden secret life.

Against her stern father’s wishes and society’s expectations, Audrey often slips away to her uncle’s laboratory to study the gruesome practice of forensic medicine. When her work on a string of savagely killed corpses drags Audrey into the investigation of a serial murderer, her search for answers brings her close to her own sheltered world.

 

MY REVIEW

Kerri Maniscalco’s Stalking Jack the Ripper is, as its title implies, a retelling of the murderous rampage of infamous serial killer, Jack the Ripper.  As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think of it as a cross between the Sherlock Holmes detective stories, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and then on a more modern note, a little Forensic Files with a touch of Rizzoli and Isles thrown in.  The end result is a novel that will keep you on the edge of your seat and thoroughly engaged.

LIKES

Maniscalco does a wonderful job of fleshing out her main character, Audrey Rose Wadsworth and making her seem so realistic.  She’s fiercely independent, headstrong, and sassy as all get out, which makes her such a fun character to follow.  Even with the overriding creepy serial killer plot, Audrey Rose still managed to make me chuckle quite a few times throughout the novel.   You just never know what she is going to say at any given moment, but you can pretty much guarantee that it will be completely inappropriate based on society’s expectations.  Speaking of society’s expectations, Audrey Rose truly doesn’t give a flip about those and instead is way ahead of her time and wants to pursue a career in forensic medicine.   When the novel opens, she is, much to her father’s chagrin, working as an apprentice to her Uncle, who is an expert in the field. I kept thinking to myself “She’s like a Victorian Era Maura Isles” (from the popular series Rizzoli and Isles).

Maniscalco also adds a character flaw or two, which serve to further humanize Audrey Rose.  Recklessness, in particular, seems to be a hallmark trait of hers.  While it’s easy to admire how passionate Audrey Rose is about catching this serial killer who is on the loose, at the same time, I wanted to scream at her at times for lurking around in shady areas of the city and putting herself in harm’s way trying to catch him in the act.  It was downright infuriating actually. For someone who is clearly supposed to be quite intelligent, Audrey Rose definitely doesn’t always make the smartest choices.

Speaking of infuriating, let me talk about another main character, Thomas Cresswell.  Cresswell is another student of Audrey Rose’s uncle and may actually be the most arrogant and annoying person on the planet.  However, he is as brilliant as he is arrogant and annoying and somehow the combination actually works to make him incredibly charming. Weird, right?  As they study the Ripper’s victims, Cresswell’s powers of deductive reasoning are so astute that every time he spoke, he reminded me of a young Sherlock Holmes.  From the moment they meet, he gets under Audrey Rose’s skin and their chemistry is off the charts.  I don’t know if I would ever buy into them as a couple, but they are quite the dynamic duo as they work together to solve these murders.

Aside from these two entertaining main characters, Maniscalco also does a brilliant job of making the reader feel as if they are truly in 19th century London and that there really is a killer on the loose.  It was clear Maniscalco did her research on every aspect of the story.  The descriptions of the city feel authentic and the atmosphere at night is utterly creepy.  You can practically sense the danger lurking around every corner, which makes for a real page turner.

 

DISLIKES

I think my only real dislike was that even though this was a retelling and so the author had creative license to make Jack the Ripper whoever she wanted him to be, I still had the murderer figured out way too soon. In that sense, I was a little disappointed.  The murderer’s reasoning for the killings was quite another matter though. Totally did not see that coming and liked the unexpected Dr. Frankenstein-ish twist.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

I very much enjoyed Stalking Jack the Ripper and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in historical fiction, anything to do with the crimes of Jack the Ripper, or even an interest in forensic medicine or 19th century society’s expectations for its young women.  I would issue a word of caution to anyone who doesn’t like to read about blood and gore, however. As is probably expected since we’re dealing with the Ripper and his victims and we’re examining the victims from the vantage point of forensic scientists, the descriptions of the victims are quite graphic and stomach-turning.  It’s definitely not for the faint of heart.  If that doesn’t bother you though, it’s a fascinating read.

 

RATING:  4 STARS

four-stars

About Kerri Maniscalco

Kerri Maniscalco grew up in a semi-haunted house outside NYC where her fascination with gothic settings began. In her spare time she reads everything she can get her hands on, cooks all kinds of food with her family and friends, and drinks entirely too much tea while discussing life’s finer points with her cats.

Her first novel in this series, Stalking Jack the Ripper, debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. It incorporates her love of forensic science and unsolved history.

Book Review: Our Chemical Hearts

Book Review:  Our Chemical HeartsOur Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland
three-half-stars
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers on October 4th 2016
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  John Green meets Rainbow Rowell in this irresistible story of first love, broken hearts, and the golden seams that put them back together again.

Henry Page has never been in love. He fancies himself a hopeless romantic, but the slo-mo, heart palpitating, can’t-eat-can’t-sleep kind of love that he’s been hoping for just hasn’t been in the cards for him—at least not yet. Instead, he’s been happy to focus on his grades, on getting into a semi-decent college and finally becoming editor of his school newspaper. Then Grace Town walks into his first period class on the third Tuesday of senior year and he knows everything’s about to change.

Grace isn’t who Henry pictured as his dream girl—she walks with a cane, wears oversized boys’ clothes, and rarely seems to shower. But when Grace and Henry are both chosen to edit the school paper, he quickly finds himself falling for her. It’s obvious there’s something broken about Grace, but it seems to make her even more beautiful to Henry, and he wants nothing more than to help her put the pieces back together again. And yet, this isn’t your average story of boy meets girl. Krystal Sutherland’s brilliant debut is equal parts wit and heartbreak, a potent reminder of the bittersweet bliss that is first love.

 

MY REVIEW

Our Chemical Hearts is an engaging story about first loves. Author Krystal Sutherland takes her readers on a journey to explore the highs and the lows of falling in love for the first time.  We follow Henry Page, a young man who has never been in love before.  While finding the girl of his dreams is definitely on his radar, Henry is content for the time being to focus on his school work and on his work at the school paper.  He has devoted himself to the paper for years and is hoping to land the Editor job as he begins his senior year.  When he meets Grace Town, the new girl at school, however, his life is turned upside down.  He wouldn’t have expected a girl wearing oversized boy’s clothing, with a bad haircut and questionable hygiene to be the girl of his dreams, but there’s just something about Grace and so he begins to pursue her, learning very quickly that there’s way more to Grace than meets the eye and much of it is tragic.  Even though he senses the relationship is probably trouble, Henry falls head over heels for Grace anyway and so their roller coaster of a journey begins….

LIKES

I think Sutherland’s biggest strength in this novel is her ability to craft wonderfully complex, flawed characters that immediately grab your attention and your heart and don’t let go.

Henry.  I loved Henry Page.  He totally reminded me of someone I would have been friends with in high school or maybe even dated.  He’s funny and charming in a semi-dorky kind of way, the word “adorkable” comes to mind actually. Henry has also never been in love before, so he has an innocent, almost vulnerable, quality about him that made me feel very protective of him, especially once he started falling so hard for Grace Town that he started to neglect his school work and his editorial duties at the school paper.  Even though Henry could see that the relationship probably wouldn’t end well, he was still drawn to Grace like a moth to a flame.  I knew he was in trouble as soon as he started snooping, and found Grace’s Facebook page.  The Grace he sees on Facebook doesn’t even remotely resemble the Grace he knows.  Facebook Grace is smiling, wearing feminine clothes, and looks like every bit the social butterfly.  Henry is even more fascinated by Grace at this point and he becomes obsessed with trying to “fix” her.

It was so frustrating to watch him on the path he was on, but at the same time, it made his character feel all the more authentic because we’ve all been there at some point.  You can’t help who you fall in love with, even if it’s just your idea of what that person should be, and sometimes broken hearts are a rite of passage when it comes to love and romance.

Grace.  I can’t say that I loved Grace Town the way I loved Henry, but I was initially drawn to the same mysterious qualities about her that initially attracted Henry to her.  Grace is an incredibly complex character, mainly because of all of the details about herself that she tries to hide from everyone around her.  Like Henry, I found her fascinating and wanted to know more about her. The more I learned, however, the more my heart just broke for her.  Her eccentricities are not just her trying to be quirky and mysterious, but instead run so much deeper than that.  I don’t want to give away any specific details, but I will say that Grace has recently suffered a huge loss and that she feels so responsible for that loss that her life has become little more than her trying to atone for her “sin.”   I was so torn about her relationship with Henry because even though he was neglecting his school work, etc, because of her, I could also tell that she desperately needed a friend and Henry is such a good guy that I knew he could have been a great friend to her.  Just seeing their hilarious conversations on Facebook was proof of that.  Even though Grace was still full of secrets, she still opened up to Henry more than she opened up to anyone else around her.

Henry’s Circle of Friends.  As compelling as the two main characters were, I also adored Henry’s friends Lola and Murray.  Not only were they wonderful friends to Henry, but they also provided a lot of levity to balance the seriousness of what was going on with Grace.  Murray is from Australia and has found that doing endless Crocodile Dundee impressions surprisingly serves him quite well when he wants to woo the ladies. Lola works on the newspaper with Henry and their relationship is especially entertaining.  Lola was the first girl Henry ever kissed and not too long after that moment, she came out and announced she was a lesbian.  Ever since, they have had the long-running joke that Henry’s such a bad kisser that he turned Lola gay.  I just loved the banter and the overall dynamic of this circle of friends, especially how they had Henry’s back when it came to Grace.  They could tell the relationship was probably a bad idea but ultimately knew all they could do was be there for Henry no matter what happened.  These friendships were probably what I enjoyed most about the book.

Henry’s Parents:  Kind of a sidebar here, but if Henry is ”adorkable,” he definitely gets it from his parents.  They were so cute and so corny. I loved it every time they turned up in the story, especially when they would go out of their way to embarrass Henry in front of Grace.

DISLIKES

I won’t really call them dislikes, but there were a couple of things about the story that knocked my overall rating down a little lower than it might otherwise have been.

Grace and Henry’s afternoon ritual.  Once they start hanging out, every afternoon Henry walks Grace home, Grace then hands Henry the keys to her car and he drives them both back to his house. Then Grace leaves her car at Henry’s house and walks off in the opposite direction of where she lives, with no explanation as to where she’s going.  It’s another mysterious to Grace, of course, and while it does end up being relevant to Grace’s backstory, I got a little bored reading about it day after day.

Grace’s living arrangements.  It’s probably just me that felt this way, but I thought the mention of Grace’s awkward living arrangements near the end of Our Chemical Hearts made her story feel a little less believable.  Up until that point, everything that had happened felt so completely authentic – an experience any of us could have.  But then this implausible living arrangement was mentioned and we were unexpectedly given a tour of Grace’s home environment and that part just felt over the top to me.  It didn’t ruin the story or anything but it just felt like an unnecessary dramatic element.

FINAL THOUGHTS

If you’re looking for a solid contemporary read about first loves, broken hearts, friendship, and the idea that you can’t choose who you fall in love with or how long that love may last, then definitely give Our Chemical Hearts a try.  Even with the couple of issues I had with it, I still very much enjoyed the read overall.

RATING:  3.5 STARS

 

three-half-stars

About Krystal Sutherland

In her own words:

“Hello. It’s me.

I am Krystal Sutherland, writer of books. Or, more specifically, I am the writer of one book, Our Chemical Hearts, which was published in October 2016 by Penguin in the US and ANZ, Hot Key in the UK, and various other publishers in more than 20 countries around the globe.

I was born and raised in Townsville, in the far north of Australia. Since moving to Sydney in 2011, I’ve also lived in Amsterdam, which was awesome but cold, and Hong Kong, (though I speak neither Dutch nor Cantonese).

Growing up, I never dreamed of being a writer. I wanted to be a) a florist, then b) a volcanologist, then c) an actress. It wasn’t until shortly after my 18th birthday that I sat down to write my first (terrible) novel.

Our Chemical Hearts, thankfully, is slightly better than that hot mess. Nonetheless, I’m notoriously bad at explaining what it’s about, except to say that it involves the terribly tragic and awful experience of falling in love for the first time.

I have no pets and no children, but in Amsterdam I owned a Dutch bicycle called Kim Kardashian. It was somewhat difficult to get along with; I was fond of it regardless.”

Source:  krystalsutherland.com

 

Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Book Review:  The Hate U Give by Angie ThomasThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
five-stars
Published by Balzer + Bray on February 28th 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 464
Source: Purchased
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:   Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.  But what Starr does or does not say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

MY REVIEW

The Hate U Give tells the story of Starr Carter, a teenager who is basically caught between two completely different worlds, the economically depressed community she has grown up in and the affluent, mostly white high school that she attends.  In Starr’s mind, these two worlds are incompatible and so she has compartmentalized each and crafted two separate identities for herself so that she can exist in each world.  Although she switches back and forth between these identities with relative ease, she still spends the majority of her time pretending in an effort to fit in.  The end result is that she can’t really be herself and, at the point we meet her, has begun to question if she even knows who the real Starr is anymore.  What brings Starr’s struggle to figure out who she is to a head is when she witnesses her childhood friend Khalil being killed by a police officer during what appeared to be a routine traffic stop.  Protests erupt and soon the shooting garners media attention.  Everyone wants to know what happened that night and some are starting to fill in the blanks themselves, maligning Khalil’s character and referring to him as little more than a drug dealing thug.  Once the media begins reporting on the shooting, Starr’s two worlds collide because now even her rich, privileged schoolmates are talking about it.

Starr, as the sole witness, is the only one with the power to speak up and secure justice for Khalil, who was unarmed and did absolutely nothing to warrant being shot.  Will she remain silent and continue to hide who she really is because it’s easier that way or will she be brave enough to find her voice, step up into the spotlight, and try to get justice for Khalil?

LIKES

The Hate U Give is, by far, one of the most powerful books I’ve read in recent years.  It’s powerful not just because it’s inspired by and shines a light on the the importance of the Black Lives Matter Movement and because it exposes the systemic racism that continues to pervade our society, but also because it does so much more than that. It’s a beautifully crafted coming of age story as well, and it’s also a book about the importance of family and community.  Angie Thomas beautifully weaves all of these elements together into a compelling story that hooked me from page one and that I can’t stop thinking about now that I have finished reading it.  I don’t even think I really have the words to do justice to how wonderful a read this is.  All I can say is that it’s one of the few books I’ve read in my life that I wish I could hand out copies of to everyone I come across and encourage them to read it and then share it with someone else.

I tend to measure how good a book is by how many emotions it makes me feel while I’m reading and The Hate U Give is off the charts in that respect.  It made me sad and brought me to tears several times, it made me frustrated and angry, and it even managed to make me smile and laugh a few times along the way as well. I also felt the love between Starr and her family, as well as the love that held her community together.  When I say it’s a powerful read, that’s what I’m talking about.  This book is just so real and honest and raw that you feel EVERYTHING the characters are going through.

I fell in love with Starr right away.  She’s immensely likeable right from the start – funny, smart, sassy, and also a wonderful daughter and sister — and it broke my heart to watch her feel like she always had to hide half of herself in order to fit in.  It also broke my heart to learn that she has already witnessed so much violence and death in her sixteen years.  I mean, seriously. She is 16 years old – her biggest concerns in life at that point should be where she’s going to college, who she is going to date, what color dress she is going to wear to the prom.  Having to decide whether or not to speak out to defend her friend who was shot by a policeman should not be a part of her reality.  The fact that it is the reality for some young people makes Starr’s journey all the more poignant.

Speaking of Starr’s journey, I loved watching her change and grow throughout the novel.  She has some hard decisions to make.  I don’t want to give away any specific details here but I’m just going to say that watching her decide what she’s going to do and then finding her own voice and true self was one of the most beautiful parts of the story for me.

It wasn’t only Starr that I fell in love with though. I loved her family too and I loved how important their role in the book was too.  Her parents are so supportive of her every step of the way and vow to stand by her no matter what choice she decides to make.  Their love, support, and the lessons they have taught Starr and her siblings are what ultimately help Starr make her choice:  “Brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared, Starr. It means you go on even though you’re scared. And you’re doing that.”

In many ways I connected with the parents even more than I connected with Starr, I guess because I’m a parent too.  I cried when I read the passage about how there are two important lessons that Starr’s parents taught her and her siblings: 1) the birds and the bees, and 2) how to behave if you are stopped by a police officer so that no harm comes to you.  As a parent, it just ripped my heart out to think there are fellow parents out there who have to teach their kids that second lesson.  As a mom, I have always taught my son that the police are who you go to when you need help.  No parent should live with the fear that their children are in danger if they come into contact with the police.

I also connected with the parents because even when they were at odds with each other about how to best raise their family, I understood exactly why they each felt the way they did.  Starr’s mom desperately wants to get her babies out of this community and into a safer one.  She’s a momma bear protecting her cubs all the way and I was right there with her.  That said, however, I was also right there with Starr’s dad, Mav.  What he said make perfect sense too.  He doesn’t want to abandon his community.  His view is how is anything ever going to change for the better if everyone just leaves and he has made it a crusade to save the community one child at a time.  If he hears of a teen who has gone down the wrong path and ended up in a gang but then wants out, Mav makes it his mission in life to get them out of that life and back on the right path.  I thought Angie Thomas did an amazing job of bringing these real parental fears to life and making it so easy for any parent to relate to and to sympathize with.  Every parent can understand that fierce need to keep their babies safe, whether it’s by moving them somewhere else or by trying to change the community itself so that all kids are safe.

DISLIKES

I have absolutely no complaints about The Hate U Give.  My only dislike is reading the character of Hailey and knowing that there really are people out there in the world like her, who are either racist or just completely oblivious about how hurtful and stupid some of the things they say are.  I cheered when she finally got the smackdown she deserved, although she clearly still learned nothing from it.  I really hope that everyone will read this book and learn from it and that we’ll end up with a few less Haileys in the world going forward.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I’ve barely scratched the surface on why I think this book is so incredible.  All I can say at this point is GO READ THIS BOOK!  It’s eye opening and sobering, honest and raw, riveting and sometimes painful, but it’s also filled with love and hope, and I promise you that it’s one of the most important books you’ll ever read.  Its message will stick with you long after you’ve finished the last page.

RATING:  5  STARS

five-stars

About Angie Thomas

Angie Thomas was born, raised, and still resides in Jackson, Mississippi as indicated by her accent. She is a former teen rapper whose greatest accomplishment was an article about her in Right-On Magazine with a picture included. She holds a BFA in Creative Writing from Belhaven University and an unofficial degree in Hip Hop. She can also still rap if needed. She is an inaugural winner of the Walter Dean Meyers Grant 2015, awarded by We Need Diverse Books. Her debut novel, The Hate U Give, was acquired by Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins in a 13-house auction and will be published in spring 2017. Film rights have been optioned by Fox 2000 with George Tillman attached to direct and Hunger Games actress Amandla Stenberg set to star.