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: 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.  What 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.

ARC Review: The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

ARC Review: The Twelve Lives of Samuel HawleyThe Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti
four-stars
Published by Dial Press on March 28th 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 480
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:  A father protects his daughter from the legacy of his past and the truth about her mother’s death in this thrilling new novel from the prize-winning author of The Good Thief.

After years spent living on the run, Samuel Hawley moves with his teenage daughter, Loo, to Olympus, Massachusetts. There, in his late wife’s hometown, Hawley finds work as a fisherman, while Loo struggles to fit in at school and grows curious about her mother’s mysterious death. Haunting them both are twelve scars Hawley carries on his body, from twelve bullets in his criminal past; a past that eventually spills over into his daughter’s present, until together they must face a reckoning yet to come. This father-daughter epic weaves back and forth through time and across America, from Alaska to the Adirondacks.

Both a coming-of-age novel and a literary thriller, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley explores what it means to be a hero, and the cost we pay to protect the people we love most.

 MY REVIEW

 

Do you ever read a book, know that you love it, but yet somehow can’t really put into words why?  That’s how I feel about Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley.  What initially drew me to this book was reading the synopsis and realizing that the book focuses on the relationship between a father and daughter.  I can’t say that I’ve read nearly enough books that explore that dynamic so I was eager to give this book a shot.

Samuel Hawley and his daughter Loo (short for Louise) have spent most of Loo’s life living what can best be described as a transient lifestyle, moving from place to place and never staying anywhere too long.  The only sense of permanence that Loo has experienced all this time is the makeshift shrine that Hawley builds for Loo’s mother in each place.  Loo’s mother, Lily, drowned when Loo was just a baby, so it has just been Loo and her dad for as long as she can remember.  We are given hints early on that the transient lifestyle Loo and her Dad are living stems from the fact that Hawley has a somewhat checkered past.  Although Loo appears perfectly content living the way she and her Dad always have, when the novel opens and we meet Hawley and then 12 year old Loo, Hawley has decided that it’s time for Loo to have a more permanent and stable way of life and thus has settled them back in Lily’s hometown of Olympus, Massachusetts.  As they go about their day-to-day lives in this tiny town, we start to get more and more hints that Hawley’s past is indeed a colorful one and that not even Loo, the person who is closest to him in the world, knows all that there is to know about him.  The extent of Hawley’s past misadventures becomes very apparent when Hawley is coerced into participating in a town event and is required to remove his shirt to take part.  When the shirt comes off, we see that Hawley’s body is riddled with old bullet wound scars.  So many scars, in fact, that it seems nearly impossible he is even still alive.

LIKES

The revealing of so many scars was where things got especially interesting for me because the author then proceeds to use the bullet wound scars as a roadmap to carry us through Hawley’s past.  She alternates chapters that are devoted to explaining how he received each bullet wound with chapters of the new life he is trying to start with Loo.  What I loved about this way of constructing the story was how we see Hawley first as a dad, doing the best he can, willing to sacrifice anything and everything to give his daughter a normal life.  Tinti fully humanizes him before revealing his past where we then see that Hawley has done a lot of awful things in his day.  He has stolen things, hurt people, heck he has even killed people.  But somehow, because I still see him first as Loo’s dad, I love the character in spite of the many questionable choices he has made in the past.  I think if Tinti had revealed the gory details of Hawley’s past first and then tried to move forward and show that he has now reformed himself and become a great dad, Hawley wouldn’t be nearly as endearing as he is.

As much as the story is about Hawley and his past, I would also consider it to be a coming of age story for Loo.  She spends much of the story trying to make sense of this new world she is now living in and what her place is in it, and she is particularly determined to learn more about what happened to her mother.  Hawley has sought to protect Loo from the full truth of her mother’s death because he knows that it will be even more heartbreaking for her than the truth she has been led to believe all her life.  When Loo meets her grandmother (Lily’s mother) for the first time after they settle in Olympus, her grandmother implies that Hawley is in some way responsible for Lily’s death. This makes Loo’s journey to find the truth all the more poignant as Hawley is all she really has in this world. Can she forgive him if he is responsible?   Loo’s story becomes especially moving as we cycle back and forth between her chapters set in the present and Hawley’s chapters set in the past.  In Hawley’s chapters, we see how he and Lily met and fell in love, and then in present-day chapters, we follow Loo as she slowly unravels the mystery surrounding her mom’s death.  Tinti does a beautiful job weaving together the past and present in a heartwrenching journey that ultimately brings Loo to that truth she has been so desperately seeking.

Tinti adds even more complexity to her story by making it a bit of a thriller as well as the ghost of Hawley’s past still lurks and threatens this new life he is trying so hard to make for his daughter.  All of these different layers – the past, the present, the love, the suspense — and how they effortlessly fit together is what makes The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley such an engaging read.

DISLIKES?

I can’t really say that I have any complaints about the novel.  At first I’ll admit I was a little wary about the bullet hole chapters, especially since they were actually named BULLET NUMBER ONE, BULLET NUMBER TWO, etc. I thought ‘Oh boy, this is either going to be hokey or it’s going to be brilliant.’  Thankfully, brilliant won out and it worked fabulously.

FINAL THOUGHTS

If you’re looking for a wonderfully intricate read that authentically captures the father-daughter bond, then give The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley a read.  I would, however, forewarn that there is a lot of violence as you can probably guess from the few hints I dropped about Hawley’s past.  Both love and violence are at the core of this tale.

RATING:  4 STARS

four-stars

About Hannah Tinti

Hannah Tinti grew up in Salem, Massachusetts, and is co-founder and editor-in-chief of One Story magazine. Her short story collection, ANIMAL CRACKERS, has sold in sixteen countries and was a runner-up for the PEN/Hemingway award. Her first novel, THE GOOD THIEF, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, recipient of the American Library Association’s Alex Award, and winner of the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. Hannah’s new novel, THE TWELVE LIVES OF SAMUEL HAWLEY will be published by The Dial Press on 3/28/17.

Book Review: Under Rose-Tainted Skies

Book Review:  Under Rose-Tainted SkiesUnder Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall
four-half-stars
Published by Clarion Books on January 3rd 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  At seventeen, Norah has accepted that the four walls of her house delineate her life. She knows that fearing everything from inland tsunamis to odd numbers is irrational, but her mind insists the world outside is too big, too dangerous. So she stays safe inside, watching others’ lives through her windows and social media feed.

But when Luke arrives on her doorstep, he doesn’t see a girl defined by medical terms and mental health. Instead, he sees a girl who is funny, smart, and brave. And Norah likes what he sees.

Their friendship turns deeper, but Norah knows Luke deserves a normal girl. One who can walk beneath the open sky. One who is unafraid of kissing. One who isn’t so screwed up. Can she let him go for his own good—or can Norah learn to see herself through Luke’s eyes?

 

MY REVIEW

Louise Gornall’s Under Rose-Tainted Skies is a contemporary young adult novel that focuses on what it’s like to live with a mental illness.  The novel follows protagonist, seventeen year old Norah Dean, and the day-to-day challenges she faces because she has agoraphobia and OCD.  Up until about four years ago, Norah was living the life of a typical teen – going to school, hanging out with her friends – until one day something abruptly changes and she gets caught in the grips of a terrifying panic attack, an attack so severe that she loses consciousness. When she wakes up, everything is different and she finds herself suddenly terrified of doing all of the things she used to do.  When we first meet Norah, she is basically housebound.  She no longer attends school, instead doing her coursework online, and the only time she ever leaves the house anymore is to attend weekly therapy sessions, which are emotionally exhausting for her, not so much because of the therapy itself, but more so because of the stress having to leave the safety of her home causes her.  Because she has stopped leaving her home, she and her friends gradually drift apart and, by the time we meet Norah, her main social interactions are now with her mom and her therapist.  That is, until Luke moves in next door.  When he spots Norah peeking at him from her bedroom window, he decides to come over and introduce himself.

After a few awkward false starts, such as when Luke catches Norah “fishing” for her groceries out the front door with a long-handled broom because she’s too afraid to step out and retrieve them, Luke and Norah do finally meet and become friends.  At first Norah tries to hide all of the details of her mental illness from Luke for fear of how he will react, but Luke is pretty perceptive and picks up on it anyway.  She still withholds the extent of it, but does start to try to explain what she is going through.  As their friendship slowly develops into something more, Norah struggles with the idea that she really is not worthy of Luke because she may never be able to do “normal” boyfriend/girlfriend activities with him and believes that he deserves much more than she has to offer him.  This creates even more turmoil to Norah’s life as she must decide what she is going to do about Luke – let him in or let him go…

LIKES

Norah – I really adored Norah.  She’s smart and funny, incredibly resourceful when it comes to coping with her illness, and she’s also much braver than she gives herself credit for being.  I found Norah so likeable that I immediately wanted to know more about her condition since agoraphobia is something that I know next to nothing about.  Being in Norah’s head as she struggles through each day made the story especially powerful and gave me a much clearer picture of the illness and how truly crippling it can be.  Norah’s frustration is palpable throughout, especially the fact that she is very much aware that most of her fears were irrational, but still can’t stop their paralyzing effects.  By allowing us access to Norah’s thoughts, Gornall paints an authentic and vivid portrait of agoraphobia and allows us to see beneath the surface of what is often considered an “invisible” illness.

Luke – Luke is just as adorable as Norah is and I especially loved how determined he was to befriend Norah in the beginning of the story, no matter how much she tried to avoid him.  I don’t know that I completely bought into the idea of Luke and Norah as a romantic couple, but I was 100% into their friendship.  I liked that he really wanted to know more about Norah’s condition – not to judge her as Norah had initially feared – but so that he could interact with her in ways that would be most comfortable to her.

Romance is not a “cure” – Even though I didn’t completely buy into the romantic aspect of the story, I did really like how Gornall keeps it real.  Just as it wouldn’t happen in real life, having a boyfriend does not magically cure Norah.  Granted, she does have more of a support system now that she has Luke in her corner in addition to her mom and therapist, but the illness is clearly still there throughout the book.

Humor – Even though Norah’s struggles with mental illness are quite serious, I loved that the author was still able to incorporate some light and humorous moments into the story.  Norah occasionally finds herself in awkward situations, such as when she is shooing an obnoxious bird away from her window one day and new neighbor Luke sees her and thinks she is flirting with him.  As embarrassing as it was for Norah at the time, I liked that later in the book, as Norah gets more comfortable with Luke, she’s able to laugh that moment off and explain to Luke that she wasn’t flirting with him – It was that the bird was messing with her OCD.  Not that OCD is funny by any stretch of the imagination, but I did like that Norah was able to find humor and laugh at herself a bit rather than be humiliated about what happened.

DISLIKES

I can’t really say that there’s anything I disliked about Under Rose-Tainted Skies, although I would have  liked a little more for the ending, mainly because I felt it wrapped up a little too quickly.  I think that’s mainly because I had become so invested in Norah that I just didn’t want her story to end.  I wanted to follow her longer and see how she was doing.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Norah’s story is one that needs to be told and Louise Grovall does a beautiful job in telling it.  If you’re looking for a raw and honest look at the life of someone who is coping with agoraphobia and OCD, you should definitely check out Under Rose-Tainted Skies.

TRIGGERS  

There is mention of self-harm and Norah’s therapist talks to her at length about it.

RATING

4.5 stars

four-half-stars

About Louise Gornall

Louise Gornall in her own words:  

“My name is Louise, and I write YA books. Sometimes contemp, sometimes horror, sometimes thriller. My debut YA contemp, Under Rose-Tainted Skies, will be published by HMH/Clarion (US), and Chicken House/Scholastic (UK) in the fall 2016/17.

Under Rose-Tainted Skies is about this chick, Norah, who suffers from agoraphobia, OCD and depression. Her life is one long blur of cheese sandwiches and trash tv, until she meets the new boy next door, Luke, and he starts to challenge her way of thinking.

I’m represented by the amazing Mandy Hubbard of Emerald City Literary.”

Source:  bookishblurb.com

Book Review: Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran

Book Review:  Lucky Boy by Shanthi SekaranLucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran
four-half-stars
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on January 10th 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 472
Source: Goodreads
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

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

Goodreads Synopsis:  Solimar Castro Valdez is eighteen and dazed with optimism when she embarks on a perilous journey across the US/Mexican border. Weeks later she arrives on her cousin’s doorstep in Berkeley, CA, dazed by first love found then lost, and pregnant. This was not the plan. But amid the uncertainty of new motherhood and her American identity, Soli learns that when you have just one precious possession, you guard it with your life. For Soli, motherhood becomes her dwelling and the boy at her breast her hearth.

Kavya Reddy has always followed her heart, much to her parents’ chagrin. A mostly contented chef at a UC Berkeley sorority house, the unexpected desire to have a child descends like a cyclone in Kavya’s mid-thirties. When she can’t get pregnant, this desire will test her marriage, it will test her sanity, and it will set Kavya and her husband, Rishi, on a collision course with Soli, when she is detained and her infant son comes under Kavya’s care. As Kavya learns to be a mother–the singing, story-telling, inventor-of-the-universe kind of mother she fantasized about being–she builds her love on a fault line, her heart wrapped around someone else’s child.

Lucky Boy is an emotional journey that will leave you certain of the redemptive beauty of this world. There are no bad guys in this story, no obvious hero. From rural Oaxaca to Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto to the dreamscapes of Silicon valley, author Shanthi Sekaran has taken real life and applied it to fiction; the results are moving and revelatory.

My Review:

Shanthi Sekaran’s Lucky Boy is one of the most heartbreaking, thought-provoking, and timely novels I’ve read in a long time.  At its heart, Lucky Boy is a story about motherhood.  At the same time, however, it also focuses on illegal immigration, foster parenting, and fertility and how all of these can lead to heartbreak and broken families.

The novel follows the journey of two women:  Soli Castro Valdez, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, and Kavya Reddy, who is the daughter of Indian immigrants.  Kavya is basically living the American Dream – she has graduated from a prestigious college, has a successful career as a chef, and is happily married to Rishi.  Kavya has everything she could have ever wanted in life…until the day she decides she wants a baby.  Kavya and Rishi try for months and months to conceive, even resorting to expensive fertility treatments, but nothing works and their marriage becomes very strained because of the pressure they are putting on themselves.  Still desperate to start a family, Kavya starts thinking about adoption and she and Rishi decide to try the foster parent route.  It is here where Kavya’s life becomes entwined with the novel’s other protagonist, Soli.

Soli is a young woman who leaves her home and family in Mexico and makes the treacherous journey across the border in hopes of making a better life for herself in the U.S. In spite of her undocumented status, Soli is able to find work for herself as a nanny and housekeeper for a family in Berkeley, California. Months after arriving in the U.S., Soli gives birth to her son, Ignacio.  It’s of course love at first sight and Soli pours her heart and soul into being the best possible mother to Ignacio and into working harder than ever to ensure that she can make a better life for both herself and for her baby. Unfortunately, Soli ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time and is detained because of her illegal status.  When Soli is detained, Ignacio becomes a ward of the state of California and is put into foster care, where he ends up in the care of Kavya and Rishi.

Against their own better judgment since they know he could be returned to his birth mother at any moment, Kavya and Rishi still fall head over heels for Ignacio. They dote on him as they both learn what it means to be parents and are ultimately very hopeful that they’ll be able to keep him.  The story takes an incredibly gut-wrenching turn at this point because it’s a no-win situation. Of course Soli should get her son back because she’s his birth mother and he’s her world, but then you also see how truly loved and well cared for he is by Kavya and Rishi and your heart breaks for all involved because, realistically, no matter who is awarded custody of Ignacio, someone will end up broken-hearted.

Likes:

What I loved about Lucky Boy is that the story is written in such a way that there are no “bad guys.”  You truly feel for both of these women and their love for this little boy.  Soli and Kavya are both flawed characters in the sense that they can be naïve, impulsive, and make rash decisions, but ultimately, they are both extremely likeable because they’re both so real and so relatable.  I was of course rooting for Soli as the underdog because the author paints a vivid portrait showing how Soli truly risks her life just trying to make it to the U.S. There were others who traveled with her that died along the way, so she was lucky to even make it to this country in one piece.  I was rooting for her all the way to find a way to stay in the U.S. and raise her son.  On the other hand, I was also rooting for Kavya as well. As likeable as Kavya is throughout the story, she really comes to life as a character once she becomes foster mom to Ignacio. She pours everything she has into being the mom she has dreamed of being for so long, and it’s lovely to see, and so gut-wrenching since you know she could lose Ignacio at any moment.

Dislikes:

Okay, now let me walk back the whole ‘there are no bad guys’ argument.  There are no bad guys in terms of our protagonists.  The bad guys in this story are those who enforce the policies on illegal immigrants in this country, specifically, in this case, those in law enforcement and those who run and work in detention centers.  Everything about the system just made me so angry as I was reading.  If this is the way illegal immigrants are really treated when they are detained, it’s shameful.  I don’t care if someone is here illegally or not; it does not justify treating them like they are somehow less than human – separating them from their children, giving them inadequate food, clothing, and shelter, not allowing them proper representation, trying to trick them into signing voluntary deportation papers, and the list goes on and on.  When Soli had a court hearing for Ignacio that she needed to phone in for and no one would let her use the telephone no matter how much she begged and pleaded, I was practically raging.  What kind of monsters would show so little compassion to a woman in danger of losing her child if she can’t make a simple phone call?

Final thoughts:

 I don’t want to say anything else because I don’t want to give the ending, but needless to say, Lucky Boy is a book that will definitely play with your emotions and that, most importantly, make you think about what is going on in the world, and especially in the U.S., right now. It’s a hard read because it’s so gut-wrenching, but it’s also so beautifully written and a powerful read that I would recommend to anyone.

Rating:  4.5 stars

Thanks so much to Goodreads, Shanthi Sekaran, and the publisher for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. It was a wonderful read and I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more writings from this author!

four-half-stars

About Shanthi Sekaran

Shanthi Sekaran was born and raised in California, and now splits her time between Berkeley and London. A graduate of UC Berkeley and the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, she was first published in Best New American Voices 2004 (Harcourt). Her novel, The Prayer Room, will be released in February 2009. “

ARC Review – Piper Perish

ARC Review – Piper PerishPiper Perish by Kayla Cagan
three-half-stars
Published by Chronicle Books on March 7th 2017
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 416
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:  Piper Perish inhales air and exhales art. The sooner she and her best friends can get out of Houston and into art school in New York City, the better. It’s been Piper’s dream her whole life, and now that senior year is halfway over, she’s never felt more ready. But in the final months before graduation, things are weird with her friends and stressful with three different guys, and Piper’s sister’s tyrannical mental state seems to thwart every attempt at happiness for the close-knit Perish family. Piper’s art just might be enough to get her out. But is she brave enough to seize that power, even if it means giving up what she’s always known?

Debut author Kayla Cagan breathes new life into fiction in this ridiculously compelling, utterly authentic work featuring interior art from Rookie magazine illustrator Maria Ines Gul. Piper will have readers asking big questions along with her. What is love? What is friendship? What is family? What is home? And who is a person when she’s missing any one of these things?

* * * * *

 

My Review:

Kayla Cagan’s debut novel, Piper Perish, is what I would consider to be a coming of age story.  It follows high school senior and artist Piper Perish and her best friends, Kit and Enzo, also artists, as they navigate the trials and tribulations of that final year of high school and prepare for what comes next.  As the novel opens, we’re already at the halfway point of their senior year, and we learn that Piper, Kit, and Enzo have devised a plan where they will all leave Texas after graduation and move to New York City to attend art school together.  While it sounds like a fantastic plan in theory, it leaves a lot to chance.  What if they don’t all get into the schools they apply to? Will they be able to afford it, etc.?  All of the ‘What ifs’ weigh heavily on Piper’s mind throughout the novel because moving to New York to study art has always been her dream. She doesn’t know how she’ll cope if things don’t go according to their plan.  I know it sounds like a heavy read at first glance, but don’t let that fool you. It’s actually quite fun.  The bright, artsy cover was what initially caught my eye and,  after reading the synopsis, I picked it up because I was looking for a light contemporary read to offset all of the heavy dystopian fiction I’ve been reading lately and it sounded like Piper Perish would fit the bill.

What I Enjoyed:

I’d have to say that Piper herself is probably my favorite part of the book.  Piper’s passion for art, her obsession with artist Andy Warhol (She’s totally a ‘What Would Andy Do?’ kind of girl), her quirky flair for fashion, among other things, just make her someone that you wish you knew and could just hang out with.  Written in the form of a diary, the novel really lets us inside Piper’s head and heart as she pours all of her thoughts, dreams, and frustrations, into her diary. I thought Cagan did a tremendous job of creating an authentic high school experience and in giving Piper an equally authentic and vibrant teenage girl voice.  As I read Piper’s thoughts, I was transported back to my own high school senior year and could vividly remember going through so many of the same experiences.  Piper is a very relatable character precisely because she does represent so many things that we all went through in high school:  the dreams, the worrying, the self-doubt, and so on. I found myself starting to care about her from that very first page and really wanting her to push through all of the obstacles standing in her way so that her dreams could become a reality.

What I especially liked about Piper was watching her really grow up and mature throughout the second half of her senior year.  She is definitely not the same girl at the end of the novel that she is when we first meet her. Yes, she’s still quirky, fun, and lives and breathes art, but she’s also braver, more willing to stand up for herself and fight for what she wants, and she definitely has a greater sense of who she is and where she belongs.  I really liked the evolution of her character.

Aside from Piper, I also really liked all of the themes that the book covered. In addition to the everyday dramas of high school, it also tackles bigger themes like friendship, family, and love.  Piper spends much of her senior year learning what it means to be a friend through thick and thin as she and her friends each encounter obstacles, some of which put them at odds with each other.  Piper also spends a lot of time reflecting on the different degrees of love as relationships around her evolve and change  – the love of a boyfriend and girlfriend, the love between friends, the love of family members no matter how frustrated you get with them (or in the case of Piper’s sister, Marli, how much they deliberately try to make you miserable).

The discussion of art also fascinated me as I read this book.  I’m about as artistic as a rock, so I loved watching the creative process at work as Piper, Kit, Enzo, and their fellow classmates worked to create their senior projects.  I actually found myself wishing I had a paper copy of the book rather than an e-galley as well because there are little sketches here and there throughout the novel that I’m sure are much cooler in full color.

Anything I Didn’t Like:

I have to say I wasn’t big on the way the book was put together. I did love the first person point of view because I think it really helped me connect with Piper better. The diary style just didn’t really work for me.  It did at first because it really felt like I was reading the diary of a teenage girl, but then it started to feel less like a diary or journal and more just like a standard first person narrative broken up by dates. I never kept a diary or journal myself, but I still just couldn’t imagine that one would contain whole conversations between people quoted verbatim or that it would contain complete emails that Piper was receiving from her friend Silas. I can’t say that it took away from my enjoyment of the story at all, but I did feel like it had me pondering the structure of the book more than I would have liked.

I hate to say it, but I was not a big fan of either Piper’s sister, Marli, or of their parents.  Marli, who has just moved back home because she got pregnant while away at college, spends the bulk of the novel storming around screaming and yelling at anyone and everyone who crosses her path, especially Piper, who seems to be her favorite target.  I found it incredibly frustrating that Piper’s parents basically allowed Marli to verbally abuse Piper on a daily basis and that all of them, including Marli’s baby daddy once he moved in with them, simply tiptoed around her to try to keep the venomous raging to a minimum.  Most of the time their parents just chalked her outrageous behavior up to pregnancy hormones, but every once in a while particularly when Piper was really about to lose it and really go off on Marlie, then they would admit that Marli has been like this her entire life.  My question at this point is then why haven’t her parents done more to get her help – her behavior is clearly not normal.  I’m not a psychologist or a therapist, but it seems like Marli is living her life with an undiagnosed mental illness.  I was sympathetic to Marli in that sense and really wanted something to happen to acknowledge that she was going through some kind of mental health issue. Nothing did though so I ultimately just found her very hard to stomach because as she was presented, she was little more than a constant source of over-the-top drama.

As much as Marli bothered me, I think her parents actually bothered me more — not just because of how they let things go with Marli, but also because they were overall so unsupportive of Piper and her dreams.  Throughout the course of the book, they were probably the biggest obstacle that Piper faced because everything Piper wanted took a back seat to Marli and her drama and then to her parent’s poor planning when it came to their children’s college funds.  If you know your daughter has been dreaming her entire life of moving to New York City to study art, and she is clearly a gifted artist, wouldn’t you be doing everything you possibly can to try to make that dream a reality?  I hate to judge, but I was just very disappointed in their parenting abilities.

One other minor quibble I had with the storyline was how conveniently some obstacles were wrapped up in the closing pages of the book.  I can’t say much without giving away major plot points, but I just thought that what happened to Piper was something that would never happen in real life.  Younger readers will probably love it, but the jaded old lady in me was just like ‘Umm no, that would never happen in real life.’

Who Would I Recommend Piper Perish to?

I would most definitely recommend it to teenagers. It’s a fast and entertaining read, and I think teens will easily related to Piper’s journey.  I honestly can’t decide if this is one of those YA books that translates well for older readers though. I could see some older readers finding it a little over dramatic at times and thinking  “Kid, you think your life is stressful now, wait until you’re out on your own.”

Thanks so much to Netgalley, Chronicle, and Kayla Cagan for allowing me to preview this book in exchange for my honest review.

 

Rating:  3.5 Stars
three-half-stars

About Kayla Cagan

Kayla Cagan is from Houston, Texas. Piper Perish is her debut YA novel, with a second novel on the way from Chronicle Books in 2018. Her short plays and monologues have been published by Applause Books and Smith and Kraus. She has also contributed comics and essays to assorted collections, including Girl Crush Zine, Womanthology, and Unite and Take Over: Stories Inspired by the Smiths. Cagan lives with her husband, screenwriter Josh A. Cagan and their dog, chihuahua Banjo L. Cagan, in Los Angeles.

Book Review: Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

Book Review:  Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer NivenHolding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven
four-stars
Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers on October 4th 2016
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 391
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  From the author of the New York Times bestseller All the Bright Places comes a heart-wrenching story about what it means to see someone—and love someone—for who they truly are.

Everyone thinks they know Libby Strout, the girl once dubbed “America’s Fattest Teen.” But no one’s taken the time to look past her weight to get to know who she really is. Following her mom’s death, she’s been picking up the pieces in the privacy of her home, dealing with her heartbroken father and her own grief. Now, Libby’s ready: for high school, for new friends, for love, and for EVERY POSSIBILITY LIFE HAS TO OFFER. In that moment, I know the part I want to play here at MVB High. I want to be the girl who can do anything.

Everyone thinks they know Jack Masselin, too. Yes, he’s got swagger, but he’s also mastered the impossible art of giving people what they want, of fitting in. What no one knows is that Jack has a newly acquired secret: he can’t recognize faces. Even his own brothers are strangers to him. He’s the guy who can re-engineer and rebuild anything in new and bad-ass ways, but he can’t understand what’s going on with the inner workings of his brain. So he tells himself to play it cool: Be charming. Be hilarious. Don’t get too close to anyone.

Until he meets Libby. When the two get tangled up in a cruel high school game—which lands them in group counseling and community service—Libby and Jack are both pissed, and then surprised. Because the more time they spend together, the less alone they feel. . . . Because sometimes when you meet someone, it changes the world, theirs and yours.

Jennifer Niven delivers another poignant, exhilarating love story about finding that person who sees you for who you are—and seeing them right back.

My Review of Holding Up the Universe:

I read Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places last year.  It took me on such an emotional roller coaster ride and immediately became one of my all-time favorite reads.  Because my opinion of that book is so high, I was a little apprehensive going into Holding Up the Universe because surely there was no way this new book could begin to compete with All the Bright Places in terms of grabbing me by the heartstrings and not letting me go.  I’m happy to say, however, that my hesitation was completely unwarranted as Holding Up the Universe is every bit the emotionally poignant read for me that All the Bright Places was.  It made me laugh, cry, feel every emotion in between, and it also made me really examine how I view the people around me.  Am I really seeing them? Am I putting myself in their shoes and trying to imagine what they might be going through? I love when I can connect with a book on that kind of level and use it for self-reflection.

What I Loved about Holding Up the Universe:

Libby Strout:  When Libby Strout, one of the novel’s main characters, is just ten years old, her mother tragically and unexpectedly dies.  A grieving Libby feels understandably lost, sinks into depression, and ultimately turns to food as a way to comfort herself.  Her lifestyle unfortunately becomes unhealthy for so long that she actually ends up housebound and has to therefore be home-schooled. When Libby’s unhealthy lifestyle ultimately leads to a medical emergency, she literally has to be cut from her house by rescue workers.  This event of course ends up captured on video and goes viral on the internet, the end result being that Libby is dubbed “America’s Fattest Teen.”  The whole experience is a wake up call for Libby who begins to see a therapist in order to sort herself out and get back on the road to both physical and mental health. When we meet Libby, she has lost enough weight that she feels ready to rejoin the world and so is starting her first day of high school.

I fell in love with Libby immediately.  Hell, I didn’t just fall in love with Libby; I wanted to BE Libby because she is just such a rockstar.  She’s courageous, resilient, confident, has a wicked sense of humor, and just this all around kickass personality.  She knows exactly who she is and she totally OWNS it. Some of her classmates stare and, gawk at her and make juvenile mooing sounds at her when she walks by, but it is not her size that defines who Libby is, it’s her larger than life personality.  Libby is not a character that you feel sorry for because she is mocked by her classmates; Libby is a character that you live life to the fullest with and revel in her ‘coming out’, so to speak.  If anything, you end up feeling sorry for the losers who mock her because they are the ones missing out on a friendship with a truly remarkable young woman. I really loved that Jennifer Niven painted Libby in such a refreshing way instead of having her be someone that should be pitied throughout the story.

I think my absolute favorite Libby moment in this book is when she decides to try out for the school dance team.  The captain of the squad, Caroline Lushamp, has been snide and nasty to Libby ever since she came back to school.  Libby gives the audition of her life, because as Libby herself says, “the dance is in me.”  This girl has serious moves and her spirit is just so infectious that if you’re with her and she starts dancing, you won’t be able to stop yourself from joining in. When Libby finishes her audition, Caroline immediately starts in with her nasty questions.  She wants to know how much Libby weighs and would she be willing to lose over 200 pounds in order to be considered for the team.  Libby takes one look at her, says “Absolutely not”, leaves, and promptly starts her own school dance team.  Oh, to have had that kind of chutzpah when I was in high school!

Jack Masselin:  Jack is the other main character in Holding Up the Universe, and Jack has a secret – he has something called prosopagnosia and, because of it, he cannot recognize the faces of those around him, not even his friends and family.  He can literally be sitting there talking to someone and if they look away and then look right back at him, he doesn’t know who they are.  He has never been formally diagnosed, so not even his parents realize what is going on with him.  He has been hiding his condition since he was a child and has been somewhat successful keeping track of people by memorizing other identifiers about them.  But as he has gotten older, he has found himself in more and more awkward and embarrassing situations because of it – once accidently kissing the cousin of his girlfriend because he couldn’t tell the difference between the two girls, and then another time he accidentally flirted with a substitute teacher because he didn’t realize that she wasn’t a fellow student, and so on and so on.  His primary coping mechanism has been to develop a certain persona – he constantly plays it cool, tries to laugh the awkward moments off like he has done them intentionally, but ultimately he keeps people at a distance because it’s when they get too close that they start to realize that Jack isn’t as carefree and happy go lucky as he initially comes across.

I really liked Jack’s character because this secret that he is carrying around makes him so complex.  I can’t imagine what it would be like to never recognize the faces of those around me and then on top of that, trying to hide it from everyone around me.   In some ways Jack frustrated me because of this – I kept thinking ‘Oh my gosh, if you would just tell people, your life would be so much less complicated because people would understand why you do the things you do.’ But at the same time, I could totally understand wanting to not make yourself stand out if at all possible in a world where, as Libby Strout sees every day, some people can be jerks. When a stupid, insulting game called ‘Fat Girl Rodeo’ throws Libby and Jack together, an interesting and very complicated relationship begins to develop between them and Libby quickly begins to see through Jack’s carefully constructed (as he calls it) ‘Super Douche’ persona down to the real Jack, the one he lets no one see.

 I liked the contrast between these two characters.  Where Libby is all sass and brass, Jack, even with all his attempts at playing it cool, comes across as very vulnerable and in need of someone to basically save him from his own stubbornness about his condition. Libby to the rescue!

Seeing and Being Seen: The major theme of Holding Up the Universe is about seeing – it’s about not only seeing people for who they really are, but also about you yourself really being seen by those around you.  It’s about getting past those snap judgments that get made based solely on appearance or by one encounter.  I think Niven tackles this theme beautifully with both Libby and Jack.  After an initially bumpy start, Jack and Libby eventually come together and a beautiful friendship begins to develop.  Even though she actually punches Jack in the face the first time they encounter each other, as they both land in detention/after school therapy and are forced to spend quality time together, Libby quickly begins to see that Jack is not nearly the horrible person she initially thought he was.  And Jack, just as quickly, realizes that he feels more comfortable and more himself around Libby than he does around anyone else.  Once he realizes he can’t deny this connection he feels to Libby, he drops the doucheboy act and gets as real with her as she has been with him– even confessing the secret about his prosopagnosia to her.

Anything I didn’t like?

Overall I thought this was a fabulous read. I stayed up until well past midnight last night to finish it because I just had to see how it ended. I did have one small quibble with the events of the story though and that was when Jack states that he really could recognize Libby just because he loved her.  I’m probably just being nitpicky but it seems like if loving someone is enough to recognize and remember them, then shouldn’t he have been able to recognize and remember his family members?  I don’t know. I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around the logic here but it didn’t make me like the book any less than I otherwise would have.

Who Would I Recommend This Book to?

Because of its ultimate message that ‘You Are Wanted’ no matter who you are, what you look like, what size you are, etc., I’d recommend this book to anyone, and especially to anyone who needs to hear that message or who needs to realize the importance of putting oneself in the shoes of another and trying to understand what they may be going through: be a Libby Strout to those around you, don’t be Caroline Lushamp.

 

Rating:  4 stars

 

four-stars

About Jennifer Niven

New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Niven has always wanted to be a Charlie’s Angel, but her true passion is writing. Her most recent book, All the Bright Places, is her first novel for young adult readers and tells the story of a girl who learns to live from a boy who intends to die. All the Bright Places was the GoodReads Choice Award for Best Young Adult Fiction of 2015, and named a Best Book of the Year by Time Magazine, NPR, the Guardian, Publisher’s Weekly, YALSA, Barnes & Noble, BuzzFeed, the New York Public Library, and others. It was also the #1 Kids’ Indie Next Book for Winter ’14-’15 and SCIBA’s Young Adult Book of the Year, as well as being nominated for the Carnegie Medal and longlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. As of today, the book has spent over thirty weeks as a New York Times bestseller, and foreign rights have sold to forty territories. The movie rights have been optioned with Elle Fanning attached to star and Jennifer writing the script. As a companion to the book, Jennifer has created Germ, a web magazine for and run by girls (and boys) — high school and beyond — that celebrates beginnings, futures, and all the amazing and agonizing moments in between.

With the publication of her first book, The Ice Master, Jennifer became a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writer. A nonfiction account of a deadly Arctic expedition, The Ice Master was released in November 2000 and named one of the top ten nonfiction books of the year by Entertainment Weekly, and translated into multiple languages, including German, French, Italian, Portuguese, Chinese, Danish, and Icelandic. Jennifer and The Ice Master appeared in Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, Talk, Glamour, The New Yorker, Outside, The New York Times Book Review, The London Daily Mail, The London Times, and Writer’s Digest, among others. Dateline BBC, the Discovery Channel, and the History Channel featured The Ice Master an hour-long documentaries, and the book was the subject of numerous German, Canadian, and British television documentaries. The Ice Master has been nominated for awards by the American Library Association and Book Sense, and received Italy’s esteemed Gambrinus Giuseppe Mazzotti Prize for 2002.

Jennifer’s second book, Ada Blackjack — an inspiring true story of the woman the press called “the female Robinson Crusoe” — has been translated into Chinese, French, and Estonian, was a Book Sense Top Ten Pick, and was named by The Wall Street Journal as one of the Top Five Arctic books.

Her memoir, The Aqua-Net Diaries: Big Hair, Big Dreams, Small Town, was published in February 2010 by Gallery Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, and was optioned by Warner Bros. as a television series.

Her first novel, Velva Jean Learns to Drive (based on her Emmy Award-winning film of the same name), was released July 2009 by Penguin/Plume. It was an Indie Pick for the August 2009 Indie Next List and was also a Costco Book of the Month. The second book in the Velva Jean series, Velva Jean Learns to Fly, was released by Penguin/Plume in August 2011, and the third book in the series, Becoming Clementine, was published in September 2012. The fourth Velva Jean novel, American Blonde, is available now.

With her mother, author Penelope Niven, Jennifer has conducted numerous seminars in writing and addressed audiences around the world. She lives in Los Angeles.

Source: www.jenniferniven.com

Book Review: The Most Dangerous Place on Earth

Book Review:  The Most Dangerous Place on EarthThe Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson
three-half-stars
Published by Random House on January 10th 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 288
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:

A captivating debut novel for readers of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You and Curtis Sittenfeld’s PrepThe Most Dangerous Place on Earth unleashes an unforgettable cast of characters into a realm known for its cruelty and peril: the American high school.

In an idyllic community of wealthy California families, new teacher Molly Nicoll becomes intrigued by the hidden lives of her privileged students. Unknown to Molly, a middle school tragedy in which they were all complicit continues to reverberate for her kids: Nick, the brilliant scam artist; Emma, the gifted dancer and party girl; Dave, the B student who strives to meet his parents’ expectations; Calista, the hippie outcast who hides her intelligence for reasons of her own. Theirs is a world in which every action may become public postable, shareable, indelible. With the rare talent that transforms teenage dramas into compelling and urgent fiction, Lindsey Lee Johnson makes vivid a modern adolescence lived in the gleam of the virtual, but rich with the sorrow, passion, and beauty of life in any time, and at any age.

My Review:

I’ll confess up front that I went into Lindsey Lee Johnson’s striking debut novel The Most Dangerous Place on Earth blindly. I was intrigued by its title and have had such great luck with debut authors lately that I eagerly snatched this one up when I received an email from Netgalley suggesting it as a book that might interest me and saw that it was another debut.  I started reading and was immediately captivated and maybe even a little horrified to find that from this book’s standpoint, the ‘most dangerous place on earth’ is, in fact, high school.

The opening chapters pack an emotional punch.  The story begins with a look at a group of eighth graders in an affluent school district in San Francisco.  We see a socially awkward boy named Tristan Bloch, who has been having trouble fitting in and is basically friendless, decide to write a love letter to one of the most popular girls in his class, Cally Broderick.  This single act sets off a heartbreaking and life changing series of events. Cally decides, for whatever reason, to give this note to her boyfriend Ryan, who then decides to post the note on Facebook for all of their classmates to see and then friends Tristan on Facebook with the sole purpose of humiliating him. Other friends follow suit and they then relentlessly cyberbully Tristan until he tragically ends his own life by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.  The rest of the story follows the core group of kids who were ultimately responsible for Tristan’s death.

Johnson presents her story from multiple points of view.  She weaves together a series of vignettes where we hear from each of those students, beginning in eighth grade and then returning to each of them as juniors and seniors in high school.   We watch them all attempt to navigate the various pitfalls of high school and to a certain extent, adolescence in general – peer pressure, pressure from parents, alcohol, drugs, and of course, lessons not learned regarding using social media to humiliate people, even after what happened to Tristan.  Interspersed between those chapters we also hear from a first year (and still very idealistic) English teacher Molly Nicoll who has all of these kids in her English classes, sees all of them struggling to stay afloat, and tries to do everything she can to connect with them.

What I Liked:

I think what I liked the most about The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is how eye-opening it was.  As a parent, reading this story made me all the more aware of the fact that no matter how I raise my child and how active I am in his life, there are always still going to be so many other influences out there shaping him into who he is going to be, in some cases working directly in opposition to the kind of person I’m hoping he’ll grow up to be.  It also has me rethinking my views on the internet and social media.  In the past, I’ve always been primarily focused on protecting my child from online predators.  This book has really made me rethink that stance since apparently cyberbullying fellow students is also a thing now.  Sometimes the people you know can be even more dangerous than people you don’t know.

I also thought Johnson did a remarkable job of making a story told from about half a dozen points of view so easy to follow.  Each of the voices was so distinctive and so authentic – from the class troublemaker to the diehard party girl, all the way to the high school English teacher.  If I was reading from the point of view of an adolescent male, it truly felt like I was reading the thoughts of an adolescent male, and if I was reading from the point of view of a young English teacher, it felt like I was inside that teacher’s mind reading her thoughts.  None of the voices came across as generic or forced.

Another strength of the novel is that Johnson is actually able to portray these teens in a way that I still felt a tremendous amount of empathy for them even after what they did to Tristan.  That’s not to say that I necessarily found any of them all that likeable, but I did feel for them as they struggled to make it through high school and live up to everyone’s expectation.  Whether it’s the pressure to be as successful as their parents expect them to be or the pressure to live up to a certain reputation, or perhaps even live down gossip that is flowing around the internet about them, the pressure is always present in some form or another.  In some cases, the pressures at home are just as bad, if not worse, than the pressures at school.  I don’t want to give away any spoilers so I’m keeping this general, but the way Johnson portrays high school and the dangers of peer pressure, it’s basically a battlefield and you’re lucky if your child makes it out in one piece.  It’s a very powerful read in that sense.

I also thought the portrayal of teachers was pretty realistic.  I don’t know the exact statistics but I know the burnout rate for new teachers is super high and some of the things Molly Nicoll experiences are surely contributing factors to those statistics.  The desire to connect with her students leads her to cross lines that she probably shouldn’t be crossing because she’s so desperate to reach them.  We need good teachers who can make a different in their students’ lives, but one of the older, more experienced teachers points out to Molly, she’s never going to make it long term if she keeps doing things the way she’s doing them.  High school will chew her up and spit her out just like it does the students.

What I Didn’t Like:

As much as I enjoyed the read, there were still a couple of problem areas for me.  One is that I like to be able to connect with characters and relate to them as I’m reading.  Because there were so many different points of view, it was harder to do that in this book. I never really felt like I got close enough to any of them to do that.  Stylistically though, I’m thinking maybe that was intentional. I think maybe getting too attached to any of the characters would possibly make the reader lose focus on the overall bigger picture. Ultimately I think it was the right choice for the book; it just didn’t play into my own personal preference for that connection to the characters.

A second issue I had was that I would have liked to see a more diverse student population.  I know all of the issues highlighted in this book are chronic issues throughout our school systems, both the wealthy and the poor districts, so I would have liked to see more of a cross-section of our overall student population instead of so many rich, privileged kids.  I think having a more diverse population represented would highlight that these problems are widespread, not just localized to the wealthy and privileged of our society. Again, that’s just a personal preference for me and it didn’t prevent me from enjoying the book overall.

Who Would I Recommend this Book to?

Because of its emphasis on the dangers of bullying and especially cyberbullying, I would recommend this book to parents of middle and high school students, as well as to the students in those same age ranges.  Students need to understand the power of their own words, especially the negative words, and parents need to start hammering that into their kids’ heads at an early age.  The wrong words to the wrong person can set into motion life-altering and often tragic events.  In the case of this story, Tristan Bloch chose to end his life, but he could have just as easily come back to school the next day with a gun…

 

Rating:  3.5 stars

Thanks so much to Netgalley, Random House, and Lindsey Lee Johnson for the opportunity to review this book on my blog.

 

 

 

three-half-stars

About Lindsey Lee Johnson

Lindsey Lee Johnson holds a master of professional writing degree from the University of Southern California and a BA in English from the University of California at Davis. She has served as a tutor and mentor at a private learning center, where her focus has been teaching writing to teenagers. Born and raised in Marin County, she now lives with her husband in Los Angeles.

ARC Review: Everything You Want Me To Be by Mindy Mejia

ARC Review: Everything You Want Me To Be by Mindy MejiaEverything You Want Me to Be by Mindy Mejia
four-stars
Published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books on January 3rd 2017
Genres: Mystery, 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:   Full of twists and turns, Everything You Want Me to Be reconstructs a year in the life of a dangerously mesmerizing young woman, during which a small town’s darkest secrets come to the forefront…and she inches closer and closer to her death.

High school senior Hattie Hoffman has spent her whole life playing many parts: the good student, the good daughter, the good citizen. When she’s found brutally stabbed to death on the opening night of her high school play, the tragedy rips through the fabric of her small town community. Local sheriff Del Goodman, a family friend of the Hoffmans, vows to find her killer, but trying to solve her murder yields more questions than answers. It seems that Hattie’s acting talents ran far beyond the stage. Told from three points of view—Del, Hattie, and the new English teacher whose marriage is crumbling—Everything You Want Me to Be weaves the story of Hattie’s last school year and the events that drew her ever closer to her death.

Evocative and razor-sharp, Everything You Want Me to Be challenges you to test the lines between innocence and culpability, identity and deception. Does love lead to self-discovery—or destruction?

My Review:

I love a good murder mystery and Everything You Want Me To Be really fits the bill.  Although it started out like a fairly straightforward CSI/Rizzoli and Isle’s style murder investigation story, it ultimately ended up being a lot more complex and fascinating than I was anticipating.  Everything You Want Me to Be is a fast-paced psychological thriller that took me on a wild and unexpected ride.  The main character is high school senior Hattie Hoffman who is found brutally murdered in the opening pages of the novel.   Hattie lives in a small, close knit town where not much of anything ever happens so her murder completely rocks the community.  The pressure is on local law enforcement to find out what happened to Hattie and to bring the murderer to justice, which is the focus of the bulk of the novel.

Highlights of Everything You Want Me to Be:

Hattie Hoffman:  Hattie is a complex and well-drawn character.  I never could decide if I actually liked her or not, but regardless, I found her to be a truly fascinating young woman.   Even though the novel begins with her death, we go back about a year before that to follow the events that lead up to her murder.  In taking that journey, the reader learns that Hattie is basically an actress in every sense of the word.  She of course acts on the stage in plays, but the more we learn about her, the more it becomes apparent that she has no real sense of who she is and sees herself as acting out various roles all her life trying to make other people happy – the good daughter, the model student, the doting girlfriend – even if it’s at the expense of her own happiness. I can’t say much more without spoiling the plot, but it is unfortunately when she finally decides it’s time to figure out who she really is that Hattie sets into motion the chain of events that lead to her death.

Plot Twists:  I love a mystery that is filled with plot twists, especially when the plot twists make sense and don’t seem contrived.  In Everything You Want Me To Be, the author has woven together so many twists and turns that I was kept guessing the entire novel as to who the murderer was and what exactly had transpired the fateful night of Hattie’s death.  I loved that I not only guessed wrong once or twice – I actually guessed wrong three times and each time was sure I had the right person.  Every time I thought I had it all figured out, a new and equally plausible suspect would turn up.

Three Narrative Points of View:  The story of Hattie’s murder unfolds from three different viewpoints through the eyes of Hattie, through the eyes of Del Goodman, the town sheriff and also a friend of Hattie’s family, and finally through the eyes of Peter Lund, Hattie’s English teacher and also one of the prime suspects in her murder. I know sometimes having so many different points of view can be confusing, but in this case, I thought seeing the story play out through these three sets of eyes really added a lot of layers to the tale.

MacBeth:

Hattie and her classmates are working on a production of William Shakespeare’s MacBeth at the time of her murder.  When she turns up dead, one of her classmates claims that her death is a result of the so-called “MacBeth Curse,” where historically, people have often met with misfortune during productions of the play.   While I didn’t believe for one moment that Hattie had lost her life because of a supposed curse, I did love the added mystique that the “MacBeth Curse” cast over the events especially once the news media got wind that the curse had been mentioned during the police investigation.

Themes:  Speaking of MacBeth, it served a dual purpose in this novel. Not only is it the play Hattie was starring in when she was killed, but more importantly, it also shares major thematic elements with Everything You Want Me To Be, particularly regarding the dangers of acting on one’s desires without regard for the potential consequences. I won’t go so far as to call this a retelling of MacBeth, but there are definite similarities in that sense. Hattie going after what she wants no matter the fallout is very reminiscent of Lady MacBeth.

Anything I Didn’t Care For:

The only real complaint I had throughout the novel was that sometimes it felt like the whole “Hattie is playing a part” angle of the story was laid on a little thick.  I guess it was because we’re reading the three different viewpoints coming to the same conclusion, but at a certain point, I just kept thinking “Okay, that’s enough. I get it.”  That’s probably just me though. I tend to prefer story threads like that to be a little more subtle so that I can connect the dots myself and so reading it several different times was a little heavy-handed for me.  That said, it didn’t remotely take away from my overall enjoyment of the story.

Who Would I Recommend This Novel To?

Everything You Want Me To Be is a well-crafted “whodunnit.”  If you like a suspenseful read that will keep you guessing from start to finish, I would definitely say to give this one a shot!  I probably would not recommend it to younger audiences since the discovery of the body and the murder itself are pretty graphic, but other than that, I think most audiences would enjoy it.

 

Rating:  4 stars

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with an e-galley of this book in exchange for my honest opinion. This in no way affects my review.

four-stars

About Mindy Mejia

mindy mejia

Mindy received a BA from the University of Minnesota and an MFA from Hamline University. Apart from brief stops in Iowa City and Galway, she’s lived in the Twin Cities her entire life and held a succession of jobs from an apple orchard laborer to a global credit manager.

She’s currently working on a project set in Duluth and the Boundary Waters that may or may not be a trilogy.

Mindy is available for readings, workshops, and book group discussions. Contact her at mindy(at)mindymejia.com.