Book Review: You Don’t Know My Name

Book Review:  You Don’t Know My NameYou Don't Know My Name (The Black Angel Chronicles #1) by Kristen Orlando
four-stars
Series: The Black Angel Chronicles #1
Published by Swoon Reads on January 10th 2017
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 288
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  Seventeen-year-old Reagan Elizabeth Hillis is used to changing identities overnight, lying to every friend she’s ever had, and pushing away anyone who gets too close. Trained in mortal combat and weaponry her entire life, Reagan is expected to follow in her parents’ footsteps and join the ranks of the most powerful top-secret agency in the world, the Black Angels. Falling in love with the boy next door was never part of the plan. Now Reagan must decide: Will she use her incredible talents and lead the dangerous life she was born into, or throw it all away to follow her heart and embrace the normal life she’s always wanted? And does she even have a choice?

 

MY REVIEW

 

Kristen Orlando’s You Don’t Know My Name follows the story of Reagan, 17 year old high school student who also happens to be actively training to become a member of the Black Angels, a top secret elite spy organization which both of her parents are also members of.  The Black Angels are such a top secret agency that Reagan has lived under assumed names all of her life and she and her family relocate every year or so if there is a fear that their identities have been discovered.  Reagan has been training to join the Black Angels for as long as she can remember – she’s already an expert marksman and is trained in mortal combat – and her parents fully expect her to follow in their footsteps to serve her country.  As the time gets closer for her to commit to the Black Angels, however, the more conflicted Reagan becomes. Is this really the life she wants for herself?  A lonely life filled with constant danger, panic rooms, secret identities, never staying in one place for any amount of time, etc. What about love, friends, college, a normal job, a family of her own someday?

 

LIKES

Reagan was, by far, my favorite part of this story.  I love that on the one hand, she’s this total badass spy-in-training, but on the other hand, she still comes across as quite vulnerable because she’s so conflicted about her future.  Her doubts are also completely understandable so it’s easy to relate to what she is feeling and to sympathize with her.  I can’t even begin to imagine living the way that she does, having a panic room built into her basement in case someone discovers who her parents really are.  Any time a mission goes wrong and identities are potentially compromised, her life gets turned upside down and she has to start all over again.  It’s very easy to understand why the idea of saying no and making her own way in the world would be so appealing.  In that sense, You Don’t Know My Name is as much a coming of age story as it is a spy novel.

There’s even a bit of romance thrown in for good measure.  Luke is a super hot ROTC cadet who lives across the street from Reagan at her home of the moment. Reagan and her family have actually stayed at this location for a little over a year now and so Reagan and Luke have gotten to know each other.  They’re in the “friends on the way to maybe becoming more than friends stage” when we meet them and I really enjoyed their chemistry.  In many ways, Luke is the impetus for many of Reagan’s conflicted feelings.  She really likes him and wonders what it would be like to have a future with him and it kills her to think she’ll never have that kind of experience if she follows in her parent’s footsteps.  She also worries about getting too close to Luke because what happens the next time she and her parents have to abruptly relocate? She wouldn’t even get to tell Luke goodbye. She would just disappear, never to be heard from again.  I don’t want to give any major plot details away, but I totally fell head over heels for Luke when something happens later in the story and he ends up finding out about Reagan’s family and the Black Angels.  As much of a badass as Reagan is, Luke scores pretty high on the badass meter himself.

Speaking of badass, the action and suspense in this story is off the charts.  From the first pages of the novel when we witness Reagan and her family abandon their house in the middle of the night to escape from a threat all the way through to what can only be described as a heartbreaking, life-changing event when one of her parent’s mission goes terribly wrong, this is a book you won’t be able to put down once you get started.

 

DISLIKES

Only one dislike comes to mind as I’m thinking back on this book and that’s a conversation between Reagan and her mother.  Reagan is slated to visit a college she’s interested in possibly attending.  In Reagan’s parents’ minds, this is just part of Reagan’s cover story since she clearly won’t be going to college.  Even though they were supposed to go with her to visit the college, they back out at the last minute because of something work related.  Upset by this, Reagan breaks down and confesses to her mother everything that she has been feeling so conflicted about. She tells her mom she doesn’t know if the Black Angels is for her, that she might just want to live a normal life and be happy and safe.  What got to me was her mother’s response to what Reagan says.  Her mom basically says that some people are born to be happy but that Reagan isn’t one of them. Reagan was born to serve her country, end of story.  I just found that very off-putting and couldn’t imagine any parent saying something like that to their child. Thankfully her mom reconsiders those words and apologizes later, but boy was she on my bad list for a while there.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

 

This is my first time reading a YA spy novel so I don’t have anything to compare You Don’t Know My Name to, but that said, what a fantastic read this was for me. I truly loved pretty much everything about it.  The story grabbed my attention from the first few paragraphs and I was glued to the book until I reached the last page, which has left me dying to get my hands on the next book in the series. I highly recommend this book!

 

RATING:  4 STARS

 

four-stars

About Kristen Orlando

 

“Writing is one of the great loves of my life (with bacon mac and cheese, Netflix binges and PJs also in the mix). My childhood in Columbus, Ohio was spent reading every single Baby-Sitter’s Club book ever written and acting out imaginary tragedies in my room (complete with costumes and props) until a really embarrassing age. I started writing plays for my younger cousins as soon as they were all old enough to act (The Spoiled Princess may be a personal favorite) and haven’t stopped writing since. After graduating from Kenyon College with a B.A. in English Literature, I’ve been lucky enough to make writing my career; first as a television producer, then as a marketer and now as a novelist.” (Kristen Orlando, in her own words, taken from kristenorlando.com)

Book Review – Zenn Diagram

Book Review – Zenn DiagramZenn Diagram by Wendy Brant
four-stars
Published by Kids Can Press on April 4th 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 328
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:  The more I touch someone, the more I can see and understand, and the more I think I can help. But that’s my mistake. I can’t help. You can’t fix people like you can solve a math problem.

Math genius. Freak of nature. Loner.

Eva Walker has literally one friend—if you don’t count her quadruplet three-year-old-siblings—and it’s not even because she’s a math nerd. No, Eva is a loner out of necessity, because everyone and everything around her is an emotional minefield. All she has to do is touch someone, or their shirt, or their cell phone, and she can read all their secrets, their insecurities, their fears.

Sure, Eva’s “gift” comes in handy when she’s tutoring math and she can learn where people are struggling just by touching their calculators. For the most part, though, it’s safer to keep her hands to herself. Until she meets six-foot-three, cute-without-trying Zenn Bennett, who makes that nearly impossible.

Zenn’s jacket gives Eva such a dark and violent vision that you’d think not touching him would be easy. But sometimes you have to take a risk…

MY REVIEW

 

Zenn Diagram follows the story of Eva Walker, who is the ultimate math nerd. Not only is she really great at all things math-related, but she also just flat out loves math. It’s her passion and she’s not afraid to admit it. Eva is a bit of a loner though, not because she’s a math nerd, but more so out of necessity.  She has a condition where when she touches someone or touches something that belongs to them, she gets visions.  The more troubled the person’s life is, the more dramatic and violent these visions are and the more unbearable they are for Eva. They can literally bring her to her knees and so for this reason, Eva tends to limit her contact with others.  She has one close friend, Charlotte, who knows about Eva’s visions, and beyond that, the only real social interactions she has are with the students that she tutors in math.  Eva is a whiz when it comes to tutoring, not just because she has mad math skills, but because she can actually get visions of what exactly a student’s math struggles are just by touching their calculators.  This is probably the only way her “gift” comes in handy.

The visions Eva has have plagued her pretty much all her life and although doctors have no idea what has caused them, Eva is a girl with a plan.  She plans to go to college, study neuroscience, and find the cure herself!  When we meet Eva, she is actively making plans to apply to elite colleges such as MIT and Northwestern and to apply for as many scholarships as she can to make her dream a reality.

Enter Zenn Bennett.  Zenn is a new student who walks into Eva’s life when he needs help with math.  During one of their tutoring sessions, Zenn accidentally leaves his jacket behind and Eva, without thinking, grabs it up to take it to him.  The fractal that hits her is so dark, violent, and upsetting that she literally collapses on the floor.  In spite of this, however, she stills feels herself drawn to Zenn.  He’s cute, funny, appreciates her math nerd humor, and she feels a connection to him that she hasn’t felt with anyone else before.  Is there anyway this can work out for Eva?

 

LIKES

Eva.  I am all about main characters who are a bit nerdy, so I adored Eva.  I mean, seriously, how cool is it to have a girl that’s into STEM as the protagonist?  I also loved that she wore her nerdiness loud and proud and was just downright hilarious at times.  I would have totally wanted to be friends with Eva if I went to her school and the vibe I got from Eva was that if she didn’t have this issue about getting physically close to people, then she probably would have had tons of friends and been actively involved in many social circles.

I think the author did a wonderful job of making Eva a relatable and sympathetic character.  I understood the hurt, resentment, and even jealousy Eva felt when her only friend Charlotte suddenly becomes interested in dating and the two of them start drifting apart because Eva can’t really follow suit and date as well.  It’s very easy to relate to her plight because these visions really are keeping her from living her life the way she wants to.  How can she have friends, boyfriends, etc., if she has to cower away from all physical contact in order to keep the visions (or fractals as she refers to them) at bay?

Zenn.  I loved Zenn as much as I loved Eva.  He’s a gifted artist and he’s also sweet, funny, and super cute.  He also has this tremendous sense of responsibility that’s very appealing and that makes him a character that is easy to sympathize with.  Early on we learn that he is working three jobs while trying to go to school because his father is out of the picture and his mother is a mess.  He would actually love to go away to art school after he graduates but it just doesn’t seem in the realm of possibility based on his current circumstances.

I fell in love with Zenn the moment that he showed that he totally “got” Eva’s math nerd humor.  He totally appreciates her nerdiness and the two of them just instantly click.  Theirs is a relationship that you can’t help but root for, whether Eva and Zenn just become really close friends or if they can actually get past those darn fractals and date each other.  Their chemistry is just so sweet and after seeing what both of their lives have been like up to this point, it’s like “Please just let them be happy together!!!”

The Fractals (or Visions).  While Zenn Diagram would have been a great contemporary read even without Eva’s issue, I loved the little almost sci-fi twist that these visions throw into the mix.  The fractals themselves fascinated me.  They’re not exactly psychic visions, but more along the lines of colored patterns that she sees when she touches a person or something that belongs to them.  The more personal the item, the more intense the visions.  They’re traumatic for Eva because while she can’t necessarily sense actual events that have happened to a person, she senses all of the emotions from the events.  So if someone has been abused or otherwise had something horrible happen to them, it’s all laid bare for Eva just by touching something that belongs to them.  Not only is it overwhelming when it initially happens, but Eva also finds it heartbreaking because she automatically wants to “fix” whatever it is that has happened to the person, but knows she’s can’t.  Eva says that the only people she can really bear to touch are children because they’re still so innocent and their fractals are therefore peaceful and soothing.

 

DISLIKES

The only moment where I felt a little let down was where I guessed what was going to happen regarding a certain scholarship that is mentioned throughout the novel.  I don’t want to give too much away, but as soon as I read about it and then saw who had applied for it, I totally guessed how it was going to play out.  I still love the direction the story took but just wished it hadn’t been quite so easy to guess.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

If you think you would enjoy a contemporary YA read with a sci-fi twist and if you love nerdy main characters, I’d definitely say to give Zenn Diagram a try.  Zenn Diagram is one of those books that I probably wouldn’t have picked up if not for the recommendations of some of my fellow bloggers.  I’m so glad I listened to those recommendations though because I really loved it.

 

RATING:  4 STARS

 

Thanks so much to Netgalley, the author, and the publisher for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.  This in no way affects my opinion.

four-stars

About Wendy Brant

At age ten, Wendy Brant wrote her first book, My Mysterious Double, the story of a girl and an impostor pretending to be her. Years later, after graduating with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University and completing the Publishing Institute at the University of Denver, Wendy wrote adult fiction (albeit unpublished) while working as an HR manager and being a mom. But when she started reading the same YA books as her kids, her attention and passion shifted. Now she likes to write about isolated teenagers who somehow find a way to connect with others, and she’s also a sucker for a little romance.

Wendy lives in the Chicago area in the best neighborhood in America (as crowned by Good Morning America in 2010) with her husband, teenage daughter and son, and guinea pigs Mac and Tosh.

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: 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.

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.