Tag Archives: friendship

A Mango-Shaped Space

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This is a difficult book to review, and I am not entirely sure why. It was an easy read with lovely writing and interesting characters, it made me cry absolute buckets of tears by the end, but I am having trouble distilling the main message. Be true to yourself? Those who love you never leave you? Don’t be so wrapped up in your own thoughts that you ignore others? Maybe it’s all of them and more. It seems to start one way and meander over to an entirely different path by the end. This may be a short review. Or I may ramble on ad nauseam. Probably the latter, who’s kidding who.

By the way. It is a wonderful story.

13-year-old Mia Winchell is entering 8th grade, and she dreads it. Math is impossible, she has to learn Spanish, which is just not going to happen, and she lives in fear of her secret getting out. No one knows about her, not even her best friend Jenna. No one knows that she sees sounds and words and numbers and names all in colour. No one knows that their names have colour. No one knows that their voices make shapes in the air. And no one knows that Mango got his name because his little meow is mango-coloured. Mia’s grandfather died a year ago, the same day that Mango appeared. She is pretty convinced a piece of her grandfather’s soul is in the cat.

Then a fight with her best friend and two big purple Fs on math tests lead to her secret getting out, and nothing will be the same again.

Mia has synesthesia – she perceives sounds and letters and numbers as colour. I hadn’t heard of this before, but after a bit of research, found out that it is not uncommon in the population. There are a lot of different forms of it, and essentially it means “blended senses.” But when Mia tried to tell people abut it in grade three, her fellow students laughed at her, and the adults didn’t believe her. So she figured it wasn’t normal, and has kept it a secret her whole life.

I like Mia. She is a middle-school girl with all the normal angsts and worries of any 13-year-old, she has her best friend and her squad of girls that have always hung out together. She is starting to notice things changing, and isn’t sure if she likes what she sees. And she is starting to notice boys. She is also self-absorbed and ready to blow off plans if they interfere with something she wants more. In short, she sounds pretty normal.

Basically, I found all the teen characters fit that description. Her brother Zack is obsessed with superstitions, but is quirky and fun, rather than obnoxious. BFF Jenna deals with loss and heartbreak, and needs Mia to need her. Roger is sweet and bashful and vulnerable.

This is a story of a few months in their lives, when they are all dealing with different changes and losses.

A couple things bothered me about the story. One is that her mother, a scientist, was sceptical when Mia told her about her synesthesia, and wanted her “cured.” This isn’t the Middle Ages, we aren’t afraid of black magic, I cannot understand why she wouldn’t just say “ok, this changes the way you learn and see things, let’s figure out a way for you to learn math…” Why her parents treated it as a disorder or a serious condition is confusing to me, other than just to give the author a way to move the story in a certain direction.

The next is that it came a big surprise to everyone. I have three children, and if they saw letters as colours or tasted sound or anything, I would have heard about it long before grade three. Because kids talk about everything. And a four-year-old would tell you your name sounds purple or the dog barks green. And it would be normal to them, because everything is normal to a child. So I have trouble buying that Mia kept it a secret and no one knew.

Those few issues aside, author Wendy Mass tells a lovely story. There is love and acceptance and friendship and a LOT of tears, both happy and sad, by the end. It is a nice read for anyone. Just have tissues handy.

A Mango-Shaped Space was published October 19th 2005 by Little, Brown and Company

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook

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If you need a feel-good story about love and family and forgiveness, look no further.

11-year-old Perry has an interesting and unusual life. He starts each morning just before 6:30, with a wake-up call over the P.A. system. After that task is completed, he races through the halls to find his mom, sprinting to get his morning hug. Perry has lived his whole life at the Blue River Co-ed Correctional Facility in Surprise, Nebraska. His mom, Jessica, lives in Cell Block C, and Perry sleeps in a small room off Warden Daugherty’s (his official guardian) office.

But the new district attorney discovers the arrangement, yanks Perry from the life he knows “for his own good,” and delays Jessica’s parole pending application. Perry has to adjust to a life “outside,” and with his best friend Zoe, vows to find the answers to questions he has been too afraid and respectful to ask up until now.

I love Perry and Zoe, love Jessica and Big Ed and Halsey and the other rezzes and the Warden, and even love Brian. I love each and every character. They are all individuals that are never extraneous to the story, but weave in and out, illustrating the relationships that build a family while moving the plot along.

The DA is a bit over-the-top-obvious-bad-guy, but his caricature is maybe needed to illustrate the divide in the story. And I like that he doesn’t have a big moment of understanding and becoming a whole new person, but does try to see the other side, even if he can’t understand it.

The author, Leslie Connor, weaves in two perspectives; the majority of the chapters come from Perry’s POV, but also the occasional one from Jessica’s. It not only reinforces their devotion to each other but also shows that while he may not understand everything that happens around him, Perry’s instinct for honesty is right on.

Perry chooses to try and understand why others see him and his life the way they do, rather than defensively fighting against events out of his control. In doing so, he comes to understand that the lives of others are not always as they appear, either. That’s not to say he doesn’t have a few tricks up his sleeve in his quest to see his mom and help get her out of prison, but they are realistic and inventive ideas.

The characters change and develop throughout the novel, but it is amusing to see that, as, in reality, some people stubbornly remain the same, and life goes on around them.

The view of life in prison may be a bit rose-coloured but serves as a great backdrop to illustrating how families come to be.

This is a fabulous middle-grade novel about love and family and friendship, about respecting yourself and others, about knowing when to fight and when to wait it out, and about doing your best to make the difficult right choices, even when the wrong easier ones tempt you.

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook was published March 1st, 2016 by Katherine Tegen Books.

The Girl at Midnight

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More dragons!  I am a sucker for them.  I will read any book that is about dragons, or even mentions one.  And these ones are good. But again, not the scaly fire-breathing dragons expected. These ones have adapted to live in the human world, while still retaining knowledge of fire and magic. So, dragon PEOPLE.

17 year old Echo, human, thief, and runaway, has lived with the Avicen since she was 7.  A mysterious race of bird people that live below New York City, the Avicen have feathers instead of hair, and are embroiled in an ancient war with the Drakharin, the dragon people. Both races posses magic, and have wards and spells at their disposal to keep them from the eyes of humans. They travel through shadows and darkness, and can cross great distances in the blink of an eye.  But they cannot have peace.

There is a legend with both peoples that whomever controls the Firebird, a mythical entity believed to possess unbelievable powers, will control the outcome of the conflict.  The Ala, a powerful Avicen who adopted Echo after finding her living in the NYC Library, wants her to find the Firebird and bring peace. Caius, the Dragon Prince, wants the same outcome.  His bloodthirsty twin sister, general of his armies, wants the war to continue.

This is a good story.  It has romance, mystery, magic and sword-fighting, fire-raging conflict.

Writing the story in a contemporary setting really set up the contrast for the magic and ancient peoples;  a fantasy set in the modern world always captures my imagination. (You will look at the teen in the hoodie in the coffee shop a bit differently!) Bird people and dragons, a centuries old war.  A mythical being who could be the world’s salvation or could destroy everything.

All the characters seem to possess outstanding physical beauty and a witty intellect.  Likely?  Not in my world!  But then I’ve never seen a bird- or dragon-person either, so I am going with it, happily. Everything is possible in fantasy. And it makes for a great read.

Echo is badass.  I loved her. She is sarcastic, daring, loyal and smart, and a little unsure of her place in the world, both the ancient and modern. Caius is smart, gorgeous, selfless and loyal. Not really a bad boy, but then he is a dragon, so off-limits enough to qualify for possible romance. The Ala, Jasper, Dorian, Tanith, Ivy, Rowan – are all well-crafted secondary characters that really round out the story.

The country-hopping (following clues to find the Firebird left by a former Avicen operative) sets the stage for mystical international intrigue, sort of Bond-meets-Gandalf-meets-Gregor-the-Overlander.

The story is well paced, appropriate for any teen, and a great introduction to fantasy for anyone who isn’t yet hooked. (And did I mention the dragons?!?)

The Girl at Midnight by Melissa Grey is published by Delacorte Press.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

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OK.  So.  I had couple glasses of wine while I was reading this book. Not a good idea, really;  if I’d  written about it at the time, the entire review would have consisted of “squeeee!” and “OMG!”, two expressions (among many others) which should NOT exist. (So, your lesson for today: never drink and type. Well, my lesson. Thank goodness for proofreading.).

I adored this story. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is laugh out loud hilarious without being campy.  It is authentic and touching and just a blast to read.

Simon is a 16 year old boy who is just coming to terms with the fact he is gay.  A few failed girlfriends that he was terrified of during his early dating years should have pointed him in that direction earlier, but he’s figuring it out in his own time. He is most definitely not out yet.

He lives in small town Creekwood, Georgia, just outside Atlanta. Creekwood High has a Tumblr account, Creeksecrets, where students post pictures and thoughts and random gossip for all to see and comment on anonymously.  One day, Simon stumbles across a grammatically perfect entry by someone intriguingly named Blue, about being gay and lonely in the ocean of people surrounding him, and answers “THIS.

What follows is a story of two boys getting to know each other over e-mail, and falling in love without knowing the identity of the other. They both attend the same school, and may even have classes together, but Simon and Blue exchange thoughts and feelings, confidences and fears, not identities. During their correspondence, they give each other the courage to face their own anxieties about coming out, and help themselves in the process.  It is only after they are both out, they can finally meet face to face.

But after an email falls into the wrong hands, their secret is at risk. Blackmailed by a fellow student, Simon’s sexual identity could become common knowledge, before he is ready to handle the reaction. There is intrigue and bullies and love triangles galore. Author Becky Albertalli handles it all with humour and charm, and never exchanges authenticity to get a cheap laugh.

Simon, with his teenaged angst and moony thoughts about possible candidates for the mysterious Blue, is a vivid, hilarious character and a failed cynic. He feels that the teenage years are a chance to reinvent and renew himself, but every change seems to be met with astonishment by his friends and family. “If she thinks me drinking coffee is big news, it’s going to be quite a f@#king morning.”

Albertalli has written some really wonderful characters. The supporting cast is treated with the same care as she took with Simon; Nora and Alice, Nick, Abby and Leah, family and friends with their own secrets that needed to come out. The resolution to all the teenage drama at the end was perfect. Trying to guess the identity of Blue was futile for me, maybe you will have more luck!

I think it goes without saying that Oreos are their own food group.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is published by Balzer & Bray.

How to Be Bad

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Looking for something fun, that brings back teenage memories?  E. Lockhart understands, and joins fellow YA authors Sarah Mlynowski and Lauren Myracle to offer you How to Be Bad.  In a word, FABULOUS.  But one word is never enough, is it?

Think road trip.  Think stealing your mom’s ancient deathtrap of a car. Think best friends and boyfriends and new friends and bad food and tourist traps and bad weather.  Then add fights and hugs and understanding and yelling and silence, both awkward and comfortable.  Alligators, dead and alive.  Dumping your boyfriend because you are lonely and afraid. Picking a fight with your best friend because you can’t face what could be coming your way.

Niceville, Florida, to Miami, with detours along the way.  Vicks is the take-no-prisoner, self-assured girl whose boyfriend hasn’t called since he left for college two weeks ago.  Jesse is the judgy, tightbottomed Christian who is lashing out and running away, instead of facing a scary future.  And Mel is the new girl, desperate for friends and always the odd one out.  Together, they embark on a trip to find out why Brady hasn’t called, visit some tourist spots, and get a lot more than they bargained for along the way.

The girls learn that it’s not about the destination, it is how you get there.  Yes, possibly one of the oldest cliches out there, but so applicable, and so right.

How to Be Bad is told from the three points of view of the girls, with alternating chapters, each one offering her take on the experiences along the road.  It is fun and well written, and all three change over the road trip, believably, given their backgrounds and circumstances.  There are a lot of subplots, and the reader has to pay close attention to follow the different mini-stories going on throughout.

It isn’t going to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, but three really good YA authors collaborated on a really good YA story, and I had a blast losing myself in it. It is an easy read, the characters are distinct, and the story provided a relaxing Saturday afternoon for me.

Any teen can read this.  Pretty sure the boys won’t be too interested, but the girls will dive right in.  Just don’t tell your daughter about the time(s) you did something similar.  She doesn’t need any ideas.

How to Be Bad is published by HarperTeen.

Althea & Oliver

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What happens when what you thought was the truth, what you spent your life expecting, turns out not to be true?  Althea & Oliver leads the reader to an interesting and unexpected answer to that question.

It is the mid-1990s, in Wilmington, NC.  Althea is the 17 year old punk ass bad girl half of the best friend duo who met when they were 6 years old, and have been inseperable ever since.  She is athletic, artistic, impulsive and unsociable; Oliver is all she thinks she needs.  Oliver is the good boy, the conscience and the social half, a studious, serious teen who wants to study astronomy at MIT and one day save the world.

Their junior year in high school, Oliver gets sick.  He is diagnosed with Kleine-Levin Syndrome – he falls asleep and loses weeks, even months, of his life. Althea must learn to deal with blocks of time without her other half, because her life can’t stop, even though it sometimes feels it should.

And life does go on without him, which is hard enough for both to accept.  He wakes up to a different world each time, where he is just expected to fit back in with everyone else. But during one of these extended sleeps, something bad happens; Althea makes a really bad decision and hides it from him.  When she finally gets the nerve to tell, he is devastated. Furious, he ends the friendship and leaves town.

What happens when she follows is the real story.

Althea & Oliver looked like a simple, predicable love story: friends forever, fall in love, hit a few bumps, find each other again, live happily ever after.  It was not.

Teenagers make stupid decisions.  All the time. You just hope the decisions are made in a safe environment.  At that age, we all thought we were smart, we knew more than anyone else.  But let’s be honest with hindsight: we made stupid decisions too.  We were inappropriate and indestructible. And somehow, we survived.  Teenage relationships are  fraught with pitfalls at the best of times. They can be unhealthy, they can break down, and it’s not pretty.

Althea and Oliver and all their friends are those teens. Sometimes their behaviour seemed so real, and other times, I think author Cristina Moracho was forcing the story to get to her desired ending.  There seemed to be no consequences for any actions – heavy drinking, drugs, sex – all just seemed to be part and parcel of the teens’ days.  Although parents were present in the story, they didn’t seem parental at all.  Moracho had to let the teens live lives of their own control in order to make her story happen, and a whole town of uninvolved parents seems hard to swallow.

So, try as I might, I did not love the book.  It was good.  The conclusion was fantastic.  I loved how it did not go where expected.  But there were too many inconsistencies for me to totally believe it.

Appropriate for teens 14 and up.

Althea & Oliver is published by Penguin.

 

Wintergirls

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Laurie Halse Anderson does not write books that are easy or comfortable to read.  Speak was terrifying in its honesty and accuracy.  And Wintergirls is the same.  But if I say that I love reading YA fiction for the real way it makes me remember my teen years, the good and the bad, then I cannot shy away from the horrors that can, sadly, also be part of growing up.

Lia and Cassie grew up as the best of best friends.  They did everything together, which became their downfall.  After a summer at drama camp, Cassie came home with a plan to be skinny, and laxatives to help her get to her goal.  Lia followed along half heartedly, until New Year’s Eve and the promise they made to each other to be the two skinniest girls at school.  The pact does more than ruin their bodies; it tears apart their friendship.

Cassie takes it too far; her body is found in a room in a rundown motel, after a weekend of binging and purging.  After not speaking to her for months, she calls Lia from the room 33 times. Lia never picks up, unable to face her.  The next day, she learns of Cassie’s death.

Lia must come to terms with the loss of her former friend, and the guilt from not answering her phone.  Added to that is the guilt she feels for not letting Cassie escape the pact, when she tried to get better. Lia was afraid of doing it alone.

The news triggers her own disordered eating. Calories are counted and punishing exercise taken to burn away every weakness.  It engulfs her, even as Cassie’s ghost taunts and encourages, the way Lia did to her live friend.  But then, Lia is not alive, she “is a ghost with a beating heart.”

At no point in reading this story did I feel that Anderson was forcing her characters into any situation.  Everything flowed naturally and organically, without it seeming to force an ending – the story reached the natural conclusions for the characters. She writes incredibly haunting, real characters, without judgement about their struggle.  The battle for hope, through all the despair, was evident in her first person narrative, while the cross-outs, italics, and blank spaces in her prose evoke the torment that Lia felt in dealing with her own guilt and her own demons.

I cannot say that I liked this book, but can say that I could not put it down.

This is a tough book to read, but I believe appropriate for any teen.

Wintergirls is published by Penguin Young Readers Group.

Looking For Alaska

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John Green’s first novel is my favourite of his books.  And I like them all. But this one is AWESOME.  There are twists and turns and suspense and angst and it leaves you feeling like you have been kicked in the stomach.  It. Is. GREAT.

Looking For Alaska centres around the Culver Creek Boarding School, and Miles “Pudge” Halter.  Miles rocks. He is the very reason I love this book.  He is clueless and smart and a bit of a social zero.  He is obsessed with famous last words, and craves the “Great Perhaps” (Francois Rabelais, poet).  He wants boring and safe, but gets the very opposite, becoming attached-at-the-hip friends with the Colonel, and not so secretly in love with Alaska.

Alaska is snarky and full of herself and self-destructive and sexy and so so alive.  She chooses her name and her friends the same way: impulsively and immediately.  Green builds Alaska so wonderfully, so vibrantly, with all her strengths and weakness, that you feel her joy and pain.  She proves to Miles it is worth it to leave behind his minor life for grander maybes.

Together, the two of them search for the meaning of the labyrinth, and the way out.  Alaska finds it.  And Miles realizes that maybe he is meant to remain in it.

Green’s writing is poetic and evocative.  “She was the type of jeans that you wear when you want to look nice but don’t want it to look like you tried to look nice…”  It never occurred to me that men understood that concept, until Green wrote it.

He writes authentic, fantastic characters.  I loved Alaska, but equally so Miles and the Colonel.  I was them, once upon a time, trying to figure everything out, all at once.  Feeling everything so much more than anyone else.  Green does not reach for the happy ending, but he does allow the characters to resolve their challenges and come to their own conclusions.  “Coming of age” is a term I feel is overused and miss-used, but here is a book that is the very definition.

Looking For Alaska did not make me cry.  But it did make me pause and remember what it was like to be that teen.  I loved the use of the before/after countdown; the days leading up to the event and the ones following as the friends came to terms with it were real and familiar.

This is a good book for teens.  I would say the themes are too mature for the younger readers, but those 14 and up will enjoy.

Looking For Alaska is published by Speak.

Counting By 7s

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This perfectly delightful book by Holly Goldberg Sloan is exactly that.  Original, heartwarming, poignant; think of all the descriptives for a YA book that you can, and they all apply. But honestly apply.  Not as cliches.  This book will have you laughing and crying at the same time.

You will love Counting By 7s for the following 7 reasons:

1.  Willow.  Adopted as a baby, and orphaned at age 12, Willow is a genius, loves gardening, has an encyclopaedic understanding of flora, and is obsessed with medical knowledge. She speaks Vietnamese and Spanish, among others.  She has no friends.  Until she meets Mai.

2.  Mai is the 14 year old daughter of a Vietnamese immigrant.  She is tough, determined, deliberate, truly confident, and sees beyond Willow’s quirks to the real girl who needs a friend.  Her heart is very kind and open.  Mai looks out for her brother Quang-ha.

3.  Quang-ha is a year older than Mai, and is a reclusive artistic genius. He is always in trouble in school, is bored, and hates living in the converted garage behind the nail salon.  He resents Willow’s presence, but she becomes another little sister without him realizing.  She helps him with his homework, and he discovers his own drive to succeed.

4. Pattie is Mai’s and Quang-ha’s mother.  She runs the Happy Polish Nails Salon.  She is kind and practical.  Unable to understand inactivity, she soon has Willow helping out at the salon and takes over control of her life while Children’s Services tries to find a place for her.   She understands Willow’s pain, and does her best to give the girl a stable place in which to accept her loss.

5. Dell is the loser school counsellor who has coasted through life doing the bare minimum, and barely getting away with it.  Except that he isn’t a loser.  He meets Willow and Mai and Quang-ha and begins to find more in himself.  Dell wants to be a better person, for Willow and for the Nguyens, but he needs their help to accomplish the goal.

6.  Jairo is one of those special friendships that happen by pure chance.  You order a cab one day, instead of walking, and *poof*, kindred spirit.  Jairo is a cab driver with dreams of being a medical technician.  Willow encourages him, and in turn, he watches out for the strange little girl who checks his papers before driving with him, gives medical advice, offers him so much inspiration, and changes his life.

7.  Friendship, love, loss, selflessness, kindness, angels, inspiration, sharing, fear, loneliness, tears, giggles, oddballs, mutants, miracles, Cheddar, and family.

Everyone can read this book.  You will need a handful of tissues by the end, even as you stand and cheer.

Counting By 7s is published by Dial Books.

 

Fangirl

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Rainbow Rowell has done it again with Fangirl.  Her captivating characters and twisting and turning storyline will have you up all night; why waste time sleeping when you can find out what happens with Cath?

Cather and Wren are twins (unexpected ones, and as their mother didn’t have another name she liked, she divided one), who have lived their entire lives as a pair.  They have lived and breathed Simon Snow (an alternate universe Harry Potter) novels for years; the fantasy world helped them through the tough years when their mother disappeared from their lives.  Their biggest disappointment when they turned 18 was realizing they were too old to attend Warwick School of Magicks!

The twins are starting college in Nebraska, and Wren pulls away from Cath, needing to have her own identity as they move away from home.  She wants a new roommate, different classes, and different friends. Cath is more reserved, and cannot understand why Wren is suddenly so different.  She still lives in the world of Simon Snow and the Mages, writes fanfic, quotes canon, worries about her unstable father, and fears the unknown.

But even her fanfic cannot keep her from reality.  Her new roommate, Reagan, is a tough, worldly girl from a small town, with a best friend Levi, who hangs around and disrupts Cath’s life even more.

Levi and Reagan are great charcters.  I love Reagan’s toughness, and her overwhelming practicality and acceptance of life being what it is.  Levi’s existence seems to be based on making sure everyone around him is relaxed and having fun.  They are both kind, even if it is not obvious at first blush. Cath takes her classes, writes with Nick in the library (we do NOT like Nick), and gradually creeps out of her shell.  So gradually, she doesn’t seem to realize it is happening.  And she doesn’t recognize her own strength when dealing with difficult and challenging situations.

Like Eleanor and Park, Cath and Wren are very much alive, dealing with real failures and real triumphs.  They both had the capacity to annoy me, and make me laugh.  Rowell has a natural voice with her characters, and loves a happy ending.

My only criticism is the “exerpts” from the Simon Snow books and Cath’s fanfic seemed to be filler.  I did read them in the beginning, but did not find that they were adding to the story, for me.  Yes, there were parallels to Cath’s life, and yes, they fit in well with her obsession with Simon, but the time it took to read them took me away from the story I cared about, without enhancing it.

Appropriate for all teens.  Rowell deals with the issue of mental illness in the story, honestly, as well as some PG-13 discussion and hints of sex.

Fangirl is published by St Martin’s Press.