Book Review: The Chance You Won’t Return by Annie Cardi

Alex Winchester has enough on her plate in trying to navigate her junior year of high school.  She’s feuding with friends, dealing with a crush that might be something more, and attempting to overcome a crippling fear of getting behind the wheel in driver’s ed.  But then her mom starts acting strangely, and it isn’t long before she’s in a full-blown psychosis where she thinks she’s aviator Amelia Earhart.  As Alex struggles to help her mom while concealing her from other parts of her life, she worries that her mother will go out on Earhart’s final voyage and disappear forever.

Cardi’s thoughtful, authentic novel about a family struggling with the very real effects of mental illness is getting a fair amount of critical praise, and for good reason.  Cardi’s debut could veer into the too-quirky side of things based on the premise alone, but a firm grip on the plot, its characters, and the writing keeps this from ever happening.  The result is a realistic, gripping portrayal of a family in turmoil.

What works especially well is Cardi’s characterization.  Alex is a fully-realized, very flawed teen who uses humor to cope with the huge amount of responsibility she has to shoulder.  Notably, Alex’s younger siblings are also given enough page time to develop as secondary characters, and their evolution as they deal with their mother’s illness is particularly well done.  There’s a lot of exploration of different issues here, including concepts of love, acceptance, and identity.  All of this is woven seamlessly into the narrative.

One of the novel’s only weaker aspects comes in the form of the bantering dialogue between Alex and Jim as they get to know each other.  While it’s meant to be funny and witty, it never quite gets there, perhaps because Cardi is trying so hard to make it so.  But this is so minor a detail it almost feels unnecessary to mention.  The rest of Cardi’s dialogue largely works, and the light romance will satisfy readers who like their realistic tales to have a touch of love in them.

A very strong debut dealing with very real, very hard things.  This is a great example of a contemporary YA novel where the author doesn’t offer her readers nor her characters a neat, tidy ending.  While the novel ends on a hopeful note, it doesn’t sugar-coat anything.  Recommended.

The Chance You Won’t Return by Annie Cardi. Candlewick: 2014.  Electronic galley accepted for review.

Book Review: Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn

Andrew Winston Winters has a monster inside him.  A wolf.  He’s convinced of it, and the full moon is approaching.  Torn between the teen boy he is on the outside–a loner at his Vermont boarding school, shrouded by the ghosts of his terrible past–and the monster he knows he holds on the inside, Win works hard to deal with his demons.  Over the course of one night at a party in the woods, Andrew deals with the painful memories of his past as well as the pain he inflicts on himself now in isolation.

It’s interesting to read Kuehn’s debut shortly after reading her excellent, chilling Complicit.  While both definitely explore some of the same themes, Charm & Strange is more of an experiment in exploring the psychology of someone completely, irrevocably damaged by their past than Kuehn’s sophomore effort.  It’s also a bit more uneven than her follow up, but her strong writing and excellent ability to build tension helps to distract from that.

Told in alternating chapters that tell the story of Andrew’s past with his family in Virginia (anti-matter) and the present at his boarding school (matter), the book pulls no punches when it comes to presenting Andrew as a teen who is dark, haunted, and maybe quite violent.  It’s clear to readers that he has a host of problems and could be diagnosed with a myriad of things, but Kuehn is smart and never labels Andrew’s issues.  The novel is about Andrew’s coming to terms with his past and present.  It’s not about a clinical diagnosis for him.

Kuehn is great at teasing her readers with details about what has happened to Andrew without ever really giving away the details.  This helps build suspense, but it also raises a great deal of questions for readers.  What happened to Andrew’s siblings?  Why is he so damaged?  Is he really a wolf?  Kuehn’s controlled prose makes all of this work much better than it would have in a lesser writer’s hands.

Because the novel flips back and forth in time, there is a little stalling with regards to the plot.  The novel is definitely a slow burn, and that is going to put some readers off of it.  But for those who love a dark contemporary–and make no mistake, this is not a paranormal story in the least–and don’t mind a slow burn of a novel, this is a must-read.

Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn. St. Martin’s Griffin: 2013. Library copy.

Waiting on Wednesday: The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone by Adele Griffin

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.  Its purpose is to spotlight eagerly-anticipated upcoming releases.

This week I’m eagerly awaiting:

The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone by Adele Griffin

Expected Release Date: August 12, 2014

Two-time National Book Award finalist Adele Griffin offers an ingenious fictional take on the “oral history” celebrity bio that defined a bestselling genre: Edie, American Girl by Jean Stein and George Plimpton. In presenting herself as interviewer and curator of memories, Adele paints the portrait of a tragic young celebrity who allegedly committed suicide—presented in a series of brief first-person recollections—that ultimately results in the solving of a murder.

Adele’s words: “From the moment she burst into the downtown art scene, seventeen-year-old Addison Stone was someone to watch. Her trademark subversive street art and her violent drowning left her fans and critics craving to know more about this brilliant wild-child who shone so bright and was gone too soon. By means of more than one hundred interviews with those who knew her best—including close friends, family, teachers, mentors, art dealers, boyfriends, and critics—I have retraced the tumultuous path of Addison’s life, with research that sheds new evidence on what really happened the night of July 28, 2013. With photo inserts and previously unpublished supplemental material.”

(summary via Goodreads)

I haven’t read an Adele Griffin book that I haven’t loved, so this one is high on my list of books to get as soon as they come out.  It took me several times to read the summary of the book and understand it.  I have to say, I think it’s already sort of brilliant: a fake oral history of a young girl, told by the people around her?  Amazing.  Totally unique and I’m already hooked.  I can’t wait!

What are you waiting on this week?

Book Review: Why Can’t I Be You by Allie Larkin

Jenny Shaw’s boyfriend has just broken up with her and she’s alone in a hotel for a work conference when someone shouts “Jessie!” from across the lobby.  Impulsively, she answers, and ends up pretending to be a girl who seems to be much more fabulous than the real Jenny.  As she gets further embroiled in the lives of strangers, she realizes it’s going to be harder than she thought to extricate herself.

Definitely a rom-com put to paper, this sweet little novel hits all the romantic comedy sweet spots and should have no trouble attracting adoring readers and fans.  While the premise itself is a little far-fetched, especially when one factors in social media, online presences, and the like, it’s easy enough to let some of that go and become enveloped in Larkin’s vivid settings and memorable characters.

Jenny as a narrator is both likable and sort of frustratingly indecisive.  Not every reader will understand why she does what she does in this novel, but her motivations seem authentic enough to make it believable for a character like this to behave in the manner she does.  The novel’s most interesting bits revolve around her friendships with several of the women she meets as “Jessie,” and the ruminations on female friendship are thought-provoking and moving.

Of course, there’s also romance here, but it’s handled with a light touch, which works well in its favor.  As Jenny becomes Jessie to this group of strangers, she finds herself drawn to Fish, a boy who loved the real Jessie all through high school.  What happens next is predictable but ultimately fairly satisfying.  The friendships are what make this novel work.  Witty dialogue and a whip-fast pace make this a page-turner and fast read.  It’s frothy and fun.

Why Can’t I Be You by Allie Larkin. Plume: 2013. Library copy.

 

Waiting on Wednesday: Magnolia by Kristi COok

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.  Its purpose is to spotlight eagerly-anticipated upcoming releases.

This week I’m eagerly awaiting:

Magnolia by Kristi Cook

Expected Release Date: August 5, 2014

In Magnolia Branch, Mississippi, the Cafferty and Marsden families are southern royalty. Neighbors since the Civil War, the families have shared vacations, holidays, backyard barbecues, and the overwhelming desire to unite their two clans by marriage. So when a baby boy and girl were born to the families at the same time, the perfect opportunity seemed to have finally arrived.

Jemma Cafferty and Ryder Marsden have no intention of giving in to their parents’ wishes. They’re only seventeen, for goodness’ sake, not to mention that one little problem: They hate each other! Jemma can’t stand Ryder’s nauseating golden-boy persona, and Ryder would like nothing better than to pretend stubborn Jemma doesn’t exist.

But when a violent storm ravages Magnolia Branch, it unearths Jemma’s and Ryder’s true feelings for each other as the two discover that the line between love and hate may be thin enough to risk crossing over.

(summary via Goodreads)

I’ve been reading a lot of pretty heavy stuff lately, so this one seems like a fairly good antidote, if you ignore the straight-up terrifying notion of an arranged marriage between two TEENAGERS in CONTEMPORARY AMERICA.  Which, I guess, is what the book is asking readers to do, since I think we all know where this one is going.  I don’t expect a lot of surprises out of this one, but I do expect a southern-fried romance, and it looks like it’s going to deliver on that front.  I don’t mind a little steamy read during the steamy hot days of summer.

What are you waiting on this week?

Book Review: Tease by Amanda Maciel

When Emma Putnam commits suicide, a community is up in arms.  Everyone seems to think that it’s the fault of several teens who bullied Emma relentlessly.  Sara Wharton is one of those teens.  Along with her best friend Brielle and a few other classmates, the group is awaiting trial for their role in the death of the sixteen-year-old.  Completely ostracized from everyone in town and ordered to stay away from Brielle, Sara reflects on what has happened in the days leading up to the trial.

Amanda Maciel’s ambitious debut succeeds on a lot of levels.  Creating a story and characters loosely based on real events, she crafts a novel that is achingly real, ultimately heartbreaking, and pretty unforgettable.  By choosing to have Sara, one of the bullies, narrate the story, Maciel’s approach to the subject matter is different than many other authors.  It’s a risk, because there are many readers out there who won’t like Sara.

And while that shouldn’t matter, because since WHEN do readers have to “like” the narrator, it will to some.  But what Maciel does is elevate Sara from a stock character and make her a deeply flawed protagonist who is also very real.  For the most part, at least.  Both Sara and the character of Carmichael are fairly well done, as are brief moments with Sara’s family–in particular, her younger brothers.

Less successful characters include Brielle, who is clearly supposed to be the Queen Bee Mean Girl.  While there’s a moment or two where Maciel hints at something underneath Brielle’s surface, it feels like too little to get on board with her.

There’s lots of stuff for readers to chew on and discuss here.  Not merely about issues like bullying and suicide, the book raises questions about who is complicit when a suicide like this occurs, what other factors play into something this horrific, and how one can move on after something like this happens.  Readers are going to want to talk about this one, and it will be great for discussion.

Which is why it’s so disappointing when Maciel’s ending makes everything a little too convenient, too easy, and more than a little inauthentic.  It undermines all of the groundwork that Maciel worked so hard to put in place.  It’s too bad, because it takes what could have been a knockout of a book to one that is merely pretty good.

Tease by Amanda Maciel. Balzer & Bray: 2014. ILL’d through library.

Book Review: Breakfast Served Anytime by Sarah Combs

Gloria is spending her entire summer before her senior year at a camp for gifted and talented kids.  She’s not sure what to expect, but she’s pretty excited, and is looking forward to a summer of learning and distractions from the recent loss of her beloved grandmother.  What Gloria ends up experiencing is more than she could ever have imagined.  Between the mysterious clues her technophobic Professor X leaves for the students to a new group of forever friends, Gloria is in for a summer she’ll never forget.

This sweet, mostly thoughtful debut novel by Sarah Combs will hit a sweet spot for some readers.  Earnest and uneven (sometimes distractingly so), this novel hints at Combs’s talents but doesn’t fully realize them.  That being said, it’s likely to find an audience all the same.

Part of the novel’s charm is in its prose.  Combs fills her novel with memorable, pretty prose.  The novel is as much a love story to the state of Kentucky as it is a coming-of-age tale for Gloria.  These bits are standouts, and readers who love a good sentence are likely to be wooed by these descriptive bits.  There’s a lot of southern charm here, and this might even be more of a hit depending on the geographic location of the reader.

But there are parts that don’t work, too.  Combs’s packs her novel so full of issues that it feels daunting and overwhelming. At times, there are too many issues on the plate: racism, death, sexuality, family, religion, etc.  All of this overwhelms the things that work–the exploration of new friendships, the bottle-effect a sleep-away camp can have on its inhabitants, etc.

Also frustrating is Gloria’s characterization, which can feel uneven at times.  Although it’s clear that Combs means for Gloria to be judgmental, she’s so over-the-top judgmental and immature at times that it’s hard to reconcile those aspects of her personality with her more mature ones (her extensive bibliography of classic literature references, for one).  While this reader realizes that most humans have this kind of complexity, it often doesn’t feel intentional so much as choppy.

That being said, there’s a readership for this one, and Combs is an author to watch.  Her prose alone makes sure of that.

Breakfast Served Anytime by Sarah Combs.  Candlewick: 2014. Library copy.