Book Review: Girls Like Us by Gail Giles

Quincy and Biddy have just graduated from their high school’s special ed program and are forced out into the unforgiving adult world.  Completely different and at odds with each other, Quincy faces her challenges ready to fight while Biddy is much more timid about everything.  They’re placed together as roommates and have to learn how to fend for themselves.  As the girls navigate their first year of independent living, they learn that they might not be as different as they originally thought.

Gail Giles’s Girls Like Us is remarkable in many ways, not least of all because of the treatment of her two main characters.  The vividly imagined Biddy and Quincy are both authentic, flawed, realistic teens being ushered into adulthood whether they’re ready or not, and they face a unique set of challenges.  Balancing some serious, truly terrible stuff with moments of humor and heart, Giles manages to craft a novel that is chock-full of genuine relationships, learning experiences, and truly memorable characters.

Told in very short chapters and alternating the narration between Biddy and Quincy, Giles takes a risk by allowing both characters to speak in specific, deliberate speech patterns that help readers not only understand the characters thought patterns but also how other people might view the girls.  Though it could veer off into sensationalized dialect, Giles keeps it true to the characters, and it never feels exploitative.  Both girls have genuinely funny observations about the world around them, and it helps readers build connections to both, even though they each have their own version of armor surrounding them.

The book deals with sexual and familial violence in very real, unflinching ways.  Giles isn’t afraid to let her characters or her readers grapple with the ugliest aspects of humans, and these issues are dealt with successfully overall.  The book’s only misstep is a brief foray into what happened to the daughter Biddy gave birth to, but this doesn’t derail the rest of the novel.  Overall a very strong piece of fiction that should have enormous appeal to readers across the board.  Recommended.

Girls Like Us by Gail Giles. Candlewick Press: 2014. Library copy.

Book Review: Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero

During the course of her senior year, Gabi Hernandez chronicles all the crazy things happening in her life.  Her best friend Cindy is pregnant, her other best friend Sebastian comes out, her father struggles with his meth addiction, and she has her first experiences with boys.  She also discovers a love of poetry and starts to develop an identity that is unabashedly feminist and unapologetically her own.

One needs only to read the first few pages of this excellent debut by Isabel Quintero to understand why it’s a knockout novel and well-deserving of the 2015 Morris Award.  Quintero’s excellently rendered character of Gabi, as well as the world around her, make this a standout of a novel.  Quintero is definitely an author to watch.

Gabi tells her story through diary entries that are compulsively readable and full of authenticity and emotional rawness.  Gabi’s world is wholly unbalanced and there is a great deal going on, but the myriad issues never actually overwhelm the book’s narrative, which is a tricky balance to achieve.  Quintero does it wonderfully here, allowing Gabi to grapple with some truly heavy adult stuff while also letting her be a teenage girl, too.  The normal teen trials and tribulations are present alongside the truly dramatic, and they’re woven together seamlessly.

Full of heart and humor, Gabi is a real character and feels like a real teen.  Her life is messy but full of hope, and her future is full of promise if she can survive her senior year of high school.  Quintero isn’t afraid to explore a burgeoning feminist identity and clashes with traditional culture.  She lets Gabi struggle with what it means to be a sexual being in a culture that tells her it’s wrong for girls to have wants.  She lets Gabi deal with how she sees herself and how others see her, and the result is fantastic.

On the whole an excellent debut novel.  One of my favorites of last year.  This belongs on all library shelves and should work for a wide range of teens looking for an honest, complex piece of fiction.  Highly recommended.

Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero. Cinco Puntos Press: 2014. Purchased copy.

Waiting on Wednesday: Everybody Knows Your Name by Andrea Seigel & Brent Bradshaw

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:

Everybody Knows Your Name by Andrea Seigel & Brent Bradshaw

Expected Release Date: March 10, 2015

Meet Magnolia.

Her father’s dead, her boyfriend’s ditched her to commit himself more fully to surfing, and her mother’s depressed because she can’t get cast on The Real Housewives of Orange County. All Magnolia wants is to reinvent herself.

Meet Ford.

Half his family is in jail, the other half probably should be, he shoplifted his way into a job at a record store, and his brother pawned his 1953 Telecaster for a quick buck. All Ford wants is to reinvent himself.

Ford, meet Magnolia.

When the two teens are cast in Spotlight, a reality TV singing competition, both see it as their chance to start anew. With each episode, as they live together in a Hollywood Hills mansion and sing their hearts out, Ford and Magnolia fall in love. But how genuine can that love be when a television audience is watching their every move—and when their pasts are catching up them so much faster than they can run?

(summary via Goodreads)

I mean, this looks like totally ridiculous fluffy fun.  Right now, it’s like 3 degrees outside and all I want is to escape into a book, so this fits the bill perfectly.  It helps that I’ve loved Andera Seigel’s other works (The Kid Table and Like the Red Panda are both excellent, and I even watched–and liked–her movie Laggies), and will pretty much check out any creative work she does.  I’m generally wary of any book that has more than one author (unless we’re talking about a graphic novel or anthology, obviously), but it might work really well here with two distinct characters.

What are you waiting on this week?

Book Review: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

The Riveras have arrived in Delaware after emigrating from Mexico.  Hoping to get their daughter Maribel the special education she needs after an accident in their home country, the family struggles to make ends meet in a rundown apartment complex brimming with other immigrants.  It is there that the Riveras meet the Toro family and forge a deep friendship.  The Toro’s son Mayor and Maribel forge a friendship and a tentative relationship is born.  But the impact of their newfound feelings has greater ramifications than they first realized.

Cristina Henriquez’s latest book offers an unbelievably fresh take on the immigrant experience in America.  Told in alternating perspectives, including those of Maribel’s parents as well as brief vignettes with other residents of the apartment complex, Henriquez gives readers authentic insight into living in America after coming from somewhere else.  The interspersed stories of other immigration stories provide a beautiful (fictionalized) oral history of sorts, and they are full of real moments and truths.

Also interesting to note is how Mayor and Maribel’s budding relationship mirrors untrue beliefs about immigrants in America.  Because Maribel suffers from a TBI, people believe her to be dumber than she is, and many misconstrue Mayor’s interest in her as something much more dangerous than it is.  The truth is seen when the two are together: Mayor is drawn to Maribel’s insight, sweetness, and life.  It’s a sweet and tragic little love story, and holds immense appeal for teens and adults alike.

Henriquez writes prose that offers profound ruminations on coming to a strange place.  Readers will be compelled by the stories of these vivid characters as they navigate a world in which they don’t speak the language and many of the customs are foreign to them.  The novel is full of moments that hold the beauty and richness of life and family in them.  It’s a moving experience, and though the end veers toward the overly-dramatic, it still packs an emotional punch.

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez.  Knopf: 2014. Library copy.

Waiting on Wednesday: The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand

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 Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand

Expected Release Date: February 10, 2015

There’s death all around us.
We just don’t pay attention.
Until we do.

The last time Lex was happy, it was before. When she had a family that was whole. A boyfriend she loved. Friends who didn’t look at her like she might break down at any moment.

Now she’s just the girl whose brother killed himself. And it feels like that’s all she’ll ever be.

As Lex starts to put her life back together, she tries to block out what happened the night Tyler died. But there’s a secret she hasn’t told anyone-a text Tyler sent, that could have changed everything.

Lex’s brother is gone. But Lex is about to discover that a ghost doesn’t have to be real to keep you from moving on.

(summary via Goodreads)

This doesn’t exactly look like a really uplifting tale, but it does look interesting.  I like stories about siblings, and I like stories that are complicated and murky.  Hopefully, this one will deliver on all those things. Also, that cover is great–simple and interesting to the eye all at once.

What are you waiting on this week?

Waiting on Wednesday: I Was Here by Gayle Forman

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:

I Was Here by Gayle Forman

Expected Release Date: January 27, 2015

When her best friend Meg drinks a bottle of industrial-strength cleaner alone in a motel room, Cody is understandably shocked and devastated. She and Meg shared everything—so how was there no warning? But when Cody travels to Meg’s college town to pack up the belongings left behind, she discovers that there’s a lot that Meg never told her. About her old roommates, the sort of people Cody never would have met in her dead-end small town in Washington. About Ben McAllister, the boy with a guitar and a sneer, who broke Meg’s heart. And about an encrypted computer file that Cody can’t open—until she does, and suddenly everything Cody thought she knew about her best friend’s death gets thrown into question.

(summary via Goodreads)

I might not have been quite the flailing fangirl over Forman’s other titles, but I still enjoyed them.  This one looks like it’s going to garner quite a bit of attention, too.  It isn’t going to be an easy read–the book’s summary alone lets the reader know this is going to be a Hard Read–but it looks like it’s also going to be emotional, cathartic, and thoughtful.   It looks like there might be a bit more to the story than originally hinted at, which could go either way for me.  However, I know I’ll be picking this one up at some point in the near future.

What are you waiting on this week?

Book Review: Falling into Place by Amy Zhang

Liz Emerson decides to die and crashes her Mercedes into a tree.  In the hospital, in limbo, those who know her wait to find out her fate.  Skipping around in time and perspective, this tale is about Liz, but it’s also about the people she’s impacted–in good and bad ways.

This book, by debut author (and teenager) Amy Zhang, has received a fair amount of buzz, not only for its unusual execution but for its author’s noteworthy young age.  While the book’s premise is a novel one, the execution doesn’t live up to the promise.  Flat characters, overly earnest and oftentimes clunky prose make this novel fall short of its rather lofty ambitions.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t things here worth examining.  Zhang displays promise as a writer, even though the prose here borders on overtly didactic at times, and she certainly has an interesting take on how the novel gets narrated.  The decision to have the book jump around in time makes for a more interesting read than if it was strictly chronological, and Zhang’s decision to make Liz Emerson a very flawed, kind of generally awful person makes for a much more nuanced read.  She’s definitely an author to watch.

The problem is that the book’s unique narrator (Liz’s childhood imaginary friend) and a non-chronological plot can’t sustain the uneven writing and the otherwise flat secondary characters.  The book’s abrupt ending doesn’t help things, either.  This is likely to find readers who enjoy books like Gayle Forman’s If I Stay or Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why, as it’s similar in theme and concept, but Zhang isn’t quite there yet as a writer.

Falling into Place by Amy Zhang. Greenwillow Books: 2014. Library copy.