Book Review: Ink is Thicker Than Water by Amy Spalding

Kellie Brooks has always had a family that looks a little unusual.  Her hippie mom and tattoist step-dad are part of it, but she also has an adopted older sister and a younger half-brother.  Then there’s her dad, who seems to always want Kellie to achieve more than she is.  Kellie feels completely average and perpetually stuck in between her family.  Her place in her family is even further unsteady after her sister meets her birth mother and her best friend starts hanging with people who are much cooler than Kellie is used to.  When she reconnects with Oliver, an older guy she hooked up with at a party, she realizes that relationships are work–and they can get intense pretty fast.  How can she balance everything in her life when it all seems so precarious to begin with?

Fans of Amy Spalding’s sweet, contemplative The Reece Malcolm List won’t be disappointed by her follow-up novel about family, different kinds of relationships, and finding yourself.  Ink is Thicker Than Water cements Spalding as an author who knows her contemporary YA stuff, and this thoughtful and authentic novel is sure to satisfy fans of realistic fiction.  Memorable, funny, and heartfelt, this is an excellent addition to any YA collection.

This is a small novel, but it works with its material well.  Nothing about Kellie’s experiences are exactly earth-shattering, but everything she experiences is authentic to her situation.  She’s a completely normal girl, dealing with normal life stuff, and it’s exceedingly well done.  Spalding is a good enough writer that everything Kellie experiences helps shape her view of herself, her family, and her role within the context of the world around her.

There’s great care taken with characters here, and while readers might not always understand all of their choices (just like Kellie doesn’t), there’s never a moment where it feels inauthentic.  Spalding isn’t afraid to let her characters screw up and be flawed, and that makes for a richer reading experience.

A truly standout novel about change and growing up on the small scale, this is one that opens itself up to great discussion.  Highly recommended.

Ink is Thicker Than Water by Amy Spalding. Entangled Publishing: 2013. Electronic galley accepted for review via NetGalley.

 

Book Review: When You Were Here by Daisy Whitney

Danny’s mom died after a years-long battle with cancer right before he graduated from high school.  It was the event that she was hanging on to see.  Now he’s left alone, in a big house with his faithful dog and memories of the way his family used to be.  He’s unsure what to do with the estate his mom has left, and then he gets a letter from the property manager in Tokyo, and Danny is stunned by the letter’s revelations about how happy his mother was in her final days while in Tokyo.  Danny decides to go to Tokyo and try to find peace in his mother’s death, as well as answer the lingering questions he has about how she lived her life.

Daisy Whitney’s moving, authentic novel about the loss of a parent is a standout of a novel.  Contemplative, and often quite quiet, the novel tackles all sorts of issues, including death, loss, grief, transracial adoption, drug abuse, and growing up.  If this sounds like too much, rest assured that it’s handled gracefully, and the issues never overwhelm the narrative, which stays strongly focused on Danny’s attempts to heal.  There’s some expert balance here, and it pays off.

It helps that Danny’s voice is achingly authentic.  Whitney nails the male voice here, and Danny’s emptiness at the beginning of the novel is absolutely palpable. He’s angry but also feels nearly nothing, and Whitney doesn’t shy away from that.  She allows Danny to feel what he does, and she doesn’t cast judgment on him as he self-medicates with pain killers.  His slow evolution to healing is masterfully done.

The overarching theme of this novel is love, and readers get it in spades from Danny when he thinks about his mom.  Readers also get it from the supporting characters when they talk about Danny’s mom with him.  This was a woman who loved her children fiercely, and that love is clearly on display throughout the book, despite her absence from the pages.  Whitney takes real care with her characters, and it shows.

It helps that Kana’s spunk balances out Danny’s morose outlook.  Once he hooks up with the plucky teen in Tokyo, the story really takes off, allowing the reader access to a very foreign culture.  Their dynamic is great, and Kana is a well-rounded secondary character it’s impossible not to love.  The characters are ultimately what drive this story, and they drive it well.

A refreshing look at a boy’s love for his mother, this one is not to be missed.

When You Were Here by Daisy Whitney. Little, Brown: 2013.

Book Review: Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

Allie Brosh started a blog called Hyperbole and  a Half, and she illustrated her stories.  The result was a wildly popular website and legions of fans.  In this full-color book-version, Brosh brings her trademark wit and unique illustrations to a new set of readers.  Combining new essays with fan favorites, Brosh tackles all sorts of topics, ranging from the hilarious (her dogs) to the hard (suffering from crippling depression).

This graphic-novel-hybrid is sure to attract Brosh’s established fans as well as new ones.  With an authentic, unique voice and one-of-a-kind illustrations, Brosh’s hilarious, frank observations about her life are not to be missed.  This is a laugh-out-loud, nod-your-head-in-agreement kind of book, and it’s got massive appeal for readers young and old.

There’s something to be said about someone who has achieved fame on the internet and attempts to write a book.  No easy feat by any means, it’s also something that has been met with a bit of mixed success.  Luckily, Brosh is a good writer, although this only illustrates how much stronger some of her essays are than others.  Apart from a few cohesion issues, this is a solid collection of essays, and it’s impossible not to enjoy how funny and self-aware Brosh is.

Brosh mixes personal stories with her colorful illustrations, and she tackles subjects ranging from how crazy her dogs are to her fears about life and her crippling depression.  The mix of new and old material should hook her new fans as well as keep the old ones satisfied.  There’s appeal here for fans of other cartoon-based blogs like The Oatmeal.

Thoroughly enjoyable.

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things that Happened by Allie Brosh. Touchstone: 2013. Library copy.

Book Review: Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff

Mila has a special talent for reading people–and a room.  She has the ability to figure out things that might be hidden from other people using clues that so many people ignore.  When her father’s best friend, Matthew, goes missing–leaving behind his wife, infant son, and beloved dog–she and her father travel to America to search for him.  As Mila unravels the mystery of Matthew’s disappearance, she starts to realize that there are things she can’t know because she’s not old enough–and that the person she thought she knew completely might have secrets of his own.

Meg Rosoff’s excellent, thoughtful novel manages to be both contemplative and undeniably suspenseful.  Her keen knack for writing makes her characters come alive on the page, and her care for them shines through.  A knockout of a novel, this has crossover appeal for adults as well as teens.

Mila is a brilliant child, but Rosoff isn’t afraid to make her a child.  She treats Mila with care and respect, allowing her to be perceptive, insightful, and also appropriately naive at times.  Mila is a well-wrought character with a fully-realized personality.  Her relationship with her father is well-rendered, too.

There’s a lot simmering beneath the surface of this one, and Rosoff allows the story’s central mystery to illustrate the growth that Mila herself is undergoing, even if she is not aware of it.  There’s a lot here about how painful it is to grow up and start becoming an adult, and it’s reflected in the sparse, beautiful writing.

The mystery will keep readers turning the pages, because it’s suspenseful and a little haunting.  It’s also quiet, thoughtful, and brilliant.  Highly recommended.

Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff. Putnam Juvenile: 2013. Copy accepted via publisher for the 2013 Cybils.

Book Review: So Much it Hurts by Monique Polak

Iris wants to be an actress more than anything.  When a fairly-famous director visiting from Australia takes notice of her, she’s flattered and completely intrigued.  It doesn’t matter to her that he’s a decade and a half older than her because he’s so smart, charming, and attractive.  She starts secretly dating Mick, and it isn’t long before she realizes that Mick has an anger in him that puts her in danger.  By the time Iris realizes what’s happening, she’s isolated and embarrassed, so she continues to see him as his anger–and violence towards her–increases.

Novels about abusive relationships are tricky, because readers aren’t dumb and know when they’re being manipulated.  There’s been no shortage of YA novels about abusive relationships in the past few years, and I’ve  read quite a few of them.  Some are more successful than others, and this is one of those novels.  Monique Polak’s novel about a young girl who finds herself trapped in an abusive relationship might appear fairly textbook in its execution, but the solid, accessible writing and the authentic voice of Iris as a narrator make this one compelling even for the most reluctant reader.

As far as sympathetic characters go, Iris is one.  She’s been raised by her mother because her father was expelled from the country for illegal activities.  He’s been estranged from her since she was a little girl, and so she’s never had a strong male presence in her life.  Enter Mick, who is older, attractive, and confident: he knows what he wants, and he knows what Iris wants to hear.  It’s clear early on that Mick has chosen Iris because he sees a certain vulnerability in her, but this is done so subtly that it works.

The plot is fast-paced, the narrative voice authentic.  Polak’s writing is accessible but doesn’t pander to her audience.  She offers a fairly standard trajectory of an abusive relationship, but what’s lovely to see here is how she allows her secondary characters to develop into actual people.  The novel ends on a hopeful and believable note, and readers should be satisfied.

Recommended.

So Much it Hurts by Monique Polak. Orca Books: 2013. Electronic galley accepted for review via publisher for 2013 Cybils.

Book Review: Audacious by Gabrielle Prendergast

Raphaelle is sixteen and always seems to get herself in trouble, no matter what she does.  She can’t seem to do anything–even draw, which she loves–without angering someone.  When her father moves her family to a smaller city, Raphaelle wants to leave behind her rebel persona and start fresh, but it isn’t long before “Ella” reverts to her radical ways, causing waves at her school and attracting the eye of a boy named Samir–a Palestinian Muslim who is very different from her Catholic family.

Gabrielle Prendergast’s strong verse novel is chock-full of action, memorable characters, and provocative themes.  A thoroughly modern take on finding one’s identity, this novel is sparse with words but paints a vivid picture.  Readers should devour this one and wait eagerly for its planned follow-up.

Ella is a strong narrator, offering readers insight into her fragile family life (her mother harbors an eating disorder, her sister seems to do no wrong, and her father ignores everyone) and her own psyche.  She wants more than anything to do what she believes to be the right thing but also remain true to herself and her beliefs, but she keeps finding that the two cannot coexist peacefully.  Her radical, artistic side is her true self, but she battles with it for a good portion of the book.

Also interesting are the secondary characters, which round out this rich and riveting tale.  Especially noteworthy is Samir, Ella’s love interest.  A Palestinian Muslim by birth, Samir is also drawn to radical art, and the two cause a stir, albeit in very different ways.  Prendergast is careful to give all her characters dimension, and the story is all the better for it.

There are moments where the narrative seems to slip into a bit of didacticism, but the story as a whole is so well done that it hardly matters.  Prendergast explores a plethora of topics, including religious prejudice, sex, censorship, and eating disorders, and all of it is done exceedingly well.  The fact that she has such a profound understanding of the teenage search for identity comes across clearly here.

A standout.  Highly recommended.

Audacious by Gabrielle Prendergast. Orca Books: 2013. Electronic galley accepted via the publisher for the 2013 Cybils.

Book Review: Baygirl by Heather Smith

Kit Ryan is growing up in a fishing village in Newfoundland in 1992, when the government announces a moratorium on cod fishing, leaving her father suddenly without work.  Already a terrible alcoholic, Kit’s father moves her family from their rural community to live with Uncle Iggy in a much larger city.  Uncle Iggy is battling his own ghosts, though, and Kit struggles to fit into this new world, where the other kids taunt her with the nickname “Baygirl.”

Heather Smith’s smart, authentic historical novel is a standout debut of a book.  The novel manages to gently illustrate change without offering its readers any simple answers, and the likable Kit makes for an entertaining and sympathetic narrator.  Strong secondary characters and a near-seamless blending of social and personal issues make this a novel not to be missed.

As far as protagonists go, Kit is a knockout.  Intensely likable but also flawed, she’s smart, strong-willed, and has a sense of humor.  Her anger at the beginning of the story is palpable, but throughout the course of the novel, this gives way to understanding as she grows and matures.  This evolution feels natural and is believable.

Secondary characters round out the story.  Particular care is given to Kit’s father and the exploration of their rocky relationship.  A terrible alcoholic, Smith never allows him to fall into the stereotypes of a terrible, abusive drunk.  Instead, she allows readers to see how multifaceted and difficult the disease is, confronting many of the misconceptions head-on.  As Kit discovers why her father is unable to face the world sober, so do readers, making this journey all the more moving.

The insider view of Newfoundland during the cod moratorium gives this novel a strong sense of place.  At times gritty and at times very funny, Smith has created a memorable historical fiction that many readers will find completely compelling.  This one is worth your time.

Baygirl by Heather Smith. Orca Books: 2013. Electronic galley accepted from publisher for the 2013 Cybils.

Book Review: Living with Jackie Chan by Jo Knowles

Josh didn’t expect to spend his father year living with his uncle Larry miles away from home.  But after what happened last year, Josh feels such shame that he can’t face his life.  So he lives with his karate-obsessed uncle, and he goes to a new school away from his best friends.  He practices karate with Stella, the girl who lives upstairs.  They have a connection, but Stella’s possessive boyfriend keeps getting in the way.  Besides, if Stella knew the real Josh, would she even like him?

Jo Knowles’s excellent Living with Jackie Chan is the follow-up to her novel Jumping Off Swings, but readers who aren’t familiar with the first can still very much enjoy this pitch-perfect novel about mistakes, growing up, and forgiveness.  Knowles is a powerful writer, and this spare, character-driven novel is compelling through its final pages.

Josh is as shut-down as a character can be.  He’s so consumed with his own guilt and regret about leaving behind the girl he got pregnant that he won’t allow himself to feel even an ounce of happiness.  His misery is his penance, even as he tries to escape the past.  Of course, he can’t, and it’s with the help of the equally compelling characters of his uncle Larry and friend Stella that he’s able to move forward.  This growth is gradual and authentic.  Josh is an incredibly complex character, but he’s also really likable.

Unusual in its portrayal of teenage pregnancy from the male perspective, Knowles offers her readers plenty to think about.  Honest, frequently frank, and simultaneously hopeful and heartbreaking, this is great contemporary YA.  Readers will be rooting for Josh to pull through and embrace his life–and his mistakes.

Highly recommended.

Living with Jackie Chan by Jo Knowles.  Candlewick Press: 2013. Publisher copy accepted for the 2013 Cybils.

Book Review: Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia by Jenny Torres Sanchez

Andy Cooper is dead, and Frenchie Garcia can’t seem to get over it.  Her friends weren’t aware of her massive crush on him, and they have absolutely no idea that she was the last person to hang out with him before he killed himself.  But the thing that Frenchie is most unable to come to grips with is how she unwittingly helped him die.  Frenchie’s obsession with death and Emily Dickinson make her somewhat of an outsider, and she feels more alienated from her friends than ever in the summer after senior year.  But when she meets Colin, she finds a way to recreate that night with Andy and answer her long-sought questions about what happened.

Jenny Torres Sanchez’s excellent novel is about growing up, growing apart, and coming to terms with life’s hardest lessons.  It tackles death, grief, loss, and much more with a sensitive approach, but the undercurrent of humor keeps the book from feeling too overwhelming for readers.  Expertly paced, vividly rendered, this is an excellent addition to any library or personal collection.

Frenchie is an authentically drawn character who is in complete limbo.  She’s stuck in the summer after senior year, and she’s grappling with the very real loss of her crush, Andy, as well as the gradual and more subtle loss of her best friend, Joel.  As the two drift apart, readers watch it happen and understand why it is–and possibly why it must.  Frenchie is both sullen and extremely anxious, and her preoccupation with death is intensified by her house’s close proximity to a cemetery.  All of this feels very real.

It helps that Torres Sanchez is a strong writer who moves her story seamlessly between the present and the night Frenchie spent with Andy.  These two stories unravel quickly enough to keep readers engaged but also slowly enough to keep them guessing.  There aren’t any easy answers for Frenchie, and Torres Sanchez doesn’t try to pander to her readers.

Memorable, thought-provoking, and a welcome addition to the YA cannon about death, grief, and loss.  This is worth your time.

Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia by Jenny Torres Sanchez. Running Press Kids: 2013. Copy accepted for review via publisher for 2013 Cybils.

Book Review: Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina

When some girl tells Piddy Sanchez that Yaqui Delgado hates her and wants to kick her ass, she’s confused.  She doesn’t even know who Yaqui is, let alone what she’s done to incur her wrath.  People tell Piddy that Yaqui thinks she’s stuck up, shakes her ass when she walks, and isn’t Latin enough with her good grades and fair skin.  What can Piddy do to get Yaqui off her back?  As the threats escalate, Piddy struggles to control her own life.  How will she possibly survive this?

Meg Medina’s excellent and heartfelt novel tackles many issues.  In this compelling story, she examines ethnic identity, body image, family, domestic violence, and bullying.  All of this could add up to one heavy-handed problem novel, but it doesn’t.  Medina’s prose is beautiful and honest, and her characters are absolutely authentic.  This book transcends the traditional problem novel and is a standout of 2013.

Piddy is a good girl with strong, supportive female role models in her life.  She’s smart and focused on school, and her future is bright.  But when she has to uproot her life and move to a new school, she is flummoxed by the hostility she faces from a girl who is a complete stranger to her.  Because of how strong the first-person narration is, readers can feel Piddy’s mounting panic about Yaqui’s threats.  Readers will experience the same claustrophobic dread that Piddy feels as Yaqui makes her more and more afraid.  It’s heartbreaking and very, very real.

It’s worth noting that Medina gives care to her secondary characters, including Piddy’s mother.  The feelings of the supporting cast are not set aside for the sake of the protagonist, and the novel is elevated as a result of this. Medina’s strong characterization and excellent writing make this a treat to read, even when it’s breaking readers’ hearts.

Ultimately empowering, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass doesn’t ever pander to its readers.  There are no easy answers here, and there’s definitely no easy way out for Piddy or Yaqui.  Medina treats this sensitive issue with such care and respect, it’s impossible not to fall in love with this book.  Highly, highly recommended.

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina. Candlewick: 2013. Library copy read for the 2013 Cybils.