Review: Belle Epoque

Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross. Delacorte Press, Random House. 2013. Review copy from publisher. Morris shortlist.

The Plot: Paris, France. 1888/1889. Maud Pichon, 16, had big dreams when she ran away from her small village in Brittany and an arranged marriage.

Her dreams have changed to one thing: survival. The money she took from her father is almost gone, the rent in due in the small garret room she found, and she needs a job.

She answers an ad: “young women wanted for undemanding work. Propriety guaranteed.” She is shocked to discover that the Durandeau Agency provides a special type of woman to a special client: a repoussoir.

Plain and ugly women. To be a companion. To sit next to someone, and in their ugliness make someone look prettier than they otherwise would appear.

Maud flees: insulted that she is viewed as perfect for the job. And all her own fears and insecurities are stirred up, as she hears all her flaws described. She tries another job, but in the end, she has no choice. She returns.

Maud’s first assignment: a Countess buys Maud’s time for the countess’s daughter, to be around for the whole season, to make the daughter, Isabelle, more desirable and more marriageable. There’s a catch: Isabelle must not know anything about it. And Maud is to report everything back to her mother, reveal every confidence, so that her mother can manipulate the best marriage possible.

Maud must practice deception upon deception: pretending to belong to society. Pretending to be Isabelle’s friend. Pretending not to want more, not to be more, than the ugly friend.

The Good: A fascinating look at late nineteenth century Paris. “Beauty” is supposed to be so important that people hire someone plain to sit next to them in a cafe, at a dinner, at the opera. Yet it’s also a time with changing standards of what beauty is, as shown by the building of the Eiffel Tower. It’s different, it’s unique, and we, the reader, know that one day it will become synonymous with Paris, that it will be viewed as beautiful and elegant, but in Maud’s time? Not so much.

Maud is doing her best to make her own way. Back home, she worked in her father’s store, so she has little or no formal education. Her shop skills, without a reference, cannot get her a job. The position she does get, in a laundry, is tough and demanding and hardly pays. Being a repoussoir is physically easier and pays better. She makes friends with some of the other women. The problem is she also starts to make friends with Isabelle. Isabelle, it turns out, is someone who could care less about the season or marriage; she likes learning and her dream is to attend the Sorbonne. Maud pretends to Isabelle’s mother that Isabelle has good prospects, doesn’t tell about Isabelle’s dreams, but Maud knows that she can only play that game for so long.

Being the ugly, plain friend is draining. It does something to a person. To always, always, be the lesser one: Maud doesn’t really belong at any of the fancy affairs she goes to; she doesn’t have money or connections; and, of course, she doesn’t even have the looks. Even her personality must be muted and downplayed, used to flatter and highlight the person who hired her.

And here is where Maud’s age matters. For any repoussoir this would be difficult. For a teenage girl, it’s almost impossible. It’s not just having your worst fears about your appearance confirmed, though part of it is that. It’s also that Maud is at a time in her life where she is trying to figure out herself: enjoying Paris, wondering where life will take her, figuring out what she wants, and, yes, falling for a young man. How can she do all that while she is being told to be second? Less than?

A quick aside about the young man: yes, there is a bit of a romance, as well as some feelings about some of the eligible men courting Isabelle. I mean, Maud is having fancy parties and dinners and meeting young men who are handsome and rich. Of course there will be feels. But it’s a bit secondary to the main story: the story of Maud discovering herself.

All too often, historical fiction is about the “fancy” things, so, the things that the rich and well to do have. It is about the options that those people have. Isabelle, then — the daughter of wealthy parents who years only for an education — would be the main character, so that the parties and events and dresses could be described but you’d also have a “good” main character, one who values education over appearance and strives for independence.

Instead, there is Maud. Maud, who ran away and finds that life in Paris, while magical, is also about being hungry and desperate when you’re poor without connections. It’s about having to sit silently while someone describes the flaws of face and figure. Despite the cover image, this is not about someone who is beautiful. When she gets to wear pretty clothes, they are not truly hers: they are part of the person she has to pretend to be. She is only just now learning about the world of art and music, and Isabelle introduces her to photography. Maud discovers things and people to care about, and has to decide whether her job is more important than her integrity and her relationships with others. And she has to do so while wondering how to pay rent and buy food. Because she already has independence, her struggle is how to maintain it.

Other reviews: Slatebreakers; The Book Smugglers; YA Romantics.





Review: Tandem

Tandem: The Many Worlds Trilogy, Book I by Anna Jarzab. Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House. 2013. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: Sasha Lawson is an ordinary teenager. She lives with her grandfather; is a good girl; has friends.

Princess Juliana is rich and privileged, and facing an arranged marriage for the good of her kingdom.

When Juliana disappears, the powers that be fear the resulting chaos.

Sasha and Juliana live in parallel worlds; they are alternate versions of each other, identical in looks, but two different people.

Sasha is kidnapped, taken back to Juliana’s world, convinced to pretend to be Juliana to keep the peace. Being a princess isn’t easy; being the person responsible for keeping a fragile peace isn’t easy; and pretending isn’t easy. The longer Sasha is Juliana — the longer she pretends — the more she becomes connected to the people of Juliana’s world.

Where do her loyalties lie? Where does Sasha belong?

The Good: The whole idea of alternate universes is one I find intriguing. Someone who looks like you, but isn’t you? It’s like the ultimate alternate universe fan fiction — what if you were you, but you were a princess? Or, for the princess longing for normality, what if you were you but a regular student?

Sasha’s world is ours. Or, at least in this volume, appears to be our world. One can never be sure in science fiction!

So, not that Sasha’s world is boring — sorry, Sasha — but Juliana’s world being so different is what interested me more. Juliana is a princess of the United Commonwealth of Columbia. Long story short: the American Revolution didn’t end there the way it did here. The UCC is, roughly speaking, the eastern half of the United States; the western half is also a kingdom, called Farnham. Juliana’s arranged marriage is to the heir of that kingdom. While that may be the place our two worlds branch out from each other, the existence of alternates — identical people in each universe — it’s not simple. Sasha and Juliana may look alike, but they don’t have the same parents (or, rather, their parents are not alternates of each other). Other alternates exist; they are not unique.

I loved discovering all the things where there world was different from ours. My favorite elements of Tandem were Sasha’s negotiation of this brave new world.

Tandem includes some of the science and physics of alternate worlds, how they work, how someone travels from one world to the other. The UCC is more advanced in their scientific progress, because they have figured out all of this while our world, well, it’s still theory. While the UCC is more ahead in some areas, not so much in others.

Since it’s through Sasha that we learn about the UCC, what the reader learns is limited to what she is told or what she discovers. Juliana is her father’s heir, and there is a complicated story involving her father, mother, and stepmother that means she doesn’t get along with her stepmother or half siblings. Sasha, without Juliana’s emotional baggage and history, sees them differently. There are at least two threats to the UCC: a revolutionary group called Libertas, and the neighboring country of Farnham. Here, too, Sasha’s ignorance serves her well. When she meets Prince Callum, she’s more open to him, and his friendship (and maybe more), than Juliana would be.

Much as I love reading about the British Royalty, it’s not the government I wish we had. So, going in, my sympathies are with the group Libertas. (Anyone watching the time travel mystery series Continuum on Syfy? I have the same thing, there, in a slightly different context. My sympathies are to the future revolutionaries, not the future corporations.) I’m not sure if that’s me as a reader, or not, but I’m really curious how this plays out over the trilogy. The politics, and who is good and who is bad, is muddied and unclear, all the more so because Sasha has such limited context to put anything in. It was a bit frustrating at times, and I reminded myself that this a trilogy so, of course, there would be unanswered questions. And, of course, the most important thing is not the politics of the UCC but Sasha’s own survival.

One last thing: Sasha is forcibly taken into Juliana’s world and made to take her place. The theory is, the marriage with Prince Callum has to go forward; and the government is so shaky that the heir missing could cause upset. The person who does this is a young member of the King’e Elite Service, Thomas. Let’s just say, without any spoilers, that Sasha ends up being more willing to forgive Thomas and his reasons than I am. I have a feeling that, as the trilogy continues, I’ll have to get over my feelings towards Thomas.

Other reviews: Alexa Loves Books; MegaMad4Books; Alice Marvels.

Review: Spirit and Dust

Spirit and Dust by Rosemary Clement-Moore. Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House. 2013. Review from ARC from publisher. Companion to Texas Gothic (2011).

The Plot: Daisy Goodnight is seventeen (so, so close to 18!), a college freshman, and a psychic consultant to the FBI.

Yep, that’s right. Daisy, like all the Goodnight women, has a talent. Hers is the ability to communicate with the dead. For real. Which is why this Texas teen is now in Minnesota, talking to the spirit of a recently murdered bodyguard. The good news is, Daisy can tell that the young woman he was guarding, Alexis Maguire, isn’t dead.

The bad news is, Alexis is the daughter of a crime boss, Devlin Maguire, and Devlin Maguire will stop at nothing to get his daughter back.

Including forcing Daisy to use her unique talents. By whatever means necessary. Including threatening her and her family. Including using magic.

The Good: I am such a fan of Rosemary Clement-Moore! Spirit and Dust (like Texas Gothic and The Splendor Falls) is a perfect mix of paranormal mystery and romance.

The mystery: Alexis Maguire has been kidnapped. Since Daisy talks to the dead, she usually isn’t involved in a case involving a live person. Maguire realizes the power of magic; he even has a witch on staff. He uses magic against Daisy to force her to help find Alexis, not realizing (or, more likely, not caring) that Daisy is the type of person who would help find Alexis just because it’s the right thing to do.

So, what does Daisy do? Figure out who amongst the dearly departed may know something about Alexis. As Daisy discovers more and more, she figures out this is not a simple, typical kidnapping. Alexis, a classics scholar, had discovered something long hidden about Ancient Egypt — something that in the wrong hands, could give someone much power. So, yes, this means that not only is there talking to the dead and kidnapping, but there is also magic, a secret brotherhood, research, Egyptian artifacts, and — as promised — romance.

Research — this is the fun type of research. The dashing from museum to museum, looking for clues, stealing a car or two, and avoiding getting blown up type of research.

Spirit and Dust does a tiny bait and switch. One of Daisy’s handlers is a cute, young FBI agent so of course I thought, “aha, the love interest.” Then Daisy got kidnapped by Maguire, and one of Maguire’s henchman, Carson, gets assigned to Daisy, to make sure she does what Maguire wants. Carson is young, cute, funny, and smart. But wait,  you say — he’s the bad guy, right? Let me just say, that yes, Carson becomes what I think of as a “question mark” — is he a good guy or a bad guy? Yes, he works for Maguire, but all his actions seem to indicate he’s a good guy. But is Daisy too trusting?

What else did I love? The mythology of Spirit and Dust. Daisy talks to spirits, and these spirits remnants are a bit fascinating. When someone has just died, they leave an image that only she can see. A remnant also exists at the place of death, which is what Daisy usually sees when she is brought in by the FBI. It also means that visits to places that have seen a lot of death, such as the Alamo (hey, she is a Texan!) can be a brutal experience for her. Yes, her abilities come with physical side affects, such as migraines. Or, if she’s in a museum with, say, a mummy? Yep, that’s a problem, also. Objects, such as jewelry, that have a connection to a person may also have a remnant. It’s just complicated enough that talking to the dead isn’t easy, or simple.

Spirit and Dust is a true companion to Texas Gothic. Texas Gothic was about Daisy’s cousin, Amy; Daisy made an appearance it that book, and Amy appears in this one. You don’t need to read the one to read the other; there is no continuing story arc. That said, there are plenty of Goodnights so I, for one, hope we see more books about this talented mystery solving family.

Other reviews: Clear Eyes, Full Shelves; YAL Book Briefs; A Dream Within A Dream; Page Turners.

Review: Hattie Ever After

Hattie Ever After by Kirby Larson. Delacorte Press. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Sequel to Hattie Big Sky.

The Plot: June 1919. Hattie Inez Brooks has a dream: she wants to be a reporter.

She’s seventeen years old. She doesn’t have a high school diploma. She’s an orphan. She doesn’t have any money. She’s in the middle of nowhere. She has a nice boy offering her a safe future as his wife.

Hattie is not going to let any of that stand in her way.

The Good:  I adore Hattie Inez Brooks.

Spoilers for Hattie Big Sky, which yes, you should read, because not only is it the first part of Hattie’s story, but it’s also a terrific book. In the previous book, Hattie was left a homestead claim by her Uncle Chester, a relative she’d never met. Hattie goes to Montana and spends a year trying to make the claim work. Here’s the spoiler, and part of the reason the book is wonderful: Hattie fails in her attempt. I know!

It’s not necessary to have read Hattie Big Sky to understand Hattie Ever After. The reader is quickly caught up on what is going on in Hattie’s life. She’s cooking and cleaning for a boarding house, having just paid off the last of her Uncle’s debts. Hattie has three “safe” options facing her: stay at the boarding house and keep working; travel to Seattle where her good friends live and make a life with them; accept a life with her childhood friend, Charlie.

Hattie throws “safe” away. Hattie Big Sky matters not because of what happened to Hattie but because of how it made Hattie who she is. Someone who has lived through the worst and come through on the other side. Someone who realizes it’s worth it to try; someone who is willing to take chances; someone who is willing to work hard.

Hattie quits her job at the boarding house, keeps writing to her friends in Seattle but no, won’t be joining them; and turns down Charlie. Remember, she doesn’t have money or connections. She does have determination. “I am counting the minutes until the next thing. What is that,  you ask? I do not know.” A mysterious letter to Uncle Chester from San Francisco and a job opportunity with a vaudeville show on its way to San Francisco convinces Hattie that is the big city she should move to. And she’s off!

Hattie Ever After paints a wonderful picture of San Francisco after World War I, as Hattie experiences all of it. She wants to be a reporter, inspired for some writing she’d done in Hattie Big Sky, and she writes and takes the first job available at the local newspaper for a girl like Hattie: in the cleaning crew. The cleaning crew! It’s realistic and it shows Hattie’s character. She’s not to proud to work hard.

Hattie listens; she learns; and she pursues her opportunities, making her own luck as she goes. It’s important to do it on her own, but she doesn’t shut people out. She makes new friends in San Francisco, including the woman who sent her Uncle the letter. Hattie, the orphan, enjoys making this connection to someone who knew her family: for an orphan, it’s almost like finding family. She writes her friends in Seattle, she makes friends at her jobs, and she keeps in touch with Charlie.

There is a bit of a mystery: Hattie trying to find out more about her uncle. But to say more than that — well. I’ll just say part of becoming independent, as Hattie does, includes learning who to trust.

I love the romance with Charlie: it’s a light touch that doesn’t overwhelm the book, but is still important. Much like Charlie himself. He respects Hattie’s dreams, but isn’t sure that he can place his own life and dreams on hold. That’s fair. And Hattie is also trying to be fair to herself: she is only seventeen. She does have dreams. She fears that if she picks Charlie, now, that will be her only choice, ever.

And, as with Hattie Big Sky, I love the details that ground Hattie’s story: the food she eats, the clothes, the styles, the news articles.

Other review: Emily Reads; Green Bean Teen Queen; Bookshelves Of Doom; Slatebreakers; Finding Wonderland.

Review: Scowler

Scowler by Daniel Kraus. Delacorte Press, Random House. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: August, 1981. Changes are coming; Ry Burke, 19, knows this. The family farm is dying and he, his mother, Jo Beth, and his eleven year old sister Sarah, will have to leave. Sarah hunts the sky for changes of a different kind: meteors are supposed to be falling this summer.

Some would wonder why the three Burkes stayed so long on the farm, considering the events of 1972. That was when Marvin Burke’s physical abuse of his family became so bad, he was sent to prison. Sarah was too little to remember anything, but both Ry and Jo Beth bear the physical and emotional scars.

Back in 1972, Ry and Jo Beth and Sarah barely survived. Ry, then ten, made it through with the help of three imaginary friends: Mr. Furrington, a teddy bear; Jesus Christ; and Scowler, an angry troll. Those childish toys and companions were put aside years ago.

Then Ry hears about a prison break, from the local prison. The prison where his father is.

Marvin’s coming home to the farm he loves. He’s coming home to the wife and son who sent him away. Ry is going to need his own strength, and the kindness, wisdom and brutality of his “Unnamed Three” childhood companions to survive his father once again — unless those companions turn on him.

The Good: Scowler flashes back and forth between 1981 and 1972, slowly revealing the full horror of what ten year old Ry and his mother survived. “Survived” is a bit of an odd word to use, considering, as Ry does, that “this was the Burke farm, over four hundred acres of nothing, and [Ry] was terrified to leave it.” What type of survivor stays in the place that defines them as “victim”?

What is survival? That is what Scowler examines, both the physical survival and the emotional survival. Ry’s ten year old self, scared and alone and desperate, made his three toys real. Mr. Furrington, the stuffed teddy bear with the British accent and the warm reassurances: “You can do it. I believe in you, old boy.” Jesus Christ, a Sunday School present: “Blessings unto thou. Thy teachers have toldest thou how.” And Scowler, a hideous homemade troll of teeth and metal whose fury and bloodlust is expressed in worldless rage: “Tk, tk, tk.

If you want, you can read Scowler as a horror story where these three toys do become real, to protect a small boy and later a young man. Or, as I do, you can read Scowler as a horror story where a person’s mind sometimes needs to invent and believe in things like the Unnamed Three to do what has to be done. Or maybe it’s simply a horror story because it contains people who believe the following to be true: “Things that emerged stronger from suffering were to be mistrusted” and “if enough time passes, the world ruins everybody.” Those are the truths one may believe on the darkest days; days like when Marvin Burke comes home.

Scowler is also a story about family; and while Ry is the main character, to me, Jo Beth is the true hero and the reason this book is set in the early 1970s and 1980s. I’m the type that wonders, why doesn’t she just leave? His abuse starts shortly after their marriage, why doesn’t she just pick up then and leave? For me, it’s easier to understand Jo Beth’s decision to stay realizing she was born about 1943, married about 1962, and so 1972 — well. 1972 isn’t 2013, is it, in terms of options for a woman in Jo Beth’s situation. It wasn’t until 1984 that The Burning Bed appeared as a TV movie, based on a 1977 incident, and yes, I think those things matter in understanding and sympathizing with Jo Beth’s decisions.

The language — the words that paint this time, this place, these people — are beautiful and horrible and terrible, and only horrible and terrible because of the horrible and terrible things they portray. Brutal things happen; a man doesn’t go to jail for over ten years “just” for hitting his wife. And that man that comes home seeking his revenge isn’t going to be content with “just” hitting. I confess, I skim-read a few pages because i had a hard time with it, and then I read the last few pages to reassure myself, and then went back to reading.

The Burke Farm in 1972 and 1981 — this is a real place, these people, their hurts and triumphs and fears, all real. Because of the horror, the easy person to name as a readalike is Stephen King. I thought of King’s portrayal of Jack Torrance; I thought of the death of a child from spinal meningitis in another book. But as I thought more, of the ties of family between mothers and sons and fathers and siblings, and of the creation of a specific place and time I thought of someone else: Pat Conroy.

So, yes, of course this is a Favorite Read in 2013.

Other reviews: Bookshelves of Doom; Stacked; boing boing.


Review: The Opposite of Hallelujah

The Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzab. Delacorte Books for Younger Readers, Random House. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Caro Mitchell’s older sister, Hannah, left home eight years ago, when Caro was eight. Hannah was nineteen; it’s not unusual for kids to have older sisters go off for college or to make their way in the world. So why has Caro, at best, pretended to be an only child? Or, at worst (like four years ago, when she was twelve), say her sister was dead? Because Hannah didn’t do what most older siblings do: leave home to live her life in a way people would understand. Hannah joined the Sisters of Grace convent, a contemplative order where the only direct contact members have with family is a half-hour meeting via an iron grill. How do you explain that to your friends? Luckily, Caro doesn’t. Hannah is far away.

Until the phone call comes. Hannah is leaving the order; Hannah is coming home. Caro isn’t happy about it. She barely remembers Hannah. Caro reacts poorly to Hannah’s return, and ends up creating trouble with her friends and boyfriend. Neither Hannah nor their parents are dealing with Hannah’s return much better. Caro realizes that she needs to understand — to understand both why Hannah left the convent and why Hannah joined the convent in the first place. These are questions that Hannah and their parents don’t want to think about, so Caro is left on her own to try to sort out what happened.

The Good: I adored Jarzab’s first book, All Unquiet Things. In my review, I called it “pure brilliance.” I was so excited to hear about Jarzab’s second book, The Opposite of Hallelujah, but I was afraid, also. A second book can be like a second date: what if the guy isn’t that funny, cute, or smart after all? I almost didn’t want to request a copy from NetGalley. Wowza, I am so, so glad I did!

Caro’s life seems almost perfect: good friends, a cute boyfriend, doting parents and then Hannah comes back and ruins it all. Caro and Hannah barely know each other; not only was Hannah in the contemplative community, Caro refused to go for the half-hour visits for the past few years. I’ll be honest: at times I thought Caro was being a spoiled brat about Hannah, and lacking in any type of empathy about Hannah’s homecoming. When I reread my review for All Unquiet Things, I saw this: “Jarzab does something that is quite daring for a book: she makes characters unlikable.  . . . [I]t is because they each are at times unlikeable that the book is so strong. They are not perfect; they are human; they have failings.” That, in a nutshell, describes the two Mitchell sisters and it is why this book is so wonderful. Caro and Hannah are painfully honest in their reactions to situations, and sometimes, what people do is less than perfect.

While there is a bit of a mystery here (why Hannah entered not just a convent, but a contemplative convent) this is more a story of family, and a coming of age, as Hannah’s return forces Caro to grow up. Or, rather, it forces her to think outself her narrow world of only daughter. One minute Caro’s practically an only child; the next, there is someone else in her house, someone with her own history and memories with the family that have nothing to do with Caro. It’s not just that Hannah is her sister who has returned; it’s that Hannah is eleven years older, so there is eleven years that had nothing to do with Caro. As Caro admits, “I’d never liked being reminded that my family had once existed quite happily without me in it.” That may be ugly, but it’s honest and raw and honesty is what I want in my books. The beatuy of The Opposite of  Hallelujah is how Caro moves beyond that initial response.

I have to say, I am usually hesitant about books that deal with religious themes. I’m picky; I don’t want a religious tract pretending to be fiction, but I also don’t want a book where religion is not something smart people do because, well, smart people are too smart for religion. Those are extremes, yes, but as I said — I get leery.

The Opposite of Hallelujah treatment of religion, belief, and religious people is almost perfect. Hannah’s reasons for joining, and leaving, are treated with respect and sympathy; the complexity of religious life is shown.

Just as wonderful as the sensitivity with which The Opposite of Hallelujah treats the subject matter is the language. I know I’ve made this sound intense — religious convents and returned sisters, families and secrets and ugly feelings — but it’s also funny and insightful. Here is Caro, on an ex (and haven’t we all felt this way?): “It was amazing how differently you saw some people once the fog of flattery and attention had burned away.” Caro has good friends; there is an interesting love interest; and the full story of Hannah broke my heart. This, at the end, is why I adored this book: “The past doesn’t disappear, but it doesn’t have to define your future.”

For all these reasons, The Opposite of Hallelujah is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: YA? Why Not?

Review: The Whole Story of Half a Girl

The Whole Story of Half a Girl by Veera Hiranandani. Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House. 2012. Reviewed from copy from publisher.

The Plot: When eleven-year-old Sonia’s father loses his job, she has to leave private school for public school. At her old school, everyone knew her; now, they wonder if she’s Indian like her father or Jewish like her mother. She’s trying to make new friends and keep in touch with old ones. To make matters worse, her father’s unemployment is taking more than a financial toll on her family. It’s also emotional. One day, he just doesn’t come home.

The Good: Sonia’s old school was a private school, yes; but it’s not that type of private school. It was one that emphasized nurturing and non-traditional learning and not having tests. Honestly? It sounds like a terrific school, and I can understand why Sonia doesn’t want to leave! On the other hand, her parents say that part of the reason they want to send her to public school is so she can receive more traditional learning. I can understand that, also.

Sonia makes new friends, yes, but she is also exposed to cliques for the first time. Her old school was just too small (and touchy-feely) for that. Also? Sonia observes that the students self segregate by skin tone. She wonders, what table does she belong at? She also has to put up with obnoxious/ignorant remarks about her parents, especially about being half Indian. Because her mother isn’t very religious, she also wonders whether she’s really Jewish or not.

The Whole Story of Half a Girl is a fascinating look at class and money. Sonia’s family is well educated, live in a big house, travel, and (until recently) paid private school tuition. One of her new friends, Kate, has a stay at home mother. Kate’s mother shops a lot and the family eats take out all the time, but they live in a smaller house than Sonia’s. Kate (and her mother) also introduce Sonia to cheerleading, something Sonia’s mother frowns on. Sonia doesn’t make any conclusions about careers or spending, but it’s interesting to read between the lines. Students are bussed to Sonia’s school, and that, too, adds a socioeconomic spin to this story. It’s done with a soft touch, such as when Alisha invites Sonia home with her after school, a trip that is more complicated than walking home with someone.

Kate is the popular girl; it would be easy to say she’s the “mean” girl. It’s more complex than that, and I ended up feeling sorry for her. Kate ends up letting Sonia down, true; but Kate comes to the friendship with her own complex background that impacts what Kate does or does not do. I’d be curious to discuss this aspect with others; am I letting Kate off the hook? One more thing: the mean comments about Sonia’s ethnicity (and they are mean) come just as much from the boys as the girls. I liked that touch, because sometimes it seems like books (and people) use “mean” as something girls do and that boys don’t.

Sonia’s father suffers from depression.  I like how it’s handled; it’s shown over an extended time period, and the impact on the family (especially Sonia) takes center stage.

One last thing: there is no forced happy “we’ll all sit at one table together” ending. It’s not an after school special. I was so relieved by that!

Other reviewsThe Happy Nappy Bookseller; S. Krishna’s Books; Mixed Reader; Masala Reader.

Review: Wanderlove

Wanderlove by Kirsten Hubbard. Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: What better way to reinvent oneself than travel? Bria Sandoval, 18, does just that, following a bad break up and disappointing college decisions. Carefree travel, seeing new places, meeting new people — heck, maybe she’ll even follow her friends’ advice and pursue a random, no-emotions-invested hookup with some cute guy who means nothing.

Perhaps all you need to know about Bria’s personality is that the way she implements her plan is by signing up for a guided tour.

Yes. An eighteen year old on a guided tour of South America.

I don’t have to tell you that she’s the youngest person, by far, on the tour — the brochure of young, smiling people lied. So now Bria is stuck, stuck on the tour much like she was stuck in her old life. Wishing for something different, wishing to be as carefree as the grungy backpackers she sees.

When Bria meets Starling and Rowan, two backpackers who invite her along on their journey, Bria decides to leave the safe, organized, structured tour and take a chance: a chance on traveling, a chance on life, a chance on friendship with two strangers, but, most important, a chance on herself.

The Good: I defy you to read this book and not want to immediately head out for the airport and go somewhere, anywhere, just go.

I have never been to the places Bria, Starling, and Rowan go to: Guatemala and Belize. Thanks to Wanderlove, I feel like I’ve been there and I also want to go, to see for myself the places Bria sees, to try the food she tries. Wanderlove is a love letter to those places. It is also a love letter to the spirit of traveling, to having all your belongings in one backpack and going where the day takes you, to a certain way of traveling. One of the best things about it, is it does so in an inclusive way. Oh, yes, Bria looks at these backpackers as free and cool and wonderful, and, well, idealizes them. As time goes on, she starts to see them as people; real people, with flaws.

Bria is not punished for her choices; and oh, I loved that so. much. The plot device of a teen girl being punished for seeking freedom (here, backpacking in Guatemala and Belize) by being assaulted, raped, or imprisoned is one that is all too often seen in books or film. Sorry if I just spoiled this for you, but Bria’s journey does not end up dark. Wanderlove isn’t glib or naive about the dangers of traveling; Bria’s camera gets stolen, for example. But it doesn’t over-emphasize such risks to the extent that the inadvertent message becomes, “stay home and be safe.” The message, if any, is “travel and be safe.”

Starling and Rowan become Bria’s travel mentors: what to do or not to do when traveling. (Letting your bag out of your sight? A “not to do.”) Rowan is about two years older than Bria, Starling a couple years older than that, and the two are experienced backpackers. They pass along their wisdom and experience to Bria, just like someone did with them when they started out. Bria is a “good girl” trying to break out of that mold and be “bad”; while Rowan is a bad boy, trying to resist the temptations that got him into trouble. I loved these two, all the more so because both are fully drawn. Bria imagines a life and past for both of them, part of her romanticizing of them and backpacking, and I love when she learns the reality to their lives and their relationship with each other.

Part of what Bria is running from is a bad boyfriend and distant parents. Bria is telling the story, and I have to say, I’m not sure what the true story is about her parents. What I like is that Bria herself begins to realize that how she sees things may not always be quite right.

Oh, and the bad boyfriend. Let me rant for a second. He’s the classic Nice Guy Who Is Bad. He doesn’t hit her, but the emotional games he plays with her — ARGH. I HATE men like that, especially because (like with Bria) the people around him think “oh, he’s such a Nice Guy.” Rowan may be a “Bad Boy” in that he made a few poor life choices, but he doesn’t play mind games. To me? That’s a nice guy, not whether or not someone lives in a perfect house with a good family and gets into a nice school and says “please” and “thank you” to parents.

Funny, but all this and I haven’t mentioned the art! Bria is, well, was, an artist. Yes, it has to do with the ex. No, it’s not what you think. Well, maybe it is; I guess it depends on how well you know those types of guys. Wanderlove is about Bria rediscovering her love for art, and as she does so, she shares her art with the reader. I love it!

More not to be spoilery but I have to say it: Rowan and Starling both have strong personalities. So strong, that given Bria’s personality, I wondered whether the book would be about Bria finding herself or finding a version of herself shaped by Rowan and Starling. Rest assured, that does not happen, and instead Bria decides, for herself, who she is and what she wants to be — not what boyfriends, parents, or friends want.

One last part: much as I was swept away by the backpacking method of traveling, I know that is not for me. Even when I was younger and did some traveling, I was never quite as carefree as the Rowans and Starlings of the world. In part, my own temperament: I just cannot imagine not being traditionally employed, with health benefits, for such a time period. Another reason? I need clean bathrooms. No, really. There is, of course, a happy medium between a sanitized tour and the way Rowan, Starling, and Bria travel. I’d like to think, from the way the story progresses, that they wouldn’t judge me too much!

Because Wanderlove let me live an experience I will never, ever, have in real life. Because Bria is a passive teen who takes charge of her life. Because Bria isn’t punished for becoming a doer. Because I half-fell in love with Rowan, even though I’m so over sensitive Mr PonyTail men. Because I want to embrace, a bit more, that Wanderlove philosophy, even if my traveling is to North Carolina for a family vacation. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

The wanderlove website, which has some gorgeous photos of “the places that stick in your heart.” From the website: “wanderlove is about celebrating our favorite places, and experiencing each other’s. take a photo, or find a photo (one you’ve taken yourself & have the rights to) of your favorite place. it could be a place you’ve traveled to, long ago or recently; a special spot in your neighborhood, city or town; or even in your house or backyard. be as creative as you want. include a few sentences about why the place is special to you – why you *get* it, why it sticks in your heart.”

Other reviews: Stacked Books; Sophistikatied Reviews; I Like These Books (guest post by author).

Review: Finding Somewhere

Finding Somewhere by Joseph Monninger. Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House. 2011. Reviewed from copy from publisher.

The Plot: Two girls, a horse, and the open road. The horse is old and it’s owners want to put it out down. Hattie, sixteen, wants to give Speed, a work horse all his life, a chance to “be a horse,” to live his last days as a free horse on the open range. Delores, eighteen, is happy for an excuse to leave home. Together, they hope to find — somewhere.

The Good: Oh, the writing! Hattie is telling the story: “My note didn’t include a whole catalog of things. I didn’t say, for instance, that I hoped to let Speed be a horse for once. That I took Speed so that he could have a chance to live, and prairie for a season, one fall, and that I’d love him and protect him.” Of course, Hattie is talking as much about herself and Delores as she is about Speed. Hattie and Delores tell each other, “we’re women going west.” They are women, making a choice, going.

At sixteen and eighteen, there are, of course, parents who are less than thrilled about their leaving, even if Hattie and Delores say they’ll return. Family that, almost, notices them more when they are gone then when they are there.

I love a good road trip novel: and this delivers, as the three make their way from New Hampshire to New York State and Indiana and beyond. Looking for somewhere for Speed. Looking, of course, for themselves. You know what else I like? There are no artificial love triangles; there is a romance, organic to the story, but there is no conflict just to have a conflict.

Another thing: two teenage girls go on a road trip, and there is no text or subtext that this is something dangerous that girls shouldn’t do; that the girls need to do x, y, or z to ward off dangers, as if it’s the responsibility of the girls not to be victims. When I got to the end of Finding Somewhere and realized this — that Hattie and Delores are not victims, are never victims, are not victimized to make a point or to show their power, I was overjoyed. It may be silly to be happy about what a book is not, but there it is — this is about two girls who are strong and funny and beautiful. And they are that way from start to finish.

Hattie and Delores both love horses, have grown up around horses, taking care of them and riding them, so for those readers who love horses, this is a book they will love and appreciate. Hattie and Delores are the type of girls who love horses, yes, but not the rich girls who love horses: rather, the girls who muck out the stalls of those who can afford to own the horses to be near the horses they love. They are workers, working class girls who met and became friends in a GED class, and I mention it because such teens are not usually found in teen books, especially not teen books that are primarily about friendship, freedom, love and a road trip.

One last quote, to show you why I so love the writing: “She had good lines around her eyes. Happy lines. She had the ghost of a long laugh in her face.”

As an FYI, what brought this to the top of my TBR pile was my friend Carlie suggesting it to me, and then getting a review copy from the publisher. Carlie works at the agent who represents the author.

Review: Paper Covers Rock

Paper Covers Rock by Jenny Hubbard. Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House. 2011. Library copy. Morris Award Short List.

The Plot: Sixteen year old Alex’s journal covers a few short months, the time following the accidental drowning of his friend Thomas. What happened to Thomas? What caused the accident? Does anyone suspect that the story Alex, Glenn and Clay tell may be leaving things out? One person may suspect, the young, pretty English teacher Miss Dovecott. What will Thomas do to protect his secrets?

The Good: Paper Covers Rock takes place at a private boys boarding school in a remote area of North Carolina in the 1980s.  Alex’s world is narrow and insular because of all these things; the physical isolation of the school, the isolated community of all boys and men with a handful of women, like young Miss Dovecott, with the outside world accessed only by mail or public telephones.

Alex is smart; and he writes with a certain self awareness of himself and the story he tells, complete with allusions to Herman Melville and Moby Dick: “My apologies to Herman Melville, from whom I may have to steal a few words to tell the story that is about to be told, that is in the middle of being told, that will never stop being told. Such is the nature of guilt; such is the nature of truth. But it is also the nature of guilt to sideline the truth.” Truthfully, yes, I believed Alex to be the type of boy to not just write like this but to think that he is impressing the reader with it. I agree with Someday My Printz Will Come that Alex’s language make him and his grief suspect; but, for me, that meant that I doubted much of what he said, despite insisting that “I am big on verbatim because I am big on truth. Truth: as important and essential as rain.”

Alex has a secret about the day Thomas died; he, along with the others, were drinking. It’s a violation of the honor code and if it’s found out, he’ll be expelled. It appears, because it is what Alex tells us, that Alex and Glenn are driven by this secret in what they later do and don’t do. This is what they think Miss Dovecott knows. Alex tells the reader how and when he fell in love with his teacher; but before that he observes her interactions with students: “it is the thing that draws me out of myself, the thing that calms me down: the realization that a teacher could be more scared than the students — and scared of the students.”

Secrets, lies, half truths, manipulations: that is the story behind Paper Covers Rock, the story leading up to the death of Thomas and what happens after. What type of story that is depends on whether or not you believe Alex. Whatever you believe about him,  there is also much about sex and power; while Miss Dovecott is a teacher, a person to be respected, she is female and young and pretty and the students find ways to make her uncomfortable. As for each other, “there was no worse label at an all-boys school than “gay.” What would someone do to avoid that?