Book Review: Like Mandarin by Kirsten Hubbard

Like MandarinLike Mandarin by Kirsten Hubbard

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The winds in Washokey make people go crazy.

At fourteen, Grace Carpenter doesn’t quite fit in anywhere. Her pageant-obsessed mother has never quite forgiven her for an incident during the Little Miss Washokey Pageant seven years ago and is now utterly focused on grooming Grace’s little sister, Taffeta, to win that same competition. At the beginning of her first year of High School, the administration moved her up to Sophomore status, separating her from her friends every hour of the day except homeroom and lunch. She spends her free time roaming the badlands, picking up interesting rocks, dreaming of getting out of her tiny Wyoming town.

Grace knows of one other person who doesn’t quite fit in: beautiful 17-year-old Mandarin Ramey, who moved to town seven years ago and has maintained a distance from everyone ever since. Grace has admired her from afar since the first time she caught a glimpse of her. When the two girls are thrown together for a school project, Grace finally has the chance to get to know Mandarin, to try to be more like her. But the more she learns, the less sure she is that she wants to be like Mandarin, and the more she realizes she needs to be like herself instead.

Self-discovery is a familiar theme in young-adult novels, and Hubbard explores it in fluid prose. Grace’s colorful first-person narration is peppered with unexpected similes: the flower pinned to her hair in that last pageant flew “across the stage like a paper boat caught in an eddy of rainwater” (3); during a big storm “the river brimmed over its banks and jumbled up all the boulders like a kid spoiling a marbles game” (22). Her observations are often dryly funny, the sarcastic wit of a smart teenager aching to break out of her everyday life. Her girl-crush on Mandarin is realistically and sensitively drawn, and the betrayals that only those closest can commit strike hard. While in the beginning, Mandarin is the one who seems to live her impulses out loud, it becomes clear that under even the quietest exteriors, passions run deep. (I, like several other readers, found myself wondering if there was more than friendship to Grace’s relationship with Mandarin. Hubbard has a lovely answer to this question on her web site.)

It is a poignant tale, beautifully told. Fans of contemporary realistic fiction will find much to love here.

This is Hubbard’s debut novel. I read it for the Debut Author Challenge, and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for her next book, slated for publication in 2012.

Book Source: Checked out from my public library

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Book Review: Ten Miles Past Normal by Frances O’Roark Dowell

Remember the hare-brained schemes you came up with as a kid? Especially any that involved getting a pony? Remember how you wished people grown-ups your parents would take you seriously? Janie Gorman does. In fact, she can’t forget, no matter how much she wishes she could.

Ten Miles Past NormalTen Miles Past Normal by Frances O’Roark Dowell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like all fourteen-year-olds, I used to be a nine-year-old. In retrospect, I was an annoyingly perky and enthusiastic nine-year-old. In fact, I’ve been enthusiastic my entire life, up until this fall, when high school sucked every last ounce of enthusiasm right out of me.

After a fourth-grade field trip to a farm, Janie Gorman came home and suggested to her parents that they move out of their suburban house an onto a farm of their own. Five years later, she’s still surprised they really did it. Now, her days start with a crowing rooster, goats that need to be milked, and the knowledge that everything her family does is fodder for her mother’s thrice-weekly blog. She only gets to see her best friend (and former neighbor) in one class a day; none of her middle-school friends even share her lunch period. All she wants is to be normal, have friends, maybe date a boy. But how can she blend in when everyone knows her as Farm Girl?

In her debut YA novel, accomplished middle-grade fiction author Dowell creates an utterly realistic teenage girl caught in an out-of-the-ordinary situation. Janie is frustrated with her life, and she relates her story with sarcastic humor. Short chapters, each with an amusing title, keep the pace brisk and breezy. There are quite a few threads weaving their way around each other: Janie’s feelings about farm life, her desire to both fit in and be noticed, and her shifting relationships with friends and family are all explored. Recommend this one to fans of light realistic fiction like Naylor’s Alice series.

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Book Review: Forgotten by Cat Patrick

ForgottenForgotten by Cat Patrick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Book source: ARC from publisher, by request

He’s not in my memory, which means he’s not in my future.

Every morning, London Lane wakes up with no memory of the day before. Or of any day before. Every night, she writes herself a note to prepare for the next day, because while her past is forgotten, she has memories of the future. It’s confusing, but she has learned to live with it. when she starts having some very dark memories, though, she begins to wonder both about her past and whether she can change her future.

Romance, mystery, and psychological thriller come together in this original tale, which has a paranormal feeling to it despite the lack of any actual otherworldly creatures. The details of London’s condition are revealed very slowly over the course of the first few chapters, with more background coming much later. London is a likeable character, striving to do the right thing (especially in light of her unusual knowledge) without becoming too goody-goody. Underdeveloped secondary characters and an abrupt conclusion are weak points, but the plot is engrossing, and Patrick’s smooth writing style aids the momentum through some sharp turns. Best not to question the details too much; just enjoy the ride.

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Book Review: Rival by Sara Bennett Wealer

At the age of nine, I started playing the violin. I played in the school orchestra right up through Senior year of high school. I took private lessons in junior high and high school, and for a little while in college before giving it up for good. I was never so passionate about music as the girls in Sara Bennett Wealer’s Rival, but I recognize the stresses and pressures she depicts. But this novel is about so much more than music.

RivalRival by Sara Bennett Wealer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Book Source: checked out from my public library

Even with all those people between us, even with our folders up, our eyes on Mr. Anderson, and our voices busy on a really hard Bach catata, I feel a steady ping coming off of Brooke like the signal from a giant antenna.

Brooke and Kathryn used to be friends, and now they are bitter enemies. From the outside, popular Brooke and shy Kathryn have nothing in common but a love of music. Their shared history is gradually revealed in sections that alternate between present events and what happened one year earlier.

After reading the first chapter, narrated by Kathryn, it would be easy to think that this is a simple drama of Mean Girl bullying, but Wealer weaves a more complicated tale. That becomes clear by the end of the second chapter, as Brooke begins her side of the story. Both girls are flawed but sympathetic characters; neither one is really the hero(ine) or the villain. Wealer perfectly captures the complicated lives of teenage girls: the secrets, the rivalries, the betrayals. The raw emotions are true to life, as are the pressures that both girls deal with. Tensions build on all fronts until a satisfying conclusion that manages to avoid being too neat or easy. A terrific contemporary realistic read.

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Book Review: Across the Universe by Beth Revis

Across the Universe (Across the Universe, #1)Across the Universe by Beth Revis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Book Source: Checked out from my public library

Mom wanted me to go first. I think it was because she was afraid that after they were contained and frozen, I’d walk away, return to life rather than consign myself to that cold, clear box.

Seventeen-year-old Amy’s parents are part of a team about to colonize a new world. A new world that is a 300-year voyage away, so the whole family – along with the rest of the science and military experts on the mission – will spend the journey cryogenically frozen. They will be woken by the descendents of the original crew when they arrive, as if no time has passed for them at all. But Amy is awakened 50 years early, and she discovers that life on board the Godspeed has become very strange indeed. The ship’s crew has formed a monoethnic society under the strict control of a leader named Eldest. His successor, Elder, is 16 and wondering if he truly has what it takes to lead. And someone on board is trying to murder the frozen colonists.

The first-person narration is shared by Amy and Elder in alternating chapters. Through Elder, the reader gets an insider perspective on life on-board the ship, which he accepts as normal. Simultaneously, Amy’s horror at the situation is keenly felt. Revis gives readers a lot to think about in this engaging mix of mystery and sci-fi: what makes a good leader? how far should a leader go to protect the people? Highly recommended for ages 14 and up; be prepared for requests for the forthcoming sequel!

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Book Review: The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

The Great Wall Of Lucy WuThe Great Wall Of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Book Source: Checked out from my public library

Who did Regina think she was, telling me how or how not to be Chinese?

Lucy Wu is all set to have the best year of her life. Her older sister, Regina, is going off to college. Not only will Lucy get out of the shadow the Perfect Chinese Daughter, but she will also get their shared bedroom all to herself. She’s looking forward to starting sixth grade and being among the oldest kids in the school, playing basketball, and having a big joint-birthday Halloween bash with her best friend, Madison.

And then, it all falls apart. Her parents announce that Lucy is about to get a new roommate – a great-aunt from China. A new Chinese school is opening in the area, and her parents want her to go on Saturday mornings – when she has always had basketball practice. Nothing is going according to Lucy’s plans.

Shang creates an utterly believable tween in Lucy, blending all the sweetness and prickliness that come with being an eleven-year-old girl. She wants to do the right thing, but sometimes she really wants her way, too. She wants to fit in and have the boy she likes like her back. She doesn’t want to be too different from everyone else. She has been content to fade into the background everywhere but on the basketball court. When a bully makes her a target, her impulse is to hide away. When some of the popular girls spot Yi Po at the mall and make fun of her, Lucy denies being to related to her.

As the weeks pass, and Lucy gets to know Yi Po, she also starts to figure out how to bring together and accept the various parts of her own identity, and how important it is to stand up for herself. Her realistic responses to frustrating situations will have readers cringing and laughing right along with her.

Highly recommended for grades 4-6, this is a stand-out debut novel.

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Book Review: The False Princess by Eilis O’Neal

The False PrincessThe False Princess by Eilis O’Neal

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Book Source: Checked out from my public library

I was a good, quiet, and rule-following girl. The perfect princess, if not for my clumsiness and sometimes painful shyness.

Just after her sixteenth birthday, the Princess Nalia is summoned to meet with her parents. What they tell her could not have come as more of a shock. She is not their daughter, not the Princess. She is a commoner, brought to court as a baby to stand in for the real Nalia, in an attempt to keep the royal heir safe from a prophecy that she would die before the age of sixteen. Now, the real Princess is coming home, and her stand-in will be sent to her only living relative – a previously unknown aunt in a small village – and expected to make a new life for herself. But it is not long before Sinda (as she is now known) discovers that there is much more going on than the King and Queen know, and it just might fall to her save the kingdom itself.

There is a little bit of everything in this debut novel: fantasy, mystery, romance. O’Neal brings the elements together with a master’s touch. The plot is intricate, yet it avoids getting muddled. Characters are developed so that they show both strength and weakness, good and bad. In flowing prose, O’Neal creates a world that pulls the reader in and refuses to let go until the last page. Highly recommended.

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Book Review: What Can(t) Wait by Ashley Hope Pérez

Since I put together my original list for the Debut Author Challenge back in November, I’ve been eagerly waiting for copies of the books to show up in my library system. And let me tell you, so far, these books have totally been worth the wait.

What Can't Wait (Carolrhoda Ya)What Can’t Wait by Ashley Hope Pérez

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I watch the life that my parents lead, and I know that I want something different. They have worked hard their entire lives with no savings to show for it. My dad dropped out of school in Mexico before third grade; my mom “graduated” from middle school. My brother and sister got out of high school, but they don’t want anything more.

High school Senior Marisa is working hard. All the time. At school, she is trying to keep up with a college-preparatory course load that includes AP Calculus. Even with her affinity for math, it’s hard to stay on top of homework when her after-school hours are taken up with working extra shifts at the grocery store to help support la familia (she hands over half of her paycheck to her parents) and baby-sitting her niece. Her math teacher is pushing her to apply to an engineering program in Austin, but her parents aren’t even eager to see her start school in town at the University of Houston. Marisa sees the life her sister leads, pregnant as a teenager and now in an unhappy marriage to the father, and she knows she wants a different life. While her best friend is happy to live out her life in Houston, Marisa wants to do more. Her whole life, she has tried to be the good daughter, to do and be everything her family needs. When does she get to take of herself?

In this realistic novel, Pérez brings the reader intimately into Marisa’s world, viewing it through her eyes. The dialogue is peppered with Spanish phrases, echoing the speech of many bilingual teens. Secondary characters are vividly drawn, and glimpses of their perspectives illuminate Marisa’s conflicts. Her life is full of complications that come with being a child of immigrants. Although the particular challenges she faces will be unfamiliar to some readers, her struggle to balance her own needs with those of the people she loves is universal.

Book Source: checked out from my public library

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Book Review: The Goddess Test by Aimee Carter

The Goddess Test (Goddess Test, #1)The Goddess Test by Aimee Carter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I spent my eighteenth birthday driving from New York City to Eden, Michigan, so my mother could die in the town where she was born.

Four years ago, Kate’s mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given six months to live. Sure that the end is now near, she has insisted on moving back to her tiny (so tiny, it’s not even on the map Kate uses to get there) hometown in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She also insists Kate finish high school; Kate’s plan is to just keep her head down and spend as much time with her mother as possible. Still, she manages to get on the wrong side of Ava, the Captain of the cheer squad before the first week is out. And then, well, then things get weird.

After Ava dies playing a prank on Kate, a mysterious young man brings her back to life before Kate’s eyes. He claims to be Hades, Lord of the Underworld, and there’s a price to pay for Ava’s life: Kate must spend the next six months with him and face seven tests. He will keep her mother alive while she does. If she passes, she will become a goddess and Henry’s wife, spending six months of every year for eternity in the Underworld. But she is the twelfth girl to face these tests, and the others all died in the process. Can she pass the tests no one else has managed? More importantly, does she want to?

This retelling of the Persephone myth is first and foremost a romance, and readers uncomfortable with the genre may find themselves disappointed. For everyone else, this is a refreshing twist on the paranormal tales that have taken the YA world by storm, with a bit of murder mystery as well. Henry (Hades), in the role of romantic leading man, is dark, brooding, and tortured, and it will take a special leading lady to break through his emotional defenses. Kate – strong and independent, but inexperienced in matters of love and romance – faces tests of her character and moral fiber while falling in love for the first time. And also trying to stay alive long enough to pass those tests.

The book gets off to a bit of a slow and confusing start, with a prologue that provides information to the reader that Kate – the narrator – does not receive until much later. In the early chapters, the pacing is uneven, but once Kate enters Henry’s domain, the story finds its footing. Readers familiar with Greek mythology will figure out the major players (and solve the murder mystery) well before Kate does, but this is a solidly developed and satisfying romance.

Carter’s debut YA novel is the first in a series – volumes two and three are slated for publication in 2012 – and readers will be eager to find out what happens next.

On shelves in April 2011

Source: e-ARC via NetGalley, by request

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Quarterly Report

Here we are, three months into the year. We’ve entered Daylight Saving Time, which means it’s dark when I get up instead of when I leave work (I don’t think much of this trade, frankly). It’s Springtime, so we’re ping-ponging between days of torrential rain and days of 90-degree (that’s 32 degrees for you non-Fahrenheit folk) sun, and we haven’t yet hit May Gray and June Gloom. It seems like a good time to check on those 2011 Reading Challenges.

First up:

This challenge is going exceptionally well, mostly thanks to NetGalley. I’ve read:

So, 13 books out of, um, 12? Clearly, I should have gone for a higher level of challenge. Especially since I still have a bunch of e-ARCs lined up on the nook, and I just checked out the library’s e-copy of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.


Okay, so those three ARCS from Hachette are still waiting for me to get to them. They’ve moved from the coffee table to my desk, where they are in grave danger of disappearing under a stack of knitting magazines and ukulele sheet music. I should probably rescue them. And I have both The Great Wall of Lucy Wu (which should be interesting reading right after Battle Hymn, eh?) and Across the Universe checked out of the library, but I haven’t started reading them. What have I been reading that actually fits the challenge?

  • This Girl Is Different by JJ Johnson
  • Bumped by Megan McCafferty
  • The Goddess Test (Goddess Test, #1) by Aimee Carter

All courtesy of NetGalley, and none of them were on my list back in January.


And finally:

Um, yeah. That one. I’m still reading Possessing Genius… when I’m not reading something on the nook and/or from the library. So many books, so little time.

How are your Reading Challenges going?