Spinning by Tillie Walden


Spinning by Tillie Walden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Every rink smells the same.
They look the same, too.”

Tillie Walden begins her graphic memoir with her first visit to an ice rink in some time. Just before she steps on the ice, the narrative jumps back eight years, to an early morning in New Jersey. Walden relates the story of her life as a competitive figure and synchronized skater through her family’s move from New Jersey to Texas, through her transition from public to private school, and through her experiences of friendship, bullying, and first love. As she grows into herself, she eventually quits competitive skating after 12 years.

The artwork is lovely, but the narrative suffers from a lack of focus. The dominant mood is a sort of diffuse sense of disappointment. After the move to Texas in the summer after fifth grade, skating “felt dull and exhausting.” She continues skating until the summer before senior year of high school, though, unable to explain it even to herself. Walden has her first relationship with another girl – after having known since she was five that she was gay – and eventually comes out to her friends and family. She experiences sexual harassment and the ensuing self-doubt that will feel horribly familiar to many readers. Yet, no matter what happens, it all feels muted: the highs aren’t very high, and the lows aren’t very low. Despite literally showing her life on the page, it feels distant. It is all beautiful and cold, sitting a little too perfectly in that ice rink.

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Source: Checked out from my public library

Challenges: Read Harder 2020 (#4: A Graphic Memoir); Reading Women 2020 (#23: An LGBTQ+ Author)

Book Review: Up to This Pointe

Up to This Pointe
Up to This Pointe by Jennifer Longo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been in Antarctica a total of eighty-three minutes, so I’m positive more exciting surprises will probably (hopefully) reveal themselves, but for now, the most intriguing thing about McMurdo, the American science station, is all the condoms.

Synopsis: At seventeen, Harper Scott is on the verge of achieving her lifelong dream. Since they were very small, she and her best friend, Kate, have been following The Plan. The Plan involves total dedication to ballet, and it culminates in both of them joining the San Francisco Ballet shortly after their early graduation from high school. But Harper doesn’t have Kate’s undeniable natural ability, so despite all the years of hard work, one audition might just crush her dreams. When things get suddenly and surprisingly complicated, Harper decides to follow her distant relative Robert Falcon Scott’s footsteps to Antarctica. She manages to land a highly coveted research assistant position for the six-month winter at McMurdo. No matter how far she goes, though, the problems she has to deal with come right along.

Review: This is a finely-crafted young adult novel, packed with descriptive details that bring life in San Francisco and Antarctica to life. The chapters alternate between Harper’s present, in Antarctica, and what happened back in San Francisco several months earlier. The sharp dichotomy between the first two chapters sets the tone for the book, as the reader knows where Harper ends up, but has no idea how she got there. Enough information about ballet is provided that readers without a background in dance can understand, but not so much that it becomes overwhelming. Life at McMurdo, too, is explained through the eyes of a newcomer without any tedious “information dumps”. For reader who do want to know more, there is a short bibliography at the end, listing recommended books and films.

Personal Thoughts: I’ve long been fascinated by Antarctica, and I dearly hope to visit one day. (I found all but one of the books on Antarctica in the bibliography already in my to-read queue here at GoodReads.) I loved the glimpse into the life of those staying there long-term, rather than tourists. I kind of wish they hadn’t gone for the ballet pun in the title, but that’s really just me.

Recommend to: Fans of character-driven contemporary realistic fiction

Source: e-ARC courtesy of NetGalley

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Book Review: Secret Letters

Secret LettersSecret Letters by Leah Scheier

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I knew that Adelaide would wish to visit the detective and present her case to him as soon as possible. And I would be there by her side, of course, to support her as she told her story. But I had my own reason for visiting Mr. Holmes and my own story to tell him, and so I had to reach him before she did — and I had to speak to him alone.

Since losing both parents to typhoid fever four years ago, Dora Joyce has lived with her Aunt Ina, a very proper Victorian matron determined to mold the inquisitive, headstrong girl in her own image. During the day, Dora has been laced into corsets and taught to waltz, but in the evenings, she’s been studying the adventures of the Great Detective chronicled in the Strand magazine. Following his methods, she has sharpened her observational skills. She has good reason to believe she might be able to emulate Mr Holmes better than most: a deathbed confession from her mother that the detective is Dora’s father. Now, with her cousin facing a blackmailer threatening to destroy her marriage, Dora finally has a reason to seek out the detective in London. The day she arrives at his Baker Street address, however, she is stunned by the headline screaming from the newspapers: Sherlock Holmes Killed in Switzerland.

The detective she and her cousin finally do consult leaves Dora distinctly unimpressed, but his young assistant sparks her interest. His name is Peter Cartwright, he knew Sherlock Holmes, and he seems to find her at least a little interesting, as well. Dora decides that she – with Peter’s help – will go undercover to solve the mystery herself, as any child of the Great Detective would.

Scheier’s debut novel is a Sherlockian pastiche with a twist of romance in with the mystery. Several mysteries, actually, since the title might refer to a number of letters and a number of secrets, all of which tangle around each other, catching the spirited teenage heroine in the middle. Dora chafes at the restrictions society – by way of her Aunt – places on her, and she longs to be accepted for the person she really is. She finds a true peer in Peter, who looks beyond surfaces just as she does. Class distinctions of the period are explored through Dora’s disguise as a house servant at Hartfield Hall, a role she manages to fill surprisingly (if perhaps a tad unbelievably) well, while she ferrets out clues.

The first few chapters have to introduce a lot of material about the characters and the setting, but the action picks up pace after that. Plots and sub-plots intertwine as ulterior motives abound above and below stairs at Hartfield. Sly nods to the original stories pop up here and there – little Easter eggs for those familiar with the Canon. This is a satisfying blend of mystery, adventure, and romance, with just enough comedic moments (usually resulting from Dora being a bit too clever for her own good) to balance the more serious elements.

Recommend to:
Historical fiction and mystery fans, ages 12 and up.

Twitter-Style Review: Historical mystery with a touch of romance, perfect for the budding Holmesian.

Source: Checked out from my public library.

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Book Review: Janie Face to Face by Caroline B. Cooney

Stealing a car had been much more fun than stealing a credit card. But stealing a toddler!


Janie Face to Face (Janie Johnson, #5)Janie Face to Face by Caroline B. Cooney
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Janie Johnson was 15 when she recognized the photo of her three-year-old self on a milk carton and discovered she was really Jennie Spring, whose family had been hoping she would come home ever since she was kidnapped from a mall. Now in college, Janie just wants to put the past behind her, stop being known as “the kidnap kid”, and move on with her life. But as her friends and family are pestered by a true crime writer and his researchers to turn her story into a best-seller, she realizes that someone out there does not want to let things go.

When The Face on the Milk Carton was first published, in 1990, it was a different world. It was a world without the Internet in every home, or a cell phone in every teenager’s pocket, or, for that matter, the Internet on a cell phone in a teenager’s pocket. Even when the fourth book in the series – What Janie Found – hit shelves in 2000, cancelled checks could still play a major part in the story. While 13 years have passed since that book was published, only a few years have passed for the characters when Janie Face to Face begins, with the action of the novel spread over the next several years. Because of this, Cooney spends some time allowing Janie and her friends and family to catch up, pondering the rapid changes since the day Janie used a public pay phone during her search for answers. The tendency to tell, rather than show, what is happening bogs down the pace a bit, already an issue with characters mentally recapping the first four books.

Janie’s story is only part of this fifth (and final) installment of the series. Before each chapter – where the third-person narration is squarely focused on the perspective of Janie or one of her friends or family members – is a vignette from Hannah’s perspective (though still third-person), beginning with “THE FIRST PIECE OF THE KIDNAPPER’S PUZZLE” and counting upward. This is the first time readers get inside Hannah’s mind and find out what really happened that day in the mall. Of course, Hannah’s recollections are neither unbiased nor, perhaps, wholly reliable, although Cooney gives no reason to doubt the sequence of events. Fans of the original series should find satisfying closure.

The first four books in the series have remained popular with a new generation of teens, and they were re-released in 2012 with new coordinating cover art.

Recommend to: Teens looking for suspense without gore, and adults who fondly remember the original series and always wondered about Hannah

Source: Checked out from my public library

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Review: The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman

Girls should never be born in the year of the Fire Horse; they are especially dangerous, bringing tragedy to their families.

 The Fire Horse Girl
The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jade Moon dreams of leaving home, of escaping the tiny Chinese village where she lives alone with her father, her grandfather, and their faithful servant, surrounded by gossiping “Aunties” who are all too familiar with her many faults: clumsiness, stubbornness, and – perhaps worst of all – a longing for independence. All she can see is a future married off to a local brickmaker, but that changes with the arrival of a stranger. Sterling Promise arrives from Hong Kong with news that an uncle Jade Moon never knew she had passed away recently, leaving behind papers that could allow Sterling Promise and Jade Moon’s father into the wide open promised land of America. If she could just get to that new country, Jade Moon thinks, what possibilities could await her?

The United States of 1923, though, is wary of admitting more Chinese immigrants, and Jade Moon’s long sea journey is followed by detainment on Angel Island. Getting to San Francisco will take cunning and bravery, and surviving there will be even harder.

Fire Horse Girl is a complicated piece of historical fiction. Honeyman explores the life of a girl in early 20th-century China, the San Francisco of the 1920s, and the Chinese immigrant experience on Angel Island, a bit of American history little known outside the West coast. The stories aren’t so much woven together as tacked onto one another, which may be why the pace drags in places. Jade Moon is a likeable character because of – rather than despite – her prickliness, as the independent nature that seems to offend her contemporaries has strong appeal for twenty-first century readers. Story-telling is a theme that recurs throughout her narration, and she is determined to tell her own story.

A lengthy author’s note tells how Honeyman came to the tale and provides further information on the historical events, people, and places that inspired her, as well as a paragraph on Chinese astrology. “The next Fire Horse girls,” she notes, “will be born in 2026.”

Recommend to: teens who like strong heroines and a mixture of action and history with a dash of romance.

Source: e-ARC via NetGalley

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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: Taking Off by Jenny Moss

On January 28th, 1986, the day after my 10th birthday, I was just one of millions of kids waiting to see the very first “Teacher in Space” broadcast from the shuttle Challenger. Some of the classrooms (though not mine) had televisions at the ready. The launch had been repeatedly delayed, and we didn’t know when it would finally happen.

That morning, there was an announcement over the loudspeaker: teachers in the classrooms with TVs should not turn them on. What was not announced, left to our families to explain at home, was that the launch had ended disastrously due to, in the words of public affairs officer Steve Nesbitt, “a major malfunction.”

Jenny Moss was a NASA engineer at the time, involved in the training of Challenger crew members Judith Resnick and Ellison Onizuka. In Taking Off, she evokes the atmosphere of late-1985 Houston, as seen through the eyes of a teenage girl, an aspiring poet in a town full of Science Geeks.

Taking OffTaking Off by Jenny Moss

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

No one labels me as an eccentric, but that’s because they don’t know what’s in my heart.

In the late Fall of 1985, Annie is a high school senior in suburban Houston, and her comfortable life is on the verge of being completely upended. Her best friend wants her to go to college in Austin with her. Her boyfriend of two years wants her to stay in town with him. Her mother wants her to be friendlier to Donald, her mother’s boyfriend. Annie isn’t sure what she wants, except that she wants to be a poet, an idea she keeps secret from the engineers and space program geeks who populate most of her town. Then, she meets Christa McAuliffe at a dinner party. She can’t help but feel inspired by the famous “Teachernaut”, so inspired that she decides to take a road trip to Florida to see the Challenger launch. And maybe, while she’s at it, figure out where she wants to go.

This is a quiet novel, with a lot of introspection. As it opens, Annie is caught between conflicting impulses and would really rather hole up at home than deal with making decisions about her future. While it is a situation many teens will recognize, the story lacks action, making it less than compelling. Even the romantic subplot, with its potential for angst and drama, ends up feeling underwhelming. The book might find its audience with adults who remember the Challenger disaster and will appreciate former NASA engineer Moss’s attention to detail.

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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: Chime by Franny Billingsley

ChimeChime by Franny Billingsley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Book Source: ARC giveaway via GoodReads

There are several kinds of silence. There’s the silence of being alone, which I like well enough. Then there’s the silence of one’s father. The silence when you have nothing to say and he has nothing to say. The silence between you after investigation of your stepmother’s death.

Briony Larkin has a secret, a secret she must never tell. Because of her secret, her twin sister was injured, her stepmother is dead, and if she tells her secret, Briony will be dead, too, hanged as a witch by the people of the Swampsea. So, she keeps quiet, keeping to herself in a town where she feels like an outsider despite having lived there all her life. It takes a newcomer to the Swampsea, handsome, cosmopolitan Eldric, to uncover secrets even Briony never knew she was keeping.

After reading rave reviews of Chime all over the place, I was a little nervous. What if it didn’t live up to the hype? I needn’t have worried. Briony is clever and self-deprecating, and her humor shines in the first-person narration. The setting is a rural village in early twentieth-century England, but an England in which the Old Ones are known to be present. In the dark swampland, mysterious creatures threaten humans who venture too far. In the village itself, there are brownies and Dark Muses. Most of the creatures remain unseen to those without the Second Sight. Briony can see them and wishes she could not, because she knows that it means she is a witch.

Briony knows many things, but as the reader learns, not all of them are true. She is a wonderfully developed unreliable narratorm and her distinctive voice is a pleasure to read. It is easy to be swept right up into the world of Chime. Billingsley blends fantasy and magic with the almost-magic real technological advances of the turn of the (twentieth) century, along with elements of mystery and romance. Recommend to fantasy lovers looking for something new and different.

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