Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Girls Like Us - Gail Giles

Title: Girls Like Us
Author: Gail Giles
Publisher: Candlewick Press, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 210 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: July 30, 2014
Finished: July 30, 2014

From the inside cover:

Quincy and Biddy are both graduates of their high school's special ed program, but they couldn't be more different: suspicious Quincy faces the world with her fists up, while gentle Biddy is frightened to step outside her front door. When they're thrown together as roommates in their first "real world" apartment, it initially seems like an uneasy fit. But as Biddy's past resurfaces and Quincy faces something that no one should have to go through alone, the two of them realize that they might have more in common than they thought - and more important, that they might be able to help each other move forward, together.

Hard-hitting and compassionate, Girls Like Us is a story about growing up in a world that can be cruel and finding the strength - and the support - to carry on.

This is a unique book due to the fact that the characters are developmentally delayed and/or have learning disabilities, which is a perspective you don't often see in any media, hence why I picked it up.

Quincy's impairment was caused by being smashed in the head with a brick as a child. Biddy was abandoned by her mother as an infant, left with a grandmother who looks at her with contempt. Degraded and mistreated by practically everyone in their lives, Quincy has a permanent chip on her shoulder, while Biddy is incredibly timid and blossoms when someone simply treats her civilly. Both wards of the state of Texas, they are discharged from their guardians at eighteen and placed together as part of their school's work program. They live in an apartment over Elizabeth's garage, Quincy working at the neighbourhood grocery store while Biddy helps out with the chores.

As the two live and work together, they learn valuable lessons from each other. Quincy teaches Biddy how to cook and stand up for herself, while Biddy teaches Quincy to be kind, accept help, and to trust. When traumatic events happen to both the girls, they need to rely on each other, Elizabeth, and the community to help them make it through.

This is an amazing book but was incredibly difficult to read. Statistics say that disabled people are much more likely to be victims of sexual assault, and that's exactly what unfolds in this book. The cruelty and indifference shown to these girls was so hard to see plainly conveyed, but I know that is reality for many people like them. With that said, there are graphic references to rape, assault, and behaviour that's just not right. So sensitive readers beware, but if you can see this through to the end, you'll discover a real gem here. It's even written in dialect, which adds to the authenticity

Triggers everywhere, but an otherwise amazing story with developmentally disabled characters that really hits home.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the green and tan colour scheme with the line drawings of the girls, especially that you can't see their faces.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Big Fat Disaster - Beth Fehlbaum

Title: Big Fat Disaster
Author: Beth Fehlbaum
Publisher: Merit Press, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 287 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: July 25, 2014
Finished: July 25, 2014

From the inside cover:

Insecure, shy, and way overweight, Colby hates the limelight as much as her pageant-pretty mom and sisters love it. It's her life: Dad's a superstar, running for office on a family values platform. Then suddenly, he ditches his marriage for a younger woman and gets caught stealing money from the campaign. Everyone hates Colby for finding out and blowing the whistle on him. From a mansion, they end up in a poor relative's trailer, where her mom's contempt swells right along with Colby's super sized jeans. Then, a cruel video of Colby half-dressed, made by her cousin Ryan, finds its way onto the Internet. Colby plans her own death. A tragic family accident intervenes, and Colby's role in it seems to paint her as a hero, but she's only a fraud. Finally, threatened with exposure, Colby must face facts about her selfish mother and her own shame. Harrowing and hopeful, proof that the truth saves us can come with a fierce and terrible price, is that rare thing, a story that is authentically new.

I'll admit, I picked this up because I had weight issues as a kid and have been waiting for a decent book featuring an overweight protagonist that doesn't simply focus on their weight. Although weight is a big part of Colby's story, it delves into so much more.

While Colby's dad is under investigation by the FBI for misappropriating campaign funds, she discovers a photo of her father and his mistress in his office. When she confronts him about it in front of her mother, her life begins to unravel. Her dad leaves, their house is seized and they are evicted, forced to move in with family in the middle of nowhere, taunted and bullied at the new school, and when she finds out her cousin videotaped her while she was getting dressed and that the video got on the internet, and that her mother blames her for it, Colby just wants it all to end.

A lot of people have criticized the book, saying the characters and situations are unrealistic: Colby's mom is too mean and callous, none of her classmates stand up for her, etc. Having read the book in one sitting because it was so engaging and incredibly realistic, I can guarantee you that for a girl with weight issues, these scenarios are definitely in the realm of possibility. That's why it's important that books like this exist, because there are kids out there with the unsupportive family too deep in their own psychological issues that they spout off damaging crap to their own kid, with peers at school that will look at their body and laugh. Even if they don't have weight issues, there are kids that have witnessed events like Ryan did (football players raping a girl while drunk) and do the right thing in response but are confronted by the larger public that tries to beat them into submission because they dared to put things out in the open and that makes people uncomfortable.

The only thing that bugged me a little was Colby's treatment at the end, I didn't think that was realistic. After multiple suicide attempts, she should've been in a recovery facility, and having a turn-around after only two or three sessions just won't happen, but I do appreciate that the author showed Colby improving after therapy, and that the doctor called everyone else out on their really disgusting treatment of Colby, but also makes her accountable for her choices.

With that being said, there are tons of trigger-worthy issues in this book: rape, bullying, suicide, domestic violence, verbal abuse, toxic family/individuals, you name it. This isn't the kind of book you should read if you're in a bad place, it takes a lot to push me over the edge and I was bawling like a baby while reading it. But if you're in a good place, there's a lot to learn from this book.

A really touching book that's incredibly hard to read, but if you can tough it out there's a great message here.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how you can tell the cover model is heavier but her body isn't shown. The cupcake is a nice touch considering Colby's love-hate relationship with cakes at her aunt's bakery.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Deep Blue - Jennifer Donnelly

Title: Deep Blue
Author: Jennifer Donnelly
Publisher: Disney Hyperion, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 324 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: July 14, 2014
Finished: July 21, 2014

From the inside cover:

Serafina, daughter of Isabella, Queen of Miromara, has been raised with the expectation - and burden - that she will someday become ruler of the oldest civilization of the merfolk. On the eve of the Dokimi ceremony, which will determine if she is worthy of the crown, Sera is haunted by a strange dream that foretells the return of an ancient evil. But her nightmare is forgotten the next day as she diligently practices her songspell; eagerly anticipates a reunion with her best friend, Neela; and anxiously worries about Mahdi, the crown prince of Matali, and whether his feelings toward her and their future betrothal have changed. Most of all, she worries about not living up to her mother's hopes.

The Dokimi proceeds, a dazzling display of majesty and might, until a shocking turn of events interrupts it: an assassin's arrow wounds Isabella. The realm falls into chaos, and Serafina's darkest premonitions are confirmed. Now she and Neela must embark on a quest to find the assassin's master and prevent a war between the mer nations. Their search will lead them to other mermaid heroines scattered across the six seas. Together they will form an unbreakable bond of sisterhood as the uncover a conspiracy that threatens their world's very existence.

I won't lie, I saw mermaids and I thought, "this baby's mine!" I also read Revolution by this author years ago and loved it to pieces, so I knew I'd snap up whatever she wrote in the future.

Serafina is the princess of Miromara, the mer kingdom located in the Mediterranean sea (their castle is in Cerulea specifically, off the coast of Venice, Italy). Now that's she's sixteen and come of age, she will not only be betrothed, but will go through the formal ceremony where she is deemed worthy of her bloodline and displays her magic. Sera has major issues with Queen Isabella; she wants her to act more like her mother rather than the queen, and has doubts that she will ever measure up to her mother's reputation. After the attack on the Dokimi and Cerulea itself, everyone flees the city. Serafina swims off with Neela to try to find a safe zone to escape the attackers, separated from everyone else. Along the way they realize they've both been having the same prophetic dreams about the Iele, (mer witches) that are normally told as stories to keep children in line.  The prophecy outlines that there will be 6 mermaids with different talents and skills that need to be united to find the talismans from each of the 6 historical rulers in order to save everyone (typical prophecy stuff). So off they go to find the rest of the group and the journey motif begins...

In terms of what I liked...

First off, the merfolk world created here is immense and extremely detailed. Thankfully there's a glossary in the back 'cause you'll need it. The beginning is one big info dump, but it works in quite well and doesn't feel like an info dump. It'll take a while to wrap your head around all the new terminology, and the water/ocean puns do grate a little after a while, but it's all very well put together and extremely creative. It's closer to our culture than I expected though, the slang is similar (just with water/ocean puns), and the way the characters talk to each other is like stepping foot into a high school.

Second, the whole book (and I'm assuming the series in general) is full of strong female characters that make nice, healthy friendships with one another (no frenemies, yay!). Isabella, though not the most ideal mom from what we see of her in the beginning, is an amazing example of a good leader who doesn't back down in the face of danger but isn't impulsive to the point of stupidity either. Serafina, though unsure of herself due to her mom-complex, is a girl that knows what's right and what she should do (even though she's scared silly to actually do it), and has the makings of a great queen. Neela is a great friend to Sera, and her ability to gush over candy and call out the boys on their crappy behaviour is awesome. The mer society is also matriarchal rather than patriarchal, everything is inherited through the mother, and through their rules of succession only a princess can rule the kingdom.

Third, yay diversity! There are characters of European, Indian, Chinese, and middle-eastern backgrounds.

Fourth, the romance was light and not a huge feature in the book. It's established that Sera likes Mahdi and that he liked her once upon a time, but his current playboy behaviour has put a damper on things.

Okay, now on to what I'm not nuts about...

First, there's not enough character development. Aside from Serafina we don't really get any insight into any other character. The girls are strong and the whole merworld has feminist leanings, but the people in it aren't developed enough to really be believable, they're more tropes right now.

Second, I don't know if it's just me, but the book made me feel like the author wrote this for Disney purely as a launch to a new movie or mini-series or something. The story and the plot kind of fell flat a bit after the Dokimi, and the dialogue between characters makes this feel sillier than I assumed it would be. I expected a more mature and darker story and I'm just not feeling it at this point, hopefully the subsequent books will fulfill this for me.

Wonderful take on the mermaid tale for older readers, incredibly creative and feminist story.

Thoughts on the cover:
Gorgeous, this whole book is pure eye candy. The cover, the maps on the inside covers, the blue font and header at the top of each chapter, I love it all.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Prisoner of Night and Fog - Anne Blankman

Title: Prisoner of Night and Fog
Author: Anne Blankman
Publisher: Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins), 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 398 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: July 7, 2014
Finished: July 12, 2014

From the inside cover:

In 1930s Munich, danger lurks behind dark corners, and secrets are buried deep within the city. But Gretchen Muller, who grew up in the National Socialist Party under the wing of her Uncle Dolf, has been shielded from that side of society ever since her father traded his life for Dolf's, and Gretchen is his favourite, his pet.

Uncle Dolf is none other than Adolf Hitler. And Gretchen follows his every command.

Until she meets a fearless and handsome young Jewish reporter named Daniel Cohen. Gretchen should despise Daniel, yet she can't stop herself from listening to his story: that her father, the adored Nazi martyr, was actually murdered by an unknown comrade. She also can't help the fierce attraction brewing between them, despite everything she's been taught to believe about Jews.

As Gretchen investigates the very people she's always considered friends, she must decide where her loyalties lie. Will she choose the safety of her former life as a Nazi darling, or will she dare to dig up the truth - even if it could get her and Daniel killed?

From debut author Anne Blankman comes this harrowing and evocative story about an ordinary girl faced with the extraordinary decision to give up everything she's ever believed...and to trust her own heart instead.

I'm a historical fiction buff, especially stories from the WWII era, and the plot was just too unique to pass up.

The story takes place in 1931, a short time before Hitler is elected to power, but the National Socialist Party is ever popular, and Hitler is admired like a celebrity. Gretchen and her family were looked after by "Uncle Dolf" after her father died after taking the hit meant for Hitler during the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 when the party was in its infancy. Now seventeen, Gretchen is the party's little doll: blonde, innocent, smiling for photo ops for the newspapers and magazines. Though she nods her head when Hitler and her older brother spout the Nazi doctrine, she doesn't truly believe it in her heart, and those beliefs are further challenged when she meets Daniel who tells her his theories on her father's death. The two of them travel through Munich, talking to witnesses of the event, uncovering documents from the Great War, and piecing together the events that have since been covered up.

Looking at the rise of the Nazi party from the point of view of a young girl intimately connected to it is an incredibly interesting way to approach it. Hitler is portrayed as a kindly uncle, charming and attentive, and Gretchen doesn't begin to see him any differently until about half-way through the book. The author has definitely done her research, with three pages of bibliography sources at the end of the book. I also appreciated the author's note at the end that explains exactly which characters and events are fictional and which ones are from real history. This is actually the first book in a series, so I will definitely be picking up the subsequent instalments.

Wonderfully unique take on Hitler's rise to power in the 1930s.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love it. The way the model's face is photographed, it looks as if she's looking over her shoulder, fearing she's being followed, which fits the feel of the novel. The colours in the image above are much more vibrant than the actual cover was, the actual cover is more muted, giving the feel that the image is being looked at through a fog.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The World Outside - Eva Wiseman

Title: The World Outside
Author: Eva Wiseman
Publisher: Tundra Books, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 232 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: July 5, 2014
Finished: July 6, 2014

From the inside cover:

Seventeen-year-old Chanie Altman lives the sheltered life of a Lubavitcher Hasidic girl in Crown Heights, New York. Like other girls in her tight-knit, religious community, she is expected to attend a seminary and to marry as soon as she graduates from high school. But Chanie has a beautiful voice and dreams of becoming a famous singer: a career forbidden to a Hasidic girl. When she meets David, he exposes her to a world of possibility outside her fundamentalist community.

But it's August 1991 and simmering racial tensions explode into riots in Crown Heights. A tragedy occurs, and the Lubavitcher Hasidic Jews come under siege.

Will Chanie choose to stay in the world she has always known and lead a prescribed life, or will she leave it behind to follow her dreams?

This title intrigued me because even though I consider myself pretty well-versed in historical events, I had never heard of the Crown Heights Riots; I would have been eight years old when they happened.

Chanie is Jewish, from the Lubavitcher Hasidic sect, living in Crown Heights in Brooklyn. Her religion is very strict and conservative: females must be fully covered, anything secular is discouraged, and boys almost solely study religious texts to the exclusion of everything else to the point where they are nearly illiterate in the English language. Chanie is about to graduate from her girls high school where it is automatically assumed that she will go on to the seminary and then marriage. When she meets David as she and her friends are proselytizing at the mall, he is drawn to the boy and his efforts to get to know her. He encourages her gift of singing, even convincing her to apply to Julliard for a scholarship. Chanie balks tradition in other ways too: she makes friends with a black girl against her mother's wishes, goes to the public library to look up information on the Rigoletto opera, and meets with David in secret. As the events of the riots break out in August, Chanie and her family are caught up in it. There are deaths in her family which change her outlook on things. When she is actually accepted into Julliard, she is faced with a decision: does she go against her religion to pursue her great talents, or does she cling to the life she's always known?

I loved the descriptions of the Hasidic lifestyle. I have read novels that deal with the Hasidic sect before, but the particular strictness of it always amazes me. The regulations that Chanie must follow, particularly restrictive for girls, are things I could never do, especially if I knew that things could be different. The ending was definitely unique, but slightly disappointing. All signs were pointing to one outcome, but then you get a totally different result, it almost feels like the author had an agenda the whole time and copped out at the last minute. It doesn't take away from the overall enjoyment of the book, but it does leave a bad taste in my mouth.

The ending was disappointing, but the rest of the book was quite enjoyable; an informing read.

Thoughts on the cover:
The Star of David alludes to the religious aspect of the book, and I'm assuming the building must be recognizable to most people, but it means nothing to me. Putting everything together with what I'm assuming is Chanie's neck and chest is an interesting take on it.