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Book Review: Grit by Gillian French

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Darcy Prentiss lives in rural Maine. When she isn’t raking berries with her sister Mags and cousin Nell, she spends her time drinking and swimming in the quarry. She’s got a reputation, but she also knows how to have a really good time, and her reputation as the town “slut” means that everyone is watching her every move. When someone nominates her for the Bay Festival Princess, Darcy realizes that it might be as a joke–but it might have a more sinister meaning behind, it too. As the summer heats up, so do the secrets that Darcy’s been trying to keep hidden.

Gillian French’s novel about girlhood and sisters and secrets is so gorgeously written that this review could stop right there. But French’s prose is just the tip of the iceberg on this memorable, smart, and captivating book. Darcy’s narration is riveting and real, and she’s a heroine who is flawed but so strong and determined it’s impossible not to root for her even as she makes mistakes.

Secondary characters are also given care and consideration, rounding them out from the caricatures they could easily become in a less gifted writer’s hands. The bonds between Nell and Darcy and Mags are fully realized, and French spends time examining the prickly bonds of sisterhood and family. There’s a lot of exploration of what it is to be a girl in the world, of what it is to be a sexual being, of what it is to be poor.  It’s really excellent.

Although it’s not a straight-up mystery, there are secrets that help propel the narrative forward. French does a beautiful job of weaving hints into the narrative without every being too obtuse nor too obvious, and the result is very satisfying and realistic. Readers will be guessing until the end, and even those who figure it out early will find the ending emotionally resonant. I loved this one. One of my favorite reads of the year.

Grit by Gillian French. Harper Teen: 2017. Library copy.

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Book Review: Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed

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Before the country was destroyed and became a mostly dead wasteland, ten men and their families journeyed to an island off the coast and made it their home. Patrilineal, obsessed with ancestor worship and controlled breeding, the island isn’t an easy life for anyone, but especially for women. Only the wanderers–always male–are allowed to cross the water into the wastelands to scavenge. When girls become women at the first sign of puberty, they are married off. But before that, the summers belong to them to run wild and free. When one of the girls sees something that contradicts everything they’ve been taught, she tells the others and sets in motion a rebellion unlike anything the island has ever seen.

Melamed’s excellent, harrowing story of a dystopian society is gripping from start to finish. A wide cast of characters, a fully developed sense of place, and gorgeous writing make this a standout of a novel. This one will stay with readers long after they’ve finished the last page.

While comparisons to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s tale abound and aren’t without merit, the truth is that while Melamed is clearly influenced by Atwood, she has crafted a society and story that is uniquely her own. She creates a believable world in which technology doesn’t exist, the climate is harsh, and everything is man-made. The descriptions of the icy winter and the mosquito-infested summer are particularly well done, and her sense of place envelops both the characters and the reader.

The characters take turns narrating the story, and each girl has a unique voice, a distinct personality, and a well-crafted family life that makes them stand out from one another. Readers will grow to care for each of these girls, and the narrative tension builds to a terrifying degree, making the girls’ futures all the more tenuous.

 

This is a truly spectacular debut, and Melamed is an author to watch. Hands down one of my favorite reads of the year. Highly recommended.

Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed. Little, Brown: 2017. Library copy.

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Book Review: The Weight of Lies by Emily Carpenter

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Megan Ashley’s life is privileged, and she owes much of her wealth to her mother’s best-selling horror novel, written decades before. But she’s sick of pretending that their family is perfect, and so when a publisher offers her the chance to write a tell-all memoir, she jumps at the chance. This means traveling to Bonny Island, Georgia, to investigate her mother’s past–and the murders that inspired the novel. What she finds is that there’s more to the original story than meets the eye–and that discovering the truth could have some deadly consequences.

This sudsy mystery will keep readers guessing until the last few pages. Part family drama, part book-within-a-book, and party searing mystery, this one is sure to delight hardcore mystery fans as well as those new to the genre. A genuinely twisty plot means that there’s plenty of surprises for readers to uncover alongside Megan, and no matter how many times they think they have it figured out, Carpenter is several steps ahead.  The result is a ton of fun.

It’s also well written, with nuanced characters that feel very real. The result is a surprisingly strong novel that blends different genres with a great deal of success. I was hooked from the start and finished nearly the entire thing in one sitting, so compelling was the plot and its characters.

Carpenter uses snippets of Megan’s mother’s novel at the beginning of each chapter to help ramp up the book’s tension, and it works beautifully. Each snippet is compelling on its own (there are many readers who are going to wish the fictional novel in the book actually existed), but each excerpt also mirrors what is happening as Megan delves deeper into the central mystery.

This is a thrill ride of a novel, begging to be devoured and worthy of readers’ time. Recommended.

The Weight of Lies by Emily Carpenter. Lake Union Publishing: 2017. Library copy.

 

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Book Review: If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

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Amanda Hardy is new to Lambertville, Tennessee.  Determined to have a fresh start for her senior year, she wants to make friends and fit in.  But she’s harboring a secret and a past that threaten to disrupt her new life, and she’s determined to keep her secret safe so that she can remain safe.  But she doesn’t bank on meeting Grant Everett, and she doesn’t plan on falling in love with him.  Grant seems different, and the two have an undeniable connection. She wants to share everything with him, but she’s not sure she can share the one thing she wants most to tell him: she used to be Andrew Hardy.

Hailed as one of the best YA books of 2016, Meredith Russo’s debut novel about a trans girl trying to make a new life for herself after a brutal attack has earned its extensive praise. This novel offers trans teens and adults a story that is at once sweetly romantic while also very believable, grounded in enough realism without ever veering into the horrifically tragic. The novel offers enough friction in the plot to offer readers insight into the real dangers that Amanda faces as a girl without ever overwhelming the narrative.  There’s good writing here, although at times the dialogue feels a bit clunky, and the exploration of new friendships helps flesh out the narrative beyond the typical romance.

The plot moves quickly, the characters are engaging and interesting, and this is a necessary novel for all readers.  It’s one to stock your shelves with and push into the hands of teens.  There’s lots to discuss here as well, and it’s going to garner those discussions.  Highly recommended.

If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo. Flatiron Books: 2016. Library copy.

 

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Book Review: Pax by Sara Pennypacker

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Pax is a fox, rescued when he was a tiny kit after his family was killed.  Peter, his “boy,” rescued him. He’s lived in domesticity with Peter ever since, and the two are inseparable.  But war is coming, and Peter’s father has enlisted, which means Peter is being shipped off to live with his grandfather. Pax is left by the side of the road, hundreds of miles from where Peter ends up. Determined to make it back to each other, each one embarks on a journey of self-discovery.

Sara Pennypacker’s moving story about a boy and his fox is a heartbreaking page-turner of a novel.  Interspersed in the beautiful prose are black and white illustrations from Jon Klassen, and these help bring the story right off the page. Told in alternating chapters by both Peter and Pax, the story remains grounded in reality even though one of the book’s narrators is a fox.

Beautifully paced and artfully told, Pennypacker allows the reader insight into the horrors of war not through the eyes of Peter, but through those of Pax, who sees woodland creatures blown up by mines.  The underscoring of how far-reaching the terrors of war can be is done successfully, with subtlety and grace.  Because so few of the characters in the story are actually named, the book feels very much like a fable.

Every moment in this novel feels real, and authentic, and emotionally resonant. It’s a sad story that is also full of hope, and it is one that begs to be read by young readers as well as adults. Kids will want to talk about this one, so be ready for hard questions about life and death, war, and much more.

Highly, highly recommended.

Pax by Sara Pennypacker. Balzer + Bray: 2016. Library copy.

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Book Review: Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt

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Jackson is 12 and his family has just taken in a new foster child.  Joseph is 14 and has already been to prison and fathered a child.  He wants nothing more than to find his daughter, named Jupiter, whom he has never met before.  As Joseph starts to visualize a future with Jackson’s loving family, his past catches up with him in the most cataclysmic–and tragic–way imaginable.

Schmidt’s writing takes a serious turn in this sparse, beautifully haunting novel that will have readers glued to the page until the book’s upsetting end.  Jackson’s no-nonsense narration helps keep the novel grounded, even when Joseph’s story threatens to veer into melodrama.  Although the novel begins as a redemption tale, Schmidt offers readers no pat, happy endings here.  The result is a gut-punch of a novel with just a tinge of hope for the future.

Like Schmidt’s other books, the characterization is wonderful in this one.  Both boys develop throughout the course of the novel, with Jackson’s ideas about his own morals developing as he gets to know Joseph.  Although Jackson seems like an old soul for a 12-year-old, the narration is sparse enough to seem authentic.  The result is a knockout of a novel, engrossing and emotionally resonant even as it’s unbearably sad.

Lovely, haunting, and one that readers will want to talk about as soon as they finish.  Give this one to savvy middle-grade readers and YA fanatics alike.  It’s got broad appeal for a wide range of readers and will spark great conversation.  Highly recommended.

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt. Clarion Books: 2015. Library copy.

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Book Review: The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds

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Matthew’s mom is dead and his dad is a total wreck.  Just when Matt thinks he can’t handle any more hard stuff in the world, he meets a girl who has dealt with a great deal more than Matt can even imagine–and she just might have some stuff to teach him.  As he navigates his own grief as well as his father’s, Matt starts falling for this girl and learning lessons about life, love, and growing up.

If there’s one thing Jason Reynolds does well, it’s bring a neighborhood to life on the page.  That’s on full display here in his latest offering for teens, and it makes for a rich, immersive read.  Matthew’s voice is authentic, making for a narration that is both compelling and at times searingly real.  A slow burner, like all of Reynolds’s novels, this is one that will stand out to teens who like their stories a bit gritty but wholly real.

Matthew works as a narrator largely because of Reynolds’s skill with his prose.  He also knows Matthew really well and allows his grief to simmer on the page.  As Matthew finds solace in attending funerals at the funeral home he starts working in, his healing process begins, and readers take that journey with him.  The result is a largely successful exploration of what it means to move on after a significant death.

The supporting cast of characters are fairly well fleshed-out, too.  They help bring the Brooklyn neighborhood to life, and provide valuable insight into Matthew and his world.  This is a character-driven novel about slice-of-life Brooklyn, and it is a gem of a novel.  Reynolds is an author to watch, and his storytelling only gets stronger with each offering.

Hopeful, uplifting, and emotionally resonant.  This is a title to keep on the shelves, for sure.  Recommended.

The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds. Atheneum Books for Young Readers: 2015. Library copy.