Monday, October 20, 2014

Review: Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky

Title: Gracefully Grayson
Author: Ami Polonsky
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Release date: November 4th 2014
Pages: 208
Genre: middle grade contemporary
Source: NetGalley - I received a free advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Thanks!
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Alone at home, twelve-year-old Grayson Sender glows, immersed in beautiful thoughts and dreams. But at school, Grayson grasps at shadows, determined to fly under the radar. Because Grayson has been holding onto a secret for what seems like forever: “he” is a girl on the inside, stuck in the wrong gender’s body.
The weight of this secret is crushing, but leaving it behind would mean facing ridicule, scorn, and rejection. Despite these dangers, Grayson’s true self itches to break free. Strengthened by an unexpected friendship and a caring teacher who gives her a chance to step into the spotlight, Grayson might finally have the tools to let her inner light shine.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Gracefully Grayson is such an important book. Without being preachy, Gracefully Grayson sends a powerful message while still telling an engaging story. Ami Polonsky handles the topic at hand gracefully (get it?), and I absolutely loved it.

Generally, I prefer books with bigger stories about characters who just happen to be LGBT over books that focus mainly on the character's LGBT identity, because it's so important to show that not only straight, cisgender white people can have adventures and have stories that deserve to be told. But Gracefully Grayson sort of blurs the line between the two: yes, Grayson's gender expression and identity are the most important subject, but there are plenty of other storylines that tie into this theme in one way or another. And while stories about characters who happen to be gay/lesbian/bisexual/etc. should definitely be a thing by now, I (sadly) don't know if our society is ready for the same thing with a transgender character. Since a transgender identity is (again, sadly) still so controversial, it makes sense for the experience to be so overwhelming for this to be the focus of Grayson's story.

Ami Polonsky handles Grayson's experience with the utmost respect and honesty. Gracefully Grayson is not an in-depth exploration of why Grayson would like to be a girl - a preference for girls' clothes is the only indicator we really get to see - but I didn't mind because Grayson absolutely does not have to justify his feelings to anyone. The focus is more on the effects of this identity; this is simply Grayson's story. I also appreciated that sexuality is not brought into any of this, since it's important to show that gender identity and sexual orientation don't have to be related, and I'm glad the focus remained solely on Grayson's gender expression.

It's hard to separate the issue of gender expression from the rest of the novel, since it affects pretty much everything in Grayson's life, but I loved all of the other storylines as well. The cast of characters is great, showing a wide variety of reactions to Grayson's experience. I loved seeing Grayson find friends and be who he wants to be in theater, and while of course I didn't agree with them, it's interesting and realistic to see how Grayson's aunt and uncle (with whom she lives) try to deal with all of this. I especially loved the ending, which is optimistic and hopeful without being unrealistically happy.

With beautiful writing and a strong, relatable main character, Gracefully Grayson is an honest, moving, powerful story that I loved. I definitely recommend giving Grayson the chance to tell her story to you as well.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Review: Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy

Title: Criminal
Author: Terra Elan McVoy
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release date: May 7th 2013
Pages: 288
Genre: Young Adult contemporary
Source: BEA 2014
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Nikki’s life is far from perfect, but at least she has Dee. Her friends tell her that Dee is no good, but Nikki can’t imagine herself without him. He’s hot, he’s dangerous, he has her initials tattooed over his heart, and she loves him more than anything. There’s nothing Nikki wouldn’t do for Dee. Absolutely nothing.
So when Dee pulls Nikki into a crime – a crime that ends in murder – Nikki tells herself that it’s all for true love. Nothing can break them apart. Not the police. Not the arrest that lands Nikki in jail. Not even the investigators who want her to testify against him.
But what if Dee had motives that Nikki knew nothing about?
Nikki’s love for Dee is supposed to be unconditional…but even true love has a limit. And Nikki just might have reached hers.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Criminal turned out to be really different than I'd expected. I had assumed the story would start with Nikki being happy with Dee, show how he gradually pulls her into this darker stuff, and then escalate with the murder. I figured the novel would end with Nikki finally giving up Dee and going to the police. But that's not how Criminal is set up. The story starts with the murder and deals mainly with the aftermath. This set-up has its pros and cons: it made me feel Nikki's despair, and it let us see what happens later on, but it also made it a bit harder to understand why Nikki won't give Dee up, since we never get to see the two of them together before things went so wrong. 

It isn't easy to be in Nikki's head. Seeing her continue to defend Dee, to abandon herself and everyone around her to do exactly what Dee tells her, to basically wreck everything for her obsession with Dee... it gets frustrating. But Nikki's character is so well done that I sympathized with her despite her flaws. Her life leading up to this point has been rough, to say the least, and it's easy to understand why she would cling on to Dee, when so many other people have abandoned her. Being inside Nikki's head is harrowing, emotional, and sometimes painful, but I loved it. The cast of secondary characters isn't too complex or lovable (except for Bird, of course), but they do add a lot to the story.

Like I said earlier, the downfall of starting this story with the crime is that we don't get to know what Dee and Nikki were like before things went so wrong. In any story about an unhealthy relationship, I think it's important to show both the problematic parts and the good moments so that the reader can understand why the victim loves their partner so much and won't give them up. And that was missing in Criminal. Throughout the novel, I felt nothing but hatred towards Dee, what he puts Nikki through and how he treats her. I wish we had gotten some more insight into Dee as a person, to find out about his background and understand how he came to be this monster of a person. Of course it's important to show that his actions are completely unacceptable, but I still wish his character had been more complex so we could have understood him and his relationship with Nikki a bit better.

The prison setting is really well done. I can't judge how realistic it is (and don't want to!), but it definitely felt real. I loved reading about all those details that you don't really hear about, and it was great to see how Nikki's relationships with the other inmates develop.

Criminal is very different from Terra Elan McVoy's previous books. I loved her light, entertaining reads, but she does this darker story really well too. Criminal is a unique, gritty novel, and while it's a hard read, it's definitely worth it. I can't wait to read Terra Elan McVoy's newest, In Deep!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Bookish Anticipation #41

Bookish Anticipation is a feature I do every once in a while to spotlight future releases I'm excited for. It was inspired by Breaking the Spine's Waiting on Wednesday. You can check out more of my Bookish Anticipation posts here.

The Distance Between Lost and Found by Kathryn Holmes
Release date: February 17th 2015
Ever since the night of the incident with Luke Willis, the preacher’s son, sophomore Hallelujah Calhoun has been silent. When the rumors swirled around school, she was silent. When her parents grounded her, she was silent. When her friends abandoned her … silent.
Now, six months later, on a youth group retreat in the Smoky Mountains, Hallie still can’t find a voice to answer the taunting. Shame and embarrassment haunt her, while Luke keeps coming up with new ways to humiliate her. Not even meeting Rachel, an outgoing newcomer who isn’t aware of her past, can pull Hallie out of her shell. Being on the defensive for so long has left her raw, and she doesn’t know who to trust.
On a group hike, the incessant bullying pushes Hallie to her limit. When Hallie, Rachel, and Hallie’s former friend Jonah get separated from the rest of the group, the situation quickly turns dire. Stranded in the wilderness, the three have no choice but to band together.
With past betrayals and harrowing obstacles in their way, Hallie fears they’ll never reach safety. Could speaking up about the night that changed everything close the distance between being lost and found? Or has she traveled too far to come back?

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby
Release date: March 3rd 2015
Everyone knows Bone Gap is full of gaps—gaps to trip you up, gaps to slide through so you can disappear forever. So when young, beautiful Roza went missing, the people of Bone Gap weren’t surprised. After all, it wasn’t the first time that someone had slipped away and left Finn and Sean O’Sullivan on their own. Just a few years before, their mother had high-tailed it to Oregon for a brand new guy, a brand new life. That’s just how things go, the people said. Who are you going to blame?
Finn knows that’s not what happened with Roza. He knows she was kidnapped, ripped from the cornfields by a dangerous man whose face he cannot remember. But the searches turned up nothing, and no one believes him anymore. Not even Sean, who has more reason to find Roza than anyone, and every reason to blame Finn for letting her go.
As we follow the stories of Finn, Roza, and the people of Bone Gap—their melancholy pasts, their terrifying presents, their uncertain futures—acclaimed author Laura Ruby weaves a heartbreaking tale of love and loss, magic and mystery, regret and forgiveness—a story about how the face the world sees is never the sum of who we are.

I Am Her Revenge by Meredith Moore
Release date: April 7th 2015
She can be anyone you want her to be.
Vivian was raised with one purpose in life: to exact revenge on behalf of her mother. Manipulative and cruel, Mother has deprived Vivian not only of a childhood, but of an original identity. With an endless arsenal of enticing personalities at her disposal, Vivian is a veritable weapon of deception.
And she can destroy anyone.
When it’s time to strike, she enrolls in a boarding school on the English moors, where she will zero in on her target: sweet and innocent Ben, the son of the man who broke Mother’s heart twenty years ago.
Anyone…except for the woman who created her.
With every secret she uncovers, Vivian comes one step closer to learning who she really is. But the more she learns about herself, the more dangerous this cat and mouse game becomes. Because Mother will stop at nothing to make sure the truth dies with her.

Lies I Told by Michelle Zink
Release date: April 7th 2015
What if, after spending a lifetime deceiving everyone around you, you discovered the biggest lies were the ones you've told yourself?
Grace Fontaine has everything: beauty, money, confidence, and the perfect family.
But it’s all a lie.
Grace has been adopted into a family of thieves who con affluent people out of money, jewelry, art, and anything else of value. Grace has never had any difficulty pulling off a job, but when things start to go wrong on the Fontaines' biggest heist yet, Grace finds herself breaking more and more of the rules designed to keep her from getting caught...including the most important one of all: never fall for your mark.

Playlist for the Dead by Michelle Falkoff
Release date: January 27th 2015
A teenage boy tries to understand his best friend's suicide by listening to the playlist of songs he left behind in this smart, voice-driven debut novel.
Here's what Sam knows: There was a party. There was a fight. The next morning, his best friend, Hayden, was dead. And all he left Sam was a playlist of songs, and a suicide note: For Sam—listen and you'll understand.
As he listens to song after song, Sam tries to face up to what happened the night Hayden killed himself. But it's only by taking out his earbuds and opening his eyes to the people around him that he will finally be able to piece together his best friend’s story. And maybe have a chance to change his own.

Solitaire by Alice Oseman
Release date: March 30th 2015
My name is Tori Spring. I like to sleep and I like to blog. Last year – before all that stuff with Charlie and before I had to face the harsh realities of A-Levels and university applications and the fact that one day I really will have to start talking to people – I had friends. Things were very different, I guess, but that's all over now.
Now there's Solitaire. And Michael Holden.
I don't know what Solitaire are trying to do, and I don't care about Michael Holden.
I really don't.

What releases are you anticipating this week? 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Review: Get Happy by Mary Armato

Title: Get Happy
Author: Mary Amato
Publisher: EgmontUSA
Release date: October 28th 2014
Pages: 256
Genre: Young Adult contemporary
Source: NetGalley - I received a free advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Thanks!
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In this poignant, realistic, contemporary YA by a state master list star, perfect for fans of Sarah Dessen and Gayle Forman, a young songwriter builds a substitute family with her friends in place of the broken family she grew up with.
A hip high school girl who loves music, writes songs, and is desperate for a ukelele, learns to her shock that her father did not abandon her years ago and has been trying to keep in touch. She begins to investigate him, only to discover that he has a new life with a new family, including the perfect stepdaughter, a girl who Minerva despises.
My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Get Happy is a super-short read. It's only 256 pages, and the spacing makes it even shorter than that sounds. To add to that, we have Minerva's song lyrics at the end of most chapters, and the last of those 256 pages has those lyrics again, this time with the musical chords. So the good news is, it only took me like two and a half hours to read Get Happy. But the bad news, sadly, is that this short length means that nothing really happens, and nothing is as complex as I would like, making this a very underwhelming read for me.

The main storyline is the one about Minerva's family; her search for her father and the discoveries about her mother and all of their past. That storyline isn't bad... it's just nothing new; it's a very basic story that I've read a million times before. I found Minerva's reactions to all of this to be kind of melodramatic, to be honest; it might be just because I've read so many similar stories, or because Minerva reads so young (younger than the 16 she's supposed to be), but I didn't find what happened to be big enough to warrant such extreme reactions. I just don't think this is enough to carry the story. And with the strong focus on all of this, I found the developments towards the ending to be lacking: we never get to see what happens between her father and stepsister.

Minerva and her best friend Fin work at Get Happy, where they dress up as mermaids, pirates, etc. to entertain kids at birthday parties. That whole idea is cute, and some of those scenes are pretty entertaining. It's a bit contrived how the two of them, as well as the two other characters, Cassie and Hayes, always ride together and have to entertain parties at the exact same times, but it serves the purpose of showing how they all interact. This cast of characters has potential, but they're not complex enough to seem real, and nothing really happens between them either.

I'm not really sure what to say about Get Happy. It's not bad, and I didn't have many issues with it. But the thing is... nothing really happens. These storylines aren't enough to make for an engaging plot; they would have made a good background to set up a real story to focus on, but there is no such story. I know not every novel has to have a strong plot, but even as a character-driven novel, Get Happy didn't work for me; I didn't think the main character was complex enough or develops enough over the course of the story to make Get Happy work. Get Happy is targeted more towards the younger part of YA, so maybe it's just not for me, but I just found it very underwhelming.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Review: Glory O'Brien's History of the Future by AS King

Title: Glory O'Brien's History of the Future
Author: AS King
Publisher: Little Brown BYR
Release date: October 14th 2014
Pages: 320
Genre: Young Adult
Source: BEA 2014
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Graduating from high school is a time of limitless possibilities--but not for Glory, who has no plan for what's next. Her mother committed suicide when Glory was only four years old, and she's never stopped wondering if she will eventually go the same way...until a transformative night when she begins to experience an astonishing new power to see a person's infinite past and future. From ancient ancestors to many generations forward, Glory is bombarded with visions--and what she sees ahead of her is terrifying: A tyrannical new leader raises an army. Women's rights disappear. A violent second civil war breaks out. And young girls vanish daily, sold off or interned in camps. Glory makes it her mission to record everything she sees, hoping her notes will somehow make a difference. She may not see a future for herself, but she'll do anything to make sure this one doesn't come to pass.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I was ridiculously excited for this book. I would read anything with AS King's name on it, but the fact that the novel addresses feminism meant I knew I had to read this immediately. And luckily, Glory O'Brien's History of the Future doesn't disappoint - it made both booknerd-Hannah and feminist-Hannah happy, which is not an easy task. This is an important story, and I loved it.

Glory O'Brien is an amazing character. She's been through a lot, and she has a lot of issues to work out: her pain and her struggles are palpable throughout the story. She's easy to relate to, and I definitely felt for her. AS King really has a knack for writing messed-up characters in such an honest, realistic, and relatable way, and she's done it again in Glory O'Brien's History of the Future.

The secondary characters are well-written, too, even though there's a pretty small cast. I loved Glory's family storyline: her dad is another character I couldn't help but feel for, and I'm glad AS King focused so much on Glory's relationship with him. Even though she died long before this story starts, Glory's mother plays an important part as well; I loved getting to know her through her pictures and writing. Then there's Ellie, who is the most intriguing best-friend character I've read in a while; her background may seem kind of random, but it adds a lot to the story, and I love how their families' histories are connected. And of course, he's a love interest; even though the romance is only hinted at and never takes center stage, he is a fascinating character as well.

The whole seeing-people's-history-and-future-because-she-drank-a-bat thing is very strange, and I didn't know how I would feel about it going into the story. I still don't quite understand how exactly that works: how it's decided what parts of the history or future she can see, whose history and future she can see, and how exactly she saw these things. But because it's such a strange phenomenon within the story as well, and Glory doesn't understand these things either, it sort of worked. My only issue with it is that it seemed a bit too convenient that she almost always saw things related to the Second Civil War, rather than things in the more immediate future or just random, irrelevant details.

I'm a bit on the fence about the story of how the future unfolds in Glory's vision. The set-up is fascinating, and it definitely would have made for a great dystopian novel. But to me, it wasn't quite enough of a story: I know that's hard with this format, but I wanted more details on how, exactly, all of this happened; I wanted more details in the book Glory writes, even though I know Glory doesn't actually know any more details either. Then again, the story isn't necessarily about how all of this unfolds, even if there's a strong moral related to these events. It's just about Glory, really, and although it frustrated me we couldn't get to see more of the action in the future, I also appreciated to just get to see Glory evolve over the course of the novel.

And of course, the novel gets major brownie points because feminism. I don't think I've read a single YA book other than this one where the main character openly calls herself a feminist. I love love love how her whole family is all about feminism, and how Glory calls people out on their gender role bs. But being who I am, I did have a couple of issues with Glory's feminism. She constantly slut-shames her best friend Ellie, and she has a somewhat sex-negative attitude that I don't agree with, like when she tells Ellie not to show as much cleavage and when she immediately assumes that women in sexually explicit media have no self-worth. But I understand that that's part of the story, and nobody's perfect. And in terms of feminism, Glory O'Brien is so much better than the books I usually read that I can't even complain.

I did have some issues with the logic behind Glory's transmissions, and I wish the story of how this world gets so messed up had been explored more. Nonetheless, I really really loved this book: with powerful writing, complex characters, and a unique story (and references to feminism that made me happy), Glory O'Brien's History of the Future is a book you shouldn't miss. 
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