Spinning: A Graphic Novel Review

What happens when the thing you’re supposed to love becomes something you hate? What happens when you spend most of your life working toward something only to realize you no longer want it?

For ten years skating was Tillie’s entire world as she spent hours practicing with her synchronized skate team and for her individual figure skating certifications and competitions. Life on the rink was meant to be a break from the real world with bullies, school, and the pressures of her family.

When Tillie’s family moves to Texas all of that starts to change. At her new school Tillie feeds her growing interest in art and starts a fledgling relationship with her first girlfriend. As her world gets bigger Tillie struggles with how to reconcile to herself and her family and friends that it’s time for her to move on in Spinning (2017) by Tillie Walden.

In guise of a book about competitive figure skating, Walden offers a subtle graphic novel memoir about growing up and speaking out. During the sometimes turbulent end to her time as a skater Walden also discovers how to stand up for herself and how to come out to her friends and family. While not everything works out for Tillie and many paths are still uncharted, Spinning is an ultimately hopeful story of new choices and new beginnings.

Walden’s artwork, colored with a purple hue as seen on the cover, is full of motion and pathos as she makes excellent use of the comic panel structure to move the story forward while highlighting smaller moments in the narrative.

Spinning is an excellent graphic novel sure to endear itself to any readers who have ever struggled not just to find their next path but also how to explain that choice to others.

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2017*

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Girl Against the Universe: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Girl Against the Universe by Paula StokesMaguire is cursed.

It all started when her brother and father died in a car crash that left Maguire without a scratch. Then there was the time a roller coaster jumped its tracks. And Maguire was fine. Everyone at a sleepover was hit with food poisoning. Except Maguire. Before their latest move, the house next door caught fire. Because Maguire had left a candle burning on her windowsill.

Maguire tries to mitigate her bad luck with dozens of good luck charms and rituals. She also checks her surroundings for accident potential and tries to stay away from other people to limit the damage. She won’t drive anywhere with her stepfather or stepsister because she’s terrified of hurting them. Even driving with her mother is a cause for slight panic.

Talking through her curse in therapy, and hoping to get past her fears so that she can visit family in Ireland, Maguire tries to make some plans to change her luck. Jordy, a lucky (cute) tennis star, is sure that he can help even as Maguire worries that her bad luck will rub off on him.

Maguire is used to keeping to herself and trying to survive alone. But as she gets to know Jordy and makes other friends, Maguire starts to realize that there’s more to life than just surviving in Girl Against the Universe (2016) by Paula Stokes.

Stokes balances Maguire’s genuine grief with bright moments of humor. Although Maguire is understandably frustrated by the limitations on her life because of her bad luck, she is still shown as a capable and strong heroine throughout. She reads a lot. She is well-versed in survival practices (forewarned, is forearmed). She’s athletic with a love of rock climbing and, as she discovers during the novel, has potential as a promising tennis player. Maguire’s own belief in the curse is never ridiculed. Her family and friends all try to convince her that she is suffering from survivor’s guilt (not a curse) but they also respect Maguire’s concerns.

Both Maguire and Jordy see a therapist in Girl Against the Universe and these scenes are informative and thoughtfully portrayed as Maguire works with her doctor to figure out how she might conquer some of her bad-luck-related fears with small, practical steps building toward her dream of flying to Ireland.

Maguire’s growth as a character is highlighted throughout the novel with her therapy, her growing support system as she gets to know Jordy and other new friends, her changing dynamic with her family, and her time playing tennis as part of her school’s team.

Girl Against the Universe is an unexpected and delightful contemporary novel. A funny, heartfelt, and ultimately optimistic read. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira, Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Tumbling by Caela Carter, Teach Me to Forget by Erica M. Chapman, I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo, Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella, The Art of Holding On and Letting Go by Kristin Bartley Lenz, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, Summer of Sloane by Erin L. Schneider, Windfall by Jennifer E. Smith, The Inside of Out by Jenn Marie Thorne, Lucky in Love by Kasie West, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood, Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

Tumbling: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Tumbling by Caela CarterGrace cares more about gymnastics than she cares about anything. She has the “international” look that appeals to judges. But with younger, smaller gymnasts coming along all the time, Grace is desperate to keep her edge–even if it hurts her.

Leigh is Grace’s best friend but it’s hard to balance friendship with their constant competition for first place. Leigh balances a normal life in school with her professional aspirations at the gym but she doesn’t feel like she belongs anywhere.

Camille was an Olympian four years ago–but only for a day. Now everyone is cheering  for “Comeback Cammie” as she tries to make the team again. Between her mother’s expectations and her boyfriend’s disapproval, she isn’t even sure she wants to be an Olympian anymore.

At nineteen Wilhemina is practically a different generation from the other girls competing when it comes to gym years. She missed her chance four years ago because her birthday was four days too late. This time she isn’t going to let anything stand in her way, especially not petty gymnastics politics.

Monica is far from the top and everyone knows it. She’s a decent gymnast. She’ll definitely qualify for an NCAA scholarship one day. But she knows to keep her expectations low because hoping for more and falling short will hurt too much.

These five girls are gambling everything–every choice they have made for their entire lives–on how well they perform at the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials. At the end of the trials some of the girls will be stars, some will have nothing. All of them will be changed forever in Tumbling (2016) by Caela Carter.

Tumbling rotates between five perspectives (all close, third-person) throughout the novel to explore Grace, Leigh, Camille, Wilhemina, and Veronica’s stories. Set over the two days of the meet for the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials this story explore their individual stories as well as their (sometimes unexpected) moments of intersection. These girls are also a diverse and inclusive group that reflect the real face of this sport.

Carter takes this ambitious structure and handles it well. Each girl’s personality comes through in her individual sections as well as in the larger plot of the novel. Supplemental material including a roster with all of the characters (and the seven other gymnasts competing at the trials) and a glossary of gymnastics terms will help even the least initiated feel like a gymnastics expert while reading.

Tumbling explore the competitive and grueling nature of gymnastics. All of the girls are struggling with something whether it’s body image and not eating, self-esteem, figuring out if being a lesbian really needs to be a part of a public gymnast persona, or just self-esteem. While this book highlights the thrill of competition (and the drama), it also is an honest portrayal of the work and dedication needed to compete at such a high level. Themes of body positivity and staying healthy while competing are also stressed throughout.

While there is drama, fierce competition, and some intense conflict the overwhelming focus of Tumbling is on positivity and friendship. Yes, these five girls are competing. But it’s not always with each other so much as it is to be the best. While each character is flawed, by the end of the story they are all striving to build each other up and be better versions of themselves both in and out of competition.

Readers will think they know what to expect at the start of Tumbling but Carter artfully includes realistic twists and surprises that leave several characters in surprising circumstances by the end of the novel. Veronica and Wilhemina’s arcs are particularly satisfying and work well to bring the entire novel together. Highly recommended for gymnastics enthusiasts as well as readers looking for an exciting book with a strong cast of female characters.

Possible Pairings: Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson, Rival by Sarah Bennett-Wealer, Tiny Pretty Things by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton, Bunheads by Sophie Flack, The Year My Sister Got Lucky by Aimee Friedman, The Flip Side by Shawn Johnson, Virtuosity by Jessica Martinez, Being Sloane Jacobs by Lauren Morrill, Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma

The Art of Holding On and Letting Go: A Review

The Art of Holding On and Letting Go by Kristin Bartley LenzCara Jenkins is a nationally ranked competitive climber. Homeschooled by her mountaineer parents, Cara has always felt at home on rock faces and cliffs. When disaster strikes during a climb in Ecuador, Cara’s carefully ordered world is completely upended.

While her parents struggle to move on in Ecuador, Cara finds herself living with her grandparents in Detroit and entering a traditional high school for the first time.

Determined to give up climbing in her grief, Cara will have to figure out who she is on the ground as she makes new friends, discovers first love, and tries to figure out how to move past the one climb that changed everything for her and her family in The Art of Holding On and Letting Go (2016) by Kristin Bartley Lenz.

The Art of Holding On and Letting Go is Lenz’s first novel.

Cara is a thoughtful and methodical narrator with a voice that is as measured as her rock climbing paths at the start of the novel. Lenz expertly conveys the world of rock climbing and complex terminology while expanding Cara’s world with her move to Detroit.

While this story starts with a tragedy, The Art of Holding On and Letting Go is ultimately hopeful as Cara learns that there are many ways to find her place and leave her mark on the world.

Possible Pairings: Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Stupid Fast by Geoff Herbach, Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler, Summer of Sloane by Erin L. Schneider, Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes

Boy Toy: A Review

Boy ToyJosh Mendel has a secret. Except everyone knows what it is.

Everyone seems to know what happened five years ago. Everyone seems to think they understand.

But no one does. Not really.

Years later, Josh is graduating high school soon and still trying to make sense of the pieces left in the aftermath.

But with so many broken parts Josh isn’t sure any of it–not baseball or Rachel or even closure with Eve–will be enough to make him whole again in Boy Toy (2007) by Barry Lyga.

When Josh was 12 his history teacher sexually abused him. Repeatedly. Since then Josh has been haunted by both the abuse itself and the fact that he is certain everyone in his small town knows exactly what happened thanks to Eve’s detailed confession.

Now 18, Josh is still processing what happened and his own part in moments he’d rather forget. His best friend never asks Josh about what happened. And Rachel, a girl he accidentally frightened shortly before the abuse came to light, suddenly wants to be a part of Josh’s life again.

Josh still isn’t sure what he wants. Chapters alternate between Josh’s present and past as he sifts through the beginning of Eve’s interest in him, the actual abuse, straight through to the disastrous day his parents found out what had been happening. The dual stories blend together seamlessly to create one complete picture of a broken young man who is still trying to put himself back together.

Lyga is an excellent writer and brings a nuanced, unexpected edge to this story of abuse and healing. Boy Toy has some troubling, gritty moments but it is an ultimately compelling must-read.

Possible Pairings: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Leverage by Joshua Cohen, Keep Holding On by Susane Colasanti, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard, Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy, Teach Me by R. A. Nelson, Consent by Nancy Ohlin, Sprout by Dale Peck, Mostly Good Girls by Leila Sales

Being Sloane Jacobs: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Being Sloane Jacobs by Lauren MorrillSloane Emily Jacobs isn’t sure about her supposed comeback to competitive figure skating. If she can’t start landing her jumps and getting triples again her comeback might end up very short-lived. At least the frustrations and pressure of figure skating can give her a chance to get away from her family and pretend she doesn’t know the truth about her father’s indiscretions or the depths of her mother’s oblivion.

Ice hockey is a bright spot in Sloane Devon Jacobs’ otherwise dim life. Her mother is gone, her dad is busy, and Sloane might be a little angrier than she should be. Possibly all the time. With hockey as her one and only ticket to a different life, Sloane is in for a big problem when she is suspended from the team right when scouts might finally start paying attention.

One chance meeting for these unlikely named girls changes everything when they swap places for a summer at skating camp. In their efforts to avoid real life both Sloanes find more than they bargained for and possibly exactly what they needed to know in Being Sloane Jacobs (2014) by Lauren Morrill.

Being Sloane Jacobs alternate between Sloane Emily and Sloane Devon’s first person narrations with handy headings labeled for each character. The headings are especially handy as, without benefit of external details like Sloane Emily’s rich family or Sloane Devon’s hard knock hockey persona, the two heroines have a habit of blending together.

The story is perfectly fun and easy to read so long as you can go along with the premise of these girls swapping lives. Being Sloane Jacobs has a vibe very similar to The Parent Trap with rich Sloane Emily and poor Sloane Devon swapping lives but in a cute, non-irritating way that mostly works. It was difficult to understand why–in a world of need-based aid, state schools, loans and merit scholarships–Sloane Devon would have no other option to get to college but for an athletic hockey scholarship although it is also an area outside of my expertise.

Morrill’s writing is snappy and moves the plot along (although jarring slang that seemed dated in comparison to the modern story did often turn up) and–when the Sloanes converge–creates a seamless plot with clever moments of overlap as the two girls assess each other. The story here is a fun blend of serendipity, athletics and romance that is ideal for readers who want a dose of sports in their books. Being Sloane Jacobs is definitely a lighter read that will leave readers smiling.

Possible Pairings: Tumbling by Caela Carter, Girl Overboard by Justina Chen, Stupid Fast by Geoff Herbach, 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson, Drawing the Ocean by Carolyn MacCullough, Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins, The Shadow Society by Marie Rutkoski, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell, Pivot Point by Kasie West, How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

Bunheads: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Bunheads by Sophie FlackNineteen-year-old Hannah Ward is not a ballerina, not yet anyway. A dancer with the Manhattan Ballet Company, Hannah knows this is her year to finally land a coveted promotion from corps dancer to soloist. It has to be. Recruited by the Company when she was fourteen, Hannah has been working toward this singular goal for her entire life.

On a rare night off, Hannah meets a pedestrian–a non-dancer–named Jacob. A free-spirited musician, Jacob’s life is everything Hannah’s is not, filled with freedom from the regimen and commitments being a professional dancer entails.

As Hannah spends more time with Jacob and moves closer to her ballerina dream, she starts to wonder if ballet really is enough. It always had been before, but now Hannah isn’t so sure. Ballerinas are supposed to dedicate themselves to dance, but Hannah might be ready to dedicate her life to other pursuits in Bunheads (2011) by Sophie Flack.

Bunheads is Flack’s first novel. It was also a finalist for the 2011 Cybils in Young Adult Fiction.

As a novel, Bunheads falls short in several areas. Informed by her own experiences as a professional dancer (Flack danced with the New York City Ballet from 2000 to 2009) much of the novel feels indulgent and more like an exercise in wish-fulfillment on the author’s part than an actual story.

Hannah and Jacob’s immediate connection never feels authentic which raises questions about both character’s behavior throughout. Combined with a meandering, slow-paced plot the book often lacks the verve to keep things interesting.

With Hannah and her friends being wholly consumed by dance, there is little room for character development. There are even fewer opportunities to make the characters distinguishable from each other as all of the dancers, Hannah included, feel interchangeable for much of the novel.

Where Bunheads really shines is in setting the scene for Hannah and her world. Flack brings a professional eye to the story, expertly conjuring the narrow world of a corps dancer that is filled both with grueling monotony and brief moments of wonder found on the stage.

Bunheads is a moderately entertaining reminder of both the passion andthe commitment that being a professional dancer demands. It is easy to admire the glitter and tutus of a ballet. This book reminds readers to remember the stamina and strength that makes every ballet look effortless on stage.

Finally, and perhaps unexpectedly, Bunheads is a beautiful example of the bravery it takes to dedicate years to a specific plan only to choose a completely different path leading into uncharted territory. A must read for ballet enthusiasts, athletes, and anyone trying to strike out on their own–even if they don’t know exactly where they will be striking just yet.

Possible Pairings: Tumbling by Caela Carter, So Much Closer by Susane Colasanti, The Year My Sister Got Lucky by Aimee Friedman, Virtuosity by Jessica Martinez, Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins, The Secret Sisterhood of Heartbreakers by Lynn Weingarten, Starry Nights by Daisy Whitney, Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee