North of Beautiful: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Not to brag or anything, but if you saw me from behind, you’d probably think I was perfect.

North of Beautiful by Justina ChenAfter sixteen years, Terra Rose Cooper has mastered the fine art of hiding the cracks in the facade of her perfect life. Concealer and foundation quickly camouflage the port-wine stain on Terra’s cheek. A rigorous exercise regimen gives Terra control over her body that she never had over her face. It also makes sure her body is one that her boyfriend, a beautiful and popular jock himself, will definitely appreciate.

It’s harder to hide her family’s flaws; her father’s denigrating comments, her mother’s compulsive baking (and eating), the flight of her older brothers’ away from the family–and from their little sister. Terra is so focused on her plan to finish high school early and flee to an East Coast college that, sometimes, it’s easy to forget that she bears marks from the household as clear as any birthmark.

Terra’s dream of a fresh start as far away from her small town Washington life as possible is dashed when her father vetoes her escape plan. Terra’s one true refuge is in her art. While working on her collages, Terra doesn’t have to think about her father or worry about protecting her mother, she has the freedom not yet afforded by her real life.

Things begin to change when Terra and her mother (almost literally) run into Jacob and his family. At first it seems like Terra wouldn’t have anything in common with this sophisticated Goth boy who has found his way into her small town. Yet, he understands Terra in a way that no one ever has. Their chance meeting sets Terra on an unexpected path and helps her understand that you need to open your eyes before you can really see true beauty, in the eyes of the beholder or otherwise in North of Beautiful (2009) by Justina Chen.

Find it on Bookshop.

Not to be redundant, but North of Beautiful is a beautiful book. The cover design by Saho Fujii is perfect and truly encompasses the story and Terra’s character. The book design itself capitalized on the compass rose of the cover and works well with the story (broken into three parts each with cartographic terminology for a name–chapters also have similar names). Justina Chen Headley artfully blends Terra’s artistic personality with her background knowledge of cartography and maps, gained from her father and central to the plot, to create a uniquely informative and engaging narrative.

This book is a love story on many levels. First, in the conventional boy-meets-girl sense of the term. This novel is also Terra’s love story with herself as she learns to love herself and come to terms with her birthmark. But, for me, the big event in North of Beautiful was the fact that this was a love story about a mother and daughter.

Terra and her mother Lois are not close at the beginning of the novel. Terra can’t stand her mother’s quiet complacence to her father’s verbal abuse and criticisms. Worse, Terra feels sure that Lois has nothing useful to share with her. As the story progresses and Terra and Lois find themselves on a life-changing journey, Terra begins to see her mother in a new light and with a new respect.

North of Beautiful is, in fact, dedicated to the author’s own mother and with good reason. It is so easy to write books for teens that are depopulated of adults and feature parents in only brief appearances. Here, happily, that is not the case. Aside from Terra, Lois is arguably one of the most important characters in the entire story. Watching the healing process as Terra and Lois reconnect also made me feel incredibly grateful for and proud of my own mom.

Ultimately, aside from being one of my favorite books of 2009 (s0 far), North of Beautiful was incredibly uplifting. The beginning of the novel is not always easy to read. Terra’s home life is anything but happy, and Headley tackles the issue of verbal abuse (abuse without the telltale blows or shouts) head on. But that isn’t the main event here. Instead, the story is about how Terra and her mother move past that and build themselves back up. I’ll say it again, the story here was beautiful, and even I dare say life-affirming. Like Terra herself, readers will put down this book with a whole new outlook on . . . everything.

(Also, if you’ve read Headley’s other novels you might recognize some characters who make cameo appearances here!)

Possible Pairings: The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill S. Alexander, Skinny by Donna Crooner, Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality by Elizabeth Eulberg, Miss Smithers by Susan Juby, Fix by Leslie Margolis, Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell, Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee

Girl Overboard: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Girl Overboard by Justina ChenIf nothing else, the Chengs know how to save face. So to everyone else, Syrah Cheng’s life looks like a dream come true. Her father is a billionaire, her mother is beautiful and always buying her fancy clothes (and custom-designed snowboarding gear). Between that and the mansion and private jet, it really seems like Syrah has it all. But . . .

The worst part of having it all is having to deal with it all–the good, the bad, and the just plain weird.

Syrah knows better than most that appearances can be deceiving. She almost never sees her parents, her half-siblings hate her, and it turns out real friends are not that easy to find when you can buy everything else. What Syrah doesn’t know is how to change any of that, especially when she’s been deceiving herself for so long.

Girl Overboard (2007) is Justina Chen Headley‘s second novel (following Nothing But the Truth (and a Few White Lies) from 2006). The writing here is snappy and really moves the text along, so much so that the story very quickly demanded my full attention to better catch the nuances of Syrah’s narration. The writing here is also grittier than a lot of books I have read lately. Syrah’s loneliness and depression are so tangible in the early stages of the book that, at times, reading it was painful.

After years of being a loner with a one-track mind for snowboarding, Syrah’s snowboarding accident and resulting knee injury force her to look at her entire life in a new light. If one bad accident can leave Syrah terrified of her chilly home away from home, what else has Syrah misinterpreted? It turns out the answer is a lot.

This book deals with many themes in addition to snowboarding and overcoming a really scary injury (partly inspired by the author’s own bogus wipeout). A first-generation American herself, Syrah’s family still bears the scars of their past in China during the Cultural Revolution. The story also provides an interesting commentary on the cost of keeping up appearances and friendship. At its core though, Girl Overboard is about a girl who has found herself adrift and, while trying to get her own bearings, realizes she can help those around her at the same time.

In this novel Headley spends a lot of time in Syrah’s head, partly because the book is narrated in the first person, but also because Syrah is a solitary creature–especially after her Accident. For this reason, Headley is really able to trace Syrah’s growth as a character. At the beginning of the novel Syrah is lonely, sad, and desperate for a way out of her life. But as the story progresses, Syrah learns that before you can ask for help you have to think you deserve it. In fact, you have to think you deserve it all because if you don’t who will?

In short, Girl Overboard is the latest example of what a CLW book should be not just because Syrah Cheng is an awesome, strong girl but because this book details how she became that girl.

Possible Pairings: King of the Screwups by K. L. Going, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, Kiki Strike by Kirsten Miller, Fracture by Megan Miranda, Being Sloane Jacobs by Lauren Morrill, Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider, Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

Nothing But the Truth (and a Few White Lies) (a CLW review)

Nothing But the Truth (and a Few White Lies) by Justina ChenI had the chance to talk to Justina Chen briefly before she gave a reading from Nothing But the Truth (and a Few White Lies) (2006). She was very cool, grounded and an absolute pleasure to talk to. So, it should be no surprise that her narrator, Patty Ho, is equally enjoyable in every way in Headley’s first novel written for young adults.

Half-Taiwanese and half-white, Patty feels like she doesn’t belong anywhere. This fact is confirmed when, instead of going to the last school dance of the year, Patty’s mother drags her to a fortune teller who discerns Patty’s future from her belly button. Things get worse from there when Patty realizes that sometimes dream guys are anything but and finds herself enrolled in Stanford math camp for the summer.

This novel is a classic coming-of-age story. As the plot progresses, Patty learns that sometimes you have to find people like you in order to appreciate the value of being really unique. Now, that might sound a bit pat and cliche–but I can assure you this book is anything but.

Headley writes with a style unlike any authors I’ve read recently. The narration is snappy and spunky–as is fitting for a teenage girl as vibrant as Patty. I also like that Headley doesn’t take the easy way a lot of the time. The story doesn’t follow any typical girl-meets-boy formula. In fact, Headley has quite a few twists thrown in along the way.

It’s also really interesting to read about Patty and her mother. The subject doesn’t often come up in teen literature, where often the characters are immigrants if they are not white. Headley’s dialog between Patty and her mother seems realistic (not being Taiwanese at all I can’t really say). Her incorporation of slang and certain speech mannerisms bring to mind Amy Tan’s writing in The Hundred Secret Senses (another book about a half-asian, half-white character, incidentally). Honestly though, everything in the book is interesting. Even math camp, which some readers will view as warily as Patty does in the beginning, turns out to be a cool environment to read about (with minimal time spent on math in the narrative).

In a lot of reviews you’ll see me complaining that the characters come off as flat. Happily, I can say that is not the case here. Patty and her myriad friends (and enemies too) jump off the page. Furthermore, Headley artfully negotiates Patty’s changing sense of self throughout the novel.

It’s weird to be saying this about a novel that isn’t a thriller, but it was really a page turner. I couldn’t put it down. Headley has a lot to say here about identity and family and self-confidence. All of which she manages like a pro.

The term “new classic” is bandied about a lot for modern books and movies. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Nothing But the Truth is going to get that label if it doesn’t have it already.

Possible Pairings: An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Fly on the Wall by E. Lockhart, The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood