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 Last Time We Were Us: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“We’re all just trying to be the best version of us, the only way we know how.”

The Last Time We Were Us by Leah KonenLiz used to go by Lizzie and her life used to be simple. But the summer before her senior year is anything but as she sifts through the expectations of her friends and family to figure what she might really want. Thanks to her best friend MacKenzie’s concentrated efforts, she and Liz are on the verge of popularity. Liz is getting invited to the best parties. Everyone is certain that if Liz plays her cards right she’ll have Innis Taylor–the hottest and most popular guy in Bonneville–as her boyfriend.

When her childhood best friend, Jason, comes home unexpectedly from juvie the obvious thing to do is ignore him. Liz doesn’t owe Jason anything. She isn’t even sure she can give him the friendship that he’s asking for. Liz never wanted to believe that Jason was capable of attacking someone but the rest of the town is convinced that he is guilty and still dangerous.

Liz has every reason to avoid Jason and everything to lose if anyone catches them together. But the more Liz remembers about who she and Jason used to be together, the more she finds herself drawn to him and the secrets he keeps alluding to that surround his arrest. Liz will have to learn how to trust Jason again as she remembers his role in her past and decides if he deserves a place in her future in The Last Time We Were Us (2016) by Leah Konen.

The Last Time We Were Us is Konen’s second novel.

This book explores a lot of the themes covered in Matthew Quick’s Every Exquisite Thing. However, the idea of finding yourself and the value to be had in teenage rebellion is handled more effectively here and without the obvious disdain Quick displays for his heroine throughout.

The Last Time We Were Us is a subtle, sexy story about figuring out who you want to be when everyone already seems to know you. Liz remains extremely aware of who she is and of her own values–even if that sometimes means deeply disappointing those closest to her. While this story has action and twists, it remains largely introspective with Liz working through some of her largest conflicts on her own as she tries to choose the kind of person she wants to be moving forward.

This book is one of those formative stories where the writing is so smart and so on point that it often feels like have your own thoughts and ideas spoken back to you. Konen’s evocative descriptions of Bonneville and a varied (though probably all white) cast help to further develop the story. The Last Time We Were Us is a thoughtful exploration of what place nostalgia and memory have in life as you grow older and how, even when you try not to, the past can irretrievably shape your future.

The Last Time We Were Us is a story with a hint of mystery, romance, and a healthy dose of feminism. Cannot recommend it highly enough.

Possible Pairings: The Game of Love and Death by Martha A. Brockenbrough, How to Love by Katie Cotugno, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, The Weight of Feathers by Anne-Marie McLemore, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Every Exquisite Thing by Matthew Quick, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell

You can also check out my interview with Leah Konen about the book.

How to Be Brave: A Review

How to Be Brave by E. Katherine KottarasReeling from her mother’s death, Georgia knows that things have to change. After years of trying to blend into the background, Georgia is ready to be brave just like her mother told her to be in her last letter.

Armed with a list of brave things to do ranging from “asking him out” to smoking pot to going to trapeze school, Georgia is ready to get out of her own way and do everything; she’s ready to be everything in How to Be Brave (2015) by E. Katherine Kottaras.

How to Be Brave is Kottaras’ first novel. In a red-letter year for body acceptance novels, it’s also being touted as comparable read for Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy.

A lot of my issues with the book are decidedly my own. They also include spoilers to some extent so be wary.

Continue reading

Dumplin’: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Dumplin' by Julie MurphyWillowdean Dickson has always been comfortable in her own skin. Even when she knows small-minded people might make unfavorable comparisons between Will and her beautiful best friend, Ellen. But Will knows who she is and she is okay with it. At least, she thinks she is until she takes a summer job working at Harpy’s–a local burger joint–alongside Private School Bo.

Bo is a former jock and totally hot. Of course Will is attracted to him. What gives her pause is that Bo seems to be attracted to her too.

When this unexpected romance makes Will question everything she thought she knew about herself (and her self-esteem), she knows it’s time to take a step back and make a change.

Inspired by all of the things her aunt let herself miss out on because of her weight, Willowdean decides to enter the Miss Clover City beauty pageant to prove to herself and everyone else (and maybe even her mother) that she can.

Entering the pageant might be the worst idea Will has ever had but with help from her friends, inspiration from Dolly Parton, and a lot of humor along the way, Willowdean will take Clover City by storm in Dumplin(2015) by Julie Murphy.

Dumplin’ has a very strong sense of place as Willowdean’s first person narration brings her small Texas town to life complete with its quirks and charms. And a love of Dolly Parton, of course.

Will is a charming and authentic narrator. Like many people, she has moments of doubt and often gets in her own way when it comes to being happy. She is also refreshingly self-aware and can identify these behaviors even if she can’t always stop them. While it’s hard in parts Dumplin’ to watch Willowdean being her own worst enemy, it’s also incredibly empowering to see her get it right and go after what she really wants.

Murphy’s sophomore novel highlights a lot of diverse lifestyles in this story including single parent homes, poor families, and some others that I can’t mention because they’re small spoilers.

Dumplin’ is an effervescent novel with a lot of heart and as much charm is its one-of-a-kind heroine. Recommended for readers looking for a sweet romance, thoughtful characters and an empowering story. Bonus appeal for readers who enjoy stories that feature beauty pageants.

Possible Pairings: The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill S. Alexander, Beauty Queens by Libba Bray, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality by Elizabeth Eulberg, The Truth Commission by Susan Juby, The Romantics by Leah Konen, How to Be Brave by E. Katherine Kottaras, In Real Life by Jessica Love, The Rites and Wrongs of Janice Wills by Joanna Pearson, If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo, Vibes by Amy Kathleen Ryan, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee

*An advance copy of this book was acquired from the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2015*

Winterspell: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Winterspell by Claire LegrandNew York City, 1899. Clara Stole’s mother has been dead for a year. Without the guiding goodness of her mother, Clara lives in fear of the greed and corruption that grip New York City and the Concordia syndicate that rules it with a firm and corrupt hand with her father as their mayor and figurehead.

Thanks to her godfather, Drosselmeyer, Clara is well trained in self-defense. But blending into shadows, picking locks and throwing a punch are little help when the mere thought of confronting the dangerous leaders of Concordia fills Clara with crippling dread. Despite her perceived weakness, Clara is determined to find out the truth behind her mother’s murder. But in uncovering that truth, Clara also finds shocking secrets about her own life.

On Christmas Eve Clara’s house is attacked and her father abducted by mysterious creatures not of this world. To rescue her father and keep her family safe, Clara will have to follow the creatures to Cane–a distant land ravaged by magic and strife–with only Nicholas, cursed prince of Cane, for help.

Clara needs Nicholas and therefore must work him but the prince has secrets and an agenda of his own–one that may do Clara more harm than good. With time running out as she moves through Cane’s ruthless landscape, Clara realizes she can trust no one but herself if she hopes to leave Cane alive in Winterspell (2014) by Claire Legrand.

Winterspell is Legrand’s first young adult novel. Readers can also pick up a companion prequel novella called Summerfall. An extended epilogue called Homecoming can be found on Legrand’s website.

Legrand delivers a sumptuous, rich fantasy in this dark retelling of The NutcrackerWinterspell stays true to the source material (even including epigraphs from the original story at the start of each section) while also pushing the plot in unexpected directions in this story about magic gone wrong, war and the strength that comes from realizing your own power.

While Clara knows she is strong and capable she is also hampered by her own fears and doubts as much as by the trappings of being a young woman of privilege in 1890s New York. Clara is terrified of her own strength (and her inability to use it at crucial moments), her own body, and especially her own sexuality. As much as this story is about magic and action, it is equally about Clara’s sexual awakening as she learns to embrace all aspects of her self even those society tells her she should hide away.

Winterspell is a sexy, gritty story that brings the world of Cane monstrously to life. Endpapers provide a detailed map of Cane (illustrated by Catherine Scully) while Legrand’s prose evokes the fearful cold and danger lurking around every corner.

The interplay between Clara and Nicholas adds another dimension to this story. Both characters rightfully have a healthy suspicion of each other but also an undeniable physical attraction. There is a delicious slow burn as these characters circle each other. This distrust and attraction coalesces into a thoughtful treatment of consent that works on many levels throughout the story.

Winterspell is a sexy, gritty story that operates in the grey areas between good and evil. With brutal heroes and sympathetic villains this is a multifaceted story sure to appeal to fantasy readers and fans of unconventional retellings.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard, The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Ice by Sarah Beth Durst, The Luxe by Anna Godbersen, Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay, A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas, Winterspell by Danielle Paige, Jackaby by William Ritter, Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross, Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt, A Darker Shade of Magic by Victoria Schwab, Never Never by Brianna Shrum, Everland by Wendy Spinale, Rebel Mechanics by Shanna Swendson, Into the Dim by Janet B. Taylor, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

Life by Committee: A Review

lifebycommitteeIt isn’t Tabitha’s fault that her breasts are bigger now. It isn’t her fault that she likes wearing makeup as much as she likes reading margin notes in used books. It isn’t her fault that Joe seems to like talking to her more than he likes talking to his crazy-eccentric-special-snowflake girlfriend Sasha Cotton.

But it might be Tabitha’s fault when she kisses Joe. And when she does it again.

Normally, Tabitha would so not be that girl. But with the help of a website called Life by Committee, Tabitha starts doing a lot of things she wouldn’t normally do in the spirit of being more. At first sharing secrets and completing assignments to keep those secrets safe is easy. The assignments are empowering and push her limits.

When Tabby becomes more involved in the site, and the stakes get much higher, she has to decide how far she is willing to go, and who she is willing to hurt, to be more in Life by Committee (2014) by Corey Ann Haydu.

Life by Committee is Haydu’s sophomore novel.

Tabitha is a great heroine. She struggles with a lot of things throughout Life by Committee. Obviously, there is the morality issue with cheating. But Tabitha is also trying to understand her place in a world where the rules are constantly changing not because of anything she has done but simply because of how she looks. (And sometimes not even that in the case of her changing home life.) The way Tabby, through Haydu’s prose, grapples with feminism and slut shaming and loneliness–problems she can’t always articulate, or even give a proper name–is shattering.

Tabitha is incredibly lonely at the start of the novel. She tries to reshape her life without the friends she had assumed were a given but it’s hard. Then Tabitha stumbles upon Life by Committee. LBC is an anonymous online community where users share secrets and complete assignments (more like dares) in the name of being more and leading their best lives. The wisdom in joining such a site is, of course, debatable. But Haydu does such an excellent job of bringing Tabitha and her hurt to life that it makes sense. Readers begin to understand how Tabitha might become this person who is completely consumed by people she has never met.

The great thing about Tabitha is that she knows exactly who she is and who she would like to be. When Tabitha gets involved with LBC, she starts to question a lot of the ideas she has about herself. Sometimes that leads to empowering moments. Unfortunately it also leads to some heart wrenching decisions that are so obviously Bad Ideas they become painful to read.

Those choices, the power and allure of LBC, are hard to understand at times. Unless you remember being that lonely high school (or college) student trying to find your way. Unless you remember the thrill that can come with telling everything that matters to someone who will never meet you, never be able to really judge you. Life by Committee captures that heady mix of connection and anonymity found on the Internet so very well.

Life by Committee also subtly highlights the pitfalls that can come from such a scenario. It’s wonderful to have friends online saying “yes!” to every risk you want to take. But without the context that comes from knowing a person in real life, it’s also difficult to ever adequately understand the consequences and the aftermath of those risks.

At the end of Life by Committee it’s safe to say that Tabitha comes out a little wiser and a lot stronger. Because this book is on the short side (304 pages hardcover) readers don’t get to see all of the payoff after Tabitha realizes she can find her own way, all by herself, but the development is there. The growth and the hint at something more–LBC-inspired or not–is there in the final pages.

Although she has her stumbling blocks, Tabitha remains a smart and capable heroine throughout. While she doesn’t always make the best decisions, she always learns. And that, really, is all anyone can hope for. Life by Committee is a shrewd, clever read that raises all of the right questions for its characters and readers. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Don’t Ever Change by M. Beth Bloom, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality by Elizabeth Eulberg, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anna Heltzel, The Truth Commission by Susan Juby, Undercover by Beth Kephart, The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart, In Real Life by Jessica Love, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel QuinteroThe Unwritten Rule by Elizabeth Scott, This is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith, Unbreak My Heart by Melissa Walker

*A review copy of this book was acquired from the publisher at BEA 2014*

Damaged: A Review

Damaged by Amy ReedKinsey Cole knows people can only bear to hear so much bad fortune. That’s why everyone in the small town of Wellspring, Michigan knows that Kinsey’s best friend Camille died in a car accident when Kinsey was driving. It’s easier for people to see the straight A student with a full athletic scholarship.

Kinsey is struggling to stick to her own plan for the future now that Camille is dead. She is going to go to college and get away from her small town and her mentally unstable mother once and for all. She is going to succeed the way everyone always expected she would.

The only problem is that Kinsey is quietly falling apart.

When Camille’s boyfriend, Hunter, invites Kinsey on a road trip to San Francisco, Kinsey jumps at the chance to get away from all the memories and start her real life. But with Hunter’s heavy drinking and Kinsey’s own demons, it will take more than a fresh start for either of them to accept everything that has been lost in Damaged (2014) by Amy Reed.

Kinsey and Hunter travel across a largely barren landscape on their way to California in this haunting and well-done novel. An unflinching focus on Kinsey and Hunter makes this character driven road trip story even stronger.

Nightmares that may or may not be her dead best friend plague Kinsey throughout the novel adding a surreal quality to the plot. Reed offers a well-plotted and excellently written meditation on grief, loss and the power of new beginnings in this striking novel about two wretched characters trying to make themselves whole.

Possible Pairings: The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson, Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake, Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley, The Devil You Know by Trish Doller, Stealing Henry by Carolyn MacCullough, Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson, Fracture by Megan Miranda, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins, Even in Paradise by Chelsey Philpot, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell, Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the September 2014 issue of School Library Journal from which it can be seen in various sites online*