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.

Find it on Bookshop.

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, As You Wish by Chelsea Sedoti, Bookish Boyfriends: A Date With Darcy by Tiffany Schmidt, Summer of Sloane by Erin L. Schneider, My So-Called Bollywood Life by Nisha Sharma, 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

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.

Find it on Bookshop.

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

The Silver Linings Playbook: A (book and movie) Review

The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew QuickPat believes in happy endings. Even in the slightly messed up movie of his own life. When he can finally leave the bad place, Pat is sure that Apart Time with his beautiful wife is about to end. The movie has gone on long enough. It’s time for his happy ending.

To prove that Pat deserves his happy ending, he is doing all of the right things. He is trying to be kind instead of right. He is working out to get in better shape. He is reading literature so he and his wife will have things to talk about. He is even taking his meds (mostly).

But while Pat is desperate for Apart Time to end, distractions keep getting in the way. First he meets Tiffany–who is crazy. Crazier that Pat by a lot. Who insists on being his friend. Then he somehow becomes a part of his family’s complex game day rituals to cheer on the Eagles every Sunday.

Then things get really weird. Kenny G–the man Pat fears above all others–keeps turning up at inopportune moments. He is somehow part of a dance recital. And the Eagles might not make it to the playoffs at all.

Pat believes in happy endings. He knows he deserves his happy ending. What Pat doesn’t know is what to do when the happy ending he hoped for is the exact opposite of the one he might get in The Silver Linings Playbook (2008) by Matthew Quick.

If Matthew Quick is a rockstar writer, this book is his gold record complete with a cover (in the form of a movie adaptation).

I saw the movie for my birthday earlier this year and I really loved it. After seeing One Day in theaters and watching a character get hit by a bus, I had been weary of “grown up” movies (and books for that matter) but after some research I determined there weren’t any freak accidents in this story so I was good to go. Already being a fan of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, I was ready to be impressed by the movie. And I was. Everything worked and everything came together to make a charming and engaging story.

Much later (because of the huge library hold queue) I was able to pick up a copy of the book that inspired the movie.

There are quite a few differences. The plot was tightened up and stretched for the movie to make it more cinematic (and plot-driven since we can’t just listen to Pat talk for two hours on-screen). The changes made sense and, above all, they worked for the new medium. The result was a book that was still gripping and incredibly well-written but a movie that was a bit more whimsical.

While the film touches the surface of Pat and Tiffany’s problems, the book shows that these characters are really broken. There are missing pieces, and parts that don’t fit, and they’re just trying to hold it all together one day at a time. That messiness isn’t as prevalent in the movie.

The main reason I enjoyed this book is its optimism. Pat’s a mess. Tiffany is a disaster. But they’re trying. They might even be learning. Along the way Pat has several pitfalls but he also makes friends and finally makes it to his own happy ending in a way that feels natural while still leaving room for the sense of wonder that Pat manages to find in even the smallest of silver linings.

Pirates at the Plate: A Picture Book Review

Baseball games can get heated at the best of times. But when pirates and cowboys face off anything can happen. With famous figures like Long John Silver at bat while Wild Bill Hickok pitches under the direction of coach Bat Masterson, this game is sure to be one for the ages.

The bases are loaded and relations between the teams are getting heated when the game reaches an unexpected conclusion in Pirates at the Plate (2012) by Aaron Frisch and Mark Summers.

With only thirty-two pages, it’s sometimes difficult for picture books to have any real twists or surprises–unexpected outcomes that are a shock even to older readers.Frisch and Summers have created one such book in Pirates at the Plate.

With eye-catching illustrations that look like retro television footage complete with lines through the images, Summers’ artwork bring this epic baseball battle vividly to life. Frisch’s text leaves plenty of room for wordplay as the Cowboy bullpen is filled with bulls and a Pirate steals a base only to literally steal it in his loot sack.

When the game goes in an expected direction courtesy of one very imaginative boy, the story is nicely tied up–at least until the next day’s game. Pirates at the Plate is truly clever and sure to garner a few laughs. However, it is also filled with baseball terminology that may not translate well for non-sports fans making this a must-read for baseball fans but a harder sell for readers who are in it for the cowboys (or the pirates).

Possible Pairings: Half-Pint Pete the Pirate by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen and Geraldo Valerio, Shark Vs. Train by Chris Barton and Tom Lichtenheld, Swamp Angel by Anne Isaacs and Paul O. Zelinsky, Creepy Carrots by Aaron Reynolds and Peter Brown, How I Became a Pirate by David Shannon, Casey at the Bat by Ernest L. Thayer and Christopher Bing, Bad Day at River Bend by Christopher Van Allsburg