Frenemies, besties, and pals

31145178Real Friends, by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham (2017)

Opening line: “When I was little, I didn’t worry about friends.”

Guess what, guys? I found another one to hand to those students who have Raina Telgemeier’s books on constant rotation! A couple years ago I added El Deafo, last year I added Roller Girl, and now we have Real Friends!

This graphic memoir tells the story of Shannon Hale’s elementary years and her difficulty establishing valuable friendships. From the popular girl who is the leader of “The Group” to the girl she meets when crying in the bushes, young Shannon navigates the tricky waters of figuring out what makes a good friend and how to be a good friend. Through a lot of bumps and emotional bruises, Shannon learns that real friends help you to become the best version of yourself. Super relateable and helpful for those younger middle graders battling the same struggles.

2 stars

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Sibling rivalry with a twist

Vanishing Girls, by Lauren Oliver (2015)

Opening line: “The funny thing about almost-dying is that afterward everyone expects you to jump on the happy train and take time to chase the butterflies through grassy fields or see rainbows in puddles of oil on the highway.”

Like many sisters who are close in age, Nick and Dara are totally different yet totally inseparable. Nick, the older more level-headed one, is often in the role of keeper of her slightly younger wild-child sis. That is, until the terrible car accident that changed everything. The accident left Dara with awful scars and a rift between the girls. Things were also weird leading up to the accident, though, after Dara started kissing Parker, Nick’s best friend.

It’s summer and Nick has recently returned home after time away after the accident and learns of a recent missing child, Madeline Snow, who disappeared out of the family car. When Dara doesn’t show up to her family birthday dinner, Nick initially thinks she’s just messing around. But then signs seem to point toward connections between Madeline’s disappearance and Dara’s. And despite their recent estrangement, she will do whatever she has to to track her down.

I have to say, I’ve listened to almost all of Lauren Oliver’s novels on audio with the delightful narrator of Sarah Drew (April Kepner of Grey’s, or if you’re more inclined, Hannah Rogers of Everwood), but this one has a whole cast of narrators (none of which include Sarah), and for some reason that threw me. I struggled to get in to this one, partly because of that, partly because the different formats used to tell the story (regular narrative, internet comments, diary entries, emails, chronology jumps) are difficult to translate to audio. I might have picked up on the twist at the end more quickly had I read it in print, but instead wrote it off as confusion. Because there IS a big twist at the end, one that made me wish I had the book to go back and look through for clues. Reviewers have compared it to We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (which I thoroughly enjoyed) for this reason.

Not my favorite Oliver novel, but not bad. 1.5 stars.

Another South Carolinian Debutante

Girls in Trucks, by Katie Crouch (2008)

Opening Line: “If you are white, are a girl or boy between the ages of nine and twelve, and, according to a certain committee of mothers, are good enough to associate with Charleston’s other good girls and boys, than Wednesday night is a busy night for you.”

For some reason, the opening line to Katie Crouch’s debut novel reminds me of the opening line to Pride and Prejudice. They’re really not that similar, but the impression is somewhat complementary: If you grow up in this society, you will be paired with someone and you will like it. Pairing up is not an option, but a necessity. And that is what seems to plague poor Sarah Walters throughout her life (and the life of this novel).

Born in Charleston, South Carolina in what feels like the late 70s/early 80s, Sarah is a hesitant debutante at best. Part of the Charleston Camellias, a prestigious society of ladies, she is expected to become a good Southern woman, following the path laid out for her by generations of previous Camellias. Instead, Sarah follows in the path of her older sister Eloise, and jets up north for college to get away from it all. While this seems like a whole new wonderful world to Sarah, reality sets in, and she finds that a self-directed path is not as easy as she hoped. And despite her desire to get away from the debutante matchmaking, her failed relationships and search for the perfect man dominate her life anyway. It isn’t until a family tragedy brings Sarah home that she begins to see that maybe a life in the South wouldn’t be so terrible after all.

I was drawn to this book by the gorgeous cover, and as a brand new South Carolinian. It wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for, and was unnecessarily complicated by strange shifts in point of view/voice. However, Crouch does give us snippets of unexpected humor sprinkled where they are needed to keep us from spiraling into Sarah’s despair, which helped keep me turning the pages.

1.5 stars

Can I get a cover redesign, please?

Ashes of Roses, by Mary Jane Auch (2002)

This book is in serious need of a booktalk. I mean, look at it. That cover is atrocious. I feel like her porcelain eyes are burning into my soul. What middle schooler is going to pick up this book? NOT A ONE. Which is unfortunate, because I think they might really like it.

Margaret “Rose” Nolan is sixteen and is aboard a ship with her entire family, coming to America. When her baby brother is designated as having a troubling eye condition at Ellis Island, for which they deny entry into the country, the family must split up, sending Da Nolan (Da, being the Irish version of “Dad”) and Baby Nolan back to the home country, while the four Nolan women carry on. Soon, however, Ma Nolan can’t take the separation from her husband and baby and carts the girls back to the shipyard. But Rose knows what awaits her back in Ireland: an early loveless marriage and instant motherhood. And this is not a life she wants.

So as the family is preparing to climb back aboard a ship headed for home, Rose puts her foot down and insists on staying in America on her own. Soon, her 12-year-old sister Maureen insists, too, and in desperation, their mother agrees to leave them. But as soon as their mother and youngest sister leave the harbor, Rose and Maureen are stuck with a troubling question: Now what? The rest of the story follows the two sisters as they make their way on their own in bustling New York City in 1911. And for those of you who know your NYC history, you won’t be surprised to learn that the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire plays a harrowing role in the climax of this exciting coming-of-age novel.

Luckily, I get to booktalk this book during my upcoming middle school student teaching placement for a group of eighth graders who get extra credit for reading anything related to American history, so it may just be saved from an early death by non-circulation. At least in one library.

A little slow, until the last 50 pages that is: 1.5 stars

Trying too hard in Mississippi

Glory Be, by Augusta Scattergood (2012)

I somehow read two middle grade books about Southern race relations right in a row, which may be why this one won’t get as good of a review.

It’s the summer of 1964, and Glory is anxiously awaiting awaiting her 12th birthday, which she plans to spend as she does every year: at a pool party with her family and friends. But this summer is different from summers past, because there are some new folks in town who are making certain people very nervous. The Freedom Fighters, as the new folks are called, are making a stand for racial equality and integration, and those who disagree with their views become defensive. Before Glory fully realizes what is happening, the town council has closed the pool in an effort to keep it from becoming integrated. And the changes keep going from there.

I have to tell you, this book didn’t do it for me. There were some good parts, but mostly, I felt like it was just trying too hard. Glory is too earnest, writing a powerful letter to the editor of the town paper about her disgust about racial segregation, when really her motivation seems almost entirely directed toward getting the pool reopened for her birthday party. Sometimes Scattergood writes her characters’ dialogue with elements of Southern speech, sometimes she doesn’t. Glory’s father is almost non-existent except for when he all of a sudden stands up for her in a moment of heartfelt pride. Glory’s friendship woes don’t seemreal. None of it did, to be honest.

Which is why I was surprised when I read the author’s note at the end, in which she explains that large parts of  the novel she pulled from her own personal history growing up in Mississippi. I’m wondering if this was the book’s downfall. Maybe  Scattergood had these memorable experiences of her childhood that she felt would make a good story and she just tried too hard to get all the parts to fit, rather than allowing the story (and its characters) to become its own.

One perk: since Scattergood herself is a former children’s librarian, the public library plays a pivotal role in the novel and the librarian is the only one who truly sticks to her guns in terms of what is right. Obviously, I’m a fan of this.

Fine, but not fully convincing: 1 star

Gracias, Garcias.

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, by Julia Alvarez (1992)

I have two copies of this book. Both were bought for probably 50 cents at a used book sale, years apart after I forgot I bought the first one. And for years, they both sat on my shelf. For some reason, a couple weeks ago, I picked one of them up again when I accidentally left my current read at work. And I’m so glad I did.

This novel was right up my alley as far as characterization and voice goes. Only, in this unique and beautiful story, the characterization is more of the Garcia family, rather than the individual family members–Carlos and Laura (parents), and Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofia (daughters)–as they leave their native Republica Dominicana for New York in 1960.  By the end, you really feel like you understand the family as a unit; understand, love, and and maybe even wish you were a Garcia yourself.

Alvarez makes some interesting authorial plays, the first one being with time. She splits the Garcia story into three parts, and then traces the story backwards. Part 1, for example, follows the years 1989-1972. I’m still not sure why she chose to write it this way, but I like it. Starting with the first chapter, it’s like meeting new friends and then spending the next 290 pages learning all their past stories until you become bffs.

For the most part, the novel examines the immigrant experience, focusing on one or more Garcias per chapter, sometimes in first, sometimes third person. We watch as Sandi becomes disillusioned with American goodness, as Carla gets tormented by prejudiced schoolboys, as Yolanda returns to the homeland and finds she doesn’t belong anymore now that she’s an American, and as Fifi embraces American attitudes toward sexuality and gets shunned by her father. Similarly, Carlos–a well-known and capable doctor on the island–suffers humiliation when he’s not able to provide for his family in the States–and Laura–daughter of a prominent and influential family–loses herself and her purpose as a new American housewife. They grow, adjust, learn, and develop their lives and identities as Dominican Americans.

Sounds like a downer, huh? Perhaps that’s because I forgot to mention how funny and sweet it is at the same time. And it is just that. With humor and truth, Alvarez paints a unique picture of a typical immigrant family.

2.5 stars. Charming and so different than anything I’ve read before.

A connection deeper than most

The Girls, by Lori Lansens (2005)

I have never looked into my sister’s eyes. I have never bathed alone. I have never stood in the grass at night and raised my arms to a beguiling moon. I’ve never used an airplane bathroom. Or worn a hat. Or been kissed like that. I’ve never driven a car. Or slept through the night. Never a private talk. Or solo walk. I’ve never climbed a tree. Or faded into a crowd. So many things I’ve never done, but oh, how I’ve been loved.

And so begins the fictional autobiography of Rose and Ruby Darlen, the oldest living pair of conjoined craniopagus twins. For those of you who don’t obsessively watch late night TLC or haven’t flipped the pages of your medical dictionary in a while, that means they were born joined at the head. Two bodies, two brains, two very different personalities, but one fused skull. At age 29, Rose decides to start writing her autobiography, which her sister Ruby says isn’t fair, since Rose’s life story is essentially Ruby’s as well. Thus, the girls alternate chapters, a technique that paints a delightfully interesting picture of the differences in life experience despite their closeness.

The sisters have very different writing styles (an authorial skill I so deeply admire and is reminiscent of The Poisonwood Bible), with Rose often writing her portions as a storyteller, including historical background, emotional connections, and layered parallels, and Ruby writing as she would speak, telling her day-to-day accounts and responding to much of what she assumes Rose is writing. Both include much about their adoptive parents, Aunt Lovey and Uncle Stash, with whom although they share no blood ties, shared a deep affection.

Never self-pitying and continually surprising, this fresh story of two girls in a life that most of us have never even considered won my heart almost immediately.

2.5 stars