The Unforgettables – By G.L. Tomas

The Unforgettables Rating:

Synopsis2Back home in Chicago, Paul Hiroshima had it all.

Popularity, charming looks and a talent for the arts that made him admired by his peers. Moving to Portland, Maine the summer before his senior year was going to change all that. With his city life behind him, there was definitely no reason to make the best out of a bad situation—that is, until he meets the amazing Felicia Abelard.

Over a love of comic books and secret identities, Felicia becomes the sidekick to his hero; there’s just one problem: they weren’t supposed to fall in love.

As the season comes to an end, Paul and Felicia face in-depth challenges to preserve their summer formed bond. With the brink of the new school year at hand, this tale of best friends and first loves will make their year unforgettable.

My reviewI had a feeling I would end up loving the book right from the moment Felicia’s Haitian-American Christian meat-loving family would invite their new neighbors – Paul’s vegan Buddhist family. This set the tone for a wonderfully inclusive story, where differences are not just accepted and celebrated, but respected. It isn’t just blind, ignorant acceptance. The characters try to understand those differences, sometimes by directly asking, more out of blunt curiosity than courtesy. So when Felicia’s mom directly asks Paul’s Welsh mom (and not his Japanese dad) about “how” she ended up following Buddhism, it makes for a really good scene.

This is pretty much the spirit with which the entire book is written, where people with different faiths and “atypical” families and people with “niche hobbies” go about with their heads held high. Of course, it isn’t always easy, as we see with Felicia who dreads school because of all the passive-aggressive bullying. Or Paul, who is nervous about his final school year in a new town, worried about being coerced into taking more “traditional” and practical courses by his mom for his college, instead of allowing him to go into art school. I honestly loved the tug-of-war between Paul and his mom, both of whom are dyslexic and have different ideas about what “limiting yourself” means. By the end of the book, you are left with no doubt that Paul wants to go into art school because that is one of his primary passions and not because his dyslexia limits him from doing something else.

Can’t “understand” why someone is “different” from you? Well, honestly, sometimes kindness and basic decency goes a long way in making someone feel better. Felicia, being a social “nobody” in school, makes an impact in a little girl’s mind just by being patient, friendly and soft-spoken.
What if differences are something you can’t immediately “accept” though you understand it on some subconscious level? Well, you consciously challenge those phobias. It is a slow process, as Felicia knows, seeing her mother struggling with and facing her bi-phobia.

One of the main strengths of this book is the well fleshed-out family dynamics of both Paul and Felicia. We have involved parents and annoying siblings. We have parenting conflicts and sibling conflicts. Absent parents in YA has become such a cliche that coming across families like this always feels good to witness. So does watching responsible teens with a good head on their shoulders. Despite everything going on, both with each other and dealing with their own issues in school or at home with their parents, Paul and Felicia are never making vindictive, self-destructive decisions. Felicia never lets all the drama in school get in the way of her focus on what really matters – studies. Paul, despite not always understanding what is happening with his on-off friendship/romance with Felicia, doesn’t treat sex with someone else as a frivolous rebound decision.

The story of Paul and Felicia works because both of them grow in the relationship. Because Felicia comes to terms with her own insecurities – of being awkward and “hard to like” in comparison to Paul’s easy-going and people-pleasing nature. And Paul comes to terms with the fact that, with some people, it is harder to get them to open up – to talk about their fears and apprehensiveness. I found Paul’s frustrations with Felicia very real and to be honest, I felt that in the last 1/3rd of the book, Paul’s PoV was written better than Felicia’s. I think the problem was that the story focused more on Felicia’s fears of how her parents would react to her dating. But instead of all the “telling” through Felicia, I just wish there was more of “showing” wrt. her parents being that rigid. There was a bit, but just not that effective to convince me. Instead, I would have personally liked it if Felicia’s inner conflict centered more on the fact that she and Paul were such different people.
Because, I personally felt that after a certain point in the book, that was the main conflict. The authors actually did a really good job showing this – as long as Paul and Felicia were just the two of them together during the summer vacations, they were doing just fine with their comic-book geek-ing and the cosplay. But once they were thrust into the “societal environment” of the school, they had a harder time realigning their “social selves” with their deeply personal relationship.

Read this book if you are looking for a well-written YA love story (but this book is a lot more than just that)

[Mini Reviews] The Vegetarian by Han Kang & Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

The Vegetarian Rating:

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This was pretty unsettling to read. Hard to really summarize the essence of what this was about. On the surface it was about a woman with severe mental health issues, but dig deeper (well, more like scratch the surface a bit..) and it is about renunciation – of societal expectations to get in touch with your most primitive reflections. This story is told in three POVs and interestingly, none of them is Yeong-hye’s. The story progresses with her turning vegetarian to finally giving up on food altogether because of certain recurring dreams and her finally interpreting what they really meant. We get glimpses into Yeong-hye and her sister In-hye’s childhood as they grew up in a patriarchal family system with an abusive father. In-hye later muses whether that was one reason for her sister’s current state. As her “dream” triggers her “madness”, we see the men in Yeong-hye’s life unable to understand her decision to go vegetarian. Instead, they literally try to force-feed her in one scene. Throughout the book, Yeong-hye keeps retreating further away from everyone else and well.. into herself as she resists everyone else’s attempt to tell her what to do to her own body.

I considered quitting this book mid-way quite a few times because I couldn’t connect to a lot of devices used in this story, be it the characters chosen for the three POVs, the three-part narration itself which felt disjointed or the depiction of vegetarianism. I mean, I understand that this book wasn’t really about “vegetarianism” as such, but since so much of the book was about her giving up meat, I really can’t look past it. I didn’t get the people’s reactions around her, and I am not talking about husband and father (both were A-Grade MCPs who were upset for reasons that had nothing to do with her well-being) but I couldn’t understand why the general reaction was one of shock and distaste rather than being supportive or well, checking out more healthy, wholesome vegetarian food options. There were also some other things about the book that I didn’t understand – like the triggering circumstances that caused Yeong-hye’s psychiatric condition. It felt like some sort of half-baked attempt by giving her the background of childhood abuse (like some sort of afterthought, because hey, I need to give a reason, so let me throw in some random reminiscences of childhood). Another aspect of this book that I found irritating is that it isn’t just Yeong-hye plagued by dreams; we also have two of the three narrators getting abstract, creepy dreams and being tortured by it as they are trying to decipher it. Honestly, it was overkill, and well, just way too many people for a less-than-180 pages book that I, as a reader am trying to make some sense of.

This is just one of those books that I can’t rave about, but I am glad I read it, and would definitely not shy away from recommending.

Holding Up the UniverseRating:

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Synopsis2Everyone thinks they know Libby Strout, the girl once dubbed “America’s Fattest Teen.” But no one’s taken the time to look past her weight to get to know who she really is. Following her mom’s death, she’s been picking up the pieces in the privacy of her home, dealing with her heartbroken father and her own grief. Now, Libby’s ready: for high school, for new friends, for love, and for every possibility life has to offer. In that moment, I know the part I want to play here at MVB High. I want to be the girl who can do anything. 

Everyone thinks they know Jack Masselin, too. Yes, he’s got swagger, but he’s also mastered the impossible art of giving people what they want, of fitting in. What no one knows is that Jack has a newly acquired secret: he can’t recognize faces. Even his own brothers are strangers to him. He’s the guy who can re-engineer and rebuild anything, but he can’t understand what’s going on with the inner workings of his brain. So he tells himself to play it cool: Be charming. Be hilarious. Don’t get too close to anyone.

Until he meets Libby. When the two get tangled up in a cruel high school game—which lands them in group counseling and community service—Libby and Jack are both pissed, and then surprised. Because the more time they spend together, the less alone they feel.

Because sometimes when you meet someone, it changes the world, theirs and yours.

My reviewI was a bit skeptical after reading the synopsis and wondered whether this will be one of those stories about an overweight girl transforming herself into a svelte figure by the end of the book and shocking everyone. Then there is also this male protagonist who suffers from face-blindness (known as Prosopagnosia) . But body-image and self-esteem issues are addressed so well in this book that the love story stands on its own rather than not having any relevance beyond Jack’s neurological disorder and Libby’s struggle with weight.

I think what worked for this book is that by the time we meet Libby, she has already gone through some of the darkest phases in her life. We meet her when she is re-entering the “mainstream” life (high-school after months of isolation and counseling. So, when Libby makes friends, meets Jack, faces bullies, you know it is all on her own terms.

So, what about Jack? Well, he has had a different kind of struggle. While Libby’s lowest phase was telecast across electronic media and her struggle with weight is under glaring spotlight of bullies, Jack has somehow managed to hide his condition from everyone (so that people don’t make his life further difficult in school) until an incident forces him to reveal his secret to Libby. What follows after that is definitely one of the cutest YA love stories I have read so far.

There were few things I found a bit unreal – like the fact that Jack could hide his condition from everyone and that no one, not even his parents noticed anything amiss. This felt like one of those classic “clueless YA parents” tropes. I also felt some of the quotes, though mushy and cute, felt unrealistic when thought by or mouthed as dialogues by teenage narrators (especially some super-cheesy lines.. I couldn’t really imagine anyone talking like that)

I also thought the book had a pretty abrupt and quiet ending? I mean, it felt like the book started with a bang and ending with a whimper because the author didn’t know how else to finish it.

I really liked the book though and some of Libby and Jack’s inner monologues were pure gold. I think my 2017 TBR will now comprise of Niven’s previous works.

The Boy Who Killed Grant Parker – By Kat Spears

Rating:

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*Note: I won this book through Goodreads giveaway program*

Synopsis:

Luke Grayson’s life might as well be over when he’s forced to go live in rural Tennessee with his Baptist pastor father. His reputation as a troublemaker has followed him there, and as an outsider, Luke is automatically under suspicion by everyone from the principal at his new school to the local police chief. His social life is no better. The new kid in town is an easy target for Grant Parker, the local golden boy with a violent streak who has the entire community of Ashland under his thumb.

But things go topsy-turvy when a freak accident removes Grant from the top of the social pyramid, replacing him with Luke. This fish out of water has suddenly gone from social outcast to hero in a matter of twenty-four hours. For the students who have lived in fear of Grant all their lives, this is a welcome change. But Luke’s new found fame comes with a price. Nobody knows the truth about what really happened to Grant Parker except for Luke, and the longer he keeps living the lie, the more like Grant Parker he becomes.

My Review: (contains mild spoilers)

Being bullied is hard. Standing up to bullies is harder. But what about suddenly being in the same position of power as the bully? How does one wield that? As Luke finds out, that’s probably the hardest for him.

I am so conflicted about my ratings (kept toggling between 3 and 3.5). I loved the whole idea behind this book – being on both sides of bullying and how one can get weak when it comes to making the hard choices when everything is suddenly going hunky-dory for you. I rarely read books from the POV of a male teenager. So, this was something different and a change from reading about all the high school pressures faced by teenage girls.

Kat Spears does a very good job of showing it from a guy’s perspective. I really empathized with Luke’s situation – a city kid used to the anonymity provided by Washington – as he ends up in a small town where he sticks out and is soon known to everyone. Right from his flashy T-Shirts and lack of interest in hunting; to his agnostic beliefs, he just feels at odds with everything and everyone in Ashland. The only people who sort of seem to get him are Delilah, one of his classmates and the local police chief’s daughter and Roger – a garage owner who offers Luke a part-time job.  The isolation, embarrassment and dreading over facing school every morning, and then avoiding people and situations amidst all of this – all those feelings were just so spot-on.

The first half of the book is really good and I totally got and understood everything Luke was going through. But, it was after the “freak accident” that I just began to feel disconnected with him.  Luke’s account went from feeling personal to ..well.. me feeling like an outside spectator to the entire in-his-head ordeal. Sure, he is still saying things like him feeling bad about his former friends being bullied and him not doing anything about it or, him feeling uneasy about alienating Delilah and Roger – but it just didn’t feel forceful or honest enough. While I loved that Spears made him a sort of anti-hero and not-so-perfect or likeable teenage protagonist, I just couldn’t understand what I should make of his “introspection” later on. It felt more like a matter of convenience for him – as if he changed only because he wanted people like Delilah and others not to be angry with him anymore; and because the other “cool kids” just bored the hell out of him. Oh, there was also this slight issue of Grant Parker’s former girlfriend (and his current girlfriend) nagging him daily to change him and turn him into some kind of suave social butterfly. So, it basically felt like Luke changed back to his previous self only because he realized it is too hard to don the mantle of Grant Parker’s social self – and not because Luke felt like repenting.

I also felt there were too many secondary characters and none of them made any kind of lasting impression. Those who could have – such as Delilah and Roger – were given sort-of background facts about their earlier life; so I just felt they were given a raw deal when they were ignored in later part of the book. People closer to home – such as Luke’s dad and step-mom were written as weird caricatures of religious people.

This book was a pretty fast and easy read. I liked the theme of the book and Spears’ approach of keeping a lot of the storytelling simple. But, I just felt this “simplicity” ended up being more of a weakness in the later part of the book.

A Monster Calls – By Patrick Ness, Jim Kay (Illustrator), Siobhan Dowd(Conception)

Rating:

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Synopsis:

The monster showed up after midnight. As they do.

But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…

This monster is something different, though. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.

It wants the truth.

My Review:

This will probably be more of a gush-fest than a coherent review, because I think I would never be able to justifiably express just how wonderful this book is.  I went into this book with a vague idea of the cover synopsis, and gosh, I didn’t expect a less-than-200-pages book to pack in so much, and to feel so COMPLETE and fulfilling by the time I flip the last page. Patrick Ness is a fabbbb writer, with a gift to elevate a simple story with terrific storytelling and to convey deceptively plain truths in a way that just creeps upon you while reading and before you know it, it is in your face, and you feel like it is something you have always known but didn’t want to see.

In today’s times when there is a lot of forced effort to use the tried-and-tested plot devices and narrative styles for the nth time just to make the writing look “smart” (series of letters, diary entries and “To-do-list”  in YA fiction, past/present alternating chapters in psych thrillers…) – even when it is not really needed or doesn’t add anything – Ness uses metaphors through tales, monsters of the mind and illustrations to build a novel that shows you just how difficult and complicated the process of dealing with grief can be. And he does it in a way that never feels manipulative or dishonest.

In the past year or so, Conor has had to grow up and wizen up beyond his thirteen years of age. Or at least he tries to, so that he can ease some of his mom’s burden at home. As it is just the two of them and his mom has been physically weakened due to the long and exhausting cancer treatments. At school he is fed up with everyone seeing him as the kid-with-the-cancer-mom – his classmates keeping a distance from him and the teachers tip-toeing around him and treating him with kid gloves. The only people who want to talk to him? – His ex-best friend Lily, but he is giving her the silent treatment because he blames her for his situation at school. And oh, there is the school bully Harry, who is only interesting in punching Conor, tripping him over and hurting him. Strangely though, Conor never backs down or defend him. He, in fact, welcomes it – being pummeled. But why? Just what is it that he blames himself for? Is it related to the nightmare that has plagued him every night for the past year? What is the horrifying truth that he doesn’t want to confront or talk about to anyone?

Well, one day that nightmare is succeeded by a new one, one with a tree-monster (a yew tree to be more specific and the monster that the book derives its title from).  With him, he brings the promise of narrating three stories and after that; it would be Conor’s turn to narrate a fourth one – His story. The truth … about the nightmare.

Stories are wild creatures, the monster said. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?” 

There were so many great moments in this book and what made them stand out is that you don’t really expect it to turn out the way it does. Conor has never liked his grandma and I guess one of the reasons he dislikes her even further after every visit, is because she is a ominous reminder that his mom is getting weaker, and no matter how bravely he tries to go about his everyday life, he is a kid and after a point he can’t really take care of the household, himself and his mom on his own. So Conor hates it when his grandma visits them and tries to have THE TALK with him about his future. There is a point in the story where Conor does something destructive (in more ways than literal) and just when you think and anticipate that his grandma has had enough, she reacts in a way that leaves a lump in your throat.

Then there is Conor’s time spent in school – he hates being “not seen” by his classmates, he hates the “special privileges” being given to him by his teachers.  Lily is the only one who among his friends who tries to reach out to him and not take his spurning to heart. Because as her mom says, they need to make “allowances” because of what he is going through.  I loved Lily, for being decent and wise and…. just when I was thinking “Oh no, she has given up on him..” , she surprised me again ❤ ❤ ❤

Ness doesn’t approach anything in a typical way that we are used to seeing. Heck, even Harry, the bully, proves to be more than a usual schoolyard, “all-brawn” idiot, when he figures out how to hit Conor in a way that affects him the hardest. The most refreshing thing about Ness’s approach is that he knows when to leave or cut short dramatic scenes instead of milking it. The impact it leaves on you lingers on long after you have read that page or chapter. And oh, how do I even begin gushing about how awesome the illustrations are? And each of the monster’s stories? Each of them is brilliant and ends with Conor fuming over the moral ambiguities of their conclusions. It plays into and complements Conor’s dilemma and confusions so well – over his nightmare when he is asleep and the nightmare of his mom’s deteriorating health when he is awake.

So is this book a fairytale? Psychological drama? Horror? Middle-grade fiction? I don’t know and it doesn’t matter.  It covers themes everyone can relate to; themes that are heavy but handled with a lot of compassion by a brilliant author.  GO.READ.IT

A Fatal Family Secret (The Morphosis.me Files, #1)

Rating:

Author : Samantha Marks
Publication date : May 26th 2015
Genres : Fantasy, Young Adult

Note : I received an e-copy of this book from xpressobooktours in exchange for an honest review.

Synopsis (From Goodreads):
If you could change anything about yourself, what would it be?

On the first day of high school, Kayleigh wishes she could be taller, curvier, and cooler. But when she discovers she’s a shape-shifter, she bites off more than she can chew. Overnight, she becomes a target, and surviving the school-year means defending herself against cyber-bullies, learning to control her new-found powers, and hiding from the ancient secret society that kidnapped her mother. Morphing has consequences, and Kayleigh begins to realize that being able to change into anything can mean losing herself in the process.

My Review:

I am not sure how to start my review, because this book is like a really cool goodie bag with a lot of cute stuff. Aaaahhh…. Well, I guess I can begin by mentioning what drew me to pick this book – It’s super adorable book cover. And the cute factor doesn’t stop there.. There is something so cute (Yes, yes, I know I have overused the word) and quaint about the entire story; the world, people and setup. Irish folklore, characters with diverse backgrounds, fairy tales, mysterious antique jewellery, secret notes and lot more. There is such a picturesque, and an almost Disney-like magical feel to the entire narration. I think part of it is because of the main “superpower capabilities” featuring in this book: morphing. It looks like it is unrestrained with near-limitless possibilities – people can change into pretty much anything (and anyone) tangible. So it is a lot of fun reading about ..say.. someone changing from an old man, into a crane and then a panda all in the span of a few minutes.

The story is paced pretty well, covering an entire term at high school, and I never felt lost with respect to where we are in terms of the passing of time from the first page, because we are taken through the descriptions of seasons changing from winter to spring and the festivities of Halloween, Christmas and Valentine’s day. This school year is particularly tumultuous for Kayleigh – it has been two years since her mom went missing, and she feels like she needs her now more than ever, what with her facing bullying at school, going through puberty, and suffering from a really low self-esteem because of which she is not able to stand up for herself or be confident around the guy she has a crush on. To be honest, I wasn’t totally convinced about the whole bullying theme in the book, maybe because I couldn’t really understand why she got cowed down so quickly. Because from what I saw, it was Kayleigh who had a larger circle of friends than the “mean girl” who just had two girls tagging along with her. As I read along, I think I slowly got where Kayleigh’s anxieties and fragility stemmed from. There was a point in the book where she breaks down because all the events of the past couple of years – beginning with her mom’s disappearance, to recent strange discoveries about her mom’s past, cyber bullying, the typical high school stress related to grades, friends and dating, physical changes to her body due to puberty and morphing – take a toll on her.

My favorite moment in the book is a conversation between Kayleigh and her friend. I can’t discuss it much because it is a major spoiler, but I will say that it was a mix of sad, profound and ironical. I just found it so fitting and “right” that the “limitations” of morphing was addressed so succinctly. You need to identify and get comfortable with your core self before trying to perfect morphing. And sometimes the cards life deals you feels so unfair, and no amount of morphing can completely heal or change that.

The book is strewn with some red herrings, so I had fun guessing. I got a few right, and was totally off the mark with some others. I thought this was a really good start to the series with so many things left to discover in the next book. The only thing I am a bit sceptical about is how the whole “international secret evil organization” is going to play out. There are times I feel the whole scope and premise of that track is so… vast, that I wonder whether the rest of the story will be able to gracefully handle the weight of it. So I am curious to see how that turns out.

The book is now available to download for free from kindle store, and I would definitely recommend that you check this one out!

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