Book review: ‘The Heart Is Not a Size’ by Beth Kephart

The Heart Is Not a SizeBest friends Georgia and Riley don’t keep much from one another — but each is bearing a tart fruit of secrecy in different ways. When an opportunity to visit Mexico as part of a group community project comes up, Georgia longs to get away from her stagnant present before college . . . but is afraid to go alone. She convinces Riley to sign up, too — and their secrets can’t help but emerge in the baking-hot sun of Anapra.

Beth Kephart’s The Heart Is Not a Size is a story of friendship, trust and acceptance. With Kephart’s trademark lyrical language and descriptions that feel like a pierce through the heart, her young adult novel struck a chord with me — and likely will with anyone who has had a best friend.

Georgia is the sort of talented girl wracked by self doubt we all remember from our teen years — or were ourselves. I definitely relate to her body-image issues and uncomfortableness in her own skin, especially compared to Riley’s so-thin-she’s-disappearing presence. The novel is about Riley’s on-the-surface eating disorder, yes, but it’s so much more than that. It’s about self-esteem and longing and desperately wanting to belong, but not knowing how to start.

It’s Georgia falling to pieces without anyone to bolster her up, and learning to save herself . . . and also about Riley still being Riley, impossible and beautiful, and her longing to spread beauty to others when she cannot see it in herself. I wanted to smack Riley’s mother for the number she’s done on her daughter, and these self-confidence issues made me really think about how I will want to speak with and to a future daughter/child someday. My heart ached for them both, especially as Georgia struggled with anxiety and doubt. Who hasn’t?

The Heart Is Not a Size is a quick, atmospheric read that dropped me in the middle of the cracking villages of Anapra and broke my heart for its inhabitants. Kephart herself visited the village, as she notes at the end of the book, and her imagery is amazing. From the dolls abandoned atop crumbling roofs to the eager, hopeful faces of children to the wolfish dog who stalks their lodging, it was so descriptive and engulfing. For a few days, I was truly a part of their expedition.

Though I wished at times to have bonded more with Riley outside of Georgia’s lens, I think the dependency of their friendship — and how they learn to separate, just a bit — is important. I couldn’t help picturing Riley as the sort of Head Cheerleader Princess-type that tortured peons in school, but I know isn’t right. I just felt like I got to know Georgia much better than her best friend, though I guess that’s to be expected. Georgia is our narrator, after all.

Fans of young adult fiction, socially-conscious novels and lyrical writing will find much to love in Kephart’s story of acceptance and forgiveness. It was a beautifully-written work I will remember.

4 out of 5!

Pub: 2010 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Book review: ‘Glow’ by Amy Kathleen Ryan

For Waverly Marshall and hundreds of other children and teens, life aboard the space vessel Empyrean is their entire world. Their days are spent assisting their parents with agriculture and attending school, learning about Earth and what life was like upon that mysterious planet of their parents’ birth. Fresh from a proposal from her boyfriend and captain-in-training, Kieran Alden, Waverly feels mostly content.

A few decades removed from the devastating events that made life on their home planet impossible, the Empyrean and a sister ship are bound for New Earth — a distant planet destined to be settled by the “chosen” aboard the Empyrean and New Horizon, a sister ship. While the Empyrean is a secular vessel, the New Horizon is a religious ship filled with those who believe God is giving them a chance to originate new life. Believing they are doing His will, the residents of the New Horizon are optimistic about spreading God’s love to an entirely new generation.

On their journey to New Earth, the ships have rarely made contact — until the day the New Horizon sidles alongside the Empyrean, disrupting everything about life as Waverly once knew it. A series of attacks change everything about life in deep space, and Waverly is left to spearhead a movement to keep everyone safe and reassemble the pieces of their tattered existence. If that can ever be done again.

Amy Kathleen Ryan’s Glow is a fast-paced, energetic and stomach-plummeting ride through the galaxy that dragged me into its orbit and refused to let me go. I was finished with this book before I even looked up, gobbling the entire story before I even realized I was reaching the end.

Glow, the first in a new series, is being likened to The Hunger Games — a novel I read years ago and loved. While I don’t think Glow has the emotional punch of Suzanne Collins’ stellar series, I can definitely see the similarities in terms of pacing and plot. Ryan drops us right into the action in Glow, successfully creating an entire universe for us without any of the boring world-building I sometimes associate with dystopian novels. We’re given enough puzzle pieces to understand what’s happening here, but not so much that nothing is cloaked in mystery.

In fact, mystery shrouds everything in Glow, keeping readers antsy and on edge. We don’t know who to trust or despise, who to love or fear. The enigmatic but dangerous leader of the New Horizon, Anne Mather, is a character that is both reviled and pitied. At various points in the novel, I struggled with whether to trust or hate her — though Waverly never faced that uncertainty. Our lead is steel-spined and, like Katniss Everdeen, a young woman called upon to shoulder so much burden at such a young age. And, despite everything, she handles it well.

But Waverly lacked the dimension of Katniss — or much dimension at all. I respected her and felt for her, but I never felt like I was really inside her head. How did she really feel about Kieran, for instance? His proposal within the first few pages of the book should have been a life-altering moment, but I didn’t feel the emotional weight of the question. As Waverly became immersed in the battles waging between the Empyrean and its sister ship, I knew that she was desperate to be reunited with him . . . but felt like I had little evidence of that. It was lots of telling and not enough showing. I didn’t know if she actually loved him or just felt safe with him, especially after losing her father at a young age. But as this is just a first book, I’m imagining that will be explored in detail down the road.

My overall feelings for Glow are very positive, however. Even though I wasn’t as close to Waverly (or Kieran, or Seth) as I would have liked, I found this book impossible to put down! There are plenty of unanswered questions in Glow and opportunities for back stories to be explored, which makes me eager for a publication date — but I can’t find one. And that makes me itchy.

Fans of dystopian reads and young adult fiction will find a fascinating, quick read in Amy Kathleen Ryan’s first novel in the Sky Chasers series, and the religious overtones of the book were very thought-provoking. I won’t go off on a tangent regular the secular versus religious vessels and how eventually everyone seems to switch roles, but that’s definitely a major theme of the book. Read it and see where you fall.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0312590563 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by Amazon Vine

Book review: ‘So Much Closer’ by Susane Colasanti

Brooke Greene has always felt the rush of “knowing” — a sensation most akin to realizing the right thing to do . . . and when to do it. The summer before senior year, Brooke’s longtime crush divulges he’s moving to New York City, leaving Brooke without the luxury of keeping her feelings to herself any longer. Scott Abrams is the man she’s meant to be with . . . he just doesn’t see it — or her — yet.

Drastic times call for drastic measures. As Scott prepares to move, Brooke packs up life with her controlling mother in the New Jersey suburbs to join her estranged father, who happens to live and work in the city himself. Saying goodbye to her friends and former high school, Brooke arrives in the Big Apple with plans to convince Scott of their imminent romance — but ends up creating a whole new life.

Susane Colasanti’s latest young adult novel, So Much Closer, is built on an implausible set-up — that a 17-year-old girl would, after years of anger and not speaking to her father, pack up her world and move to a strange city for a dude. Oh, we’re told it’s not for him, of course — that it’s because Brooke, a certified genius, isn’t being challenged at school (love that old line). And that Brooke has “always” wanted to live in New York, so this just works out perfectly.

But, of course, it’s for a boy.

I didn’t dislike this one. Sitting at an airport last Thursday, I read three-fourths of the novel without taking a break. More than anything, So Much Closer is an ode to the city Colasanti herself calls home — and has dedicated her newest effort to praising. In her hands, New York City does come alive . . . right down to the skylines, hidden gardens and eclectic mix of residents. I loved that aspect of the book and found myself clinging to her descriptions of a place I find magical, too.

But aside from the city descriptions, I struggled with Brooke as a character. Many reviewers have already noted that, for someone we’re to believe is very intelligent, our narrator makes some pretty sketchy decisions — especially about school. After deciding that public education is pretty much without benefit, ramming ridiculous subjects down students’ throats and stifling creativity, Brooke decides to give up and make some sort of misguided point about “not participating” in a broken system.

Um, what?

Her best friend from Jersey, April, totally calls her out on her ridiculous behavior . . . and with the help of John, a student she begins to tutor, Brooke realizes the error of her ways. You know, that she can do more and should do more. And a “Dead Poet’s Society”-esque teacher swoops in to show that not all teachers are part of The Establishment. And so forth.

I didn’t quite get the allure of Scott, this guy who is supposedly so fantastic that he inspires Brooke to uproot her whole life for him . . . oh, and newsflash: looks like he might not even be available. The real scene-stealer here was John, the funny and erudite New Yorker who inspires Brooke to keep looking up. Whip-smart and interesting, John was definitely my type — another Marcus Flutie who grabs hold of the heartstrings.

Family issues were never fully developed. In some ways, I never emotionally connected with Brooke — or her divorced parents, characters I wish had been fleshed out beyond the background roles they occupied. But for all my  irritations here, So Much Closer was still a fast, pleasant read. Readers who enjoy young adult fiction, love stories and coming of age tales — especially those set in New York City — might enjoy Brooke’s journey from self-indulgent teen to one who peeks in at the bigger picture . . . and likes what she sees.

So Much Closer is due out May 3 from Viking.

3 out of 5!

ISBN: 0670012246 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program

Book review: ‘Walking Backward’ by Catherine Austen

Grief is a tricky, tricky thing — particularly when you have no guidelines to help you through it.

Such is the case for 12-year-old Josh, a young man whose mother has just died in a car accident. Alone for the first time with his four-year-old brother Sammy, who has taken to sleeping in Josh’s bed and talking to his mother through a Power Ranger action figure, and his dad, who is now holed up in the basement watching home movies and working on a time machine, Josh is left to mourn his mother while simultaneously grappling with the fact that everything she once did — and was — has now vanished.

Catherine Austen’s Walking Backward is a quiet novel about grief and unanswered questions and, as you’d expect, it’s not exactly an uplifting read. The novel is Josh’s journal, told entirely from his perspective, as requested from the grief counselor the family has been seeing after his mom’s passing. Encompassing just a few months in the lives of one family, Josh is entirely preoccupied with determining the “right” way to grieve — and trying to find a method that works best for he and Sam. Austen’s explorations of the many world religions and how they mourn their dead was fascinating and, to me, the best part of the story.

Much of the book is about snakes, of course — because Josh’s mom died after suffering a severe panic attack while driving. A snake was found in her car, police determined, and his mother’s snake phobia was absolutely crippling. Working through the grieving process for Josh means figuring out how and why there was a serpent in the car; he remains absolutely convinced it didn’t just slither in on its own. He has to learn how this could have happened so he can move forward. And help everyone else move forward, too.

It’s hard for me to really examine my feelings on Walking Backward . . . I can’t say I “enjoyed” it, because it’s not really the sort of novel you enjoy — and I have to admit that it was, for me, painful to get through. Austen is a very nuanced writer; I absolutely believed I was reading the diary of a 12-year-old boy. But the subject matter is so, so tough, and who really wants to think about losing their mother? (I certainly don’t. And if you have, my heart is with you. And stay away from this one.)

My heart broke for Josh, Sammy and their dad, and I wanted nothing more than for their mother to run back in the house, laughing about the great prank she pulled on all of them — I mean, ha! Honestly! Thinking she’d died after seeing a snake. What a bunch of silly gooses!

But that didn’t happen, of course. Life never works that way. And all we could hope for, as readers, was that their small family would find some sort of peace and resolution — and that Josh, so perceptive and wise beyond his years, would help his little brother remember more of the mother they lost.

After finishing, I made myself a mug of hot tea, wiped away the tears and promptly listed this one on BookMooch. Children grappling with the loss of a parent would relate to Josh’s uncertainty and pain, and they’re the audience to which I would most recommend this novel. Everyone else? I’d steer clear unless you’re ready to feel your heart splinter all through your chest. But if you need a good cry, hey — Walking Backward is your book.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0786891084 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program

Book review: ‘If I Stay’ by Gayle Forman

if_i_staySettle in for a heartbreaker.

Once you hear the premise of Gayle Forman’s If I Stay, it doesn’t take long to realize this isn’t exactly going to be a feel-good read . . . but you’d be surprised how ultimately uplifting this tale can be.

Seventeen-year-old Mia is out for a car ride with her parents and little brother Teddy when the horrific happens: on a slick, snowy street, they’re struck by a truck. Her mother and father are killed instantly, Mia comes to realize . . . as she stands outside the vehicle, looking at her own crushed body and those of her loved ones. Everything happens as if in a dream; Mia watches it all unfold, powerless and voiceless.

After she’s transported to a hospital and her grandparents arrive, desperately trying to talk to her as she remains in a coma, our narrator realizes she has a choice: stay in this terrifying new world without her parents, but with her loving boyfriend Adam and extended friends and family, or leave — rejoining her family in whatever exists in the hereafter.

Forman’s small, sharp novel delves deep into what it means to be a family, including those attributes that both divide and unite us. Told over the course of just one day, If I Stay flashes back to Mia’s life in Oregon and shows us clearly the type of brilliant, focused and loving people her parents were. I loved learning about her dad’s rock star past and could definitely feel the fierce protective quality her mom had for those whom she cared about the most. Knowing, as we do, that neither of them survived the crash adds an entirely different dimension to the story . . . and makes the anecdotes all the more powerful. These recollections have shaped Mia into the person she was — and is — today.

My absolute favorite aspect of the story was definitely Mia and Adam’s love — the sweetness that was the beginning of their romance, and the understanding and compassion they had for one another as it deepened. Joined through their love of music, Mia worries before the accident that Adam’s band’s rocketing success will eventually drive them apart — especially considering Mia’s devotion to the cello (not exactly the most punk-rock of instruments). Forman does a remarkable job of capturing the innocence and obsession of first love, my most favorite of topics!

As you’d expect, themes of death and grief are certainly prevalent — and a few graphic passages didn’t sit well with me. I was definitely rooting for Mia and hoping she’d make the right call, but I don’t know what in the world I would do in her situation — and pray I never have to even go there. I guess that’s why the novel left me with a crater-wide pit in my stomach . . . the realism of the story was scary. Because this trauma? It could happen to anyone. And like the dystopian fiction I’ve been so fond of lately, this story could be our story. Any of us.

But overall, a deeply moving but understated novel that does more with less — and chooses to focus on the humanity of the characters — and all of us.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0525421033 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Copy purchased by Meg

Book review: ‘Artichoke’s Heart’ by Suzanne Supplee

artichokes_heartBack when I worked part-time at a bookstore, Suzanne Supplee’s Artichoke’s Heart — in hardcover — was one of the books Corporate (big, scary “C”!) wanted us to prominently display up front. Each and every time I walked from the young adult section to the feature bays with stacks of this novel, I stared at the little wrapped chocolates — mmm, chocolate! — and contemplated buying it. Just, you know, based on the scrumptious cover.

But I never did. Fate would bring Artichoke’s Heart into my hands more than a year after I left the store, and now I’m struck with this aggravating question: What took me so long?

Rosemary Goode works constantly in her mama’s beauty salon in Spring Hill, Tennessee, makes great grades and rarely gives her mother any trouble. But nothing she says or does can ever clear up the shadow that accompanies her like a shroud — her weight. At 15, Rosie’s 200-pound frame prevents her from forming close friendships and subjects her to the tireless taunts of classmate Misty Winters. Though Rosie objectively thinks about being thin, the treadmill her mother got her for Christmas is currently functioning as an overpriced laundry rack.

So how do things start changing? When her mother’s strangled coughing fits turn out to be far scarier than a common cold. When Kay-Kay Reese, former popularity queen, is ostracized from her clucking group of popular Bluebirds — and turns to Rosie for comfort. When ridiculously cute jock Kyle Cox begins giving her furitive glances, his entire face turning pink with embarrassment as he smiles at her.

When Rosie finally wants to change.

I guess it’s cliche to say Artichoke’s Heart is about so much more than the quest to be thin, but I’m going to say it anyway . . . because this is a novel with serious heart. As much as I wanted to pluck the delicious-looking confections off the front cover, I didn’t want to the book to end even more. Supplee’s descriptions of the magnetic pull food has for Rosie felt familiar to me — it’s like that free-falling experience of love. And even if you’re fortunate enough to never have had weight troubles, I doubt there’s anyone in the world who wouldn’t relate to Rosie in some way. (Especially with her penchant for reading the poetry of Emily Dickinson!)

Rosemary’s voice is fresh, funny and irreverant, and her sense of humor about high school and her body is what catapults the plotline along. She was a decidedly unwhiny narrator, and thank God for that! I don’t think I could have stood 270-odd pages of griping. But that isn’t anywhere near what happened. Even when Rosie felt sorry for herself initially — hey, she is 15; I wouldn’t expect anything else — she’s not running around the room, throwing confetti at her own pity party. She decides to change — not only for her mother and sniping Aunt Mary, but for herself. I could feel the transformation happening and I felt transformed, too.

So many big issues are addressed without Supplee ever painting the story with a broad, heavy brush. Rosie’s relationship with her mother Rose Warren is complicated, worsened by her mother’s deteroriating health, but felt honest. When I was just a little older than Rosie, I also struggled with the illness of a parent — and could really relate to what she was experiencing. The fear, the nervousness, the waiting . . . it’s all part of the sad game the sickness plays on you. I read on Supplee’s website about her first-hand experience of her mother’s illness, and you can definitely tell her writing comes from a tender place. I knew that she knew — that she really understood.

But for as somber as that could be become, the book’s Southern small-town setting adds humor and a coziness I wouldn’t expect from a book set in, say, New York. (No offense to the New Yorkers out there — y’all are awesome, but we’re different breeds!) I loved the cadence of each character’s speech, and Supplee’s outstanding way of making us really hear what they were saying! Even background characters, like bully Misty Winters, seemed fleshed-out and believable.

That’s what really made the novel for me — this book felt real. We all know a Rosemary — or have felt like Rosemary at some point in our lives. Again, it is about the weight . . . but it’s not about the weight. It’s about choosing who we’re going to become regardless of who we may have been. It’s about making ourselves. And I absolutely loved this inspirational tale, fantastic for teenage girls — and their not-so-teenage counterparts alike.

I’ll leave you with Rosie’s favorite poem, which has been rattling around in my head for the past few days, buoying me up with hope myself! I’m sure it will continue to do so long after I’ve closed the last (hopeful) page, and this one will really stay with me.

By Emily Dickinson

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune–without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

4.75 out of 5!

ISBN: 0525479023 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website

Book review: ‘Sea Change’ by Aimee Friedman

sea_changeMiranda Merchant comes to Selkie Island, a small strip of land off the coast of Georgia, fully prepared to help her mother sort through her grandmother’s belongings in the old mansion she once inhabited. What she doesn’t expect is to fall in with a cult similar to a Southern-fried version of “Gossip Girl,” nor to meet a boy so totally enticing — or so mysterious. And she definitely doesn’t expect to fall in love.

Aimee Friedman’s Sea Change came highly recommended by Juju of Tales of whimsy… and is filled to the brim with sea tales, folklore, a little bit of magic — and plenty of mystery. Miranda is a young woman firmly rooted in logic and practicality; an ace science student, she has no time for literature or anything science can’t explain. So when she meets Leo, a boy with emerald eyes and a penchant for appearing at a moment’s notice, she struggles to understand who he is. Or why she’s so attracted to him.

Of course, it’s not difficult to see why: he’s, um, gorgeous, like all boys shrouded in mystery in young adult literature! (Or most of them, anyway.) But why can’t Miranda stop thinking about him, defying her mother’s wishes to run to the beach and see him? She’s never been so “rebellious” before. He has a strange pull over her . . .

Okay, you can see I’m getting a little silly here. And that’s because the plot was a little silly! But before you think I’m going to slip right into snarktastic mode, let me say this: I really enjoyed this book. I did. Selkie was a glamorous, warm place, and I absolutely loved feeling like I was personally enveloped in the mist that surrounds the island! Though Miranda’s back story was a little thin and I couldn’t necessarily identify with her character, I did relate to what Friedman does so well in this story: capture the essence of falling in love.

That’s what this book is really about — Miranda realizing that, though she’s felt some heartache before, those were all bumps and knocks compared to the free-falling, world-encompassing feeling of falling in love for the first time. Though Leo and Miranda’s relationship felt a bit rushed — they’d only known each other a few days — I can’t really judge; even though it’s cheesy, “love at first sight” is a cliche for a reason. I believe it’s possible, so maybe that’s why I was able to suspend my incredulity long enough to really enjoy this story. At one point, I became really worried we were going to have a Twilight-esque “I know what you are!” moment, but we never had to suffer through that! (Though I wouldn’t have minded Leo sauntering up to Miranda purring, “Say it. Say it out loud.”)

There is plenty to enjoy here — exploits of the rich and famous; a gorgeous guy who may or may not be a mythical ocean creature; lush, summertime scenery; an old house and mysterious grandmother; the interesting family dynamic between Miranda and her mother Amelia Blue. Plus, folks have Southern accents. I would have liked more information on Amelia and her mother’s relationship, which seemed complex but interesting. Likewise, more history of Selkie and the other “Heirs” on the island would have helped me become further enveloped in the story. But as it stood, I loved the ambiguity of so many of the events . . . and the ending worked well for me.

Overall, a whimsical look at love one summer on a Southern island — with something extra for those sea-lovers out there. Easily readable in a day or two, it just might be the respite you need from a busy day at the office! And, like me, you might find yourself wondering when you can hop a ferry to Selkie to lose yourself for a long weekend. Or meet your own hot merman. You know — whichever.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0743288416 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg