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review 2017-12-04 11:51
The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker
The Little Giant of Aberdeen County - Tiffany Baker

 The Little Giant of Aberdeen County is the story of Truly - a girl grown massive due to a pituitary problem. Reviled and brought up in poverty, Truly finds her calling and a future that none expected.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

>> POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This novel discusses the themes of rape and assisted suicide.

 

Living in a small town in New England (begining in the 1950s), Truly Plaice has been treated like a freak show attraction all her life. Due to a faulty pituitary gland, Truly has spent her life battling gigantism.

 

"Well," Bob Morgan said, "you may be ugly as sin and heavy as an ox, but I guess your mama loved you truly." Wide-eyed, I suckled my fist and took in the doctor's words with a look of gravity, as if i knew that for the next three decades, it would be the only direct reference I would have to the word 'love'.

 

The townspeople continue to throw around the rumor that her size is what killed Truly's mother just moments after Truly's birth, never mind that it was medically confirmed that her mother had been fighting breast cancer prior to giving birth.

 

To make matters even more difficult on Truly, her sister, Serena Jane, is the epitome of physical perfection right from childhood -- perfect curls, stunning face, lovely manners -- and grows up to be the town's beloved beauty queen. After the death of their father, the sisters are split up and taken in by different families in town. While Serena Jane is set up in a cushy home in town with access to all the finer things of life, Truly is forced to scrimp and eek out a meager existence on the farm of failing horse rancher August Dyerson (Dyerson says of his horses, "They're winners in their own way, the math's just a little different, that's all"). All across town and in school, Serena Jane is fawned over while Truly's 1st day of school left her with the memory of her TEACHER calling her a giant in front of the class ... and the environment not really improving from then on. 

 

For Amelia, (Truly's mostly mute best friend), words were something to use sparingly. They were like bleach or vinegar. A tiny amount could clean up almost anything, but dump out more than that, and you could have one ungodly mess on your hands. 

 

Once Serena Jane is of age, she also becomes the object of desire for Robert Morgan IV, Truly's childhood bully but now grown and serving as the town doctor. He's not really all that much nicer to Truly but tolerates her as a way to get close to Serena Jane. By the time these three characters have reached adulthood, Truly has developed quite a thick skin against tormentors so she's relatively nonplussed by Robert's still somewhat salty nature. She's just trying to live her life the best she knows how.

 

I didn't know how to explain Robert Morgan's temper to Marcus. It wasn't the blustery, volatile kind that blew itself up like a thunderstorm, but more sinister and steady, the north wind trailing its ribbons of frost and ice. Once provoked, his rage might linger for days, chilling everything around him, dropping temperatures until it hurt to breathe. I'd seen him go after the patients who were late with payments, and he wasn't kidding. The north wind always meant business. 

 

 

After a few years, Serena Jane starts to feel stifled in her life and decides to bail on everything, just disappearing one day. She basically leaves it all on Truly to clean up the mess. But sisterly love drives Truly to drop everything and do just what her sister asks... a decision that causes Truly to unfairly end up in a similarly trapped existence to the one her sister fled from. Though it's not referenced directly, we even see evidence of Truly showing evidence of struggling with depression and binge eating disorder. 

 

One thing that helps though is Truly developing an interest in medicinal herbalogy after discovering the long lost work of Tabitha Dyerson (a witch that lived in town centuries before and an ancestor of Truly's adopted guardian, August Dyerson. Tabitha was married to the current Dr Morgan's ancestor, Robert Morgan I -- talk about a small town!). Truly's studies lead her to become a sort of secret witch doctor in town, a person people seek out in the dark when they have an issue they don't want Dr. Morgan knowing about. It also draws her into some morally questionable territory, dipping her metaphorical toe in the murky rights and wrongs of performing assisted suicides. Her work with these plants will challenge friendships and dangerously tread the line between legal & just ... and not. 

 

For the most part, Truly's heart is in the right place, I'd say. Though the incident with the neighbor's cat had me ready to give up on her... but I hung in there to see where this all went. But the cat though... why, Truly? 

 

I ended up giving this novel a higher rating simply for entertainment value. I never found myself bored with the story, and for me that's a rare feat in reading these days. As far as the actual writing though... I really do enjoy Baker's style but structurally the plot had some serious potholes throughout that bothered me. Such as:

 

* I'm not sure what to think about the relationship between Marcus and Truly... sometimes it was sweet, sometimes it felt underdeveloped, other times I was asking why it was even there?! And Marcus going to Vietnam and filling his letters home with words like "The fellows here" and talking about his "torch" (flashlight)... but these characters were from NEW England, not the Queen's England.. so why was he writing in the style of a WW1 British soldier?

 

* While incorporating the story of the witch Tabitha and Truly taking up Tabitha's medicinal work, I don't feel like this element of the plot was explored enough. It's hardly mentioned at all until the last 100 pages or so of the novel. 

 

* What is the real story with Bobbie? Is he gay? Trans? Pre trans? Gender fluid? What is his story? Again, not all that well developed and feels (to me) like it was mostly just roughly stuck in there to pander to LGBTQ+ market ... if you're gonna have it in there, do it right, otherwise it's more of a disservice than anything! 

 

* There are moments that annoyed me where Truly was describing things done or said by other characters that she wouldn't have been actually present for, she's spouting off these thoughts or dialogue as fact when in reality Truly would be across town / down the street / etc. from where it was occurring, so she wouldn't be privy to the knowledge she was presenting the reader. 

 

Faults aside, I found this to be a truly (ha! see what I did there :-P) fun story with some really cool plot elements and the potential to be even more than what we actually got here. As I said though, I did really enjoy Baker's writing style and would be interested to check out her future offerings. 

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review 2017-12-04 08:16
Split by Swati Avasthi
Split - Swati Avasthi

Sixteen-Year-Old Jace Witherspoon arrives at the doorstep of his estranged brother Christian with a re-landscaped face (courtesy of his father’s fist), $3.84, and a secret. He tries to move on, going for new friends, a new school, and a new job, but all his changes can’t make him forget what he left behind—his mother, who is still trapped with his dad, and his ex-girlfriend, who is keeping his secret.

At least so far.

Worst of all, Jace realizes that if he really wants to move forward, he may first have to do what scares him most: He may have to go back. Award-winning novelist Swati Avasthi has created a riveting and remarkably nuanced portrait of what happens after. After you’ve said enough, after you’ve run, after you’ve made the split—how do you begin to live again?

Amazon.com

 

 

 

>> TRIGGER WARNING: This book describes graphic scenes of domestic violence.

 

 

After taking years of physical and emotional abuse from his father, teenager Jace decides to drive from Chicago, IL to Albuquerque, NM to meet up with his estranged older brother, Christian, whom he hasn't seen in years. Jace had hoped his mother would come along, but she urges him to go on ahead, simply pressing a paper with Christian's address into Jace's palm and promising to meet up with him in New Mexico for the Thanksgiving holiday.... the thing is, Christian doesn't know Jace is on his way. Jace arrives at Christian's door with a busted face (courtesy of their father), less than $5 to his name and no idea what to say. Christian takes Jace in, figuring questions would get worked out as they went along, and the bulk of the story from there focuses on Jace pretty much rebuilding his life in New Mexico -- starting school again, getting a job, and waiting to see if his mother will actually find the courage to finally leave her abusive husband. 

 

WHEW, this one gets into some tough topics! I found myself tearing up multiple times! Jace's experience with reuniting with Christian after so many years illustrates the challenges of being the younger child with a much older sibling, something I know quite well with my own older sibling. Jace points out to Christian: "Friends get years, but I get 20 minutes."

 

Another bit I related to was Jace's struggle was coming to terms with the reality that you physically resemble someone you come to strongly dislike ( as in, you physically resembling the parent you constantly butt heads with or the one with questionable life choices / moral compass). Along those lines, this story also points out the reality that abuse can go down in ANY kind of home. For example, Jace's father is a respected judge within the community but at home he's beating the stuffing out of his wife & kids.

 

Similarly, Jace has his own experience with losing his temper with a girlfriend. This part of the story was a tough spot for me. Up til this portion of Jace's story, I was liking the kid. But I have insanely low.... non-existent, really... tolerance for a guy smacking around a woman for any reason.. the exception being if SHE is physically threatening the guy's life, then by all means he has the right to defend himself as a human. But in Jace's case, it was just a flare up of jealousy and his actions end up scaring the bejeebus out of his girlfriend. While my opinion of him certainly dropped in that moment, he does show redemptive behavior later on in the story. I was really impressed when he comes forward and tells the girl that he's so disappointed in himself he WANTS her to press charges against him, he deserves it. Can you imagine the world if the assaulters across the world suddenly, collectively manned-up like that?! Cue Louis Armstrong! 

 

Jace's experiences teach him to develop what he calls "Fightology" -- lessons to tell himself to get through the worst times. For example, Fightology #8: If you relax your body when a hit is coming, it will hurt less (what's weird is that something about that almost seems logical AND counter-intuitive at the same time) or Fightology #9: Sometimes even the rules won't protect you. It gives the story an extra layer of sadness that he's had to develop such rules to survive his life but over time he finds ways to step away from the hardness and embrace the zen, changing his system to "Calmology": #1 Run every day. #2 Speak up if you have something to say #3 Fix what you can, accept what you can't (a nod to Serenity Prayer), etc. 

 

Like I said, it's a tough story to stomach. Definitely wouldn't recommend it for readers younger than the "older teen" crowd. That said, it brings important truths to light, not only about surviving abuse, but also regarding difficult nuances within sibling and parental relationships.

____________

 

EXTRAS:

 

>>  In her acknowledgements section, author Swati Avasthi mentions that this novel (less than 300 pages) took her three years to write. 

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review 2017-12-04 05:11
The Fall by James Preller
The Fall - James Preller

The summer before school starts, Sam's friend and classmate Morgan Mallen kills herself. Morgan had been bullied. Maybe she kissed the wrong boy. Or said the wrong thing. What about that selfie that made the rounds? Morgan was this, and Morgan was that. But who really knows what happened? As Sam explores the events leading up to the tragedy in journal format, he must face a difficult and life-changing question: Why did he keep his friendship with Morgan a secret? And could he have done something-anything-to prevent her final actions? From James Preller, the author of Bystander, another unflinching book about bullying and its fallout.

Amazon.com

 

 

* Read for the 2017 Anti-Bully Readathon week: November 13th-19th

 

>> TRIGGER WARNING: Topic of suicide addressed in this story. One character commits suicide while others contemplate going through with it.

 

Morgan Mallen is something of a social pariah in her high school. Athena Luikin, your stereotypical popular HS girl (perfect body, lips, face, flawless skin... and, no surprise, blonde), has a secret game with her clique. Every so often, without warning, someone within the clique gets a laminated "tag" card slipped into their locker. If you get the card you know it's your turn to go online and anonymously post mean, troll-ish comments on Morgan's social media. There's an understanding within the group that either you do it or risk being the group's next target.

 

 

One member within the group is Sam Proctor. While he agrees to play the game and post comments, his turn up at bat happens to come at right about the same time as life puts him and Morgan together in real life in a situation that forces them to truly get to know one another. And whaddya know, Sam discovers he kinda likes the girl! Awkwardly, Sam tries to play both sides of the HS social scene, still participating in online bullying with his friends, while also having conversations with Morgan about how despicable internet trolls are. 

 

Members within the clique get competitive about how creative they can get with their online insults. To them, it's just a game of one-upmanship. That is, until the day Morgan decides to throw herself off the town's water tower. Having just barely developed a friendship with Morgan, Sam is understandably shaken. A social worker contracted with the high school suggests to Sam to journal his thoughts and emotions through the grieving process, which is the format (journal style, that is) that the entire novel is presented to the reader.

 

 

Don't get the idea this journal will be some kind of complete document where you learn "her story" or even "my story". There are holes in this leaky ship. We could all drown together. 

 

 

Written sometimes in standard diary entries, sometimes in verse form, Sam shares some pretty honest, revealing observations about not only getting to know Morgan but also the topic of bullying and poser behavior in high school in general. When he thinks back on the first few times he saw Morgan, his initial memory was that she wasn't super pretty and maybe even a little on the heavy side, but the more he remembers the more he realizes his eyes were always drawn to her, how he was always intrigued by her in various ways... and what a waste it was that he wasn't a better friend to someone so special. When he compares a girl like Morgan to the likes of popular girl Athena, he comes away with the realization, "maybe everyone gives 'pretty' too much credit."

 

 

...And that was it. The last time we talked. It's amazing how little we ever said, as if we didn't know the same language. She was a bird up in a tree, singing a mournful song. And I was just a dog, barking at the clouds. 

 

Sam also notes how sickened he is by what he sees as fake grief going around the school. Crowds of people who either never gave Morgan the time of day or made her life hell with bullying, yet now that she's gone everyone is falling all over each other in puddles of tears like a family member just got murdered. I also enjoyed the chapter "Slogans on Shirts" which shines a spotlight on the hypocrisy that can sometimes be found behind these school campaigns -- the very people that cheer the loudest at anti-bullying campaigns / rallies can sometimes be the same people who are the worst problems!

 

Not only is Preller's writing style itself incredibly engaging, but he addresses this theme in an honest, unvarnished way. No after-school high gloss on this story, but also not unnecessarily vulgar. He manages to do it just right. The students all had an appreciable realness to them and Sam asks himself plenty of the right questions for emotional growth. 

 

I'm all for checking out more of Preller's work in the future!

 

 

 

 

* Book includes supplemental materials at the back of the book which include author interview, a list of discussion questions, and prompts for writing exercises. 

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review 2017-11-29 11:53
The Truth About Alice by Jennifer Mathieu
The Truth About Alice - Jennifer Mathieu

Everyone knows Alice slept with two guys at one party. When Healy High star quarterback Brandon Fitzsimmons dies in a car crash, it was because he was sexting with Alice. Ask anybody. Rumor has it Alice Franklin is a slut. It's written all over the "slut stall" in the girls' bathroom: "Alice had sex in exchange for math test answers" and "Alice got an abortion last semester." After Brandon dies, the rumors start to spiral out of control. In this remarkable debut novel, four Healy High students tell all they "know" about Alice-and in doing so reveal their own secrets and motivations, painting a raw look at the realities of teen life. But in this novel from Jennifer Mathieu, exactly what is the truth about Alice? In the end there's only one person to ask: Alice herself.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

* Read for the 2017 Anti-Bully Readathon week: November 13th-19th

 

 

 

High schooler Alice Franklin is being targeted & blamed for the death of fellow student and star quarterback Brandon Fitzsimmons. Through the technique of alternating POVs, author Jennifer Mathieu gives the reader multiple perspectives of that one fateful night when Fitzsimmons was killed in a car crash after leaving a party at the house of popular girl Elaine O'Shea.

 

Four important characters step forward and tell their version of events: Elaine O'Shea, party host; Josh Waverly, in the car with Brandon when it crashed; Kurt Morelli, Brandon's next door neighbor who's just a little bit infatuated with Alice; Kelsie Sanders, former best friend of Alice who has recently ditched her (basically) to try to win a place in the clique of popular peoples. Then there's Alice herself who has some choice words for her rebuttal. 

 

  • >> Elaine: Still ticked at Alice over guy drama from forever ago, enraged all over again when Elaine's on / off guy Brandon starts paying attention to Alice. Immediately after Brandon's death, has no problem feeding into the slut-shaming of Alice, spreading it around. Also, Elaine claims "Alice sounds like a total grandma name" anyway... Okay, I see you, ELAINE
  • >> Kelsie: Admits to generally being a follower rather than an original kind of person, so she pretty much throws her friend under the bus to gain points with the cool kids, also fueled by old beef with Alice! Uses drama of Alice to hide her own secrets she doesn't want surfacing. 
  • >> Josh: Claims that Alice was blowing up Brandon's phone while Brandon & Josh were in the car and that's what ended up causing the crash... also, Josh may have some confusing homoerotic feelings about Brandon he doesn't want others to pick up on?
  • >> Kurt: genius level nerd, orphaned, living with grandmother next door to Brandon's house... just a bit in love with Alice but too shy to admit it... being one who understands what it feels like to be socially ostracized, Kurt turns out to be the ONE person who gives Alice the benefit of a doubt and still treats her like a human. Brains and Heart in this guy! 

 

"Oh Kurt, I love it. But I didn't get you anything. You're helping me. I should have bought you something. You gave me a first edition of The Outsiders and all I gave you was one of my mom's shitty beers." (Alice)

 

"It's okay.. This beer isn't so shitty."     :-)

 

So, in this small town of Healy, Texas you can imagine how it doesn't take long for the rumors -- starting with the one about Alice having a three way at Elaine's party, one of the rumored participants being the Healy's beloved football star, Brandon -- to quickly spiral out of control. The adults themselves, who you'd think ought to know better, get in on the dirt flinging on this poor girl's rep!

 

Now, when I say "poor girl", Alice doesn't have a snowy white record to begin with... she'll tell you herself what all she actually had a hand in... and some of it is solidly poor choices that end up hurting people... but deserving of the mess she's eventually swirled up in herself? Not so sure it's a fair distribution of karma here. Former bestie Kelsie, the one time she decides to be a leader, uses her new found boldness to write defamatory remarks about Alice on bathroom stalls, which encourages other girls to jump in and get competitive with just how viciously they can talk about a girl they barely know. 

 

I was not at all impressed with Kelsie in the beginning, my reader mind pretty quickly deeming her the petty weakling who needed to find her backbone already. While that opinion stayed with me in some form til the story's close, I did end up cutting her a TINY bit of slack after she reveals some of the darker portions of her backstory and her motives for turning on Alice. While her actions are still disappointing, to say the least, she at least finds a point where she has the classic "I'm becoming what I hate" realization. As she puts it, "All this just to sit at the good table in cafeteria." I know, right?! 

 

While the plot itself was not the most riveting for me (I personally prefer The S Word by Chelsea Pitcher), I do applaud Mathieu for at least illustrating the high school experience in a relatively realistic way. So often I come across YA books that sound absolutely nothing like my HS days, leaving me to wonder, "Seriously? Is this what it's like now? I remember a little melodrama but daaaang." At least here I found characters that did remind me of people I grew up with -- I knew girls like Kelsie, and certainly Elaine, and I most definitely recall the jocks talking smack over cans of Natty Light like Josh & Brandon do here! I also liked how the characters, in their own time, little by little, come to the realization that their anger towards Alice, their bullying of her, is likely just a projection of pain elsewhere in their lives. Pretty profound for teens to realize that, as I come across adults daily who aren't on that level of awareness yet, and I'm glad to see it written in this novel so that YA readers everywhere can ponder on that idea themselves. 

 

 

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review 2017-10-19 09:53
Challenger Deep by Neil Shusterman
Challenger Deep - Neal Shusterman

A captivating novel about mental illness that lingers long beyond the last page, Challenger Deep is a heartfelt tour de force by New York Times bestselling author Neal Shusterman.

Caden Bosch is on a ship that's headed for the deepest point on Earth: Challenger Deep, the southern part of the Marianas Trench.
Caden Bosch is a brilliant high school student whose friends are starting to notice his odd behavior.
Caden Bosch is designated the ship's artist in residence to document the journey with images.
Caden Bosch pretends to join the school track team but spends his days walking for miles, absorbed by the thoughts in his head.
Caden Bosch is split between his allegiance to the captain and the allure of mutiny.
Caden Bosch is torn.

Challenger Deep is a deeply powerful and personal novel from one of today's most admired writers for teens. Laurie Halse Anderson, award-winning author of Speak, calls Challenger Deep "a brilliant journey across the dark sea of the mind; frightening, sensitive, and powerful. Simply extraordinary."

Amazon.com

 

 

POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This novel does periodically bring up the topic of suicide. 

 

The outside world sees Caden Bosch as a regular high school student. In his own mind however, Caden sees himself as artist in residence aboard a submarine assigned to explore Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the Marianas Trench, the deepest section of ocean in the world. What most would consider his real life, that of a HS student, to him is more like a secondary dreamworld. Pay attention and you will see subtle, parallel characters and situations between life aboard the ship and Caden's time in school.

 

Forget solar energy -- if you could harness denial, it would power the world for generations.

 

There are others, fellow crew members on the ship, around Caden's age. Most of these teens come from broken or troubled homes. As for the ship's captain -- who has apparently has a preference for speaking like a pirate -- well, there is something dark and mysterious about him. 

 

Regardless of what world he was in, for me there was one constant about Caden: those elements within his personal story which insisted on keeping my heart just a little bit broken for him all the way through the story. When people try to reach out to him, Caden tends to verbally push them away but deep inside he mourns not having a good enough understanding of what's wrong well enough to let others help. He struggles with his parents' questionable behavior, to say the least. In one instance, they get drunk and pressure him to bungee jump. There was a part of the story, about at the halfway point of the book, where Caden's parents make a decision they think will help him and his inner struggles but for me, it felt that a little more explanation was needed, as far as where the dual realities come into play. 

 

Everything feels right in the world... and the sad thing is that I know it's a dream. I know it must soon end, and when it does I will be thrust awake into a place where either I'm broken, or the world is broken.

 

Over time, Caden develops near-crippling anxiety, but tries out for his HS track team in an attempt to stay connected with schoolmates. There are some laughs when it comes to Caden's therapy sessions... well, if you've been in therapy yourself, that is. It's relatable humor: "I tell him that everything sucks, and he apologizes for it, but does nothing to make things less suckful."

 

I also loved Shusterman's use of analogies. One of my favorites was a car one, and its likeness to therapy: "useless check engine light... but only, the people qualified to check under the hood can't get the damn thing open."

 

Caden does struggle with suicidal thoughts at times, but he says the existence of his little sister is a "fail safe" from actually going through with anything. Even so, he still ponders the subject near the end of the novel, so heads up if you are sensitive to that sort of theme / material. I'm happy to report that while much of the plot is heavy in tone, Shusterman does close things on positive, empowering thoughts. He also provides two pages of resources after the novel to help any reader struggling with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, all of the above, etc. 

 

The artwork you'll find in this book was all done by Shusterman's son, Brendan, who suffers from chronic depression himself. Brendan's own story of struggle, along with his artwork, inspired the adventures and trials Caden of Challenger Deep experiences. 

 

 

 

My initial interest in picking this book up was spurred by rave reviews from so many friends and fellow reviewers saying "This is the most accurate depiction of mental illness I have ever read." I've lived with mental illness my entire life. My mother battled depression, my father agorophobia and bipolar disorder. Both my brother and I were diagnosed with chronic depression, anxiety and PTSD in our adulthoods. So I figured I was going into this on pretty firm ground. While on one hand I could see what Shusterman was trying to convey, the novel didn't always represent my own experiences. But at times it hit it spot on. Then, other times I was admittedly kinda bored outta my gourd. But that's the thing about mental illness, there's no one clear-cut way to have it. Everyone's battle is different. So I took that into consideration when weighing my end thoughts on my reading experience. 

 

While I would not put my vote in with the "best ever" crowd, I do vote that it has its merits when it comes to the subject of mental illness. 

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