REVIEW: Down and Across by Arvin Ahmadi (+ Giveaway)

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Title: Down and Across
Author: Arvin Ahmadi
Format: ARC, 322 pages
Publication: February 6th 2018 by Viking Books for Young Readers
Source: Publisher via blog tour (thank you Penguin Random House and JM @ Book Freak Revelations!)
Genre: Fiction—Coming of Age, Contemporary, Realistic
Other classifications: Young Adult

Goodreads | Amazon | IndieBound | National Book Store

Synopsis

Scott Ferdowsi has a track record of quitting. Writing the Great American Novel? Three chapters. His summer internship? One week. His best friends know exactly what they want to do with the rest of their lives, but Scott can hardly commit to a breakfast cereal, let alone a passion.

With college applications looming, Scott’s parents pressure him to get serious and settle on a career path like engineering or medicine. Desperate for help, he sneaks off to Washington, DC, to seek guidance from a famous professor who specializes in grit, the psychology of success.

He never expects an adventure to unfold out of what was supposed to be a one-day visit. But that’s what Scott gets when he meets Fiora Buchanan, a ballsy college student whose life ambition is to write crossword puzzles. When the bicycle she lends him gets Scott into a high-speed chase, he knows he’s in for the ride of his life. Soon, Scott finds himself sneaking into bars, attempting to pick up girls at the National Zoo, and even giving the crossword thing a try—all while opening his eyes to fundamental truths about who he is and who he wants to be.

Review

I received a review copy from the publisher which in no way swayed my opinion about the work.

Welcome to the last stop of the #DownandAcrossPH Blog Tour!

Smart, funny and exceedingly relatable, Down and Across is a solid debut from YA newcomer Arvin Ahmadi.

It centers on sixteen-year-old Iranian-American Scott Ferdowsi who doesn’t quite know what to do in life. He has tried several clubs in school and has considered and changed career paths one too many times. His strict immigrant parents want him to take things seriously and choose medicine or engineering or law, but Scott doesn’t want to settle. So, the summer his parents fly to Iran to take care of an ailing grandfather, Scott quits his internship and hops on a bus to Washington, DC, where he intends to seek counsel from a Georgetown professor who specializes in grit, the psychology of passion, perseverance, and success. What Scott doesn’t intend to do is to stay more than a day. Or befriend the girl she meets on the ride to DC. Or pick up another at the National Zoo. But Scott is definitely in for some adventure. And that is what’s so refreshing about Down and Across, because it’s at once fun and enjoyable and moving. I can’t even tell you how many times I snickered or downright laughed in my commute to work. Scott is charming and funny but he doesn’t make the best decisions. And that made me root for him all the more.

“I woke up that morning with a throbbing headache and some nausea, but the worst offender was the foul stench that had taken over the inside of my mouth. The corpse of my adolescence. I could feel it escaping through my teeth and lips. It felt permanent, like I could brush my teeth a million times and still be stuck with that awful taste. (I brushed twice.)”

‬In Lorde’s latest album, Melodrama, she has a track that goes, “You asked if I was feeling it, I’m psycho high / Know you won’t remember in the morning when I speak my mind / Lights are on and they’ve gone home, but who am I?” And my reading experience with Ahmadi’s novel reminded me of those lines. Only Lorde will take her hangover as an opportunity for existential reflection. And she does this with such eloquence. Just as how Ahmadi takes up this conversational tone and somehow manages to drive home and capture articulately the anxieties of growing up and not knowing what it is you want. The way he commands his words, his every clever turn of phrase, Ahmadi has a pinpoint-sharp awareness of voice.

“I wondered about Jeanette, who was so assured in her beliefs that she knew exactly how to shoot down the skeptics. Wouldn’t that be nice? Not to question your identity every second of every day, but to simply know.”

The author said in an NPR interview that it was important for him to represent not just diversity of skin color or culture but a diversity of interests and backgrounds. And that, to me, translates really well into the pages because the cast of characters Scott meets in DC is just as colorful and diverse in terms of experiences and personalities, which is reminiscent of another debut that came out a couple of years back—David Arnold’s Mosquitoland. Fiora is this seemingly manic pixie dream girl who turns out to be flawed. I love how Scott doesn’t romanticize her. He gets mad at her. He calls out her bs. There’s Trent. Oh Trent. He is such a pure person. The world needs more Trents! Jeanette, meanwhile, is whatever. She’s infuriating, but her actions make sense. She’s obviously wrong and there’s no reality where I’d agree with her but she’s very firm with her values and acts accordingly and you have to appreciate that. Then there are Scott’s parents, who want what’s best for him even though they don’t necessarily know what that means. There’s this one scene where Scott phones his dad and I totally lost it.

“I spent the night on Fiora’s couch and dozed off thinking about the universe. How it’s indefinitely incomplete—like us. How the best ideas, events, people, and lives don’t need to wrap up nicely to mean something.”

I’m obviously stoked that we’re getting more representation in literature and cinema—especially in the young adult community—where the narrative is leaning towards “issues” and talking about the experience of a person from a specific marginalized race or cultural background. But at the same time I’m delighted that we’re seeing this other dialogue where the protagonist’s skin color isn’t directly linked to the plot. And Down and Across—along with Jasmine Warga’s sophomore book Here We Are Now—is such a fantastic example of this. Because these stories show us that while there’s a multitude of little and significant ways in which people are different, even if we share the same culture, even if we have the same sexuality, there are also things that make us alike more than we realize. And that is so affirming.

Down and Across is not a page-turner. It might not even be something you haven’t seen before. But it gets me. And I’m almost positive it gets you, too.

4.5 out of 5
Author

Arvin Ahmadi 01

Arvin Ahmadi grew up outside Washington, DC. He graduated from Columbia
University and has worked in the tech industry. When he’s not reading or writing
books, he can be found watching late-night talk show interviews and editing
Wikipedia pages. Down and Across is his first novel.

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You can read Down and Across, too! Enter THIS giveaway for a chance to win one (1) advance reader copy. Entries are open worldwide and will be accepted until 11:59pm (EST), March 5th.

Check out the rest of the tour stops!

Arctic Books
The Ultimate Fangirl
The Bibliophile Confessions
Divergent Gryffindor
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Are you picking up this debut anytime soon or are you really picking up this debut anytime soon? If you’re lucky to have read this in advance, can we talk about Trent? ❤ Also, what are some of your recent favorite contemporary YA reads? Sound off in the comments below!

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REVIEW: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

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Title: A Wrinkle in Time
Author: Madeleine L’Engle
Format: Paperback, 247 pages
Publication: May 1st 2007 by Square Fish (first published January 1st 1962 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Source: Borrowed from the library (Kumon Angeles City)
Genre: Fiction—Coming of Age, Fantasy, Science Fiction
Other classifications: Young Adult

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Synopsis

It was a dark and stormy night.

Out of this wild night, a strange visitor comes to the Murry house and beckons Meg, her brother Charles Wallace, and their friend Calvin O’Keefe on a most dangerous and extraordinary adventure—one that will threaten their lives and our universe.

Review

NOTE: The fifth paragraph is slightly spoilery. Thread with caution.

Human fallibility and the capacity for deep connection are at the center of A Wrinkle in Time, a Newbery Medal-winning, universe-hopping sci-fi fantasy novel.

The first title in a quintet, it chronicles Meg Murry’s quest to save her father. From who or what she has no idea. But she has her brother Charles Wallace, a boy named Calvin O’Keefe, and three mysterious ladies—Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which—to accompany her. I’ve read somewhere that there are two types of children: those who read Madeleine L’Engle and those who don’t. I’d like to believe I would’ve been the former had I stumbled upon A Wrinkle in Time in my younger years. Or, that is, had I had the love of reading I now have. I could just picture myself freaking out over a girl I can identify with who goes to this thrilling and dangerous and awe-inspiring journey through the cosmos. Who embraced her flaws to battle the bad guys. That being said, I was still able to appreciate and take pleasure in the story, even if the final act felt rushed.

“I’ve never even seen your house, and I have the funniest feeling that for the first time in my life I’m going home!”

For whatever reason, I somehow thought this beloved L’Engle classic is going to be a family drama. This is prior to seeing the trailer for the DuVernay/Disney adaptation of course. And in a lot of ways it is a family drama. But it also is so much more than that; it has beautiful, past-the-Greek-centaur creatures for one. It’s about good vs. evil. It’s about friendship. It’s scientific and it’s fantastical. It braids together quantum physics, Einstein’s theory on relativity and Christianity. It has a strong opinion on communism. One might even argue that the book is too on the nose in those front. In fact, I’m curious to know if the author wouldn’t have a hard time securing a publisher now as much as she had in 1960s. But ultimately, it’s about a girl trying to get to her father.

“Don’t be afraid to be afraid.”

Let’s talk about the characters. Meg, the protagonist and whom the novel follows, is outrageously plain. She has your basic government issued descriptors: she wears glasses and has teeth covered with braces and mouse-brown hair that stood wildly on end. She doesn’t understand the concept of emotional inhibition quite yet and thinks school is all wrong. She’s practically an oddball and she hates it. And these are what makes Meg so relatable. Because what 12-year-old doesn’t feel ordinary? What 12-year-old isn’t governed strongly by emotion? Meg may not have the language for what she feels all the time but she knows this: she just wants to be like the other kids. And didn’t we all want that at one point? Next up is her younger brother Charles Wallace. He is five years old, speaks complete sentences—with a set of vocabulary that includes “inadvertently” and “compulsion”—and prepares sandwiches for his family—not just PBJ mind you. But possibly the most remarkable thing about Charles Wallace is that he is not a parody. For all his precociousness, he is still liable to err. Plus, his exchanges with Mrs Whatsit are endlessly entertaining. There’s also Calvin O’Keefe. Can I hug this fella? I want to hug this fella. His experience, both at home and in school, is so disparate from Meg’s but his friendship offers nothing but comfort and support. Then there are the three Mrs, these very strange old ladies. They reminded me of the Greek gods who always ask mortals to do their bidding, except one of the Mrs casually tosses phrases in French and German and quotes Dante and Cervantes.

“”I like to understand things,” Meg said.
“We all do. But it isn’t always possible.””

Spoiler alert! If you haven’t read A Wrinkle in Time yet and wish to proceed unspoiled, you can skip to the next paragraph. Otherwise, carry on. There is a part in the book where Meg realizes her father isn’t omnipotent and that he may well be as lost as her, and I think the author did a fine job there. I’m infinitely fascinated by narratives where the young character becomes aware that her parents are also people, existing outside the realm of parenthood, capable of misjudgments and not without their own faults. Because I think it is as much a part of growing up, no matter how baffling. By the time Meg comes to this realization, it is a powerful scene. And Meg you know to be operating in extreme ends of the emotional spectrum.

“”But I wanted to do it for you,” Mr. Murry said. “That’s what every parent wants.””

At once imaginative and touching, A Wrinkle in Time teaches us courage and the importance of familial ties. Definitely recommended for fans of Lois Lowry’s The Giver.

4.0 out of 5

Author

Madeleine L'Engle 01

Madeleine L’Engle was an American writer best known for her Young Adult fiction, particularly the Newbery Medal-winning A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and Many Waters. Her works reflect her strong interest in modern science: tesseracts, for example, are featured prominently in A Wrinkle in Time, mitochondrial DNA in A Wind in the Door, organ regeneration in The Arm of the Starfish, and so forth.

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Have you read this beloved classic? Do you agree that the final act felt rushed? What do you think of the three Mrs? How do you feel about the DuVernay/Disney adaptation? Also, are you a child who read Madeleine L’Engle? Sound off in the comments below!

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REVIEW: The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

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Title: The Serpent King
Author: Jeff Zentner
Format: Paperback, 384 pages
Publication: March 8th 2016 by Crown Books for Young Readers
Source: Bought from National Book Store
Genre: Fiction—Coming of Age, Contemporary, Realistic, Southern Gothic
Other classifications: Depression and Mental Illness, Young Adult

Goodreads | Amazon | IndieBound | Fully Booked

Synopsis

Dill has had to wrestle with vipers his whole life—at home, as the only son of a Pentecostal minister who urges him to handle poisonous rattlesnakes, and at school, where he faces down bullies who target him for his father’s extreme faith and very public fall from grace.

The only antidote to all his venom is his friendship with fellow outcasts Travis and Lydia. But as they are starting their senior year, Dill feels the coils of his future tightening around him. The end of high school will lead to new beginnings for Lydia, whose edgy fashion blog is her ticket out of their rural Tennessee town. And Travis is happy wherever he is thanks to his obsession with the epic book series Bloodfall and the fangirl who may be turning his harsh reality into real-life fantasy. Dill’s only escapes are his music and his secret feelings for Lydia—neither of which he is brave enough to share. Graduation feels more like an ending to Dill than a beginning. But even before then, he must cope with another ending—one that will rock his life to the core.

Review

The Serpent King is raw, honest, and heartachingly beautiful . . . a fine debut of a novel.

Dillard “Dill” Early Jr., the only son of an incarcerated snake-handling preacher, tries to escape his name. Lydia Blankenship, a brilliant, offbeat fashion blogger, tries to escape Forrestville. Travis Bohannon, a hardcore fantasy novel fanboy, tries to escape his father. All of them on the precipice of young adulthood. None feels they belong in their rural Tennessee town. And that’s the thing about The Serpent King, the trio’s fears, their battles, wonders, heartbreaks, and at times, triumphs are so incredibly and infinitely familiar you’d feel right at home in a couple of pages.

“”Nothing stops when we’re gone,” Lydia said. “The seasons don’t stop. This river doesn’t stop. Vultures will keep flying in circles. The lives of the people we love won’t stop. Time keeps unspooling. Stories keep getting written.””

Told in the third person, and switching between Dill’s, Lydia’s, and Travis’ points of view, this coming-of-age is vividly written. It has very distinct voices, with an equally striking Southern backdrop, it almost feels like you’re watching three separate short films that share the same universe. And it works. It delivers an unflinching look at the struggles of growing up and finding one’s identity, not pulling punches in its portrayal of religion and poverty. It also touches on mental health in a manner that suggests complete understanding and empathy. It’s poignant, witty, and heartrending, but ultimately hopeful.

And if you’re going to live, you might as well do painful, brave, and beautiful things.

It’s hard not to feel strongly about Zentner’s characters. Lydia is my hero—clever, ambitious, passionate about what she believes in, impossibly young and talented, and quick with words but can be insecure and near-sighted all the same. Dill, with all his dreading and insecurities and the weight of his situation, probably undergoes the most character development. And Travis—large in stature, gentle of heart—I just want to hug Travis. But then you’re hit by the crushing harshness of their circumstances. Dill’s parents are a tag team of guilt trips and extreme faith; Travis’ father is straight up asshole, abusive in all the ways a person can be abusive. Add Lydia’s well-to-do, supportive, loving family into the equation and there’s a stark, often oppressive disparity. And this plays a lot in the dynamics of their friendship. There are easy banters and quips between the three but Dill sometimes lashes out on Lydia, Lydia is sometimes uncharitable with her judgments, and Travis sometimes holds back. In one scene, after a particularly appalling Father Episode, Travis considers his options, “he didn’t think Lydia would understand because her family was so awesome. And he didn’t think Dill would understand because his family was so awful,” further affirming Anna Karenina‘s famous opening line: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Or, you know, each shitty family is shitty in its own way.

“If there was a way I could explode with beautiful heat and light, like a firecracker, that’s what I’d want. I want people to talk about me and remember me when I’m gone. I want to carve my name into the world.”

Then there is Zentner’s writing style. There is a certain pensive beauty to his prose, a saudade quality underlying everything. I found myself, in multiple occasions, sobbing and at the same time thinking, this is a beautiful line or that is a clever play on words. I’m hard-pressed to name a more fitting YA evocative of Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming than The Serpent King, in terms, at least, of the way the two made me feel while soaking up on the language. I also haven’t cried—actual tears I had to remove my glasses—over a book in a while. So there’s that.

Hold this moment. Keep it. Until the next train whistle in the distance pierces the stillness.

For fans of David Arnold’s Mosquitoland. Remarkable. Just, remarkable.

4.5 out of 5

Author

Jeff Zentner 01

Jeff Zentner is a singer-songwriter and guitarist who has recorded with Iggy Pop, Nick Cave, and Debbie Harry. In addition to writing and recording his own music, Zentner works with young musicians at Tennessee Teen Rock Camp, which inspired him to write for young adults. He lives in Nashville with his wife and son. The Serpent King is his first novel.

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Have you read this one? Have I convinced you to? Are you a fan of narratives with multiple POV characters? What was the last book you rated 5 stars? Also, can we stop a minute and talk about Travis? PLEASE. Sound off in the comments below!

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REVIEW: The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli

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Title: The Upside of Unrequited
Author: Becky Albertalli
Format: Paperback, 336 pages
Publication: April 11th 2017 by Balzer + Bray
Source: Bought from National Book Store
Genre: Fiction—Coming of Age, Contemporary, Realistic, Romance
Other classifications: LGBTQIA, Young Adult

Goodreads | Amazon | IndieBound | Fully Booked

Synopsis

Seventeen-year-old Molly Peskin-Suso knows all about unrequited love—she’s lived through it twenty-six times. She crushes hard and crushes often, but always in secret. Because no matter how many times her twin sister, Cassie, tells her to woman up, Molly can’t stomach the idea of rejection. So she’s careful. Fat girls always have to be careful.

Then a cute new girl enters Cassie’s orbit, and for the first time ever, Molly’s cynical twin is a lovesick mess. Meanwhile, Molly’s totally not dying of loneliness—except for the part where she is.

Luckily, Cassie’s new girlfriend comes with a cute hipster-boy sidekick. Will is funny and flirtatious and just might be perfect crush material. Maybe more than crush material. And if Molly can win him over, she’ll get her first kiss and she’ll get her twin back.

There’s only one problem: Molly’s coworker Reid. He’s an awkward Tolkien superfan with a season pass to the Ren Faire, and there’s absolutely no way Molly could fall for him.

Right?

Review

I’ll go ahead and tell you that Becky and I are friends. So you can be all Simon Spier with my judgement and “take [this] with about a million fucking grains of salt.” I mean. I’m just saying. But her sophomore novel is honest and funny and nuanced and charming. There is no way a teenager would pick this up and not see himself somewhere in the pages.

It centers on seventeen-year-old Molly Peskin-Suso and the fact that she’s had twenty-six crushes and exactly zero kisses. And how she is possibly losing her twin sister, Cassie, who is falling in love—for the first time—with cute new girl Mina. Enter funny, charismatic Hipster Will, who happens to be Mina’s best friend, and everything should be fine, right? Except there’s also Molly’s coworker Reid—awkward, geeky, Cadbury-mini-egg-loving Reid—who maybe likes her. Okay, I am literally Molly. I’m twenty-four and I’m Molly. I’m a prolific crusher but haven’t actually kissed anyone—at least not kiss kiss. I’m careful. Too careful. Heck, she’s even had more action than me and that’s, well, tragic. But that’s why I connected deeply with her story; that’s why Molly freaking out next to a cute boy or feeling self-conscious next to people she’s known her whole life resonated with me. Because all the crushing, all the wanting, all the unrequited-loving, and suddenly here is an author affirming emotions I’ve been trying to make sense of all these years, and boy was that unraveling.

“But I spend a lot of time thinking about love and kissing and boyfriends and all the other stuff feminists aren’t supposed to care about. And I am a feminist. But I don’t know. I’m seventeen, and I just want to know what it feels like to kiss someone.
I don’t think I’m unlovable. But I keep wondering: what is my glitch?

Like the author’s debut, The Upside of Unrequited captures the immediacy of and renders articulately the teenage experience. How everything feels like it’s either the end of the world or the beginning of it; the elations and heartbreaks of first love; the innate, underlying fear of not mattering. I was an idiot to worry I wouldn’t love this book as much as Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda (and in fact, fans of Simon vs would find themselves a treat or two). That’s unfair and unfounded and ultimately, as it turns out, untrue. Both are brimming with heart and humor, because Becky has an acute understanding of voice and how awkward and exciting and scary it is to be a teen. With Upside, as it was with Simon vs, I’m not just reminded how careful and at the same time hopeful I was at seventeen, I am seventeen-year-old me, careful and hopeful.

“”Why are you making zombie faces?” he asks.
“What?”
“Just relax!”
“Zombies are relaxed.””

There is something to be said about how great narratives aren’t always solely about the lead and that is true for Upside too. I’m certain many teens, as well as then-teens, would feel for Molly and her anxieties and journey to self-confidence; it’s both an absolute delight and comfort to follow her but the secondary characters are just as vibrant. Each character is fleshed out, so much so that the reader can easily see the other characters’ stories unfolding outside the curtains. The novel also touches on positive representations of body image—it’s central to how Molly views the world and herself, even if often self-deprecating—and intresectional diversity. Molly is a fat, white, Jewish girl with interracial lesbian and bisexual mothers; there’s a Korean-American pansexual character and there’s a gay couple; and everything feels organic. As organic as Molly and Reid’s chemistry. There’s effortless draw and almost inevitability in the progress of their relationship; it’s warm and fuzzy and at times nauseating. It’s hard not to root for Reid! Plus, without the aid of a spoiler, I like that the author could’ve conveniently gone one way with Molly and This Other Character but didn’t.

“And suddenly, I feel like crying, but not in a bad way. More like in the way you feel when someone gives you a perfect present—something you’d been wanting, but thought you couldn’t ask for. It’s that feeling of someone knowing you in all the ways you needed to be known.”

So, in the parlance of Molly and all of us millennials, my verdict is: ALL THE HEART-EYES EMOJIS.

5.0 out of 5

Author

Becky Albertalli 01

Becky Albertalli is the author of the acclaimed novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. She is a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with children and teens. Becky now lives with her family in Atlanta, where she spends her days writing fiction for young adults.

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Have you read this one? Have I convinced you to? Because, really, it’s just such an adorable, smile-inducing read! Also, tell me about your first kiss fictional crushes! Or, you know, your current read(s).

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REVIEW: Fans of the Impossible Life by Kate Scelsa

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Title: Fans of the Impossible Life
Author: Kate Scelsa
Format: ARC, 356 pages
Publication: September 8th 2015 by Balzer + Bray/HarperTeen
Source: Gifted by the author (thank you so much Kate!)
Genre: Fiction—Coming of Age, Contemporary, Realistic
Other classifications: Depression and Mental Illness, LGBTQIA, Young Adult

Goodreads | Amazon | The Book Depository | Fully Booked

Synopsis

MIRA is starting over at Saint Francis Prep. She promised her parents she would at least try to pretend that she could act like a functioning human this time, not a girl who can’t get out of bed for days on end, who only feels awake when she’s with Sebby.

JEREMY is the painfully shy art nerd at Saint Francis who’s been in self-imposed isolation after an incident that ruined his last year of school. When he sees Sebby for the first time across the school lawn, it’s as if he’s been expecting him.

SEBBY, Mira’s gay best friend, seems to carry sunlight around him. Even as life in his foster home starts to take its toll, Sebby and Mira together craft a world of magic rituals and impromptu road trips, designed to fix the broken parts of their lives.

As Jeremy finds himself drawn into Sebby and Mira’s world, he begins to understand the secrets that they hide in order to protect themselves, to keep each other safe from those who don’t understand their quest to live for the impossible.

Review

I received a review copy from the author which in no way swayed my opinion about the work.

As eloquent as it is heartfelt, Fans of the Impossible Life takes storytelling to a higher class and diversity higher still.

Let me be the first to say that this is a novel—if not the novel—champions of the We Need Diverse Books campaign should be talking about. Scelsa delivers a coming of age at once achingly moving and softly poetic told from the perspectives of her three MCs. Her play at different points of view is nothing short of adroit—Jeremy’s chapters are in first person, Sebby’s in second and Mira’s in third. And it totally works, both in function and aesthetic. It provides a window into the complexities of her characters, and boy are they complex.

“… you lay awake on that night’s floor thinking about what you could have said to them to make them understand. What it felt like to know that the two people who knew you best couldn’t ever really know what your life was like.”

The author also doesn’t shy away from the hard edges of her story. Fans of the Impossible Life covered many important issues without once feeling overwhelming nor romanticized. There’s drug abuse, identity crisis, depression, suicide, bullying, racism—you name it, it’s probably in here. And Scelsa approached these with insight and sensitivity. Just as much as she paid her secondary characters attention. I am particularly impressed by the fact that they have these stuff going on for them. Like, Talia is whatever, I’m incredibly furious at her for what she did in the end BUT she was the one who helped Jeremy through his catastrophic episode, who apologized to him for not speaking up. And there’s Julie, perfect Julie who doesn’t wanna deal with Mira’s drama BUT who shows up, not attending her lecture to be with her as soon as she comes home.

“I had been nothing before that moment and one day I would be nothing again. But there and then my life was real. With his lips, and his lovely mouth.”

Early this year, Malinda Lo wrote an essay on perceptions of diversity in book reviews—in fact it’s just one in a four-part series which you need to read if you care about diversity. In it, she cited a critique that blatantly pronounced ““perfectly ethnically and sexually diverse” cast as “scarcely plausible,”” a suggestion that “this diversity would not have existed naturally; it needed effort.” Okay. Not only do I call total BS on this problematic trade review, I have Fans of the Impossible Life to reinforce my claim. Scelsa’s debut has multiple POC characters and characters representing three (3!) different orientations from the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. But what’s really remarkable is the ease with which the author handled sexual and racial diversity. It doesn’t just look at individual experiences, it’s reflected in the family structures of her main players. One of the leads has two gay dads. Another has interracial parents. They get loads of crap for this and I’m thinking, that’s reality. It feels natural because this happens today, no matter how much we long for the contrary.

“At that point she was keeping the crying hidden. When it first started, she let people see it because she didn’t know what else to do. She thought if they could witness her in the middle of this thing, then they might be able to understand. But they couldn’t. It was exhausting for others to watch. For herself to experience. So she stopped showing them.”

I’m not you, but if I were, I’d be a fan of Fans of the Impossible Life too.

4.5 out of 5

Author

Kate Scelsa

Kate Scelsa has performed in New York and around the world with experimental theater company Elevator Repair Service in their trilogy of works based on great American literature, including an eight-hour-long performance that uses the entire text of The Great Gatsby. Kate lives in Brooklyn with her wife and two black cats.

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Blogger’s note: I buddy-read this book with Wesaun @ Oreo and Books and it is SO GOOD we both finished it in a 24-hour time frame.

Is this on your TBR list? If not, have I convinced you to include it? (Because, really, you definitely should check this out.) Do you think there are such works with “too much issues” or “too diverse”? And what about you, what was the last awesome book you read that celebrates diversity? Or just any solid 5-star read. Let’s talk!

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REVIEW: Mosquitoland by David Arnold

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Title: Mosquitoland
Author: David Arnold
Format: Hardcover, 342 pages
Publication: March 3rd 2015 by Viking Books for Young Readers
Source: Gifted by my childhood best friend (thank you Treena!)
Genre: Fiction—Coming of Age, Contemporary, Realistic
Other classifications: Depression and Mental Illness, Road Trip, Young Adult

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Synopsis

After the sudden collapse of her family, Mim Malone is dragged from her home in northern Ohio to the “wastelands” of Mississippi, where she lives in a medicated milieu with her dad and new stepmom. Before the dust has a chance to settle, she learns her mother is sick back in Cleveland.

So she ditches her new life and hops aboard a northbound Greyhound bus to her real home and her real mother, meeting a quirky cast of fellow travelers along the way. But when her thousand-mile journey takes a few turns she could never see coming, Mim must confront her own demons, redefining her notions of love, loyalty, and what it means to be sane.

Review

Debut author David Arnold tells a vibrant narrative in Mosquitoland. You would want to meet Mim and the caboodle of cast she befriends (or not) in this surprisingly funny, poignant and ultimately heartwarming multicolored road trip.

Mary Iris “Mim” Malone is not okay. Mom and Dad divorced and now Stepmom is in the picture. She is resituated a thousand miles away from Mom and home and it doesn’t help that Dad wants her to take medication after an unclear psychiatric diagnosis. Worse still is overhearing Mom is sick. So, in a bout of mutiny and daughterly affection, she accepts her mission as a “Mother-effing Mother-Saver” and runs away, equipped with wits, cynicism, war paint, a journal and eight hundred eighty dollars. Here’s the thing: I think there’s only one Mim in all of literature. This is very clear from page 1, first sentence—which is saying something, heck, probably the somethingest of Somethings. She’s erratic but not in any means tacky or supererogatory; it’s organic. Her voice sounds natural, her odyssey equal parts heartrending and heartening. But Mim, like every 16-year-olds before her, is not exempt to Myopic Faultiness, “wearing near-sighted glasses in a far-sighted world.” And this is where the greatest triumph of Mosquitoland lies in. Mim is prone to getting caught up inside her head but there’s also growth, juxtaposed with her quest to reach and save her mom. Her physical journey is as captivating as her emotional one is touching.

“Every great character, Iz, be it on page or screen, is multidimensional. The good guys aren’t all good, the bad guys aren’t all bad, and any character wholly one or the other shouldn’t exist at all. Remember this when I describe the antics that follow, for though I am not a villain, I am not immune to villainy.”

The novel delves into important subjects like depression and family and trust issue but because the humor is so on point, it doesn’t read as heavy. Mim is all about the wry and you have to hand it to the author for the effortless execution. And, although it has a pretty slow outset, it is never dragging. There are references to pop culture here and there, too, which is sure to click with readers and just, the guy described a smile using Belgian waffle. A Belgian waffle smile. Five hundred awesome points!

I don’t care, man. I’ve faked yawned, slow blinked, loud sighed, and pretend searched. I considered murdering you, as well as a variety of suicides. Now I’m going to put this in a way I know you’ll understand: you stole my friend’s seat, and I’d rather die than listen to you speak.”

I adore David’s writing style. It’s very contemporary but has a poetic undertone. He has a way at picking thoughts you never considered others have as well. Like, okay, since Tommy Wallach is obviously more eloquent than me, I’ll let him take the mic: “the best books, they don’t talk about things you never thought about before. They talk about things you’d always thought about, but that you didn’t think anyone else had thought about. You read them, and suddenly you’re a little bit less alone in the world.” The only way this novel could’ve been better is if the author went deeper into Mim’s diagnosis.

“But now I know the truth. You can laugh and cry, Iz. Because they’re basically the same thing.”

The best element of this work, however, for me at least, is the exceptionally unforgettable band of characters. There’s Mim’s dysfunctional family, a no-bullshit old woman, an adorable-charming-endearing kid with Down syndrome, a 20-something photographer with his faults and possibly “the God of Devastating Attractiveness,” a schizophrenic vagrant and many, many more. He explores love and chosen family in a beautiful light that you often feel two or three emotions at once. And, you know, I love that each of these characters has a story to tell, like, if the author decided to switch narrators, it’ll be just as fascinating.

“You spend your life roaming the hillsides, scouring the four corners of the earth, searching desperately for just the one person to fucking get you. And I’m thinking, if you can find that, you’ve found home.”

David makes an impression with his debut and it’s this: he knows what he’s doing. And in a true Mim fashion, a montage rolls through my head, in it, I see Mosquitoland being read in class. An instant classic.

4.0 out of 5

Author

David Arnold

David Arnold lives in Lexington, Kentucky, with his (lovely) wife and (boisterous) son. Previous jobs include freelance musician/producer, stay-at-home dad, and preschool teacher. He is a fierce believer in the power of kindness and community. And chips. He believes fiercely in chips. Mosquitoland is his first novel.

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Have you read this book already? No? Have I convinced you to pick it up? Who are the most unforgettable voices in your list? Also, what are some of your favorite road trip titles? Or, just, what was the last amazing book you read? Gimme your recs!

You can also stalk follow me elsewhere! On Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Goodreads, and Bloglovin.

REVIEW: More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera

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Title: More Happy Than Not
Author: Adam Silvera
Format: E-ARC
Publication: June 2nd 2015 by Soho Teen
Source: Publisher via Edelweiss (thank you Meredith Barnes, Soho Press and Edelweiss!)
Genre: Fiction—Coming of Age, Contemporary
Other classifications: LGBTQIA, Young Adult

Goodreads | Amazon | The Book Depository | Fully Booked

Synopsis

The Leteo Institute’s revolutionary memory-relief procedure seems too good to be true to Aaron Soto—miracle cure-alls don’t tend to pop up in the Bronx projects. Aaron could never forget how he’s grown up poor, how his friends aren’t there for him, or how his father committed suicide in their one-bedroom apartment. Aaron has the support of his patient girlfriend, if not necessarily his distant brother and overworked mother, but it’s not enough.

Then Thomas shows up. He has a sweet movie-watching setup on his roof, and he doesn’t mind Aaron’s obsession with a popular fantasy series. There are nicknames, inside jokes. Most importantly, Thomas doesn’t mind talking about Aaron’s past. But Aaron’s newfound happiness isn’t welcome on his block. Since he can’t stay away from Thomas or suddenly stop being gay, Aaron must turn to Leteo to straighten himself out, even if it means forgetting who he is.

Review

I received a review copy from the publisher which in no way swayed my opinion about the work.

More Happy Than Not is a strong debut from YA newcomer Adam Silvera. It is as unrelenting as it is hopeful, as gut-wrenching as it is absorbing.

Set in a Bronx neighborhood that is a character of its own and with a bit of a speculative tinge, Aaron Soto’s story may seem ordinary, another of those teens navigating the firsts—first love, first kiss, first sex. But it’s not before long ’til Silvera starts tearing down expectations, busting one assumption after another. The plot twist sucker-punched me and, just when I thought he’s exhausted his arsenal, he delivers the final blow. He paints the extent to which being gay in a close-minded community may lead to all sorts of horror with severe, and often brutal, honesty. There were multiple instances I had to stop reading because his words cut deep.

“This is one of those times where you swear you have to be sleeping and living a nightmare because it’s so impossible that your life can only be a string of bad things until you’re completely abandoned.”

In More Happy Than Not, the author plays at one of the oldest societal debates: nature vs. nurture. Aaron firmly holds that his being a “dude-liker” is something he didn’t choose but rather something he had to deal with. It’s refreshing to view sexuality through this lens, especially in line with homophobia. And especially considering how this novel wins at diversity. Not only does it have a gay MC, it has a Puerto Rican gay MC. But that’s not all of it. In one scene, Thomas tells Aaron, “I was the only brown Scorpius Hawthorne” and it doesn’t feel forced. I think Silvera’s voice—unabashed and observant as it is—is a promising addition to an important conversation.

“It’s not like my heart is in running or anything like that, but at least I learned that you can’t always choose who you’re going to be. Sometimes you’re fast enough to run track. Sometimes you’re not.”

Then, you have the characterization. One thing that’s remarkable is the chemistry between the characters. They are complicated, thrown in further complicated positions, but Silvera successfully balances the complexity with relatability. He didn’t try to redeem the bad guys (for lack of a better term) and that’s a major score. And there’s family dysfunction. Aaron comes from a poor family (which, I cannot overstate this, is scarce in literature but is a reality) and it’s not an easy household.

“This is the most painfully confusing time in my life and he’s the first person who said all the right words to me and reminds me of the first days of summer where you leave home without jacket, and my favorite songs playing over and over.”

I want to point out, as well, how geeky the book is. There are several pop culture references—leaning heavily on comics—and you don’t need to know that the author is a potterhead to observe the winks and nods to the Harry Potter series. Plus, I really enjoyed moments when Aaron and Genevieve (I’m going to use “the girlfriend” as a descriptor but, trust me, you’d want to get to know her) would hang out or when Aaron and Thomas would and, this is me being nostalgic, I love how street games are a big part of the community Aaron lives in.

“Do you think there’s a chance you were someone really awful in a past life? Like Darth Vader? I feel like you can’t catch a break.”

With characters as unforgettable as the book is unflinching in its portrayal of confusion, love, homophobia, family, friendship and a lot more, Silvera is set to win many, many fans. He’s barely started, too. Readers who adore Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe will come upon another favorite.

4.5 out of 5

Author

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Adam Silvera was born and raised in the Bronx and is tall for no reason. He was a bookseller before shifting to children’s publishing where he worked at a literary development company, a creative writing website for teens, and as a book reviewer of children’s and young adult novels. He lives in New York City.

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 Have I convinced you to pick up this title when it comes out (2 weeks from today!)? Are you a fan of heartrending coming-of-age stories? And will you take the Leteo procedure if you can? There’s an amazing pool of emerging new voices in the book industry, especially in YA, who are your recent favorites? Tell me in the comments below! I always want to hear from you! Also, while you’re at it, you may want to participate in The “More Happy Than Not” Tag?

You can also stalk follow me elsewhere! On Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Goodreads, and Bloglovin.

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REVIEW: Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

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Title: Grasshopper Jungle
Author: Andrew Smith
Format: Paperback, 384 pages
Publication: February 17th 2015 by Speak (first published February 1st 2014)
Source: Bought from National Book Store
Genre: Fiction—Coming of Age, Contemporary, Science Fiction
Other classifications: Apocalyptic, LGBTQIA, Weird, Young Adult

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Synopsis

This is the truth. This is history. It’s the end of the world. And nobody knows anything about it. You know what I mean.

In the small town of Ealing, Iowa, Austin and his best friend, Robby, have accidentally unleashed an unstoppable army. An army of HORNY, HUNGRY, SIX-FOOT-TALL PRAYING MANTISES that only want to do two things.

Review

At least once in our lives, we become so confused in and with everything. With our identity, our sexuality, how we make sense of what’s happening around us and how it affects us while also trying to figure out who we are and what does that mean. This is at the core of Grasshopper Jungle, Andrew Smith’s 7th novel, which is also a Michael L. Printz Award nominee.

“”Sometimes I’m confused,” I said. “Actually, pretty much all the time I am. I wonder if I’m normal.””

Smith is many things, but what he does best is writing complex teenage boys. Andrzej Austin Szczerba is our narrator. He, his best friend Robby, and girlfriend Shann witness the end of the world, where hungry, horny, six-foot-tall Mantis-like bugs are involved. Austin is flawed and almost always thinks of the stuff boys think, but he’s young and is threading waters. In that way, Grasshopper Jungle wins. It excels in capturing the inner battle of who-am-I-what-do-I-want-what-could-I-do everyone of us fights or at some point fought. This universal subject is what makes the book an intimate experience. And Smith’s use of monosyllabic reactions like “uh” and “um” is so on point.

Okay, at times, can effectively serve as the closing curtain to difficult teenage conversations.”

Grasshopper Jungle also champions two other topics: weird YA and bisexuality. What’s horrifying about this piece of literature is not the ginormous bugs who only like to do two things, it’s the “deranged carnival sideshow.” The disturbing tableaux of where humanity may lead to, or maybe have. Smith offers his readers a freak show of macabre human psyche and he does it with no reservation whatsoever. And the portrayal of one character’s bisexuality is just realistic and I think it comes from a place of sensitive observation. Because, clearly, Smith is not bi. But his character undeniably is. Plus, the book does not shy away from vulgarity. It actually has one graphic, explicit sex scene but the author handles it well.

“I consider it my job to tell the truth.”

The biggest drag, however, in this novel hitting full circle of genius is the narrative style. Austin is a historian. He records events in his notebooks. The book, Grasshopper Jungle, is filled to the brim with too many facts. And, while every single one of these is relevant to the story by rights and manages to resurface in forked roads, it’s often distracting. I find the reiteration of certain things gratuitous, and by the nth time I was told that Andrzej Szczerba—whose American name is Andrew Szerba—is Austin’s great-great-great-grandfather, I was weary.

“I love how you tell stories. I love how, whenever you tell me a story, you go backwards and forwards and tell me everything else that could possibly be happening in every direction, like an explosion. Like a flower blooming.”

But I still recommend this title, especially for fans of honest, candid coming-of-age tales like The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Grasshopper Jungle is wild, daring and introspective if in places tedious.

3.5 out of 5

Author

Andrew Smith

Andrew Smith knew ever since his days as editor of his high school newspaper that he wanted to be a writer. His books include Grasshopper Jungle, Winger, and 100 Sideways Miles. Smith prefers the seclusion of his rural Southern California setting, where he lives with his family.

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I cheated. My photo is recycled. I disappoint myself. Have you read this book? Have I convinced you to? Who are your go-to authors for Weird YA? And, OH, since Grasshopper Jungle is about the end of the world, name three writers you’d want in your team when this happens!

You can also stalk follow me elsewhere! On Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Goodreads, and Bloglovin.

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REVIEW: Winger by Andrew Smith

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Title: Winger
Author: Andrew Smith
Format: Paperback, 464 pages
Publication: September 2nd 2014 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (first published May 14th 2013)
Source: Bought from Fully Booked
Genre: Fiction—Coming of Age, Contemporary, Humor, Realistic, Romance
Other classifications: Boarding School, Young Adult

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Synopsis

Ryan Dean West’s life is complicated.

He’s a fourteen-year-old junior at Pine Mountain, a boarding school for rich kids. He’s stuck rooming with the biggest jerk on the rugby team in the dorm for miscreants and trouble makers. And he’s totally in love with his best friend, Annie, who thinks of him as a little kid.

As Ryan Dean tries to get a handle on school, life, and rugby, he finds himself muddling through a lot of decisions and making some major mistakes along the way. But nothing can prepare him for what comes next. And when the unthinkable happens, Ryan Dean has to find a way to hold on to the important things—no matter what.

Review

Disclaimer: I am inarticulate and this review cannot hope to bring justice to the class act that is Winger.

With a pitch-perfect character voice, unflinchingly bawdy humor, spot-on illustration and out-of-nowhere-in-your-gut knockout punch, I fell completely in love with Winger. I’m still in a book hangover, really.

“”Dude, her being pissed just shows how much she cares about you,” Seanie said.
That sounded like something you’d tell your kid before giving him a spanking.”

I’m a big fan of humor, especially—albeit not exclusively—wry. But almost every single book I’ve read in the past, with the exception of Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple and one scene from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, wasn’t able to elicit that much savored, much anticipated no-really-I-am-laughing-out-loud-in-real-life laugh. It’s frequently just snorting and I’m-laughing-on-the-inside-right-now kind of thing, which is fun too but you get my point. Winger, however, is another beast. I snickered at page 3 and by 13 had my first laugh IRL. At page 51, it was obvious Winger will be an all-time favorite (spoiler: I was right, heck was I right). The tone is impeccable and Sam Bosma, who did the illustrations, understands Smith’s work and that fully comes across in his comics and charts and diagrams, which not only are outrageously hilarious but are also windows to our protagonist’s wits and sensibility.

“”Aww,” she said. “What a cute boy.”
Okay, I’ll be honest. I think she actually said “little boy,” but it was so traumatizing to hear that I may have blocked it out.”

Ryan Dean West, the narrator and our hero, has one of the most genuine, honest character voices I’ve ever read. He’s smart and angsty and funny and hormonal and dorky and he knows it. His voice and story resonate with such effortlessness and gravity. I believe there is something equally captivating and aching in coming-of-age stories, and Smith neatly captures this raw, beautiful—if often awkward and painful—teenage experience. Winger feels like an instant classic.

“After that, I didn’t have any idea what to say. I just sat there staring at her. I was so lost, I even thought about the Preamble to the Constitution.
I, the people, am such a loser.”

I also adore the relationship RDW has with the secondary characters; almost everyone jumps off the page. His former roommates Seanie and JP both have their own flavor and texture. It is no feat to picture Seanie doing his stalking outside the curtains. Chas Becker, his roommate, has got to be my favorite. I was kind of reminded of Cath and Reagan from Fangirl, but, like, raise the bar to the outermost limit of mean. I enjoyed the threats and banters and admire how Smith developed the relationship between these two people who couldn’t have been more disparate. Then there’s Joey Cosentino who’s super awesome and sort of provides the parental, authoritative figure for our protagonist. He’s gay and awesome.

“‘Cause I knew what it felt like too, being so not-like-all-the-other-guys-here. And I don’t mean I know what it felt like to be gay, because I don’t, but I do know what it felt like to be the “only” one of something.”

As for the plot, it’s easy for a reader to convince himself that he knows what the author is going for. And I almost fooled myself. But I didn’t see the trajectory of the story until it’s staring me in the face. That’s not saying it’s unrealistic; it’s skillful. The emotionally charged final act will stab the reader but leave him with hope. Plus, the story telling is just downright masterful. Andrew Smith irrevocably won me over with Winger and I surely am going to pick more of his titles.

5.0 out of 5

Author

Andrew Smith

Andrew Smith is the author of several award-winning novels for young adults, including The Marbury Lens. He lives in a remote area in the mountains of Southern California with his family, two horses, two dogs, and three cats. He doesn’t watch television and occupies himself by writing, bumping into things outdoors, and taking ten-mile runs on snowy trails. He maintains a blog about his strange writing life.

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REVIEW: The Hurt Patrol by Mary McKinley

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Title: The Hurt Patrol
Author: Mary McKinley
Format: E-ARC
Publication: March 31st 2015 by Kensington Books
Source: Publisher via Netgalley (thank you Kensington Books and Netgalley!)
Genre: Fiction—Coming of Age, Contemporary, Realistic
Other classifications: Bullying, LGBTQIA, Young Adult

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Synopsis

Give me your nerds, your freaks, your huddled outcasts yearning to breathe free. Stick them in Boy Scout uniforms and you’ll have the Hurt Patrol—a sorry bunch of teen rejects who will never make Eagle.

Welcome to the club

Beau has been scouting since first grade. Not because he loves it, but because his dad does. It’s the only thing they’ve ever bonded over, what with Beau’s dad being into sports, beer, and brawling. So when they move to yet another Midwest town, Beau expects the usual Boy Scout experience, filled with horribleness and insults. Instead he finds something else entirely. Kicked out of every other patrol, their little band of brothers is equal parts nuts and awesome. For the first time, people are watching Beau’s back instead of throwing things at it. Nice. Novel. And also necessary, when you’re dealing with parents splitting up, crushes, first love, and coming out.

The first—and only—rule of Hurt Patrol: We are never going to win—but if you’re outcast elsewhere, you’ll do just fine here.

Review

I received a review copy from the publisher which in no way swayed my opinion about the work.

Once in a while, we stumble upon books that affect us so deeply we feel forever changed after closing the last pages. Then there are those that we abhor so much it’s not funny. But every so often we come across ones that we feel indifferent to. Stories we don’t have strong opinions for, for better or worse. The Hurt Patrol is such one cookie.

“I knew I was weird, but I just thought it was because I was smarter.”

One thing I like about this novel is how it depicts bullying as something that is not cool and that you can actually take actions to alleviate, if not wholly prevent, the blows. Sadly, however, that’s it. I had hopes for this book. The synopsis got me—the underdog trope—but I didn’t feel any connection with the characters. And that may have something to do with the length of the book, because it’s quite a short read, which didn’t leave much room for characterization. I mean, I know I’m supposed to sympathize with them. But it didn’t really come. Beau with his deprecating father and terrible coming-out episode. I wanted to be touched by his story, but all the time there’s an air of detachment I cannot quite shake off. Even the family story arc. I love family drama as much as the next person, but here the parents are one-dimensional, especially Beau’s father. The narrator, Rusty, is humdrum. And up until the end, Rusty’s motives for running away weren’t explained. (But maybe it’s because Beau’s story was the point; I don’t know.)

“Since we are both so hated on, it was like expresslane friendship. Buddies by default.”

There are neat lines every now and then, which is helpful. But it  bums me out when I feel apathetic about a book and that’s the case with The Hurt Patrol, so much so that when a scoutmaster was talking deep talks, it fell flat. I appreciate what the author’s getting at, I really do, but I wasn’t invested in the characters enough to be fully hit by the emotional impact.

“I get such a deep feeling in my heart, of sadness. . . . That feeling that you’d do anything—no matter how painful, just to be accepted and thus more comfortable in your own mind.”

I’m antsy writing negative reviews (this counts as negative, right? Right), as I would rather prefer sharing things that I love. But here it is. The Hurt Patrol is a straightforward story that has cardboard characters. As with all my other reviews, this is highly subjective. You might enjoy stuff I do not and vice versa.

2.5 out of 5

Author

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Mary McKinley is a TV writer/performer whose work has been featured most recently on the new Seattle-based sketch comedy project, The 206, and on Biz Kid$, an Emmy-winning young adult show on PBS. For the last thirteen years, she has written stand-up and sketch comedy with her partner, John Keister, as well as several TV pilots. A nearly lifelong Seattle resident, Mary graduated with a BFA from Seattle University.

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