Book Reviews, Lists, Discussions, and Displays

Category: Contemporary (Page 1 of 5)

Book Review: When We Were Strangers

When We Were Strangers – Alex Richards – Bloomsbury YA – Published 27 July 2021

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Synopsis

Seventeen-year-old Evie Parker is devastated in the wake of her father’s sudden death. But she knows something her mother doesn’t: the day of his heart attack, her dad was planning to move out. After finding his packed bags, an impulsive Evie puts everything away, desperate to spare her mom more heartache.

To make matters worse, Evie soon learns the reason her father was going to leave: he had been dating his twenty-two-year-old receptionist, Bree, who is now six months pregnant. Desperate to distract herself, Evie signs up for a summer photography class where she meets a motley crew of students, including quirky and adorable Declan. Still, Evie can’t stop thinking about her father’s mistress. Armed with a telephoto lens, she caves to her curiosity, and what starts as a little bit of spying on Bree quickly becomes full-blown stalking. And when an emergency forces Evie to help Bree, she learns there’s more to the story than she ever knew…

My thoughts

I am a massive fan of Accidental, so I was eager to pick up the author’s latest novel, When We Are Strangers. Again, Alex Richards delivers a novel that is full of emotional tension.

Evie Parker is distraught to learn of her father’s death. But when she finds his bags packed, ready to leave her and her mum for his pregnant mistress, Evie decides to unpack them and hide the truth from her mother. As she carries the weight of both the secret and her grief, Evie finds herself turned towards photography and entered into a photography course by her uncle. The course and her eclectic classmates give Evie the outlet she needs, but when she happens upon her father’s mistress and begins to capture images of her, Evie learns there is so much she didn’t know and so much she has still to learn.

When We Were Strangers is both gut-wrenching but also uplifting. For all the grief and emotional baggage Evie is carrying, there are moments of light, humour and human connection. I very much enjoyed Evie’s voice. She narrates the story and her teenage-ness just shines through so authentically and uniquely. She is sad, lonely and grieving and that comes through in her words and thoughts. At times she seems whiney or sulky, but that is so perfectly real. She has the right to be snarky and she uses that to the best effect.

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Book Review: Kind of Sort of Fine

Kind of Sort of Fine – Spencer Hall – Atheneum Books for Young Readers – Published 22 June 2021

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Synopsis

Senior year of high school is full of changes.

For Hayley Mills, these changes aren’t exactly welcome. All she wants is for everyone to forget about her very public breakdown and remember her as the overachiever she once was—and who she’s determined to be again. But it’s difficult to be seen as a go-getter when she’s forced into TV Production class with all the slackers like Lewis Holbrook.

For Lewis, though, this is going to be his year. After a summer spent binging 80s movies, he’s ready to upgrade from the role of self-described fat, funny sidekick to leading man of his own life—including getting the girl. The only thing standing in his way is, well, himself.

When the two are partnered up in class, neither is particularly thrilled. But then they start making mini documentaries about their classmates’ hidden talents, and suddenly Hayley is getting attention for something other than her breakdown, and Lewis isn’t just a background character anymore. It seems like they’re both finally getting what they want—except what happens when who you’ve become isn’t who you really are?

My thoughts

A story about surviving high school, with humour, honesty and a delightful freshness.

High school is tough – especially when you had a meltdown in front of the entire school and district. For Hayley, returning to school after she had a public breakdown in the school driveway is hard enough. When her parents and teachers decide that she is working too hard, she has to make a choice – drop tennis or drop her advanced placement courses. She drops tennis and is forced into TV production. She thinks it will be a joke. Instead, she is surprised to find herself having fun. She is teamed up with Lewis. For Lewis, senior year is the year he is finally senior producer at the school’s TV production class. It’s also going to be the year he recasts himself. No longer just the fat guy, Lewis has big plans.

When Hayley and Lewis are teamed up in TV production class, they seem like two opposites. Instead, they work really well together and they start to film documentaries that showcase the secret lives of their fellow students. It’s a bit of a journey of discovery for them both. Not only do they learn more about their classmates then they ever would have imagined, they also pushed themselves in new ways – physically and mentally and learnt more about themselves.

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Book Review: The Passing Playbook

The Passing Playbook – Isaac Fitzsimons – Dial – Published 1 June 2021

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Synopsis

Fifteen-year-old Spencer Harris is a proud nerd, an awesome big brother and a Messi-in-training. He’s also transgender. After transitioning at his old school leads to a year of bullying, Spencer gets a fresh start at Oakley, the most liberal private school in Ohio.

At Oakley, Spencer seems to have it all: more accepting classmates, a decent shot at a starting position on the boy’s soccer team, great new friends, and maybe even something more than friendship with one of his teammates. The problem is, no one at Oakley knows Spencer is trans – he’s passing.

So when a discriminatory law forces Spencer’s coach to bench him after he discovers the ‘F’ on Spencer’s birth certificate, Spencer has to make a choice: cheer his team on from the sidelines or publicly fight for his right to play, even if it means coming out to everyone – including the guy he’s falling for.

My thoughts

A story about sport, friendship, romance and becoming comfortable with sharing who you are. The Passing Playbook is a trans coming out story but also about belonging and accepting yourself

Spencer is starting at a new school. It’s a fresh start and one he wants to control. He decides to keep secret the fact that he is trans. When he is recruited for the boy’s soccer team, Spencer knows he walks a fine line between passing and being revealed as trans. When the league’s discriminatory policy benches Spencer he has to decide how much he trusts his team mates and how much he is willing to risk to fight the decision.

Sports stories offer such a great backdrop for relationship and character development. It seems to bring out the best and worst in people. As Spencer starts to settle into his new school and tries out for the soccer team he has to decide how much he will risk to protect his new friendships and place on the team. He loves soccer, always has, so he relishes the chance to play on the boys team – something he has always wanted to do.

While Spencer’s school is meant to be pretty liberal and progressive, he is still uncertain how, if or when he wants to come out as trans to his classmates. As he starts to get to know Justice and develops a friendship (and something) with him, he starts to learn more about the risks Justice faces if he were to ever reveal his own true identity.

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Book Review: We Are Inevitable

We Are Inevitable by Gayle Forman<br /> CR: Simon &amp; Schuster

We Are Inevitable – Gayle Forman – Penguin Teen – Published 1 June 2021

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Synopsis

So far, the inevitable hasn’t worked out so well for Aaron Stein.

While his friends have gone to college and moved on with their lives, Aaron’s been left behind in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State, running a failing bookshop with his dad, Ira. What he needs is a lucky break, the good kind of inevitable.

And then he meets Hannah. Incredible Hannah – magical, musical, brave and clever. Could she be the answer? And could they – their relationship, their meeting – possibly be the inevitable Aaron’s been waiting for?

My thoughts

What does a failing bookshop, a group of lumberjacks and a grieving teen have to do with each other? If Aaron had his way, absolutely nothing, but in this funny, heartening novel together they have the power to change everything.

Aaron doesn’t know what his future holds and he is still reeling from his past. His mother has left, his brother is dead and his father seems to be ailing more and more each day. Aaron knows the bookshop that was once his parents’ whole world is struggling. If he had his way, he would sell it and finally be able to move on with his life. Just as Aaron is ready to sell a range of new people enter his life and seem determined to do everything they can to bring the bookshop back to life.

As a reader, it’s no surprise that I love bookshops and I know many other readers feel the same way. Bluebird Books plays a big role in this book. It’s the perfect setting for this story, falling apart, disorganised but has so much charm and love woven into its very fabric – exactly like the story of awe Are Inevitable itself.

The characters are so vibrant in this book, just as they are varied. First there is Aaron. Grieving, worried about his father and the bookshop, left behind by his classmates and floundering a bit. He is described by another character in the book as an unreliable narrator. Just as my heart hurt from him he frustrated me a little as he is so persistent in pushing others away from him and being so distrustful. We see the story from his point of view, but it’s still easy to see how his hurt rules his decisions.

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Book Review: Where We Begin

Where We Begin – Christie Nieman – Pan Australia – 25 August 2020

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Synopsis

Seventeen-year-old Anna is running into the night. Fleeing her boyfriend, her mother, and everything she has known.

She is travelling into the country, to the land and the grandparents she has never met, looking for answers to questions that have never been asked.

For every family has secrets.

But some secrets – once laid bare – can never be forgiven.

My thoughts

Where We Begin is a beautiful story about belonging.

Everything is a bit of a mystery when you start reading Where We Begin. The blurb on the back of the book is vague and the start of the story places our main character alone on bus, we don’t know where she is going or why. We don’t know where she has come from. We don’t know why she left or what she is going to. We don’t even know her name. It’s hard to write a review without revealing these mysteries, so if you want the authentic experience, go, read the book and then come back.

Where We Begin weaves into its story powerful truths about the history of Australia, racism, teenage relationships, family and domestic violence, alcoholism and its effects, and storytelling. The title makes so much sense to so many aspects of the story once you’ve read the book. Honestly, there is so much to love about this book, from our studious and determined main character who is thrown into a spin over her new circumstances, the trauma she has experienced throughout her childhood and the new pain she experiences as she learns the truth about her family and past.

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Book Review: Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal

Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal – Anna Whateley – Allen & Unwin – Published 28 April 2020

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Synopsis

At sixteen, neurodivergent Peta Lyre is the success story of social training. That is, until she finds herself on a school ski trip – and falling in love with the new girl. Peta will need to decide which rules to keep, and which rules to break…

‘I’m Peta Lyre,’ I mumble. Look people in the eye if you can, at least when you greet them. I try, but it’s hard when she is smiling so big, and leaning in.

Peta Lyre is far from typical. The world she lives in isn’t designed for the way her mind works, but when she follows her therapist’s rules for ‘normal’ behaviour, she can almost fit in without attracting attention.

When a new girl, Sam, starts at school, Peta’s carefully structured routines start to crack. But on the school ski trip, with romance blooming and a newfound confidence, she starts to wonder if maybe she can have a normal life after all.

When things fall apart, Peta must decide whether all the old rules still matter. Does she want a life less ordinary, or should she keep her rating normal?

My thoughts

For all Peta’s internal turmoil and the sad situations in the book, this is an uplifting and happy story. I found myself enthralled with the plot, loving Peta’s voice and genuinely enjoying every minute of the book. While it does tackle some mature topics, including sexual harassment, relationship breakdown, domestic violence and physical abuse, it is a positive story about accepting your differences and being okay with them and finding your people.

This is not an LGBT discovery or exploration novel. And yet it is. What I’m trying to say that no big deal is made of Peta being gay or not. It’s not really even referenced. She likes guys. She likes girls. There is no exploration of this, it just is, which makes it so authentic and accepting. This is one side of Peta that she doesn’t question or challenge, unlike her diagnosis letters, as she calls them. Continue reading

Book Review: The Hollow Inside

The Hollow Inside – Brooke Lauren Davis – Bloomsbury YA – Published 25 May 2021

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Synopsis

Phoenix and mom Nina have spent years on the road, using their charm and wits to swindle and steal to get by. Now they’ve made it to their ultimate destination, Mom’s hometown of Jasper Hollow. The plan: bring down Ellis Bowman, the man who ruined Nina’s life.

After Phoenix gets caught spying, she spins a convincing story that inadvertently gives her full access to the Bowman family. As she digs deeper into their secrets, she finds herself entrenched in the tale of a death and a disappearance that doesn’t entirely line up with what Mom has told her. Who, if anyone, is telling the whole truth?

My thoughts

The Hollow Inside is completely addictive but I also kind of wanted to read it between my fingers while covering my eyes as there is a near constant feeling of impending dread. Revenges, lies, betrayal, longing – a mystery thriller with so much heart.

I was so caught up in the world and so torn between waning to rescue Phoenix from the woman she calls mother and rescue Nina, both from herself and from the pain of her past. On one hand I was totally, one hundred percent behind the notion of revenge – make that man hurt, ladies. And on the other it’s so easy to see the hurt and destruction Phoenix has to endure while her mother seeks this revenge. There really isn’t a right answer, yet Phoenix has to chose every single day what her right will be. She longs for her mother to acknowledge her and the sacrifices she is making, yet her mother is constantly upset with her, angry and takes it out on Phoenix.

As Phoenix and Nina arrive in Jasper Hollow the truth of what happened there is slowly revealed. Some of this Phoenix discovers as she goes undercover as a sad, homeless girl and finds herself invited to live with the Bowmans. Other, clearer details are revealed through flashbacks to Nina’s childhood. This is what really caught me between wanting a different life for Phoenix and wanting revenge for Nina, as we see the hurt through Nina’s eyes. Does it justify Nina’s actions now or explain them? The reader will have to decide, as does Phoenix.

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Book Review: Tiger Daughter

Tiger Daughter – Rebecca Lim – Allen & Unwin –  Published February 2021

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Synopsis

Wen Zhou is the only child of Chinese immigrants whose move to the lucky country has proven to be not so lucky. Wen and her friend, Henry Xiao — whose mum and dad are also struggling immigrants — both dream of escape from their unhappy circumstances, and form a plan to sit an entrance exam to a selective high school far from home. But when tragedy strikes, it will take all of Wen’s resilience and resourcefulness to get herself and Henry through the storm that follows.

My thoughts

A beautiful and powerful #OwnVoices novel about abusive family relationships and the possibility of freedom offered by friendship and education.

Tiger Daughter is a book that really quick and easy to devour. It address some very serious topics – domestic abuse and control, suicide – but does so in a way that makes it accessible for young readers, compelling but also sensitive.

I love books that make me feel and Tiger Daughter had me swinging wildly from raging hot mad to sad and back again.

Wen is the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Travelling to Australia didn’t bring them the new, grand life they expected. Wen is bound by the restrictions her father places on her and her mother. Honestly, her father comes across as awful, but there is more to his story, more to the relationship Wen has with him. This book in no way excuses domestic abuse and nor does Wen. She knows how her father treats her and her mother is wrong and is determined to stand up against it in the ways in which she can. She is brave and determined. Her only friend at school, Henry, understands. He too is the son of immigrants. Together, they have planned to sit an entrance exam for an elite school – a future that will give them a way out and up.

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Book Review: Where The Road Leads Us

Where the Road Leads Us – Robin Reul – Sourcebooks Fire –  Published 6 April 2021

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Synopsis

Jack is on the verge for leaving for college, but before he does, he wants to track down his estranged brother, Alex and find some closure in the wake of their father’s death. Meanwhile, Hallie has just found out some upsetting news about a friend in Oregon, and she has a small window to go see him before it’s too late.

Jack and Hallie are practically strangers. They shared a class together years ago and haven’t seen each other since, though they have more in common than they’d ever imagine. And when fate puts them into the same rideshare to the bus terminal, it kicks off an unconventional and hilarious adventure that may lead them to their own true selves…and maybe to each other.

My thoughts

Should you follow your heart and if so, how do you decide what your heart is telling you? That’s what Jack and Hallie must both answer in this road trip novel about finding forgiveness, finding your voice and finding your path in this world.

I love road trip novels. I love contemporary novels that combine hope for the future with hurts from the past. That’s exactly what you get in Where The Road Leads Us. Jack has a plan for the future – graduate, internship in New York and follow in his father’s footsteps to become a doctor. But when his girlfriend breaks up with him on graduation night and he spends his birthday alone, he decides to follow the clues in a note from his late father to his estranged brother and finally try to reconnect with his brother.

Hallie knows nothing in her future is certain, not going to college and not her health. When she is given one last chance to meet and say goodbye to an online friend, she decides to follow her heart. Even if it means going on a road trip with two guys she might have just met or sort of know from school.

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Book Review: Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet

Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet – Laekan Zea Kemp – Little, Brown Books for Young Readers – Published 6 April 2021

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Synopsis

As an aspiring pastry chef, Penelope Prado has always dreamed of opening her own pastelería next to her father’s restaurant, Nacho’s Tacos. But her mom and dad have different plans — leaving Pen to choose between disappointing her traditional Mexican-American parents or following her own path. When she confesses a secret she’s been keeping, her world is sent into a tailspin. But then she meets a cute new hire at Nacho’s who sees through her hard exterior and asks the questions she’s been too afraid to ask herself.

Xander Amaro has been searching for home since he was a little boy. For him, a job at Nacho’s is an opportunity for just that — a chance at a normal life, to settle in at his abuelo’s, and to find the father who left him behind. But when both the restaurant and Xander’s immigrant status are threatened, he will do whatever it takes to protect his new found family and himself.

Together, Pen and Xander must navigate first love and discovering where they belong — both within their families and their fiercely loyal Chicanx community — in order to save the place they all call home.

My thoughts

I love books about/that feature food. They are also slightly torturous because food and that makes me hungry. And this book had me serious hungry for Mexican flavours and culinary delights. Of course, what sits so beautifully alongside this story of passion for food and the love that goes into their cooking is a heartbreaking story of belonging.

Penelope Prado knows where she belongs. She dreams of running her own bakery, and building it right next to her family’s restaurant. Her father disagrees, and when Pen finally tells her parents she has dropped out of school and walked away from the life they wanted for her, they refuse to speak to her and her father fires her from the restaurant. Pen is an incredibly strong character – and not just because the guys in the kitchen completely and utterly fear her (which is awesome, by the way). Pen has a history of depression, anxiety and self harm. With her future so uncertainly and her risking everything to chase what feels right, but not really sure how to actually move forward, Pen finds herself wrestling with her mental demons again.

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