Far From the Tree

 

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Robin Benway
Genres: Young Adult
Read: Oct. 2017

 

I loved this!!

I don’t give very many books 5 stars. I’ve usually read most of the book before I realize it’s one of those really special books that deserves the extra star, but every now and then you find a book that you know you are going to love right off the bat. That’s what Far From the Tree was like for me.

I thought this book had the strongest start. It tells the story of 3 teenagers that had all been put up for adoption by their birth mom. Joaquin, the eldest, actually lived with his mother for a short period of time, but ended up in the foster care system for his entire life. He’s been in and out of over a dozen homes and has a very low self-worth, believing himself undeserving of any good thing.

Grace and Maya were luckier and we’re adopted by loving families at birth. Maya is the youngest and just a few months after she was adopted, her mom became pregnant with a miracle baby, Lauren. Lauren looks just like her parents and Maya struggles to fit in when she looks so different from the rest of her family. Grace is the middle child and is heartbroken after becoming pregnant at 16 and deciding to give her own baby, who she refers to as Peach, up for adoption.

The novel opens with Grace giving birth and then alternates each chapter from the point of view of each of the siblings. In the beginning, none of the siblings know each other. After giving up her baby, Grace is inspired to search for her own birth mother and discovers the existence of her 2 siblings and reaches out to them. Grace’s first chapter was so incredibly well written and heartbreaking that I immediately knew I was going to love this book. Funny enough, I read Robin Benway’s debut novel, Audrey, Wait! when I was actually a teenager and it was one of my favourite books at the time, but I stopped reading Benway after her second novel, which I found very disappointing. So it was a pleasant surprise to see this book nominated for the National Book Award (which it won) and I decided to re-visit her work.

Honestly, 2 of the first 3 chapters could have been standalone short stories and they still would have been fantastic. Grace and Joaquin were the most moving stories, but Maya still had a really interesting story arc as well. The emotions are just so well written in this book. Even though I’ve never been in the foster system or given up a baby at 16, their pain and heartbreak was so tangible and relatable. Benway tackled a lot of issues in this book and I felt every second of the story was important and meaningful.

To conclude, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of writing in this story and would highly recommend Far From the Tree to anyone and everyone!

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The Female of the Species

 

Rating: 
Author: Mindy McGinnis
Genres: Young Adult, Fiction
Read: Dec. 2017

 

This was so DARK.

I cannot figure out my feelings about this book. I pretty much read it in 2 sittings, so it’s a pretty quick read, but it packs a punch.

The Female of the Species is told from 3 points of view: Peekay, the preachers kid who has just broken up with her boyfriend; Jack, the popular guy trying to get a full ride to college; and Alex, whose sister Anna was raped and murdered several years prior. Alex is a loner and mostly people don’t think about her, but what they don’t know is the dark feelings Alex struggles to hide inside her.

From the synopsis you think this is going to be a revenge novel, but it’s mostly focused on relationships. I knew it was going to be dark, but I was surprised by how sweet some parts of the novel were. Peekay and Alex work together at an animal shelter and start an unlikely friendship in their senior year. Peekay is still reeling over her boyfriend breaking up with her to hook up with the most popular girl in school, Branley, and Branley is secretly hooking up with all-star Jack. Until Jack meets Alex and can’t shake her from his mind.

There’s a lot of cheating and hook-ups in this book and Branley plays the role of the villain trying to steal everyone’s man, but I liked how honestly McGinnis tried to portray her. Yes Peekay hates Branley for stealing her boyfriend, but the author still wrote a really interesting relationship between them, which gave Branley a lot more depth. She also highlights the culture of slut shaming and I liked when Alex defended Branley’s right to have lots of sex and enjoy it, without being cast in the role of slut.

Ultimately this book is about rape culture. After Anna’s death, Alex struggles with all the casual rape jokes and with anyone even touching her or her friends without consent. When creepy guys threaten her friends, she lashes out at them and hurts them in the same way they intended to hurt women, but the hurts she causes are perceived as so much worse than the potential hurts an assault would cause the victim. There’s a minor scene in gym class where she watches her classmates and teacher ignore one of the guys pretending to simulate sex with his basketball and comments that if she were to act the same way as a girl, people would lose their damn minds.

I liked Alex but she still scared the life out of me. I liked that she erased graffiti against other girls in the washroom, that she always looked out for Peekay, and that she was totally comfortable in her sexual experience (“it’s okay if we wait to have sex”, “I know” lol). I don’t really know what to comment about Alex’s violence. Obviously you can’t just go around killing people no matter how bad they hurt you, but portraying her character this way was an effective way to get your reader thinking about rape culture and all the ways it impacts and hurts people.

The Upside of Unrequited


Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Becky Albertalli
Genres: Young Adult
Read: July 2017

 

This was a cute book and it definitely surpassed my expectations. I thought it sounded a bit juvenile when I read the synopsis, but it was just so relatable! I have almost nothing in common with Molly, who is a twin, has two moms, a bi-racial family, and is fat, and yet I could totally remember what it was like being a teenager and thinking everyone has grown up and left you behind.

Molly’s the only one in her friend group who has never kissed anyone, but it never really bothered her until her twin sister, Cassie, gets her first girlfriend and Molly begins to feel like she’s been left behind. She’s had dozens of crushes over the years and Molly desperately wants a boyfriend, but she’s afraid to put herself out there and what people might think of her.

Every little thing matters when you’re a teenager. Your friends are your lifeline and the most important people in the world to you. But teenagers are really bad at balancing friends and boyfriends/girlfriends and I could absolutely relate to Molly’s fears that she was slowly losing her sister. Your romantic partner does eventually become the most important person in your life, but when only half of a friendship is having the experience of falling in love, it can be really hard to watch and it can make you feel really lonely.

It can also make you feel really uncomfortable when the people around you are having their first sexual experiences and you can’t relate with them. I liked that Albertalli addressed that a lot of teenagers exaggerate their sexual experiences to try and fit in. Molly felt so out of her depth when her friends started talking about sex and Reid expresses that he thinks half of them are just making things up to fit in. Molly is surprised to learn later that even though Cassie’s girlfriend Mina talked a big game, Cassie was the first person she had ever had any kind of romantic relationship with.

There was a lot going on in this novel and the sister relationship reminded me a little of Fangirl, but healthier. It’s a quick read and I enjoyed watching Molly grow and how her relationships changed. I could see people being upset that she ultimately resolves her issues by finding love (why couldn’t she just love herself?), but I thought that Molly actually did love herself already and that she needed to believe that other people could love her too. There was no antagonizing over how she was fat and trying to lose weight – she loved to eat and generally seemed happy with her body. It was more that she was worried that society tells us that fat girls are unlovable and that boys wouldn’t be able to see beyond her weight to who she actually is.

Side note, I also loved that Molly took medication for anxiety, but that it wasn’t part of the story. There wasn’t a sub-plot about her overcoming anxiety, she just takes medication and that helps her, end of story. Overall, I thought this was a sweet, coming-of-age story that had a ton of diversity! I know everyone is obsessed with Albertalli’s other book, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, but I actually found that one a little heavy handed and preferred the Upside of Unrequited!

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue


Rating:
 ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Mackenzi Lee
Genres: Young Adult, Historical Fiction, LGBT
Read: July 2017

 

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue was wonderful! I haven’t been reading a whole lot of young adult novels lately because the genre seemed a little tired and everything felt more or less the same, but the genre has definitely been growing and tackling a lot of issues around race and gender identity that general fiction sometimes seems hesitant to address.

Bravo to Mackenzi Lee for this book! The story is set in the 18th century and focuses on 18 year old Monty and Percy as they set off on a “grand tour” around Europe before preparing to settle down and begin their adult lives. Monty sees the trip as a last hurrah before being forced to take over his father’s estate and plans to gamble and drink his way around Europe with his best friend Percy, who he just happens to be in love with.

The trip quickly goes sideways and Monty, Percy, and Monty’s sister Felicity find themselves being chased all over Europe after an encounter with honest-to-god highway men. This book is hilarious and wildly fun, but it also tackles a lot of tough issues and does it without feeling preachy or forced. Monty is extremely privileged and totally oblivious to his privilege. He blunders around making bad decision after bad decision, but I loved watching him grow and be challenged.

Somehow this book manages to address race, disability, gender equality, sexual orientation, and class privilege. It had the added intrigue of tackling all these issues during the 18th century, where I can’t even begin to imagine what it might be like to be a gay, black, epileptic man. There was a lot going on, but the novel had a lot of depth and was quick-paced.

The characters were all fantastic, but I’m thrilled to discover that Felicity will be getting her own novel next year because she was by far my favourite character. She was so badass – my favourite line of the entire book had to be when she informs Monty and Percy that “Ladies haven’t the luxury of being squeamish about blood”. I loved how all the characters challenged the boxes that 18th century society tried to place them in and how they grew as individuals and in their relationships.

So I would absolutely recommend this as a fun read, but fortunately it’s not a frivolous one and I really think you will be better for having read it. It’s a large print book and it definitely does not feel like 500+ pages – I breezed through it!