The Next Great Paulie Fink

Rating:
Author: Ali Benjamin
Genres: Middle Grade
Pub. date: Apr. 16, 2019 (read, Apr. 2019)

Happy pub day to The Next Great Paulie Fink! Thanks to Hachette Book Group Canada who provided me with a free advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

I loved Ali Benjamin’s debut novel, The Thing About Jellyfish, and she hasn’t published anything new in several years, so I was thrilled when I saw she was publishing a second novel! Both of Benjamin’s books are middle grade and I’ll admit, when I read the plot synopsis for Paulie Fink, it didn’t appeal to me quite as much as her first book because it sounded more juvenille. But don’t let that deter you from reading this one because I ended up really liking it!

The Next Great Paulie Fink is about 7th grader, Caitlyn Breen, who is a new student at Mitchell School. Caitlyn’s mom got a new job and moved them both to rural Vermont from New York, a decision that was not very popular with Caitlyn. Her new school seems totally backwards from her old school and doesn’t seem to follow any of the social “rules” she learned in New York. The kids in her new class all seem eccentric to Caitlyn and they are caught up in the disappearance of one of their former classmates, Paulie Fink.

Paulie was the class clown and beloved by his classmates. But he doesn’t return for 7th grade and no one knows what happened to him. He leaves a void behind that the kids want to fill with a new Paulie, so they decide to have a reality show competition to find the Next Great Paulie Fink. Caitlyn’s struggles to get on board with the competition since she never knew Paulie, but her classmates convince her to judge the competition and suddenly she’s thrust into a totally new world that scares her, but challenges her.

Granted, it’s been a few years since I read The Thing about Jellyfish, but this book had quite a different tone from that book. It’s a lot funnier and it has a large cast of characters to carry the story. It’s overwhelming at first trying to keep track of Caitlyn’s classmates, but eventually they all start to develop personalities of their own, and while Caitlyn is always our central character, I really loved some of her classmates as well.

Like I said, I initially wondered if I would glean much from this book as an adult reader, or if it really was tailored for kids. But I ended up really liking it and even though the themes were younger, I still thought the author did a great job at making this a well rounded story that could be enjoyed at any age. I particularly liked how she approached bullying in this book. Moving to a new school and finding it absent of the social structure that was in her last school, Caitlyn starts reflecting on some of the interactions she had with her former classmates and how some of her actions may have been hurtful. Because her class is so small (a dozen students), and because they are so rural, her classmates are all very supportive of one another and Caitlyn initially struggles with that. She protected herself in her old school by growing a hard shell and disconnecting her emotions from those around her, and in her new school, she struggles to let herself be vulnerable and that hard shell actually creates a barrier with her new classmates.

I also really liked the author’s exploration of legends and kleos (glory). Paulie was a legend at Mitchell and in their search for the next Paulie, the students learn about kleos and what makes someone memorable or a legend. The catch is, kleos can make us forget things too. When we glorify someone, it’s easy to forget the things that made them human or the things that annoyed you about them. We later discover that Paulie was really just as human as the rest of the students, but because of the reputation he developed at Mitchell, the students started over-hyping who he was and to an extent, lost sight of the real Paulie and failed to notice the unique things that they have to offer in their quest to be more like Paulie.

I liked a lot of the secondary characters, but (no surprise I’m sure) Fiona was definitely my favourite. Fiona wears a power suit to school every single day because she wants to one day be a powerful woman. She’s not great at school and struggles to pay attention in class. But she is buoyed by her belief that “well-behaved women seldom make history”. All of the students at Mitchell had so much spunk and I loved watching a group of kids be so great at supporting one another. Was it realistic? I’m not really sure. But I think that was kind of the point. Mitchell school was doing something right – it didn’t seem like a place should exist like this, but somehow it did. When you find something special like that, it’s worth protecting, even if it challenges your worldview.

Mostly though, this book was just a lot of fun. There’s lots to make you laugh and lots to make you think. I think Caitlyn’s classmates are right in that sweet spot where they’re still children, but are about to become teenagers. Caitlyn was pushed to mature a little earlier growing up in New York, which is why she has hardened herself against the world. But these students are still idealistic and not yet jaded about the world. Overall, I loved the balance of humour and life lessons about growing up.

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Queenie

Rating:
Author: Candice Carty-Williams
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Mar. 2019 (read Apr. 2019 on Audible)
Narrator: Shvorne Marks

I completely sped through this audiobook! Queenie wasn’t really on my radar at all and then suddenly, it was everywhere! It’s been compared to Bridget Jones and it featured a Jamaican-British, 25 year old, so I was definitely intrigued. Plus the audiobook narrator sounded great in the sample and had me laughing out loud in her 5 minute clip.

The reviews are a bit mixed on the book though and after reading it, I can definitely understand why. Queenie works for a newspaper and has just split up with her boyfriend of 3 years, Tom. They’ve been struggling as a couple, so they decide to go on a break for 3 months. but Queenie really struggles with the separation and turns to casual sex to fill the void in her life. She’s lonely and her break with Tom is really the start of a pretty brutal downward spiral and a ongoing fight with anxiety and depression.

The reason I say I can understand why some people would dislike this book is because Queenie is often a frustrating and sometimes unlikable character. She has very little self esteem or self respect and she struggles to stay motivated at work, making a lot of bad choices, both in her personal and professional life. She’s also black and struggles with institutionalized racism at work, casual racism in her relationship with Tom, and fetishism in her romantic life.

The book is hard to read at times because Queenie is so rough on herself and you just want her to come to terms with reality and start to make her life better. But I loved it because she felt like such a real character. Despite her bad choices, I really empathized with her and her friends. She knows she’s not okay and she just keeps pushing ahead toward the end of her “break” with Tom with the idea that if she can just return to her relationship, everything else will sort itself out. But she eventually has to come to terms with the fact that she is the only person who can sort out her problems and that getting back with Tom won’t fix the other things she’s struggling with.

This is ultimately a book about mental health and the additional struggles that black people and immigrants face in achieving success and finding support. Queenie is up against additional hurdles because she is black and even though her family loves her very much, there’s a real cultural disconnect in the way that they think about mental illness. Her family has suffered so much physical and emotional trauma in immigrating, that they are very dismissive of mental health and the value of therapy. I loved when Queenie was finally able to recognize that counselling might actually be able to help her and that she pursued it despite what her family thought. She is adverse to medicating for her panic attacks though, which I thought was a too bad because it probably would have helped her a lot.

Because of the depth of Queenie’s struggles, I’ve read a lot of reviews that the comparison to Bridget Jones isn’t accurate. I knew that going into the book and I was fine with it because I always prefer a little more depth to my characters, but I would actually agree with the assessment that this is like Bridget Jones. It’s definitely darker and not a fun rom-com like Bridget Jones, but I did notice a lot of parallels, which I thought made the book even more enjoyable.

Queenie has a similar sense of humour to Bridget, which I equate with British humour. She’s self deprecating and unflinchingly honest – to the point of oversharing. Like Bridget, she’s someone who is ready to settle down with a man, but continually finds herself making poor decisions. She works in publishing, makes the mistake of acting on an ill-informed work romance, and has a small group of friends that she turns to for support. Her group of friends consists of Darcy, Cassandra, and Cheska (sorry, I listened to audio so I genuinely have NO idea how to spell her name, so I’m going with the phonetic spelling). I loved that she called her friends “the corgis” and I loved all the interactions she had with them. I thought each of these women were fully realized as secondary characters and I found them all extremely relatable. Everyone has women like this in their lives, even snooty, annoying friends like Cassandra. Cheska was my favourite because her and Queenie understood each other better, both being black, but I also really liked Darcy, who supported Queenie in her own way as well.

Even though I couldn’t personally relate with most of Queenie’s problems, overall I still thought she was so relatable! Her character was so honest and I thought the author did a wonderful job in taking us on Queenie’s journey to self discovery. The book explores how everyone has baggage and that everyone deals with those issues in different ways. You don’t need to apologize for falling apart, and you don’t have to put yourself back together alone. I thought this book also did a great job at shining a light on all of the little microaggressions that black people have to put up with day after day and how people repeatedly dismiss their existence and see them as less than human in some circumstances. Men fetishized Queenie’s black skin and curves and they treated her with less respect than I think they would a white woman. In most cases, Queenie deserved the criticisms she received, but there were definitely other cases where she was discriminated against and treated unfairly as a black woman.

I also liked that this was ultimately a story about self-discovery and self-love and that Queenie never solved her problems by finding romantic love. Stories like this often follow the troupe where the woman has no luck with love but then eventually finds it in the least likely place and everything ends happily ever after. Queenie tries to fill the void in her life with sex, but ultimately realizes that her happiness in not contingent on a man and that her familial and friend relationships are ultimately the most important relationships in her life.

I also liked that when Queenie started looking after her mental health, she found more clarity in where she was at fault in her relationships and where other people were at fault. It’s clear from the beginning that Tom and Queenie had relationship issues. She initially blames Tom for all their issues, and while he is definitely still at fault for a lot of their problems (namely not sticking up for her against his family’s casual racism), Queenie realizes that she is also at fault for some of their problems. She is better able to recognize her own harmful habits and identify the habits others have that are harmful to her, but that she has let slide in the past.

There are some relationships where it is worth forgiving the person who has hurt you. It’s evident from the beginning that Queenie has a bad relationship with her mom, although it’s a while before we learn the extent of why. Her mother undeniably hurt her and some of the decisions she made were terrible, but sometimes it is worth acknowledging a person’s shortcomings, but still deciding to forgive them in the interest of safeguarding that relationship. Then there are other relationships where you really don’t owe the person who has hurt you anything. Just because they want your forgiveness, it doesn’t mean you have to grant it, and there are times when it is better to cut that harmful person out of your life, regardless of how they say they’ve been transformed.

Overall, a great read. Maybe not for everyone, especially if you struggle with frustrating or unlikable characters. Personally, I never disliked Queenie, I just lamented her bad choices. My favourite parts were the frank discussions around mental health and the examples of microaggressions that Black people face on a daily basis. I will miss reading about this character!

With the Fire on High

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Elizabeth Acevedo
Genres: Young Adult
Pub. date: May 7, 2019 (read Apr. 2019)

I have been struggling with YA lately, but I really enjoyed Elizabeth Acevedo’s second novel, With the Fire on High. I loved her debut, The Poet X, last year, so I was thrilled to get my hands on an advance copy for her new book. I’ll admit I was a little disappointed when I realized this book wasn’t written in prose, but not for too long because it was well written and I enjoyed the story.

With the Fire on High tells the story of high school student, Emoni Santiago, as she finishes her senior year and tries to decide what path to take upon graduation. The catch is that Emoni was raised by her abuela after the death of her own mother in childbirth and is now a mom herself to her 2-year old daughter Emma. Emoni has always struggled in school, but with the help of her grandmother, she is able to complete high school. She feels pressure to pursue post-secondary, but is unsure how she would manage or pay for more schooling and still take care of her daughter. Plus, her great passion lies in cooking and the only kind of schooling she can see pursuing, is culinary school.

To her amazement, her high school offers a culinary class in her final year under the fine arts credit and she signs up for the course. Emoni has always followed her intuition in the kitchen and she struggles with discipline when following recipes. The best part of the course though, is that it includes a one-week trip to Spain at the end of the semester. Emoni would love to go on the trip, but she’s not sure if she can afford it or make it work with her daughter. But she is determined to at least try!

This is a pretty straightforward novel, with nothing too surprising, but I loved the exploration of what it means to be a teen mom. I’ve read lots of YA books about bad decisions that lead to unwanted pregnancies, but I can’t think of a book set in modern day time that starts at this point in the story. Emoni has already come to terms with being a mother and all that it means. She is a great mom to Babygirl, but she struggles with the daily challenges of being a teenager while simultaneously trying to take care and provide for her daughter. She is mature and has risen above the criticisms of her peers, yet she is still undoubtedly a teenager in some of the ways that she reacts to her experiences. She’s not threatened by classmates that look down on her, yet still deeply insecure when she is challenged by her cooking teacher.

The book has a romance, but it’s a secondary story-line. Senior year is a confusing time for any teenager and I liked the exploration of how much more confusing it was for Emoni. She wants to continue to dream, but is faced with the realities of her circumstances. Can she really go to culinary school with a 2-year old daughter? How will she continue to earn money to pay for both school and life? She is a dreamer, but realistic. I thought that the book provided a good look at the power of dreams and having the courage to go after them, but also understanding that our dreams can change and that it’s not always going to be a direct path to achieve them. There are some things that are worth sacrificing for and just because you say ‘no’ or ‘not now’, it doesn’t mean you can’t continue to work towards those dreams.

Overall this is a lighthearted book, but it’s a lighthearted book with depth. It was enjoyable to read and Emoni was an inspiring character! Thanks to my friend for picking this one up for me at a book fair and thanks to HarperCollins Canada for the early copy. With the Fire on High is scheduled for release on May 7, 2019.

The Stories You Tell

Rating:
Author: Kristen Lepionka
Genres: Mystery
Pub. date: Jul. 9, 2019 (read Mar. 2019)
Series: Roxane Weary #3

Thanks for Minotaur Books for providing me with a free advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

This series is fantastic! I really liked the first book, but honestly, they just keep getting better and better. Roxane is such a great character and I love the balance Lepionka has found between the mystery element and the development of her recurring characters. The secondary characters change up a bit from book to book, but I love Roxane’s relationship with her family and her growing friendships with Tom and Shelby. No comment on Catherine.

Lepionka is a really great writer. I’ve said this in other reviews, but I know she’s great at connecting her readers with her characters because of the level of frustration you feel for them. The characters are extremely compelling and her plots of so relevant to today’s society. They are always, predominantly, mystery novels, but she weaves a lot of relevant social commentary into her stories that makes them so much more meaningful and relatable to her readers. She didn’t have to do anything special with these books and I think they still could have been successful, but I love that she takes the effort to make her stories diverse.

I love that Roxane is bi-sexual and I love how she incorporated some thoughtful commentary on racial justice and equality in this book. Her previous books have focused on the inequity that women face in the justice system and I like how she spent a little bit of time in this book looking at how black people are disenfranchised in the system and drawing attention to the ways in which white people don’t realize what kind of privilege they actually have.

I’m not going to get into the plot too much. At this point, the plot of the mystery doesn’t really matter to me, I’m here for Roxane. I would definitely recommend reading the series in order though because otherwise you’ll miss out on all the great character development! The only thing that wasn’t great about the book was that the transitions between scenes were very abrupt, with no break in structure to let us know the scene had changed. I think this is just a quirk of the ebook arc I had though and I’m expecting this will be changed in the finished copy.

So in conclusion, I highly recommend this series. I totally flew through this installment and read the whole thing in a single day!

More 2019 Books I Can’t Wait to Read

There are so many amazing books coming out this year! I already published one blog about new releases I can’t wait to read, but there’s so many more books coming out, I had to make another list.

Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok – Jun. 4, 2019
Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation was one of my favourite books that I read last year, so I’m stoked to see her publishing something new! Sylvie is the accomplished older sister of the Lee family and her younger sister Amy has always looked up to her. When Sylvie disappears on a trip to the Netherlands, Amy has the opportunity to help find her, discovering along the way that her perfect sister had her own dark secrets. The synopsis calls it a ” deeply moving story of family, secrets, identity, and longing.” I live for family dramas and everything about this intrigues me!

Say You Still Love Me by K.A. Tucker – Aug. 6, 2019
I know K.A. Tucker has a million other books that I could have read after finishing (and LOVING) her latest book, The Simple Wild, but there’s something so much more exciting about a new release from an author you like. Tucker writes romance, which is not normally my cup of tea, but The Simple Wild had so much more depth than a traditional romance novel that I can’t wait to read more from this author. Say You Still Love Me is about ‘new adult’, Piper Calloway, who works as a VP at her Dad’s wealthy real estate company: cue the drama of working in a male-dominated industry with your ex-fiance! Tucker is great at writing relatable millennials and has expanded the New Adult genre, so I can’t wait to read this one.

When All is Said by Anne Griffin – Jan. 24, 2019
Good news! This book is already out! When All is Said takes place at a bar over the course of a single night as Maurice Hannigan toasts 5 influential people in his life. This book has been getting rave reviews and the idea of reflecting on those that had the most impact on your life sounds like a really compelling story. In the same way that I love a good family drama – I love character-driven stories about relationships. I’ve ordered a copy of this one from book depository and I’m just waiting for it to show up so I can dive in!

The Place on Dalhousie by Melina Marchetta – Apr. 2, 2019
Melina Marchetta is one of my all time favourite authors and I will pretty much read anything she writes. She mostly writes Young Adult, so I assumed this was a new YA book, but friends, upon closer inspection I’ve discovered that this is another New Adult book!! Two NA books on one list! That rarely happens because the genre is so underdeveloped. The Place on Dalhousie is about the house Rosie Gennaro’s father built for his family but never completed. It’s not totally clear from the synopsis, but I believe Rosie has lost both of her parents and this book is about coming to terms with that grief and learning to build a new family with the special people left in her life. I may be off with this description, but the story sounds so moving and if it was written by Melina Marchetta, it definitely will be!

What the Wind Knows by Amy Harmon – Mar. 1, 2019
Another book that’s already been released! I started this book recently and I’m about 50 pages in (at the time of writing this post). Amy Harmon has a lot of books, but I’ve only read her one fantasy series, The Bird and the Sword. Most of her other books are romances that haven’t appealed to me that much, but this one is historical fiction about the Irish uprising and the struggle for independence. Our story centers on Anne Gallagher, who inadvertently travels back in time to Ireland 1921. It sounds a bit like ‘Irish Outlander’ to me, but Harmon’s writing is so gorgeous and lyrical that I’m anticipating a thoughtful and sensitive take on this piece of Ireland’s history (something I’m woefully uneducated on, so definitely a learning opportunity for me!).

The Stories You Tell by Kristen Lepionka – Jul. 9, 2019
This book stands in contrast to most of the others on this list, but somehow I forgot it on my other list, even though I’ve known it’s coming for awhile. The Stories You Tell is the 3rd book in Kristen Lepionka’s mystery series about private investigator Roxane Weary. The series is pretty much what you expect from this type of series, with each book looking at a different investigation, but I love Roxane as the main character! She has so much depth and I love how Lepionka develops Roxane’s character around her over-arching mystery plot and how many relevant social themes she incorporates into her storylines. A mystery series with meaning, depth, and a killer MC.

The Next Great Paulie Fink by Ali Benjamin – Apr. 16, 2019
This was a recent discovery for me, but 4 years after her beautiful debut novel, The Thing About Jellyfish, Ali Benjamin is publishing a new book! Benjamin is a middle grade writer and her new book is about 7th grader Caitlyn Breen who is starting a new school in Vermont. As if it’s not hard enough starting a new school, Caitlyn’s classmates are reeling from the loss of their beloved class clown, Paulie Fink and decide to run a competition to replace him (he’s left the school, not died or anything!). The Thing about Jellyfish had the most gorgeous writing and in this second novel I’m expecting another beautiful story about growing up and finding yourself.

A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum – Mar. 5, 2019
A Woman is No Man was one of Book of the Month’s featured picks, so of course, I keep seeing it popping up everywhere now! This is Rum’s debut novel and focuses on 18-year old Arab-American teenager, Deya. Though she’s only 18, her grandparents are forcing her into an arranged marriage, not unlike the marriage that was forced onto her own mother, Isra. This has been getting rave reviews and the premise sounds fascinating to me! Another family drama I can’t wait to get my hands on (I’m also intrigued by what the title means).

When We Left Cuba by Chanel Cleeton – Apr. 9, 2019
My book club pick for this month is Next Year in Havana, which Chanel Cleeton published last year, I haven’t even started it yet, but I’m really excited to read it and then even more excited to hear it was getting a second novel. My understanding is that When We Left Cuba will be a companion novel, with each book focusing on one of the Perez sisters. I don’t want to get too into the plot having not read the first book yet, but they’re both set in Cuba in the late 1950’s, early 1960’s and focus on Cuba’s political climate at that time. I’m thinking I might read these two back to back before my book club meeting!

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams – Mar. 19, 2019
Queenie was just released and is being called a “modern day Bridget Jones”. It’s about a 25 year old Jamaican-British woman living in London (New Adult books representing on this list!) and her quest for love and to deal with her anxiety. All the reviews I’ve read said that this has the humour you would expect from a book being compared to Bridget Jones, but that it has a lot more depth. I love that more and more books like this are being published and I really hope this trend continues!