The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

Fourteen-year-old Joan Skraggs, just like the heroines in her beloved novels, yearns for real life and true love. But what hope is there for adventure, beauty, or art on a hardscrabble farm in Pennsylvania where the work never ends? Over the summer of 1911, Joan pours her heart out into her diary as she seeks a new, better life for herself — because maybe, just maybe, a hired girl cleaning and cooking for six dollars a week can become what a farm girl could only dream of: a woman with a future. Follow Joan’s journey from the muck of the chicken coop to the comforts of a society household in Baltimore (electricity! carpet sweepers! sending out the laundry!), taking readers on an exploration of feminism and housework; religion and literature; love and loyalty; cats, hats, and bunions.The Hired Girl

I picked up The Hired Girl simply because of all the starred reviews and awards it was receiving. I didn’t read the synopsis before I dove in, and I’m glad. I’m not usually one for historical fiction, or stories that heavily feature religion but The Hired Girl worked for me. I now understand all the hype!

The story is told in diary format by our charming and optimistic narrator, fourteen year old, Catholic Joan Skraggs. It’s 1911, and her father is wicked cruel and demands everyone earn their keep on the farm. Joan loves learning, so when he forbids her from school and burns her books, she runs away in search for a better life. Joan, renames herself Janet Lovelace, pretends she is 18 and lands a job as a hired girl in a Jewish home.

My favourite aspect of the book was the dynamics between Janet and her employers (the Rosenbach family- and of course, Malka.) Although Janet has a strong work ethic, she quickly becomes over-involved and finds herself in trouble on numerous occasions. It’s during these moments when her true age shows. However, since Janet is such a spirited character, it’s hard not to root for her from beginning to end. The strong cast of secondary characters all help Janet learn tough lessons about love, tolerance and respecting religious beliefs.

I loved that The Hired Girl was inspired by the author’s grandmother’s journal. Overall, the story that Laura Amy Schlitz has crafted is an engaging, thought provoking and a definite must read!

The Secret Language of Sisters by Luanne Rice

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Thanks to Scholastic for sending me this advanced reading copy of The Secret Language of Sisters.  Unfortunately, I could not get past the blame game to enjoy the read.  The one moment that Ruth Ann (Roo), answers a text when driving, her entire life changes.  It’s a serious crash, and she ends up in the hospital and permanently disabled.  Her sister Mathilda (Tilly) was the last person to text her, and feels responsible for the crash. There is so much blame placed on Tilly as “she should have known better” than to text Ruth, it’s ridiculous.  Everyone texts these days, and you never know if the individual on the receiving end is driving or not.  It’s up to the driver to drive responsibly and not answer the text. Throughout the whole book, her mom, friends, and reporters continue to shame Tilly.

“I texted you, too, that day, “ Isabel said. “I swear I stopped once I knew you were on your way to Tilly. I would never put you in danger.”

“But Tilly did?” Dr. Howarth asked.

“Yes, she did,” Isabel said, head up high and sounding ferocious. “It was the last text before Roo went off the road.”

Overall, I felt like I was being continuously hit over the head about the dangers of texting and driving. However, for some high schoolers this may be exactly what they need to read.  If you’re interested in this book, it will be available February 2016.

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy

Self-proclaimed fat girl Willowdean Dickson (dubbed “Dumplin’” by her former beauty queen mom) has always been at home in her own skin. Her thoughts on having the ultimate bikini body? Put a bikini on your body. With her all-American beauty best friend, Ellen, by her side, things have always worked…until Will takes a job at Harpy’s, the local fast-food joint. There she meets Private School Bo, a hot former jock. Will isn’t surprised to find herself attracted to Bo. But she is surprised when he seems to like her back.

Instead of finding new heights of self-assurance in her relationship with Bo, Will starts to doubt herself. So she sets out to take back her confidence by doing the most horrifying thing she can imagine: entering the Miss Clover City beauty pageant—along with several other unlikely candidates—to show the world that she deserves to be up there as much as any twiggy girl does. Along the way, she’ll shock the hell out of Clover City—and maybe herself most of all. With starry Texas nights, red candy suckers, Dolly Parton songs, and a wildly unforgettable heroine—Dumplin’ is guaranteed to steal your heart.

 dumplin

Based on the above blurb, I thought the book would center mostly on the pageant. However, I was sadly disappointed that the pageant doesn’t come into play until halfway through this really slow paced book.

I found the main character Willowdean unlikable and cruel. She was constantly judging other people’s bodies! I was really hoping to read about a different kind of YA character: a confident, sassy big girl who embraces her body.  Instead I got an insecure, selfish chick with boy drama (ugh). There was definitely conflicting messages about body positivity.

Despite the hype and praise, I totally felt underwhelmed by Dumplin’. Perhaps if you don’t have expectations of the book and/or a fan of Dolly Parton music, you may enjoy it.

Favourite quote:

“All my life, I’ve had a body worth commenting on. And if living in my skin has taught me anything it’s that if it’s not your body, it’s not yours to comment on. Fat, skinny, short, tall, it doesn’t matter.”

More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera

In the months after his father’s suicide, it’s been tough for 16-year-old Aaron Soto to find happiness again–but he’s still gunning for it. With the support of his girlfriend Genevieve and his overworked mom, he’s slowly remembering what that might feel like. But grief and the smile-shaped scar on his wrist prevent him from forgetting completely. When Genevieve leaves for a couple of weeks, Aaron spends all his time hanging out with this new guy, Thomas. Aaron’s crew notices, and they’re not exactly thrilled. But Aaron can’t deny the happiness Thomas brings or how Thomas makes him feel safe from himself, despite the tensions their friendship is stirring with his girlfriend and friends. Since Aaron can’t stay away from Thomas or turn off his newfound feelings for him, he considers turning to the Leteo Institute’s revolutionary memory-alteration procedure to straighten himself out, even if it means forgetting who he truly is. Why does happiness have to be so hard?

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I’ve been struggling to get back into YA lately, but thankfully, More Happy Than Not has renewed my love in teen fiction. I find it hard to put into words how wonderful yet sad this story is. Readers should know there are heavy  topics (homophobia, depression, suicide) explored and scenes with potential to cause distress.  Despite this, Silvera is able to maintain a level of hopefulness for his main character, Aaron as he considers a memory-alteration procedure to forget he’s gay.  This leads to many thought provoking questions and ideas regarding sexuality.  Can erasing memories truly change who you are, and who you’re meant to be?

Along with Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, the powerful and thought-provoking, More Happy Than Not is definitely one of my favourite LGBTQ books.  It’s important authors continue to write real LGBTQ stories for youth.  I’m so happy I have some amazing stories I can connect readers to.

THE DOGS by Allan Stratton

Cameron and his mom have been on the run for five years. His father is hunting them. At least, that’s what Cameron’s been told. When they settle in an isolated farmhouse, Cameron starts to see and hear things that aren’t possible. Soon he’s questioning everything he thought he knew and even his sanity. What’s hiding in the night? Buried in the past? Cameron must uncover the dark secrets before they tear him apart.

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Influenced by his own past, author Allan Stratton discloses his personal connection to the book’s themes in the included Q+A.  Heavy themes like: domestic abuse, bullying, and mental health issues are portrayed throughout this eerie, teen thriller.

After moving in, Cameron quickly realizes that the creepy (just look at that front cover!), isolated farmhouse has a strange history. As a reader, it was easy to be immediately hooked by the mystery of the farmhouse, and like Cameron, I was curious to uncover the truth. The plot moves at warp speed; especially when Cameron makes one little mistake and sets of a frightening chain of events!

More praise:

“It’s about ghosts and terrifying danger and going mad all at once. I didn’t know what was real and what was imagined until the very last page. I loved it!” —Melvin Burgess, author of Carnegie Medal winner Junk

“It is increasingly rare to find genuine, convincing narratives that have us looking over our shoulders. The Dogs is such a narrative…What would it be like if the most frightening thing in your world lay at the heart of your own family? Stratton imagines this horror full and convincingly.” —Quill & Quire, starred review

Your Constant Star by Brenda Hasiuk

Some people are lost, maybe for good, but others are found.

Faye is the “good” adopted Chinese daughter. Bev is the wild child. Mannie is the unambitious stoner. What brings them together—and tears them apart—is a need to move beyond the clichés and commit to something—anything—that will bring meaning and joy to their lives.  When Faye’s long-lost childhood neighbor, Bev, turns up out of the blue, wanting something from her old friend, Faye goes along with Bev’s plan. But Mannie, the joyriding daddy of Bev’s baby, has a half-crazed romantic agenda of his own. As one cold, miserable prairie spring inches toward summer, a series of unexpected and sometimes explosive decisions sends the trio hurtling toward disaster. A darkly funny portrayal of three unforgettable teenagers feeling their way into adulthood in an imperfect world.

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Your Constant Star revolves around three flawed Winnipeg teens and an unwanted pregnancy (aka. “little alien.”) “Happy ho-hum” Faye introduces this young adult story, followed by pregnant Bev, and her druggie boyfriend, Mannie.  While the different perspectives were interesting, I enjoyed reading about Faye’s cultural heritage and adoption story the most.   That being said, for various reasons, I didn’t particularly like any of the characters.  They annoyed and frustrated me. Especially when they embraced the ‘I don’t give a %&#$’ attitude and put themselves and others in serious harm. However, I recognize I don’t fit into the intended reader audience, and perhaps Faye, Bev and Manny would have a different effect on teenage readers.

Indeed, CM Magazine writes:

“With all their flaws, the three narrators jump off the page with terrifying realism. They are teenagers to make any parent or guidance counselor cringe in recognition. Hasiuk doesn’t flinch from adolescent anger and frustration…Bev, Mannie and Faye are hard to forget…A novel for older teens who want realism with no preachiness…Recommended.”

Better off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg

For Macallan and Levi, it was friends at first sight. Everyone says guys and girls can’t be just friends, but these two are. They hang out after school, share tons of inside jokes, their families are super close, and Levi even starts dating one of Macallan’s friends. They are platonic and happy that way.

Eventually they realize they’re best friends — which wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t keep getting in each other’s way. Guys won’t ask Macallan out because they think she’s with Levi, and Levi spends too much time joking around with Macallan, and maybe not enough time with his date. They can’t help but wonder . . . are they more than friends or are they better off without making it even more complicated?

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My Scholastic Rep knows my reading preferences, and swore I’d LOVE this book. She sent me an advanced reading copy, and I immediately dove in to this sweet, contemporary story.  Throughout high school, I too had a very close male friend and I’m sure our families wondered if, at some point, it would turn romantic. For us, we truly were and ARE better off friends! However, it was still fun reading this fairly predictable (but cute) story about two best friends falling in love.

Every chapter switches between Levi and Macallan’s perspective.  Although they have distinct voices, readers are clued into the change with two visuals.  The first is a greyed out male/female image mirroring the front cover, and the other is a different font.  The start of each chapter begins with Levi and Macallan’s flirty banter as they look back at the progression of their relationship.  Even in the earlier chapters, it’s obvious that crush signs were there.  “If I had only one goal in life, it would be to make her laugh loudly everyday (pg.82)”.  Pretty sure that’s not a typical ‘friend’ statement.

Besides the romance, I loved the emphasis on the family. Both Levi’s and Macallan’s family are consistently involved throughout the book. As Levi and Macallan become inseperable, their welcoming, supportive, and protective families also grow tight. It was refreshing to read about teens that understand and embrace the importance of family.

Overall, I enjoyed this wholesome (no booze, sex, or swearing!), high school romance. Although it was my first Elizabeth Eulberg read, I’m sure it won’t be my last.  Look for Better Off Friends in February 2014.

Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher

Fifteen-year-old Zoe has a secret—a dark and terrible secret that she can’t confess to anyone she knows. But then one day she hears of a criminal, Stuart Harris, locked up on death row in Texas. Like Zoe, Stuart is no stranger to secrets. Or lies. Or murder.

Full of heartache yet humour, Zoe tells her story in the only way she can—in letters to the man in prison in America. Armed with a pen, Zoe takes a deep breath, eats a jam sandwich, and begins her tale of love and betrayal.

 

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A guilty conscience pushes fifteen year old Zoe to seek a pen pal that understands her situation.  In her mind, Stuart Harris (an inmate on death row), is the perfect choice because they are both responsible for the death of a loved one.  The entire story is told in letter form, but since ‘Zoe’ uses a fake name and address, we never see Stuart’s replies.  One has to wonder if he even received the letters, and if so, what his response would be.  We watch as Zoe starts off formally, addressing him with ‘Dear Mr. S. Harris’, and as the letter progresses, ‘Hey there, Stu’.  She writes these letters from a shed where her only company is a lone spider.

The author did a brilliant job at keeping the reader guessing Zoe’s terrible secret.  There are clues throughout; hinting at the tragic death of one of the two brothers Zoe has feelings for.  It’s a sad ending for all involved.

My biggest critique is the title. Although Ketchup Clouds is a catchy title, I’m not sure what it has to do with the story (besides Zoe’s sister drawing clouds in ketchup).  Maybe there was some deeper meaning that I missed?  Thoughts?

Overall, Ketchup Clouds is a sad story about love, family, murder and secrets.  Due to some explicit sexual content, I would recommend this book to older YA readers.

Creeps by Darren Hynes

Fifteen-year-old Wayne Pumphrey wishes he were courageous enough to actually send the heartfelt letters he writes to friends and family. He also wishes his father would drive on the right side of the street, his mother would stop packing her suitcase to leave, and his sister would stop listening to Nickelback. But most of all, he wishes that Pete “The Meat” would let him walk to school in peace. After all, how many times can one person eat yellow snow?

Then one morning, while facing Pete and his posse, Wayne is rescued by Marjorie, the girl with a dead father and a mother who might as well be. Together, the two of them escape Pete’s relentless bullying by rehearsing for the school play, and an unlikely friendship is formed. As they grow ever closer to one another, they begin to dream of escape from their small town and restricted lives. But Pete now has plans for both of them—and after a moment of sudden violence, nothing will ever be the same again for Wayne, Marjorie, or Pete himself.

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Named after a Radiohead song, this Canadian book realistically portrays the affects of bullying on victim, perpetrator, and their families.  Set in Labrador, this story is mostly told in third person narrative, but also includes letter entries from fifteen year old Wayne Pumphrey.  He writes to his family, teachers, bullies, God and his only friend Majorie. I enjoyed this addition as it allowed insight into Wayne’s world, including his nightmare home life. The letter to his bully, Pete the Meat (on pg. 104) was particularly heartbreaking as Wayne tries to understand why he had become the target of their aggressive bullying.

Dear Pete The Meat,

Is it the way I walk? Talk? Is it because I’m small? Is my laugh strange? My voice? Do I smell funny or dress stupid or style my hair the wrong way? Are my eyes too far apart? WHAT?

I found Wayne’s letters to carry more maturity than how he typically acted and spoke, so it’s a real shame that he never found the courage to send them out.  Although, I’m not sure how much of an impact it would have had on his bullies, but maybe, just maybe it could have prevented the awful, terrible, horrific scene involving Wayne and Majorie. I quickly moved from being extremely uncomfortable to utter shock with the surprising ending!

For all the above reasons, I think Creeps is a great conversation starter about bullying for high school students.  For more books on bullying, see: Hate List by Jennifer Brown & 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher.

When We Wake by Karen Healey

Sixteen-year-old Tegan is just like every other girl living in 2027—she’s happiest when playing the guitar, she’s falling in love for the first time, and she’s joining her friends to protest the wrongs of the world: environmental collapse, social discrimination, and political injustice.

But on what should have been the best day of Tegan’s life, she dies—and wakes up a hundred years later, locked in a government facility with no idea what happened.

The future isn’t all she had hoped it would be, and when appalling secrets come to light, Tegan must make a choice: Does she keep her head down and survive, or fight for a better world?

 

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I found When We Wake to be an interesting socio-political, dystopian YA read. The world building was fantastic, and Healey’s vision of the future 100 years from now felt very plausible. Some aspects of society had improved (acceptance of gender/sexual orientation), but others were worrisome (environment, displaced refugees).  Although thought provoking, at times it did get a bit preachy.

The plot itself had some twists and turns. As soon as the action ramped up, the book became a very quick read.  The pace picked up after Tegan finds out she is part of ‘Operation New Beginning’ and refuses to be the government’s guinea pig.  She fights for some resemblance of a normal life. In this ‘normal’ life, the Beatles are of great importance to Tegan.  They provide hope and comfort. I liked the many Beatles references and immediately picked up on the Beatles song titles as chapter headings.

If the fantastic cover hasn’t already swayed you, pick up this book if you want to explore a futuristic world with an action packed plot.  For those that enjoy series, there is a second book entitled, While We Run in the works (to be released May 2014).

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