Review: A Long Way From You by Gwendolyn Heasley

 

Title: A Long Way From You

Author: Gwendolyn Heasley

Publisher:  Harper Teen

 

May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:

For too long, Kitsy has had to satisfy her dreams of becoming a real artist by giving her friends makeovers before prom. So when her best friend Corrinne’s family offers to sponsor her for a summer art course in New York City, Kitsy bids a temporary good-bye to Texas to say hello to the West Village.

Between navigating the subway and the New Yorkers—namely, the Art Boy who has a nice trick of getting under her skin—Kitsy knows that this summer is going to be about a lot more than figure drawing.

Review:

When I saw that Gwendolyn Heasley had a follow up to Where I Belong, I was quite excited to read it.  I enjoyed her first book, and found myself overcoming my initial dislike of Corrinne as she matured into a more compassionate human being.  At the start of her story, she is spoiled, over-indulged, and not likable.  Not at all.  But as her family’s financial circumstances deteriorated, she was forced to take a long look at herself and decide whether she wanted to continue being a selfish, immature person.  Unfortunately, the Corrinne that we meet in A Long Way From You is sadly similar to the Corrinne at the beginning of Where I Belong.  Her New York friends, obviously, were not good for her personality, but I digress.

In this outing, Kitsy is the star, and I never had a problem liking her.  Kitsy is bubbly and fun, despite her difficult home life.  Her mother is not an ideal caregiver, and Kitsy is the adult in their house.  She cares for her younger brother,  as well as her mother, cooking, cleaning, and keeping everything running as smoothly as a teenager in charge of a household can.  She is the breadwinner, and her checks from her job at Sonic keep the lights on and food on the table, but just barely.  Kitsy has so many dreams, too, but as shackled as she is to the well-being of her family, it is unlikely that she will ever see them realized. 

When Corrinne’s family volunteers to sponsor her in New York City so she can attend summer art school, it’s a dream come true.  Though she’s excited to attend, the reality of leaving her brother in their mother’s questionable  care is almost enough to keep her home in tiny Broken Spoke, Texas.  There are so many things that can go wrong during her absence, and her mother is so unreliable.  When she is accepted into the summer art program, it’s with a great deal of trepidation that she accepts the plane ticket to NYC, and her summer of adventure.

I was under the mistaken impression that this is a romance.  It’s not, not really.  This is the story about a young woman who is given the chance to discover who she is, away from the stifling expectations of her small town.  Nobody knows Kitsy in NYC, and she loves the freedom that brings.  She can become anyone she wants to be, without her mother’s failures to hinder her.  She isn’t expected to be anyone’s steadfast girlfriend, or the level-headed older sister who has been given far too many responsibilities for far too long.  I loved reading along with Kitsy as she rebels against the perfect girl she is supposed to be.   When she meets a handsome guy who is just as interested in art as she is, she looses her sense of caution and takes risks and chances she would never have done at home.  Finally, in the crush of humanity that is NYC, she is given the freedom to make mistakes, and more importantly, to learn from them as she makes them.

I enjoyed this quiet, feel good read.  Kisty’s New York adventure forces her to reassess  her life and her dreams, and helps her to face her problems at home.  The resolution of her strained relationship with her mother is too easily won, but I found this book a fulfilling read.  I liked the protagonist and her new friends, and found A Long Way From You hard to put down.  I am looking forward to reading more from this author.

Grade: B

Review copy provided by publisher

Subscribe in a reader

Review: Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

 

 

   Title: Inside Out & Back Again

   Author: Thanhha Lai

   Publisher: Harper Collins

May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:

No one would believe me but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama.

For all the ten years of her life, HÀ has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, the warmth of her friends close by . . . and the beauty of her very own papaya tree.

But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. HÀ and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, HÀ discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food, the strange shape of its landscape . . . and the strength of her very own family.

This is the moving story of one girl’s year of change, dreams, grief, and healing as she journeys from one country to another, one life to the next. 

Review:

I love books about different cultures or ways of life, and Inside Out & Back Again delivers up an emotionally enthralling account of a young Vietnamese girl’s flight from her home country to the US.  As I read Ha’s adventures, recounted in simple yet moving free verse, I wondered what it would be like to have everything familiar ripped away.  Before the fall of Saigon, life for Ha was happy and content, despite the growing hardships caused by the war.  Her father has been missing in action since she was an infant, but her family still holds out hope that he will return home one day.  She loves her family, she is doing well in school, and she is eager for her papaya tree to finally yield fruit.  Her three brothers are happy, as well, and they are excellent students with bright futures ahead of them.  Everything changes with the fall of Saigon.

Ha’s mother is trying valiantly to raise four children by herself, but life has gotten more difficult.  It’s harder to make ends meet, and the price of everything keeps climbing.  As the communists threaten Saigon, she has a family meeting and asks everyone what they should do.  Should they flee, and try to built a new life in a country without Ho Chi Min and the war?  Ha and her brother Thoi don’t want to go.  How can they leave Ha’s papaya tree and Thoi’s chicken?  The pain of leaving their most prized possessions was a bitter pill to swallow for a new life with no guarantees.  I don’t think I could have done it.  Photographs, clothing, memories; all were left behind in Vietnam.

I loved Ha and found her easy to relate to.  She has been thrust into a new life that she doesn’t want, and one that doesn’t seem to want her.  Her new neighbors in Alabama aren’t very neighborly, she can’t understand the confusing language she is immersed in, and her classmates mock and bully her.  Her teacher doesn’t understand her and doesn’t try to make her feel welcome.  Instead, Ha, a bright, curious girl, is left feeling stupid and ignorant.  As she begins to pick up the language, she wishes she did not understand the names she is called or the jokes that her peers make about her.  She is angry, justifiably, but there is no outlet for her rage.  Ha is the one who must make concessions to fit in with a group of kids who can only see how she is different from them. 

This is a quick read that follows one year in Ha’s life.  Starting in Vietnam on New Year’s, Inside Out & Back Again chronicles her flight from Saigon, life in a refuge camp, and her eventual home in Alabama.  I could not put the book down and I read it in one sitting.  Highly recommended.

Grade:  A

Available in Print and Digital

Review copy provided by library

Subscribe in a reader

Manga Review: La Quinta Camera–The Fifth Room by Natsume Ono

 

Title: La Quinat Camera – The Fifth Room

Author: Natsume Ono

Publisher: Viz

ISBN: 978-1421532196

 

May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:

An apartment in Italy. In four of the rooms live four single men with singular personalities. Into this peculiar ménage steps an exchange student, the new tenant of the fifth room. Brought together by chance, friends by choice, they pursue their dreams together as the days drift gently by.

Review:

Now, this is a treasure!  I don’t know why I let this book linger so long in the TBR pile, because it deserved to be read the second I received it.  Told through vignettes, La Quinta Camera follow the daily challenges and adventures of the tenants of an Italian apartment house.  Massimo, the owner, rents rooms to his best friends, and also hosts foreign exchange students for the local language school.  The story starts with Charlotte, who is having a Really Bad Day.  She has lost her bag, which had her money and the directions to the room she’ll be staying during her time in Italy.  Her first day in Italy isn’t going well!  As she meets friendly people willing to give her a hand, she begins to have a Really Good Day.  I loved this introduction to the characters, and I felt that I was getting to know them along with Charlotte.  By the end of the book, I was sad that our visit to Italy had drawn to a close.

The subsequent chapters build on the friendships and personality quirks of Massimo and his tenants.  This is an understated book.  There are no battles to the death, no political machinations, hardly any action of any kind.  And that is what sets La Quinta Camera apart.  This is a completely character-driven book, and it’s those characters that make it compelling.  As they go about their daily lives, facing the same challenges we all face, they become living, breathing beings.  Will Charlotte be able to make a life for herself in the country she has grown to love?  Will Luca get over his crush?  Will Cele make it to his own birthday party?  Will Massimo be able to find an inner peace as his life, and the lives of his tenants, continues to change and evolve? 

I had a hard time putting this book down, and when I reached to last page, what I really wanted were more!  Ono’s quirky, whimsical art was perfect for this book.  La Quinta Camera is an underrated gem, one that I am grateful I was finally able to enjoy.

Grade:  A

Review copy provided by publisher

Review: A Bride’s Story Vol 1 by Kaoru Mori

 

Title: A Bride’s Story Vol 1

Author: Kaoru Mori

Publisher: Yen Press

ISBN: 978-0316180993

 

May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:

Amir is twenty years old when she marries her husband, a boy named Karluk from a neighboring village. Adjusting to life in a new household can be trying for any young bride, but Amir’s husband is eight years her junior! Amir was a strong, sophisticated hunter and horsewoman in her village, but though their villages were next to each other, their customs are very different. As Amir introduces Karluk to the foods and pastimes that were popular among her comrades back home, the warmth she feels for her young husband grows.

Review:

A Bride’s Story is a hard book to review, because in order to truly appreciate how special it is, you have to actually look at it.  Kaoru Mori’s art is beautiful and engaging, and it takes you to Mongolia.  Gorgeously detailed illustrations, elaborately rendered with stunning precision, make you feel like you are part of the story.  The finely etched costumes, rugs, and buildings give an added dimension to the story of a girl trying to fit in with her new family.  The drawings are so pretty that they actually took my breath away, and this book definitely deserves the first class production values that Yen Press has lovingly granted it.

Much like Emma, the storytelling is subdued and quiet, with events building on each other to chronicle the life of a young, newly married couple.  Amir is 20, and she has traveled to her new home, alone, and on horseback.  Her young husband, Karluk, is eight years her junior.  As Amir settles in with her new family, she has to learn new customs so she can fit in with her new clan.  So many things are different – modes of dress, diet, traditions – yet they share many customs as well.  Being an agreeable, if somewhat bold, young woman, Amir doesn’t want to cause any waves.  She tries hard to please everyone, and she quickly becomes part of the family.

Amir is a wonderful character, and I found that I liked her immediately.  She goes out of her way to make her new family happy, and she takes her new position in the family very seriously.  She is capable, too, and an accomplished horsewoman as well as a skilled hunter.  Her family is nomadic during the summer, while Karluk’s family has given up wandering with their sheep herds.  When they go in search of Karluk’s relatives, who still practice a nomadic lifestyle, Amir teaches him about the plains and about sheep herding. 

I don’t know how to express how I feel about this book.  I enjoyed it immensely, and loved the illustrations.  If anything, Kaoru Mori has become even more skilled than in her EMMA days.  If you liked EMMA, you will like A Bride’s Story.  This is an exploration of relationships and family more than anything else, with subtle dramas offset by the more mundane tasks of everyday life.   What’s amazing is the firm grasp Mori has for relationships, and how she makes even the most ordinary events interesting and compelling.  If you are looking for a series that isn’t about magic and endless fighting, but instead explores people and how they relate with each other, you can’t find a better place to start than here.

Grade: A

Review copy purchased from Amazon

Review: Chi’s Sweet Home Vol 4 by Konami Kanata

 

Title: Chi’s Sweet Home Vol 4

Author: Konami Kanata

Publisher: Vertical

ISBN: 978-1934287965

Reading Level – All Ages

 

May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:

In the fourth volume of Chi’s Sweet Home, Youhei’s actions at the end of volume three has motivated his parents to look for a new home for their kids.  Chi is moving to a new address; someplace where cats can play to their heart’s content without having to worry about nosey managers and mean hungry bully cats.

But moving alone will be something of an adventure for Chi.  While the Yamada’s can handle changing their environment now and then, for a kitten their home means much more than just a place to sleep in.  When the old apartment starts to disappear, suddenly Chi starts losing all of her favorite toys and her naps spots.  She knows they should be in specific places, the smell is still there, but her nappy spot is gone and so are her favorite scratching areas.  And what are all those boxy things?  Why are they all stacked so high up?  And what’s up with all the noise around them?  Are there dogs behind all of this?!?

Review:

Awww, the cute attack continues!  Chi is so adorable that it’s hard to not get caught up in the sweetness of this series.  I love how simple the storytelling is – short chapters humorously follow Chi as the tiny kitten explores the world around her.  Her reactions are hilarious and occasionally bittersweet, but they are always satisfying.  The books make me feel good, and sometimes that’s all I’m looking for when I sit down to a new read.  A little perk to brighten my stressful days, to allow me to laugh as Chi and her people navigate through their lives.  Every new experience is an adventure that leaves me chuckling at the cuteness that is Chi.

In this volume, Chi and the Yamadas move to a pet-friendly apartment.  Chi no longer has to live a life in hiding – not that she was ever very good at it to begin with!  Through short vignettes, she greets the move with trepidation, confusion, and finally, contentment.  When her world changes abruptly, poor little Chi doesn’t know what to do!  First, the Yamadas pack everything into boxes.  Chi’s attempts to play only get in the way, so off to a secluded room she goes.  Listening to the activity of the move frightens her, and she wonders what is happening to her home.  Her feelings of safety are gone.  Her new home only confuses her, because it smells strange and unfamiliar, which makes her apprehensive and frightened.

I enjoyed this volume a lot.  As with previous visits with Chi, her emotions are clearly communicated through Konami Kanata’s wonderful watercolors.  The illustrations are bright and colorful, and it’s so easy to read Chi’s reactions to the newness that surrounds her.  The chapters where the Yamadas introduce themselves to their new neighbors are my favorite, as they showcase a spectrum of reactions to meeting the other pets at the apartment complex.  Like people, every animal has a different personality and look, and I am looking forward to more interactions between Chi and her new neighbors.

If you are looking for a fun and painless introduction to manga and graphic novels, Chi’s Sweet Home is a great place to start.  It is so cute, and it will keep you smiling as you get to know Chi.  Best yet, it’s an appealing all ages comic that you can share with the kids in your life.  Besides, who doesn’t love adorable little animals?

Grade: A-

Review copy provided by publisher

Review: The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester by Barbara O’Connor

 

Title: The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester

Author: Barbara O’Connor

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

ISBN: 978-0374368500

 

May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:

An amazing secret has tumbled off a freight train into Carter, Georgia, and Owen Jester is the only person who knows about it. If he can simply manage to evade his grandfather’s snappish housekeeper, organize his two best friends, and keep his nosy neighbor, Viola, at bay, he just might be in for the summer of a lifetime. With her trademark wit and easy charm, Barbara O’Connor spins a fantastic fable of friends, enemies, and superbly slimy bullfrogs.

Review:

When I saw the cover of The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester, I had to read it.  Why?  There is a big ole bullfrog floating in the water, and a tiny submarine behind it.  Just like Owen, I have a secret, too.  I love frogs.  And turtles, and toads, and snakes.  Why?  They eat bugs, and if there is one thing I can’t stand, it’s a bug.  They always sneak up on you with their billion legs, all creepy and crawly and scary.  I hate bugs, so it is only natural that I would like critters that eat them.

Protagonist Owen Jester is a bit of a brat.  Actually, he’s just your average, overly energetic kid, with a special knack for getting into trouble.  After his father loses his job, his family moves in with his bed-ridden grandfather, and the move isn’t sitting well with Owen.  His friends live further away, nosy Viola lives next door and she can’t seem to stay out of his business, and Earlene, his grandfather’s housekeeper, does nothing but lecture him and complain about his messes. 

When Owen hears something fall off the train as it rumbles over the tracks at the back of the property, he is determined to find whatever it is that fell off.  With the help of his friends, Travis and Stumpy, and some unwanted assistance from bossy Viola as well, Owen makes the discovery of a lifetime.  Can he keep it a secret from his parents and Earlene?

My first impression of this book is that it’s a “boy” book.  I hate to use labels like that, but I think that this will have so much more appeal for MG boys than girls.  Owen was difficult for me to relate to, and at first, I didn’t like him much.  He is mean to both Earlene and Viola, and once he decides what he wants, he pursues it with a stubborn intensity, even when he knows he’s doing the wrong thing.  I was so happy that he shows development during his summer adventure, and he begins to think about other people and their feelings.  It changed my opinion of him, and by the end of the book, I actually liked him. 

Despite my difficulty getting to know and like Owen, I still enjoyed it.  I think this book will be a hit with reluctant MG boys.  It’s a quick read, about one boy’s magical summer, and how a once in a lifetime discovery changes his relationships with his friends, as well as his nemesis.

Grade: B

Review copy obtained from my local library

Review: Bunny Drop Vol 2 by Yumi Unita

 

Title: Bunny Drop Vol 2

Author: Yumi Unita

Publisher: Yen Press

ISBN: 978-0759531208

 

May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:

Returning to his family’s estate for his grandfather’s funeral, thirty-something bachelor Daikichi is floored to discover that the old man had an illegitimate child with a much younger lover! Needless to say, the rest of the family is shocked and embarrassed by this turn of events, and not one of them wants anything to do with the little girl, who refuses to say a word. In a fit of angry spontaneity, Daikichi decides to adopt her! But is living with an overgrown teenager who can barely take care of himself the key to making Rin come out of her shell?

Review:

What a fun series!  I love Daikichi and his determination to raise Rin by himself.  He has matured so much in just two volumes!  He is also getting valuable on-the-job training, learning how to take care of a little girl.  There are no instruction manuals, he’s discovered, and everything is new for him.  Even enrolling Rin in elementary school is wading into uncharted waters; for a guy with no clue about what he’s doing, Daikichi is doing a wonderful job providing a stable and emotionally supportive home to his small charge.  Tackling these unexpected tasks, which Daikichi would certainly never dreamed of having to do himself, is daunting for him, but so far he is ignoring the nay-sayers in his life and staying on course.

The more I get to know Daikichi, the more I like him.  He doesn’t understand how anyone could reject such a wonderful little girl, so he searches relentlessly for clues about Rin’s mother.  Who is she? Why isn’t she a part of her daughter’s life?  When he finally tracks her down, he is certain that he made the right decision by becoming Rin’s guardian.  Her mother is barely capable of caring for herself!  She has done everything in her power to distance herself from her daughter, despite Daikichi’s grandfather’s attempt to cox her into bonding with Rin.  I don’t think too highly of Grandpa for getting Masako pregnant in the first place, but at least he didn’t reject Rin the way Masako seems to be.

I loved the shopping sequence, when Daikichi takes Rin to buy a desk.  Her delight at getting to pick out a “big girl’s” desk is obvious, and so cute, too!  Daikichi’s only had to use a little bit of psychology to convince her to buy a work area he thought would be more suitable than the desk she decided she liked. As Rin is growing  more confident in her new surroundings, she is becoming more expressive, and so much more fun for Yumi Unita to draw.  Like with Daikichi, there has been a big change in Rin, too.  She’s starting to discover who she is, and she is starting to exert some independence.  The character growth makes Bunny Drop a touching read, and I’m looking forward to reading more about Daikichi and Rin.

Grade: B+

Review copy purchased from Amazon

Review: Everything I Was by Corinne Demas

 

Title: Everything I Was

Author: Corinne Demas

Publisher: Lerner Publishing
Group

ISBN: 978-0761373032

 

May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:

"My walls were stripped, and all that was left in the room was a pile of boxes and my mattress propped against the wall."

So begins Irene’s journey from an Upper West Side penthouse to–well, she’s not entirely sure where. Irene’s father, a corporate VP, is "downsized" when his company merges with another. When he can’t find work, her family’s lifestyle–and her mother’s spending–quickly catches up with them. Eventually, they’re forced to move in with Irene’s grandfather in the family farmhouse upstate. But what begins as the most disastrous summer of Irene’s life takes a surprising turn, and Irene must decide what she wants for herself after losing everything she was.

Review:

Wow, I enjoyed this book so much!  I don’t like the cover at all, though, and it turned me off of the book at first.  Then I read the synopsis again, and decided that the cover didn’t really matter anymore.  I loved the premise of Everything I Was, and I was curious to see if it had any similarities to Where I Belong.  Both books have protagonists who are forced to re-evaluate their lives after their fathers lose their high paying jobs.  I liked Irene from the beginning of the book, whereas Corinne, from Gwen Heasley’s story, took a bit for me to warm up to.

Everything I Was is a very understated book, and it has a slice of life vibe.  It is more suited to MG readers, though, than YA, and the cover does not adequately reflect the age of the protagonist.  I thought the heroine would be an older teen, but Irene is thirteen, and from the first page, she proved to be level-headed and practical.  It’s her mother who hungers for the finest things in life, and when Irene’s father is laid off, they are forced to give up their fancy apartment in New York City and move in with her grandfather. 

One thing about Irene that I liked was how down to earth she was.  She didn’t come across as a spoiled rich kid, but instead tried to find the bright side to her change in scenery.  It’s difficult for her to leave behind her friends and her old room, and the thought of having to go to another school is very upsetting to her, but she doesn’t let it color her life.  She adapts, she adjusts, and once she meets the kids in the large Fox family, she settles into her new surroundings with a contentment she didn’t have in the city.

Irene isn’t a perfect kid, but she isn’t a self-indulgent brat, either.  She has the loving support of her grandfather, which helps her through this difficult period in her life.  Her greatest conflict occurs with her mother; while Irene takes her new circumstances in stride, her mother is bitter about it, as well as ashamed.  She lies to her friends about the move, and Irene, confused by her mother’s behavior, begins to do the same.  She won’t confide in her best friends in NYC, and she is embarrassed at the thought of attending her old school on a scholarship.   Like her mother, she is afraid of the stigma attached to the scholarship, and would prefer that her old friends not know that her father, once a high earning executive, is currently unemployed.

I read Everything I Was in two sittings – I couldn’t put the book down.  Corinne Demas’ writing style is straightforward and compelling, and highlights how little, everyday events change Irene’s expectations for life.  She finds deep and lasting friendships with the Foxes’ and falls in love for the first time.  She learns that life isn’t fair, and she learns to make the best of what she does have.  The character interactions kept me engrossed in the story, and I am so glad that I didn’t judge this book by its cover.

Grade: A-

Review copy provided by publisher