ARC Review: Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

Goodbye StrangerGoodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead
This book will be published in August 4, 2015.
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

I’m sure we’ve all dealt with book hangovers at one point in our life. You know that feeling when you miss a particular style of writing or an author’s quirks? It’s not even about hating that a book ended or having an empty feeling in our guts. I guess this is why I had highly anticipated reading Rebecca Stead’s newest book. When I read her Newbery Medal book, I felt emotionally drained from the ending and how bittersweet it was. Fear not, Stead fan!! Goodbye Stranger is a welcome home party with a new set of quirky characters and challenges!
I didn’t think much of middle school because it’s such a bad stage and kids are going through puberty so hormones are flying like crazy and people are plain mean to each other for no reason. Rebecca Stead understands that perfectly. The whole ‘awkward silence’ and painful moments of social humiliation and ‘uncool moves.’

The voice of our protagonist Bridge resonated with me because we all have that one friend (Em) who grew up too fast and is now part of the cool crowd. In its barest bones, this is about everyday life and navigating the social perils of seventh grade. That’s the year that means you’re not the top of the pile but neither are you the fresh-faced newbies. Stead gets it. Seventh grade is just plain grueling and making friends outside of your grade is even more difficult especially (for Em) if your crush runs in an 8th grade friend circle. Lucky for her, she’s in JV soccer and she’s good at it so up she goes to joined multiple friend groups. There’s a lot of hidden moments that boast of independence. Little actions that speak louder than words. The friendship between the trio is like super-glue strong and I loved how the author didn’t have to say it but instead showed it in each and every interactions. I believe that different people can become great friends and although it usually starts with similarities, it’s not what holds a bond together. I can attest through my 19 years of socializing and I can see that although I align myself with people like me, I enjoy making friends who are the complete opposite from me.

Some of the best epiphanies that Stead writes about is the time Bridge spends with Sherm. She says it should be awkward and I agree because they barely know each other and to more stress on it, conversation is two-way. It’s always safer to carry on a conversation with 3 or more people because that means there’s an extra person to continuously stimulate and extend a conversation. Bridge, luckily, instantly connects with Sherm and their conversations are easy and flow naturally. This, THIS is what I’ve been trying to find and it’s a rare occurrence that I can talk so comfortably with another person without feeling the need to come up with ‘topic-starters’. I’m not an awkward person but it just so happens that I get off on a rough start with strangers because I feel pressure to grill them about their life histories. I loved that Bridge and Sherm share a laidback relationship. Those are usually hard-won and come only after long periods of association.

Although Bridge is the main character, the drama mostly revolves around Emily and her encounters with peer pressure and double standards. The blurb says double standards and damn right, there is! Tab, the other best friend in the trio, is highly involved in feminism and learns a lot about the portrayals and reactions towards girls and boys. Girls can easily be labeled as a slut, whore, skank, but boys just downright get off the hook. I liked that there was lots of girl power and emphasis on the fact that clothing does not define a girl. I remember one passage in which Em complained why it was only okay if a girl took pictures in her bikini at a beach. Anywhere else entails baggage and judgment from others.

Schools need more books like this rather than The Scarlet Letter because people can actually relate to it and understand how messed up society is. It easily pertains to today’s curriculum and comparisons can be made to incidents of double standards. What a girl can wear to school is severely limited compared to a boy. It’s been unfair on so many levels and tell me why is it that a girl can’t wear shorts/skirts above the knees while guys strut around with their pants sagging and half their butts hanging out?

Rebecca also does this awesome thing called second-person narrative that she did in When You Reach Me and it was so intriguing because I can never resist a little mystery. The identity of the character is unknown because that person is referred to as ‘You’ and it steadily runs on the single day of Valentine’s Day. (Aside from that, the rest of the book progress chronologically.) I spent minutes on end speculating on the tantalizing clues that the author dropped. It didn’t take long for it to click but I still nonetheless relished the chapter of the character reveal to prove that I was correct. I gradually realized that the point of the unknown narrative was simply to show a different social situation apart from what Em, Tab, and Bridge dealt with. Although the Valentine’s Day narrator had a different life completely separate from the middle school, those two somewhat intersected in small unexpected ways. I enjoyed the dichotomy of the narrator’s life from Bridge’s and it made a juxtaposition of two person from diverse walks of life.

I’m not sure if I mentioned it in my When You Reach Me review but race plays a irrelevant factor throughout the book. Since the urban setting of Manhattan means diversity is all around, there’s a lot of holidays that need to be explained. Stead makes the point of bringing up Bridge’s nationality as Armenian and casually inserts a food from the country. I didn’t really pick up on the deliberateness of the situation because it was so tastefully done and the same went for Tab who was Indian. She joined the Hindi Club at school and her mother fasted for a moon holiday. It was actually very interesting and I liked how there was race but it was a thing that just is. Ethnicity is so hard for authors to deal with sometimes because they can either dispose of the whole ‘cultural background’ thing and just label a person and leave it at that. What a lot of people tend to forget is that culture partially defines a person and I, as a Chinese, have received quite a hefty amount of influence from Chinese culture. I admire the author’s tenacity in inclusion of cultural tidbits because sure, Goodbye Stranger, is a coming-of-age novel focused on friendship and love, but it can still incorporate other elements.

This all strengthens the book and I know I didn’t really talk about the plot and I really can’t because it’s something readers have to experience themselves. It’s complicated to explain the plot because it’s comprised of so many different plotlines and there’s so many stories involved that I don’t want to really spoil.

Thank you Wendy Lamb/Random House for providing me with an advanced reader’s copy through Netgalley.

View all my reviews

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin: Review

Where the Mountain Meets the MoonWhere the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is gorgeous, no doubt about that. The full-color illustrations may not be the best or most artistic but I’ve got to give some credit to the author for rendering simple but picturesque embellishments.

Far away from here, following the Jade River, there was once a black mountain that cut into the sky like a jagged piece of rough metal. The villagers called it Fruitless Mountain because nothing grew on it and birds and animals did not rest there.

Don’t let the cover fool you because it looks so laughingly childish that all adults within a 10-feet radius avoid it. For people who have daughters or sons in 3-5th grade, now is the time to pick up Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. The writing still retains its poetic quality even though many sentences are grouped choppily to make it easy for readers to follow along. Lin is dexterous with metaphors and some of these similes forced me to go back and reread the sentence for the sheer description.

The streets were crowded and bustling; the city seemed to be bustling with people like boiling rice.

I had a jolly fun time reading this book because I recognized some of the legendary figures and myths from my childhood or other tales that I read from. The unpredictability certainly helps because children will eat this story up so quickly. For those unfamiliar with Chinese myths, the interspersed legends will be lots of fun and wow readers with cleverness. I tend to always enjoy books that have perfected the art of “metaphor-ing” so it’s no wonder that Markus Zusak pleased me immensely with The Book Thief and I Am the Messenger. Grace Lin also mixes this rare talent with her storytelling charisma to form a tale that is both savory and innovative to engage young readers.

The moon’s reflection fastened onto the water’s surface, and Minli saw why the pavilion was called Clasping the Moon. The image of the moon lay protected in the water like a glowing pearl…

Like the stone dust that the wind blew, thoughts kept circling in her head.

Aside from introducing the myths that surround China, the book paints a mural of values and teaches thankfulness, themes of love, and faith. Although Minli is off on a quest, there’s also a guardian who worries and wishes her to be safe.This makes the book more realistic in my eyes and also gives a fresh perspective on parents and emphasizes their love. I can definitely see why this book won the Newbery Honor Award and I’m glad this cultural text is available from nearly every library. The main character is a girl but she’s independent and very thoughtful of everyone. Without being fierce or feisty, she manages to befriend others and win over people with her determination. Do you see the positive impact this book can make on little girls and boys? Not more of those annoying or naive girls like Junie B. Jones, Judy Moody, or Harriet the Spy. Hooray for Minli, Matilda, and Winnie Foster!

He seemed to dance in the air, and his happiness made her feel as light as the clouds around her.

Aside from seeing illustrations gracing each chapter title, the pages are thick and texts are sometimes in color. I don’t know, I may be biased because I like seeing color and I also love flipping thick pages and that’s why I hate mass market paperbacks which just suck in general. Anyways, I recommend this book to people still in primary/secondary school but old people like me are welcome to read it. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead: Review

When You Reach MeWhen You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m unable to collect my thoughts coherently enough to express how pleasantly surprised and awed I was by this book. It was so engaging and I literally couldn’t stop reading near the end. It wasn’t super explosive because it’s one of those books that accounts a series of everyday life events. It’s amazingly grounded in reality despite the science fiction element and I loved how invested I was into each character.

Miranda is a stubborn girl and it showed so much through her persistence in rereading A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle (another great book) and rejecting other books. By now, that should clue you in on what sci-fi genre is incorporated throughout the book. Time travel. I loved that the author didn’t just throw the reader into time travel without explaining some theories surrounding it. Some elementary readers might be perplexed by the ideas because they’re, like Miranda, so immersed in common sense. I always love a good time travel story (ex. All Our Yesterdays, The Time Machine, Hourglass, Harry Potter #3 and I’m about to read Ruby Red) so I’m immensely pleased when the logistics of it and especially the side effects of tessering is talked about. The abstract thoughts of time, relativity, and it being a circle rather than a straight line is hard to digest but I’m glad the author put it in. She does so by generating these discussions between friends and it’s wonderful to see middle schoolers interested in science and architecture. These get the readers to understand that time travel is a possibility and therefore not just used as a simple plot device to drive the story to a convenient ending.

Miranda is very intelligent and perceptive for her age but she’s also has similar worries as any other middle schooler. Her inner thoughts are matter-of-fact and realistic so it’s great for a change when she starts to slowly piece together the clues and figure out and analyze situations.

She shook her head slowly. “I don’t know. I just feel stuck, like I’m afraid to take any steps, in case they’re the wrong ones. I need a little more time to think.” She stood up. “The water’s probably boiling by now. Spaghetti in ten minutes.”
Spaghetti again. We were kind of stuck, I realized. In a lot of ways.

As an advanced reader, I saw several of the plot twists coming but none of it was ruined because I relished how the plot unraveled so naturally. The dialogue between the characters are very casual and easygoing and I loved the themes. There was a lot of conflict in making friendships and doing what is right. The decisions each person made was extremely consequential and unfolded in surprising ways. I always thought of middle school as a tumultuous but necessary self-transformation and priorities change then because kids tend to value certain things over others. A common one is popularity over academics. Sensitive subjects like socioeconomic status and how it affects lives also pervade the story and affect people’s relationships. Certain actions are driven by the need for money, others out of loneliness, some do things out of curiosity, and it ultimately creates a ripple effect. I believe one of the biggest motifs in this book is passivity. People often stand by while the scene unfolds in front of their faces but choose not to intervene. Reasons behind the ‘bystander effect’ are complex and often different for each person but one of the ones that stands out the most is “no obligation”.

“Sometimes you never feel meaner than the moment you stop being mean.It’s like how turning on a light makes you realize how dark the room had gotten. And the way you usually act, the things you would have normally done, are like these ghosts that everyone can see but pretends not to.”

Books for middle-age readers are often dumbed down or rather broken down into simpler words and that seriously turns me off. I sometimes love being able to breeze through text easily but I dislike juvenile writing that has so much potential to be better. That’s how I felt when I used to read books such as the Animal Ark series by Ben M. Baglio in which it was strictly plot-driven because the writing was nothing special.

Mr. Tompkin had left a book on my desk. He as always trying to get me to read something new. This one had a picture of a spunky-looking girl on the cover, and some buildings behind her. “

I especially remembered this quote although there’s nothing particularly special about it. However, it rings true in today’s pop culture because it’s so difficult to get people to read books due to the generic cover. The phrase ‘spunky-looking girl on the cover, and some buildings behind her” generates multiple YA books in mind. I would have a nearly impossible time trying to find out the name of the book Mr. Tompkin recommended her. The over-saturation of cliche book covers and of beautiful white girls photoshopped in front of buildings is in actuality a turnoff and does not give off a sense of originality and creativity.

As you can see, When You Reach Me’s cover does not feature a girl but instead, objects inlaid on the map. It looks whimsical and childish but each stroke is deliberate and significant. Yes, there could be a better book cover that can appeal to more readers but the one now pertains to the story and enhances the story. When You Reach Me is a book for all (ages 9 and up?) and for those who believe themselves too old, who are you kidding when you’ve read YA, Dr. Seuss, or picture books?

View all my reviews

ARC Review: Woven by Michael Jensen & David King

WovenWoven by Michael Jensen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The concept is just super original and cool! Execution was good for middle grade readers but a bit lacking in terms of mature themes for young adult audiences. I personally have no problem with the storyline because it was nicely crafted and neatly played out. Nothing was written for convenience’s sake and everything happened for a purpose. The basic formula for fantasy was very obvious with the plot device aka the needle and the quest to save the world. Despite all this, it didn’t detract me from enjoying the plot.

“Slipping quietly into her soft bed and feeling the down of her countless pillows, Tyra blew out her candle, pulled the long silk sheets up to her chin, and closed her eyes for the night. Her thoughts lingered on Arek as she listened to the quiet.”

What really irked me, however, was the writing. It wasn’t outright terrible but I felt the vocabulary was too juvenile and the wording of sentences were oftentimes awkward. The writing style was especially descriptive but the adjectives were clichéd/overused and that’s not necessarily a bad thing but there’s only so many times a simple words can be used. It created an amateurish feeling and there were better alternatives that can easily replace “Her heart raced.” and

“With a flabbergasted frown, the scullion reclaimed the meal and dashed back into the kitchens. Tyra cried for him to stop, but he was too quick, and she watched as her beautiful meal vanished behind the swinging door. She stared at the peasant with a look of severe contempt.”

There’s a lot of mixing of past-tense and present-tense actions in the same sentence and it may be grammatically correct but still very ill-fitting. It’s not well-written in terms of eloquence and it’s poorly labelled as ‘young adult’ and it’s a terrible choice to market it to YA audiences. I’m not sure how to describe it exactly but since it’s the author’s début, Woven as an entirety needs improvement and lacks the refinement/polishing that accompanies many books.

“A loud crack, like the splitting of a tree branch, sounded behind Arek. Tyra [the princess] watched as the knight’s hazel eyes rolled back. He slumped forward and fell on top of her. Shrieking, Tyra struggled to free herself. Their picnic basket tipped on its side, spilling its contents onto the blanket. Her heart quivering, she stood up and looked over her love, lying unconscious on the ground.”

The romance was also very unconvincing and although I’m satisfied that it wasn’t highly prioritized, it played a major role in the reason for embarking on the whole journey. The interactions between the princess and the peasant was wholly boring and there was nothing that spiced it up for me. I did not feel the infatuation and there were positive characteristics to each character but they were not flattering in the romantic sense. That part really fell flat for me and that particularly harmed the book. The chemistry was nonexistent. There was no effort to set up vulnerable, emotional scenes that bonded the duo aside from just basic constant proximity and unity through a common mission. In all cases, it wouldn’t have made any difference if they were pitched as siblings instead of a couple.

Don’t get me wrong though, the premise and idea of threads that intertwine everyone’s lives has a fresh twist of originality and the writing is easy to breeze through.The writing may not be good enough to qualify as YA but it’s not too juvenile for middle grade readers. So any of you middle schoolers that are searching for an entertaining tale, look no further and sit down with Woven. The weak romance in this scenario may actually be a positive and work out well to please younglings whose attention will be enraptured by a simplistic fantasy of questing.

Give this book a try to see if it’s to your liking but those who crave heavier and darker themes will do best to shy away. Mature high fantasy books by Joe Abercrombie, Melina Marchetta, Garth Nix, Brandon Sanderson, Pierce Brown, and Patrick Rothfuss is where all the goodie’s at.

For great middle grade fantasy, find these authors:

Rick Riordan, Diana Wynne Jones, Eva Ibbotson, Brandon Mull, Nancy Farmer, Neil Gaiman, Marie Rutkoski’s first series, Shannon Hale, Gail Carson Levine, and of course, J.K. Rowling.

Thank you Scholastic from Edelweiss for providing me with a copy of this book.

View all my reviews