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Gem & Dixie by Sara Zarr

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“I don’t have the power to be responsible for every single person in the world.”

Gem & Dixie is the new novel from renowned young adult author and National Book Award finalist Sara Zarr—a deep, nuanced, and gorgeously written story about the complex relationship between two sisters from a broken home.

Gem has never known what it is to have security. She’s never known an adult she can truly rely on. But the one constant in her life has been Dixie. Gem grew up taking care of her sister when no one else could: not their mother, whose issues make it hard for her to keep food on the table; and definitely not their father, whose intermittent presence is the only thing worse than his frequent absence. Even as Gem and Dixie have grown apart, they’ve always had each other.

When their dad returns for the first time in years and tries to insert himself back into their lives, Gem finds herself with an unexpected opportunity: three days with Dixie, on their own in Seattle and beyond. But this short trip soon becomes something more, as Gem discovers that to save herself, she may have to sever the one bond she’s tried so hard to keep.

National Book Award finalist Sara Zarr has written her most personal and affecting book yet—an unforgettable story of breaking apart and of coming together again.

Book Links: Amazon | B&N | BD | Goodreads | Publisher

Personal Thoughts:

Sara Zarr explores the relationships of two sisters who both grew up in a dysfunctional family in this upcoming contemporary novel, Gem & Dixie.

Gem is three years older than Dixie. And being the older one, her instinct is to take care of her younger sister. She used to be Dixie’s protector until the two steps into their own separate lives. They still live in the same house with their mother but they aren’t exactly close anymore. They don’t even agree with lots of things. They rarely converse at home nor at school. They never bond anymore. When their Dad suddenly return to their lives, Dixie and Gem find themselves together running away from home. How long they can manage to stay together?

Gem as a narrator is easily accessible inspite of being a loner. Her internal monologues and letters about her past shows real struggles of living a life with no adult role in it. As she desperately tries to get out of the her messy life, readers will surely feel and even ache for her.

Sara Zarr successfully shows in this novel how Gem and Dixie navigates their relationship as sisters, as well as the family dynamics that made these two who they are. The absentee parents, poverty and other difficult things that Gem and Dixie has to deal with everyday of their lives push them into different directions and hardened them like no other girls their age.

“When you have a shared experience with someone who showed you some kindness when you needed it most, it sticks with you.”

Ultimately, this novel is about the relationship between two sisters, Gem and Dixie. But what I find more interesting is how Sara Zarr shows the contrast between two individuals. Gem and Dixie have the same home situations. They basically have the same issues and problems, but these two girls cope up with their lives differently. Gem becomes a loner who talk to school psychiatrist while Dixie charms her way to survive everyday.

Sara Zarr reminds us in this novel, how unique and different people are, even those with the same life circumstances. Sometimes we tend to compare our lives with other people but in reality even we have the same position with others we won’t exactly get the same life.

All in all, Gem & Dixie is a quick and heart-rending read. Sara Zarr takes a simple yet emotionally difficult story of two sisters and let the readers brave the reality of their situations.

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* This review is based on an advance readers copy I received courtesy of the publisher, Balzer + Bray an imprint of HarperCollins International in exchange of honest opinion.

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A List of Cages by Robin Roe

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“I used to think that if I concentrated, I could make myself disappear. I don’t believe that anymore, but sometimes I still have to try.”

When Adam Blake lands the best elective ever in his senior year, serving as an aide to the school psychologist, he thinks he’s got it made. Sure, it means a lot of sitting around, which isn’t easy for a guy with ADHD, but he can’t complain, since he gets to spend the period texting all his friends. Then the doctor asks him to track down the troubled freshman who keeps dodging her, and Adam discovers that the boy is Julian–the foster brother he hasn’t seen in five years.

Adam is ecstatic to be reunited. At first, Julian seems like the boy he once knew. He’s still kind hearted. He still writes stories and loves picture books meant for little kids. But as they spend more time together, Adam realizes that Julian is keeping secrets, like where he hides during the middle of the day, and what’s really going on inside his house. Adam is determined to help him, but his involvement could cost both boys their lives.

Book Links: Amazon | B&N | Book Depository | Goodreads | Publisher

Personal Thoughts:

A List of Cages is an astounding debut novel that leaves me deeply affected and emotionally invested. It is brave, gripping, if at times uncomfortable read that sometimes makes me wish there’s something I can do for the characters.

Adam and Julian are foster brothers for a time, until Julian is forced to live with his only living relative. Their lives crossed again when Adam is assigned to help the school psychologist as his elective. Part of his task is to track down Julian, making sure Julian won’t skip more of his appointments. As Adam try to do his job, he noticed the difference between the Julian who used to live with them and the present Julian. Concerned with his former foster brother, he tries his best to be part of Julian’s life once again. As Adam unravel the new Julian, Adam not only understand Julian but also see the reality of the situation he was in.

Robin Roe did a wonderful job of writing Julian and Adam’s story. I almost can’t believe that ‘A List of Cages’ is her debut novel given how good and affecting her writing is. The alternating narration between Adam and Julian easily shows the contrast between Adam and Julian’s lives. Not just their personal living condition, but as well as the way they handle their mental health conditions.

Julian’s storyline will undoubtedly linger to readers. My hearts bleeds for him, and constantly lost my breath while reading his parts. He affected me deeply that even I feel uncomfortable reading some of the things that happened to him I still can’t stop reading, if only to prove to Julian that he has someone who won’t leave him.

Julian doesn’t deserve those horrifying things. Sometimes I wonder who’s to blame — his uncle or the foster system that put Julian to his uncle’s care? But as much as I want to point finger, I also know that there’s no use in condemning any of those people. This is fiction after all. I can only hope that no one suffers like Julian in real life. No one deserves that kind of treatment or that kind of life.

“I used to think struggle was what aged you, but if that were the case, Julian should’ve been a hundred years old. Now I wonder if the opposite is true. Maybe instead of accelerating your age, pain won’t let you grow.”

As for Adam, well he is genuinely caring guy. He reminds me that kindness and love goes a long way. Sometimes it’s easy to forget little things like that. I’ve seen many times how hardships change people. How bad experiences can make someone tough by stripping him of kindness and love. It is sad but it is also a reality.

“Hate ricochets, but kindness does too.”

On the whole, A List of Cages touches some difficult issues with sensitivity and reality that will surely make readers think of things and feel every kind of emotions that the characters went through. It’s unflinching, honest, and uncompromising story that shows the power of kindness, friendship and brotherhood.

This new addition to the ya contemporary novels is not to be missed.

* This review is based on an eBook I received courtesy of the publisher, Disney-Hyperion via NetGalley

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We Are Still Tornadoes by Michael Kun & Susan Mullen

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“Hang in there, Baby.”

Growing up across the street from each other, Scott and Cath have been best friends their entire lives. Cath would help Scott with his English homework, he would make her mix tapes (it’s the 80’s after all), and any fight they had would be forgotten over TV and cookies. But now they’ve graduated high school and Cath is off to college while Scott is at home pursuing his musical dreams.

During their first year apart, Scott and Cath’s letters help them understand heartache, annoying roommates, family drama and the pressure to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives. And through it all, they realize that the only person they want to turn to is each other. But does that mean they should be more than friends? The only thing that’s clear is that change is an inescapable part of growing up. And the friends who help us navigate it share an unshakable bond.

This funny yet deeply moving book–set to an awesome 80’s soundtrack–captures all the beautiful confusion and emotional intensity we find on the verge of adulthood…and first love.

Book Links: Amazon | B&N | Book Depository | Goodreads

Personal Thoughts:

We Are Still Tornadoes is an epistolary novel about longtime best friends who happen to be at different side of United States but managed to strengthens their relationship through constant communication.

Scott’s and Cath are best friends since they were young. They went to the same school, know each others very well and basically just super close. When Cath went off for college in North Carolina, Scott stays in Maryland to help with the family business while trying to build a career in music. But being miles apart doesn’t stop their friendship. They continue to communicate through letters (as in snail mail hand written letters since the story is set in the 80’s). They share stories, private jokes, playful banters, update each other about what is happening with their lives, about the new friends they met, family issues and more.

The letter format gives the characters a very distinct voice. Though it really helps that the novel is written by two different authors, the letters really made the narration more personal. Scott and Cath not only become accessible but also relate-able even if you are not familiar with the life in the 80’s like them. Reading their letters sometimes feels like snooping to someone’s personal belonging without the worry of being caught. Each letters even the brief ones perfectly captures Scott’s and Cath’s relationship.

Aside from the letter format, I also enjoy the inclusion of song lyrics from Scott’s letters. Those songs added more creativity and open more about Scott’s thoughts and feelings. It proves that he is really a smart guy even everyone is telling him otherwise. Actually even without the songs, readers will know that Scott’s is really smart from his letters alone. He is witty, sensitive, and thoughtful. Reading his letters and Cath’s is not only fun but also insightful at times.

As for the 80’s settings, the dropping of songs and band names that actually exist of at the peak of their career during that era provides the 80’s vibe. Though I’m not familiar with most of them I can still easily provide my own mental images. I don’t get lost or distracted instead I feel more immerse in the story.

Witty, endearing and captivating. We Are Still Tornadoes is a heartwarming story of friendship and a realistic view of two persons transition to adulthood. A quick read that will not only entertain but will also tug readers’ heart.

* This review is based on an eBook I received courtesy of the publisher, St. Martin Press via NetGalley

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Dear Charlie by N. D. Gomes

dear-charlie

“You have no idea what I’m feeling. No one does. but everyone tries to guess.”

Death should never meet the young. But it did. Thanks to my brother, death made fourteen new friends that day. Maybe even fifteen, if you count Charlie.

At sixteen, Sam Macmillan is supposed to be thinking about girls, homework and his upcoming application to music college, not picking up the pieces after the school shooting that his brother Charlie committed.

Yet as Sam desperately tries to hang on to the memories he has of his brother, the media storm surrounding their family threatens to destroy everything. And Sam has to question all he thought he knew about life, death, right and wrong.

Book Links: Amazon | Book Depository | Goodreads

Personal Thoughts:

Dear Charlie is a powerful contemporary novel that deals with the aftermath of school shooting that is told from a different but very important perspective.

Set in England in 1996, Sam is struggling with the death of his brother Charlie. Charlie who died in a shooting incident. When his family found out about the said incident, they thought Charlie is one of the shooter’s victim. Very quickly they realized that Charlie is in fact the one who do the shooting and had killed fourteen people before taking his own life. Sam lost his brother but people only see how his brother took lives. With Charlie dead, people blame Sam and his entire family. Media go frenzy with the news, even camping outside their house trying to get their side of the story but only depicting Charlie as the bad guy. Sam unfortunately suffers with this, he was bullied and unwanted, as if he will do what his brother did. Sam want to understand Charlie, he wants to know the reason why Charlie did it but Charlie is long way gone. Is Charlie the devil that other see him or he is just the quiet but happy and normal teenager that Sam always knew?

Reading Sam’s struggles is just heart breaking. Everything feels real to me. All his confusions, desperation, hatred, and guilt are easily believable and sometimes feels like my own. It broke my heart every time he feels lost, lonely, angry or defeated. Because he doesn’t deserve all those things. He is a good guy who unfortunately related to the guy who killed fourteen people and took a perfect escape. Sam is not his brother and he didn’t do a single thing to make that awful thing happen. He is completely innocent and yet he suffers like the other victims of the tragic event, and worst no one noticed his sufferings.

Like Sam, I wish to know why Charlie do it. And like Sam, it will remain a mystery to me and to readers what Charlie’s thoughts and feelings. No one will know his reasons or what triggered him to kill and end his own life. Because Dear Charlie isn’t about Charlie, instead it is about those people that Charlie left behind. People who unfortunately blamed by others because the one they should be blaming is already long gone.

Overall, Dear Charlie is an incredibly moving, heartfelt and thought-provoking novel. N.D. Gomez successfully shows how a family suffers, grieves and try to cope up after a traumatic event. Kudos to her for writing a sensitive and tragic topic in a perspective of someone who is directly affected but never truly considered.

*  This review is based on advance readers copy I received courtesy of the publisher,  HQ, an imprint of Harper Collins UK.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

author-n-d-gomesN.D. Gomes was born in Scotland and graduated from the University of Stirling with a BA in Media & Journalism Studies, and went on to receive her Master’s degree in Education in the US. She currently works in a public school system to increase educational opportunities for students with special needs. Previously, N.D. Gomes wrote for the London-based online student political magazine, deAlign and stage-managed student plays at the LeeStrasberg Theatre Institute in New York City where she attended for two years. She currently divides her time between the US and Scotland, but hopes to spend more time at her cottage in Hay-on-Wye in Wales. Dear Charlie is her debut novel.

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Everyone We’ve Been by Sarah Everett

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“…whether it’s the best or worst thing that’s ever happened to you, you can tell the story any way you want.”

Addison Sullivan has been in an accident. In its aftermath, she has memory lapses and starts talking to a boy that no one else can see. It gets so bad that she’s worried she’s going crazy.

Addie takes drastic measures to fill in the blanks and visits a shadowy medical facility that promises to “help with your memory.” But at the clinic, Addie unwittingly discovers it is not her first visit. And when she presses, she finds out that she had certain memories erased. She had a boy erased.

But why? Who was that boy, and what happened that was too devastating to live with? And even if she gets the answers she’s looking for, will she ever be able to feel like a whole person again?

Book Links: Amazon | BDGoodreads | Publisher

Personal Thoughts:

Told in a fresh and cutting perspective Everyone We’ve Been is a compelling mystery that will surely keep readers turning pages.

The story centers to Addie as she try to solve the mystery of her memory lapses and the identity of the boy she met in a bus ride home.

After being in an accident, Addie keep seeing the mysterious boy wherever she is. When she tried to introduce him to her friend, she found out that she’s the only one who can see the boy. Afraid that she is going crazy, she try to seek help through a local clinic that specialize with memory. But instead of getting answers she leaves the clinic with more questions. Addie needs to find out what’s happening to her. What she is seeing or remembering? And what she is forgetting?

One of the reasons why this book is a hit for me is because of the central message of the story. Addie’s story will remind readers how important it is to face our problems. Experiences bad or not are necessary for our own growth.

Sarah Everett writing is captivating and her lines are sometimes resonating. I particularly like some of Addie’s lines about music and life.

“In a way, it feels like I’m waiting for my life to start. Waiting for my life to feel as full and as vibrant outside of a melody as it does in it.
Sometimes I feel like I’ve sleepwalked through my life so far, with nothing significant or extraordinary happening to me. It’s time for that to change.”

“But mostly, I found things in my music. Hope. Distraction. Happiness. I found those things and held on to them as long as the piece lasted, and then I tucked them back inside a melody where they’d be unreachable.”

The plot though predictable never go down the bottom hill. It is still a thrilling read to wait for Addie hit realization. Since the book is written in different timelines – before and after Addie’s the accident, readers will put together things first before Addie will. And while waiting for Addie to put things together, readers will surely feel for her.

Addie as a character is easy to like. I root for her even at times I don’t believe that she’s making the right decisions. I don’t agree with all her choices and decisions but I won’t argue that those are realistic options for her. After-all, she is still young and unfortunately, haven’t learned yet from her past – past experiences that could have been make her stronger if not erased from her. I’m just glad that in the end she choose a different route.

The memory erasing part kinda remind me of Adam Silvera’s debut novel, More than Happy Than Not which I recently read. And having read that one, Everyone We’ve Been doesn’t sound too unbelievable anymore with its science-fiction element. Though I still questions some of the odds and technicality they never hinder my reading experience. It’s not perfectly smooth but mostly those speculative part blended well in this contemporary world of Addie.

Overall, Addie’s search for answer is a thrilling and compelling read. I absolutely could not put the book down. It’s a quick exploration about how experience shapes who we are as a person. Because memories – good or bad are part of our story. And stories like Addie is something to be told which makes me thankful to Sarah Everett for doing so. And she also told it beautifully. Which reminds me of what Addie says in the last part of the book — “you can tell the story any way you want.” And Sarah’s way is something readers won’t forget in a while.

* This review is based on a copy I received courtesy of the publisher, Penguin Random House International.

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The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner

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“Tuesday, and those planes, they’ve broken something. Permanently. And in the process, they’ve changed everything. And everyone.”

The powerful story of two teenagers finding friendship, comfort, and first love in the days following 9/11 as their fractured city tries to put itself back together.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, sixteen-year-old Kyle Donohue watches the first twin tower come down from the window of Stuyvesant High School. Moments later, terrified and fleeing home to safety across the Brooklyn Bridge, he stumbles across a girl perched in the shadows. She is covered in ash and wearing a pair of costume wings. With his mother and sister in California and unable to reach his father, a New York City detective likely on his way to the disaster, Kyle makes the split-second decision to bring the girl home.

What follows is their story, told in alternating points of view, as Kyle tries to unravel the mystery of the girl so he can return her to her family. But what if the girl has forgotten everything, even her own name? And what if the more Kyle gets to know her, the less he wants her to go home? The Memory of Things tells a stunning story of friendship and first love and of carrying on with our day-to-day living in the midst of world-changing tragedy and unforgettable pain—it tells a story of hope.

Book Links: Amazon | B&N | Book Depository | Goodreads | Publisher

Personal Thoughts:

Let me start first by pointing out that The Memory of Things is not a September 11 novel. Sure, it is set up around that event but is not about the four coordinated terrorist attacks on the United States. Instead, it is a story of loss, survival and hope during one of the most devastating events in history of America.

The plot, in brief, focus on Kyle who is on his way home during the September 11 attack when he came across a girl who seems poised to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. The girl is covered in dust and ash and strangely wearing wings. At first, Kyle don’t understand what is happening but he certainly can’t leave the girl. Not when there’s a possibility that she will kill herself any moment. So instead of leaving the girl, he convinced her to go home with him. Soon he discover that the girl doesn’t remember a single thing. Not her name, or anything that happened before Kyle found her. Kyle wants to help the girl to figure out who she is and where she came from but the more he helps her the more he realized he is not ready to let her go yet.

Gae Polisner shifts narration between Kyle and the girl. While Kyle parts are written in a standard narrative, the girl point of view is presented in snippet and verses which perfectly conveys her unsorted and mostly lost thoughts.

“Change comes in two ways. The first is the blindside way that comes without warning… But other times, change comes gradually, in that sure, steady way you can sense coming a mile away. Or maybe a day away. Or, maybe, a few short hours. And, since you know it’s coming, you’re supposed to prepare. Brace yourself against the stinging blow. But just because you plant your feet wider, doesn’t mean the blow won’t take you down.”

More than finding out the girl identify or seeing her recover her memory, what really drew me in this book is Kyle. His reaction to things around him, the changes he saw in people and just how he continue to live his daily life trying to be responsible. Those little and mundane things he do during the days around the attacks are things that shows how resilient people are. That’s in-spite of all the tragedy around us we still try our best to continue to live life.

Overall, The Memory of Things is not as moving or powerful as I expect it to be but it is still a well written story of loss, survival, hope and human resilience. It’s is a reminder of what life is like to some people during the tragedy of September 11 attack.

* This review is based on an eBook I received courtesy of the publisher, St. Martin Press via NetGalley

 

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