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Book Review: The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle

When I’m reviewing books for professional publications, I stay quiet about them on social media. I’m always really excited once a review comes out to be able to talk about the book, finally! Here’s one of my most recent reviews, which originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of School Library Journal.

redstarFEDERLE, Tim. The Great American Whatever. 288p. ebook available. S. & S. Mar. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481404099.The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle

Gr 10 Up –In the six months since his sister was killed in a car accident, Quinn has hardly left his bedroom. He hasn’t gone to school or talked to his best friend and has barely interacted with his heartbroken mother. He hasn’t turned on his phone, either, knowing the last text his sister sent before running a red light was to him. Urged on by his best friend, Geoff, Quinn reluctantly emerges from his isolation just in time to meet a cute boy, turn 17, rediscover his passion for writing screenplays, and uncover some big secrets about the people he thought he knew best. He also gets some advice from a former idol, a neighbor turned Hollywood screenwriter: forget the rules of what’s expected in a script and just write the truth. For Quinn, who seeks solace in his daydreamy scripts with imagined conversations and outcomes that he can control, this is a hard pill to swallow, especially as he’s learning some truths he’s not really sure he likes. Even under the weight of grief, Quinn’s conversational and charming narrative voice effervesces, mixing humor and vulnerability in typical Federle style. Quinn’s story is at turns sad, funny, awkward, and endearing as he figures out friendship, romance, coming out, and moving on. VERDICT Federle’s YA debut about life’s unscripted moments has wide appeal and is an essential purchase for all collections. Readers will be instant fans of the funny and honest Quinn.–Amanda MacGregor, Great River Regional Library, St. Cloud, MN

Book Review: We Are The Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson

Publisher’s description:

we are the antsFrom the “author to watch” (Kirkus Reviews) of The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley comes a brand-new novel about a teenage boy who must decide whether or not the world is worth saving.

Henry Denton has spent years being periodically abducted by aliens. Then the aliens give him an ultimatum: The world will end in 144 days, and all Henry has to do to stop it is push a big red button.

Only he isn’t sure he wants to.

After all, life hasn’t been great for Henry. His mom is a struggling waitress held together by a thin layer of cigarette smoke. His brother is a jobless dropout who just knocked someone up. His grandmother is slowly losing herself to Alzheimer’s. And Henry is still dealing with the grief of his boyfriend’s suicide last year.

Wiping the slate clean sounds like a pretty good choice to him.

But Henry is a scientist first, and facing the question thoroughly and logically, he begins to look for pros and cons: in the bully who is his perpetual one-night stand, in the best friend who betrayed him, in the brilliant and mysterious boy who walked into the wrong class. Weighing the pain and the joy that surrounds him, Henry is left with the ultimate choice: push the button and save the planet and everyone on it…or let the world—and his pain—be destroyed forever.


Amanda’s thoughts:

We first meet Henry when we read his words, the opening words of the novel: “Chemistry: Extra Credit Project. Life is bullshit.” Henry has spent the last year, if not the many years prior to it, too, honing his nihilism. Life is absurd and meaningless. We are insignificant and don’t matter. We’re just ants. So when he gets the chance to stop the world from ending, he really has to think it over. Why let the world go on? With all of the pain and misery and unfairness, why not let it all end? He’s looking at the big picture of things, sure, but this is also just about him. Is not wanting the world to go on the same thing as wanting to die? Is not believing the world–filled with so many mistakes and so much pain–deserves to go on the same thing as not believing that he deserves to go on? Is letting the world end just an extremely epic way to commit suicide? As we get to know Henry–grieving, lonely, guilt-ridden Henry–we see why he’s so conflicted over a question that might seem like it has an easy answer.


Henry has 144 days to get through before either saving the world or letting it end. A lot of those days are terrible. Thanks to his brother spreading the word that Henry had been abducted by aliens, he’s known around school as Space Boy. Since the suicide of his boyfriend Jesse, he doesn’t have any friends. He hooks up with Marcus, the school’s golden boy and a supreme bully, in secret, trying to fill the Jesse-shaped hole in his life. Marcus torments him, physically and verbally, but Henry keeps going back for more. He feels guilty for Jesse’s suicide and, maybe as a result, doesn’t seem to care very much about what happens to him or what the consequences might be. After all, if the world is about to end, why make things worse than they are? Why call out bullies, or think you deserve better, or think anything will change? Why want or hope? Nothing matters–right?


As you might expect, some things happen to Henry that make him have to think harder about both what he might ultimately do about the whole world ending thing and about actually living his life instead of just standing by while things happen to him. He meets Diego, a mysterious and complicated new guy with a troubled past. He starts hanging out again with Audrey, Jesse’s (and his) BFF. He starts to see the potential for change and for better lives with his mother and his brother. But none of these things means suddenly life becomes bearable. He’s still routinely assaulted and taunted. He’s still scared to get close to anyone. He can’t see how he can possibly be with Diego (who Henry thought was straight and who says the excellent line, “I like people, not the parts they have.”) when Diego wants to ignore the past and Henry doesn’t believe in a future. He’s still wracked with grief, guilt-ridden, hopeless, and just desperately sad. Everything–the entire fate of the world–ultimately comes down to whether or not Henry wants to go on living. 


Hutchinson’s latest book is a powerful look at depression, grief, guilt, families, bullying, hope, and the power to change. He shows us an extremely broken character, one who’s not convinced it’s worth it to even try to put the pieces back together, and really makes us wonder not only what will ultimately happen to the universe, but what will happen to Henry as he falls deeper and deeper into despair. Another fantastic book from Hutchinson, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. Smart, funny, weird, and heartbreaking, this title will have wide appeal thanks to compelling characters, an offbeat plot, and fantastic writing. 


Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781481449632

Publisher: Simon Pulse

Publication date: 01/19/2016

Book Review: Breakaway by Kat Spears

23848184Publisher’s description:

When Jason Marshall’s younger sister passes away, he knows he can count on his three best friends and soccer teammates–Mario, Jordie, and Chick–to be there for him. With a grief-crippled mother and a father who’s not in the picture, he needs them more than ever. But when Mario starts hanging out with a rough group of friends and Jordie finally lands the girl of his dreams, Jason is left to fend for himself while maintaining a strained relationship with troubled and quiet Chick. Then Jason meets Raine, a girl he thinks is out of his league but who sees him for everything he wants to be, and he finds himself pulled between building a healthy and stable relationship with a girl he might be falling in love with, grieving for his sister, and trying to hold onto the friendships he has always relied on. A witty and emotionally moving tale of friendship, first love, and loss, Breakaway is Kat Spears at her finest.


Amanda’s thoughts:

First of all, let me say that for the most part I liked this book. That said, I don’t like the tag line on the cover. No one really wins anything in this story, but they sure all lose and lose and lose. And yeah, the story has soccer in it, but it doesn’t account for much of the plot. The tag line and cover may help draw in readers that otherwise wouldn’t gravitate toward this book, but to me they aren’t a great fit.  ANYWAY. Pet peeves aside, let’s move on.


This is not a light story. There is very little hope. Bad things pile upon bad things. Characters make crummy choices, act like jerks to each other, and overlook/can’t properly deal with some dark stuff that’s going down. Their friendships get strained and fall apart. You like books that show the crappy lives some teens have? You’ll love this one.


Race and class play big roles in this book. Jason lives with his mother in a small apartment. He sleeps on the sofa bed, contributes what he can to help pay bills, and repeatedly mentions being poor and being hungry. Mario’s parents primarily speak Spanish. Jordie’s mom is Vietnamese. Jordie’s family has a lot of money, a fact that increasingly drives a wedge between Jordie and his other friends. Jason’s possible love interest, Raine, also comes from a family with a lot of money. Jason doesn’t see how it could ever possibly work out between them when Raine’s privilege and resources will send her down a path after high school very different than the one Jason is imaging he will go down. There are divorced parents and dead parents. There is drug addiction, alcoholism, death, abuse, and mental illness. I firmly believe no book ever has “too many issues,” just that some books present a lot of issues and don’t deal with them well. Spears navigates all of the issues in the characters’ lives skillfully, presenting what feel like very real (if very bleak) lives. Their friendships and other relationships are complicated by all of the factors and issues listed above.


This moving (and depressing) story takes a hard look at how friendships strain and how friends fail each other (and themselves). The ending will be annoying to some people–there’s no real closure, we have no idea what will happen to any of the characters or their relationships, and the sense we’re left with is one of sadness and hopelessness. This is the reality for these characters, Spears seems to say. Being briefly brought back together by a tragic event is likely not enough to reunite them as real friends or help them change the paths they’re on. I’m good with that kind of ending, but I know many readers (particularly the teens I know) are not. Pair this one with Adam Silvera’s More Happy Than Not for another look at grief, poverty, and changing friendships.


Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781250065513

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Publication date: 09/15/2015



Book Review: More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera

more happy“Sometimes pain is so unmanageable that the idea of spending another day with it seems impossible. Other times pain acts as a compass to help you get through the messier tunnels of growing up. But the pain can only help you if you can remember it.” —More Happy Than Not

In Adam Silvera’s utterly fantastic More Happy Than Not, 16-year-old Aaron Soto grapples with what it means to be happy and if it’s possible to change who you really are.


Aaron and his friends live in a modern-day Bronx neighborhood with one major difference: it’s home to a Leteo institute, which offers a memory-relief procedure, which alters and suppresses painful or problematic memories. Aaron’s skeptical about it, but a kid from his block had it done and it seems legit. It seems like Aaron would have reason to undergo the procedure—when his dad committed suicide, Aaron was the one who found him. Aaron also survived his own recent attempt at suicide, something we’re reminded of every time he touches the smile-like scar on his wrist. His mother works two jobs to be able to pay the rent on their tiny one-bedroom apartment. Aaron has a job at the corner market and gives much of the money to his mom to help with the rent. He goes without a lot of things that he would like. But life isn’t all bad. He’s dating Genevieve, spends a lot of time playing games with his friends from the block, and has an intriguing new friend, Thomas.


Thomas and Aaron quickly become best friends. They have deep, honest, revealing conversations. There is an ease between them that makes it feel safe to be real. Aaron starts to wonder if maybe Thomas is gay, which, after some time, leads him to thinking that maybe he is gay (or, in Aaron’s parlance, a dude-liker). Before long, Aaron is torn between what to do, who he likes and loves, and what it all means. He comes out to Thomas, who is cool with it, but when Aaron makes a move on him, he’s rejected—Thomas says he is straight. Aaron is embarrassed and confused. He feels like he’s already lost so many people, and it seems certain he will now lose Thomas and Genevieve, not to mention who he might stand to lose if he came out to more than just Thomas. Aaron knows how to fix this, though: Leteo. He hopes Leteo will be able to make him straight, even though he knows that will mean that he’ll never really be able to be himself.


But before Aaron can undergo the procedure, his own friends start to get suspicious about his relationship with Thomas and attack him, brutally beating him. When Me-Crazy throws him through the door to their building, Aaron hits his head so hard that—much to his surprise—it loosens all of his memories, leading to a series of startling realizations for both Aaron and the reader. To say more would give away too much.


I absolutely could not put this novel down. The very first page grabbed me and pulled me right into Aaron’s world. The vivid setting, larger-than-life characters, and powerful narrative voice all stand out as some of the best writing I have read in a long time. The kids on the block (who have memorable names like Me-Crazy, Baby Freddy, and Skinny-Dave) are selling weed, getting in fights, and worrying over dead friends all while still playing childish games like Manhunt, a glorified hide and seek. They are a racially diverse group—we know Aaron’s Puerto Rican, Genevieve is Dominican, and Thomas was “the only brown” kid dressed up at a midnight showing of a movie. Their families vary, too—Aaron’s dad is dead, Gen’s mom is dead, and Brendan’s parents are in jail. Silvera does a great job of creating this extremely vivid little world in the Bronx, then making readers reconsider everything we think we know once Aaron hits his head. This powerful and complicated look at identity, memory, grief, happiness, and honesty will speak to a wide audience of readers who will find themselves unable to put down Aaron’s gripping story (even when it’s almost too painful to keep reading). 


Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781616955601

Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated

Publication date: 6/2/2015

Book Review: Things We Know by Heart by Jessi Kirby

When we meet Quinn, in Jessi Kirby’s Things We Know by Heart,  it has been 400 days since her boyfriend Trent was killed in an accident. In those 400 days, Quinn has been wallowing in her grief and wallowing HARD (and who can blame her?). She’s basically stopped doing everything she once enjoyed and doesn’t interact with anyone beyond her family. She keeps track of each day since Trent was killed as some kind of vigil, a testament to their love and to his memory. As she says at one point, she’s essentially an 18-year-old widow.


The only good thing to come out of Trent’s death was the fact that five people became recipients of his organs. Working through the right avenues, Trent’s family (including Quinn) can reach out to the recipients and vice versa. Quinn has heard back from and met four of the people, but the fifth one, the one who received his heart, is elusive. But it’s 2015 and no one can remain elusive long thanks to the internet. Quinn does some savvy researching and discovers that recipient #5 is a boy named Colton. Though she knows she shouldn’t, she goes off in search of him, not sure what she’ll do if she finds him. She meets him in a convoluted way—they are in the same coffee shop and Quinn panics and flees, leaving her purse behind, which he returns, and then gets into a minor car accident that he witnesses. Instead of revealing who she is and what she’s doing looking for him, she just gets to know him while keeping everything a secret—a plan that is sure to cause some waves.


It is, of course, predictable that Quinn and Colton will fall for each other. You can also guess that this is confusing for Quinn—is it because Colton has Trent’s heart? Does this somehow affect how Colton feels toward her? You can also guess that when the truth of their connection is finally revealed to Colton, he doesn’t love that she has been keeping all of this from him. BUT what moves this beyond simply being a predictable story about love, loss, and lies are the very real feelings Quinn goes through as she processes everything from the past 400 days and everything that is happening to her now. She is happy with Colton. He’s good for her, and she’s good for him. They really just kind of do the same things over and over and that’s all it takes for them to feel content and enjoy each other. They don’t have a particularly deep connection, mainly because of the amount of things both parties are holding back, but their attachment to each other grows in a realistic way, especially once the truth comes out.


Each chapter starts with a quote about hearts or transplants—some scientific, some poetic. The scientific ones help inform the readers about organ donation and how hearts function in the body. Readers might be tempted to skip over these precursors to the chapter but would be remiss in doing so. Though the story follows a completely predictable trajectory, the tension that comes from Quinn having this big secret is really what carries the story. This will be an easy one to move off the shelves–a romance that is as much about loss as it is about love. A moving look at how our lives go on even in the face of almost unthinkable tragedies and obstacles. 


ISBN-13: 9780062299437
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 4/21/2015

Book review: The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand

In Cynthia Hand’s The Last Time We Say Goodbye, high school senior Alexis is struggling to figure out how to go on in the aftermath of her brother Ty’s suicide. She’s going to therapy, refusing to take medication to help with the depression and panic attacks (more on this topic in my Sunday Reflections post), and keeping a journal. When her mother says she still feels Tyler in the house—that she smelled his cologne one night, out of nowhere—Alexis doesn’t think much of it. They’re grieving, after all, and feeling like a loved one is still around isn’t that uncommon. But when Alexis starts seeing flashes of Ty—in the mirror, in the backseat of the car—she starts to wonder if she’s hallucinating or seeing a ghost. She could talk to her therapist about this, but she doesn’t want to sound crazy. She’s alienated from her friends at the moment—they’re still trying to be there for her, especially her ex-boyfriend, Steven, but she just can’t deal with anything or anyone. Alexis tries to figure out if Ty is trying to give her some sort of message. As the weeks go by, Alexis confronts her future plans, family issues, and cautiously opens up to a few people about how she’s been feeling.


The grief, guilt, and pain permeate every second of this book. Despite my major issue with the problematic villainizing of medicine, I thought this book was profoundly moving and well-paced. Hand does not shy away from graphic description of Ty’s suicide and the immediate aftermath. The reconstructed day of Ty’s suicide was almost impossible for me to read. This is one of those books where I don’t want to give too much of the plot away. The way Lex has to navigate relationships new and old, has to cope with her guilt and grief, and has to find a way to move forward is achingly moving. By the end, I was sobbing. Highly recommended—just be ready with the Kleenex. 




ISBN-13: 9780062318473

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 2/10/2015


Book review: The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley by Shaun David Hutchinson with illustrations by Christine Larsen

17-year-old Andrew Brawley lives in a forgotten part of the Roanoke General Hospital. By “forgotten,” I don’t mean that it’s an area that doesn’t get many visitors or feels lonely—it’s literally a forgotten wing of the enormous building, abandoned in the middle of renovations. And let’s unpack that sentence even further: “lives” is accurate, because it is his only home and he never leaves there, but “hides out” or “squats” might be better words. He sleeps on a pile of stained sheets using a laundry bag as his pillow. He swipes items from the hospital staff to use as he needs to. He works in the cafeteria (getting paid cash under the table) and spends most of his time hanging out around the ER or in the pediatric department. He doesn’t need to be in a hospital in the sense that he’s not sick or there for treatment. But he needs to be there because it’s the last place he saw his family alive.


Andrew (often called Drew) is killing time chattering with his favorite ER nurses when Rusty is rushed in. Rusty, who appears to be Drew’s age, is in agony. His tortured howls should drive Drew away, but they keep him there, curious, feeling as though he should bear witness. Rusty has suffered severe and extensive burns, something about an accident maybe at a Fourth of July party. The details come out quickly, both in the media and from what Drew learns by keeping his ears open around the ER: Rusty, who had long been bullied, was set on fire at the party.


Drew takes to sneaking into Rusty’s room and talking to him or reading to him. He feels some connection with him, though he’s not sure why. Both boys are gay, and when one of the nurses asks Drew if he knows Rusty, Drew points out, “We don’t all know each other.” But he gets to know him. He tells Rusty things he hasn’t told anyone else, like what happened the night his family died. As Rusty begins to slowly recover, the conversations become two-way, rather than Drew just talking to a boy he isn’t even sure can hear him. Their affection for one another grows quickly, though Drew still isn’t sure what to make of how he feels about Rusty.


Throughout the story, Drew is on the run from Death, who also goes by the name Miss Michelle. Michelle is a social worker at the hospital and Drew lives in fear that she will one day figure out not only that he’s living in the hospital, but that he’s in fact a missing boy. He feels he somehow escaped Death when he lost his family and it’s just a matter of time before she catches him. He also worries that Death will come for Rusty, too.


Drew is drowning in grief. We know he’s seen tragedy, but the full extent of that tragedy is revealed slowly, and packs a real emotional punch when it’s finally all out there. Drew talks to Rusty about his debilitating guilt and how his family’s death is his fault. The grief permeates every page of the story. It is dark, dark, dark, and gets darker with every reveal. I ached for Drew as I watched his pain and guilt, cried when Rusty recounted the years of torment he suffered at the hands of his peers, and was shattered when he finally told Drew about what really happened the night he was lit on fire.


The other characters here are well-developed and mostly all have dark or sad aspects to them. Drew’s only real friends beyond the ER nurses are Lexi and Trevor, two teens in the cancer ward who are in grim shape. Drew also befriends Father Mike, the hospital’s priest who, to Drew’s surprise, is into comic books, has a biting sense of humor, and doesn’t shy away from conversations that ask the hard questions. Drew’s other friend is his boss Arnold, who runs the cafeteria. Drew can’t figure out what a guy with a master’s in literature is doing running a hospital cafeteria, or why Arnold has a tendency to pull back into himself and have unexplainable dark moments. In Drew’s small world, everyone has seen too much death and suffering.


This book includes a graphic novel that Drew is working on interspersed throughout, telling the story of Patient F. Here, Drew works out some of his anger, pain, guilt, and grief. If the overall narrative is dark, then the graphic novel is whatever is one step beyond dark. It’s disturbing, creepy, and haunting, and gives us a real look at exactly what tortured thoughts run around Drew’s brain.


The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley gutted me. The author puts all of Drew’s pain on the page and never lets you look away. Even the lighter moments are tinged with pain, death, suffering, guilt, and loss. Drew’s story is hard enough to imagine, but it was Rusty’s story that tore at me. When he tells Drew of his years of being bullied by his classmates, he says, “People always guessed I was gay… Not like I’m flaming or anything—or that it’d be bad if I were. It was just the worst-kept secret at my school. I never dated girls, Nina was always my bestie, and I sucked at sports.” Drew laughs and says, “Sucking as sports doesn’t make you gay.” “No,” replies Rusty, “but it makes you a target.” He explains that he was on a hit list. There were points for assaulting him. By the time he got to telling Drew about what happened when he was lit on fire, I had to set the book down. All I could think was, please don’t ever let that be my kid—the one brutalized for being different or the one cruelly bullying his classmates. I wanted to look away, but Hutchinson makes sure you can’t—look closer, his writing urges, as he describes in painful detail the humiliation and hatred.


It’s hard to say the novel has a hopeful ending. That darkness? It outdoes itself near the end. The idea that things have to get worse before they get better is more like things have to get worse before they can get even WORSE. But there is hope, especially if the graphic novel is to be viewed as finishing the story rather than wish fulfillment. Though Drew is suffering on every page of this story, he is also fumbling his way through the darkness to whatever is on the other side of it. All of the characters are. It’s hard to see that or remember that in the middle of so much pain, but hospitals aren’t just a place for ailing—they’re also a place for healing.


The unique setting, multifaceted plot, strong characters, and raw emotion make this story impossible to put down, even when you really want to. I’ll be thinking about Rusty and Drew for a long time to come.


ISBN-13: 9781481403108
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: 1/20/2015