Head of the River by Pip Harry (twitter | website)
Previously Reviewed: I’ll Tell You Mine
Publication Date: June 25, 2014
Publisher: University of Queensland Press
Target Audience: Young Adult
Keywords: rowing, boy-girl twins, Olympian parents, competition, performance-enhancing drugs
Format Read: ARC from Publisher (Thank you!)
Summary: Head of the River follows Leni and Cris, twins, as they prepare, with their rowing teams, for the Head of the River championship between their 11th and 12th years of high school, but face life-changing struggles throughout the months leading up to the competition.
Wow. Wow. Wow. Just… wow. (And um, where to begin?)
The opening pages of Head of the River detail an assembly days after the Head of the River rowing competition has ended. With few specifics, there’s the implication that something grim has occurred. The mood is sour, and the focus has atypically shifted away from the championship and everyone’s spirits are squashed. We’re introduced to the two main characters, Leni and Cris, who are twins and both on the rowing teams. Their stories are told through alternating chapters. Flawlessly, Pip Harry tells both of their stories — the pressure they both face and the ways they deal with it — and rhythmically weaves them together.
Leni is very focused and driven, but so-much-so that her attitude comes across as untouchable and distant. She aspires to be like her Olympian rower parents (her mom took home the gold, her father the silver) and trains around the clock to achieve her goals. She’s studious and determined; if rowing doesn’t work out for her, she wants to have a solid secondary plan. As Leni moves into a leadership role on her rowing team, she has to learn to let go and become less of a control freak. In order to be a great leader, she must be more relatable, so despite how badly she wants to yell at Rachel when she seems disinterested and whiney during practice, Leni has to stop looking down on others.
Cris, on the other hand, is very likable and friendly, but his kryptonite is over-indulging in food (and skipping workouts). He’d rather eat an additional slice of cake than keep fit for his sport. (This is where he and Leni are so drastically different.) When Cris loses his seat to a newer, less-trained rower and is booted down to second team, he is jolted. He’s told he has to lose weight, as he tips the scales at over 250 lbs., and prove himself again. His best friend, Peter, is also moved down to second team, and sadly, the two boys devise a less-than-healthy plan to help them quickly snap into shape and redeem themselves.
Leni’s journey is very relational — she’s a very distant character that’s so focused she can’t take in the moment and make lasting friendships. She struggles with finding herself in a relationship with Peter she’s not sure she really wants to be in. She is attracted to the new guy, Sam, but he easily manipulates her. Audrey is her former best friend that she really misses, but since being swept away by Peter, they’ve grown distant and have a secret friendship outside of school. Rachel sits behind her in the boat, but annoys the hell out of her; if they don’t get in sync, it will surely mess up their rhythm on the water. There are so many layers to Leni. It seems like she’s a girl who has it all figured out and is really going to excel, but she felt so genuine. Her storyline with Sam and Peter really struck a chord with me because I remember finding myself in the same exact situation as her and wondering how I got there.
Cris’ struggle is more of a mental one. He feels coaxed into the supplement/steroids regiment by Peter and completely incapable of backing out. He’s conflicted over whether or not rowing is really what he wants to do or if he’s doing it just to please his parents. (Sidebar: the parents are really fantastic, appropriately supportive and visual throughout the story. And I loved how they, too, had struggles of their own — the father battles with the English language as he’s Romanian and it really puts a damper on what jobs are available to him, though he’s more qualified than most in the positions he desires.)
Throughout the tail end of Leni and Cris’ 11th year of school and beginning of their 12th, they train for the Head of the River competition. We see them morph and change and be challenged. With each row they take, the intensity is turned up a notch. By the time the competition arrives, and especially when we find out what the big event is that was alluded to at the beginning of the book, your heart is pounding for the results and cheering both the teams on… but, you also tread lightly because you just know something has gone terribly wrong.
Pip Harry drew on her own experiences as a rower and it really showed because every aspect was so well laid out. I went into Head of the River not knowing a thing about rowing, but through the training, the races, the camaraderie, I felt like I, too, had been training alongside each team. I could absolutely relate to Leni’s personal pressure — the desire to do well. The drive. But also the confusion over guys — that hit teenage Magan hard. Cris’ body insecurities (which, yay for exploring this from a male POV) and fluctuating between wanting to be fit and having a screw-it attitude really resonated with me, too.
It’s no doubt that I had a book hangover when I turned the final pages of Head of the River. Pip Harry has undeniably written one of my favorite stories thus far of 2014.
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Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: June 3, 2014
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: disabilities, disorders, senior year of high school, parents/children, friendship/romance
Format read: ARC from Jamie (Perpetual Page Turner)! Thank you.
Summary: Amy convinces her mom to ditch the adult aide her senior year, instead recruiting her fellow peers to help her out during the school day. She can’t take credit for the idea — instead that goes to Matthew, a guy she’s been in school with forever and one of the only people who is brave (??) enough to be honest with her. A friendship blooms between the two, as Matthew is dealing with his own challenges. And so their senior year gets a bit more exciting…
I hadn’t heard much about this book until Megan McCafferty tweeted about how (despite comparisons to Rainbow Rowell and John Green) Say What You Will stood on its own. I was more intrigued by that declaration than hearing those two names. Even as a huge Rainbow fan. It was kind of like fate that Jamie handed me the book the same day that I read that tweet, and here we are.
My mom has always worked with children and teenagers with disabilities. I couldn’t help but think of her as Amy’s adult aide got the boot and the high school allowed her peers to fill in. I’ve always thought it might have been difficult for the students my mom worked with to make great connections with other kids their age. It always seemed they were closest to their aides, and judging by the amount of time they spent together, it made sense if that was the case.
So I liked this little experiment, even if a boy (Matthew) was the catalyst. Maybe not the catalyst for the entire change but someone who challenged Amy and her “alleged” happiness as a young woman with cerebral palsy. Sure, his honesty is off-putting, as is his disbelief that Amy is completely well-adjusted. But with Amy off to college super soon, she realizes he does have a point. Her mom is not always going to be around to protect her, schedule her, and run her life; she’s ready to take control and, fingers crossed, come away with some lasting relationships.
Immediately, I liked Amy. She was observant, she asked great questions, and she was an all-around positive person. As she begins working with her student aides, she has a different relationship with each of them (good and bad) as she awaits her time each week with Matthew. It’s a difficult time for Matt to take on a responsibility like this one. Amy’s mom is super strict, and he’s scared of her and his OCD is at its worst. What business does he have helping someone? Surprising even himself, Matt finds he works well with Amy and even looks forward to seeing her each week. It comes so naturally to him, that their closeness becomes more of a focus and all he’s assisting her with becomes second nature.
Say What You Will is another book full of complicated, complex characters who do not always say the right things and do the right things. (I mean, do you?) We know that both the characters are tiptoeing around their feelings, but with college around the corner, is it worth saying something and risking their friendship? Because it is a solid, intimate friendship and one of the better male/female friendships I’ve come across in my reading ever. I was okay with the tiptoeing but there was so much for each of the characters to figure out on their own. College! Parents! Jobs! Life!
And not to keep gushing, but I loved that McGovern conquered not only senior year but the summer before college and then actual college so Say What You Will covers a pretty hefty span of time. As we know, time changes things and sometimes, it doesn’t. As if life isn’t complicated enough with a mom who has made YOU her profession (Amy) and not knowing if college is your thing (Matt), the author throws some major curveballs that left me so tempted to stay up all night to finish the book. Ah. I want to say more but I can’t. I can’t! Don’t make me!
But seriously, I love that McGovern brought two characters like Amy and Matt into my life. They felt like people I could have easily bumped into during high school and yes, equally awesome that she’s bringing attention to a disability that I have yet to experience in any of my reading. But she did it in such a way that I almost forgot, if that makes sense? Despite what made Amy and Matt, Amy and Matt, it really was their struggles to pave their own paths and be honest with who they were and how they felt that made the book so effective.
I loved it.
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Through to You by Lauren Barnholdt (twitter | website)
Previously Reviewed: One Night That Changes Everything / Sometimes it Happens / The Thing About the Truth / Right of Way / Two-Way Street
Publication Date: July 8, 2014
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Target Audience: Young Adult
Keywords: choreography, roller-coaster relationships
Format Read: ARC from Publisher via Edelweiss (Thank you!)
Summary: Intrigued by a note left on her desk and a few convincing words by the note-writer, Penn, Harper decides to ditch school to learn more about him. Penn is a closed-off guy and Harper desperately wants to strip away his tough-guy exterior to learn more about him.
Good golly, Miss Molly. I really dread having to sit down at my computer to write a review about a book that just didn’t resonate with me. But alas, I want to be as honest and transparent as possible so unfortunately that means I have to suck it up.
Through to You was my third novel of Lauren Barnholdt’s to read. My complaints in the past have been that there wasn’t enough depth and character development before the final page was turned. I wanted a higher level of believability. However, those continue to be two of my biggest complaints after completing this novel.
Harper is a girl who flies under-the-radar; she has one best friend, is a good student, and is going to audition for a spot in a prestigious choreography program. Penn randomly walks by her desk in the one class they have together and drops a note on her desk that reads, “I like your sparkle.” This is the introduction to Harper and Penn’s very roller-coaster-esque relationship. Harper doesn’t know why Penn would leave her the note. Penn doesn’t know why he left the note for Harper. I immediately felt disinterested in Penn. What were his intentions? Did he want to lead her on or was he really interested? Prior to that one moment, the two of them had never spoken. My gut told me that Penn wasn’t to be trusted.
After an awkward hallway conversation, Penn convinces Harper to ditch school. She’s intrigued by this boy and seeks to know why he would leave her the note. They have very little to discuss, not knowing much about the other or what common interests they have. She was such a gullible character to blindly follow this boy she knew so little about. As she learns more and more about him, as he proves that he’s unstable, moody, and hard to relate to, Harper takes on a savior complex. Though she knows she should back away, she repeatedly falls victim to his half-hearted apologies. Penn was confusing and angsty, and while he would make Harper feel useless and seemed disinterested, she continued to push aside her anger and was too easily swayed by her need to fix him. (Though he rarely shared information about his personal life, so she was never quite sure what needed to be fixed.)
Ideally, I would have liked for Harper to have had more of a backbone, more strength. For all these other interests she had, choreography per se, there’s very little of her actually working on those things that she’s passionate about. The girl I got to know tossed all of those things aside and became fixated on the unobtainable boy. Overall this would have strengthened the flow of the story so that when the day arrives for Harper to audition, it doesn’t seem out of place for the sequence of events to occur.
While Through to You is a very casual read, it doesn’t exhibit the type of relationship I’d like to see teenage girls (or anyone for that matter) pursuing or idolizing. I want to read strong stories about girls who are chasing boys that aren’t disinterested and stringing them along. I want to see girls who are still able to stay true to themselves and boys who make an effort to do better for that girl, not encourage them, repeatedly, to skip class and cast aside all responsibility.
Unfortunately, Through to You wasn’t a hit for me. If you’ve read it and you saw things through a different perspective than mine, please share your thoughts below. I’m always, always curious to know if I missed something when I didn’t connect with a book.
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In Deep by Terra Elan McVoy ( web | tweet )
Release Date: July 8, 2014
Publisher: Simon Teen
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: swimming, competition, grief, addiction
Format read: ARC from Publisher via Edelweiss. (Thanks!)
Summary: School work, friendships, family, romance — nothing is going to get in the way of Brynn’s swimming. Living for practice and not caring too much about everything else, all Brynn wants to do is best her times in the pool and land a scholarship for college. But is her training and focus a bit out of control?
A theme in many of more effective books I’ve read this year lately is complicated main characters. I like to remind myself that I am never going to agree with or understand why any one person does something. Not even some super close to me. That’s just about how I felt about Brynn, a supporting character from Terra McVoy’s 2011 novel, The Summer of First and Lasts, who steps to the forefront in the addicting and complex In Deep. (Note: I didn’t much remember Brynn from an earlier reading of TSOFAL but, FYI, In Deep takes place before it.)
Brynn is a risk taker. She loves to egg on her best friend, Grier, and, in turn, loves to do stupid shit herself. She basically fills up her time with anything she can before returning to the place she feels the best — in the pool — working to perfect for times and feel like a winner. With her dad suddenly dying a few years ago and her unhappiness with how her mom handled the entire situation, she has basically shut everyone out. Sure, she says hi and bye and allows herself to play silly games with her stepdad in the car but, despite the title, it doesn’t go deeper than that.
It’s hard for me to explain why Brynn acted the way she did. Was she jealous when Grier met a new guy and completely ditched her? Why couldn’t she let Charlie be good to her and accept that he wanted more from her than just sex? All of this work focusing on swimming, not caring about schoolwork, not being honest with Grier — it was all bound to come to explode at some point, right? I mean, that’s the thing. In Deep felt like a ticking time bomb. I was on the edge of my seat wondering what all of this debauchery was leading up to, but, at the same time, completely charmed by Brynn sometimes too. Like the way she dispensed useful advice to her school friend, Kate. Or how admirable her work ethic was when it came to swimming.
But that’s the thing. Our life can’t be just one thing. No matter how good it makes us feel, balance is key to our well-being. I worried that Brynn was filling up her time with some very damaging habits because she was hiding from her mom, hiding from the death of her father, and never truly dealing with any of it. Just like McVoy did with Criminal, she completely immersed me in a world that felt dangerous: emotionally and physically. But there were also so many layers to Brynn’s behaviors and routines, so many shades of gray, that I found myself wanting so badly to be able to discuss all my thoughts with someone. My mind was all over the place — in a good way.
I love to be challenged in my reading, and I’ve grown to love McVoy’s writing with every book I experience because not one of them is the same. She is constantly stretching my limits as a compassionate reader, and introducing me to characters and situations that make me consider possibilities in my reading I never have before. Sure, there is something to be said about knowing what to expect from an author, but being surprised and satisfied? There’s nothing like it.
In Deep is dark and messy; it’s a story about how we can abuse control and routine, using it to shield us from the moments that catch us off-guard and what we do to fill an impossible void. Terra Elan McVoy continues to deliver memorable, authentic characters (leading and supporting) and moments that cause you to question your own convictions and press pause on just about everything in life until you reach the last page. (And then you won’t be able to stop thinking about it so… it’s never ending — in a good way.)
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It’s Monday so I’m feeling rebellious. That’s right. I chose books by their covers. NO ONE THROW THINGS AT ME. Basically, I was in the bookstore last week, checking out the New Fiction table, and stumbled upon some beautiful looking books. Not just beautiful but bright and eye-catching. When it comes to summer, I am about bright sundresses, nail colors, lips, sunglasses… everything! I love love color. So today I want you think of these books as some gorgeous piece of clothing in a shop window or even the best looking umbrella on the beach…
Because regardless of what we are taught, a good cover is a HUGE reason why we pick up a book in the first place, right?
Let’s see what we have today…
This image doesn’t do the book cover justice. It’s so so so bright!
Description from Goodreads: Meet Tess. A vintage clothes–obsessive, she’s trapped in a frighteningly grown-up customer relations job she loathes. Still, she’s been dating the gorgeous accountant Dominic since university, and has a perfectly lovely flat, which she shares with her best friend, Kirsty. But if her life is so perfect, why does she tear up whenever anyone mentions her future?
Meet George. He’s a brilliant jazz musician who spends almost as much time breaking up fights between his bickering band mates as he does worrying about his ailing father and living up to his stockbroker girlfriend’s very high expectations. For a guy who has always believed in romance, the grim practicalities of twenty-something life have come as something of a shock. Seemingly always on the verge of a big break, he’s looking for something more…something special.
They just might be two halves of one perfect whole. Now, if only they could manage to cross paths…
(I actually chatted about this book in my Shelve It from this weekend.)
Great font and colors, right?
Description from Goodreads: In a one-bedroom-hall-kitchen in Mahim, Bombay, through the last decades of the twentieth century, lived four love-battered Mendeses: mother, father, son and daughter. Between Em, the mother, driven frequently to hospital after her failed suicide attempts, and The Big Hoom, the father, trying to hold things together as best he could, they tried to be a family.
Bonus: I’m seeing a ton of 5-star ratings on Goodreads.
Oh gosh. I realized I was so blinded by these colors that I fell for a movie tie-in cover. Can you blame me? As soon as I saw that sky, I imagined doing a NAILED IT based on it. Anyway…
Description from B&N: First published in 1947, Mood Indigo perfectly captures the feverishly creative, melancholy romance of mid-century Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Recently voted number ten on Le Monde’s list of the 100 Books of the Century (the top ten also included works by Camus, Proust, Kafka, Hemingway, and Steinbeck), Boris Vian’s novel has been an icon of French literature for fifty years—the avant-garde, populist masterpiece by one of twentieth-century Paris’s most intriguing cultural figures, a touchstone for generations of revolutionary young people, a jazz-fueled, science-fiction-infused, sexy, fantastical, nouveau-decadent tear-jerker that has charmed and beguiled hundreds of thousands of readers around the world. With the help of Michel Gondry and Audrey Tautou, it is set to seduce many, many more.
Not only is this cover fun but this book is one of those “choose your own adventure” books…
Abbreviated description from B&N: Your best friend is getting married and she’s asked you to be a bridesmaid. You have so many decisions to make. . . . You also have to navigate through the bachelorette party, the bride’s wedding jitters, the dress from hell, and more. Perhaps the most tempting option is to flee the entire affair with a tall, dark stranger . . . or maybe an old friend who could surprise you with a sizzling encounter. You make the decisions—a wild ride is guaranteed.
It’s interesting how many of these book started out with a toned-down cover and released a second, more vibrant one!
Description from Goodreads: About to turn thirty, Alice is the youngest of three daughters, and the black sheep of her family. Drawn to traveling in far-flung and often dangerous countries, she has never enjoyed the closeness with her father that her two older sisters have and has eschewed their more conventional career paths. She has left behind a failed relationship in London with the man she thought she might marry and is late to hear the news that her father is dying. She returns to the family home only just in time to say good-bye.
Daniel is called many things—”tramp”, “bum”, “lost.” He hasn’t had a roof over his head for almost thirty years, but he once had a steady job and a passionate love affair with a woman he’s never forgotten. To him, the city of London has come to be like home in a way that no bricks and mortar dwelling ever was. He makes sculptures out of the objects he finds on his walks throughout the city—bits of string and scraps of paper, a child’s hair tie, and a lost earring—and experiences synesthesia, a neurological condition which causes him to see words and individual letters of the alphabet as colors. But as he approaches his sixties his health is faltering, and he is kept alive by the knowledge of one thing—that he has a daughter somewhere in the world whom he has never been able to find.
So what do we think any keepers in this group? Four out of the 5 books are strong contenders for me. (Not sure “choose your own adventure” is something I want to try again.)
What about you? What’s the last book you picked based on a cover?
Thanks for checking out this month’s Big Kids’ Table! ♥