Review: Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin

rainreign Twelve-year-old Rose Howard loves following the rules. She obsesses over homonyms and prime numbers, and frequently shouts both out loud, especially when she’s upset.

Rose has Asperger’s syndrome, and she stands out in her small town of Hatford, New York because of it. Rose wants to “belong” in a world she can’t quite grasp. Her father wants her to “be normal.” Her teacher and school aide struggle to help Rose adapt. Only Rose’s uncle, Weldon, and her pet dog, Rain, accept her as she is.

When a super storm wipes out the area and the roads flood, Rain goes missing. When Rose attempts to track down her dog, she’s faced with a lot of situations that normally unnerve her (speaking to people on the phone, for example). When Rose finds out some startling information about Rain, she must make a tough decision. Should she listen to what her father tells her because he’s her father, or should she do what feels right?

Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin is told in Rose’s first-person point of view. There are some interesting things about this narration because of Rose’s developmental disorder; for example, Rose refers to certain chapters before their happen by their chapter title name:

I will tell you more about the rain my father brought [Rain] home in another chapter, Chapter Five, which will be called “When We Got Rain.”

Homonyms in parentheses are interspersed throughout the narrative, reminding the reader of how Rose’s mind works:

When Rain and I are at home… Rain puts one (won) of her front feet (feat) in (inn) my lap.

I found the supporting characters of Rain Reign to be incredibly strong figures. Rose’s father, Wesley, is a single parent. Gruff and quick to anger, he shows obvious frustration at Rose’s outbursts and often pleads with her to be “normal.” This seems to stem from a feeling of helplessness in his situation. He is neglectful as a parent; he spends his time at the Luck of the Irish bar down the street. He gives Rain, who he finds behind the bar, to Rose as a present, in the  some love and trust from her. Wesley and his brother, Weldon, were placed in foster care when they were younger after a teacher found burn marks on Wesley.

Uncle Weldon is Wesley’s younger brother and Rose’s confidant. He is gentle and kind to Rose, and does not dismiss her like father does. Weldon encourages Rose’s love for homonyms and helps her works on the list of words she keeps. When Rain goes missing, Weldon offers to drive Rose around to various shelters. He is timid around his brother and does not want to step on any toes as far as Rose’s upbringing is concerned, but he’s always looking out for his niece’s best interest.

If you’re looking for a book with a lot of action and character development, this book may not be for you. Rain Reign is more of a character study, and while certain new character traits come to light, no one really changes. However, if you’re looking for a lens into a new perspective, and a story with a lot of heart, I recommend picking up Ann M. Martin’s book.

The suggested age range for Rain Reign is grades 4 through 6, but you’re never too old to enjoy a good middle grade novel, you know?

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.

Review: Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

Oh my god. This book. This book. I was glued to it. Reading this book, I was like Belle from the opening of Beauty and the Beast, my nose in the book as I navigated the subways and streets of New York City, to read about people in the often forgotten middle states of the country.

So what is Kitchens of the Great Midwest about? To be honest, I expected some sort of sappy chick-lit or some sort of food-study. Instead, we have a story that leads us through decades of life in the midwest, with many characters that are familiar tropes without being stereotypical, and all connecting back to Eva, a young woman whose unique palate leads her to becoming the star chef of the country.

It begins when Eva is a baby, and her father Lars is trying to figure out how to feed her braised pork shoulder, you know, to get her taste for good food going. Her mother Cynthia decides to decides to run off with a wine sommelier and Lars is left on his own to raise their daughter. Eva grows up, learning about food, and each recipe plays a formative chapter in her life.

Each chapter is told by a different character, with a focus on a different dish. Eva’s culinary journey is told in vivid snapshots into these character’s lives—her first boyfriend, her father, her cousin—and the characters are as delectable as the dishes. Not that they’re all good people, but they’re all very real. Which is like the food; not all of it sounds appealing, but it certainly is very Midwest, from the Scandinavian lutefisk to the belt-popping dessert bars.

There is a beautiful convergence of characters in the final chapter, and an especially funny coincidence. The characters who narrate the first and final chapters make for oddly appropriate bookends of the story. Food and how it brings people together, creates memories, identities, and communities within people. It’s a quirky, evocative, and often funny story, that weaves a journey through life and the coincidental connections that happen, and the near-misses too. Without being saccharine, it manages to tell a story of what normal people will do for one another, with some good food along the way.

I was lucky enough to read this book before it came out, and it’s easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s one of those books that is sad to finish, because I missed the characters immediately after. This is J. Ryan Stradal’s debut novel and I’m excited to see what he writes next. (And he’s a native Minnesotan so there’s that note of authenticity!). Do yourself a favor and read this one. It’ll surprise you.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest was published on July 28th by Pamela Dornan Books.

Gabriele Boland is an aspiring grown-up. She enjoys pretending she’s in a Disney movie, letting her dork flag fly, and writing stories that will never see the light of day. The other ramblings of her mind can be found at her website.

Review: Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

saintanythingI have a confession to make: I’m new to Sarah Dessen. I have fond memories of reading books by the pool or sprawled out on the grass outside of school with friends. There was often one dog-eared copy of a Sarah Dessen book (The Truth About Forever was especially popular) in the mix, but her work never made its way into my hands.

After reading an advanced copy of Saint Anything, which has a release date of -tomorrow!- May 5th, I have this to say: I wish I’d found her so much sooner. Dessen’s writing is breezy, and it’s easy to speed through chapters, but don’t let that deter you. Her characters are complex, their problems are compelling, and you find yourself rooting for their happiness.

The protagonist of Saint Anything is Sydney, a shy girl and a stellar student, who has always felt dwarfed by the charisma of her older brother, Peyton. When Peyton is put in jail after a drunk driving disaster leaves an innocent bystander paralyzed, Sydney’s family falls apart. Although Peyton may be out of the house, he continues to haunt it, and Sydney’s parents hardly take notice of their daughter’s feelings or struggles.

When Sydney changes schools, she befriends Mac and Layla Chatham, a brother and sister pair who welcome her into their family and make Sydney feel like she finally belongs. Layla is a real firecracker, an outspoken sweetheart with a love of french fries and a fierce devotion to her family. Mac is quiet and studious, and his healthy eating habits make it apparent he’s not thrilled with the idea of taking over the family pizza parlor one day. The Chatham’s may be different that Sydney’s family, but they are loyal and very close-knit, something that Sydney yearns for in her own life. Her mother, whose home office is like a command center and who draws up folders and binders full of plans, unravels after a stressful phone conversation with her son. Sydney’s father, overcome by his son’s mistakes, has receded into a shadow of his former self; he hardly puts up a fight, choosing instead to passively side with his wife whenever a decision must be made.

While there is a romantic aspect to Saint Anything, which I thought was very well done, this is more than just a teen romance. Sydney is a compelling character who has a lot of room to grow. She feels guilt for her brother’s crime, and confusion over her mother’s inability to understand that guilt. She questions who she is as an individual, away from her brother’s shadow. Dessen’s twelfth coming-of-age novel explores friendship, family relationships, and identity in a small suburban town where the sight of rain boots in a thrift store can make your heart sink, or where a walk in the woods can reveal something as surprising as a carousel.  It may have taken me years to get around to reading Sarah Dessen, but I won’t stay away now. I’m eager to go back and read her earlier novels. I think fans will really enjoy Saint Anything, and I can’t wait to hear everyone’s thoughts!

Are you a Sarah Dessen fan? Will you be picking up her newest book tomorrow?

(Thanks to NetGalley for supplying me with an advanced copy!)

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.

For “Mature” Audiences – Explicit Scenes in YA Literature

foreverjudyblue When I was a wee lass, I read everything. Which, I’ve written about. I learned about the birds and the bees on a rough level from a pamphlet my mom “accidentally” left lying around the house when I was nine, called “How to Talk to Your Kids About Sex”. Which, granted, isn’t as shocking as my friend who learned about sex from Harry Potter fanfiction in high school. (That Snape/Hermione niche, guys. They had a big following.)

Anyways. So I knew the basic mechanics. But, I was still nine. So even though I was reading books from outside of the kids’ section, I still had my fair share of Babysitters Club, Dear America, and the Fudge series by Judy Blume.

I loved Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, about Peter, who had to deal with his certifiably insane baby brother, called Fudge. Her book had me turning every page and bursting into giggles. Thankfully, I’m probably the Fudge in my relationship with my brother. Not so thankfully for him.

Paired along with this insatiable curiosity, there was another element at play here. My grandmother loved garage sales almost as much as she loved Lipton tea, cats, and driving without her seatbelt on (while her car beeped incessantly). One day, when I was going into 7th grade, Grandma stopped at a tag sale with me, and I beelined toward the pile of books. To my delight, there was a novel by Judy Blume I had never read before!

Forever…, it was called. I knew Judy Blume had other books. I had read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, which deals with a girl getting her first period. I had been through Deenie, which is all about unrealistic parental expectations, and having to deal with scoliosis and the embarrassment of a back brace. But somehow, Forever had eluded my literary conquests.

It looked nonthreatening. It was a slim book, with a white cover, adorned with a simple locket and a pensive golden-haired girl. I mean, maybe I should have been warned by the subtitle, “A moving story of the end of innocence”.

But no. Twelve-year-old me was woefully unprepared for the love story of Katherine and Michael. Written in 1975, this book covers the arc of their entire relationship, from their meeting in Katherine’s senior year in high school. Katherine is hyper-aware of Michael’s status as a non-virgin, and as they start to go on trips and dates together, the tensions build. He takes her v-card. As most high school relationships go, they eventually break up. The end, more or less.

Maybe it was my age, or that this was written 30 years before I read it, or that it’s just super awkward… but my friends and I would read passages of this book aloud, and we would howl with laughter and simultaneously blush at the explicit scenes.

Of course, that book was only my first endeavor. I was later exposed, like my friend, to the… mind-expanding world of fanfiction, where, if you can imagine any two characters being together, there is probably a story out there in the void of the internet. In high school, one of my friends became super into terrible, cheesy romance novels. Some of which belonged way more in an adult store, behind red tape, than on the shelves of Borders.

I stayed pretty far away from those, because there wasn’t enough brain bleach available to wipe those images from my mind.

But Forever… was groundbreaking. It was written at a time when girls were still expected to remain virgins until marriage, though boys could be boys and do whatever they pleased. Judy Blume wrote Forever… as a realistic portrayal of the teenage relationship and what teens go through in exploring their first endeavors with love. It’s hardly a surprise that the novel has been censored left and right and every which way.

Social constraints have loosened immensely since Judy Blume first outraged thousands of parents. It’s no longer completely taboo to address sexuality in YA literature. Philip Pullman wrote a sex scene in his YA trilogy, His Dark Materials (known better for the first book, The Golden Compass). A more recent example is John Green, of The Fault in Our Stars fame, who had two of his teenage characters have sex in his novel.

It’s interesting to watch the boundaries of what’s okay and what’s not okay change with the eras. We definitely wouldn’t have seen these more mature themes explored in Victorian literature! Can you imagine Jane Austen or Charles Dickens writing a bodice-ripping scene?

What are your thoughts on mature subjects like sexuality in young adult literature?

Gabriele Boland is an aspiring grown-up. She enjoys pretending she’s in a Disney movie, letting her dork flag fly, and writing stories that will never see the light of day. The other ramblings of her mind can be found at Brilliant Buckets.

Review: We Are The Goldens by Dana Reinhardt

wearethegoldensMy new favorite narrator is Nell Golden, the protagonist of Dana Reinhardt’s We Are the Goldens.  With a publication date set for May 27th, I highly recommend picking up Reinhardt’s newest book.

Nell is a freshman at City Day, a high school for smart, liberal, talented students – just like her older sister, Layla. Nell and Layla have always shared a special bond, and a lot of the time Nell sees the two of them as one person. Case in point: when Nell was younger she called herself “Nellayla,” unable to comprehend that Layla was not a part of her own name.

Nell’s narration is directed towards her sister. As she shares her thoughts, hopes, and fears with Layla, we detect a tinge of regret in her retelling of events. We follow Nell through her first months of freshman year at City Day, sharing in her excitement when she makes the soccer team, when she flirts with the handsome upperclassman Sam Fitzpayne in play rehearsal, and when she goofs off with her best friend, Felix. Despite all of these positive things, we can detect that something is not quite right with Nell and her sister.

As Layla withdraws from her sister, it is nice to see that Nell still has one strong relationship in her life. The bond between Nell and Felix is sweet and compelling, and their banter is wholly realistic in the realm of best friends. An interesting addition to the story: Nell sometimes has imaginary conversations with the Creed brothers, two young acquaintances who died when Nell was younger. The brothers often appear when Nell is troubled, and offer their own advice or point out painful truths. While the causes of their deaths remains unclear, Nell imagines that, when it comes down to it, one brother couldn’t live without the other.

The main focus of the novel is the relationship between siblings. After a trip to see a palm reader, Layla begins acting strange. She makes excuses to get out of family obligations, and she starts shutting Nell out. Nell is devastated when her sister, who for so long seemed to be a part of her, wants to separate. Nell  must come to terms with her sister’s new choices, and determine the best course of action. She always wants to be on her sister’s side – but what happens when that side feels like the wrong one?

I think I found Nell’s narration so relatable because it brought me back to my own high school days. I remember the sinking feeling of dread when I was unsure whether I should speak up about something that seemed wrong.  Nell’s desire to feel love – from a boy, from her parents, and most importantly, her sister – is so realistic. We are reading about the fragility of a young girl toeing the line into adulthood. Reinhardt pulls this off very well.

The only complaint I have about this story is that the ending felt a little abrupt to me, and while I understand why it ended where it did, I would have liked to see an epilogue of sorts.

We Are the Goldens is a painful, but thought-provoking read with glimmers of sweetness. I think this is a book worth picking up for any YA fans who are looking for a new kind of narrative.

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.