Not a lot of Bookanista news today. No new members, no babies, no new Bookanista releases at the moment. Just fab reviews for you. Today I'm reviewing LIKE MANDARIN.
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LIKE MANDARIN by Kirsten Hubbard
Goodreads summary: It's hard finding beauty in the badlands of Washokey, Wyoming, but 14-year-old Grace Carpenter knows it's not her mother's pageant obsessions, or the cowboy dances adored by her small-town classmates. True beauty is wild-girl Mandarin Ramey: 17, shameless and utterly carefree. Grace would give anything to be like Mandarin. When they're united for a project, they form an unlikely, explosive friendship, packed with nights spent skinny-dipping in the canal, liberating the town's animal-head trophies, and searching for someplace magic. Grace plays along when Mandarin suggests they run away together. Blame it on the crazy-making wildwinds plaguing their Badlands town. Because all too soon, Grace discovers Mandarin's unique beauty hides a girl who's troubled, broken, and even dangerous. And no matter how hard Grace fights to keep the magic, no friendship can withstand betrayal.
The very first thing that captured my attention in LIKE MANDARIN was the prose--so lyrical and poignant and intense. Every page packed a punch and had me rereading lines over and over to better absorb the beauty. Hubbard paints such remarkable images with her words--images that are startling in their lush simplicity. There's one image in particular that comes to mind from the very beginning, that of Mandarin as a child looking intense and far too old-soulish for her young body--an image which just grabs you by the throat and sets the tone for the entire book.
The story is actually told through Grace's point of view, which was a bold move on Hubbard's part. For one thing, Mandarin appears to be (at least on the surface) the most interesting character. She's the one with all the problems, the attitude, and the mega guts sans glory. Grace, on the other hand, is not one to challenge the status quo, just getting by until one day she can go off and do something important (leaving her mother, an irritating, wealth of humiliation, behind). But even though the story is named after Mandarin, the issue at hand isn't really Mandarin at all. It's Grace and her search for identity (with and without her mother), which is spurred on (and possibly hindered) by Mandarin. For a YA novel, this was a brilliant choice. Establishing one's identity is the bane of adolescent existence. And as troubled and possibly dangerous as Mandarin is, she doesn't doubt who she is or what she wants. So even though Mandarin has a story, it plays out on the sidelines. Ultimately, we get to witness Grace's evolution, her coming into being and all the difficult steps and stumbles it takes to get there. Through Mandarin's eyes, this story likely would have felt more adult and more hopeless. But through Grace, just like her name implies, there is a sense of hope (even in those low moments).
So, let me just say...freaking fantastic characterization. So sharp, so genuine. Both Mandarin and Grace are such distinct characters, shaped from seemingly different molds. Yet their stories are so perfectly intertwined, often running parallel.
Here's what Mandarin does for Grace: just by her existence, Mandarin helps Grace to uncover how unhappy she really is. Mandarin embodies (and reflects outwardly) that discontent and pain that Grace carries around inside of her all the time, and Grace can't help but respond to that. Indeed, both of them suffer a claustrophobia which is so intense it's palpable--but it's in response to different things. Mandarin feels trapped in the rinky-dink town--a feeling I know all to well. That feeling of desperation to just get out, not because there's anything inherently wrong with the town or even it's size, but because you are wrong in it. Grace's claustrophobia is probably even more tragic, though, because the thing she's desperate to escape is herself. And she sees something in Mandarin that makes her think perhaps that's her ticket to do just that. But what she will have to discover, if she's ever to find her identity and self-respect, is that strength cannot be given from one person to another. It can only be borrowed.
LIKE MANDARIN is a soft, graceful sort of book, like the stir of a warm breeze, but just as eloquent and refreshing. So moving, and so breathtakingly timeless. It will resonate with teens and adults who remember their teens for years to come.
Available March 8, 2011.