Review | Little Big Man, Katy Regan

39350465Little Big Man is such a sweet book about family and all the messiness that happens in family relationships. Ten year old Zac has never met his father, who allegedly abandoned the family before he was born. When Zac’s mom accidentally admits that his dad was the only man she’s ever loved, Zac decides to track his dad down and bring him home before his eleventh birthday. The thing is, the reason his dad left in the first place is complicated, and Zac’s mom and grandparents all have to confront their culpability in what happened.

Zac isn’t the only hero in this novel. I love that the book also takes on the perspectives of Zac’s mother Juliet and Zac’s grandfather Mick, because they all put together the pieces of a very complex puzzle of what had happened over a decade ago. I love that Juliet is dealing with issues of her own, having raised Zac as a single parent and being afraid she’s not quite providing him what he needs. I also like that Mick is dealing with his own history of alcoholism and how that informed his determination to be a great grandfather to Zac.

Zac’s search for his dad is the main plot of this book, but more compelling to me was the subplot about his weight and his getting bullied at school. I found Juliet’s response — her guilt over her limitations as a parent and her defensiveness over Zac’s weight and her own — very relatable, and I love that she always puts his welfare above her own. For example, even though she doesn’t like exercising and she really doesn’t like talking about his father, she offers to go jogging with him and to tell him something new about his dad with each kilometre they run.

Even more importantly, I love that weight loss isn’t shown as the solution to Zac and Juliet’s problems. Zac does lose some weight, and Juliet survives the jogging just fine, but neither ends up actually thin, neither ends up actually obsessing over their weight, and their jogging ends up being more about Zac wanting to learn about his dad rather than about losing weight or becoming more physically fit. I also absolutely love the side character of Jason, who used to date Juliet until Juliet broke it off with him, but who continues to be friendly with Zac. Jason is a fitness trainer, and unlike the stereotypical gym dudebro, he genuinely thinks Juliet is beautiful just the way she is, and he seems very empathetic to Zac’s desire to find his father. I was full-on shipping him and Juliet to end up together, but I also appreciated their deep friendship, and how Jason was there for Juliet and Zac even without the possibility of romance.

I also love Zac’s friendship with Teagan, and how supportive they are of each other. I love how Teagan signs on for Zac’s quest to find his dad, no questions asked, even though she’s dealing with her own pain around not having a dad. And I love how well their personalities complement each other, such that each falls easily into an assigned role when they go out to investigate Zac’s dad’s whereabouts. They’re just fantastic as best friends, and their adventures add a fun caper-like feel to the heavier issues within the story.

Little Big Man is a beautiful and poignant story that goes much deeper than the initial quest that sets the events of the story off. I loved the characters, and I loved their stories.

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Thank you to Publishers Group Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review | The Perfect Couple, Elin Hilderbrand

34840184 (1)Ever since I started blogging, Elin Hilderbrand’s novels have been one of my summer staples. She writes fantastic beach reads, and every year, I look forward to her latest title on the publisher’s list. I’ve never been to Nantucket, but if I ever do vacation there someday, it’ll be in large part because of how perfect for a summer vacation the place seems in Hilderbrand’s novels.

The Perfect Couple is the first mystery/thriller I’ve read from Hilderbrand, and I absolutely loved it. Hilderbrand’s strength has always been her characters and their (often messy) relationships with each other, and she plays this strength to the hilt in this mystery. Despite the police investigation, the identity of the killer felt almost secondary to all the family and friendship dynamics going on. Like with all Hilderbrand books, I was fully caught up in the story and the characters, and I was curious about the murderer’s identity mostly because of the additional insight it would give me to one of the characters.

In The Perfect Couple, a lavish wedding is planned in Nantucket. The bride, Celeste, is a shy and awkward science nerd who works at a zoo. She agrees to a quick wedding mostly because her mother Karen has breast cancer and only months to live. The groom, Benji, is a trust fund baby who introduces Celeste to a glittery new world. His mother Greer is a mystery novelist who takes over the wedding planning so it’s done just right. The morning of the wedding, a body washes up on shore — it’s Merritt, the maid of honour who happens to have recently had an affair with a member of the wedding party. The best man, Shooter, is also missing, and Chief of Police Ed and his super hot Greek detective Nick must interview all the people involved in the wedding to get at the truth.

The result is like Agatha Christie meets Days of Our Lives. The whodunnit element is deliciously intertwined with the soapy details of the characters’ lives. Flashbacks during a mystery often leave me just impatient to get back to the present-day, but in this case, I found the flashbacks at least as strong as the present-day scenes. I was caught up in all the backstories amongst the characters, and in how they intersected with each other at various times and in various ways. Hilderbrand does a great job in signalling to us when things aren’t quite how they seem, and even when characters make reasonable assumptions about each other (e.g. Greer thinking their family friend Featherleigh is having an affair with her husband Tag), we can tell there’s something else going on that Greer hasn’t quite guessed yet.

I had so much fun reading this book, and I’m only sorry it had to end, as I wanted to see what happens next with these characters. There’s a niggling (minor) loose end about Karen’s health at the end of the book that part of me wishes had been resolved, but on the other hand, I’m equally happy to continue believing it’s a sign of hope. The answer to the mystery turns out to be sadder than I imagined, but it’s also very fitting given who these characters are and what they want to happen.

Overall, Hilderbrand once again proves why her books are such a fantastic summer staple for me. This is a great story to lose yourself in — preferably on a beach, by the water, as you once again treat yourself to a few hours with the rich and glamorous residents of Hilderbrand’s Nantucket.

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Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | How We Roll, Natasha Friend

35791915How We Roll is really, really well done. Quinn, who has alopecia, and her family move to a new town so that Quinn’s younger brother Julius, who is autistic, can go to a better school. Quinn is mostly relieved to be in a town where no one knows she has alopecia, and she can wear a wig and fit right in. She befriends a group of popular girls at her new school, and a boy Nick, whose legs were amputated after a snowmobile accident caused by his brother Tommy. A former football star, Nick’s still coming to terms with the changes to his life and with his resentment over his brother’s role in the accident, and Quinn’s too afraid of her own reputation to admit to him why she understands what he’s going through so well. I love how thoughtful and intentional this novel is, and how much it subverts expectations and defies the usual tropes we find in young adult fiction.

First, I love how Friend treats her characters’ disabilities / conditions (is alopecia a disability?). Friend is very honest about how autism, amputation and alopecia all impact not just the characters’ lives but also their families. For example, each of Quinn’s wigs costs $2,000, her mom is practically in daily meetings with Julius’ therapy team, her dad keeps trying (and failing) to break Julius from routines, and Nick sleeps in the family den rather than his old bedroom. Moreover, I love how, even though Quinn is super comfortable about how to act around persons with disabilities, she still gets it wrong sometimes. But more importantly, her missteps don’t make her freeze; rather, she deals with them. For example, she invites Nick to her house and it’s only when he shows up in his wheelchair that she realizes her house is up a steep incline and accessible only by steps. Instead of immediately giving up on getting Nick into her house, she asks his permission to have her and her parents carry his chair up the steps. And later, when he visits on his prosthetic legs, she knows she has to resist the temptation to help him up the steps.

There’s also a great scene where she sees him at an event in his wheelchair and is super curious about why he isn’t wearing his prosthetics. She’s literally about to ask him why when she realizes — not that it’s an inappropriate question, even though it is — but that he maybe just felt like using his wheelchair that day, just like she feels like wearing a wig some days and not wearing a wig other days. I love that because so often the question of what is or isn’t appropriate to ask a disabled person is framed as a series of do’s and don’t’s that, quite frankly, can be intimidating and, worse, reductive. So I love that Friend shows how important simple thoughtfulness and empathy can be. It’s not so much that you should never ask a double amputee why they’re using their wheelchair, but that you should consider whether you want someone to ask you why you’re, e.g. wearing your hair a certain way or wearing a particular item of clothing or whatever other visible decision you made that morning.

I also love Friend shows that Quinn’s hesitation to let people know about her alopecia isn’t innate but rather directly linked to how society responds to people with alopecia. There’s a great moment where Quinn goes to a party and feels really cute because of the hat she’s wearing, but then a total jerk makes her baldness the butt of a cruel joke. I think it’s really important because again, so often book and movie characters are portrayed as being very self-conscious about their disability, and while those experiences are equally valid, I love that Friend puts the blame for this self-consciousness squarely on the shoulders of society, which is really where it belongs. I’ve heard that of all the barriers disabled people face, attitudinal barriers are the most difficult to deal with, and I think Friend really brings that point home. And I also love that Quinn can feel absolutely cute while bald, not because it’s inspirational, but because it’s realistic, given the disabled people I’ve met in real life. And again, this type of representation is so rarely seen in media.

Finally, I love that the whole mean girl / mean popular people is turned on its head. Quinn’s friends at her new school are the popular crowd, and so often the It Girls are portrayed as bitchy and the indie / nerdy girls as the only nice ones. Here, there are no immediate villains (even the jerk who bullied Quinn at her old school was obviously ashamed of his behaviour when she confronted him later on, though he was too much of a jerk to apologize). I like that each time Quinn hesitantly reveals a bit more of herself to her new friends, they don’t react the way she expects them to, and instead reveal their own experiences that are somewhat similar. For example, upon learning of Julius’ autism, one of them reveals she has a sister with Down Syndrome. I also love that Nick’s ex-girlfriend (who is one of Quinn’s new friends) handles Quinn and Nick’s friendship with such maturity. To be honest, I don’t think I would have had that level of maturity at her age, and it’s behaviour I aspire to even as an adult. So I really like that Friend deliberately steers away from stereotypes for all the characters.

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Thank you to Raincoast Books for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.