Tuesday, March 1, 2011

REVIEW: Like Mandarin by Kirsten Hubbard

by Kirsten Hubbard
Releases on 03.08.2011
320 pages
Random House Children's Books/Delacorte
Source: book blog tour loan 

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. (from GoodReads)

REVIEW: I didn't just read this book; I absolutely devoured it. Like Mandarin is the stuff of what a teenage girl's life is made of: a whirlwind of jealousy, desire, ambition, low self-esteem, adventure, betrayal and acceptance, and not a bit of it is written in a shallow way.  Whether you've been the odd girl out, that girl, or somewhere in between, this is a book that will have you thinking about the importance of relationships among females: how we get into them, how they shape us, support us and rip us down.

Grace Carpenter is the daughter of a disappointed mother with illusions of grandeur.  Her father is dead and she never knew him anyway.  Her little sister, Taffeta, is the delight of her mother's world and almost the sole focus of her attention.  Grace has no true friends to speak of, only a group of lunch table pals.  She's been skipped ahead a grade, so at 14-going-on-15, she is the youngest sophomore and the brightest student in a class full of cowboys and their pickups.

Yeah, you could says she's lonely.

Enter Mandarin Ramey.  She's 17, also alone, but prefers it that way.  She doesn't give two cents about what anyone thinks of her.  She's promiscuous, openly defiant, has a reputation for fighting, and the only thing she does is exactly what she wants.  She's the Angelina Jolie of her school, and no one knows it better than Grace:

"Sure, maybe most of the attention Mandarin got was negative.  But it wasn’t the kind of disdainful brainfreak attention that I got, when I got any at all.  Hers was lustful.  And jealous.  Because even as they condemned her, every single girl wanted to be her.

But nobody more than me."
 -Grace, Like Mandarin

Once the friendship ignites, what follows is Grace walking on a tightrope to keep Mandarin 'happy' and 'interested' in her.  If that sounds like more like a romance, then you kind of/sort of have it right.  Grace immerses herself into Mandarin's personality exactly like a lovestruck girl does over the guy of her dreams.  Except that Grace doesn't harbor romantic feelings for Mandarin; it's much more a tale of wanting to be her, so much so that Grace studies the way that Mandarin walks, holds herself and dresses.  What Grace doesn't realize is how very damaged and fragile Mandarin is. . .  and, like all wounded creatures, Mandarin is also unpredictable and manipulative.  She puts Grace through little quirky conversation tests, and very much adopts a, "if you're not with me, you're against me" attitude when it comes to Grace. However, while the turbulent friendship between Grace and Mandarin takes center stage, the book is really about all sorts of different relationships between women: teenagers, middle-agers, mother-daughter (or lack thereof), there's even a teacher-student relationship for Grace.  Hubbard does an excellent job of showing how these different relationships shape who we are, and how past and present ones can help lead us to our new ones. 

Then there are the characters, and all of you know how much I love a character-driven book! Grace is definitely her own person, although she doesn't think enough of herself to be it sometimes, especially not when a twister of a character like Mandarin enters the scene. DO NOT get her mixed up with the vapid, feel free to [insert yourself] female protagonists that we sometimes are confronted with in YA lit. Grace is intelligent and knows what she wants in her future, but loneliness does funny things to people, and it's easy to get sidetracked when you are 14. Mandarin is an incredibly well-drawn character, although it does take time for vulnerability to show through, but her magnetism is palpable through the pages (I think we've all known a Mandarin-type). At times, she felt one part Rizzo from Grease, one part Dicey Tillerman from The Tillerman Family Cycle and one part Stepmother from Cinderella.  She's extremely complex, and any answers you get about her mysteries are hard-won and bitterly bequeathed.

Besides the two main characters, the ones you will see the most of are Grace's mother and younger sister, Taffeta.  Grace's mom is a very definite sort of person and lives vicariously through Taffeta's success on the beauty pageant circuit.  Grace feels forever worthless in her eyes do an incident that happened almost eight years ago that crushed her mother's hopes for her.  Mother Dear also has the unfortunate characteristic of phrasing things precisely so they simultaneously shame you, but also leave little room for argument.  On the other hand, Taffeta might be the most intelligent six year-old I've ever read, and if there is one fault that I can find with the book, it's that she sometimes seemed more like a ten year-old, rather than a small child in kindergarten.

I cannot begin to tell you what a good writer Hubbard is. . . when I read the synopsis, I was like, ehhhh, this could go either way. Well, it went all the way to the brilliant side of the scale. Hubbard writes with simple elegance, but there is always this feeling of constantly being carried forward. You aren't rushed, but you are anxious to read what happens next. Normally, I will drift through a book this size over a couple of evenings, but all of the sudden, I realized that I had far more pages held in my left hand than in my right. It was a pleasant surprise and a testament to how smoothly the book moves along.  And in case you were wondering if you can have good time in Smalltown, Wyoming, hold on: Grace and Mandarin show you how it's done.  For a place that most of us likely are not famaliar with, Kirsten does a wonder of world building, and I don't doubt that Washokey is the beautiful, barren landscarpe with splaces of color and high winds that Grace so vividly describes for us.

You're not going to find any romance or nookie in this book, although the boys do try.  What are you going to find is a path that most of us travel at one point: the area of our lives where friends can overrun our affection for family and sense-of-self.   Where living in the moment and thrill of getting caught was all you needed for a good time.  When you finally learned to look at people and saw them from precisely who they are, and not just who they are in relation to you.  Like Mandarin is a beautiful debut, an exquisitely written book about the people, places and emotions that hold us down, and the ones that urge us forward.  I can't recommend it enough.

BONUS: The Like Mandarin trailer debuted TODAY - it's exclusively at Stacked - go check it out!

My So-Called Life
*completely amazing show, circa 1994, noted for authentically portraying teen angst and getting high school 'right'.

*I think this scene really nails the sort of tone I got from Grace and Mandarin, i.e. the way Angela (Grace) complains about what people do and how they are, and how Rayanne (Mandarin) is devil-may-care, and how they are both bored.

*Rayanne's self-destructive behavior is not unlike Mandarin's, although she is less manipulative, and Angela not so adoring of her.

FTC: I received this ARC book on loan from a Book Blog Tour organizer (Banned Books Tours) to read and give my honest opinion. In no way was I compensated for my review.


  1. I love this review! You make me want this book more (if that was possible) and give me such a clear picture of the characters. I can't wait to read this book :)

  2. Alright, now I need this book ASAP! I've seen it around the blogsphere and heard great thing about it. Nice review!

  3. Wow, that was such an amazing review. It kind of already had me at the setting (The Badlands), but the plot sounds so real and amazing. And yes, I see people (adults too) trying to keep people's attention and diving into risky behaviors. Fantastic review!

  4. This sounds fabulous, Linds. I'm adding to my tbr pile right now! I also love a character driven book and the connection to "My So Called Life" is an extra bonus. Thanks for an awesome review!

  5. @Nic It's fantastic! I hope it releases in Aussie soon - I think you'll really appreciate the landscape building language in it.

    @Savy I hope you'll enjoy it - for real, first 5 start rating of the year.

    @MR Awww, thanks! I love it when plots ARE the people - you know that's good writing when that's enough to carry the story along.

  6. Oh goodness, I wanted to read this book anyway, but I have to tell you...your My So Called Life tie-in seals the deal. Love that show! Great review. Can't wait to read this one.

  7. I wanted to read this book before, but now I REALLY want to read it!

  8. It looks like such a good book, I heard so many great reviews. I can't wait to read it.

  9. @yacrush Hahaha, yes, MSCL does it all the time, doesn't it?

    @Lindsi I hope you like it as much as I did!

    @abeautifulmadness It's fantastic! Can't wait to hear what you think!

  10. Love your review of this one. I have it on my wish list already, but now I want to read it even more! I love books that explore the intricacies of female friendship.

    If I hadn't already wanted to read this one, your My so-called life comparison would have sold me. One of my all time favourite shows!

  11. Wow...this sounds interesting. I could so see myself being Grace. I used to hero worship various girls at school. I love the plot but am even happier that the writing helps it rather than hurts it.

  12. I completely forgot about My So Called Life! Great review! I can't wait until this tour book shows up at my door too!

  13. @Leanna Thanks so much - we have the same taste in books then! I love books that explore the connections between people! And yes! MSCL cinched. Everytime.

    @Alison It's funny - I was a Grace with one friend, and a Mandarin (sort of) to another - funny how that works out! And the writing is wonderful!

    @Jacinda I think you'll really like it! It just has that appeal!


  14. OHHH I cant wait to read this book, I want it today!! And lets talk about My So Called Life...that was one of my fav shows, at least for the only season it played, I was madly in-love with Jared Leto...:D

  15. Linds! I'm so revealed! I love to read a review that praises a book I had high expectations for, and I think it is great the there is a shift in the focus with LM. Plus, I often find that books with strong character development are lacking in world building, but that doesn't seem to be the case here.

    I'm so excited to read this one.

  16. Thank you for reading! You always put the time and effort into a thoughtful review.


  17. Thanks, Jen! My take is that you are dealing with someone's livelihood. If publishers and authors take the time to send a copy for review, then we bloggers/reviewers owe it to write a thoughtful and constructive review, regardless of whether you liked or disliked the book :)