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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Like Mandarin by Kirsten Hubbard

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

I can safely announce that Kirsten Hubbard is one of my new favorite authors. I don't give that title out to everyone, and usually the authors I follow on Goodreads fall into that category. I am now a friend of Kirsten Hubbard, I follow her Goodreads reviews, and I follow her blog.

And why did I do this?

Because oh my god, her books are awesome. LIKE MANDARIN is a debut, but it reads like a seasoned authors' novel, the kind of book an author might publish as their third or fourth novel. The writing, the characters, the plot, essentially everything about the story I adored.

LIKE MANDARIN is the story of Grace, a shy, quiet girl who has been bumped up to a sophomore and skipped freshman year. She likes to wander the Wyoming Badlands and collect rocks, fossils, and arrowheads. The idea of beauty is warped, she believes, in the small town of Washokey, Wyoming. Her mother, who became pregnant with her as a teenager and now runs a cosmetics buisness, believes in beauty pageant ideals. Her younger sister Taffeta goes along with her mothers' ideals. Grace's classmates believe in superficial things, like dances and dates. Grace believes in a different kind of beauty. She believes in the beauty of the town slut, Mandarin Ramey.

Mandarin is the kind of girl that constant rumors revolve around, the kind of girl often spotted kissing and sneaking into places with much older men. She is elegant and beautiful, revered by Washokey men and admired by the women from afar. And Grace wants to be just like her. She keeps her distance from Mandarin, watching from afar like everyone in town.

A history teacher unites them for a school project, since both Grace and Mandarin need to complete a community service requirement. Suddenly, the two are engaged in a dangerous, beautiful friendship. They skinny-dip in the canal, steal the hunting trophies from local buisnesses, dance and dream and beyond. But the frienship and magic can't last forever as Grace discovers Mandarin's many facades: dangerous, depressed, enthusiastic, happy. Soon betrayal clouds their friendship, and the magic slips away.

This isn't the first time I've read a book revolving around what some call the "pixie girl syndrome". Pixie girl syndrome is when a group of people or characters loves one character so much, admires her and obsesses her, though she is flightly and unpreictable. A popular example is Paper Towns by John Green. Sometimes these stories fall into utter predictability. From the first page you can figure out what happens, what the betrayal so commonly seen in this type of book is. But LIKE MANDARIN broke this sterotype, making a riveting plot with a realistic pixie girl and her admirer.

I complement Hubbard for her fantastic characters. All of them are well developed, and even the minor characters that are in the novel for a scene are fleshed out and given small but crucial roles. Grace loves rocks; Mandarin is a cocktail waitress though she is underage; Taffeta hates school though everyone adores her; Adrina Carpenter is constantly trying to reinvent herself; Polly Bunker is a gossip who is no one's friend; Davey (oh, poor, poor, Davey) loves wearing socks with sandals; even Earl Barnady is obsessed with burglary. I really enjoyed all of them.

The plot, as mentioned before, was unpredictable. But my favorite had to be Hubbard's writing. It was so fluid, so fresh, and so beautiful. At times the writing was a bit too much, and could some paragraphs could have been broken down into sentences, but it was still so beautiful to read each and every word.

LIKE MANDARIN is a wonderful contemporary novel. If you enjoy contemporary, or character-driven novels, this is the book for you. There has been a lot of buzz on Hubbard's second -- also fantastic -- novel WANDERLOVE, and I think that people should look back and enjoy the beauty of Washokey, Wyoming.

Five stars.

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