Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Book Review: 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.


The Short Version:
Striking and fluid, Like Mandarin brings a new voice to YA with vivid, highly developed characters and a no holds barred plot. Grace is a perfect compliment and contrast to Mandarin, and the connection and dynamic between them is handled flawlessly. Fleshed out with Hubbard’s stellar writing, there are some strong messages and a poignant realism within this book.

The Extended Version:
Grace is intelligent and mature for her age, but still on the cusp of strong breakthroughs in maturity. Advanced a year in school to a sophomore but at the age of a freshman, Grace is quiet and keeps to herself. She has a very distinct voice, reflecting this intelligence but still holding the naivety that helps characterize her and factors into some of her decisions and reactions. Grace shows tremendous growth on several fronts, some coming more rapidly than others but each one timed perfectly. Her relationship with her mother is trying and far from perfect, bringing in the strong note of realism Hubbard has infused throughout.

Mandarin is a bold and breathtaking character, certainly strong enough to hold her own book and perspective, even through the eyes of Grace. She carries a good front, holds her head high, and remains shrouded in the mystery the town puts her in. Passionate, multifaceted and intense, while seeming to shirk all social norms and hiding her flaws, Mandarin is just as intriguing for the reader as she is for Grace and the rest of the town. Her home life is far from perfect, and she is a destructive mess inside and out, holding as many layers and secrets as anyone, but also goes through notable strides in personal development.

The way Grace’s view of Mandarin changes as the book progresses is a strong feature, giving beautiful insight into not only Mandarin, but Grace as well. Mandarin reflects on Grace and changes her in ways both sad and telling of the ages, but it goes the other way as well. The subtle shifts in Mandarin come through strongly, more than Grace maybe realizes, leaving a lasting impression on the reader. As things unfold, the reader will come to care about Mandarin as much as they do Grace, and this aspect alone speaks volumes as a reminder to not judge someone simply from the rumors and impressions made without meeting them.

The plot is perfectly paced, explosive at some parts and light at others, with both speeds blended masterfully to give the biggest effect. Grace’s captivation with Mandarin is deep rooted and well explained, now as much a part of Grace as anything else that makes up her personality and history. While this infatuation with Mandarin and sudden connection to her is the central premise, it doesn’t overpower the subplots, or continue needlessly. There are lighthearted and funny moments, and a freeing feeling is attached to many events, but Hubbard also inserts plenty of emotional, more pressing scenes that give an overall solemn air to the book.

The setting is incredibly telling and vivid, bringing to life the small town in Wyoming where Grace lives. From the obsession with pageants to the endless rumor mill, the way of life and physical locations are all very well described. This is certainly an example of the place almost becoming its own character, and the way it’s shaped both Grace and Mandarin comes through just as strongly. The desperation to escape not only the trapping town but the people in it is often present, showing in sometimes subtly striking ways, and helping drive home the deeper messages of the book.

Hubbard’s writing is gorgeous, giving a strong narrative voice to Grace and building her mentality while still giving the reader insight into other characters, the setting, and the events. Few clich├ęs in wording are present in this book, making some of the unique phrasing to stand out even more. This, coupled with explosive scenes, a distinct setting, and phenomenally built characters, makes Like Mandarin a stunning and memorable novel.

Source: ARC borrowed from friend
Reading Level: Young Adult
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: March 8, 2011


  1. This book is amazing. One of the best I've ever read.

  2. Dammit, someone beat me for first comment!

    Just kidding ;)

    This review is beautiful, Kari. I must buy this book now!

  3. AHHH! I canNOT wait to read this one!! Already pre-ordered & I interviewed Kirsten, too (she's amazing) for my blog.
    Great review--now you've made me want it even more. Thanks! :)
    The Book Swarm

  4. I'm excited to read this one, especially after reading your thoughts! You write such beautiful reviews. =) Thanks for sharing!

  5. I was lucky enough to win an ARC of this book and I can't wait to dive in. Great review! :)

  6. Sounds really amazing. Thanks for your wonderful review!