Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe

by Preston Norton

This might just be the most hopeful YA I’d read in a long, long time. What started as a ‘stereotypical’ high school story became everything but, when the school ‘jock’ has a near-death experience and claims God needs him and the school ‘loser’ Neanderthal to turn everything around. Every character started jumping from the page, so complex and fully realized that I couldn’t help but fall in love with them all. A beautiful book to rekindle your hope in humanity!

Summary

36105772Cliff Hubbard is a huge loser. Literally. His nickname at Happy Valley High School is Neanderthal because he’s so enormous-6’6″ and 250 pounds to be exact. He has no one at school and life in his trailer park home has gone from bad to worse ever since his older brother’s suicide.

There’s no one Cliff hates more than the nauseatingly cool quarterback, Aaron Zimmerman. Then Aaron returns to school after a near-death experience with a bizarre claim: while he was unconscious he saw God, who gave him a list of things to do to make Happy Valley High suck less. And God said there’s only one person who can help: Neanderthal.

To his own surprise, Cliff says he’s in. As he and Aaron make their way through the List, which involves a vindictive English teacher, a mysterious computer hacker, a decidedly unchristian cult of Jesus Teens, the local drug dealers, and the meanest bully at HVHS–Cliff feels like he’s part of something for the first time since losing his brother. But fixing a broken school isn’t as simple as it seems, and just when Cliff thinks they’ve completed the List, he realizes their mission hits closer to home than he ever imagined.

Musings

As I mentioned above, my first reaction when starting this read was to roll my eyes at all the High School clichés. You have the outcast who lives in a trailer park (with an abusive father), the popular jocks, the bullies, weird nerds, drug dealing teens…but then everything changes when Quarterback Aaron wakes up from his coma. He has seen the face of God – who looks remarkably like Morgan Freeman – and God has given him a list to change all this. And he specifically asked for Cliff’s help.

The author takes all these familiar YA elements and turns them upside down, making Cliff one of the most stand out characters I have ever read in contemporary YA. Still reeling from the suicide of his brother, with many questions he will never get the answer to, he joins Aaron in their mission to change the school. At times, the writing feels a lot like John Green’s, and can really pack an emotional punch; the characters are complex and have so much dimension you feel like you can really know them. It allows for the author to surprise you in so many ways.

It’s surprising in its (un)predictability.  As a reader of a LOT of YAs, it’s evident an author cannot escape the formulaic nature of high school contemporaries. The way the author deftly manages to pull twists out of this is astounding. At many times I found myself wowed by the depth of the characters: how Cliff remains so hopefully through everything, how Aaron canbe such a good person and friend, how Teagan… no spoilers, I’m just still in awe!

It’s honest, irreverent, sweet, funny, incredibly sad, and still hopeful. Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe is an absolute must for fans of  YA Contemporary. It’s at times brutally honest, yet so hopeful and relatable that you can’t put it down. Give yourself a mental hug and read this book.

“You know what the most dystopian idea in the world is to me?” I asked. “The idea that our feelings don’t matter. We might as well be robots.”

Neanderthal

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Paintbrush

By Hannah Bucchin

Some days things just end up falling into place, and you wonder if the universe is messing with you, because coincidences like this just don’t happen. For example, when you’re on a truffle tour in the south of France with your family, and on that same tour group of a dozen people, there’s another YA author, who’s part of the same groups as you are online. The fact that she’s awesome just happens to be bonus (thanks universe!) so the second I got home I ordered her book on Prime, and couldn’t wait to read it. Another reason to thank the universe? The book, author Hannah Buccin’s Debut novel, Paintbrush, is charming and adorable, and everything I needed right now. And I think you might need it too.

Summary

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Mitchell Morrison and Josie Sedgwick have spent their whole lives at the Indian Paintbrush Community Village, a commune full of colorful characters tucked in the mountains of North Carolina, and they aren’t particularly close–at least, not anymore. Josie wishes she could spend all of her time at Paintbrush planting tomatoes, hiking the trails, or throwing giant communal birthday parties, while Mitchell can’t wait to escape the bizarre spiritual sharing and noisy community dinners. Luckily for both of them, high school graduation is just around the corner.

But when Mitchell’s mother makes a scandalous announcement that rocks the close-knit Paintbrush community, and Josie’s younger sister starts to make some dangerously bad decisions, the two find themselves leaning on each other for support – and looking at each other in a whole new light. Their childhood friendship blossoms into something more as they deal with their insane families, but as graduation approaches, so does life in the real world, forcing Josie and Mitchell to figure out what, exactly, their relationship is – and if it can survive their very different plans for the future. 

Musings

Welcome to the Indian Paintbrush Community Village for Sustainable Living: a beautiful commune filled with colorful characters. Among them, two teens on the cusp of adulthood. One, Josie, is nature loving, loves the Paintbrush community, dresses in long skirts and wears a braid. The other, Mitchell, could be the polar opposite: he just wants to fit into his high school, he’s on the swim team, popular, and doesn’t want anything to do with these ‘hippies’.

Life on the commune is peaceful, until one day when Mitchell’s mother does something earth shattering and changes his world forever.

The book deals with the questions that every teen struggles with as they reach adulthood: what is your place in the world? How do you choose your path for your future? Is it better to blend in, or stay true to who you are? How do you forgive the unforgivable – and so on. And it’s handled oh-so beautifully.

While the plot focuses on the growing and evolving relationships between Mitchell and Josie – who have more in common than they expect – it’s also using their two points of views to examine these questions. It’s a story of first love, and coming of age. Setting it on a commune frames this exploration in just a warm and loving embrace that you constantly feel hugged while reading the book. The supporting characters are just that: so supportive. In the best possible way.

If you’re looking for a YA contemporary that will leave you with a smile and a warm feeling in your heart. then you’re going to love Paintbrush. It’s a sweet and beautiful book that deserves a place on your bookshelf.