Monday, December 26, 2011

Good for You, by Tammara Webber

Good For You (Between the Lines #3)Good For You by Tammara Webber

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This review won't contain any "spoilers," with respect to this book, but it does assume familiarity with the characters and events of the two previous books in the series, so it may be mildly spoilerish with respect to them.

This third book picks up where "Where You Are" leaves off. Reid is at somewhat of a personal nadir after the unsettling events on the night of the premiere of School Pride. He even gets uncharacteristically introspective, wondering what makes Emma think there's something more to him. Fortunately(?), his loyal friend John is there to steer him back to his "pointless, pleasure-driven life," with foreseeably disastrous results. When he's sentenced to community service at a Habitat for Humanity site as part of his punishment for a catastrophic drunk driving incident, he meets Dori, the volunteer assigned to "baby-sit" Reid while he fulfills his obligation. Dori, short for Dorcas, is there because she's committed to making the world a better place for others. She not only volunteers at Habitat, she helps with VBS, Sunday School and other programs at her dad's church, does meals on wheels, and is headed to Ecuador for a mission trip in just a few weeks. Reid and Dori come from two different worlds and world views, that's for sure, and their initial impressions of each other are not favorable, to say the least. But each feels drawn to the other as the summer progresses, and they begin to find something of value, something they need, in each other.

I loved the previous books in this series, and I really didn't expect this one to surpass them in reading and emotional enjoyment and intensity. I was always an ambivalent Reid supporter at best. Yes, it's been clear from the start that he had potential and character that lay fallow, awaiting some kind of awakening. But as Emma said at one point, it wasn't enough for me that he could be good, given the right motivation. He had to want to be, he had to do something about it, and he never seemed to have the gumption to do that. So, I sort of expected this to be about Reid finding a good girl who could sort of "convert" him, to "change" him to someone better behaved, the way that girls always seem to think they can do to bad boys. But this is a much deeper story, a story about choices, and growth and becoming a human being.

Dori is an amazing character, revealed slowly over the course of the book. You think you know her at the beginning of the book, that she's a classic do-gooder type, with values and strengths that motivate and drive her commitments. And all that is true, but there's so much more depth to her. As it turns out, when these two strangers meet in a modest little half built house, both of them are there under some kind of compulsion, one the no less strong for being self imposed. Both Reid and Dori have built themselves worlds of self-sufficiency, in different way and for different reasons. What happens when those constructions fall apart is what makes this book so powerful and affecting.

Some final random thoughts:

Do things happen for a reason? Dori spends a great deal of emotional energy denying that, at one point saying, "if I believed for two seconds that there was a reason behind some of the awful thing that occur in this life, I wouldn't be able to stand it." Exploring that idea, through some pretty horrific events, is a really interesting theme of this book, and while it's left unresolved (can it ever be resolved?), good does come from some terrible things in this story.

The name Dorcas. Whew, tough name for a kid, no wonder she goes by Dori. In the Bible, Dorcas was a woman known for her good deeds. She was also brought back from death by Peter, a guy who spent most of him time messing things up until he finally got it right. I'm not saying this is an allegory or anything, but I love how that story kind of resonates.

Alison Krauss. What an achingly pure and sweet voice she has. It seems so simple, and yet conveys such emotional power and depth. So it totally makes sense that when Dori sings, it's one of her songs. A particularly ambiguously heart-breaking one, too.

So, all in all, a wonderful book, a powerful read that will stick with you long after you finish, wishing and begging for more. I love how Brooke comes (briefly) back into things, and how parental relationships are such an important part of this story. Thanks so much, Tammara, for creating such a richly imagined world, that has such creatures in it.

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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Five Flavors of Dumb, by Antony John

Five Flavors of DumbFive Flavors of Dumb by Antony John

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've read quite a few books recently that revolved around bands and rock music - Amplified by Tara Kelly and June of Rock by Elisa Ludwig were two that this one reminded me of most, and all three were great. This one even has a blurb on the cover from The Philadelphia Inquirer that calls it "A love letter to rock music." And I guess that is true, as far as it goes, because there is a lot of discussion of Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain (this book takes place in Seattle), their history, their impact and their significance. And it's really well done, too, it's not just a lesson-y dry recitation of facts. It gets thoughtful and passionate about exploring their legacies as seen through the eyes of some contemporary teens to whom these relics of my generation still resonate and reverberate.

But I remember a while ago reading (ok, skimming) Lance Armstrong's autobiography It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life. To me, this book is not about the music - it's more of a family drama, albeit one that takes place in the context of a small-time rock band on the cusp of breaking out. MC Piper is struggling with some big changes in her life. Her only other deaf friend has moved away and seems to be distancing herself emotionally as well. Her new baby sister has just received a cochlear implant, courtesy of Piper's thereby depleted college fund, leaving Piper the only deaf one in her family. She's torn by jealousy (and guilt over that) and a feeling of deepening isolation. She also feels betrayed by her parent's seeming financial favoritism and hurt by the deeper implication that her "unfixable" deafness makes her "disabled," a notion she rejects. It's against this backdrop that Piper stumbles across the winner of the local battle of the bands, Dumb, performing on the steps of her high school. She's kind of fascinated by their performance, and sees an opportunity to make some cash on their coattails. She negotiates a deal to become their manager if she can land them a paying gig in thirty days.

It's against this backdrop that Piper finds strength to confront perceptions that she's less than capable, the notion that she's always going to be the compliant good girl who's so nice she won't even take her own side in a fight, and comes to realize that other people have depths, issues and their own struggles that are far from apparent on the surface. Piper is not always a perfect paragon - she can be resentful, sometimes has anger management issues, and, until our story begins in earnest, doesn't always express or acknowledge her emotions very effectively. But as her role as manager requires her to step up and begin to do so, she finds that other other people have their own frailties and struggles, giving her new perspective regarding her own problems, and a realization that she can have an impact for the good on theirs.

So maybe that makes this all seem like it would be heavy and angsty and all. And whoa! there is plenty of emotion to be felt, plenty. But it unfolds and reveals itself through a series of situations and characters that are funny, crazy, interesting and cleverly written. This is a story of healing and, yes, growing up. A recognition that parents can be flawed but still loving, that friends are hard to find and worth fighting for. I give the author special kudos for portraying a dad who seems sucky, but is willing to hang in there when he realizes he's messed things up. Piper is an awesome character, it is way worth getting to know her, and joining her journey.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Her and Me and You, by Lauren Strasnick

Her and Me and YouHer and Me and You by Lauren Strasnick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this book very much - it's an odd and unique mix of themes and feelings. There are many traditional YA elements - MC Alex's parents messily divorce (when beloved dad's affair with a paralegal is discovered, oops), and she is wrenched away from her familiar school, and close friend Eve, to her mom's childhood home, where mom sinks quietly into a bad relationship with her new boyfriend, alcohol, making her moody and sometimes mean. As if that weren't enough to deal with, Alex's integration into her new school is sidetracked by her attraction to the Bishop twins, Fred and Adina. They are quite frankly weirdos, and everyone in the school knows that. Alex's one friend/frenemy (her mom's friend's daughter) is pretty explicit about what happened to the last girl who got too close to Fred, and how crazy Adina can be. This is where the unusual elements creep in. Fred and Adina (well, especially Adina, Fred can seem pretty nice, if utterly under Adina's thumb) live in the old family mansion, now crumbling and abandoned feeling, while their widowed dad travels the world and is otherwise absent. They spend their time drinking, cooking elaborate meals which anorexic Adina never eats, and sending Alex confusing, sometimes scary, but always intense mixed messages about Fred's feelings for her, and Adina's response to that. This reminded me a little of a wonderful book I read a long time ago Love for Lydia. The gloomy old mansion, the obsessive love for a very odd character who seemingly can't be trusted to do the right thing with your emotions, and the ambiguity and bewilderment experienced by the MC - very impactful. You, the reader, are kept off balance emotionally, just as Alex is, by the maddening antics of these two Addams-family-esque characters. It creates a cool, jittery, what's going to happen next feeling that gives the book a haunting and slightly dreamy vibe. But the traditional YA elements are not overshadowed by the gothic-y parts. Alex's relationship with her dad, and her encounter with the "slutty paralegal" are real feeling and create an empathy for even the "bad guy" characters. Like Holly in Nothing Like You Alex is such a lonely character. My heart went out to her so much. This is a good, albeit short read, with echoes of The Turn of the Screw, the castle scene from Cabaret, and the aforementioned Love for Lydia (I remember crying so hard at the end of that one!). But it stands on it own feet, and brings on the real emotions for a real feeling girl, as she takes on not the exotic and esoteric ghosts of Quinton and Miss Jessel, but of her own messy, broken feelings, and decides how to face them, and the future.

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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Lipstick Apology, by Jennifer Jabaley

Lipstick ApologyLipstick Apology by Jennifer Jabaley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book. It's intense, poignant, bittersweet, wise and funny. It's also beautifully and subtly crafted, with all the elements - story, characters, style - combining to create a richly rewarding reading and emotional experience.

MC Emily's life is catastrophically and irreparably torn apart when her vacationing parents' flight goes down with no survivors. The discovery in the crash debris of a mysterious message from her mother - "Emily, please forgive me," insures that she will suffer the intrusive attention of the tabloids, as well as her more private feelings of loss, pain, grief and bewilderment over the meaning of that haunting lipstick apology. And as if that weren't enough to be getting on with, she is wrenched from her leafy suburban home, school and friends to live with her mother's younger sister Jolie, a Manhattan-based upscale makeup maven who, despite her veneer of sophistication and style, can hardly cope herself with her sister's death, let alone live up to being the adult in Emily's life. Emily is torn between her desire to be the new, made-over, over it and moving on girl, fitting into her sophisticated new prep school, and the haunting reality of her overwhelming feelings of abandonment, guilt and loss. And above all, she continues to be tormented by the need to understand why her seemingly perfect mother would beg her for forgiveness with her very last words.

I loved the way Emily's struggles are echoed in so many elements of the story. The contrast between the placid, pastoral river that flowed past her childhood home and the turbulent urban Hudson overlooked by Jolie's sleek but somewhat sterile apartment. The whole makeup/makeover motif, starting with the apology itself being written in lipstick, then showing up again with Jolie's business and the multiple makeovers Jolie gives Emily and her new friends - echoes Emily's attempts to cover, conceal and carry on behind a facade of normalcy. Then there's the theme of homemade food and baked goods (Jolie's kitchen is just a "closet for take-out menu's," with only Emily's mom's old apron gracing it with any warmth) as being a way of expressing feelings and representing home, family and authenticity. Even the two boys in the story seem to represent these poles of Emily's conflicting desires to confront or conceal, to paper over or to archeologize her grief.

Before it's all over secrets and lies will show their awesome and awful power. Emily will be tested, cruelly, and for me at least, almost beyond endurance. Things will never, ever be the same. But as Emily comes to acknowledge, life "is about crawling out from under the wreckage and rebuilding after disaster - making new memories and new families with people who fill our voids and make us laugh." Interestingly ,the word "wreckage" appears in the book only twice - once when the message is found, and once here when Emily begins, not necessarily to heal, but to perceive that healing might someday be possible (gotta love that search feature on the Nook!).

Emily ... my heart went out to her so much. She is not a perfect, wise beyond her years paragon - she's a real girl, sometimes superficial, sometimes hurtful and selfish, but so, so vulnerable, fragile but possessed of an inner strength that makes her struggles all the more affecting. Jolie is an awesomely realized character too, and it's impossible not to empathize and agonize with her in the weird and unexpected role and dilemmas she finds herself thrust into. The boys didn't do that much for me, but maybe that's a guy thing. And of course, the powerful presence of Jill, Emily's mom, looms large over the story. Even though she's absent you get a feel for her hurt, her humanity and her deep love for her daughter and husband. The city of New York is a character here, too, and despite my general lack of love for it, I acknowledge that here it adds to Emily's journey and growth. The recurring motif of When Harry Met Sally is fun, and provides a counterpoint commentary to Emily's boy-related feelings.

This is such a richly humane story of flaws, forgiveness and finding a way forward - really, I'm still kind of torn up. It's pretty rare for me to stay up late reading, unable to stop, anymore. This is that kind of book, and it kept me up way, way past any semblance of a sensible bed time (on a work night, yet!). It might keep me up again tonight, just thinking about it. This has been kind of a long review, but trust me, there's still much more to experience and enjoy here. Don't miss it.

"Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind"
Wordsworth, Intimations of Immortality

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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Of Ghosts and Geeks, by Molly Ringle

Of Ghosts and GeeksOf Ghosts and Geeks by Molly Ringle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Of Ghosts and Geeks is cute, funny, sweet and sexy. MC Gwen, one of the titular geeks (see, sounds titillating already, eh?), is a quirky and charming professor of literature at Girthmore College, sadly in danger of becoming the spinster some might mistakenly take her for. Then she makes an amazing, potentially life-changing purchase - a rare illustrated mythology book, right up her scholarly alley. Little does she know that it's a a BOGO, and the "get one" is the kooky, reckless and restless ghost of a victorian teenager, determined to experience (in death, vicariously) the paroxysms of passion she'd been denied in life. The self-named Violetta (her real name, Dorcas Schmelbeck, is just too prosaic, pedestrian and passionless for her - hey, true story, my mom wanted us to name our oldest daughter Dorcas, family name and all, back in the day. She professed to be mystified when we tried to explain the utter cruelty of inflicting that on an innocent child. Anyhoo...) Violetta has little in the way of real life experience (except for her death, which was a doozy) or impulse control, but makes up for it with her ability to control inaminate objects, which she uses to compel Gwen's compliance with her seductive schemes for experiencing second-hand romance of the voyeuristic kind. She's already selected a partner for Gwen to perform with, the luscious and likeable Paul Chang, the landscaper who mows Gwen's lawn. Paul's biceps and his appreciation for the intersection of comic book heroes and mythology (he's the other geek)have actually previously come to Gwen's fond attention, and when Violetta (pronounced "vi-o-lator?") insists that the two of them re-enact certain poses, postures and positions illustrated in the aformentioned book, the action, and Gwen and Paul's mutual attraction, come to a boil. Like I said, this is fun, and funny. The humor is pretty broad, and laugh out loud-a-licious. Violetta veers between ridiculous and scary, and there are twists and developments that keep things fresh and unforeseeable. Molly has a knack for creating relatable, real-feeling characters, and these two are no exception. Yes, you can see what's happening long before they do (I guess part of geekiness is the whole socially awkward thing, especially with the opposite sex), but that doesn't make their reluctant(?) and reticent compliance with Violetta's ever escalating demands any less entertaining or satisfying. Of course, no true geek tale would be complete without a bit of cosplay, and Molly manages to work in the holy grail of every geek guys fantasy, to sexy and funny effect. So, hopefully I've conveyed my enjoyment and appreciation of this warm and tenderly funny story. This reminded me a bit of Summer Term, only this is the funny version, not the romantic one - it's got that same campusy, academic vibe, and the feeling of a close (sometimes claustrophobically so) community of teachers and students. Indulge yourself by reading this when you need a break - trust me, your enjoyment will be disproportional to its length. Just one final question though - Girthmore? What's up with that?

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Crush Control by Jennifer Jabaley

Crush ControlCrush Control by Jennifer Jabaley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's not terribly difficult to forsee the various disasters that MC Willow inflicts on herself and others, nor is it hard to see how things will eventually work themselves out. But there's lots of fun to be had along the way. Willow is a charming MC, who could benefit from a good shake now and then, but has a sweet, sensitve and kind heart, although it is fraught with bad judgment and poor impulse control. There are several great supporting characters as well - her quirkster friend, Georgia; her single mom struggling with her own issues of identity and parental acceptance; the surface perfect but vulnerable cheerleader; and of course two hunky boys for Willow to obssess over. One of the things I enjoyed most about this book was the way the author worked the themes of A Midsummer Night's Dream into the story. I love when authors introduce a book like that in a way that illuminates the action and also moves the plot forward - like Leaves of Grass in Paper Towns, or Pride and Prejudice in Between the Lines. This book also features a really great "meet cute" scene with one of the aforesaid boys on Willow's first day back in the small Georgia town they've returned to from Las Vegas. Believable emotions, if farfetched situations, and warmly portrayed lovable characters made this a pleasurable, quick read.

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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Amplified, by Tara Kelly

AmplifiedAmplified by Tara Kelly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When 17 yo MC Jasmine tells her domineering doctor dad that she'd like to defer her entry to Stanford for a year to pursue her dream of a musical career, he doesn't take it so well. In fact, when she doesn't back down, he gives her 15 minutes to "get her stuff and get out," all the while insisting that "he's not the bad guy here." Jaz heads to Santa Cruz, just over the hills from the snooty suburb where she's never really fit in. While desperately (and wildly unsuccessfully) searching Craigslist for a place to stay, she sees an audition notice for a guitarist in C-Side, an industrial rock band that seems perfect for her intense and atmospheric guitar playing. So perfect that it even includes a room in a cool oceanside house, and a chance to actually make friends with Veta, the band's awesome girl singer. Only a few obstacles stand in Jasmine's way - like, she's never actually played in public, except for the infamous "Cornflake Girl," incident which still haunts her stage fright nightmares; her house mates are three guys with strong personalities, who seem reluctant to accept her as a player and a person; and perhaps most importantly, one of them is that total dick from the auto shop where her car broke down on her way into town (not a good day all around, long story). Yep, that guy who, just when she was at her lowest (so far, uh oh) had to mock and humiliate her seemingly just because he could. And doggone it, he would have to be the hot one, too.

One of the things I liked about this book was the realistic way that many of Jasmine's problems are somewhat self-inflicted. Understandably, she's not very forthcoming with her thoughts and feelings, and that causes no end of problems for her. I say "understandably," because her dad is a relentless and harsh judger/belittler, and although it's not clear whether he blames her for her mother abandoning them when Jaz was five, or just sees too much of her mother in her, the ghost of her mom, and Jasmine's attempts to exorcise it by doing everything her dad's ever wanted has brought her to the point of feeling ... well, not very much. So, since opening up is her big bugaboo, it's so great that she goes to work for a psychic whose whole focus is on opening and reading people's thoughts and feelings. Just what the doctor (well, not her dad, haha) ordered, right? Well, no, not that simple, since the lonely, determined to be self-reliant Jasmine resolutely resists the effort. So a great part of the story is Jasmine learning to trust and open up. It's sweet and touching and feels tentative, painful and real.

Another part of the story that is really awesome is the music (ok, prob not a big surprise, given the title and all). The author really brings C-Side to life - the lyrics are poetic, ambiguous, intense and dreamy. She describes the music so well, it really is like you are listening, in the sense that it gives you that emotional rush that good music does. And Jasmine believes in the power of music so much - it's transcendent for her, it's where she finds and expresses those feelings she works so hard to deny the rest of the time, and that only makes it all the more powerful, for her and the reader. So it's especially painful when her struggles extend even to the one area where she's so invested and where so much is riding on her tough, but still vulnerable, cute little shoulders.

This is a story about a lonely girl finding friendship, a green girl growing up, the healing magic of music, the sweet scariness of new romance (though it's not a romance), and about hanging tough even after you've been hung out to dry. Really, you should read this book, it's pretty wonderful!

For music geeks, there's lots of fun and juicy details of gear, guitars and amps. Clearly written with affection by someone who knows what she's talking about. Jasmine's rig? Awesomesauce!

While this is Jasmine's story, almost every character comes to life. They are all multi-faceted, real feeling and complex. It's hard to see even the "bad guys," without seeing that maybe there's more to them, and that they are people too (except her dad, what an a-hole, I don't blame her mom one bit!)

So, all in all, a great, fun read, with real emotions, fun and intense, seriously, you should read it!

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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Faking Faith by Josie Bloss

Faking FaithFaking Faith by Josie Bloss

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After a series of bad decisions, culminating in the widespread dissemination of some foolishly shared ("you'll never show these to anyone,right?") topless photos, MC Dylan finds herself home alone, suspended, grounded by her workaholic parents, shunned by her friends and generally very, very lonely and unhappy. What's a girl to do? Why, spend hours on the internet, of course, where she becomes intrigued by and sucked into the world of homeschooled fundamentalist Christian girls (from families that kind of remind me of the Duggers). She really connects with with one of them, a girl from southern Illinois named Abigail (I think that name means "Handmaid," appropriate for her, as it develops). Dylan (whose name comes from a guy who was the ultimate symbol of the hedonistic 60's) invents her own such persona, "Faith" (I like the ambiguity of the title, btw, referring to both her name and her beliefs). As Faith, Dylan creates her own blog, and insinuates herself into the little online community and ultimately ends up visiting Abigail and her family (she's a clever one, if a bit sneaky). Faith's visit stirs up a lot of things at the farm, including Abi's brother Asher, who's already somewhat on probation for having been seen kissing a non-Christian girl. Is Faith's presence and impact a good thing for any of them?

One of the things I really liked about this book was the starkly contrasting nature of Dylan/Faith's two worlds. Her parents are mystified by her interest in and questions about things like baking, and why they never go to church. And of course Abi's family views the world Dylan comes from (if they think of it at all), as equally incomprehensible, and essentially a snare for the unwary, to be avoided above all. The relationshion between Abigail, the first person Dylan's connected with in so long who hasn't judged and rejected her, is sweet and convincing, and all the more dramatic for being founded on a whole lot of lying. Maybe because it is so utterly foreign to her experience, Dylan doesn't judge Abigail's world harshly, but instead sees it as something to be experienced, comparing it to being on an alien planet at one point. One of the things I liked best was how Dylan was able to see the appealing things about both worlds, and I appreciated that the author didn't engage in a lot of stereotyping or mockery of "those benighted kooks," but was able to see what they had that the more materialistic and driven lawyer family lacked (and vice versa, of course).

This is one of those "OMG, girlfriend don't do that books," a lot of the time, and it's fun (and stressful) to see how such bad judgment and poor impulse control land Dylan in so much, and so many different kinds of, hot water. But Dylan does grow, heal and learn as the summer goes on, and the Faith experience ends up being one that brings her a new appreciation of her own world and family, while also, perhaps, having a similar effect on Abigail and Asher. When Dylan applies what Faith learned to the situation she left behind, she's able to reconcile her experience of both worlds in a healing and hopeful way that make the conclusion emotional and satisfying. And isn't that what a good YA book is supposed to do?

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

If I Tell, by Janet Gurtler

If I TellIf I Tell by Janet Gurtler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

MC Jasmine ("Jaz") had her fair share of issues to contend with, even before she saw her Mom's boyfriend making out with Jaz's skank-a-rific "best friend" Lacey at that party. Issues, you ask? Well, she's never really gotten over being abandoned by her Dad, who split as soon as he found out that her Mom was pregnant at seventeen. She's the only bi-racial kid in a town that is pretty backward and mean about that sort of thing. Her grandfather Joe, the one guy she could count on, died recently, and her new best friend Ashley (who is gay, btw) is pretty much too busy to hang out, what with her busy swim team schedule and all. And that new guy, Jackson? The one who transferred in from juvie? He seems nice, and he's not only utterly sa-woon-esque, he seems interested in her! But Jaz has to wonder whether he's still dealing drugs, or if there's some other reason he's so mysterioso and cryptic on those phone calls he keeps getting at the most inopportune times. So, yup, lots going on, even before the fateful kissy face event. And Jaz, perhaps in light of all of the above, is not really the greatest at handling it. Already pretty good at stonewalling her own emotions and keeping other people at arm's length, her inability to decide how to handle the secret isolates her, and makes her even more difficult to get along with. What's a girl to do? I mean, let's face it, that's a pretty tough situation no matter how much aplomb, savoir faire and maturity you can muster, and Jaz is a teenager.

Which is exactly one of the things I really like about this book. Jaz is not all wise beyond her years, emotionally capable and socially ept. She's all kinds of awkward, not terribly able to understand, let alone articulate and express her feelings. Fortunately, she has a wonderful author friend who can do that for her, so we lucky readers do get inside that mixed up, angsty head of hers, as she works things out, realizes what is and what is not her responsibiity or fault, and finds out who her friends are, and how to forgive them and herself, when they (and she) use poor judgment and bad impulse control. Which is not to say that everything is wrapped up in a pretty package at the end. Even those early crocuses peeping out of the frozen feelings tundra remain realistically vulnerable and tentative as the narrative closes. But is there anything more hopeful than those first few shoots of green in March?

Some other things I loved about this book. Girls and guitars. Just the phrase makes me happy - and the author does a great job of conveying a real guitar player's enthusiasm and gear geekiness in the discussion of brands (full disclosure alert - I own a couple of Alvarez guitars, so she had me right there!), and appropriate awestruckness at a custom Martin. The song Jaz wrote was cool, too, and added depth and a feeling for how deep her hurt and creativity ran, and how intertwined they were. This is totally Jasmine's story, but the rest of the cast is fully realized too, with believable, relatable and unique voices and vibes. This is everything a good YA book should be - character driven, and with a great conflict pushing the narrative on - should she tell, if so, who should she tell and how? There's romance, but it's not a romance. It's chock full of the aforementioned issues (spoiler alert - nobody gets cancer, otherwise, it's all in there!), and the kind of emotional epiphanies and coming to terms with the foibles and frailties of the world and one's self that sporadically, spasmodically mark the milestones of the painful process of becoming an adult.

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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Where You Are (Between the Lines, #2)Where You Are by Tammara Webber

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

School Pride has wrapped up, nothing left for the cast to do but some promotional events and interviews, and of course, the premiere. So Emma Pierce, soon to be star, has been back home, trying her hardest to live that "normal" life that seems so appealing and yet elusive. At the urging of her bff Emily, she's even dating a regular boy, albet somewhat unenthusiastically, and trying to put the emotional uproar of the past few months behind her. And then she meets Graham Douglas again ...

This sequel to Between the Lines picks up where that one ended, the morning after Emma and Graham's chance encounter at the coffee shop. As they come to recognize and acknowledge the depth and intensity of their feelings for each other, they have to deal with the obstacles of a long distance relationship, their own somewhat reticent natures and history, and, more dramatically, the attention and nefarious intentions of Brooke and Reid, who aren't finished with them yet. Brooke's plan to nab Graham for herself, with the assistance of Reid, who she enlists in her scheme with the promise that he can pick up the pieces of Emma when she prevails, is the main story line, and it is one that will keep you reading, biting your nails, and cursing that bitchy, brittle and broken Brooke, well beyond the time you promised you'd turn out the lights, stop reading and try to get some sleep before work in the am. Good luck with that, my friend, it won't be easy!

This one is told in four shifting POV's - Emma, Graham, Brooke and Reid. This is a relief, after the opacity of Graham's thought processes in BTL. It retains the closeness we feel to Emma and Graham, and continues to hold out the tantalizing possiblity that there's more to Reid than he lets on. Brooke's point of view, while revealing the world of hurt she's coming from, doesn't (for me at least) make her a whole lot more sympathetic or relatable. Maybe the subtitle of this should be "Hoping for Brooke's Comeuppance," because I spent a good part of the book wishing for that! But, back to POV's. While the first book felt to me like it was Emma's story, this one feels like it's Graham's turn. We come to understand the basis for his hands-off, non-possessive attitude (whether we like it or not, or feel like yelling "Use your powers, Superman!," as he hurtles ever closer to the ground). And learning his history and spending more time with Cara and his family is really enjoyable, too.

The story of this one is fun, despite the almost overwhelming tension created by the machinations of the two antagonists, but again for me, there's an elusive something beyond the plot, characters and setting that makes these books special. Tammara's writing is seductive and immersive - you're reading along in the regular way, and suddenly realize that you've been drawn into her world so deeply that hours have passed, you're hungry, and that bathroom break you've been postponing is long overdue, and still you don't want to stop! It's a kind of dreamy but vivid style that I wish I were astute enough to analyze, but prefer to just enjoy.

There are three teaser chapters for the next book, Good For You, included, and they promise a different direction, focusing on Reid this time, as he meets someone different than the actresses and society girls he usually hangs with. The promise of sparks between them makes me look forward to this one, as much as I anticipated Where You Are.

So, just to be perfectly clear, I loved this book, the characters, the story, the writing and look forward to enjoy Tammara's exploration of this lovingly and richly imagined foursome. Could there be someone who can heal Brooke's hurts? Or is she so bereft of the capacity for real love that she'll have to just make her own way in the world, without the tender touch of Tammara's obvious affection for her little cast? Time will tell, but I, for one, would love to read about it!

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Saturday, October 22, 2011


My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Casey is just a regular teenage girl except for a couple of minor issues: her unmanageably curly hair, her equally untameable mega-crush on school football hero Nate, and oh yeah, that pesky problem of uncontolled time travelling at the most inconvenient possible times.

This is a cute, fun and fresh feeling read, and while I could agree with Nate that Casey is far more fascinating in the past, where her spunky self-reliance, quick wits and gumption come to the fore, she's pretty much a charmer whatever time zone she's in. She does have a lot to be mopey about back here in the real world, what with Nate breaking her heart, her parent's divorce and her little brother's unfortunate reaction to it, and her friend Lindsay's feeling left out of Casey's temporal traumas. The historical elements have an authentically gritty feel to them, and the way the plot moves between the two periods is clever and skillfully handled.

The opening chapter has a bit of a middle grade feel to it, but it quickly becomes more and more sophisticated and complex, narratively and emotionally, as the story builds. Casey's story really drew me in, and the twists of the plot and Casey and Nate's relationship were fun to experinece and worry about. This is a sweetly satisfying story, with loveable characters, a clever plot and lots of witty, wry and winsome writing! There's a couple cute twists, and it's fun to see some seemingly disparate plot elements coalesce and resolve.

The author asked me to read this, and give an honest review, and I'm so glad she did, as this was a good read I prob wouldn't have found on my own. She also has a really cool blog at which I heartily commend to your attention. She's a generous spirited supporter of good YA, and I'm delighted to have made her (virtual) acquaintance!

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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Beatle Meets DestinyBeatle Meets Destiny by Gabrielle Williams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A lot of people really liked this book, there are 65 reviews, and 242 ratings on Goodreads at this point, and you should read one of those raves if you think you might want to try it. As for me, I had more mixed feelings. It is well written, there were some phrases that were so clever and wry that I laughed in that funny literary appreciation-y way that you get sometimes. I guess my problems were with the two MC's. They seemed kind of mean to me. Not in a bullying way, more in a lacking empathy and casually thoughtless of others' feelings way. That whole story with the tapestry and how it turns out - not nice, Destiny. And Beatle. You have the Playboy logo as your fb profile pic? Srsly? I honestly thought Beatle's girlfriend Cilla was the only likeable character, but heads up - don't get too attached to her, my friend. I know you're supposed to look beyond the appeal of the characters to the literary merit and all (I did concede up front that this has that!), but that's not how I like to read or review, I need to feel a connection. I really hate to sound so negative, because there are lots of fun elements to this book, besides just the witty style - the superstitions, the twins motif, Beatle's backstory with the stroke and all, the vibe of the city of Melbourne. I just looked at the blurb again, and it says this is about "everybody doing the wrong thing." Yup, that's it. Somehow Beatle and Destiny (and many other readers) found that quirky, kooky and endearing (or did they? I didn't get what attracted those two to each other in the first place), but it left me wondering why exactly I wanted to invest my emotions in them. So, one of those books for me, kind of left me wondering what's wrong with me, everybody loved it, what did I miss (Confession? I felt that way about The Hangover, too).

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Friday, October 14, 2011

The Ghost DownstairsThe Ghost Downstairs by Molly Ringle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

MC Lina takes a job as the live-in nurse at a small retirement home after an unfortunate incident at the big hospital where she's on staff. I could have told Lina that reading Stephen King when your job involves staying up all night is a major mistake! (My wife finally made me turn the lights out at bedtime a week after I finished "It.") Her new digs are a funny old place though. It's an elegant mansion, a former sorority house, rumored to be haunted by one of the former sisters. Lina is sceptical, and far more concerned with her feelings for Ren, the "houseboy." It's not just that he's the sole occupant anywhere near her age, he's also kind, something she needs in her life just now, and quel coincidence for a romance novel, he's also kind of hot. His aloof manner and mysterious comings and goings give her pause though. Is the attraction all one sided?

This is a really good read. It is a bit hard to review, though, because there is a big ole twist, and although it's not that hard to spot, nonetheless it's much more fun to encounter it yourself, without a nasty spoilerboots ruining all the fun. So, I'll just talk a bit about the characters and the atmosphere, which honestly to me were the richer part of the reading experience in any event.

Lina ia so charming and sweet, you are rooting for her to find something good in her life from page one. I think Molly Ringle has a major knack for creating super relatable female characters. From a guy perspective they are that elusive combination of smart, sweet, funny (without knowing it), strong but vulnerable, and of course, cute, that makes them irrestible. Lina is a lonely girl though, and we find out why as the story progresses. Her story is poignant and tender, and it's great to see her find friends among her patients (? they're not sick, just elderly, but I'm not sure what else to call them, the residents?). She seems to find the family she needs among them, and seeing her come out of her shell is a touching part of the story.

Ren is enigmatic and elusive, but not in a way that makes you think he's a jerk. On the contrary, it's clear he too has suffered, and that he and Lina are just what each other needs.

The city of Seattle is another major element of this book, and Molly conveys a beautiful sense of the city, which is very important to Lina. Here's a passage from the beginning of the book I thought was beautifully and sensitively written:

"A fresh September dawn bathed the eastern sky. Lina stumbled along the sidewalk, blinking at buildings and citizens and seagulls. Salmon-colored sunlight gleamed on the cars; roasting coffee filled the salty air with its scent; a beeping bread truck backed up into an alley."

For some reason that just put me totally into the scene, it felt poetic but also real. Which, is actually a pretty good way to describe Molly Ringle's style in general. Obvs this book has a lot of fantastical elements, but she does a good job of maintaining credibility and pulling you in so that it's all believable. Another thing I like about this book is that even the "bad guy" sees a little redemption at the end, and has motivations and a humanity that contribute to the aforementioned credibility.

After you've read a few books by an author, it's tempting to try to sort of "rank" them by quality or as "favorites." It's hard with Molly though, because each book I've read is so different. One thing they share though is a fun lyrical style, engaging, endearing characters and a heartwarming empathy for them. They all have their flaws and issues - some of them are pretty serious. And it's not just that it makes them more "real," it makes their stories deeper, more meaningful than if they were somehow less scared, scarred and worried. Haha, the more I talk about this book, the more I like it! Check it out, I bet anything you will too!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Summer Term, by Molly Ringle

Summer TermSummer Term by Molly Ringle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Paige Huntley, a grad student teaching a summer course, is surprised to see film star Aidan Grey on her class roster. She's getting over a broken engagement, and has been thinking a lot lately (maybe a little too much!) about her urbane dissertation adviser, the attractive but married Stefan Serovinak. The last thing she needs is the distraction that comes with having an attractive celebrity in her class. But as summer term unrolls, she finds there's something about Aidan that she didn't expect, and begins to find hard to resist. Aidan has come home to the remote college town where he grew up to finish his degree and figure out if he's as enthused about this whole Hollywood thing as he once thought. Meeting the attractive, down to earth and clever Paige was definitely not on his syllabus. Take these ingredients, stir in some stalkerazzi fans, a pushy agent, and a great cast of side characters, plunk them down on a sleepy summer college campus, and you have a charming, funny, sometimes suspenseful, and very satisfying light romantic novel.

For some reason this book makes me think of a lovely German wine - light, sweet but not cloying, with many classic, familiar elements, but still fresh and original. It's definitely a Qualitatswein mit Pradikat - a superior wine with special qualities. The characters are maybe a little too good to be true (that's one sensitive and understanding movie star, you've got yourself there, Paige!), but isn't that part of the fantasy fun, really? There is definitely some toe curling mclovin' going on, too - this is def an adult romance, and there's a bit more of the old je'ne sais quoi going on than in the YA I'm used to reading (wow, what you girls are getting up to these days!), but it's sweet and intense and conveys so nicely the dizzying, overwhelming emotions that engulf our mc's and catapult them into and out of each others arms, even against their better judgment and common sense. And isn't that what love is supposed to do?

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Double Clutch, by Liz Reinhart

Double Clutch (A Brenna Blixen Novel)Double Clutch by Liz Reinhardt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I realized that I'd used the word "smexy" in several of my last few reviews I started worrying that maybe I was using it wrong. I decided I'd better look it up on Urban Dictionary, and whoa, right next to it was a picture of Brenna Blixen, the MC of this romantic dramarama. This is Brenna's story, and she is quite a girl. After spending a year in Denmark with her mom & stepdad (he's Danish, bit of a backstory) she returns to her old school in New Jersey, but she's changed. Something about her - her sense of herself, her style, her emotional maturity? sets her apart from her classmates, but also makes her irresistible to two guys she meets on the very first day of school. Yes, it's one of those "torn between two hot guys" books, and man Liz Reinhardt knows how to bring that old song to life. Both of the boys are pretty swoon-worthy, and Brenna, while drawn to nice guy Jake despite his sketchy past, is also unable to put snarky, sexy Saxon out of her mind. Brenna has lots to deal with besides the boys, two former best friends who now inexplicably hate each other - school, her t-shirt business, the track team, and her Mom's sensitive attention (she's determined Brenna won't make the same mistake she did, the one that resulted in Brenna). She manages to squeeze in some super sexy times with Jake (yowza, Louisiana hot sauce warning!) and to get to the bottom of the emnity between the two guys. This isn't really a plot book, though, it's a character and emotions book, and by the time the last page rolls around you are so infused with both that you almost have to shake it off to rejoin the real world. I really enjoyed this book, and look forward to more Brenna (yes, there's a teaser chapter for the sequel). This is a self published e-book, and delivers great reading value for a reasonable price. It's the kind of book that gives self-pub a good name!

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Little Less Girl, by Tess Oliver

A Little Less GirlA Little Less Girl by Tess Oliver

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

MC Dani and her mom have moved from California to a small town (in the midwest?), and Dani hopes to leave her mom's sketchy past and even sketchier boyfriends behind them for a "normal" life. The move is tinged with sadness, though, because they've inherited their new home from Amy's grandmother. Grammie died shortly after Dani's cousin Amy committed suicide when Jake West, the boy Amy obsessively crushed on, made some hurtful remarks about her. Dani wants to hate Jake, but begins to realize things weren't what they seem as, with the help of Amy's diary, she begins to figure out what really happened to her beloved cousin.

This is a good read, with intense emotions, a bit of mystery and many charming characters. Dani is maybe a little to good to be true, but still comes across as real, tender and tough, and deserving of better than what she's got so far. Jake - super swoonworthy, not just because of his looks, but also his thoughtfulness and vulnerability. The other side characters, especially Dani's mom, are interesting and fun, and add dimensionality and depth. This was a fun, fast read (I started it this morning and worked all day, so ...) and is hard to put down. It is pretty much a romance, with all of the attendant Pride & Prejudice and Wuthering Heights allusions one could hope for. I liked the discussion of Lord of the Flies, it was relevant to the plot, and also helped with the development of the characters' relationship. I always think it's fun when a book does that.

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Sunday, September 11, 2011

June of Rock, by Elisa Ludwig

June of RockJune of Rock by Elisa Ludwig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this quite a bit, somewhat to my surprise, since June started out as a self-admitted bit of a hostile b. Her acknowledgement of that, and her attempts to move past it, are kind of a charming part of the story, as she becomes more accepting of what is really going on with her, her relationships, her fantasies about her Dad returning, and her attempts to make her rock fantasies become real. I went to a rock/guitar camp a few years ago, and although I'm not a teenage girl (obvs), June's experiences rang true to the vibe of the weird social microcosm these places are. By the end of the story I was empathizing with and rooting for June, who it turns out really is a pretty cool, if somewhat mixed up person. June is a drummer, in a book by a Ludwig, pretty cool note there for a Beatles fan!

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Saturday, August 20, 2011

Are You Going to Kiss Me Now? by Sloane Tanen

Are You Going to Kiss Me Now?Are You Going to Kiss Me Now? by Sloane Tanen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As one of the characters remarks, this is sort of a mashup of Lord of the Flies and the National Enquirer (more like TMZ, I'd say, but whatev). It took me a little while to warm up to this one, mostly because the MC Francesca is kind of a pain in the butt. Also, boy, she has a lot of nicknames, not really confusing, just kind of wtf (it's cute that she notices it, too). But, I digress. Because irrespective of what name she's going by (Bam?), she pretty much stays a pain in the butt through the whole book, although through some clever inexplicable author magic, over the course of events she becomes an extremely endearing PITB that you can't help but feel for and fall in love with. Part of her charm is that she tells a great story, and the other characters come to life through her eyes as the story progresses. The "celebs" are a wacky bunch, each with their own issues and baggage, but they also have real personalities and hidden strengths and vulnerabilities, which become apparent as time on their desert island without rescue peels back the veneer of their carefully constructed personas. Part of the fun is identifying the various characters with their real life counterparts (gossip blogger Dicole Richie is the most obvious example, c'mon you are laughing now, that is funny, admit it!) Anyway, I did come to care about Francesca, who really came to life as the story moved along (and it is really a pretty good page turner, btw, I had to read part of it under my desk after I got to work yesterday!), and although this is not deeply wrenching emotional territory, I did find the denouement moving and tender, something I really wasn't planning on (good thing I was still under my desk, potentially embarassing moment alert). So, this is really a good read, I liked it a lot. I think one of the things I admire most about this is that is takes an idea that is almost a parlor game (one that Francesca and her friend play in the beginning, btw), and makes it fresh, funny, real feeling and a great break from reality. Re-reading that sentence makes me wonder if I've mentioned enough how funny this book is, it's not just a study in Franny's emotional growth. It's clever, witty and smart. In fact it's so good that I put it on my immediate re-reads shelf, and I'm doing that now. So, to sum up, this is a lovely confection, albeit with some substance to it, but still a spun sugar castle that can't bear the weight of too many heavy feet tromping through it. So put on your slippers and enter, don't worry, there's enough acerbic, ironic j'ne sais quois to avoid any diabetes issues, and you will definitely enjoy the trip!

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Moonglass, by Jessi Kirby

MoonglassMoonglass by Jessi Kirby

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The summer before Anna's junior year, her father moves them back to the beach where he and her mother met. Aside from being uprooted, this stirs up memories, issues, emotions and questions that they had both suppressed since her mother's death when Anna was seven.

Wow, what a powerful read. I was not expecting this at all, I thought it was kind of a beachy summer albeit bittersweet book (I mean, look at the cover, right?) but it really affected me on many levels. First, it is a very well crafted book -- all the elements which seem so random and disparate and fragmented come together like the stones in a kaleidoscope suddenly forming a recognizable and impactful image that you realize was there all along, you just needed to shift focus to see it(sorry for the crazy extended metaphor, there ;). Second, the story is so believable and real you are completely drawn into it. The characters and the setting are also beautifully drawn and have a depth and intensity not found in many books. Sarah Dessen blurbs the jacket, and it is reminiscent of her best books. It has that dreamy, intense and vivid summer languor that she is so good at creating, but it has its own authentic voice, too. One of the best of this summer for me!

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Love Story, by Jennifer Echols

Love StoryLove Story by Jennifer Echols

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm going to start rereading this again tonight on my way home, because a) it's worth it, there's lots to sink your teeth into, and it's a great story; and b), as usual, in my what happens next frenzy, I feel like I missed enjoying a lot of the subtleties, the foreshadowing and the imagery that I saw from the corner of my eye as I zoomed by on my plot driven rampage. One of the many things I like about Jennifer Echols' more serious books (although I love those Simon Pulse romcoms, too!) is that there is a depth to her stories that makes them worth reading thoughtfully, carefully, deeply, in a way that I remember from college. Why is this image used here, what does the setting tell us about the characters and their story, that kind of thing. I'm no literary critic or even an astute student, but I am a good reader who likes to think about those kind of things, like the bridge in Going Too Far, that was such a crucial plot point as well as a symbol for the characters' feelings and their relationship. So, in this book, I thought the choice of a horse farm was really brilliant, and the horses themselves (in the abstract, it's not like Walter Farley or something, and most of the book is set in NYC) were such an important part of understanding Erin and Hunter. For Erin, horses seemed to represent something she both loved and mistrusted, both the powerful unconstrained feeling of freedom to run/live untrammeled, and also the confined, closeted feeling of being shoved into a starting gate by forces and authority beyond her control. *SPOILER (SORT OF) ALERT* The circumstances of her mother's death also created a huge fear and bad association issue with horses, tempered by the rational realization that it wasn't the horse's fault. But the idea that "that's just the way they are," doesn't make them less scary, really now, does it? *OK NOW. For Hunter (and that's a kind of horse, right?), horses seemed to represent not so much freedom, but rather more constraint, since they were the means by which he became a social inferior, and also a source of constant work which he never really seemed to enjoy. I haven't exactly figured out why, on the first day of class, his "horse drawing," doesn't include an actual horse, but rather a cluster of images of tack associated with a horse, but I think this was a big clue to his ambivalence (at best) about them, and what they represented to him. It's cool to contrast that with Erin's drawing, which also tries to represent not so much an actual horse as the feeling of freedom in motion. So Erin's relationship to Hunter seemed to share some of the characteristics of her feelings about horses: conflicted, scared, yearning, tender, full of memories good and awful, and most of all, mistrustful of something that could be so beautiful yet leave such pain and sense of loss in its wake. I enjoyed the way this was written, too, with Erin and Hunter's class assignments interspersed. They were fun to read, they added variety to the tone in a fun and sometimes mysterious way, they moved the story forward, and provided lots of insight and backstory in a clever and interesting way without being all expository. So all in all, a rich reading experience with lots of emotion, expressed through many different levels of story, image, character and wonderfully chosen words. So yup, definitely worth rereading!

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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Good Girls, by Laura Ruby

Good GirlsGood Girls by Laura Ruby

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I guess it's kind of a theme in YA books that a super smart, high achieving girl who has an intense need for control might sometimes fall for a guy who is either out of her league, or moves in a different social circle (he's a player, The Duff, he's a jock, Not That Kind of Girl, he's too old and taking advantage of her, Story of a Girl also the Duff, or a stoner, At the Party). They have a "relationship" that mostly consists of secret hook-ups, in order to assuage her anxiety about various issues revolving around parents, school, or self-esteem. The reason this works for her is because when they are kissing (or whatev) she is so caught up that she escapes her overthinking, overanalyzing mind for a while, and just feels the moment. Far be it from me to question whether this works in real life (or happens), because there must be something elemental and powerful about this idea in order for it to be so prevalent and popular.

So, obvs, this book is in that genre, and it's a good one. The MC is more mixed up than troubled, and seems to just find it unbelievable that the boy could actually like her beyond wanting to hook up, so she breaks off the limited, secretive relationship they do have, without explanation, without thinking about him or his feelings (or that boys even have such things!). So when that sexy times photo someone surreptiously snapped of the two of them makes the rounds at school, it's maybe even more humiliating, more overwhelming than might otherwise be the case, although, it's hard to imagine how it could be moreso, honestly. I found Audrey likeable, believable, and possessed of a quirky, fresh and appealing voice and point of view. The whole issue with her Dad, and how the picture impacts their relationship was maybe the most affecting part of the book for me (cause I'm a Dad maybe?), and the resolution of that element is one of the more touching parts (again, maybe just me). This was the part that was the most like Story of Girl, another great book, btw, if you haven't read it. How Audrey deals with the aftermath of the overexposure, and becomes a more open, forgiving, understanding and less crazy person, makes for a good story, with good supporting characters and, for a change, fairly believable parents.

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Friday, July 8, 2011

Not That Kind Of Girl, by Siobhan Vivian

Not That Kind Of GirlNot That Kind Of Girl by Siobhan Vivian

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's almost always the case that how much I like a book depends on how much I like the MC, and Natalie Sterling is pretty hard to like. She definitely has a major stick up her butt, no question about it. She might even be proud to have you make note of that, in a smug, NPR know it all-ish sort of way, while pretending to be offended. So, it really takes some good writing to portray her in a way that makes her likeable, without lots of interior monologue or other heavy handed devices demonstrating that she's not really like that, or she's like that, but here's why. But her loyalty to her friends (even if misguided), her determination (even if it's based on unrealistic self demands), her vulnerability, and ultimately her bravery, eventually (it didn't really take that long, either) made her extremely appealing to me. And when she inevitably just can't carry the weight of the world anymore, her epiphany and how she deals with things falling apart for her was quite affecting for me. Siobhan Vivian made me care about Natalie, even when I didn't especially like her, and make me feel protective of her, too, even when she was dead set on a foolish course of action with a preordained bad end. The supporting characters were great, too. Autumn, Natalie's bff since before forever, and Spencer, the wenchy freshman Natalie used to babysit, are well drawn and move both the plot, and Natalie's growth, forward. Connor, the boy, isn't really a bad boy, even though Natalie seems to think so, and her inability to accept that is just one more irritating thing about her. I would even put him on a list of top YA bf's, he's certainly patient, forgiving and mature for a super hunkster. So, this is a bit more of a reaction than a review, and just to sum it up, I really enjoyed this, and was touched and satisfied when it ended.

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Saturday, July 2, 2011

Spoiled, by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

SpoiledSpoiled by Heather Cocks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You know right off the bat that a book isn't going to take itself too seriously when a character named Arugula is the first thing to appear, word one, page one. And although I really liked this book (that's what four stars means, right?) the "Arugula" issue seemed to typify the ambivalence the authors felt between going for the cheap laugh, or telling a story with real characters, capable of evoking real emotions. Happily, for me at least, the latter impulse seems to predominate, although there are plenty of laugh out loud lines peppered throughout ("You look like ten pounds of sexy in a five pound bag of awesome!") But I really did like this book (four stars worth!), and its retelling of the girl who discovers she's royalty (ok, Hollywood royalty, in this instance), only to have to deal with palace intrigue, jealous courtiers and an inattentive but loving King, is told with a fresh, freewheeling trendalicious voice, and with a main character, Molly, who is just the right mix of naivete and gumption. This is not one of those books where you are guessing about how it's going to turn out. But just like old bluesmen can take three chords, time worn themes and phrases, and recombine them in seemingly infinite iterations, the authors take the familiar elements and spin them into a funny and touching narrative full of great characters and witty banter.

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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire

Beautiful DisasterBeautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is kind of a weird combination of Fight Club, 10 Things I Hate About You and Casino (don't let this scare you off or mislead you into looking for the plot to follow any of those, just a vibe thing). It's the story of two extremely prickly people from dysfunctional families (no moms, lots of emotional abuse) who burst into flames of crazy, crazy love when they meet. Unfortunately, our dear MC (who is lovable, likable, but often irritating) spends most of the book denying those feelings for various good or silly reasons. So obviously there's lots of intense drama - major sexual tension build-up alert when they sleep together for a month as the result of a bet - but only as "best friends," no intimacy allowed. Uh huh, that is so going to work out for you two. And the resultant intense emotional highs and lows are what make this book both fun to read and somewhat maddening, since they are often the result of foolish pride, poor impulse control and bad judgment (Going Too Far by Jennifer Echols was sure a great book along these lines, btw). Flames of crazy, crazy love often end up burning people around them, and there's plenty of that, too. Overall, I enjoyed reading this, but probably would have given it three stars except for 1) self-pub, $2.99, gotta encourage that; 2) super page turner, you keep waiting for the seemingly inevitable disaster of the title; and 3) secrets, lies and sexy times. Also, great cover, although as is so often the case, the precise way it has anything to do with the book is somewhat enigmatic (there are lots of tattoos, though, he's "that kind of boy.") One minor quibble: what with all the ass-kicking of various friends, acquaintances, enemies and randoms that Travis engages in, not to mention various other catastrophic events he's involved in/causes, I couldn't help but wonder at the incompetence of the Eastern University campus police. Just sayin'.

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Saturday, June 18, 2011

The DUFF by Kody Keplinger

The DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend)The DUFF by Kody Keplinger

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This really is an awesome book, I was almost surprised at how good it was, since I read wildly conflicting reviews about it, all from people whose judgment I usually trust. But for me, the character of Bianca (the titular DUFF), who I liked so much, even as the story made my heart ache for her, totally won me over. I know YA books are about separating from parents and all, so of course the parents have to be dead, clueless, remote or otherwise awful, but in this particular case I couldn't help but be angry at just how badly Bianca and even Wesley got the short end of the parenting stick. Another great element was the offbeat relationship between the two of them (I realize this is an odd word to describe it if you've read the book, but I can't think of another). It's not a love-hate relationship, it's a hate-hookup relationship. So maybe we've seen that before (in one of Lauren Barnholdt's At the Party books, for one place), but here it comes across as believable in a sharp and emotionally impactful way. I also liked the way two great books were worked in, The Scarlett Letter and Wuthering Heights. The themes of the books - which most high schoolers have to read at some point in their academic careers - really resonate with the story and with the characters and the reader. It's like Leaves of Grass in Paper Towns in the way it illuminates the personalities of the characters and also moves the story forward. I am looking forward to reading Kody Keplinger's other books now, this was an amazing debut for a 17 yo author. Wow!

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Between the Lines by Tammara Webber

Between the LinesBetween the Lines by Tammara Webber

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this warmly engaging read from start to finish. It's more of an acoustic singer/songwriter piece than a senses assaulting rave (no crazy "teen lingo" or wacky style devices), and the pace and your engagement with the characters builds slowly, but intensely, as the story unfolds. It's a POV of two characters, the somewhat (but not completely) naive Emma, a young actress appearing in her first major film, and Reid, a mega teen idol playing the lead, and he hopes, playing Emma as well. To me Emma was the main attraction of the book, and it seemed like it was really her story. Other reviews have even questioned what Reid's POV added, but although he does seem like a classic Mr. Wickham-style cad, he has a backstory and lots going on that make him relatable and interesting, if ultimately unappealing. There's enough to him that you can see why Emma is attracted, even beyond the obvious. I did feel like shouting "Don't go in there, Emma," more than once, but that just added to the fun. A sequel is planned, and I suspect we may see him working out some of those issues therein, I hope so, his story with his parents, and Brooke, the naughty image co-star with a secret, are definitely worthy of further exploration. Emma's friend Emily is a great character too, not just as a foil for Emma's thoughts (and lots of backstory), but as a charming and quirky person on her own. Graham, the other main male character is everything one could hope for in a YA mysterious indie loner dude, and Emma's struggle to understand him, and her feelings for him (and his for her?) are unrolled at just the right pace to build tension and interest, without being downright frustrating. This has been one of the best books I've read this year, right up with favs like Lauren Barnholdt. I hope it does well, it is a self-publication on Kindle and Nook (I read it on my Nook), and though lots of people do have access that way, not everyone does, so I hope it works out for the author. For the $.99 price tag, I definitely got $99.00 worth of enjoyment. Did I mention that it's long enough to be satisfying, too? Super short novels are fun, but this is a main course, not just a couple appetizers snagged from a Wish catering tray as Kristy sashays by. Congratulations to Tammara Webber, and here's hoping for a long and happy writing career.

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Friday, June 17, 2011

Movie Review - Super 8

I haven't read a lot of reviews of this, so this might not be "super" original, but this struck me as a combination of ET and Stand By Me. It had an ET-ish kind of plot, but a Stand By Me kind of vibe with the kids who were the main characters. Actually, come to think of it, it was kind of more like "It," where the "Losers Club" had to band together, act more mature than their years to confront a mysterious force that was threatening their town and their families, and in doing so, confront and overcome their own fears and issues as well. And of course in the act of doing so, they forge relationships that are intense and deep. All of the actors were great - I especially liked Charles, the would be director, a charming mix of bluster and vulnerability, and of course Alice. Wow, that kid can act. The first scene where they start filming the home movie - it's like suddenly the movie shifts into a deeper level of emotion and intensity. Like in Star Wars when they leap into hyperspace, it's almost breathtaking. The plot, honestly, didn't do much for me. This was a movie about the characters, the town and the ache of missing what's been lost. It also kind of reminded me of The Wonder Years, my all time favorite tv show, in the way it was able to portray relationships among kids in a realistic, but lyrical way that captures the way we remember the feelings we had at that age. So, I give it a high rating, and definitely recommend it to all my wonderful readers!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Aces Up, by Lauren Barnholdt

Aces UpAces Up by Lauren Barnholdt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was an enjoyable quick read, essentially a first person narrative of a smart girl's stupid choices. Those include a crazy fling with poker playing, hooking up with a sketchy guy, and losing touch with her friends, family and the guy she actually likes and deserves. So, put that way, it doesn't sound so funny, but it really is, due almost exclusively to her quirky and characterful narrative voice, which makes her bad decisions seem comprehensible, if not wise, and give her choices a surface plausibility, even if they are kooky and self-destructive in the short, long and medium runs. So, I liked this book, just not loved, loved, loved it like I did Two Way Street, or One Night that Changes Everything (which it was more like, I'd say). Shannon's unlikely friendship with McKenzie, the tough cookie waitress who inducts her into the casino world is an especially charming and unexpected element. So, a fun read, benefiting from lowered expectations.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Ex Games, by Jennifer Echols

The Ex Games (Simon Romantic Comedies)The Ex Games by Jennifer Echols

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was another sweet Jennifer Echols Romantic Comedy from the Simon Pulse series thereof. Which I am totes getting into (trying to style the linguistic spirit of said series and all). This one kind of reminded me of that snowboarding episode of Rocket Power, if you remember that show, only now Reggie is all grown up, cute, and formidable on the slopes, but with boys (one in particular) still a betty (I'm mildly suspicious of the accuracy of the snowboard lingo in the clever chapter heads, but going with it for purposes of this review only). As I've come to find out and look forward to, JE's main characters are irresistable - tenacious, talented and tough, but with endearing vulnerability and warmth, often troubled by an event/crisis in the past which they are now trying to get past ("I realized that I was hurt four years ago, I just didn't realize how much until now."). One minor flaw, in my appreciative but critical view, was what jerks the boys in this book were, really without exception (younger brother and dads included). I can't help but wonder what the 3 girl characters see in them? Insensitive and crude, careless with things and emotions - I guess they must have been hot enough to overlook all that. But, those are the same things my fellow nerds and I on the literary journal used to wonder about real girls in high school, so maybe it's realistic. If so, it might be the only realistic thing about the denouement of this story, which is no less charming for its fantasy like happy ending. I realize that I seem to be saying some kind of mean sounding things myself now, but don't get me wrong, I loved this book, and the atmosphere and characters JE has created, She is really good at this, and I'll be coming back for more of her magic til the well runs dry.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Boys Next Door, by Jennifer Echols

The Boys Next Door (Simon Romantic Comedies)The Boys Next Door by Jennifer Echols

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this sweet summer book. The protagonist, Lori, could not possibly have been any more charming - in some ways this reminded me of a Georgia Nicolson book, between her colorful way of expressing herself, and her ability to get herself into major drama/crazy situations with her seemingly plausible but ultimately doomed relationship schemes. The setting is great, and the whole wakeboarding element brings in an interesting and believable basis for the characters to interact and have a history that has its own problems and promises. The basic idea is pretty similar to The Summer I Turned Pretty, but think a souffle version rather than a three layer devils food cake with fudge icing. Jennifer Echols gets into the story and gets out without a hyperabundance of soul searching and pscycho-drama. That's not to say that the characters aren't fleshed out - she does a great job of creating voices and personalities for all of them, including the minor characters (even the parents! Thanks, JE). I guess the fact that I preferred this to JE's later, more serious efforts, reveals more about my tastes than about the quality of the books. This was a frothy frappucino, the others more like a bold sumatra (or something, getting lost in my analogies, here). Anyhoo, def will be checking out her other Simon Pulse contributions, these to me are the perfect mix of bitter and sweet, spunky and thoughtful, light and shadow. Well done, Jennifer Echols!

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Monday, May 16, 2011

Forget You, by Jennifer Echols

Forget YouForget You by Jennifer Echols

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After "Going too Far," I had high hopes for this book, but I was mildly disappointed. Don't get me wrong, it's a good story with interesting characters, but I could never really find myself immersed in it. For one thing, the main character, Zooey, is difficult to like. Sometimes that's not a problem as characters grow and change over the course of the story (that's usually the point, right?). But in this case, Zooey's resistance to acknowledging reality, and her kind of self destructive ways of dealing with things just got irritating, particularly her professed loyalty to a known player after a one-night hookup. The story does contain a major contender for worst dad ever, which takes some doing in a YA book. In fact there's really two crappy dads to contend with here. Again, not an issue per se, but they seemed cartoonishly bad, not really emotionally impactful. (Mild spoiler alert here) The scene where Zooey's Mom escapes and rescues her is weird - I really thought this was a dream sequence for quite a while, and that Zooey would regain consciousness and wise up, but no, it's really happening, however implausibly. So, definitely will stick with Jennifer Echols, but unable to give this the enthusiasm I felt for "Going too Far."

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Going Too Far, by Jennifer Echols

Going Too FarGoing Too Far by Jennifer Echols

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a great read, with characters you could believe in, both their dialogue and their personalities. One thing I particularly liked was her use of "the bridge" as a focal point the story kept coming back to. A bridge can be a way out, as Meg so desperately sought, or a dangerous hazard, as John could only perceive it, or it can be something that brings together places (or people) that could otherwise never connect.

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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Two-Way Street, by Lauren Barnholdt

Two-Way StreetTwo-Way Street by Lauren Barnholdt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I liked this a lot. Believable but endearingly quirky secondary friend characters, a situationy plot (requiring a little suspension of disbelief at some points!) and two really charming protagonists. I thought the dialog was great, the emotions were intense, and the ending very satisfying.

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At the Party, by Lauren Barnholdt

Kissing Perfect (At the Party, #4)Kissing Perfect by Lauren Barnholdt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm sorry to see this series come to an end. Again, they are more like chapters (maybe it's a serial novel a la Dickens or Stephen King?) than books, but they are super cute, and cheap on the Nook, unfortunately I didn't figure out til after the second one that you can buy them all together, but totes worth it. This was the shortest, which makes me want to add "and sweetest," but they are all pretty sweet. This one especially reminds me a lot of Sarah Dessen, the girl has an ex-boyfriend very reminiscent of Jason from Truth About Forever and Along for the Ride, but he is possibly even more of a weenie than Jason - and that takes some doing! They meet cute and whoa! sparks fly unexpectedly between two mismatched but simpatico souls.

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Once was Lost, by Sara Zarr

Once Was LostOnce Was Lost by Sara Zarr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is my favorite of her books, all of which I think are really excellent. The main character, Sam, is believable and relatable, and her jumbled, conflicted and painful feelings about her family and faith are the core of the experience. A cathartic and deep sort of read, very lyrical and poetic, too, I like that about her books.

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Keeping the Moon, by Sarah Dessen

Keeping the MoonKeeping the Moon by Sarah Dessen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my fav SD books. The heroine, Colie, is so irresistible. She's vulnerable but strong (wayyyyy down deep, but ultimately), sensitive to others, but independent, and just generally someone who deserves better than what she's got. Fortunately, this is a Sarah Dessen book, so the odds are good that a) she will meet a cute off-beat guy who will see what others apparently missed; and b) that at some point she'll have a sort of epiphany about herself, and aforesaid COBG, that empowers her to stand up and take part in her life instead of letting it just roll over her. Sarah weaves a spell of summer like no one else, and this is set in Colby, also the setting of Along for the Ride. It's the quintessial beach town, and this is a quintessential summer story. The other characters are great too, including her mom, fitness guru Kiki Sparks, her wonderfully eccentric aunt, the COBG and Isabel and Morgan, the co-workers who help bring her back to life.

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