Book Reviews

Dumplin’: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Dumplin' by Julie MurphyWillowdean Dickson has always been comfortable in her own skin. Even when she knows small-minded people might make unfavorable comparisons between Will and her beautiful best friend, Ellen. But Will knows who she is and she is okay with it. At least, she thinks she is until she takes a summer job working at Harpy’s–a local burger joint–alongside Private School Bo.

Bo is a former jock and totally hot. Of course Will is attracted to him. What gives her pause is that Bo seems to be attracted to her too.

When this unexpected romance makes Will question everything she thought she knew about herself (and her self-esteem), she knows it’s time to take a step back and make a change.

Inspired by all of the things her aunt let herself miss out on because of her weight, Willowdean decides to enter the Miss Clover City beauty pageant to prove to herself and everyone else (and maybe even her mother) that she can.

Entering the pageant might be the worst idea Will has ever had but with help from her friends, inspiration from Dolly Parton, and a lot of humor along the way, Willowdean will take Clover City by storm in Dumplin’ (2015) by Julie Murphy.

Find it on Bookshop.

Dumplin’ has a very strong sense of place as Willowdean’s first person narration brings her small Texas town to life complete with its quirks and charms. And a love of Dolly Parton, of course.

Will is a charming and authentic narrator. Like many people, she has moments of doubt and often gets in her own way when it comes to being happy. She is also refreshingly self-aware and can identify these behaviors even if she can’t always stop them. While it’s hard in parts Dumplin’ to watch Willowdean being her own worst enemy, it’s also incredibly empowering to see her get it right and go after what she really wants.

Murphy’s sophomore novel highlights a lot of diverse lifestyles in this story including single parent homes, poor families, and some others that I can’t mention because they’re small spoilers.

Dumplin’ is an effervescent novel with a lot of heart and as much charm is its one-of-a-kind heroine. Recommended for readers looking for a sweet romance, thoughtful characters and an empowering story. Bonus appeal for readers who enjoy stories that feature beauty pageants.

Possible Pairings: The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill S. Alexander, Harley in the Sky by Akemi Dawn Bowman, Beauty Queens by Libba Bray, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality by Elizabeth Eulberg, You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson, The Truth Commission by Susan Juby, The Romantics by Leah Konen, How to Be Brave by E. Katherine Kottaras, In Real Life by Jessica Love, The Rites and Wrongs of Janice Wills by Joanna Pearson, If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo, Vibes by Amy Kathleen Ryan, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee

*An advance copy of this book was acquired from the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2015*

Book Reviews

Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality: A Chick Lit Wendesday Review

Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality by Elizabeth EulbergLexi knows she is smart and funny–even if she might not be quite as smart as her friend Cam or quite as funny as her friend Benny. Cam and Benny keep telling Lexi she isn’t bad looking, but whatever that’s what friends say. At the end of the day Lexi has a Great personality with a capital “G” making her the witty girl everyone likes.

Which is fine.

It’s not like there’s room for another beauty in her family anyway. Not when her mother channels all of their energy and time (and more of their money than they can spare) into baby sister Mackenzie’s beauty pageant competitions. Mac is only seven and she’s already spoiled and bratty, she already wears false eyelashes and needs butt glue for the bathing suit portion of each pageant.

Seriously, Lexi has enough going on without wasting even more time making herself pretty.

The only problem is Lexi is tired of being that girl. The one all the guys talk to but no one asks out–the one her long time crush Logan considers a really great friend and nothing else.

When an opportunity comes to get Benny out of his own shell and talking to a real live boy he likes, Lexi reluctantly takes it even though she has to wear actual makeup (lip gloss doesn’t count), nice clothes (no more too-big t-shirts), and style her hair (hairspray: not for sissies).

Turns out a change in appearance can do a lot to improve a girl’s social status. But family problems and new friends (and crushes) force Lexi to ask some tough questions about herself and do some things that even a Great personality won’t make easy in Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality (2013) by Elizabeth Eulberg.

At a mere 272 pages, Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality has a lot going on. Eulberg touches on matters including divorce, family dynamics, beauty pageant culture (of course), even popularity and bullying. Lexi is a smart, funny girl but she is also fiercely independent and loyal almost to a fault. She is an aspiring fashion designer with dreams of leaving Texas behind for the bright lights of New York City.

There are some terrible moments for Lexi throughout the story as readers learn why Lexi decided it was easier to try to be funny than pretty. The pageant issue for Lexi’s family also comes to a head with painful results for everyone involved as Eulberg, through Lexi, asks the tough questions about what it means to parade children’ around a stage in pageantry wear. The issue is generally balanced though by the end Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality does get a bit preachy about pageant culture–not to say Lexi’s feelings aren’t justified, after everything that happens they totally are–to the point of being a bit over the top, much like pageants themselves.

But again, this is a short read.  While Eulberg touches on a variety of things, nothing is quite finished by the end of the novel as Lexi is still dealing with a very broken, damaged family and the aftermath of some of her choices throughout the narrative. There is no doubt Lexi (and even Mackenzie) will pick themselves up and start again (and I love the choice Lexi makes at the end to try and do just that) but it would have been nice to see just a bit more of that in the actual story. Similarly, Cam and Benny are strong friends and had the potential to be well-rounded characters had there been more room in the book for them to have complete stories. (Much like aspects of Lexi’s life, both Cam and Benny feature in the story for key reasons but the threads are ultimately left dangling–though again with certainty that things will work out because these characters deserve nothing less.)

As always Eulberg’s writing is funny and fresh from her clever chapter titles to Lexi’s insightful observations about both pageant culture and high school life. Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality is a great read for anyone looking for a few laughs and a lot of heart with just a touch of Texas to taste.

Possible Pairings: The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill S. Alexander, Nothing by Annie Barrows, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, North of Beautiful by Justina Chen, Keep Holding On by Susane Colasanti, Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu, Miss Smithers by Susan Juby, In Real Life by Jessica Love, Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo, Mostly Good Girls by Leila Sales, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell, Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee, Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff

Book Reviews

The Rites and Wrongs of Janice Wills: A (Rapid Fire) Review

The Rites and Wrongs of Janice Wills by Joanna Pearson (2011)

The Rites and Wrongs of Janice Wills by Joanna PearsonIf Harriet the spy had kept up her notebooks into her teen years and developed an interest in Anthropology (and been moved to North Carolina by her parents) this very well might have been the resulting book. Interspersed with Janice’s anthropological notes and observations, facts, not to mention her letter to the editor of Current Anthropology submitting her latest article (AKA the book) readers find a story of a budding anthropologist, her friends, her enemies, and the Miss Livermush pageant.

While the premise is amusing and Janice’s foibles somewhat endearing, the book was a bit too focused on the Anthropology gimmick. Janice’s focus is singular (to the point of referring to the mean girl bullies and her own circle as “tribes”) and often detracts from the story at hand. While it’s funny and will appeal to fans of Miss Smithers or The Sweetheart of Prosper County, Janice’s chosen interest is not enough to set this book apart.

Book Reviews

The Sweetheart of Prosper County: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill S. AlexanderAustin Gray doesn’t have a lot of things at the beginning of The Sweetheart of Prosper County (2009) by Jill S. Alexander (find it on Bookshop). She doesn’t have a blue-ribbon-winning sow. She doesn’t have a deer hunting license, or a signature wave. And she definitely doesn’t have a mound of cleavage.

What Austin does have is a plan.

Austin is almost as tired of waiting for someone else to pull her into the annual Christmas parade as she is of being the butt of Dean Ottmer’s jokes and Austin has a surefire way to fix both her problems: become a hood ornament/Sweetheart in the No-Jesus Christmas Parade.

The plan is pretty simple: join Future Farmers of America, raise a blue-ribbon-winning animal, learn to hunt or fish, and say hello to her new role as a member of the confident, parade royalty that are able to shrug off Dean Ottmer’s bullying and taunts. Easy as pie with a little help from her best friend and her momma.

Things soon get complicated (and exciting) when Austin acquires a chicken named Charles Dickens and befriends the FFA crowd. Before she knows it, what had started as a mission for Austin becomes a lifestyle as her dream of becoming the sweetheart of Prosper County forces Austin and her momma to rethink how they deal with little things like annoying neighbors and bigger things like the death of Austin’s father years before.

As a New York City native, reading about Austin’s world was almost like reading about another country. In the beginning I wasn’t sure what to expect. But this book was also disarming in the best possible way. Austin is an open-minded and mellow (except when it comes to Dean Ottmer) character and the book absorbs those qualities.

The book mentions religion a lot (one of the awesome secondary characters is an Elvis impersonator with an Evangelical side) but not in a self-important or righteous way–it’s just a part of who these people are. And, really, that’s how most things should be treated in a book be it cultural, religious or otherwise.

Alexander is a Texas native and she adds a lot of that flavor to The Sweetheart of Prosper County. Readers will be able to hear the twang and feel that Texan charm in Austin’s narration and the story itself. The plot is well-paced and delightfully fun while still having some weight to it.

Possible Pairings: Keep Holding On by Susane Colasanti, Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality by Elizabeth Eulberg, North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley, Miss Smithers by Susan Juby, Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee

Book Reviews

Absolutely Maybe: A Chick Lit Wednesday review

Absolutely Maybe coverLast Wednesday my CLW book was Vibes by Amy Kathleen Ryan (2008). I procured that book on the same day I requested a copy of Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee (2009). While reading this book I was struck by the similarities between the two characters (apathetic/angry, fixated on eyeliner) and even the books themselves (the covers just seemed very close to me for some reason perhaps because I really liked them both). I don’t know if it’s relevant to the review, but I just wanted to get that out of the way.

Onward to the review:

Meet Maybelline Mary Katherine Mary Ann Chestnut (“Maybe” for short). Maybe was named for her mother Chessy’s favorite brand of mascara and two of Chessy’s favorite Miss Americas. Living above her mother’s charm school, perhaps it’s not surprise that a lot of what Maybe does is part of a backlash against her mother.

Chessamay Chestnut Abajian Wing Marshall Wing Sinclair Alvarez (and soon to be Himmler) is a serial marryer. Somehow she winds up married to every man she dates–everyone except Maybe’s father who remains a mystery.

Most of the time, Maybe can deal with all of that. Sure, her mother’s charm school students taunt her and constantly make fun of her baggy clothes and funky hair colors, but they don’t matter. Neither do Chessy’s not-always-so-gentle criticisms. Maybe is above all of that. At least until Chessy chooses her sketchy fiance over Maybe, which is the last straw and convinces Maybe that she has to leave her hometown. And her mother. For good.

So Maybe recruits her best friends Ted and Hollywood to go with her to Los Angeles to find Maybe’s father. Once the trio gets to LA they soon realize that the search will not be easy. Finding money and a place to live is hard enough, but finding a man you know nothing about on top of that is even harder. While Ted is building his career and Hollywood is making a film, Maybe finds herself adrift in her search.

Along the way they encounter a lot of things: a screen idol, a Rolls-Royce, a taco truck. Eventually, Maybe finds the father she’s been searching for albeit not where she had expected. Yee’s writing brings Los Angeles to life in living color hitting all the high points and tourist traps that readers will recognize from their own memories and travel research.

More important than that, Maybe finds herself. Not the beauty queen daughter her mother wanted, or the angry Goth teen she became in response to Chessy’s hopes, just herself: Absolutely Maybe.

Although this book is bizarrely similar to Vibes I’d say that Absolutely Maybe is for older teens. This novel is gritty. Nothing about Maybe’s life is easy at the beginning of the novel. Even when she gets to LA, Maybe and Ted find themselves homeless and scrounging for meals. Yee handles all of this with enough gravitas to make it realistic and enough humor to make it bearable.

Maybe is a really fun character with lots of snark and heart, the only problem (and maybe this is me) was that I kept misreading her name as the word “maybe” which required some necessary re-reading. This story is also populated with some of the best side characters ever. To say Ted and Hollywood are awesome is to belittle the greatness of both characters. Ted’s exhuberance and enthusiasm are infectious, coming straight from the page to the reader. And Hollywood is Hollywood. He was so well-realized as I read this story that when Maybe referred to his as “cowboy” it was enough to picture his entire personality.

I’m a bit torn about the ending of the novel because it is not the ending I wanted per se. In a way this further illustrates the “gritty” realism of the novel. I wanted the Hollywood/fairy tale ending whereas the book gave me a more realistic, still satisfying, ending. I am not, however, holding that against Lisa Yee or Absolutely Maybe. It just means this book requires more imagination about what happens outside of the pages.

An excellent coming-of-age novel, Absolutely Maybe is like nothing else, which is appropriate since Maybe is an unforgettable, unique heroine (and her friends are pretty memorable too).

Possible Pairings: The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill S. Alexander, The Secret Life of Prince Charming by Deb Caletti, The Moon and More by Sarah Dessen, An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, Miss Smithers by Susan Juby, The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart, Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, The Miles Between by Mary E. Pearson, Vibes by Amy Kathleen Ryan, The Book of Love by Lynn Weingarten, Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altedbrando, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin

Book Reviews

Miss Smithers: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Miss Smithers by Susan JubyLong time readers might remember my previous demonstration of fondness for Alice, I Think by Susan Juby. By itself, the book was fantastically funny with some great plot points and characters. So imagine my happiness back in 2005 when I realized a sequel (set a bit after the first novel’s events) had been published and was available from my place of employ.

Like many good stories, Miss Smithers (2004) starts with an offer that Alice can’t refuse–especially if she wants to prove to everyone that she really is a special girl. Being previously home schooled and a bit of a loner, Alice is surprised when the local Rod and Gun Club asks her to be their representative at the Miss Smithers Beauty Pageant. That is until she hears about the four hundred dollar allotment for clothing. At that point, much to her mother’s horror, Alice is prepared to participate in anything.

Unlike higher profile pageants, Miss Smithers has enough events that are varied and vague enough that every participant has a chance of being good at something. Surely that must also include a moderately well-adjusted teen who used to think she was a hobbit, right?

After one botched newsletter distribution and the purchase of questionable attire for a beauty pageant, Alice begins to question her initial (over)confidence at winning Miss Smithers. Of course, it’s only then that Alice really starts to learn and grow from her brief experience as a beauty queen.

Like Alice, I Think before it, Miss Smithers has received some negative reviews from people who argue they can’t connect with Alice. For my part, I can’t understand why as I love Alice who seems to be the embodiment of the simultaneously apathetic and overeager teen found inside everyone.

Other negatives included a review that railed against the discussion of underage sex and drinking found in this book. There are two sides to that issue. As a teen I read a lot of books with characters who had sex and drank. Most of my friends and family will agree these readings had no detriment on my moral code. There are also a lot of books out there that are far more explicit about both topics.

In relation to this novel: yes Alice does get drunk, and yes she does consider sex quite a bit. But she also decides to take a chastity vow and spends a good amount of time contemplating what Jesus really would do. All in the same novel. Like most sixteen-year-old girls, Alice changes her mind a lot. As such, Juby creates a realistic albeit sarcastic protagonist with a well-rounded variety of experiences in this story.

Like the first novel in this trilogy, Miss Smithers does follow a diary format. The “standards” of that genre are adhered to a bit more loosely here with dated entries reading more like the usual prose. Not to worry though, this novel features a different kind of gimmick instead of the diary entries. Interspersed between chapters, Alice includes a handy newsletter (hand typed) detailing pageant events as well as a spreadsheet tallying each entrant’s points and progress toward the win. These newsletters are also a great way to look at Alice’s increasing maturity throughout the story as she begins to take more pride in the competition and becomes more familiar with each of the contestants.

Equal parts humor and sarcasm make this book a great read for anyone who would never usually pay attention to beauty pageants in books or otherwise.

Possible Pairings: The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill S. Alexander, Don’t Ever Change by M. Beth Bloom, North of Beautiful by Justina Chen, Skinny by Donna Crooner, Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks, The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow, Bad Kitty by Michele Jaffe, Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson, Don’t Expect Magic by Kathy McCullough,  I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins, Define “Normal” by Julie Anne Peters, Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison, Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee