The Way You Make Me Feel: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene GooClara Shin is good at two things: getting into trouble and making people laugh. With her two friends, Patrick and Felix, Clara has coasted through her first two years of high school leaving a trail of chaos and epic pranks. Along the way she has also managed to infuriate her nemesis Rose Carter quite a few times. But that’s just a bonus. It’s not like Clara’s an actual bully or anything.

When her latest joke goes too far ending in a fight and a fire, even Clara’s usually laid-back father Adrian knows that things have gone too far. Clara’s plans for a laid-back summer and a vacation with her Instagram-famous influencer mom are cancelled. Instead Clara gets to look forward to working on her dad’s food truck, the KoBra, to pay back the school for fire damage. Worse, she’ll be working with Rose.

Clara isn’t sure how to deal with having actual responsibilities let alone working with uptight, perfectionist Rose whose ambitions and extracurriculars make the Obama daughters look like slackers. But there is Hamlet Wong–the boy who is as earnest and open as a Labrador, really cute, and totally not Clara’s type even if he does think she’s hilarious.

As Clara starts to learn more about the food truck, Rose, and her own family she starts to care about what happens with the KoBra and, more importantly, what other people think of her. After years of treating life as one big joke, Clara might be ready to let herself be more than a punchline in The Way You Make Me Feel (2018) by Maurene Goo.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Way You Make Me Feel is a delightfully funny contemporary filled with food, family, and evocatively described Los Angeles locations.

Clara’s parents are Korean by way of Brazil–a cultural identity that comes through in their personalities as much as in the food that Adrian prepares on the KoBra–they’re also young and not married, things that don’t come through a lot in contemporary YA. While I’m never a fan of stories where the main character pines after an absentee parent the way Clara does with her mother. However Goo handles the inevitable dose of reality well and in a way that makes sense for her character.

Clara’s first person narration is acerbic, sarcastic, and often laugh out loud funny. She is used to not being well-liked and she doesn’t care as long as it doesn’t impact the persona she has created for herself. One of the only people to call Clara on her attitude and her bad behavior is Rose, an overachiever trying to balance dance classes, school, and her punishment on the food truck. Rose is also struggling with anxiety–the one chink in the otherwise perfect image she presents to the world.

While there’s some romance with Clara and the always adorable Hamlet, the main event in this novel is friendship as Clara and Rose start to understand and, much to their own dismay, appreciate each other the more they’re thrown together.

The Way You Make Me Feel is a funny, smart, and utterly entertaining story that reminds you it’s never too late to make a few changes. A novel that’s guaranteed to make you laugh and leave you smiling. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo, Serious Moonlight by Jenn Bennett, Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll, I Wanna Be Where You Are by Kristina Forest, It Started With Goodbye by Christina June, The Secret Ingredient by Stewart Lewis, Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke, Save the Date by Morgan Matson, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, Sunny Song Will Never Be Famous by Suzanne Park, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe, Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks, Bookish Boyfriends: A Date With Darcy by Tiffany Schmidt, Your Destination is On the Left by Lauren Spieller, This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura, Stay Sweet by Siobhan Vivian, Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee by Jeff Zentner, Pride by Ibi Zoboi

All the Bright Places: A Review

All the Bright Places by Jennifer NivenTheodore Finch has been contemplating death and how he might end his own life for years. But whenever he starts to think really hard about killing himself something good, even a small good thing, makes him reconsider. It’s hard to stay present and Awake, but once he surfaces Finch is always willing to try.

Violet Markey is counting the days until graduation when she can leave her small Indiana town and the sharp pain of her sister’s sudden death behind.

When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school, it’s easy for everyone to believe that Violet saved Finch. But that isn’t the truth.

After, when they pair up for a school project to explore the wonders of their state, both Finch and Violet realize they might have found exactly who they need in each other. But while Violet begins to embrace life again, Finch finds himself struggling to stay Awake and in the moment in All the Bright Places (2015) by Jennifer Niven.

Find it on Bookshop.

All the Bright Places is Niven’s first novel written for young adults. It was also optioned for a movie before its official release date.

All the Bright Places is very similar to The Fault in Our Stars both thematically and stylistically. It is also poised to be a defining book of 2015 (and possibly also of whatever year the movie adaptation is released if it moves beyond developmental stages) with its appeal and buzz not to mention critical acclaim in the form of several starred reviews.

It is also worth noting that this book is beautifully packaged with a lot of great details ranging from the cover colors to the post it note motif and even a special message on the spine of the physical book.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with such an anticipated title, Niven’s generally strong writing only serves to underscore the numerous flaws within this incredibly frustrating novel.

Spoilers ahead as we delve into deeper discussion . . .

Continue reading All the Bright Places: A Review

Thirteen Reasons Why: A Banned Book Review

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay AsherHannah Baker killed herself two weeks ago. No one knows exactly why, least of all Clay Jensen.

Clay had a crush on Hannah and watcher her from afar. He even saw her at a party once. Before.

But now, two weeks after her suicide, Clay comes home to find a box with his name on it. Inside the box are thirteen cassette tapes recorded by Hannah before she killed herself. Each tape details one of the reasons that Hannah decided to take her own life.

Clay is one of them in Thirteen Reasons Why (2007) by Jay Asher.

Find it on Bookshop.

Thirteen Reasons Why is a haunting story told in Clay and Hannah’s alternating narrations as Clay deals with his guilt and grief over losing Hannah with flashbacks (from the tapes) of Hannah detailing the moments that led to her suicide.

This book was one of the ten most challenged books in 2012. The justification for the challenge was: “Drugs/alcohol/smoking, sexually explicit, suicide, unsuited for age group.”

Starting this story with the knowledge that Hannah is already gone does little to diminish the emotional resonance of this story. Asher’s writing is evocative and taut as he brings Clay and Hannah painfully to life.

This is an honest story and one that isn’t always the easiest to read. Clay and Hannah both make mistakes as do many of the other people readers meet over the course of Hannah’s story. Ultimately it is these flaws that make the story so poignantly real.

Thirteen Reasons Why is an ideal book for readers who aren’t afraid to shed a few tears. This story is sure to linger with readers long after the story ends.

Possible Pairings: The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson, The Secret Side of Empty by Maria J. Andreu, The After Girls by Leah Konen, If I Stay by Gayle Forman, 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson, The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban, Falling Through Darkness by Carolyn MacCullough, Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta, This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider, Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers, The List by Siobhan Vivian

Blank Confession: A (Rapid Fire) Review

Blank Confession by Pete HautmanBlank Confession (2010) by Pete Hautman

Shayne Blank doesn’t expect to make friends or even really get to know anyone when he comes to town. Then he walks into the police station to confess to a murder. Shayne’s confession is woven with a narrative from the perspectives of Shayne’s newest (most well-dressed) friend Mikey and the world weary detective interviewing Shayne.

The story here has good writing as well as an intriguing premise. Unfortunately that does not make for a good book in this case. Mikey, who narrates most of the story, is a caricature at best with his pipsqueak persona and suit-wearing style. The phrasing throughout the novel verges on the absurd with motorcycles being referred to as “crotch rockets” at least three times, among other atrocities.

Shayne is an under-developed character. Readers learn more about him in the last chapter than they do in the entire rest of the novel. While the idea is sound, and the story is short making it potentially great for reluctant readers, the characters drag this book down. The premise of a high school bully having the capacity to menace an entire town quickly wears thin as do the stunningly flat female character (because yes, there is only one).

This Song Will Save Your Life: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“You think it’s so easy to change yourself.

“You think it’s so easy, but it’s not.”

This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila SalesElise Dembowski has tried countless times to make herself better. Less different. Less precocious. Every time it’s been a horrible failure.

It turns out trading in her unicorn boots for normal sneakers, researching pop culture online, and wearing a new headband on the first day of school isn’t enough. Nothing is ever enough.

Elise is ready to give up. She can’t go on like this–the punchline of every joke, the obvious target for every bully. With friends it might be bearable. But making friends, it turns out, is just as hard as becoming cool.

Then one magical night something finally does change when Elise wanders into a warehouse dance party. At the party Elise also finds people who accept her; not some mainstreamed version of herself, not the invisible version or the fake one. Just her. In the midst of the party and the magic Elise also finds something almost as important: DJing.

With a chance at real friends and something that makes her truly happy, Elise might be able to change herself after all in This Song Will Save Your Life (2013) by Leila Sales.

Find it on Bookshop.

There is so much to love in this story. This Song Will Save Your Life is an obvious read for music fans. (Sales includes a partial playlist at the end of the novel.) Even at her lowest, Elise remains a proactive, sympathetic heroine. She is capable and, above all, Elise is very much herself.

While Elise is the powerhouse center of this novel, This Song Will Save Your Life is also peppered with fully realized secondary characters including Elise’s very modern, very blended family and the absolutely delightful Vicky.

Sales’ writing has a verve and spark here that makes Elise’s story infinitely compelling. Throughout the story Elise’s narrative remains sharp and very well-focused. Although she is troubled, Elise remains extremely self-aware and always questions outcomes throughout the story in a way that is both effective and refreshing. This Song Will Save Your Life is a smart, witty story filled with as much enthusiasm and energy as any dance party.

Possible Pairings: Dear Bully: Seventy Authors Tell Their Stories edited by Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, Keep Holding On by Susane Colasanti, Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley, Fat Kid Rules the World by K. L. Going, Looking for Alaska by John Green, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Undercover by Beth Kephart, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, When We Collided by Emery Lord, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga, Love and Other Foreign Words by Erin McCahan, If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo, The Edge of Falling by Rebecca Serle, How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

Geography Club: A Review

Geography Club by Brent HartingerRussel Middlebrook is the only gay kid at Goodkind High School.

He has to be.

In a school so small, in a town so remote, Russel is convinced he’d know if there was anyone else navigating the same minefield of classes and locker rooms and pretending.

Russel is alone.

At least, he thought he was until a chat room buddy turns out to be not just a fellow student but someone Russel actually knows.

And then he finds another friend who has been secretly dating her girlfriend for years.

And her girlfriend has another friend.

These kids have nothing in common except a desperate need to have someone to talk to–someone who understands. The only problem is that having nothing in common also means they have no reason to get together on a regular basis without attracting attention. It’s not like they could start a club. . . . unless it’s a boring club no one would want to join because it talks about geography at every meeting. Russel and his friends think they have all of their bases covered but things get way more complicated when their boring, unappealing club starts to get a lot of attention in Geography Club (2003) by Brent Hartinger.

Geography Club is a standout book that is celebrating its tenth anniversary and is being adapted into a movie. It is also the first of Hartinger’s books featuring Russel and his friends. (You can see more of them in The Order of the Poison Oak, Split Screen (which is two-stories-in-one) and the latest The Elephant of Surprise which came out this year).

Books about gay protagonists and books featuring support systems like a Gay-Straight Alliance are much more common now, in 2013, than they were when this book was originally published in 2003. However Geography Club more than stands the test of time.

More importantly, Geography Club is just a good story. Russel is a likable, witty narrator and Hartinger imbues his writing with humor and optimism even when Russel winds up in quite a few messes (who knew going on a date with a girl could cause so many problems down the road?).

Geography Club is a quick, thoughtful read in which Russel answers a lot of hard questions and makes quite a few good jokes along the way.

Possible Pairings: Keep Holding On by Susane Colasanti, Skinny by Donna Crooner, Fat Kid Rules the World by K. L. Going, Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan, Drawing the Ocean by Carolyn MacCullough, Sprout by Dale Peck, Rainbow Boys by Alex Sanchez, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell, Freak Show by James St. James, The Inside of Out by Jenn Marie Thorne

You can also read my exclusive interview with Brent Hartinger starting April 2, 2013.

Keep Holding On: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Keep Holding On by Susane ColasantiNoelle is marking time until she can escape. In a year and a half she can get away from her mother’s erratic behavior and neglect. The torment she’s been suffering since middle school will finally stop. She’ll be able move away to the City without looking back. Her life can really start.

Before that can happen Noelle has to make it through the rest of her junior year. Not to mention senior year.

Some days Noelle isn’t sure she’ll last that long.

It’s hard enough being the poor kid in a rich suburb. Being harassed and humiliated and feeling completely alone makes it a lot harder. Even Noelle’s best friend doesn’t know how bad it is. No one does.

When Noelle’s long-time crush starts talking to her, she isn’t sure what to do. Sure, she likes Julian. But what happens when he realizes she is the punchline in almost every mean joke at school? What happens when Noelle starts thinking she doesn’t deserve him?

Noelle tentatively reaches out to new and old friends but the bullying just gets worse. Holding on to her dreams about her future aren’t enough anymore. It might be time to focus on what she deserves here in the present instead  in Keep Holding On (2012) by Susane Colasanti.

Find it on Bookshop.

At 224 pages, Keep Holding On is one of Colasanti’s shorter novels. It is inspired by Colasanti’s own experiences with bullying.

This book is a short, achingly honest read. Noelle’s experiences are horrific not just because of the abuse she suffers but because so many people see parts of the neglect and the bullying but choose to look away instead of helping.

Being so short, there isn’t a lot of room to expand the story or fully examine secondary characters. That said, Colasanti focuses on what’s important presenting a tight narrative about Noelle’s growth over the course a school year.

While parts of Noelle’s story will break your heart, Noelle’s resilience will help mend it. While Colasanti is known for writing about soul mates finding each other, Keep Holding On focuses more on Noelle’s own transformation as she realizes she deserves to feel safe and loved. More importantly, as the story progresses, Noelle realizes she is in control when it comes to finding those safe places–and love too.

Keep Holding On also has a list of resources for anyone who is feeling alone and wants to find people ready to help available at the end of the book and on her website: http://susanecolasanti.com/keepholdingon.html

Possible Pairings: Dear Bully: Seventy Authors Tell Their Stories edited by Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher, Leverage by Joshua C. Cohen, Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley, Boy Toy by Barry Lyga, Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta, Mostly Good Girls by Leila Sales, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell, How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford, This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales

*This book was acquired for review from the publisher at BEA 2012

Everybody Sees the Ants: A Review

Everybody Sees the Ants by A. S. KingThere are some things you need to know about Lucky Linderman.

First: His mother is a squid. She swims more than two hundred laps every day. No matter what. Even when Lucky has some new bruises courtesy of Nader McMillan or her husband once again flakes on his familial duties.

Second: His father is a turtle. Lucky’s grandfather never came home from Vietnam and Lucky’s dad never recovered. He spends all of his time hiding in his shell or working at the restaurant instead of actually being a father.

Third: Lucky doesn’t smile. Ever. Not since asking one stupid question for one stupid project in Social Studies (the class actually isn’t stupid–Lucky kind of likes it). He is definitely not going to smile since that one stupid question brought him nothing but trouble and the renewed hatred of Nader McMillan.

Fourth: Ever since Lucky was seven he’s been having strange dreams. Now the dreams are his only refuge as he spends each night in the war-torn jungles of Laos trying to finally bring his grandfather home from the war he could never leave.

But even dreams that seem as real as Lucky’s can only last so long before it’s time to really wake up in Everybody Sees the Ants by A. S. King.

Find it on Bookshop.

Everybody Sees the Ants is King’s follow-up to her Printz Honor book Please Ignore Vera Dietz. It was also a finalist for the 2011 Cybils in Young Adult Fiction which is how I came to read it.

There are certain books that I enjoy upon first reading them. But the more I think about them, the more I really look at all of the little details, the more problems I have. Everybody Sees the Ants was that kind of book.

While not actually a mystery, Everybody Sees the Ants is structured in such a way that readers do not initially get a linear story nor do they get the full story. Anyone looking for a puzzle to put together will enjoy the multiple angles of this book. Lucky is a shockingly authentic* narrator with a voice and story all his own. King’s writing is painfully intense and quirky as Lucky drags readers through dense Laos jungle and the even deeper problems of his own life.

Unfortunately these strengths are not complemented by the book’s plot which is filled with numerous holes and seemingly random details that added little to the plot itself. Without delving into specifics, King never fully explains the nature of Lucky’s dreams which creates a fundamental problem with the structure of the book. Similarly, readers never really understand why one teenaged boy is able to not only bully but literally terrorize an entire town with absolutely no intervention from any adults or the authorities.** Other moments were easily predicted or simply heavy-handed as King was at pains to make certain points about Lucky’s relationships with his parents and the world at large.

If you aren’t looking for a book that needs to answer all of your questions or stand up to a close reading, Everybody Sees the Ants might still appeal.

*Unlike me, you probably already knew that King was a female author. I didn’t know that while reading the book and was completely floored to find out A. S. King was not a man. That’s how authentic Lucky’s voice is in this story.

**I maintain my stance that Nader should have been institutionalized as a psychopath long before the events of this book started.

Possible Pairings: Leverage by Joshua C. Cohen, Liar by Justine Larbalestier, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga, The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta, A Trick of the Light by Lois Metzger, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers

Exclusive Bonus Content: One of the biggest problems I had reading this book is one most readers will not have. Fantastical things happen to lucky throughout the course of the story. These things are called elements of magical realism but, for me, they pushed the book firmly into the fantasy genre. While judging this book as a potential winner in the Cybils’ YA Fiction category, that became a problem for me. I struggled with whether something fantastical was really happening or if Lucky was just delusional. Because if Lucky is really that delusional, how can a reader believe anything else he says? If you expect an answer to that kind of question this is not the book for you.

Leverage: A Review

Leverage by Joshua CohenDanny knows he’s small. He knows in terms of the pecking order at his school he falls near the very bottom (but above the Cross Country Runners at least). Doesn’t matter. He has a plan. Sure everyone makes fun of the boy’s gymnastics team–especially the varsity football players. They can laugh all they want when it gets him a full scholarship to a college of his choice. Danny is going places. All he has to do is keep his head down and stay out of the way of the football giants until he graduates. Easy.

Kurt Brodsky doesn’t care about high school politics. When you’re as big as Kurt is, you don’t have to. Classes, friends, sports. Doesn’t matter. As long as he can lift weights to stay strong and try to keep his past buried, it’s fine. No one is going to hurt him ever again. If part of that means joining the Oregrove High football team, fine.

Except nothing about the football team is simple. Not when the players keep taking questionable “supplements.” Not when the players can stomp anyone who looks at them funny in the halls. Not when the rivalry and tension between the football and gymnastics teams escalates to something violent and ugly.

Danny and Kurt should have never started to talk. They sure as hell shouldn’t have liked each other. But they did. That happened. If they can find the courage to work together maybe they can make this violent, ugly thing better. They can’t fix it or change it. But maybe they can make some things right in Leverage (2011) by Joshua C. Cohen.

Leverage is the first novel by Cohen who, before writing, parlayed his own high school gymnastics training into a professional career. Leverage was also a finalist for the 2011 Cybils in Young Adult Fiction which is how I came to read it.

Told in chapters alternating between Danny and Kurt’s narrations, Leverage is a book with great characters and strong writing. Cohen captures two authentic, distinct voices with Kurt and Danny while shedding light on what being a high school football player or gymnast really feels like.* I just wish the book had a different plot.

This is a gritty, brutal, painful story about a school being torn apart by something that is supposed to bring people together: team sports. While Cohen provides an unblinking look at some harsh realities, the execution is not ideal with gaping plot holes, unanswered questions, and an ending that pushes the limits of believability on almost every level.**

Leverage is a strange, tense read. Although it is filled with authentic details, the story has erratic pacing and ultimately lacks any real sense of resolution even after drawing readers in and making them care so much about these characters for the entire 425 (hardcover) pages.

The book will no doubt appeal to sports fans and athletes as well as anyone looking for a book that doesn’t flinch from the harsher side of reality. It will not work as well for readers who like every question raised in a story to also be answered.

*I read this book a month ago and the idea of a school gymnastics team still blows my mind. It never occurred to me that such a thing could exist. (I went to a really small, non-sporty school.)

**Not to mention being largely predictable. If you’ve finished the book you’ll probably see what I mean.

Possible Pairings: Everybody Sees the Ants by A. S. King, Boy Toy by Barry Lyga, Fury by Elizabeth Miles, Mostly Good Girls by Leila Sales, Between by Jessica Warman