The Revolution of Birdie Randolph: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Revolution of Birdie Randolph by Brandy ColbertBirdie has always been a good daughter. She works hard in school, she’s responsible. She listens to her parents even when it’s hard like when she had to give up soccer to focus on her classes and college prep.

But it’s hard to balance being a good daughter with dating Booker–the new boy in her life. Birdie’s parents would never approve of Booker with his bad reputation and his juvenile record. Rather than upset her parents Birdie does what seems like the best thing for everyone: she decides to keep Booker a secret for as long as possible.

Then there’s her estranged aunt Carlene who is back in Chicago, and Birdie’s life, after years of struggling with substance abuse. Birdie barely remembers her aunt but she’s eager to reconnect now–especially when Carlene seems willing to listen to Birdie in a way her mother hasn’t for years. As Birdie grows closer to Carlene and to Booker, the secrets mount. When Birdie finds out that she isn’t the only one who’s been keeping secrets  everything she thought she knew about her family will be thrown into question in The Revolution of Birdie Randolph (2019) by Brandy Colbert.

Colbert’s latest standalone is an introspective novel about family, secrets, and what it means to be true to yourself. Birdie is an open and honest narrator struggling with how to balance what she wants with what her parents expect of her. Her story unfolds across a vibrantly described Chicago that is immediately evocative.

Typical stressors of school and college prep are amplified as Birdie finds herself keeping more and more secrets as she tries to spend time with Booker. Their sweet and new romance is tempered by the knowledge that they’ll soon have to figure out how far their relationship can go–if it can go anywhere at all, in fact–while contending with disapproving parents on both sides. Birdie faces a similar push and pull with her aunt who soon becomes a confidant despite the strain it causes with her parents.

In a lot of ways, The Revolution of Birdie Randolph is a story about decisions. The course of Birdie’s life up to this point has been shaped by decisions her parents, and even her aunt, have made. As Birdie begins to understand the ramifications of those choices, she has to decide for herself how to move forward. But luckily for her, and readers, she has a lot of support along the way.

The Revolution of Birdie Randolph is a smart, nuanced story about learning to be true to yourself–even when the truth about your past might not be what you expect. Come for the swoony romance, stay for the authentic intersectional identities, complex relationships, and memorable characters. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Beauty of the Moment by Tanaz Bhatena, Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Past Perfect Life by Elizabeth Eulberg, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez, Windfall by Jennifer E. Smith, How to Save a Life by Sarah Zarr

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2019*

Mostly Good Girls: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Mostly Good Girls by Leila SalesViolet Tunis has a plan for her junior year at the prestigious Westfield School. This year isn’t just going to be different, it’s going to be perfect.

This year she is going ace her PSATs, get straight A-minuses (or better) in all of her classes, and improve the school’s literary magazine to the point where it doesn’t completely embarrass her. She’s going to pass her driving test, get famous, and do many awesome projects with her best friend Katie. She will also make Scott Walsh fall in love with her.

Unfortunately for Violet, things don’t go according to plan. At all.

Instead of having a perfect junior year, Violet has the exact same problems she always has struggling to keep up with Westfield’s high academic standards (and competition) and failing miserably at sounding like a sane person when talking to boys.

On top of that, the literary magazine is a disaster and her editorial board is possibly filled with illiterates. Her driving teacher is mentally unstable. And her best friend Katie might be losing her mind.

Everything always comes so easily to Katie. She makes being pretty and smart and successful look effortless. So why is she suddenly making all of the wrong decisions? And if even Katie is falling apart, what hope does Violet have? More importantly, if Violet doesn’t have Katie by her side, does any of it matter?

All Violet knows for sure is it’s going to take a lot more than her Junior Year To-Do List to get things under control in Mostly Good Girls (2011) by Leila Sales.

Mostly Good Girls has a lot going for it. Violet is a quirky narrator with a voice that is almost as distinct as her sense of humor. Interestingly, this book is also the first one I have ever read where the teenagers talk exactly like I did as a teenager.*

Violet and Katie and their friend Hilary are all well-developed and come alive on the page. They are all so real, so unique, and so exactly like I was a teenager. It was refreshing to be able to see my own experiences reflected in this crazy, hysterical book.

My love for Violet, Sales’ beautiful writing, and the book’s wonderful setting is almost enough to make me love this book unconditionally. But I also wanted more from it.

The beginning of the novel is, simply put, genius–filled with witty snapshot-like chapters about Violet’s life at Westfield. Snapshots that, I might add, could have been from my own high school. The actual plot, the plot you’ll see on the book jacket, doesn’t come up until about halfway in. At that point, for me, the story lost some of its verve.**

While the book remains authentic and charming I probably would have been just as happy with more snapshots about Westfield and less about Katie’s crisis. That might be me.*** The ending offers some semblance of closure although a lot about Violet’s life does remain up in the air.

Mostly Good Girls is an exceptional debut from a masterful author. Leila Sales is definitely going places and Mostly Good Girls is definitely a must read for anyone looking for an antidote to the vanilla, artificial high school experiences so often seen in books and movies.

*I have never before, and probably never will again, read a book where a teen character says, “Indeed.”

**Part of that might have to do with my never having the “Violet and Katie” kind of best friend experience. Who knows?

***Or maybe it’s just that at that point the plot diverged to something different from my high school experience and what I really loved here was that the book was so very similar to my high school experience.

Possible Pairing: Nothing by Annie Barrows, A Little Wanting Song by Cath Crowley, Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, Prom and Prejudice by Elizabeth Eulberg, Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey, Where I Belong by Gwendolyn Heasley, And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard, Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough, After the Kiss by Terra Elan McVoy, Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin, Easy A (movie)

Exclusive Bonus Content: The design for this book is really worth mentioning. Cara E. Petrus did a great job on the jacket which features a fabulous plaid print and a striking pair of legs with shoes that are lovely (if I could wear heels I would need to hunt them down for myself!). Does the cover relate to the plot? Maybe not. Is it still awesome? YES! I also loved the layout of the text with memorable chapter titles and a typewriter-esque font.

How to Steal a Car: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

How to Steal a Car by Pete HautmanKelleigh Monahan doesn’t drink, do drugs, talk back, or do any of the other things girls usually do to act out. In fact, if it weren’t for a series of bizarre coincidences, Kelleigh wouldn’t even have become a car thief in How to Steal a Car (2009) by Pete Hautman.

The first car, the Nissan, was barely even stolen. And after that, well, steal one car and suddenly everyone expects you to be a regular car thief or something.

That isn’t to say that this bookis an action packed heist book. It’s not. Despite its title, How to Steal a Car is more about the ennui and general frustration so often associated with suburban life–especially for teens.

Kelleigh is surrounded by people lulled into complacency by their quiet, suburban town while she, much like Moby Dick’s Ishmael as quoted in the beginning of the story, wants nothing more than to run away. Or, as luck would have it, to drive away in someone else’s car.

How to Steal a Car is an interesting, super fast read. Unfortunately that does not make it particularly compelling. While Kelleigh’s ennui was palpable, she remained painfully one dimensional as a character. Hautman’s portrayal of the rest of the characters in the novel were similarly lacking in depth. The story was interesting enough to keep me reading to the end, but the Kelleigh at the end of the story was basically the same Kelleigh we met at the beginning: a girl frustrated with her life and unsure what to do to fix it.

Possible Pairings: Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson, Don’t Ever Change by M. Beth Bloom, The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron, Finding Mr. Brightside by Jay Clark, Goth Girl Rising by Barry Lyga, Rx by Tracy Lynn, Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The New Rules of High School by Blake Nelson, How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford, Gone in Sixty Seconds (movie).

Define “Normal”: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Define "Normal" by Julie Anne PetersDefine “Normal” (2000) by Julie Anne Peters deals with a common theme in teen literature: What happens when people from different worlds come together?

Antonia Dillon and Jasmine “Jazz” Luther are polar opposites. As the cover illustrates quite well. Antonia wears pleated skirts, is on the honor roll, and used to be in math club (she also used to do gymnastics). And she’s still only in eighth grade. With all of that under control, Antonia is eager to volunteer at her school’s peer counseling program in order to add “peer counselor” to her already impressive resume.

Jazz has purple hair, piercings, and tattoos (she might even do drugs and hang out with gangs). Jazz is also the peer Antonia is supposed to counsel. And yet, how could anyone think these two girls are peers?

Even though Antonia is sure her counseling efforts are doomed to fail, she keeps meeting with Jazz who, miraculously, also shows up. As the girls get to know each other it becomes clear that they might have more in common than appearances would suggest. Even more, perhaps, than either girl would like to admit.

As Antonia helps Jazz get her own family life together, Antonia’s own world seems to be falling apart no matter how much she tries to maintain the status quo. As everything starts to unravel, Jazz might be the only one who can help Antonia pull it all together.

This is a book that challenges readers’ perceptions with two disparate, and simultaneously alike, characters. As the title suggests, an important message here is that nothing is as it seems. On another level, Peters reminds readers that appearances are often meaningless without context–something that she provides for both Antonia and Jazz as the novel progresses. Like Antonia, readers begin this novel with a certain idea of how things will turn out. Specifically, Jazz is the troubled teen and Antonia is trying to help her. As Peters delves deeper into both girls’ personal lives, these preconceptions are turned upside down.

Define “Normal” is marketed for children aged 9 to 12 (according to Amazon.com), a range that feels pretty accurate. The writing here is simple, not in a bad way but in a way that will not confuse readers on the younger end of the spectrum. For this reason certain elements of the plot felt predictable to this reader. However that is likely from reading this book for the first time at eighteen rather than from poor writing.

Antonia and Jazz are both strong, resilient characters and give girls a lot to think about. On the other hand, though it might be a hard sell, this book could have an important message for boys as well about how important it is to realize that “normal” is such a relative, and plastic concept. Define “Normal” is in the unique position where it works just as well as assigned reading in school as a book that readers would willingly (and hopefully will!) pick up themselves.

Possible Pairings: The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill S. Alexander, Alice, I Think by Susan Juby, Goth Girl Rising by Barry Lyga, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, Vibes by Amy Kathleen Ryan

Rx: A review

Rx by Tracy LynnI make no claims that this book shows the “real” life of teens or sensationalizes the less-than-dramatic reality. I simply don’t know. What I can say is that Rx (2005) by Tracy Lynn is very timely. Last December, for example, there were numerous news stories detailing the pressures teens face to be perfect and pretty and fun while making it all look easy. This book offers one explanation of how some teens do that.

Thyme Gilcrest goes to a competitive high school in a rich suburban neighborhood. It’s senior year and she is jockeying for position among the top 20 of her class–a coveted spot that Thyme can barely cling to despite hours of work each night. This all changes when Thyme gets a hold of some Ritalin to treat her self-diagnosed ADHD. Suddenly she can focus and life is good. Then her friends find out about the drug and start asking her to get other “cure alls” for them.

Lynn writes this story in matter-of-fact, concise prose. Narrated by Thyme, the story never offers judgment on the druggies, dealers and misfits that populate its pages. Instead, Lynn is simply setting down the facts as she knows them (read the afterward to see why the story is important to her) to offer up a cautionary tale about the hazards of prescription drug abuse and dealing.

The prose here is arresting. After the first pages I was hooked. Thyme’s commentary is sardonic and caustic–an appealing combination. At the same time, her story is painful to read as Thyme describes her let-downs and her own shortcomings. Despite that, the middle begins to drag as Thyme transitions from user to dealer. However, Lynn will throw in a trick now and then to surprise you.

Stylistically, this novel isn’t overly exceptional. It’s what I would term a “gimmick” novel–trying to cash in on the popularity (for lack of a better word) of the issue of prescription drug abuse in high schools.

The novel also deals with the world of privileged teens: kids whose parents have enough money that they are never home and leave their children with a bit too much free reign in their absence. The term “latch key children” might also come to mind. In a world where family dinners don’t happen as often as they used to, perhaps it’s not surprising to see more and more novels focusing on “latch key teens.”

Part of me wants to do more research on the subject to see if prescription drugs are really that available to random teenagers but, as with most things, I think it depends on the teen and the location. For my part, I had a nagging sense that the novel was overstating the problem or perhaps focusing on a more suburban phenomenon (although Meg Cabot’s new novel Jinx which is set in New York City briefly touches upon this issue as well). Perhaps I’m the only one who didn’t know how to go about getting illegal substances as a teen (and still doesn’t) and had no desire to.

At any rate, Rx is an interesting look at the burdens of overachievers even if the novel might leave you with more of a nagging feeling than a completely satisfied one.

Possible Pairings: Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson, The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd, Finding Mr. Brightside by Jay Clark, How to Steal a Car by Pete Hautman, The New Rules of High School by Blake Nelson, The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp

Catalyst: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Catalyst by Laurie Halse AndersonCatalyst (2003) by Laurie Halse Anderson is a sequel/companion to Speak. It’s set one year after the events of Speak. This novel is narrated by Kate Malone: straight-A senior, science and math whiz, and daughter of the local reverend. Kate’s also a great runner, which is good because Kate’s been running from a lot of things:

Kate has been the family caretaker since her mother died. She hasn’t been sleeping as she waits to hear from her dream college (she runs instead). And now Teri Litch, Kate’s nemesis, and Terry’s little brother are living with the Malones. Kate tries to ignore all of these problems by running and keeping her head in the sand. Besides, things couldn’t get any worse. Until they do.

You’ll have to read the book to figure out what happens next because I don’t do spoiler reviews.

So now we can talk about the book in technical terms: The book is broken up into elements (solid, liquid, gas) and features quotes from an AP Chem prep book. Most of them are straightforward enough to be understandable and relate to the story. Kate also makes use of scientific elements for her narration without being overly scientific (AKA confusing/boring).

I greatly admire Laurie Halse Anderson. She’s a great writer and she never comes off as smug or pompous in her interviews at the back of her books. Even better, Anderson is a fresh voice.

That said, the voice here was not as fresh as it was in Speak. In other words, Kate’s narration sounds a lot like Melinda even though they are completely different characters. That bothered me. I like that Anderson’s prose is so snappy and often sarcastic, but it was weird having two disparate characters narrate in almost the same voice. Given the connection between these two books, I suppose comparisons are inevitable so I’ll finish the thought: Melinda is a more likable narrator than Kate. That makes a difference.

Ironically, the increased dialogue in this book (Melinda does not talk throughout most of hers) doesn’t make the characters more developed. The minor characters, particularly Sara and Travis, remain flat: developed enough to be quirky but not present enough to be memorable. This might be because Kate’s social circle is larger, giving Anderson more characters to fit into the narrative.

The other thing to bear in mind about Catalyst is that it is not the same kind of book as Speak. Kate’s path throughout the narrative, and her way through her problems, is very different than Melinda’s. (If you haven’t guessed yet, Kate’s path involves a lot of running.) This book also has a different appeal. Speak seemed more universal, the scope for Catalyst is more narrow. Anderson does a great job of capturing the anxiety and drama that surrounds the college application/acceptance process. She also creates a compelling study of the silent, overachiever that seems to be at every high school. More importantly, Anderson shows that those achievements don’t always come without a cost.

Overall, Catalyst is a good book. I enjoyed it and I would recommend it. But Speak was a great book that was, overall, more powerful than its sequel.

Possible Pairings: The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron, Tumbling by Caela Carter, Finding Mr. Brightside by Jay Clark, How to Steal a Car by Pete Hautman, Rx by Tracy Lynn, Moby Dick by Herman Melville, How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford