Swoon at Your Own Risk: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Swoon at Your Own Risk by Sydney SalterYou could say Polly Martin wrote the book on love–specifically on why to avoid it all costs. Despite all of the sensible advice from her grandmother’s syndicated advice column Miss Swoon and the cautionary tale of her own mother’s divorce, Polly’s junior year was filled with dating disaster after disaster. After disaster. And a few more disasters besides.

Polly has learned her lesson and is trying to focus on making her life a boyfriend free zone and making up to her best friend for spending the better part of a year focusing on guys instead of, you know, being a best friend.

The only problem is that Polly’s exes keep turning up in all the wrong places. A misguided job application has her working with Sawyer at the Wild Waves water park where he keeps asking her about her feelings. Running for student council to impress Hayden has landed her the unenviable position of planning the senior prom.

Then there’s Xander Cooper who seems determined to become Polly’s next ex boyfriend. Except Polly is done with boys. For real.

Polly is surrounded by people, especially ex boyfriends, who think they know her. Except Polly has spent so much time trying impress or please other people that she isn’t even sure who she is herself anymore. But maybe a self-declared relationship failure really can find herself and fall in love while working at a Western-themed water park in Swoon at Your Own Risk (2010) by Sydney Salter.

Swoon at Your Own Risk is a light, summery book that packs a punch and won’t disappoint readers looking for a book with some depth. Salter writing effortlessly brings to mind summer and madness of a water park during summer vacation to create a setting so vivid readers would be advised to keep their inner tubes handy.

Beyond that, Polly is a really astute character and one of my favorite narrators so far this year. Emotionally, Polly is a mess. She can’t tell where her own interests end or where her efforts to pursue boys starts. In a lot of ways Polly does everything wrong; she does things she dislikes to attract boys and she pretends she isn’t smart to avoid attention and she avoids talking about her feelings like nobody’s business. But even at her lowest, Polly is endearing and so incredibly smart that readers are willing to follow her crazy journey throughout the book to see where it all ends.

The amazing thing is all of Polly’s crazy mixed emotions and motivations are conveyed so clearly with Salter’s writing. Her narrative voice is strong and original, tossing around SAT vocabulary words and chemistry(?) references in the same breath as she explains how important it was, at the time, to be interested cars so that she could have something to talk about with a boy.

As the title might suggest Swoon at Your Own Risk is part romance and part humor. But it’s also a lot more. And it’s really clever. Salter has  has created a delightful story and introduced a complex heroine that is a breath of fresh air.

Possible Pairings: The Secret Life of Prince Charming by Deb Caletti, North of Beautiful by Justina Chen, Sea Change by Aimee Friedman, An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

Exclusive Bonus Content (because I haven’t gushed enough yet): I also really, really, love the cover because I think it so perfectly captures the essence of this book. And I also need you all to know that Xander is amazing. He’s like the coolest male lead ever. He does origami and he writes in a notebook and I really wish I knew someone like him.

Finally, I also want to take a minute to mention how cool the structure of the book is. Polly’s first person narration is interspersed with excerpts from Miss Swoon’s advice column, a certain character’s notebook, and one of Polly’s coworker’s gossip blogs. That’s a lot of different voices and formats to juggle and Ms. Salter makes it look absolutely effortless.

Jungle Crossing: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Jungle Crossing by Sydney SalterThirteen-year-old Kat has dozens of reasons to skip her family’s summer vacation to hot, boring Mexico. She’ll miss mini-camp and lose her spot as part of Fiona’s Five (reason number 1) thereby completing ruining her chance at popularity and eighth grade in general (reason 33). Her family will drive her crazy (reasons 29 through 31).  And don’t think that’s just whining because Kat has tons of other, totally logical, reasons on her list including falling prey to bandits, the risk of flash flooding, heat stroke, dangerous strangers, and lung damaging jet fuel (reasons 8, 20, 24, 35 and 36) in Jungle Crossing (2009) by Sydney Salter.

Despite Kat’s helpful list, her parents and nine year old sister Barb couldn’t be happier with their Mexican adventure. Barb adjusts effortlessly to their new surroundings making friends with everyone she meets.

But no one seems to like Kat–not even Nando, the Mayan tour guide. Meanwhile, between scary eels, mean tour guides (reasons 39 and 40), and all of her other reasons, Kat is miserable. Even listening to Nando’s exciting legend about Muluc, an ancient Mayan girl facing danger, betrayal and untold sacrifice, can barely hold Kat’s interest.

Except, being a captive audience on the tour bus with Barb, Kat finds herself paying closer attention to Muluc’s story. Muluc didn’t have to worry about missing mini-camp or clinging to her tenuous spot in Fiona’s Five. The more Kat learns about Mexico and the ancient Mayans, the more she begins to wonder about her own life and what really matters. Could it be that, instead of being the worst vacation ever, going to Mexico will turn into one of Kat’s greatest adventures?

Jungle Crossing is a lot of fun. Kat is a younger narrator than a lot of the usual suspects in young adult novels, which makes for a slightly different (but equally enjoyable) perspective. Salter’s descriptions of Mexico were also amazing lending a travelogue feel to the book and transporting readers to Kat’s wonderful destinations. To her credit, Salter also tries to point out the inequities between the Mexico found by rich tourists and the harsher reality for locals like Nando.

Interspersed throughout Kat’s story readers will find Muluc’s story as “told” by Nando. Muluc’s story provides a slice of life from Ancient Maya and, eventually, becomes a benchmark for Kat as she tries to work out her own priorities in modern day Mexico.

Salter blends the two narratives together seamlessly so that, by the end of Jungle Crossing, moving between the two girl’s stories feels completely natural. Her writing of Kat’s narration is also pitch perfect moving from the voice of a whiny (possible) brat to that of a braver, happier, and fairly more enlightened girl by the end of the story.

Possible Pairings: The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill S. Alexander, North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley, Fly on the Wall by E. Lockhart, Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison

My Big Nose and Other Natural Disasters: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

My Big Nose and Other Natural Disasters by Sydney SalterRemember Jennifer Grey from Dirty Dancing? Back then she was a cute young actress with a rather distinct nose that gave her a unique face. In the 1990s she had a nose job that so altered her appearance that she was unrecognizable with the result that her career was arguably over. I found a site with two of the most unflattering pictures of Grey I have ever seen, but they illustrate my point. The change is so great that it’s hard to say what the nose job actually accomplished because the before and after photos look like different people.

While reading My Big Nose and Other Natural Disasters (2009) by Sydney Salter (find it on Bookshop), I kept thinking of one thing. That thing was Jennifer Grey’s nose job and how it totally changed her life in a not-so-great way.

For soon-to-be-senior Jory Michaels, it all comes down to her nose. Good old, Great-Grandpa Lessinger’s famous nose. The one Jory never grew into. The one that makes people ask her beautiful parents if Jory was adopted. It wouldn’t matter so much if Jory was some brilliant scholar who’d written six novels, created her own web-based business, and spoke fluent Chinese.

But Jory doesn’t do any of those things.

No matter how desperately she wants to be one of the beautiful people, or at least one of the smart people, or even just an athletic person; Jory is none of those things. Instead, she is the mediocre sheep in a family of beauty and talent. All, Jory is certain, because of her big nose–another outlier in a family with cute, small noses (except for Great-Grandpa Lessinger).

Like Jennifer Grey, Jory is convinced that a nose job will solve her problems and ultimately make her life better in every possible way. She will be smarter and prettier, her family will appreciate her the way they worship her little brother, and her gorgeous crush will finally realize that she is perfect for him. In other words, with a new nose, Jory will be as perfect as everyone else in her life.

To guarantee that she and “Super Schnoz” will part ways before September, Jory takes a summer job as a cake delivery person to fund her cosmetic surgery. She also begins a nice nose notebook to be ready for the big day.

It seems like everything is going Jory’s way until an unlikely acquaintance, an unfortunate driving mishap or two . . . or three, and other (natural) disasters force Jory to rethink everything she thought she knew about her nose, herself, and the perfect people she wanted so badly to emulate.

Set in Reno, Nevada My Big Nose and Other Natural Disasters offers an interesting perspective on cosmetic surgery. Her hyperbolic fantasies about Super Schnoz and her new dream nose illustrate the irrational hopes Jory has pinned to the possibility of plastic surgery. At the same time, as the story progresses Jory begins to realize that there might be more to reinventing herself than restructuring her nose. That thread, set against the backdrop of friend-drama, and the social-climbing ambitions of her ever-dieting mother, gives this ostensibly quick read a fair amount of depth.

I enjoyed a lot of this book. At times the characters read younger than I would have expected for sixteen and seventeen-year-olds, but that likely says more about who I was at that age than anything else. Jory also reminded me a lot of Georgia Nicholson with her singular focus on boys but in a far less annoying way. I also had issue with the way friendships were treated. It must be the latin in me but I would have held a grudge a lot longer than Jory (and other characters in books I’ve read recently), but again that’s probably just me.

I loved Jory’s humor throughout the narrative, which made her lack of self-esteem at the beginning of the novel bearable. As part of a mother-daughter jewelery making duo, I also loved that beading came up in the story and was handled so realistically. At the start of the novel I will admit that I was not sure I could like Jory as a character, but by the end of the book I not only liked her, I was proud of her. My only disappointment was that the book didn’t go on a little longer so I could spend more time with this new and improved heroine. Beyond that, My Big Nose and Other Natural Disasters is a clever, humorous book about how finding beauty sometimes involves more introspection than anything else.

Possible Pairings: You Look Different in Real Life by Jennifer Castle, Nothing But the Truth (and a Few White Lies) by Justina Chen Headley, Skinny by Donna Crooner, Fly on the Wall by E. Lockhart, Fix by Leslie Margolis, The Book of Love by Lynn Weingarten