The Summer I Became a Nerd–Leah Rae Miller (May 2013)

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Ever since a traumatic costume competition in middle school (cosplay turns out to not be the best idea), Maddie has hidden her love of comic books, superheroes, and sci-fi/fantasy and turned herself into the perfect stereotype of a “popular girl.”  When Maddie starts hanging out with Logan, a classmate whose parents own the local comic shop, she struggles to maintain her carefully constructed, stridently non-geeky façade and falls head over heels for not only the world of comic conventions, live-action role-playing games, and college radio but also for Logan himself.

Thoughts–This might be the fluffiest book I’ve read since last summer…not that it’s necessarily a bad thing.  The Summer I Became a Nerd follows a very predictable romance plot and traffics in some extraordinarily typical tropes, but I found it fun and VERY fast read.  Like, “I started this book at 9pm and finished it by midnight” fast.  And you know, sometimes you just want to read something that doesn’t take all your brain cells and isn’t too taxing on your emotions…kind of like when I watch Homeland and then have to watch reruns of Friends to cleanse my mental palate.  This book was a definite palate cleanser, and I liked the amount of detail and love for the geek subculture Miller wove into the story.

What I didn’t like so much was all the emphasis placed on how Maddie has been trying to hide her “nerdiness” from everyone in her small Louisiana town for basically her entire high school career, mostly because her primary method of hiding was to become a cheerleader.  This is one of my least favorite YA tropes ever–the nerd kids are secretly cooland the cheerleaders are not-so-secretly one-dimensional, superficial fluffheads–because it pits one group of kids against the other and totally ignores that *newsflash* EVERYONE is complex and EVERYONE has dimension.  Some cheerleaders think deep thoughts and some nerds are obsessed with appearances, and WHAT’S WRONG WITH BEING BOTH A NERD AND A CHEERLEADER AT THE SAME TIME??????  I do think Miller tries to address this issue somewhat, especially once Maddie decides to openly hang out with Logan and discovers that some of the “popular” people she’s been surrounding herself with do, in fact, like “nerdy” things as well.  I just wanted the author to stretch a little more.  Maybe that’s asking too much from a summer read, but I don’t think so.

I did love all the attention Miller paid to the nuances of geek culture and how descriptive she was when it came to things like the live-action role-playing and the comics store.  I also thought she did a good job of weaving in the “shop local” message of small town life; I would have liked to see the town more fully realized, more of a character in the story, but that’s probably just my personal affinity for “setting as character” coming out.

Overall, I’d recommend The Summer I Became a Nerd to readers looking for something light-hearted, fast-paced, and fun to read this summer.  The chemistry between Logan and Maddie is great, and it has some very funny parts (the antics at the role-playing games spring to mind).  If you like floofy, escapist romances, you’ll eat this one up.

Gorgeous–Paul Rudnick (May 2013)

*NOTE–I read this book as an Advance Reader’s Copy…it was just recently released to booksellers*

When Becky 9780545464260_p0_v4_s260x420Randle’s mother dies, Becky discovers a small ring box with just a New York City phone number inside.  Thinking this might be her ticket out of East Trawley, Missouri, Becky calls the number and finds herself on her way to New York to meet with the mysterious designer Tom Kelly.  Kelly offers Becky a proposition–if she allows him to make her three dresses, he will turn her into the most beautiful woman in the world.  What follows is a hilarious romp through high fashion, royalty, and the power of beauty–both outer and inner.

Thoughts– I picked this ARC up from the Scholastic rep at TLA, and given the two blurbs on the cover (Dave Sedaris and Meg Cabot), I was STOKED to read it.  After its early May release date, I began seeing all the raves about it on Twitter from authors, bloggers, and friends whose opinions I definitely value.  I started reading it with very high expectations…and was kind of disappointed at first, to be completely honest.  I didn’t really think Becky was all that great of a narrator, I had absolutely no clue what was going on with Tom Kelly, and it took me a good 50 pages to get used to the hyper-realistic, satirical tone of Rudnick’s writing.  I just didn’t get it.

And then all of a sudden–it clicked.  The story kicked into high gear, every other page had a legitimate LOL, “OMG, I can’t believe he wrote that!” moment (or two or three), and I began to really care about what happened to Becky, Rocher (named after the candy, natch), Prince Gregory, and even smarmy old Tom Kelly.  I very rarely literally laugh out loud at books–it’s usually more of a sardonic smirk–but this book had me cracking up with its banter and over-the-top antics.  Rudnick is really at his best when he’s crafting scenes solely for comedic relief, like many of those between Becky and Rocher, and you can definitely see his roots as a satire writer in Gorgeous.*

Two little caveats for me about this one:  One, the story is pretty pat and predictable, but when it’s this much fun, I pretty much don’t care about that.  Two, there is an exorbitant amount of use of the F-word and other swear words in this book.  And listen–I worked at an inner-city high school for 5 years, and The Departed and Dazed and Confused are two of my favorite movies.  I’ve also been known to use “colorful language” myself a time or two…or perhaps more than that.  It takes A LOT for me to say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa…that’s maybe too much cussing,” and this book did.  I mean, I don’t ever need to see the C-word in print.  Ever.  That being said, I did see how Rudnick was kind of using that language as a characterization device (it’s mostly Rocher saying those things), and so I get it.  I just think it was maybe a bit too much…and would probably offend those with more delicate sensibilities.

Overall, I found Gorgeous hilarious and a fun summer read; it’s a perfect pool- or beach-side book to make you laugh and maybe think a little, too.

*He writes a column for Entertainment Weekly (my favorite magazine OF ALL TIME) under the pen name Libby Gelman-Waxner, and it’s HYSTERICAL.

My All-Time Favorite YA Books…this list goes to ELEVEN.

That’s right, this list goes to 11.  Why, you ask? Because I said so.  (The mom in me obviously comes out to play every now and then…)  Here’s my eleven all-time favorite YA books–each of them is a reread for me.  In the case of some, multiple rereads.  You should read them…because I said so.

1.  Rats Saw God, Rob Thomas (the one who writes Veronica Mars, not the singer)–This book is what would happen if you took My So-Called Life, set it in suburban Texas and made Angela a dude who does a lot of drugs.  Good for those of us with 90s nostalgia and a love of grunge music (there’s even a reference to the death of Kurt Cobain–something I remember SO clearly from HS).

2. Looking for Alaska, John Green–An obvious pick, I know…but I really, really love this book.  I always recommend that people start here instead of The Fault in Our Stars when they want to “see what all the John Green hype” is about.  He won a Printz Award from YALSA for this one, and I think it was well-deserved.  Miles “Pudge” Halter leaves his public school for a private boarding school in rural Alabama where he meets Alaska Young.  All hell breaks loose in Miles’ world.  Prepare yourself for laughter and tears…lots and lots of tears.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

3.  The Song of the Lioness Quartet, Tamora Pierce–The first truly YA books I ever read as a kid.  I still re-read them on a regular basis.  Alanna wants to be a knight but, bummer, she’s a girl.  So she switches places with her twin Thom, dresses like a boy, and heads to the palace.  Magic, fighting, swords, and thievery ensue.  Plus, in book 2, she gets the most awesome pet cat EVER.  I just recommend Pierce in general.  I’ve loved each of her series–no one writes better female fantasy protagonists.

4. Dreamland, Sarah Dessen–This is definitely much “darker” than Dessen’s usual YA romances, but it’s hands down my favorite.  Caitlin is such an authentic, flawed teenager, and you just can’t help but root for her, even when you’re screaming “He’s not just a ‘bad boy’!  He’s abusive! And controlling! And getting you involved in drugs!” at her.

5. The Jessica Darling series, Meg McCafferty–Some people say the last 3 books of this series are “new adult” but since I don’t believe that’s actually a thing, I’m gonna say all 5 are YA.  I mean, Anne Shirley gets to grow up, go to college, get a job, have babies, raise them, and send two of them off to war, and we STILL call that series “children’s lit”–can’t Jessica Darling and Marcus Flutie have a happy ending and it still be YA?

6. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks, E. Lockhart–Feminism, boys, secret societies, basset hounds, Bentham’s panopticon, boarding school.  All these things factor into this awesome, brilliant book.

7.  Beauty Queens, Libba Bray–What if the plane on the TV show “Lost” was filled with teenage beauty pageant contestants?  What if there was a giant conspiracy to kill them all?  What if Miss Texas went native and started running around naked and talking to snakes?  Best satire I’ve ever read.  Hilarious, thought-provoking, and innovative. 

8. Stotan!, Chris Crutcher–Another golden oldie from my younger years.  It’s about a boys on swim team.  In Washington State.  Who do some sort of crazy training program named after the Stoic philosophers and the Spartan warriors.  There is absolutely no reason I should like this book (usually I prefer to ogle swimmers, rather than read about them), but I adore this book.  Crutcher’s writing is so accessible and to the point.  Love all his other books too.

9. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card–The only truly science fiction title I love…I just wish OSC’s political and social beliefs weren’t so abhorrent to me.

10. Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson–Melinda doesn’t talk.  Anderson takes you inside her brain to find out why.  (the seasonal structure of this book is wicked awesome…just thought I’d add that)

11. Anything by Meg Cabot.  That’s right–I’ve read ’em all. Cabot’s never going to win a Printz award, but damn.  She writes some compulsively readable books.  Great humor, fun romance, smart girls.  What’s not to love?

So that’s my eleven.  I could think of more, and I’ve certainly read a lot of newer titles that have the potential to make this list, but these are tops today.  Check them out if you haven’t…I think there’s a YA book for just about anybody on this list.

Going Bovine–Libba Bray (2009)

Bray, Libba.  Going Bovine.  Ember, 2009.  480p.  Grades 8 and up.  Realistic Fiction.  (2010 Printz Award).

Cameron Young is a typical, disaffected seventeen year old from a small Texas town with one slight exception—he’s just been diagnosed with Creutzfeld-Jakob variant BSE, more commonly known as mad cow disease, and he only has a short time to live.  While in the hospital, Cameron meets (or hallucinates) the punk angel Dulcie who instructs him that he can save his own life (and the world) by journeying on a quest to find the mysterious Dr. X.  Joining him on this journey are his high school classmate Gonzo, a dwarf with a video game obsession and an over-bearing mother, and Balder, a Norse god trapped inside the statue of a garden gnome.  Bray’s brash reimagining of Don Quixote leads readers on a mind-trippingly surreal journey to discover what’s real, what’s important, and how to live an authentic life even in the midst of chaos.

Thoughts- There is no delicate way to put it—this book f***ed with my brain.  Much like its narrator Cameron (and I’m sure intentionally on the part of the author), I had a difficult job separating reality from fantasy, and I spent so much time flipping back and forth trying to figure out if Cameron is hallucinating or if he’s really on this trek that Going Bovine was slow, slow reading for me.  I frequently think that about Bray’s writing, but usually the narrative pace picks up for me about half-way through and I just blast all the way to the end.  Not so much here.  I really, really struggled through this novel.  With that said, I also LOVED it by the time I reached the end, and I totally felt like I had been on Cameron’s quixotic journey right alongside him.

In addition to Bray’s pacing, I also found Going Bovine to be chock-full of her characteristic humor, satire (especially about the testing situation in public schools and consumerism), and poignant themes wrapped in absurd packaging (Balder the garden gnome, anyone?).  I typically do not like to read books written in present tense because they feel too much like screenplays to me, but given the first-person narration and the narrator’s unique physical state and mental condition, I think the tense works here and was Bray’s only choice.  Cameron dies at the end of the book, and unless he was narrating from heaven, it had to be written in present tense.  My biggest concerns were the character of Dulcie and the omnipresent allusions to Don Quixote—she was kind of annoying and I had to google A LOT about Quixote—and I think teen readers might feel the same way.

My research about this book shows that readers either love it or hate it.  I definitely fall into the “love” category, but I do see where the haters are coming from.  It is a tough, demanding read, and Bray expects a lot out of her audience.  For me, that “work” definitely had a payoff, but I understand those readers who are just put off by the absurdity and sheer weirdness of the book.  While this polarizing nature limits the readership of Going Bovine, I think those readers who make it to the end feel, much like Cameron, somewhat enlightened by their journey.

 

Keeping the Castle–Patrice Kindl (2012)

Kindl, Patrice.  Keeping the Castle.  Viking, 2012.  261p.  Grades 6-12.  Historical Fiction.

Seventeen-year-old Althea Crawley, tasked with saving her family’s ancestral (and crumbling) castle, must find a suitable husband—soon.  Unfortunately for her, the pastoral village of Lesser Hoo is not exactly teeming with possible suitors.  That is, until Lord Boring and his cousin Mr. Fredricks arrive and become the targets of affection for Althea and her odious step-sisters.  Written in impeccable Regency style and filled with gentle humor and wit, this novel is a perfect match for lovers of Jane Austen and Patrice Kindl alike.

Thoughts- So. Much. Fun!  Keeping the Castle is fluff…but it’s really, really well-done fluff.  Kindl follows a typical romance novel plot—boy and girl meet, girl says she doesn’t like boy, girl slowly comes to the realization that boy is wonderful, and they end up together.  Despite these tropes, Kindl manages to inject a lot of personality into all of her characters (especially Althea), and she makes the village of Lesser Hoo and its inhabitants so interesting and loveable that the weakness of the plot is pretty much a moot point.

One aspect of this novel I found to be extremely charming is the way Kindl keeps so many characteristics of Regency writing while still creating a story for modern readers.  The dialogue in Keeping the Castle sounds very period, and the plot conventions will be familiar to readers of both Jane Austen and romance authors like Georgette Heyer.  That being said, this book still feels contemporary to me.  You quickly adjust to the somewhat archaic dialogue, and the plot moves along at a fast pace, much like most contemporary YA romances.  I do think the book speaks more strongly to readers who have some experience with Austen’s writing, but I could also see it working as a bridge between current romance fiction and the classics.

The primary reason I think Keeping the Castle rises above its almost formulaic plot is the characterization.  All of the major characters (Althea, Lord Boring, Mr. Fredericks, the step-sisters) are finely drawn, fleshed-out people; most of all, they are funny without being caricatures.  I would recommend this book to someone looking for a fun, frothy romance or maybe to a teacher trying to find starter material for a unit on one of Austen’s works.

           

 

ttyl–Lauren Myracle (2004)

Myracle, Lauren.  ttyl.  Amulet Books, 2004.  209p.  Grades 6-12.  Realistic Fiction.

Maddie, Angela, and Zoe are tenth graders and best friends who promise to not let the trials and tribulations of adolescence split up their “winsome threesome.”  Spanning the first three months of the girls’ sophomore year and told completely in Instant Messenger format, ttyl realistically and humorously shows the boyfriend drama, bad choices, school cliques, and difficult decisions these girls face as they navigate the sometimes treacherous waters of high school.

Thoughts- ttyl is a fun, frothy book that I found to be almost compulsively readable.  The IM format (similar to the e-mail epistolary novels written by Meg Cabot) propels the plot along at a rapid-fire pace and the familiar tropes of realistic teen fiction (Queen Bees, partying, difficult parents) make for an easy read.  Maddie, Angela, and Zoe are all fairly stock characters (Maddie is the mouthy, rebellious one, Angela the semi-insecure flirt obsessed with clothes, and Zoe is the nerdy good girl), but Myracle does give each girl her own voice—easily distinguishable in the IM exchanges—and the story arcs of each girl are equally important and well-defined.  Although I know there has been much controversy surrounding ttyl, I admit that I am hard-pressed to truly understand it.  Yes, the girls have frank discussions about sex, their bodies, and alcohol, but these discussions are all fairly benign.  Yes, the girls sometimes make bad decisions, but they definitely learn from them.  Adults might be shocked by some of the language used, but I think they would agree with most of the conclusions drawn in the end.

I enjoyed reading ttyl but found it to be fairly lightweight; for me, it seems like pure escapist literature.  I do think, however, that it would be hugely appealing to teenagers for a number of reasons—it is funny, easy to read, true to the teen experience, and designed specifically with young adults in mind.  I do worry, though, that it has become a little dated since its debut in 2004.  The pop culture references, descriptions of clothing/hairstyles/makeup, and use of technology are all somewhat outdated at this point, and teens have a keen eye for that sort of detail.  Perhaps they might read it (as I did with Judy Blume’s Forever…) with a little whiff of nostalgia for a time before everyone had a smart phone and Facebook was just a twinkle in Mark Zuckerburg’s eye.