Retta Lee Jones has a dream to become a famous country singer like Dolly Parton or Patsy Cline. She’s just been marking time in high school, waiting tables at Bluebell’s Diner and longing for the moment when she can leave her small town forever and head for the bright lights of Nashville. A few weeks after graduation, in her great-aunt Goggy’s aged Caprice Classic and with just $500 in her jeans pocket, Retta takes off, hoping that talent, drive and determination will be enough to make her dreams come true. But if you’ve ever listened to any country music, you know that’s about as likely as cat getting out of a room full of rocking chairs with it’s tail intact. First she gets in a car accident. Then she gets mugged, losing the rest of her small savings. Soon she’s sleeping in the back seat of the Caprice and bathing homeless style in public restroom sinks. Retta manages to score a singing gig in a local dive outside Nashville, but the cheap owner rarely remembers to pay her, while the audience is pretty small and mostly made up of senior citizens. It seems like every bad thing that ever happened in a country song is happening to Retta–until she snares a spot singing at open-mike night at the Mockingbird Café, a famous Nashville club where lots of singers have been discovered. But just as things are looking up, Retta gets a devastating phone call. Her family is in crisis, and they need her to come home. Will this songbird ever be given the opportunity to fly? Or will her wings be clipped by unfortunate circumstances and bad luck? It’s so refreshing to read a book about a topic that’s hasn’t been rehashed about six thousand times already in YA Lit. Supplee’s chapter headings are famous country music songs that form a playlist for Retta’s journey, along with brief bios of the singers themselves. I loved learning quick facts about country stars from Patty Loveless to Keith Urban and everyone in between. Retta’s determination not to give up in the face of terrible odds is sincere and hopeful without being sappy. While country music may not be your thang, this is one novel that’s long on lit. and short on twang 🙂 (I know, I know. You’re good to bear with me.)
Even though you know you’re not supposed to watch it because it deals with lots of, a-hem, “mature” topics, I’m guessing many of the female teens (and probably lots of dudes as well) who read this blog have followed, or at the very least caught an episode of the uber-popular HBO cable show Sex and the City. It would be hard not to. From 1998-2004, it seemed that Sarah Jessica Parker’s face as fictional sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw was on the side of every building, bus and subway here in NYC. But what some of you might not know is that the idea for Carrie’s character originally came from a book of REAL collected advice columns by Candace Bushnell, also called Sex and the City that the TV show was based on. Now Bushnell has imagined Carrie’s humble beginnings as a small town high school senior in The Carrie Diaries—a book you can assure your mom that, unlike the show, is TOTALLY appropriate for you! What’s most fun about The Carrie Diaries is discovering the origins of all of grown-up Carrie’s personality quirks. (Because SJP IS CB to me, I couldn’t help picturing the teenage Carrie as SJP from her Square Pegs days) Her penchant for one-of-kind shoes is shown through the vintage white leather go-go boots she sports on the first day of school. When her bratty little sis trashes one of her favorite bags, she makes it over into a fashionable showstopper, clearly foreshadowing all the fabulous future bags and outfits to come. She has three other best friends who play significant roles in her life, and of course, she’s torn between two boys, playa and Mr. Big-in-training Sebastian and sweet but boring George. She’s also dying to become a writer, any kind of writer, and gets her big break through penning a naughty but oh-so-true anonymous advice column in the school paper. Sound familiar? But my absolute favorite part of The Carrie Diaries has got to be the very last line of the book, which lays the groundwork for one of the grown-up Carrie’s most seminal relationships. I was beaming so broadly when I closed the cover that everyone on the subway must have thought I was nuts. Some critics have already said that the book, set in the 1980’s, is too dated for modern teen readers. But c’mon. You all know this show. Even if you didn’t live through the 80’s, current pop culture is still saturated with 80’s references. So if you’re a fan of the show, the original book, or the movie (and soon to be released sequel) you’ll definitely want to pick this up. And if you’ve never even seen the show and just want to read some intelligent, funny, solid chick lit, then you’ll want to pick it up, too! Seriously, when it comes to The Carrie Diaries, it’s a win-win situation.
Seventeen-year-old Lennie has felt completely lost since her older sister Bailey, aspiring actress and all around amazing gal, died suddenly from a heart arrhythmia right in the middle of play practice. Always in Bailey’s shadow, now shy Lennie doesn’t know how to be in the sun without her big sis. Further complicating matters is the fact that the sisters were raised by Gram and hippie Uncle Big because their mom left town when they were tots and hasn’t been heard from since. Gram is convinced that one day she’ll return, but Bailey dreads ever seeing her now and having to tell her she is abruptly, horribly one daughter short. Then there’s Lennie’s love life, which shouldn’t matter like a time like this, but is absurdly taking center stage. For a girl who’s barely kissed a boy, she suddenly has two ardent beaus on her hands: French songwriter Joe Fontaine whose long eyelashes and composing skills make her heart sing, and skater boy Toby, whose passionate kisses ease the pain of Baily’s passing—because he also happens to have been Bailey’s boyfriend. “I kiss him back and don’t want to stop because in that moment I feel like Toby and I together have somehow…reached across time, and pulled Bailey back.” Yeah. As you can clearly see, it’s a mess. What do you say to a heartbroken boy who whispers, “I just want to be near you. It’s the only time I don’t die missing her.” ? Full of shame, guilt, lust and fear, Lennie juggles both boys, while trying to discover who she really loves and who she really is without Bailey to lead the way. “How can something this momentous be happening to me without her? And what about all the momentous things to come? How will I go through each and every one of them without her?”
What’s so unusual and super interesting about this debut tearjerker is Jandy Nelson’s fearless acknowledgment and exploration of the presence of sexual feelings in the midst of grief, and how these feelings can come on strong as a reaction against death. Lustful longings during a time of mourning are inconvenient and embarrassing to say the least, and Nelson captures that beautifully in Lennie’s shamefaced voice: “I am totally out of control. I do not think this is how normal people mourn.” These feelings, which come up at the most inappropriate times, also show how Lennie is developing as a person separate from her sister. In many ways, grief and her subsequent sexual awakening are making her over into a whole new being: “..what if somewhere inside I prefer this? What if as much as I fear having death as a shadow, I’m beginning to like how it quickens the pulse, not only mine, but the pulse of the whole world.” While I don’t think Sky has knocked Before I Fall out of the top weepy chick lit spot in my heart, it came pretty darn close. There’s some trailing plot threads that didn’t get tied up to my satisfaction, and some characters I would have liked to have seen more of (like mean Rachel, who I imagined looking like a blonde Lea Michele from Glee) But Nelson has a way with words, and certain phrases caught my attention and tugged at my heart, like this poignant expression about why Lennie has to stop hanging out with Toby, no matter how comfortable it is: “We can’t keep wrapping our arms around a ghost.” If you liked the weeptastic Broken Soup or Would You, you’ll definitely want to laugh and sob your way through Sky.
Scarlett Martin is back, and this time she’s…still hopelessly in love with charming rogue wanna-be actor Eric, who broke her heart in Maureen Johnson’s utterly enchanting New York story, Suite Scarlett. In this captivating sequel, the summer has ended, the set of the Hamlet production that took place in the dining room of her parents’ broken down NYC Art Deco hotel has been struck, and Scarlett still can’t manage to delete the library of pictures she has of Eric on her cell phone. The start of her sophomore year at school and the ongoing demands of her boss, the take-no-prisoners talent agent Mrs. Amy Amberson, help distract Scarlett from her romantic woes, but not by much. Then her older brother Spencer scores an ongoing role in a New York crime drama that sounds remarkably like this one, her older sister Lola commits an unthinkable act that throws the whole family into turmoil, and her usually snide, sarcastic younger sister Marlene is being suddenly, suspiciously nice. What the heck is going on with the Martin sibs? To make matters worse, Scarlett is in charge of convincing a young Broadway star into signing with Mrs. Amberson by way of her sullen, angry older brother Max, a classmate who is making Scarlett’s biology class hell with his refusal to do anything but be annoying. And did I mention Eric keeps dropping by unannounced to ask Scarlett for acting tips? You can read this laugh out loud sequel alone, but you will enjoy the saga of Scarlett so much more if you go back and read about her humble beginnings. As Scarlett Fever ends on an ambiguous note, it’s clear Johnson is going to regale readers with even more of Scarlett’s sojourns through life, love and NYC, and I for one cannot wait. For a guaranteed perfect beach reading experience, pack both Scarletts in your spring break suitcase.
In 1961, fourteen-year-old Lucia Alvarez lives a charmed life on the beautiful island country of Cuba. She loves reading the latest fashion magazines, daydreaming about her crush Manuel and planning her up-coming quincenara with her best friend Ivette. But storm clouds are gathering. President Fidel Castro has ordered factories to be shut down and churches closed. Lucia has noticed that many of her friends, included Ivette, have started attending the Jovenes Rebeldes youth political meetings sponsored by Castro’s government. There are soldiers on every corner. And her father’s boss at the bank has suddenly been arrested and taken away. At first, Lucia doesn’t understand why her parents don’t support the government revolution that promises to make everything better for everyone. “I couldn’t believe how judgmental Papa was being…Castro had no choice but to have the government take over many of the businesses so that there wouldn’t be so much corruption. It was all for the benefit of the country, and everyone was expected to pitch in and help. What harm was there in that?” But when her father is arrested for “hoarding” their family valuables instead of turning them over to the government and Lucia witnesses an unspeakable act of violence in the local park, she realizes her parents are right not to trust Castro’s Revolution. “Before, I didn’t want to think about people being jailed, killed or forced to leave their homes. I thought those people must have done something wrong or just didn’t love Cuba enough. But now I knew better…Castro was, in one way or another, eliminating those who didn’t agree with him.” And now Lucia has to accept an even harder truth—her parents are sending her and her little brother Francisco to the United States to keep them safe from the forced “youth brigades” that separate children from their parents. The last thing Lucia sees as her plane takes off for a foreign place called “Nebraska” is her mother’s bright red umbrella, the only speck of color in a sea of parents frantically waving goodbye to their children. Will she ever see her parents or Cuba again? “It was no use pretending this was an ordinary trip. We weren’t choosing to come here, and we had no idea when we’d be going back home.”
Good historical fiction introduces you to some intriguing tidbit of the past that somehow didn’t make it into your history textbook. That’s what Christina Diaz Gonzalez does with this oh-so-interesting debut novel. I had never heard of Operation Pedro Pan, the underground organization that helped over 14,000 children and teens get out of Cuba and into the United States in the early 1960’s. I was completely fascinated by the true aspects of Lucia’s story and immediately started looking up more information about Cuba during that time period (another hallmark of good hist. fic—it makes you want to dig up more facts on the topic!) In addition to her top notch research, Gonzalez’s depiction of Lucia and Francisco’s culture shock when they join their Nebraska foster family left me laughing and cringing at the same time. Like the scene where Mrs. Baxter, their Nebraska sponsor, has Lucia to put Tabasco sauce on her eggs: “ ‘Oh my, you don’t like it? Mrs. Baxter’s eyebrows were scrunched together. “I thought you liked spicy food. I read that in Mexico they put it on everything…’ ‘Ughmm.’ I cleared my throat. ‘In Cuba, we no eat spicy food. Mexico yes, Cuba no.’ Even my ears felt hot.” You can easily see why this hip hist. fic. needs to be put on your TBR list ASAP.
Samantha Kingston is a bitch. She and her three best friends Lindsay, Elody and Ally rule the school with their better-than-you attitudes and sky-high stilettos. Sometimes Sam feels a twinge in what passes for a conscience at the bottom of her small black heart, but she usually manages to squish it. February 12 is a Friday like any other, except on the way home from a party, Sam and her girls end up rolling their car and Sam’s life as she knows it is over. Until the next morning, when she wakes up in her bed. It’s February 12—again. At first Sam thinks maybe this is a coma dream, but soon she realizes that she’s trapped in a weird limbo—and she’s not sure what she’s supposed to do next. “Maybe when you die time folds in on you, and you bounce around inside this little bubble forever.” She feels anger (“I hate both of my parents right now…for letting the thread between us stretch so far and so thin that the moment it was severed for good they didn’t even feel it.”) then hopelessness (“I’m dead, but I can’t stop living.”) and finally resolve, as Sam realizes she can alter events, move people around, and perhaps avoid the inevitable crash that takes her life (“From now on I’m going to do things right. I’m going to be a different person, a good person. I’m going to be the kind of person who would be remembered well, not just remembered.”) But is Sam meant to save herself? Maybe the point of all this is to save someone else…
If Sarah Dessen and Jenny Downham collaborated, it might look a little like this rad reinvention of the mean-girl novel. Full confession? I dreaded reading this book. C’mon, a teen relives the last day of her life over and over? (Have I ever mentioned that Groundhog Day is one of my most hated movies of all time?) And it’s loooonnngg. Like 450+ pages long. But surprise, surprise, Lauren Oliver had me at hello with this elegantly crafted and completely mesmerizing story about a dead girl who learns what it means to live in just seven short days. Unlike Groundhog Day, each February 12 of Sam’s day is different, a whole life lived in 24 short hours as she tries to accept what she has lost and wishing she appreciated it more. The length ended up being important, as Sam goes over every detail of the careless existence she took for granted, causing YOU to consider all the little things in your life that you never think about but would miss terribly if they all went away. Like sunsets, little sisters and sappy movies, just to name a very few. Despite the length, there was a feeling of constant suspense as I wondered how on earth Oliver was going to solve Sam’s existential conundrum. I ended up loving every bit of it: the premise, the way Sam’s character realistically develops over the course of the story, the bittersweet end and yes, even the voluminous page count. This is a heart book. You will have an illogical urge to hug it when you’re done. I found myself racing through it, and sighing with great satisfaction upon finishing the last page. As you will, when this lovely and amazing tome comes to a library or bookstore near you.
“Somehow I knew there were a gulch between what got writ down about history and what were remembered by the people who went along living it.” In this hip hist. fic. about Victorian London, Marthe Jocelyn successfully channels the authentic voices of the ordinary people who “went along living” history, and whose stories are just as interesting as those famous folks who end up in all the textbooks. It’s 1877, and fifteen-year-old Mary has been sent away by her humorless potato-faced stepmother to find work. She secures a position in the scullery of a grand manor, where her fresh-faced innocence catches the roving eye of Bates the butler, and stirs envy in the bitter heart of parlor maid Eliza. A failed romance with a fickle groom ends in the unthinkable, and Mary learns the hard way that “Love is not for the likes of us, belowstairs.” What price will she have to pay for her folly? Flash-forward to 1884, where six-year-old orphan James Nelligan has been taken from his foster family and placed in the Coram Foundling Home, where he is taught that he is a “progeny of sin. It is therefore your duty to devote yourselves to goodness and servitude.” Under that dire legacy, he must learn to navigate the treacherous waters of hunger, bullies and strict headmasters. Still, he remains hopeful that one day he will be reunited with his foster mother, and keeps an eye out for the man who might be his biological father. How these two souls are related will soon become clear to quick-thinking readers, but what is masterful is how Jocelyn weaves the two stories together into a working class opera of hope and despair, adding the soprano of Eliza’s spiteful voice, and the pragmatic tenor of Oliver Chester, one of James’s teachers and a foundling himself. You might also want to check out some of Jocelyn’s other under the radar reads. Trust me, she’s the awesomest author you aren’t reading, and the time to change that is NOW.
Miranda and her family from Life As We Knew It have made it through the brutal winter. Limited government food supplies have started coming to her small Pennsylvania town, enough to keep her, her mother and two brothers alive as they try to figure out what to do next. Even though any food is long gone, Miranda and her brothers have taken to looting abandoned houses for items like toilet paper and toothpaste, which now seem like huge luxuries almost a year after the asteroid that hit the moon changed everything. And now things are changing once again. Suddenly, there are more mouths to feed when older brother Matt shows up with his new “wife,” Syl. And Miranda’s dad finally comes back with his wife Lisa, their new baby and several traveling companions, including Alex Morales and his sister Julie from The Dead and the Gone. Tensions rise around food distribution and family affections. While Miranda is thrilled to see a cute boy her age who isn’t related to her, she’s also worried about how much the newcomers will eat, and resents the fact that her father seems to care about Alex and Julie more than his own children. In addition, Alex has a secret that could either save or destroy this fragile new community of survivors. Who will live, who will die, and who will fall in unexpected love in This World We Live In?
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: what I love about these books is how Pfeffer paints the Armageddon not with a broad 2012 brush, but instead takes a subtle, infinitely scarier approach, where the simple things Miranda takes for granted, like privacy, the taste of toothpaste and the regularity of the seasons gradually disappear. Even something as benign as a quick bike ride to town could end in tragedy if she fell and broke a bone, as there are no more working hospitals, or doctors to staff them. All the rules have changed, and the consequences for thoughtless behavior could very well be fatal. Can love even exist under these conditions? Is it worth caring for someone who could be taken from you at any moment? Pfeffer raises these questions and many more in this thoughtful, moving conclusion to her end of the world trilogy. While you can read World on its own, you’ll want to take in all three titles for the full-on post apocalyptic experience.
In a medieval land where science and logic have begun to overtake faith and enchantment, Aisling still believes in fairies, having been fed a steady diet of supernatural tales by her beloved mother since she was a tot. But now her mother is dead and her father soon follows—but not before marrying a cold noblewoman who finds fairies to be superstitious nonsense. After her father’s death, Aisling or Ash as she is called, is demoted to a servant in her stepmother’s household, where she begins to dream of escape. She visits her mother’s grave, willing the fairies to take her, only to be turned down again and again by the fairy lord Sidhean. Then one day, Ash notices and is noticed by the King’s Huntress, a mysterious woman named Kaisa. Despite the difference in their stations, they soon become friends and suddenly Ash regains her will to live. But now she needs a favor in order to get closer to Kaisa, a favor only Sidhean can grant. The fairy agrees to give Ash what she wants, in exchange for her vow that she will become his “when the time is right.” Ash recklessly agrees, but soon regrets her choice when she realizes that she no longer wishes to leave her world for the cold, bright world of Fairie. Is it too late to change her mind? Is she brave enough to break her promise? Told in an understated, traditional tone, this upgraded and updated Cinderella story will take you by surprise when the love triangle of girl, fairy and huntress takes an unexpected turn. Newbie author Malinda Lo gives this oft-told tale a modern spit and polish, the results of which landed her as a finalist for the American Library Association’s William C. Morris YA Debut Award. And Lo’s in pretty hot company, check out the rest of the nominees (including Nina LaCour) here.
Tola (short for Chenerentola, Italian for “Cinderella”) Riley’s life is like a fairy tale. But not one of those pretty pink-tinted ones—more like the one where small children get lost in a dark forest, or the one where the girl finds pieces of her husband’s past wives hacked up behind a secret door. Tola’s as small as Thumbelina, with a nasty stepmother who never lets her see her father, a deeply depressed older sister who would like to fall asleep forever, and a wicked witch (swap that “w” for a “b”) named Chelsea spreading malicious rumors that Tola is sleeping with her dorky art teacher Mr. Mymer who wears t-shirts with sayings like, “Full Frontal Nerdity.” Even though the gossip is completely untrue, Mr. Mymer has been suspended and Tola’s been locked up like a princess in a tower by her angry and terrified mom. Alone in her room and surfing the Internet, Tola can’t believe what people are saying about her on their blogs: “How can all those people at TheTruthAboutTolaRiley keep telling stories using my name, if they’re not really about me? Am I so small, so insignificant that my own story doesn’t need me anymore?” Fortunately for her, lucky number Seven Chillman, resident hottie and all around cu-tee, has offered to be her toffee-candy secret prince. He believes in her. How come no one else does? Laura Ruby’s latest is an awesome mash-up of mean girl-meets-folklore-and-so-much-more. Cleverly told in a full-on snarky tone that hides a smile behind its’ snarl, BAD APPLE is a thoroughly modern and highly entertaining anti-fairy tale that is as sweet and sour as the Granny Smith on the cover!