Book review: ‘Populazzi’ by Elise Allen

Cross “Mean Girls” and “Never Been Kissed,” throw in a potent dash of TV shows like the new “90210” and mix with a side of “She’s All That” (oh, the ’90s!) for a taste of Elise Allen’s Populazzi, a young adult novel with plenty of sass mixed with its teen angst.

“Cara has never been one of those girls: confident, self-possessed, and always ready with the perfect thing to say. A girl at the very top of the popularity tower. One of the Populazzi.

“Now, junior year could change everything. Cara’s moving to a new school, and her best friend urges her to seize the moment—with the help of the Ladder. Its rungs are relationships, and if Cara transforms into the perfect girlfriend for guys ever-higher on the tower, she’ll reach the ultimate goal: Supreme Populazzi.

“The Ladder seems like a lighthearted social experiment, a straight climb up, but it quickly becomes gnarled and twisted. And when everything goes wrong, only the most audacious act Cara can think of has a chance of setting things even a little bit right.” (Goodreads)

Being an avid fan of such flicks mentioned above (especially “Never Been Kissed,” which I watched on endless repeat as a teen), I had a feeling Allen’s Populazzi would capture much of the spirit I enjoy about those films: the desire to stand out while still fitting in; the pressure to find a boy/girlfriend and keep them; the hope of being liked and understood by a good group of friends
. . . these are the issues that devour our energy in youth. And though I’m a decade removed from that time of my life, it’s not hard to put myself back there.

What I’d hoped to find in Populazzi, Cara’s story of rising to power in a suburban Pennsylvania high school, was there . . . if a little less compelling than I’d hoped. Not to sound like a big ol’ prude, but I found the novel’s focus on sex, drug use and changing to ascend a fictional “Ladder” to “Supreme Populazzi” a little unsettling. Though she’s eventually held accountable for her actions, Cara lies to her parents, sneaks around, dresses a “part” and almost sabotages her future by missing a very important college-related meeting. And subplots involving a creepy, emotionally abusive stepfather and pot-smoking ex-boyfriend left a sour taste in my mouth.

It’s all typical teenage stuff, I’m sure. But it left me feeling a little spent.

Though the ultimate message of the story was a positive one (be yourself and behave yourself), Cara had to go on quite a journey to get there. I couldn’t help but feel like Claudia, her best friend at the school Cara left behind, was intentionally leading her astray. Encouraging her to make bold moves without having to deal with the fall-out, giving her seemingly ridiculous advice about dumping dudes to “move on to the next one” in the name of popularity . . . well, it smacked of poor judgment. And being mean.

I guess that’s my major hang-up with the story: Cara didn’t endear herself to me. I found her actions callous at best and dangerous at worst. Becoming “emo” to attract the attentions of a bad-boy rocker goes contrary to every bit of advice we’re given when looking for a partner: don’t change for anyone else. And though I hate sounding like a serious fuddy-duddy, that didn’t work for me.


Despite my reservations and occasional discontent, Populazzi is an entertaining tale in the vein of those aforementioned ’90s teen flicks. It’s fun. Archer, our male hero, has plenty of swoonworthy moments with our lead . . . albeit their timing is continuously off throughout this big novel. We spend half our time wondering if Cara and Archer will cast aside their squabbles to actually communicate around their epic miscommunication, but I had a hunch — call it readerly intuition — that this one would have a happy ending.

And it did. For all her wardrobe changing, personality shifting, friendship busting and hot guy crushing, Cara ultimately sees the value of doing the right thing — and when given a chance to ruin someone else’s life for the sake of popularity, she makes a surprising decision. I felt a sense of maternal pride in our heroine then — and realized with a jolt that I’m starting to feel maternal toward teen characters.

And that scared me. Especially since I keep plucking stark-white hairs from my scalp. (Hi, I’m 27 going on 77. Don’t mind me.)

Fans of young adult fiction and stories where the “mean girls” get theirs will find some humor and heart in Allen’s Populazzi. As the characters often find themselves in pretty “adult” situations and there’s plenty of frank talk about sex, drinking, etc., I wouldn’t recommend it to readers younger than 14. Or, heck, 16. Or maybe 18.

And you kids get off my lawn!

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 054772196X ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Then and now: Young adult books I wish I’d read as a young adult

When I was fourteen, a freshman in high school, I began what I now refer to as my “difficult years.” I know I joke about the attitude and my unwillingness to wear Halloween costumes, for example, but this was more than that. This was growing up and being home on my own, being apart from my sister and parents, no longer spending after school hours with my grandparents. This was a seismic shift in my world.

I don’t remember everything I read in high school. I know that, late in the game, I discovered Meg Cabot and Sarah Dessen,  newcomers on the young adult fiction scene at the time (am I dating myself? Hello, 2001!). Always a voracious reader, I did lose myself in Cabot’s Princess Diaries series, one of my all-time favorites, and began to discover works from Shakespeare and Jane Austen. But nothing really stuck.

The first book I remember changing my world — and the book I credit with reawakening my love of literature — is Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. It completely encapsulated so many of my feelings about family, loss, identity and guilt. If I’d read The Namesake as a teenager, I might have seen several key events unfolding in my life a little differently — but that book hadn’t been written yet. And neither had Dessen’s The Truth About Forever, a novel about a young woman grappling with her father’s sudden death. All of these subjects, while sometimes morbid, helped me process my own conflicting emotions about loss and grief.

While I was fortunate to never lose a close relative or friend as a teenager, other losses were suddenly everywhere. A friend who suddenly stopped calling, stopped sitting at our designated lunch table. Others who moved away, leaving a ragged hole where their friendship once filled my life. A loss of time with my family; a loss of identity when I entered high school, a different one than my long-time best friend. The little losses stacked upon themselves, creating a mountain under which I was buried.

But I got through it. No one emerges from adolescence completely unscathed, but I relied on my family and extracurriculars like theatre to channel my energy and move through it. And books — amazing, amazing books — allow us to see shades of our own experiences in others, and to realize that we’re not alone with our troubles. That’s why YA fiction is so important: it provides a magic mirror into which teens and young adults can fall, experiencing life as someone else or just purely escaping the moment. The ability to see our own thoughts reflected back to us through a book is what makes reading so worthwhile to me.

Here are a few books I never read as a teen — because they didn’t yet exist; because I never found them — but wish I had.

Fat Cat by Robin Brande
Published in 2009

Catherine Locke — ace science student, budding anthopologist — is exactly the type of role model you’d want for a teen girl: funny, independent, intelligent, sassy, forward-thinking. She’s the friend you’d love to have and the student you’d dream of teaching.

But in addition to being a whiz kid and hard worker, Cat faces all the “typical” struggles of being a teenager: the search for acceptance and friendship; being the odd one out in groups; ridicule and self-consciousness about weight and appearances; and, ultimately, the sting of first love. Or unrequited love.

Reading this book at 24, I still found so many awesome lessons to be gained — and think my 14-year-old self would have really loved this one. Cat would have been my hero.

artichokes_heartArtichoke’s Heart by Suzanne Supplee
Published in 2008

Along the same lines as Fat Cat, Suzanne Supplee’s masterful, gorgeous and deeply poetic novel really struck a chord with me. Rosemary works hard, gets great grades in high school and rarely gives her mom a hard time, but her most definable characteristic is, first and foremost, her heavy frame. Rosie finally commits to losing weight, sure, but this is a story about way more than her quest to become thin.

What struck me most about this novel — then and now — was the tender, honest way Supplee portrays a very traumatic event: the critical illness of a parent. Having gone through something similar and grappled with a thousand and one emotions, I saw so much of myself in Rosie — and consider her one of my most favorite characters in all of YA fiction. Buy this one for the teen girls in your life, but don’t pass it along without reading it yourself.

abundance_katherines An Abundance Of Katherines by John Green
Published in 2006

When I fell in and out of love for the first time, I would have benefited from reading some of Green’s prose about a broken-hearted teen boy burnt out on endless (ill-fated) relationships with girls named Katherine. And this novel boasts one of my favorite lines from any book, ever:

“I don’t think you can ever fill the empty space with the thing you lost. … That’s what I realized: if I did get her back somehow, she wouldn’t fill the hole that losing her created.”

I completely believe that had I read that line at 19 or 20 years old, I could have been saved years of wondering and grief after that relationship ended.

True story.

north_of_beautifulNorth Of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley
Published in 2009

When I was gathering novels to donate to flood-ravaged schools in Nashville, this was the first one I grabbed. I can’t think of a more inspirational book than this one, the story of a young woman born with a birthmark across one cheek and a strong love of maps, compasses and art. Terra wants nothing more than to escape the controlling, abusive grip of her maniacal father, and find a free and clear space in which to create her artwork.

Being “branded” with an indelible mark on her face, it’s not until she meets Jacob, a Goth teen of Chinese heritage adopted by a loving American family. Under Jacob’s watchful eye, Terra emerges from the dark corners of her mind enough to bolster up her mother and take the trip of a lifetime. Suddenly, she can move forward and be stronger. She can be better and do more.

Terra is another fantastic role model — a young woman I both sympathize with and for while wishing I could channel some of her strength. This book was so exquisitely written and so moving, and it’s one of those books I wish I could read all over again . . . for the first time. One of my top reads of 2009, it’s not to be missed.

sloppy_firsts Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty
Published in 2001

Oh, Jessica Darling — my hero. A snarky writer, a cynical teen with a soft spot for one unexpectedly fantastic bad boy, a difficult but loyal friend, sister and daughter.

What would my high school years have been like had I read Sloppy Firsts when it was first published my sophomore year? Well, Jess would have been even more of a role model than she already is — being both lovable and prickly, all rolled into one. In so many ways, I feel like Jess is already a real friend.

Of course, I would have spent all my time looking for my own Marcus Flutie. And maybe those hours were better spent trying to pass AP exams.

Book review: ‘The DUFF’ by Kody Keplinger

Bianca Piper has always basked in her camaraderie with Casey and Jessica, her gorgeous (and blonde) friends at Hamilton High. Maybe she’s a little on the larger side than they are, sure, and her hair doesn’t have that same sleek, flowing quality. Perhaps she’s a little bitter, a little jaded — but it’s not like she doesn’t have a reason to be, okay? Her mom is, like, not around. And her dad has tons of issues of his own. And if she finds solace in folding and re-folding clothes at the foot of her bed and indulging in a little daydreaming about Toby Tucker, a cute classmate, who’s to judge her?

Well, Wesley Rush, for one. Wesley — all womanizing, skeezy charm and disarming good looks. Curly dark hair; awesome body. Wanted by half the female population in Hamilton and already enjoyed by the other. Wesley . . . who informs Bianca — unprovoked, unsolicited — that in her group of friends? She’s the DUFF.

The designated ugly fat friend.

If life was coasting along for our narrator up until that point, Bianca’s world suddenly comes crashing down. Issues with self-esteem bubble up and pop, forcing an unstoppable stream of venom in Wesley’s direction. Because she hates him, you guys. Like, really, really hates him. Despises him. Thinks he is the worst.

Except, you  know, not so much.

Kody Keplinger’s The DUFF is a novel about a high school student that was . . . well, written by a high school student. And you know what? It reads that way. This is both good — mostly realistic dialogue; somewhat believable teen characters — and bad. Because I felt like I was reading the diary of . . . well, a teenager. Of myself. And in the parts that were actually tender, there was truth there.

After all sorts of off-handed comments on Twitter, I’m going to try and keep my snark here to a minimum. I didn’t hate this book and I sincerely don’t want to be a hater, but I’m not sure I understand the hype surrounding this title. Though entertaining, The DUFF lacked a little something I like to call nuance. Something for readers to glean between the lines, if you know what I mean. Puzzles for me to figure out. Behavior for me to decipher. Clues as to the bigger picture — a picture I didn’t want to the author to spell out for me in pain-staking detail.

As Bianca and Wesley’s “relationship” heats up — and that’s not a spoiler, friends, promise — I would have loved to actually sit down and try to figure out why our narrator was sleeping with someone she claims to loathe. Not all sexual encounters are motivated by love — I can respect that. But the sound of his voice makes her sick, Bianca says. She can’t stand to look at him. He makes her crazy. He’s disgusting.

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
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Book review: ’13 Little Blue Envelopes’ by Maureen Johnson

13_littleAfter the early death of her adventurous (and eccentric) Aunt Peg, Ginny embarks on a trans-Atlantic romp that brings her from London to Greece, Rome, Copenhagen (and back again) by way of instructions in thirteen envelopes written by Peg to recreate her own travels through Europe. Worried that her beloved niece has been too quiet and shy for far too long, Peg develops the envelope adventure as a way to bring Ginny to a totally new place — and give her the ride of her life — after she is no longer there to guide her into adulthood.

I really enjoyed Maureen Johnson’s 13 Little Blue Envelopes, though I felt as though there was a disconnect between Ginny and everyone around her. Because the book was told in third person and we weren’t privy to Ginny’s private thoughts, the book seemed to amble along and keep us totally separate from our main character. She seemed numb — someone emotionally stunted. And after she meets boisterous and talented actor Keith in London, we only find out she’s somehow interested in him through a letter she writes to her best friend . . . a person we never actually meet. It was just a whole lot of telling and not enough showing for my taste. At the end of the novel, I still felt like I didn’t really knew Ginny at all.

But that being said, I can’t say I didn’t like this book . . . I really did. I loved the glimpses of European cities, especially the ones I’ve visited. Y’all know me well enough to be sure my little heart was palpitating at Ginny’s adventures in England and the friendship she strikes up with Richard, a man from Peg’s past.  Aunt Peg’s letters were really interesting, and I found myself reading compulsively to see where they would guide her next. The characters she met along the way were fun.

This was definitely an easy read — I finished it fast. Perfect for a car or plane ride. I would have liked a little more resolution at the end of the novel — what happened with the love interest? that was just it? and what’s going to happen to Ginny now? — but my fun reading about the international locations saved it for me.

3.75 out of 5!

ISBN: 159514191X ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Book review: ‘Forever In Blue’ by Ann Brashares

forever_in_blue Lena, Bridget, Carmen and Tibby are back for one last summer — and it’s a hot, confusing and rollicking one at that. Separated once more by distance and, really, their own new dilemmas, these four best friends from Maryland begin to rely so heavily on their beloved Traveling Pants — a pair of jeans that mysteriously fits each of the girls’ unique figures like a glove — to keep their friendships alive. Of course, this turns out to be a mistake. Like all relationships that aren’t given attention and love, even the unbreakable bonds of the sisterhood begin to fray.

Ann Brashares’s Forever in Blue: The Fourth Summer of the Sisterhood is the final book in the Sisterhood series, and I think it finished with a very satisfying conclusion. The jeans shared by all four girls were once the bond to unify them as they would often spend their summers apart — at camps, visiting family — and then reunite in the fall, just in time to resume classes at their high school in Bethesda. But as young women often do, they all grew up — high school graduation gave way to college courses and dorm rooms, and the continuity they once shared in living close together their entire lives was broken.

Lena stays in Providence, Rhode Island to continue painting classes — and meets a fellow classmate who teaches her quite a bit about what it is to let go; Bee signs up for a dig in Turkey, where she spends all day in the dirt — and thinks about who really misses us when we’re gone; Carmen and her bossy, arrogant “friend” Julia attend a theater camp, where Carmen realizes true friends aren’t the ones bringing you scones that may or may not be laced with a laxative or something!; and Tibby fights her own demons in New York City, holding on to Brian while simultaneously letting him go.

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