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

Book review: ‘When You Reach Me’ by Rebecca Stead

Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me was one of those novels gathering dust on my shelves since 2009, peeking its colorful head out every so often to squawk, “Hey, I’m still here, you know. Unread. Think you’ll get to me any time soon? You’ve read, like, thirty review books this year. And you paid good money for me, you idiot.”

Books can be so rude.

Set in the 1970s, When You Reach Me defies categorization. Its middle-school protagonist Miranda seems to settle it in a middle-grade or young adult fiction camp, but the themes — family; loyalty; friendship; time travel — speak to a diverse audience. As a 27-year-old who hasn’t dealt with bullies or mangled friendships in quite some time, I still found myself intrigued by Miranda’s story and easily relating to the complicated web of school dynamics. And there are these mysterious notes . . .

The time travel aspect was one of the most startling and delightful bits of this unique, fast-paced story. Loosely centered on the friendship between Miranda and best friend Sal, When You Reach Me has a series of odd letters at its heart. Miranda is a huge fan of Madeleine L’Engle, devoting her days to reading A Wrinkle In Time (which she refers to only as “her book”), and the reader starts to think all this time-travel business has gone to her head. She’s daydreaming, I thought. Or, She’s hallucinating.

To be honest, I wasn’t always sure of what was going on. But that disjointed nature — that confusion — made the ending all the sweeter.

For young readers, Miranda is the type of heroine we would wish our daughters to emulate. She’s whip-smart, inquisitive, watchful, loyal. She’s fearful of the crazy man on the corner, the one who seems to spend most of his time sleeping beneath a mailbox, and devoted to her mother. Throughout the narrative, Miranda’s single mom is preparing for a stint on a game show — and “The $10,000 Pyramid” is seen as a chance to help elevate their small family beyond their meager circumstances. Though Miranda never speaks of being poor in New York City, there’s a huge gap between she and a classmate, Julia — a gap Miranda constantly acknowledges. She was a sweet kid, I kept thinking — and a caring one. A kid you’d like to have yourself.

So much is happening here: Sal and Miranda’s floundering friendship; the kids’ new “job” working at a deli on their  lunch breaks; the friction between Sal and a kid who pummels him on a city street — one who ends up being Marcus, a pivotal character; and the strange notes that keep falling out of Miranda’s possessions, tucked away and packed with private knowledge. As Miranda further explores the concept of time travel with Marcus, the only other kid who doesn’t seem to think her interest is crazy, the pieces come together.

Though the plot is relatively simple, the story has great depth. Three years after purchasing this book, I’d forgotten what inspired me to pick it up — but other readers’ suggestions came flooding back to me as I read. It’s unconventional, surprising, heartwarming, true — all facets of a book I’m happy to call a winner. And when you’re finished, you’ll want to start all over again . . . piecing together the mystery that surprised me from the start.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0385737424 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Book review: ‘Girl Unmoored’ by Jennifer Gooch Hummer

Sometimes a novel hops into your lap, looks into your weary eyes and wraps its little paper arms around you. The hug from this book feels so real, so good that you never want to part with it — and that’s exactly how I feel about Girl Unmoored. And Apron Bramhall, a redheaded teen heroine unique enough to match her name.

It’s 1985 in small-town Maine, and seventh-grader Apron Bramhall is grappling with many competing forces: the aftermath of the unexpected loss of her mother; her father’s sudden remarriage to Marguerite, a woman Apron stubbornly refers to only as “M”; the betrayal of her best friend and its accompanying loneliness; and the appearance of Mike and Chad, two florists who form an unlikely alliance with our young heroine.

In a story brimming with love, warmth, loss, grief and everything in between, Apron must come to grips with her changed family — and the changing world.

It’s almost impossible to summarize Jennifer Gooch Hummer’s Girl Unmoored — mostly because this story was so much more than I ever thought it would be, and caused me to feel So Many Emotions I can barely articulate them all. Knowing it deals with loss and grief, I wasn’t sure how maudlin the story would become . . . but in Hummer’s very talented hands, what could have ventured into sad-sack territory somehow left me feeling enlightened and uplifted.

Reflecting on the book, that’s the word that keeps coming back to me: uplifted. Because even a book about death, homophobia, pain and ignorance somehow left me feeling good. And yes, I’m serious — I think it would be nearly impossible to finish Girl Unmoored without some sort of smile on your face. Because Apron? She’s amazing. And I’m feeling amazed by how much I adored this book.

Where was sassy, bright, hilarious, brave and klutzy Apron when I was 13? Because really, girl knows what’s what. Partly because her mother’s terminal illness robbed her of a childhood, I know, but she’s incredible all the same. After all these changes, Apron feels . . . well, unmoored. At least until she meets Mike, a handsome actor portraying the title role in a local theatre’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Apron attends with her judgmental friend Rennie, a simple girl who comes from a deeply religious family. When word gets around that Mike is a little more than “friends” with Chad, and that Chad is has a mysterious illness, proverbial — and literal — stones are cast at them. And Apron — amazing Apron — is somehow the link that holds everyone together.

I can’t tell you why I loved this story so much, but I read parts with my hands shaking and tears streaming down my face. One particularly incredible moment — which I won’t spoil for you — comes near the close of the novel . . . when Apron retrieves a photo of her mother to give to someone in need. When she passes it over and explains why she’s sharing it, I actually felt like my heart was breaking. Like, cracked open on a broken mirror. And it’s been a long time since I felt like a book was breaking through that harsh Meg exterior.

I loved Hummer’s writing and Apron’s unique turns of phrase, especially when she was embarrassed or scared or angry (“My hair is melting,” for instance). I loved Mike and Chad and the pure devotion they had to one another; I even loved Dennis, Apron’s screwed-up, grief-stricken father, because I can’t fault him for what he does and somehow wound up caring deeply for him. Even “M,” Apron’s mother’s nurse-cum-wifely-replacement, had her endearing moments . . . until she said something that made me want to punch her. And then? Then I was glad things worked out as they did. I also loved Dennis’ obsession with Latin and how he instills a passion for it in Apron, and how each chapter opens with a telling phrase that had me wanting to read them all aloud.

Despite all my crying fits, I finished Girl Unmoored feeling like I could spend another 1,000 pages with Apron. Like I wanted to meet up with her a decade later for coffee, chatting about what she’d done with all that curiosity, courage and intellect. Though our narrator is a kid, absolutely nothing about this book is child-like — and I’m not sure how it’s being marketed. Young adult fiction? Coming-of-age drama? Contemporary fiction?

Regardless, readers, lend me your ears (eyes?): read this book. You will feel human and alive. It’s the one I’m going to be touting all year, declaring to others that this is the book we should all be trying to write. And the one we should all want to read.

5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1936558300 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Lola and the Boy Next Door’ by Stephanie Perkins

In her hometown of San Francisco, 17-year-old Delores “Lola” Nolan is used to standing out — and she prefers it that way. Between her multicolored wigs, outlandish dress and brilliant makeup, Lola attracts attention everywhere she goes. One such admirer is Max, her 22-year-old boyfriend . . . and Lola’s parents are none too happy about it.

But in the cocoon of her comfortable relationship with Max, Lola tries to forget about the first boy who stole her heart: Cricket Bell, her adorable and quirky former next-door neighbor. As Cricket’s twin sister enjoyed stardom as a rising talent in the figure skating world, the Bell family relocated years before . . . much to Lola’s relief. After their friendship soured, being around Cricket — her dear friend; maybe her first love — was torture.

But as soon as Lola gets Cricket off her mind, a moving truck reappears at the Victorian next door. Throw in a well-meaning best friend, over-the-top birth mother and a host of other difficulties and Lola’s life is quickly becoming chaos.

Stephanie Perkins’ Lola and the Boy Next Door, her sophomore novel and companion to the phenomenal Anna and the French Kiss, was a readable if ultimately flat story. After falling head over heels for Etienne St. Clair in Anna, I was fully prepared to go ga-ga over Cricket — and, you know, I did.

But who I didn’t — and couldn’t — fall for? Lola.

I’m not going to make this a “OMG the first book was so good and this one is just blah” sort of review, but that’s essentially how I feel. Though Lola certainly goes through a transformation from beginning to end, I found her to be a pretty ridiculous, self-centered narrator. I guess that’s how we’re supposed to feel, really, but it just didn’t endear her to me. The costumes and ridiculous makeup and seriously gross, sexual relationship with 22-year-old Max bothered me to the core. Though all the action happens off page, I felt completely skeeved out by the idea that a twenty-something rocker would seduce a teen girl. Creepy, weird and wrong.

And okay. Lola is a teen trying to find her way in the world, sure, and she’s certainly been dealt an unusual hand in life. Her birth mother is a recovering addict who floats in and out of her world — the one she shares with Andy and Nathan, her fathers. Norah’s abrupt reappearance in Lola’s life sends our narrator for a tailspin, and I don’t fault her for that. But her reactions to everything are just so exhausting and dramatic. Everything reduces her to tears or sends her into epic rage fits or has half the neighborhood peeking at her in befuddlement.

It’s just the hormones and teendom, I know, but it was . . . too much.

I loved Cricket but found it slightly unbelievable that he would devote so much time obsessing over . . . Lola. Opposites attract and all that, but he seems so adorably nerdy and sweet that Lola’s wild streak didn’t quite mesh for me. I was surprised to see so many appearances by St. Clair and Anna in this one, too, but every scene involves them talking about how in looooove they are and how “when you know, you know,” etc., and so on, and so forth. As Lola tries to figure out whether her heart lies with Max or the boy next door (and slight spoiler: honestly, do you really not know who she’ll pick?), she looks to Anna and St. Clair’s seemingly perfect relationship as a barometer.

I don’t know. I didn’t dislike this book — I read it very quickly — but it lacked the sparkle of Anna. Part of that is the switch in settings, I’d wager; I’m quickly on my way to becoming a francophile, and the Parisian scenes in Perkins’ debut are to die for. Though I love San Francisco, I’ve never left my “heart there,” so to speak. It didn’t captivate me the way that France did.

And, you know. Cricket is American. Cute — very cute — but American. And St. Clair is British. So in Meg’s Book of Hotness, St. Clair automatically wins.

Fans of Perkins’ first novel and young adult fiction might find Lola and the Boy Next Door to be a fun, if predictable, read. I appreciated the unique characters, but I didn’t want to crush this book in a hug the way I did with Anna.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0525423281 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program

I read it and now you can: win THE DUFF!

It’s no secret that my feelings on Kody Keplinger’s The Duff were lukewarm, at best. And since I purchased the novel with my hard-earned cash, I’d like to pass it along to a good home — and a reader who might enjoy it!

My gently read hardcover copy is up for grabs for one winner in the U.S. or Canada by submitting this form. The giveaway is open until 12 p.m. (noon) on Friday, Nov. 5, and one randomly-selected winner will then be emailed (and announced in this post) by yours truly. One (+1) additional entry is available per person by spreading the word on Twitter, Facebook, etc. Maximum of two entries total per entrant.

Your submitted information is seen by my eyes only, and I’ll delete the form after the giveaway closes. I’ll have the book on its way to you as soon as I hear back with a mailing address!

EDIT on Nov. 5: Congrats to Natanya, our randomly-selected winner! I’ve emailed you.

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.
Continue reading

Book review: ‘Rowan The Strange’ by Julie Hearn

In a classic case of don’t judge a book by its cover, Julie Hearn’s Rowan The Strange is a moving, emotional and unforgettable read centering around 13-year-old Rowan Scrivener, a British teen battling “voices” in his head. It’s 1939 and England is at war — just as the battles begin in the Scrivener home. When Rowan accidentally harms his young sister, his parents decide it’s time to take him where he can get well: an asylum in the countryside.

Under the care of Dr. von Metzer, a German with experience in mental illness, Rowan undergoes electric shock therapy — and develops interesting new personality traits. While undergoing treatment, he meets Dorothea, a young woman who believes each of us has a guardian angel looking out for us. Spirited, angry and sarcastic, Dorothea “runs” the ward where Rowan stays — which, for a while, includes just the two of them.

The unlikely friends work through their issues together as they prepare for the Christmas pantomime, a play the asylum’s attendees put on each holiday season. After Rowan is cast in a major role, he must confront his own fears to perform his part well. And maybe help others in the process.

There aren’t enough great things to say about Rowan The Strange, a book I read for the Nerds Heart YA tournament. After pulling up the book — which I could only find imported from the UK, where it is published — I immediately cringed at the creepy cover, reading the description with a growing sense of unease. A teenage boy? A mental patient? An asylum? World War II? . . . Not my usual reading fare. And I seriously considered wrapping the book to hide the cover art, so much did that blue face disturb me. (And prompted my sister to walk into the room, wrinkle her nose and yell, “What the hell are you reading?!”)

Well, I was reading Rowan. And what a strange, glorious adventure it was.

The book’s strength lies in our main character — a young boy who has no idea what’s happening to him and why, who desperately clings to the belief that someday he’ll be “normal.” Taunted as “Ro the Strange” by classmates and his sister, Rowan tries to control the voice in his head that causes him to have “panics” and do strange things, but he’s powerless to stop it. What carried me through the narrative was the belief that Rowan was, in his heart, a good person — a good son, a good brother. This wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, really, but it most especially wasn’t his.

Every preconceived notion I had about the plot proved wrong. I assumed the Scriveners would be a surly lot, angry that they had a “damaged” son, embarrassed by him and desperate to send him away. (Wrong.) I assumed Rowan would be an awkward, silly boy, dangerous and scary and just plain weird. (Wrong.) I assumed Dr. Von would be a masochist, a deranged German doctor with no regard for his patients’ well-being and only a regard for the “science” of the experiments he performed on them. (Wrong.)

In fact, I was wrong about nearly everything in Hearn’s novel — including my own belief that I would loathe this one, turning the pages as if weights were positioned on my fingers. In reality? I tore through it in record time, eager to find out what happened to Rowan and hopeful that he would find the solace he seeked. I loved his nana, a kindly woman who never once treated Rowan like he was someone to fear, and his parents, who were so supportive. Against the backdrop of World War II in London, the Scriveners managed to stay brave, strong and loving — even with their children all over the country.

You know? I just loved this book. If you get the chance, I think you’ll — surprisingly! — really love it, too. And check out Nicole’s review of this marvelous novel.

4.75 out of 5!

ISBN: 9780192729200 ♥ Purchase from Book DepositoryAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Rowan The Strange was read in conjunction with Nerds Heart YA, a tournament showcasing under represented young adult literature. Check back tonight to learn whether Lost by Jacqueline Davies or Rowan The Strange will advance to the next round! My decision will be made with Nicole of Linus’s Blanket and posted at 7 p.m. Tuesday.