Category Archives: teen lit


by Amanda Maciel
Published by Balzer + Bray
336 pages
Genre: young adult 
4 / 5


Whoever said your teen years were the best of your life was a lying fool.

Either that person wants you to be as miserable as he (or she) was, or he lives in some sort of delusional utopia.

If you don’t believe me, read Tease.

Sara is on the cusp of her senior year, full of plans for the future. Specifically, plans for her future with Dylan (or D-Licious, as some girls call him), her gorgeous baseball playing boyfriend. Sara almost can’t believe she’s lucky enough to be with him, and when he asks her for sex. she complies, if only to ensure that she keeps him.

That, my friends, is completely typical of high school girls.

What, thankfully, is not typical is how Sara reacts to Emma Putnam, a stunning new student who grabs Dylan’s attention. She grabs the attention of a lot of boys, actually, much to the extreme ire of Sara and her BFF, spoiled beauty Brielle. Unaccustomed to not being the center of attention, Brielle has her own motivations for making Emma’s life miserable, although she gives good voice to her primary concern being for Sara.

What these two – and a few of their friends – do to Emma is shocking and horrifying. To call it “bullying” seems almost incomplete or inadequate. It’s torture of the teen variety, with attacks firmly focused on Emma’s misery.

The thing is, though, Emma? Is not quite the innocent victim.

And therein lies the discomfort – the wonderful, agonizing discomfort – of reading this book.

We can all agree that bullying is horrific. It is a crime worth punishing. Sara, Brielle, and their ilk bring all of their town’s denigration and disgust on themselves. What increases our revulsion is that none of them seem to be particularly remorseful. In fact, Sara’s primary concerns seem to be whether or not she and Dylan are still dating and whether or not she and Brielle are still buds. That Emma committed suicide because of how Sara, Brielle, and their co-conspirators treated her is beside the point. Emma suffered? Well, she brought it on herself, didn’t she? Maybe if she hadn’t been such a slut. Maybe if she hadn’t tried to steal Dylan away from his girlfriend. Maybe if she hadn’t courted and cultivated the jealousy and rage directed toward her.

Maybe if Emma had been more likable or engendered more sympathy and empathy? Maybe she’d still be alive.

Of course this sounds irrational and hateful. Of course anyone who thinks this way is to be excoriated to the worst degree. And of course – OF COURSE – no one deserves to be treated as Emma was treated.

But ….

…. and here is where Amanda Maciel’s writing becomes so good that it hurts ….

…. Emma didn’t have to try to hard to be the object of such jealousy.

How can we empathize with the victim and her tormentors?

Oh, we can. Sometimes you want to shake Emma so hard that her teeth rattle. And sometimes you want to scream at Sara, Brielle, and Dylan. Sometimes you want to lock all four of them in a room until they learn to get along.

Perhaps if the “adults” around them had done that, Emma would still be alive. As it is, every parent, teacher, and administrator shirks their responsibility. When it is clear that Emma is suffering, no one comes to her aid. The perpetrators are not brought to punishment, and Emma’s agony only intensifies. No one is on her side. Sara observes that when Emma died, she took everyone with her. She may be referring only to the kids, but Sara should know that Emma took the adults too.

In the end, though, one truth remains: no one should be made to suffer as Emma was.

No one.

Regardless of how “slutty” or “boyfriend stealing” or “lying” or “cheating” she may be.

No one deserves it.

And that is the lesson Sara has to learn in the hardest ways possible.

I loved this book. It is not easy to read, and it gives no pat answers. You won’t find the characters in a group hug, and you may not like the punishments meted out. Maciel doesn’t offer a twelve step anti-bullying program, nor does she deliver any ringing denunciations or commendations of her characters. They are all guilty.

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Filed under teen lit, YA

Catch a Falling Star

catch a falling starCatch a Falling Star
by Kim Culbertson
Published by Scholastic
304 pages
Genre: young adult
3.5  / 5


Location, location, location.

It’s what sells real estate, and it might just be the key to love and romance.

Carter Moon has spent her whole life in Little, California, and if she has it her way, she will continue to do so. She adores her small town and has no intention of leaving, even with college beckoning.

When famous movie star Adam Jakes hits town for a movie production (what sounds like a really awful remake of A Christmas Carol), he’s in need of some image rehab. Who better than local girl Carter to be Adam’s new squeeze?

The fake romance goes according to plan until one – or perhaps both – of the parties starts to fall for the other one. Hijinks ensue.

Like any couple, real or phony, Carter and Adam have to get to know each other. Their initial skepticism begins to erode as they get closer, each of them discovering that there is more to the other than meets the eye. In fact, Adam sees what Carter can’t: she is bigger than Little.

Your senior year of high school is fraught with nerves under the best of circumstances. Will you get accepted by your college of choice? Will you be able to pay for it? What will you study? What will happen with your friends? But Carter’s questions center around one: how can I stay home? She has her reasons, yes, but her fear is foremost. She worries about her family; will they remain cohesive if she leaves? And, of course, she has immense fear of the unknown. Adam sees this, and he tries to encourage her to pursue her life apart from her family.

At the same time, Carter has to deal with her two closest friends, who have started dating. There might be some residual jealousy there, on the parts of at least two of the trifecta. If you maybe perhaps could potentially like your best friend, then do you want to see that person date someone else?

Yes, Carter has quite the To Do list in front of her. Fortunately, she’s an enjoyable character who makes us wish the best for her. Adam, too, is likable. He defies some movie star stereotypes while cementing others. He deserves, as much as Carter, to be happy.

A sweet, adorable story of teenagers trying to figure out who they are and what they want.


Filed under sweet romance, teen lit, YA

The Last Best Kiss

last best kissThe Last Best Kiss
by Claire LaZebnik
Published by Harper Teen
384 pages
Genre: YA; teen lit 
4 / 5


It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen’s novels translate pretty well into today’s teen lives. Let’s begin with Emma, which worked very nicely in Clueless.

With The Last Best Kiss, Claire LaZebnik takes Persuasion and rewrites it with teenagers in the starring roles. It turns out this was a pretty smart move on her part.

On the cusp of her senior year, Anna Elliott is in a reflective mood. She’s seventeen, making college plans, and thinking about her high school years with a mix of regret, and anticipation. Yes, she looks forward to all of the milestones to come her way, but she has a twinge (more than a twinge – an ache) when she recalls how she treated her first love, Finn.

They met during freshman year, and dorky, awkward Finn clicked immediately with popular girl wannabe Anna. Their relationship was progressing smoothly and happily until it interfered with Anna’s quest for “It Girl” status. Finn was just a little too … socially unacceptable. When Anna’s embarrassment over him becomes palatable, Finn withdraws himself from her life, eventually moving away with his family.

Now it’s two years later, and Finn is back. And, yes, he’s better than ever.

Immediately embraced by Anna’s friends, Finn clearly bears a grudge against Anna, who is overwhelmed by the rush of feelings she has for him. It doesn’t help that Finn has grown up – literally. He’s tall, gorgeous, and confident, and quickly becomes the object of interest for some of Anna’s friends.

Just as her namesake did in Persuasion, Anna has to get over herself. She has to face the mistakes she made and try to rectify them, even if it means suffering heartache in the process. She still cares about Finn, but every time she begins to get the sense that he returns her affection, he withdraws. She still cares deeply about him, and she realizes the extent of the mistakes she made when they were freshmen.

While Finn remains something of a mystery (we never quite understand the extent of his relationship with Lily, especially since she seems to engage in behaviors he does not approve of. Then again, Finn tells Anna on several occasions that what he likes about Lily is her complete lack of concern over what others think about her. As annoying and occasionally one-note as Lily is, LaZebnik acknowledges this by having a character ask if Lily is like “one of those John Green characters” bent on being free spirited and a bit destructive.

The subplot with Anna’s father and a barely-out-of-college friend of her sister’s is nicely done. Just as with Mr. Elliott in Persuasion, Anna’s father is pretentious and vapid, a man who preens for others to compensate for his lack of depth.

What makes Persuasion such an interesting choice for a young adult novel is its message: do not allow others to dictate your relationships. As frustrated as we get with Anna – as much as we want to scream at her – we understand. This is a high school girl who cares (too much) about what others think about her. Granted, if I had her parents, I doubt I’d be much different.

LaZebnik knows her characters and knows their voices. She respects them, even as she teaches them lessons. She knows that Anna needs to learn how to follow her own heart, that she needs to listen more to herself and less to others.

It’s a lovely book with a timeless message, perfect for teenagers – and those of us slightly out of our teen years …

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pretendersPretenders (Pretenders #1)
by Lisi Harrison
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Genre: Young Adult, pre-teens
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview
4 / 5

When you’re in high school, don’t you hope that everyone else feels like as big of a pretender as you? Don’t you wish that those kids who seem so together and as if they have everything they want secretly believed they were unworthy or a fraud?

Sure you did.

And that’s why Pretenders is such a fun book to read.

Oh, it’s frustrating, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

This is the tale of five freshmen and how they plan to survive their first year of high school. Or at least pretend to do so.

Sheridan is so self-conscious and insecure that the only way she can cope with changing loyalties and apparent betrayals is to pretend to be different celebrities. She dresses like them (Anna Kournikova?) and assimilates their personalities into her own. The problem with this, of course, is that Sheridan can’t see what everyone else can: she has no idea who she really is.

Homeschooled Lily Bader-Huffman convinces her parents to let her go to high school when her best (and gay) friend is sent. Lily’s parents agree, provided she maintains her A+ average. This wouldn’t be a problem, except Lily is besotted with Andrew Duffy, a basketball phenom destined to make varsity as a freshman. But Duffy has his own crosses to bear, and Lily’s appearance in his life registers nary a blip. It’s a good thing she has Vanessa Riley, a gorgeous Vanessa Williams-esque girl whose beauty is only exceeded by her brains. Vanessa’s family is falling apart, and she feels the only thing that can keep them together is her report card.

Finally, there is Jagger, the requisite Bad Boy. He is an emancipated minor living alone in the family home because his parents are in jail. He tells one character that he’s being pursued by a guy bent for vengeance. Can we believe a word he says?

Their lives intersect, as you knew they would. Each character tells his or her own story in a sort of diary format, the source of which – journals they keep for an English class – appear to have been stolen. The book opens with an anonymous declaration that the journals have been “leaked” because everyone is tired of the pretending.

Just as the stories gel – just as we feel we know these characters and understand what motivates them – the book ends. Just … ends. It’s baffling, really, until you consider that Lisi Harrison has a Part 2 coming out in June 2014. Then it makes sense.

If you can put up with the cliffhanger, this is a good choice for young teenage readers. They undoubtedly will find characters with whom they relate, and, in seeing themselves in Sheridan, Lily, Duffy, Vanessa, and Jagger, perhaps they will get the strength of will to stop pretending.

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Pushing the Limits

Pushing the Limits
by Katie McGarry
Published by Harlequin Teen
416 pages
Available on
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview
4 / 5 cupcakes

Some things are best left forgotten, but in Echo Emerson’s case, some things need – must – be remembered. You see, Echo believes her mother tried to kill her, but she has zero recollection of the events that landed her nearly lifeless body in the hospital and left her with a plethora of scars detailing her arms. Scars that Echo tries to hide every day, regardless of the weather, with long sleeved shirts.

Noah Hutchins, on the other hand, would like to forget some things. He’d like to forget that his parents died in a fire, he would like to forget that his two young brothers live with foster parents, and he’d really love to forget the circumstances behind his parents’ deaths.

In order for each of these people to survive high school, let alone life itself, they need to remember, whether they like it or not. And both are delivered to school psychiatrist Mrs. Collins, whose job entails helping them process and moe past those events that paralyze them.

In Echo’s case, that is a very difficult task to accomplish. For one thing, her father and his new wife – her former nanny – are expecting a new child, almost as if they want to replace Echo’s older brother Aries, who died while serving in Afghanistan. Echo feels unloved, unappreciated and unwanted by her father, who she views as trying to create a new family. Her father knows what happened the night Echo almost died, but he refuses to tell her, and he refuses to allow anyone else to do so. She must remember on her own.

For Noah, not forgetting is a challenge, because those days he can slip his circumstances from his mind are his freest. The days he sees his brothers, happily living with people they call “Mom” and “Dad” while seeming to have forgotten their real parents, gut him.

As part of their therapy, Echo must tutor Noah, a job neither of them particularly dislikes. Echo has red hair, luscious curves, and smells like cinnamon. Noah is HOT. All the girls think so, and Echo’s best friend wants pictures of his six pack abs. But Echo has an ex-boyfriend who wants to remove the “ex” part, and this being high school, some of her “friends” want her to be with someone more socially acceptable. Of course, Echo wants Noah, and vice-versa.

What makes this book so good is its story. Told from the points of view of Echo and Noah, the first pages pull you in and keep you until it’s over. Part of this is due to the mystery; what happened to Echo? She remembers bits and pieces, but behind each memory is the fear that she, who has so many things in common with her mother, is just like her. What if Echo is bipolar as well? Noah’s mystery is not as involving, but we like him. Here is a boy who desperately wants his family to stay together, believing that it’s the best for all of them. If parts of this seem a little predictable, maybe it’s because some things are just going to happen.

Some pages will break your heart, others will make you giggle, and some leave you at peace. Echo is a fantastic character: she is feisty yet frightened, sexy yet steely, innocent yet worldly. Her father and stepmother, who could be cookie cutter, static characters, are not. Owen Emerson loves his daughter, and his attempt to control her is his way of protecting her. We see it, even if Echo does not.

There are a couple of sex scenes, but parents should not be worried about their teen reading this book. In fact, these sex scenes should be celebrated by parents wishing to preserve their teens’ virginity. If you know what I mean …

I am an unabashed fan of YA literature, and this book is a great example why. The story is so good, the characters believable and accessible, and the romance realistic. This is just an all around good book, whether you’re a teenager or not.

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The Testament of Jessie Lamb

The Testament of Jessie Lamb
Jane Rogers
Published by Harper Perennial
256 pages
Available on
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview.
3 / 5 cupcakes

I am an English teacher, so if there is one thing in which I am well-versed, it is literary symbolism. Teach it, love it, know it. When done well, it’s subtle enough to present a challenge but not so obvious that a third grader can spot it.

In the case of The Testament of Jessie Lamb, the symbolism is IN YOUR FACE. You can’t avoid it, even if you prefer your books simple and approachable. It permeates this book like stink from a skunk.

Let’s start with the first obvious symbol: Jessie Lamb. The name? Like, duh? Jessie, which could be a feminized version of Jesus, who is the Lamb of God. Add in the rest of the title, and OH MY GOD. Could it be more apparent?

Add to that some nifty water symbolism (Jesus was baptized! In water!) and a virgin birth (FOR REAL, people), and you have yourself a hot mess of symbolism. At one point, I found myself praying (no pun intended) for relief.

But let’s say you’re not like me (and I really hope you aren’t, because one of me is enough punishment for the world). Let’s say you read your books straight up, no analysis necessary. What, then, to make of this one?

Well … the verdict is not good. Not bad, certainly, but not good, either.

The premise is strong: At some point in the not too distant future (Facebook is still around), a virus, supposedly triggered by bio terrorists, infects all human beings, killing women who get pregnant. In other words, the human population will vanish, because women die once they get pregnant. Sixteen-year-old Jessie Lamb at first merely observes the catastrophe, but when a boy she likes gets involved with a protest group, she joins him. And she begins to think about what this virus means.

Jessie’s father is a research scientist trying to find a cure. He tells Jessie about the “Sleeping Beauties” – young girls Jessie’s age who elect to get pregnant. Upon conception, they are put into a coma, which allows them to bear a child. Once the baby is born, the girl is literally put to sleep more permanently. The disease, called Maternal Death Syndrome (MDS – kind of the same acronym for doctors, isn’t it?) causes the pregnant women to lose their minds, eventually killing them.

As Jessie’s activism progresses, she comes to discover what her role could be. She believes she realizes what she should do to help with MDS, but when she shares her idea with her parents and would-be boyfriend, they are horrified. She is determined that she make a difference, even if her loved ones beg her not to do so.

There is nothing – and I do mean, NOTHING – uplifting about this book. I’m all for unhappy endings (paging Gone Girl), but Jane Rogers seems nothing less than militantly intent on depressing the hell out of us. One of Jessie’s parents might be having an affair. Her best friend is subjected to a horrific act of violence. Her boyfriend apparently rejects her. Her aunt suffers heartbreak and descends into an abyss of despair. Jessie herself is subjected to poor treatment by friends and family.

Even the bleakness of the book could be excused if we accepted Jessie’s reasons for doing what she does. She tries to justify it by saying that she wants to do something that she decides and controls, something her father would be proud to see her do:

To do something straightforward, where there would be no tangled argument and no compromise. Something that would make a difference to the world. Something that was within my power to do without having to rely on anyone else. Something that would make Dad proud. I pulled my pillow and duvet off the bed and wrapped myself up on the floor, so I could go on and on staring at the beech, letting that freedom unroll. The freedom to act. The freedom to do something I had decided for myself. 

A somewhat precocious manner of thinking for a sixteen-year-old, non?

Ultimately, I did not buy Jessie’s rationale. She even considers another option, one that leaves her some control and the potential to have an impact, but she shrugs it off and goes with her plan. The harder she pursues it, the less sensible she becomes. What’s almost worse, I stopped caring about her. In a book like this, with such a heavy premise, you must care about the characters. Too often, I found myself not liking her or her decision.

Like I said, the premise is very good. But when it comes to books about viruses that cause harm to reproduction, I recommend you go with Megan McCafferty’s Bumped and Thumped, which at the very least give you characters to like.

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Such a Rush

Such a Rush
Jennifer Echols
Published by MTV Books
336 pages
Available on
I purchased my own copy.
5 / 5 cupcakes

I admit that I look down on trailer parks.

There you go. I am shallow, and, having lived in Florida, I view trailer parks as kibble for tornadoes and hurricanes. I draw conclusions about people who live in them. I am, you might say, an awful person.

I certainly feel awful about that prejudice after reading Such a Rush.

When Leah Jones is fourteen, she gets a job at an airstrip in Heaven Beach, South Carolina, which is within walking distance of her home in a trailer park. Leah’s mother is about as AWOL as you can get. She comes and goes on her own whims, leaving Leah behind to fend for herself. On the rare occasions that she is present in her daughter’s life, it’s usually to take back a television set so she can hock it somewhere.

To say that Leah lives in poverty is to be generous. Yes, she has a roof over her head. Yes, she has heat and electricity. But she is alone, lives on what little food she can carry on her walks home from the grocery store, and, worse, she is continually victimized by the mean kids at her high school. They accuse her of being a slut, pointing to her tight clothes and flirtatious mannerisms. She realizes that she does wear low cut tops and has a tendency to sweet talk people when she wants something, but those are the lessons her mother taught her.

The only time Leah feels free is at the airstrip, where she pursues her dream of flying. She works out a deal with Mr. Hall, who runs a banner advertising company at airstrip. He cuts her a deal for flying lessons, and in a few years, after she amassed the necessary hours, she flies planes that drag his banners. When she’s in the air, she feels it. Such a rush.

But of course this is about a high school girl, so boys are a part of the festivities. Grayson and Alec Hall are Mr. Hall’s twin sons, and they live with their mother. Grayson believes Alec needs help, and his idea of assistance is to bribe Leah into dating Alec. But Leah likes Grayson, and he appears to like her, so complications ensue.

I have read all of Jennifer Echols’s books, and one of the things I appreciate about her writing is how real it is. She creates high school girls who could be in my classroom. In the case of Leah, we have a girl who presents herself sexually yet gets her rush from flying, not sex. She wants sex, certainly, but on her terms. Despite her mother’s frequent absences, she does not look for love and protection in high school boys. She finds it instead in the freedom that working, earning a paycheck, and chasing her dreams gives her.

Grayson, too, is realistic. He takes on tremendous responsibility for an eighteen-year-old boy, but his reasons for doing it ring true, as do his reasons for bribing Leah. We feel his conflicting emotions – he wants Leah for himself, but he wants to protect his brother more.

Even more importantly, we care about Leah and Grayson. We want them to feel safe, secure, happy and content. We want them together, even if Jennifer Echols never promises us a happy ending. Leah’s unstable home life does not magically improve; her mother does not find her missing maternal instincts and take care of her daughter.

Then there is the flying. We get as addicted as Leah does to the rush, just as we become increasingly aware of the dangers involved. Her safety – and Grayson’s and Alec’s, too – matters to us. And not just her safety in the sky, but her safety on the ground. We want to protect her from school bullies, from her awful mother, and from anyone trying to use her.

Such a Rush is such a good book. Teens will love it, and adults will as well.

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