Category Archives: YA


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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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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If Only

If OnlyIf Only
by AJ Pine
Published by Entangled: Embrace
260 pages
Genre: Young Adult; teen lit 
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview
3 / 5


So you’re about to begin your year of studying abroad, and you’re on a train. You meet not the hot European you think you’ll meet (coughPrinceWilliamcough), but an American. Cute, a bit shaggy, and someone who screams “I’m a Man Whore!”

He’s fun and flirty, and when you discover that you’re headed to the same school, you get all tingly and excited.

During a trip to the loo, you wind up locked in said loo with an even hotter American. And this one carries around copies of The Great Gatsby. And he kisses you. And it is faaaabulous.

If only he didn’t seem to run away after you are rescued. If only you had met him first.

If only.

The premise is fun, as is the book. Jordan is twenty and full of the hope of possibility. She’s studying British literature in Scotland and is ready for whatever comes her way. Meeting Griffin is fun and promising, but meeting Noah. Well, that’s a bit more complicated.

The prevailing sentiment I have for this book is that it’s fun. Pine creates a genuine atmosphere of kids at college in a foreign country, and Jordan’s conflicting feelings over Griffin and Noah is something to which we can relate.

The problem is that it felt repetitive. Jordan likes Griffin, but perhaps not in That Way. She does like Noah That Way, but it’s complicated, as Noah himself says. Those two come together then get ripped apart. It becomes variations on a theme, and after a while, I got just a little bored with it all.

If I were sixteen and reading this, I might have been more in its thrall. So much of it is enjoyable, but if you didn’t enjoy it the first time, you’ll get other opportunities when the story cycles around again.

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The Summer of Letting Go

summer of letting goThe Summer of Letting Go
by Gae Pilsner
Published by Algonquin Young Readers
321 pages
Genre: Young Adult 
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview
4.5  / 5


When you’re a teenager, everything seems magnified. Your joys, miseries, friendships, and parental pressure. It’s as if you’re stuck in a vortex that you know will spit you out eventually, but you have no idea where you’ll wind up.

For Francesca (aka Frankie), the teen years are particularly tortured because she feels responsible for the drowning death of her little brother Simon, several years previously. She can’t escape the sense of having lost him, literally and figuratively, and she is certain that her parents, particularly her mother, despise her for it.

She also frets that her father is about to abandon the family. So convinced is she that she begins following one of her neighbors, whom she eventually confronts.

To make matters even worse, she is falling for her best friend’s boyfriend. He occasionally texts her silly observations, and she loves those texts as much as she hates herself for betraying her friend.

Into this vortex comes Frankie Sky, a little boy who seems eerily reminiscent of Simon. Frankie begins to wonder: can this boy be Simon, reincarnated? She begins babysitting him in an attempt to figure out who he is.

It sounds like there is a mystery here, but there isn’t, really. This is more of a coming-of-age story about a girl who suffered a terrible tragedy, blames herself, and is convinced everyone else blames her too. As if to prove to herself that she is unworthy, she falls in love with a guy she can’t have, and she casts suspicions on her neighbor.

You will feel for Frankie. You will feel for her so much that when she finally cracks, you will weep for and with her. She’s fragile, but she’s as strong as steel. She just doesn’t realize that she is. She doesn’t see that she deserves love, both from her parents and from this boy. She thinks she has to pay some sort of penance, but life doesn’t really work that way.

This is a Young Adult book, but “grown ups” will enjoy it as well. It will make you think and make you feel. It’s lovely.

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The Last Forever

last foreverThe Last Forever
by Deb Caletti
Published by Simon Pulse
336 pages
Genre: Young Adult Lit 
Thanks to edelweiss for the preview
3.5 / 5
The motif of motherless daughters has been well mined by YA authors over the years. Whether dead mothers or absent, either physically or emotionally, we have seen this thread before.

But perhaps we have not seen it quite as it is presented here.

Tessa’s mother died of cancer about a year ago, and during those intervening months, she has realized that there is no such thing as “forever.” Everything changes. Her relationship with her boyfriend isn’t what it once was – not that it ever was all that much anyway – and her friendships are altering as well. But perhaps nothing changed quite so much as her relationship with her father.

Always a rather flighty man – he’s bedecked in a pony tail and smokes pot not so much as a pastime but more as a necessity – he has become untethered since his wife died. It’s as if he has forgotten that Tessa is his daughter, that she is HER daughter, and that she grieves too.

Tasked by her mother to watch over a Pixiebell plant, supposedly the last of its kind, Tessa looks upon it as her last living link to her mother. There is symbolism aplenty here, almost to the point of being heavy handed. Caletti begins each chapter with a description of some sort of plant, and the description in turn becomes the theme of the chapter. Again, it’s a bit much, but some of the plant descriptions were humorous.

When Tessa’s father decides to go on a road trip to see the Grand Canyon, she packs up Pixiebell and heads with him. Even though she still has a few school days to go. Even though she leaves before she lets her boyfriend or BFF know.

After gazing upon the natural wonder, her dad suggests they keep going, head north to Portland, Oregon. Tessa realizes at this point that she has no say in the matter, but when they arrive at the home of one of her father’s friends – a female friend named Mary – Tessa is none too pleased. Worse, her father decides to extend the trip to Parrish Island, his hometown near Seattle, where they will visit his mother, Tessa’s grandma Jenny.

Jenny has been largely absent from Tessa’s life, and the girl has only vague memories of visiting when she was two. Tessa’s all for a family reunion, but when her father bolts the following morning with no notice to Tessa, she is devastated. Her mother died, and now she’s been abandoned by her father as well.

Fortunately, the one place Tessa knows to turn to that can provide her solace is books, and there is a library on the island. This proves to be a bastion not only for emotional succor, but it introduces her to new friends as well, none more important than Henry Lark.

Tessa is captivated by him, and she feels an immediate connection. They bond over Pixiebell, which Tessa has noticed is beginning to look … ill. Henry helps Tessa learn more about the plant, and, of course, more about herself as well.

There are several plot threads running through the book. Tessa’s relationship with Henry, for one, and hers with Jenny. Pixiebell’s increasing fragility and all that it represents is another, as is Tessa’s relationship with her father. She is furious with him, and rightly so. She imagines that he is seeking his balm from Mary, and that outrages her perhaps more than being abandoned with a grandmother she does not know.

The love story between Tessa and Henry tends to occupy center stage, largely because it is through this lens that Tessa views herself most critically. She loves him, even as she realizes that there is much about him that we do not know. Henry’s mystery is quite easily solved, so much so that the only person it shocks is Tessa; we readers know long before she does what secret Henry hides. Jenny knows, or suspects, but does not tell Tessa, a betrayal Tessa feels to her marrow, even if Jenny’s reasons for doing so are valid.

You will need some tissues, as there are several heartbreaking moments. You also will need to remind yourself that Tessa’s father is a fictional character because otherwise, you might want to seek him out and punch him in the face.

Tessa’s circle of friends on Parrish Island includes requisite Quirky People, and her quest to immortalize Pixiebell is loaded with symbolism and allegory. But despite these obvious manipulations, this is an engrossing story that will hook you and make you care. Tessa is lovely, her struggle occasionally crushing, and her victories warming.

There is quite a bit to enjoy about this book, and Caletti tells her story in an approachable, engaging style. If occasionally Pixiebell’s importance feels too heavy handed, we have Tessa – lovely, wonderful Tessa – to make up for it.

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Side Effects May Vary

side effects may varySide Effects May Vary
by Julie Murphy
Published by Balzer + Bray
336 pages
Genre: YA 
Thanks to edelweiss for the preview
4 / 5


Who knew that John Green would spawn a YA sub-genre focused on kids with cancer? A few weeks ago, I reviewed Maybe One Day, about a girl whose best friend has cancer. Sadness overload. Well written sadness overload.

Now comes Side Effects May Vary, which puts an interesting spin on the whole teens-with-cancer thing. In this case, Alice had cancer.

Emphasis on “had.”

See, Alice was supposed to die. That was the plan all along, warped and heart breaking that it is. Diagnosed with a nearly always fatal form of leukemia, Alice draws up a “Dying To Do” list, a sort of bucket list for the sixteen-year-old set. Her best friend Harvey gamely does all he can to help her achieve her goals, if for no other reason than Harvey is deeply, irrevocably, inexplicably in love with Alice.

And he has been for three years.

During the year of Alice’s illness, Harvey’s jobs include helping her get a driver’s license and helping her retaliate against the people she thinks done her wrong. In Alice’s case, that is not an exclusive club. And in Alice’s case, most of the wrong done was because she deserved it.

Yes, I know it’s not becoming to speak ill of the would-be dead, but Alice deserves it. She is, as she herself admits, a bitch.

But Harvey loves her. Unconditionally, even. Well, he does want something in return – he wants to be loved back – but he’ll never ask for it.

As Alice wreaks havoc on ex-boyfriends and the people she detests, she also tries occasionally to do good. But really, in her mind, she’s dying, so why not have some fun? This is a dandy plan, except for one thing: Alice turns out to be a medical miracle. She goes into remission.

And when that happens, all of her plans – all of the experiences she shared with Harvey – are thrown into disarray.

You may wonder as you read this why Alice isn’t doing cartwheels of joy now that she gets to extend her time with Harvey. And you may wonder what on earth Harvey sees in her. She treats him horribly, before, during, and after the cancer. Does she care about him at all?

The thing is, though, Alice doesn’t think of this as a new lease on life. She thinks of it as even greater uncertainty. How long will the remission last? A year? Two? Forever? How can she emotionally commit to anything now that the one thing she held to be certain – the cancer would kill her – no longer exists?

Julie Murphy unfolds her story in alternate voices, Alice’s and Harvey’s, and also in alternate timeframes, “then” (aka During Cancer) and “now” (aka During Remission). We get to see Alice and Harvey’s relationship unfold, and we become deeply emotionally invested in the two of them. Try and not love Harvey. I dare you. TRY IT. It is impossible, faithful readers. Harvey is one of the loveliest high school boys you will ever, ever meet. You will wonder where Harvey was when you were sixteen. And you will want to throttle Alice for her abuse of him and his feelings.

These are two complex, entertaining characters. Alice is awful, but if you can’t see how and why that is, then you will miss the emotional crux of the book. Sure, she was no peach before cancer, but how can she face the future – a future she thought she wouldn’t have? She knows that life is tenuous at best, and to risk ceding control of her heart to anyone is verboten to her.

Gosh, I loved this book. I really did. It isn’t perfect – Alice’s “enemies” are a bit too predictable – but it’s just so beautifully written. And the ending is perfect. Julie Murphy knows what to leave for her audience, and what to leave for her characters.

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