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16 Apr

Tabitha, Moe, Elodie.

The princess, the rebel, the nobody.

Classmates. Deviants. Shoplifters.

Kirsten Smith is no stranger to stories of adolescence and in her debut novel, Trinkets, she once again captures the hearts and hurts of America’s teenage girls. Tabitha, Moe and Elodie have no more in common than the school they attend but when all three wind up in Shoplifter’s Anonymous together an unusual relationship unfolds.

Smith’s screenwriting credits include 10 Things I Hate About You and Legally Blonde. The dialogue and storyline that make those scripts uniquely identifiable are just as present in her novel. Just like real adolescence Trinkets is punctuated with emotional breakdowns and breakthroughs. None of the main characters come from a stable home – their mothers are passive and 2 of the 3 fathers are absent. The boys they date are abusive and distant. The girls in their peer group are superficial or mean. In 275 pages Smith manages to examine some of the most serious issues facing teenage girls and yet the book is never too preachy or depressing. These girls are no victims of circumstance.

Tabitha, Moe and Elodie are smart and savvy offering insightful reactions to their situations. Each is motivated to steal for different reasons and they each come to discover themselves in very different ways. I was particularly drawn to Tabitha, whose perspective is loaded with cultural implications of being a girl. Watching her friends get ready she notes: “That’s what sucks about Mirror Face; you make it because it’s how you want other people to see you, but you’re the only person who actually gets to.”  And, in response to her own boyfriend, she observes, “Sometimes it seems like guys really hate girls, with all the little things they say and do to try and get us to hate ourselves.” I also loved how she moves away from popularity for her own self-maintenance and, in doing so, inspires her mother to reconsider her own choices.

!!! The book’s cover features a photograph by 18 year old Petra Collins !!!

Alicia’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Author: Kirsten Smith
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (March 2013)
Note: received from author for honest review

Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures

18 Feb

It seemed impossible to fit all the people she’d ever been into a single body…. (p.228)

It is the summer of 1929 when we meet Elsa Emerson, a resident of Door County, Wisconsin where her family houses and runs a theatre company. The youngest of three daughters, nine year old Elsa is desperately in love with the stage and jumps at every opportunity to be involved although it is her sister, Hilly, who assumes the beautiful starlet role. Beauty is as much a curse as it is a blessing and it is through Hilly that Straub first offers perspective on the roles we play: as women, as daughters and the ever evolving identity of our “self.” When the theatre’s leading man impregnates and then denies her, Hilly takes her own life leaving a gaping hole in the family unit and in young Elsa’s heart.

Looking for a way out, with a strong resolve to fulfill Hilly’s dreams as well as her own, Elsa marries aspiring actor, Gordon Pitts. Together they travel to Hollywood where Elsa is left to a traditional life of domesticity and motherhood while Gordon has moderate success as an actor. Pregnant with her second child and accompanying Gordon to a cast party, Elsa catches the eye of studio head Irving Green. Green quickly becomes her mentor, her confidant and, eventually, her second husband. Committed to making her a star, Elsa gives herself up to Green who, after a complete makeover, re-introduces her to the world as Laura Lamont.

Movie lovers will enjoy Straub’s journey into the golden era of film – a glamorous and innovative time in our nation’s collective consciousness. For the rest of the novel, we follow Laura’s rising star, as she becomes a successful, award-winning actress and the inevitable fall of that star in the fickle world that is Hollywood. Straub’s narrative, while eloquent and rich with detail, is as predictable as Hollywood itself. Laura’s success develops from her relationship to a powerful man and studio owner yet is sustained by her beauty – a “look” created by Green – and her ability to follow the unwritten rules of women in Hollywood: Be beautiful, Be agreeable, Be quiet. The women around her fit neatly into stereotypical boxes and, as she ages, she struggles to find work.

For most of her life, Laura lives in quiet conflict with the person she is on the outside and the girl from Door County who resides within her soul. It is these moments where the novel sings. Through the lens of Laura/Elsa, Straub invites us to consider the many roles we play in this life and the value each has for ourselves and for others.

Alicia’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Author: Emma Straub
Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover (September 2012)
Note: ARC received from publisher for honest review

The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano

28 Jan

First of all, Sonia Manzano wrote this book. Doesn’t ring a bell? Perhaps you know her as Maria…from Sesame Street. That’s right.

Evelyn “Don’t Call Me Rosa” Serrano is a 15 year old in growing up in Spanish Harlem, NYC at a tenuous time in our nation’s history. But, Evelyn can’t see past the importance of her own life. She is disconnected from her Puerto Rican heritage and embarrassed by her traditional parents, especially “my mother, the slave.” When her mother’s Mother, Evelyn’s Abuela, shows up on their doorstep Evelyn is certain her life will only get worse. Covered in bright make-up, with wild hair and dressed like someone half her age, Abuela is a sight but what’s worse is how she talks – “This whole scene sounded like something on one of the telenovela soap operas on Telemundo.”

At the same time that Evelyn’s familial life is in turmoil, something is brewing in her neighborhood, El Barrio. The Young Lords, a Puerto Rican activist group, have taken space in the church across the street and are challenging the community members to join them as agents of cultural change. With her Abuela on the front lines while her own mother hides at home, Evelyn begins to explore a world much bigger than her own and is inspired by what she discovers.

Situating a coming of age story in a time when the entire country was amidst multiple revolutions leave countless opportunities for discussion and subversion. Manzano taps into that age appropriate couth she honed for years on Sesame Street to produce a novel that is honest enough about the reality of social change but pertinent enough to the experience of the reader, especially those Evelyn’s age. Manzano’s choices also make a strong case for the value of female relationships and the importance of women in leadership. Through her developing relationship with Abuela and a desire sparked by the energy of the Young Lords, Evelyn begins to understand the importance of history and her place in it. As she becomes more aware of herself and the past that has shaped her, her apathy evolves into compassion for her mother and a sense of connection to her community.

There are many ways to categorize what the Young Lords stood for but an essential piece to take away is the power yielded by a group of young people who were motivated to create positive change in support of a marginalized group. Manzano uses their legacy as a metaphor for the revolution that occurs within Evelyn – the discovery of one’s personal identity and how that identity will participate in the world.

Alicia’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Author: Sonia Manzano
Publisher: Scholastic (September 2012)
Note: ARC received from publisher for honest review

Congratulations to Sonia Manzano on her 2013 Belpré Honor Award for Text!

The Forsaken

7 Jan

Alenna Shawcross, the protagonist of Lisa M Stasse’s debut novel The Forsaken, is inevitably going to be compared to Katniss Everdeen. Before reading The Forsaken, my copy sat staring at me from my desk where I continued to ignore it. I was sure it would be just like The Hunger Games. I don’t know when I got so closed-minded, people.

Alenna is like Katniss in so much that she is a teenage girl in dystopic new world about to embark on a hero’s journey. That and the three of us totally would’ve been friends in high school. Designated an orphan since the current government, U.N.A., raided her house and kidnapped her parents, Alenna has survived in obedient solitude. When a U.N.A. mandated test marks her as “brutally violent” she is exiled to The Wheel, a mysterious island of deviant teens. In The Hunger Games, Katniss knows she is a hunter; while her confidence may still be shaky, she is aware of her skill and how it will serve her in battle. In The Forsaken, Alenna doesn’t know what her skill is; she doesn’t understand how she is valuable. It is the promise of this discovery and the process by which it is made that makes her journey worth reading about.

Stasse has a cerebral tone and it is Alenna’s analysis of her situation plus the actions it motivates that kept me engaged. Her journey is one of self-discovery motivated by discovering the truth about her parents and the inevitable life changes that come with being 16, no matter who or where you are. The adolescent angst of belonging is exacerbated by the extreme reality in which these characters exist. An internal battle exists among The Wheel’s inhabitants, the power divided between a violent dictator calling the shots from behind a wooden mask and a young couple offering a pretense of normalcy. Alenna is immediately protected and befriended by another girl, Gadya, and joins what seems to be the more humane camp.

Stasse tributes The Lord of the Flies in The Wheel’s savageness but offers us hope in Alenna’s friendship with Gadya and her protection of David, the first person she meets on the island. Oh, and there is a boy. The mysterious boy who spoke to Alenna through the TV, the boy she believed in before she knew what she was going to be fighting for, the boy with the blue eyes.

No longer allowed the privilege of not participating, Alenna is stimulated by a circumstance greater than her that forces her into relationships, into action and into the process of becoming a fully realized human being.

Thank God, it’s a trilogy.

Alicia’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Author: Lisa M. Stasse
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (July 2012)
Note: ARC received from author for honest review

What’s Left of Me

30 Sep

This book just landed itself at the top of my favorite reads of 2012. Kat Zhang’s debut novel about an alternative world where individuals are hybrids – 2 souls existing in one body – except in America, where hybrids are outcast and “othered.” In this “America” the hybrid souls eventually divide, with one personality becoming dominant while the other recedes. If it doesn’t happen naturally, the government makes it happen.

The novel tells the story of Addie and Eva, a 13-year-old hybrid resisting and pretending to be only one soul. But when another classmate introduces them to a way of letting Eva inhabit the body, the girls are faced with an onslaught of choices and challenges leading to their own destruction or a cultural revolution.

Zhang takes very complicated and fascinating subject matter and explores it through the lens of adolescence – an already volatile time of change and confusion. The emotions that arise between Addie and Eva are so common to typical sibling struggles with identity and individuality that I had to keep reminding myself of the fact that they shared a body. Though Addie’s dominance is an effect of Eva’s inability to exist in the physical realm it gives her power nonetheless. And, though Eva may appear to be the one who is trapped, Addie carries the weight of both her and Eva’s actions and desires as well as the responsibility of keeping Eva from being exposed. Both girls struggle with the guilt of their choice, Eva with her resistance to “fade” and Addie with the privilege of being dominant.

The commentary on mental illness, specifically schizophrenia is undeniable, especially when Addie is sent for special tests to a facility I imagined to be its own hybrid of the patients of Girl, Interrupted and the grotto of hidden children from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. What’s Left of Me also invites a dialogue around the the complicated relationships that affect social change. The spaces where the personal is the political and the ones you love most are on the opposite side of the battlefield. I feel like I read a pro-life subtext around the abortion issue in this country specifically the debate around who has the right to exist and who has the power to decide. But ultimately what came through, and what I hope the rest of the series explores, is the overwhelming drive to preserve freedom and never giving up your right to your own life.

Alicia’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Author: Kat Zhang
Publisher: HarperTeen (September 2012)
Note: ARC received from publisher for honest review

Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You

13 Aug

Their last year together. This year, without Tink.

It is only in the minds of our narrators, Merissa, the over-achieving golden girl, and Nadia, uncertain and innocent, that we get to know Tink Traumer, the mysterious girl who showed up one day at Quaker Heights High School and changed their lives forever. All of them. Merissa, Nadia, Chloe, Hannah and sometimes Anita Chang. But, now Tink is d**d.

Joyce Carol Oates writes the most chilling type of fiction, no matter what the subject, because she immerses her stories in reality. Two or Three Things could easily serve as a textbook for adolescent girls with the magnitude of issues Oates covers.  Suicide, cutting, anger, depression, divorce, bullying…Oates has always had a penchant for the gritty under the pretty. Yet, while dark and tragic, her stories are never without redemption or revolution, especially in the lives of girls. These girls are smart girls, wry and witty and conscious of, though not certain about, the way the world works.

“I heard from Tink today,” they whisper between classes, in secret text messages, or at the lunch table. Neither wants to talk too much about it for fear it is not real and speaking of it would only make Tink disappear more. And, they can hardly survive in a world without Tink. It’s Merissa and Nadia who are most deeply affected by the d***h of Tink Traumer. Merissa is undergoing a painful evolution in the wake of her parent’s impending divorce and Nadia has been bullied ever since making out with Colin. Slut, they call her as she walks down the hall, or in texts, or on the message boards. Tink was their fearless leader.

In her absence, Merissa is breaking and Nadia is drowning. Both are struggling with destructive obsessions and both are contemplating Tink’s choice, beginning to think it makes sense. Their minds are punctuated with memories of Tink and her d***h. Tink was a girl lost in her own life, who maybe they didn’t really know at all but who they loved. And who loved them. It’s Tink who’ll keep them safe. And, it must have been Tink Traumer who inspired Merissa’s (awesome!) awakening to rebellion by her rejection of Jane Austen and the lead role in the school play, Pride and Prejudice, because “I don’t respect the Jane Austen world. It’s just silly and depressing.”

Oates’ novels are always informed by a clear commitment to female relationships and I love how this novel celebrates the undeniable importance of girl friends. Writing like she is one of the girls, Oates is always on her character’s side and Two or Three Things is testament to love and sisterhood in which the girls rely on each other to figure out their healing.

Alicia’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Publisher: HarperTeen (August 21, 2012)
Note: ARC received from local bookseller

Two or Three Joyce Carol Oates Novels You Must Read

Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang (1993):
One of my all time top ten list and definitely top five, possibly my number #1.  They are making a new movie this year. The old film from 1996 stars a young Angelina Jolie and is terrible.

Man Crazy (1997):
I read this book in my first Women’s Studies class and loved it. Just read it.

Because it is Bitter, and Because it’s my Heart (1990):
A love story between a white girl and black boy during the Civil Rights era in the American South. Heart wrenching, fact based fiction.

The Truth About Forever

8 Jul

I love Sarah Dessen and it’s not just because she’s from North Carolina and all her stories capture the emotional feeling of a part of the country that is near and dear to my own heart.  And, it’s not just because it was my 15-year-old sister, Maggie, who introduced me to Dessen with Dreamland, Dessen’s riveting novel about a teen girl’s experience in an abusive relationship.  I don’t just love Sarah Dessen’s writing because it brought forth a space for connecting with my sister and more so for raising her awareness of an alarmingly relevant issue. I love Sarah Dessen because every time I read one of her books it is familiar and satisfying yet intriguing and surprising. Which is exactly how I felt about The Truth About Forever when I read it a few summers ago – after finding at a yard sale. Oh, summer fun!

Since Dreamland I have read quite a few of Dessen’s novels but this was the first to touch me as deeply yet in a very different way. Macy is bummed because her boyfriend is away all summer at smart camp, she is stuck working at the library with the snotty, smart girls who resent her for dating in their clique, and, in addition to being a 16 year old girl and dealing with that, she is everyday coping with the loss of her father. Not to mention navigating the very different emotional responses her Mom and sister are having to moving forward as a family. When Macy is introduced to the members of Wish Catering she is introduced to an entirely new way of relating to the world. Oh yeah, and a really cute boy.

As someone who spent years working in restaurants, I appreciated Dessen’s ability to accurately invoke the chaotic essence of the service industry lifestyle while also presenting, and respecting, the intimacy of food preparation and family traditions built in kitchens. That Macy would discover this in a moment when her family traditions are dismantling is the first of many serendipitous moments that weave together her life-changing summer. It is a love story but a love story that reaches beyond romantic and into the deepest place your heart can go – into the heart of another.

The ultimate story is how life is full of unexpected opportunities and family can be born anywhere love thrives and love can, and does, thrive everywhere. Over the course of the summer, Macy falls deep into love with friends and family and, in the process, finds some of that love for herself.

Alicia’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Author: Sarah Dessen
Publisher: Speak (April 2006)

The Mockingbirds & The Rivals

11 May

Daisy Whitney’s The Mockingbirds was the best book I read last year. Not the best YA book; the best book, period. The plot centers on the musically gifted Alex, for all intents and purposes a “good girl,” who is date-raped by a fellow student while passed out and the underground student-led justice system that leads her to redemption. A story about courage, justice that transcends age, race and even, gender, I bought a copy for my parents, both sisters and my best friend. “You have to read this book,” I advocated to anyone who would listen. When I received a copy of the follow up book The Rivals (Thanks, Em!) I was hesitant to read it thinking, “No way this will be as interesting as the first one?”

Oh, Alicia. How dare you?

The Rivals picks up right where The Mockingbirds left off: the elite Themis Academy on the brink of another school year. Alex is a senior and has been appointed leader of The Mockingbirds – a position she is not sure she’s ready for. Days before the semester begins, Alex is tipped off to a case unlike any other – one that threatens to affect her future, her relationships and the entire student body.

What I love about both these books is Whitney’s accurate yet empathic reflection of the teenage experience and more specifically, the hurts and haunts that are often known only to girls. Rape is especially controversial subject matter and often I find myself frustrated that so many young adult novels with female protagonists center on some type of sexual assault. But the truth is this is fiction inspired by reality – an all too common reality – and Whitney’s prose and characters never come off as preachy or “representative” of culture. They feel real. In fact, they are real. More importantly, the creation of a vigilante justice system organized by a high school girl to protect another girl who was being bullied by other girls is a bold idea to imprint on readers.

In The Mockingbirds Alex admits that she was a bystander in her life – not a girl who takes action, who gets involved. In The Rivals she is still healing from the previous year and still dealing with the backlash of her actions (read: telling the truth and standing up for herself). Surprisingly though, Alex never feels like a victim. Whitney has usurped the victimhood and instead, reminiscent of Alice Sebold’s memoir Lucky, given Alex agency and power. While you relate to her fears, her pain, her doubts, you always have a stronger sense of her resilience, her perseverance and her innate sense of justice.

Furthermore, Alex is supported by a litany of diverse and active female characters: her older sister, her two roommates, her piano teacher and The Mockingbirds previous leader, Amy. When Alex is struggling with her memories of her rape and undermining her ability to lead, it is Amy who reminds her, “Twenty years from now, you’ll still remember what it felt like to be exposed. And you’ll remember too what it felt like to take a stand. You’ll probably remember that more.”

And that, my friends, is what we call revolution.

Alicia’s rating (The Mockingbirds): 5 out of 5 stars
Alicia’s rating (The Rivals): 4 out of 5 stars
Author: Daisy Whitney
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (Nov 2010 & Feb 2012)