“Geekers Have To Geek Out”

A Review of Fat Boy Vs. the Cheerleaders by Geoff Herbach

Sourcebooks Fire, 2014

Fat Boy Vs. The Cheerleaders Geoff Herbach

by REBECCA, May 22, 2014

hook

It’s war in a Minnesota high school when the creation of a new dance team threatens the funding for band, which has come from the school’s pop machine (yeah, “pop”; this is Minnesota). Gabe (aka Chunk) is ready to take on the system—even if he has to do it one Mountain Dew Code Red at a time.

review

When I first read the premise of Fat Boy Vs. the Cheerleaders it reminded me of a kind of The Chocolate War meets Pump Up the Volume meets Mean Girls. Well, maybe that’s just what I was hoping for.

The plot is simple. Gabe is the class clown, a role he embraces in the hope of staving off bullying by laughing at himself for being fat before anyone else can laugh at him. His mother left him and his dad and has never looked back. His two best friends don’t make him feel great about himself. The only thing he really enjoys anymore is high school band. And now, even that is being threatened when the school board redesignates the funds from the school pop machine for the new dance team, which is really just all the cheerleaders with a more expensive coach.

When his beloved band and marching band camp are threatened, Gabe decides he has to take action, so he bands together (heh) with the other Geekers, as he calls them, for various protests, letter writing, and playing of “Tequila.” (Sidebar: I think it should be considered a literary crime to even mention songs like “Tequila” by name in a book as they then immediately become lodged in one’s brain. Other offenders include: “The Macarena,” “The Chicken Dance,” “Feliz Navidad,” and any song that has ever been blared out the speakers of a neighborhood ice cream truck.) Along the way, Gabe makes new friends and realizes that if he wants to stop being thought of as a clown then he needs to stop acting like it’s okay to treat him like one.

This is a light, entertaining read, and who doesn’t like a story where geeks take on the man—or, in this instance, the pop machine. Geoff Herbach does a great job of evoking a small Minnesota town and I enjoyed that the scale here is realistically small. Gabe et al aren’t trying to bring down the government or anything. They live in a small town and so one of their teachers getting arrested for drunk driving is a huge deal that instantly goes Minnekota-viral on Facebook, etc.

My two favorite characters were Gore and RC III. Gore (Chandra) is a six-foot-tall goth girl who everyone fears because she once threatened to kill some kids who were mean to her (hence, “Gore”). RC III (also not his real name) is a newly arrived jock who’s kind of a big deal but likes hanging out with the geeks more than the jocks. They are the voices of reason in a group of otherwise overreactive characters, and perhaps that’s why Gabe likes them so much. “You shouldn’t call cheerleaders bitches,” Gore tells Gabe. “Why not?” he asks. “Look what they’ve done to us.” “You don’t have to be like them,” she says (161). It’s simple and it’s true and I like her.

Gabe plays the 'bone

Gabe plays the ‘bone

Fat Boy Vs. the Cheerleaders brings up lots of interesting issues—class, race, body image, self-conception, emotional abuse, surveillance culture. And I give it credit for its themes, certainly, even if they are laid on a bit thick. The use of names as a thing that communicate our sense of self is nice: Gabe transitions from being called Chunk because he doesn’t like it, but Gore likes the nickname she was given and reclaims it, whereas RC III chose to name himself after someone he admires and simply asserts it as his name. There are some nice moments of commentary, too. For example, Gabe makes the point that, because he thought his money was going to the band, he feels good about buying and drinking four or five Mountain Dew Code Reds a day because he’s managed to convince himself that he’s winning (for band) even as he’s losing (by drinking so much pop). But, though it raises many interesting issues, ultimately, it doesn’t really dig into any of them so, in the end, it feels like the content is just to fill out a relatively predictable storyline. As a result, it’s not terribly satisfying. It would have felt meatier if the plot structured the book but wasn’t so very foregrounded.

The Scar Boys Len VlahosAnd I lay this at the feet of yet another narrative frame that totally backfires. I discussed this issue when I reviewed Len Vlahos’ The Scar Boys, which is written as a college application. Fat Boy Vs. the Cheerleaders is written as a memo from Gabe’s attorney, which is being submitted as context for the case against him (for stealing money from the pop machine). This narrative frame was totally unnecessary, as there is no threat that Gabe’s going to go to jail or anything (he stole $17.75 in change). So, no reason for it. But it has a number of downsides. The first is the one I already mentioned: that such a device foregrounds the linear this-happened-then-this plot at the expense of character development and richness. I mean, how much are you going to describe people when talking to your lawyer? And, if this were a mystery or a crime story or an adventure story, then maybe foregrounding the plot would be fine. But, though it would be a great armature for a book about Gabe, as storylines go, it’s not quite unique or unpredictable enough to be The Focus of the novel.

In turn, this contributes to the theme tourism because there isn’t any reason for Gabe to delve deeply into any issue that isn’t directly connected to the plot. Sometimes Gabe will start to talk about something and then say, “Hey. Why are we talking about this, Mr. Rodriguez? Shouldn’t we be talking about how . . . how you’re going to keep me from going to jail or something?” (7) and sometimes feels the need to justify how things relate: “This totally has to do with the pop machine” (11). By drawing attention to how he’s shoehorning things in or where he’s cutting himself off, this narrative frame just highlights these superficialities.

Frankenstein Mary Shelley

The best narrative frame!

Finally, the kiss of death: I didn’t find Gabe to be a very pleasant narrator, either. He doesn’t have any interests besides band (that we hear about) and he’s very judgmental. I don’t feel like I know him well and the shifts in his character have to be taken on faith, since he simply asserts them. And the narrative frame didn’t help this either. Because every word is something Gabe’s saying to his lawyer, there’s no internal monologue. I hadn’t thought about it in quite these terms when I reviewed The Scar Boys, but it turns out that this is a huge problem for me, since what I like most about reading is getting to know new characters. In a third person narrative, we get to know those characters through what’s said about them as well as what they say and do. In a first person narrative, we get to know them by that unique voice that is unfiltered. But in a first person account to a lawyer, or in a college entrance essay? Despite (perhaps?) best laid plans, these narratives fail to engage me because their technique is neither narrative truth nor confession. And so I’m bored.

So, I discovered something about myself as a reader, and can make sure to cross off my list all YA novels with a narrative frame that means the story is being told to a grown-up. Well, it’s all about the lesson, no?

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Sister Mischief Laura GoodeSister Mischief Laura Goode

Sister Mischief by Laura Goode (2011). Also set in Minnesota! Best friends Esme, Marcy, Tess, and Rowie are Sister Mischief, the all-girl hip-hop group that wants to take Holyhill (aka Holy Hell) Minnesota by storm. Along the way, they find first loves, lyrics, a PA hijacking, 4-H (Hip-Hop for Heteros and Homos, that is), and, of course, goats. My full review is HERE.

Fat Kid Rules the World K.L. Going

Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going (2003). Curt MacCrae startles Troy out of throwing himself in front of a subway train and demands that he is owed lunch in exchange . . . and that’s just the beginning. Soon, Troy finds himself one half of the punk band Rage/Tectonic, even though he can’t play the drums and hates anyone looking at him. Can Troy overcome his self-consciousness to embrace the musician inside? And can he save Curt from his own demons in the process? My full review is HERE

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Fat Boy Vs. the Cheerleaders by Geoff Herbach is available now.

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Sarah Dessen, Redux

A Review of The Moon and More by Sarah Dessen

Viking Juvenile, 2013

The Moon and More by Sarah Dessen

by REBECCA, September 11, 2013

“Luke is the perfect boyfriend: handsome, kind, fun. He and Emaline have been together all through high school in Colby, the beach town where they both grew up. But now, in the summer before college, Emaline wonders if perfect is good enough. Enter Theo, a super-ambitious outsider, a New Yorker assisting on a documentary film about a reclusive local artist. Theo’s sophisticated, exciting, and, best of all, he thinks Emaline is much too smart for Colby.

Emaline’s mostly-absentee father, too, thinks Emaline should have a bigger life, and he’s convinced that an Ivy League education is the only route to realizing her potential. Emaline is attracted to the bright future that Theo and her father promise. But she also clings to the deep roots of her loving mother, stepfather, and sisters. Can she ignore the pull of the happily familiar world of Colby. Emaline wants the moon and more, but how can she balance where she comes from with where she’s going?”

The Moon and More is Sarah Dessen’s long-awaited twenty-thousandth novel and I was kind of looking forward to it, hoping it would be in the vein of my favorite Dessens,  Just ListenThe Truth About Forever, and Lock and Key.

Just Listen by Sarah DessenSadly, The Moon and More retreads the most familiar (and least compelling) of Sarah Dessen territory. As with all her books, it’s a well-written, well-woven slice-of-life. Unlike her better books, though, The Moon and More‘s characters are, for the most part, bland and unlikeable. Our protag, Emaline is bland, uninsightful, and I didn’t care about her at all. She doesn’t have any interests, really—doesn’t seem to read, care about movies or politics or sports or . . . anything. Her only charming moments were when she interacted with her little brother. Theo, the geeky and impassioned urbanite who Emaline dates after Luke, is annoying, selfish, and snobby, and Dessen doesn’t make any attempt to hide it, which made me like Emaline even less for being interested in him.

The Truth About Forever by Sarah DessenEvery Sarah Dessen book has a theme—a takeaway message. The better books, like Just Listen and The Truth About Forever, have subtle and intricate themes that drive the books forward. The theme of The Moon and More, as you can guess from the title, is balancing expectations of grandeur with those of moderation. Emaline’s Not From Here father and boyfriend think that anything that isn’t everything is nothing, but Emaline is happy with more more modest goals. I think this is a theme that a lot of readers can identify with and I applaud Dessen for writing a protagonist who isn’t consumed by being superlative (even if she does renege a bit at the end). As a theme, however, it’s . . . well, boring. Moderation, sadly, does not make for a dynamic narrative.

The Moon and More has it’s funny lines and its charming moments. Summer jobs, always a Dessen feature, loom large here, and the scenes of Emaline’s job working for her family’s realty company are detailed and interesting. The split between the locals and tourists in this small beach town are, as always, well-drawn. Really, though, I read the first 200 pages of The Moon and More wondering when it was going to start and the next 200 wondering when it was going to end. The Moon and More reads, more than anything, like a dull Sarah Dessen knockoff—as predictable and formulaic as her books’ covers.

Sarah Dessen

“Ask Laura Ingalls Wilder If You Don’t Believe Me”: Girl Unmoored

A Review of Girl Unmoored by Jennifer Gooch Hummer

Fiction Studio Books, 2012

Girl Unmoored Jennifer Gooch Hummer

by REBECCA, April 8, 2013

characters

Apron Bramhall: insightful, and honest, in the aftermath of her mother’s death, her quirkiness is making her life harder

Dad: Latin professor who cares about Apron, but is desperate to please M, his new girlfriend

Mike: the nephew of Apron’s neighbor and owner of a local flower shop, Mike plays Jesus in a local production of Jesus Christ Superstar and is so kind that Apron wonders if he and Jesus are actually related

Chad: Mike’s boyfriend, who immediately connects with Apron and her problems, but has problems of his own

hook

It’s Maine in the summer of 1985 and thirteen-year-old Apron Bramhall’s heart is broken. Her mother died; her father is living with M, the nurse who cared for her mother and hates Apron; her best friend Rennie dumped her to hang out with popular Jenny; and it’s almost summer, so she’ll have nothing but time to think about how love just seems to cost too much to be worth it. Enter Mike and Chad, who recognize a kindred spirit in Apron and give her a job working at their flower shop over the summer. But the job turns into a deep connection with Mike and Chad, who are dealing with their own heartbreaks.

review

I entered the world of Girl Unmoored, the debut novel by Jennifer Gooch Hummer, with no expectations whatsoever and only the vaguest sense of what the book was about, and I’m glad I did. Girl Unmoored sees the world through the eyes of thirteen-year-old Apron, whose combination of insight and naiveté result in a wonderful and poignant voice. Apron’s life has sucked lately, and really all she wants to do is play with her guinea pig, The Boss, and read the Little House on the Prairie books.

“I had read every book in the series by the time I was eight, and a hundred times over since then. I have to sneak them now, though, otherwise my dad says, ‘Aren’t we a little past those, Apron? I mean really. How about some Moby-Dick?’ But the truth was that Laura Ingalls Wilder was the nicest girl I’ve ever not known. Rennie would throw me under a bus for a piece of chocolate.”

Little House in the Big Woods Laura Ingalls WilderIt’s Apron’s voice that is the real gem of Girl Unmoored: “Being this close to Mike made the cramp in my heart loosen up a bit, like little shingles were falling off of it.” For the first third of the book or so, Apron’s unique perspective is engaging and revelatory, and the tone is light, even with Apron’s troubles. As the book continues, though, shit gets pretty serious: Apron’s dad’s benign neglect ceases to feel benign, M’s passive distaste for Apron gets pretty active, and the mysterious disease from which Chad is suffering (mysterious to Apron, not to the reader) turns harrowing. Jennifer Gooch Hummer writes with a light hand that allows for this subtle shift from a summery, quirky tale of a small town to a truly heartbreaking story of a girl who has to figure out how to grow up and how to love without a traditional support system.

Girl Unmoored is a pretty quiet book, plot-wise, and that’s what makes it so powerful. Hummer is masterful at excavating the emotional core of every situation and achieves a subtle and deep vision of what is going on around Apron that she is aware of but cannot totally understand. The tone is pitch perfect and the characters layered and sympathetic. Despite the sunniness and charm of the setting, Girl Unmoored’s worldview is a realistically grim one: everyone has it rough and everyone is selfish and everyone wants someone to save them but knows that no one will. But that, Apron seems to decide by the end, may be the price of love: that you bear the burden of remembering it, in all its exaltation and all its grief, even after the ones you love are gone.

“I looked back at all those people I didn’t know and thought about how small your heart is but how big of a space it takes up. And how, even though you can’t see it, that heart space grows so quietly across a room or up some stairs in someone else’s living room, that even if you never step foot in it again, the air in there is changed forever.”

Girl Unmoored is like a cold glass of lemonade in the summer, the sourness of heartbreak  sweetened by beautiful prose making it impossible not to gulp it down, and impossible not to feel the sting. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry; you’ll pour yourself another glass. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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Tell the Wolves I'm Home Carol Rifka Brunt

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt (2012). As you may remember, Tell the Wolves I’m Home was my favorite book of last year. Tell the Wolves I’m Home and Girl Unmoored share a time period and a basic plot,  but are incredibly different in tone. If the former is a cold, desolate New York January, then the latter is a hot, claustrophobic, coastal July. If you like one, though, chances are you’ll like the other, and both are wonderful. You can read my complete review of Tell the Wolves I’m Home HERE, and an interview with the lovely Carol Rifka Brunt HERE.

The Freak Observer Blythe Woolston

The Freak Observer  by Blythe Woolston (2010). Like Apron, Loa has just suffered a death in the family and, like Apron, Loa observes things that others overlook. Though Loa is older, they share a dark and poetic view of the world that they express matter-of-factly. You can read Tessa’s complete review of The Freak Observer HERE.

procured from: I received an ARC of Girl Unmoored from the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. Girl Unmoored by Jennifer Gooch Hummer is available now.

There never was a good war or a bad peace: Past Perfect by Leila Sales

Past Perfect

Leila Sales
Simon Pulse, 2011

review by Tessa

Characters
Chelsea Glaser / Elizabeth Connolly: Revolutionary war reenactor, 2nd generation. Still heartbroken over her ex,
Ezra Gorman: who decided to also work at Essex Historical Colonial Village this summer, along with
Fiona Warren: Chelsea’s best friend, superb actress, and partner in becoming an ice cream expert.

but right across the street there’s
Dan Malkin: Civil War reenactor (2nd generation), cute, easy to get along with, and off limits to Chelsea.

Hook
The war between the junior interpreters of Colonial and Civil War history is nothing compared to the war that Chelsea is battling in her brain as she tries to get over her ex-boyfriend, who broke up with her almost 3 months ago for no reason.  But Chelsea has just been named Lieutenant in the Reenactor war, so she has to focus. And when she does, she meets someone who just might be right for her.  Too bad he’s fighting in the wrong century, and therefore is Chelsea’s sworn enemy.

Worldview
Chelsea Glaser’s dad is a silversmith. He works at Essex Historical Colonial Village, so Chelsea’s childhood was one marinated in the very essence of American colonial history.  This summer she’d like to get a job outside of the late 1700s, but her best friend Fiona has convinced her that it would be more fun to work together in the Village.  Unfortunately, it looks like her ex got the same idea, so Chelsea is stuck with a reminder of her heartbreak all summer.

The War is a good distraction, or so Chelsea thinks. Right across the street from Essex is Civil War Reenactmentland. They also have teenage summer “interpreters”, and they just won a prestigious award for the authenticity of their reenactment site. Every summer there’s a prank war between the two groups of junior interpreters, and this year is going to be the most heated yet, because the General for this year’s war on Essex’s side is Tawny Nelson, senior, historical nut, and tough warrior.  She promises to totally show up the farbs at Civil War Reenactmentland, striking at their claims of authenticity, which is the paramount concern for anyone working in the field of historical village-ing.

Farb is a terrible thing to call a reenactor. My dad says it’s shorthand for far be it from authentic, but in the War, we just use it to mean that a reenactor is sloppy in his historical details. Or we use it when we just don’t like someone.”

Unfortunately, the War gets off to a bad start for Essex. Just when Chelsea has been elected Lieutenant of the War, she and Tawny get kidnapped by Civil Warriors.  Strangely, Chelsea finds herself flirting with the guy meant to be guarding her. He’s cute. And she hasn’t noticed anyone’s cuteness since she was dumped by Ezra.

FARBS. photo by flickr user azuquin

Chelsea’s problem is that she can’t tell her best friend about the new guy, because he’s from the other side, and she can’t really vent about Ezra, because Fiona’s heard it all and she wants Chelsea to move on.  Chelsea wants to do right by Essex, but Essex insists on emotionally torturing her. So her summer becomes one of all kinds of conflict.

What is this book’s intention and is it achieved?

Past Perfect is less a romance and more of a breakup book, a portrait of how Chelsea gets through the last throes of her attachment to Ezra and learns how to be better to herself.  Sure, there’s a romance in there, and the crush that Chelsea has on Dan is an integral part of the plot, but it’s not the point of the plot.  Past Perfect passes the Bechdel Test, happily. And that’s what makes Past Perfect such a realistic and satisfying story.

Plus, Chelsea is _funny_.

“‘Why did you guys break up? If you don’t mind my asking.’

I didn’t mind Dan’s asking, exactly, but I also didn’t know how to answer him. I had never known why Ezra and I broke up, though I had thought about it, of course, thought about it until I drove myself–not to mention Fiona–crazy.

To just come out and ask Ezra why seemed like it would give him too much satisfaction. So it ended and I don’t know why. So what? So many things come to an end–dinosaurs, my mother’s garden, British Colonial rule. Who knows why? Who would care enough to ask?”

history! including a thing about gravestones. photo by flickr user MadPoetRI

And as you can tell from that quote and from the description of the plot, there’s a lot of fun to be had with the setting of a historical village. And this book has two.  It’s like the fertile setting of summer camp, only weirder and with more at stake, and with more outside connections between the characters.

So we get exchanges like this, when Chelsea’s parents have found contraband Civil War uniforms in Chelsea’s closet, part of a plan to infiltrate Reenactmentland. But she can’t say that because the War is a secret and no adults can know about it. So it turns into a terrible/wonderful parody of an argument where a child has chosen a college that is not that parent’s alma mater, or something:

“‘Chelsea, do you want to stop reenacting the Colonial times and start reenacting the Civil War?’ Mom asked, and I could hear in her voice that no question could pain her more. […]

‘No!’ I protested.

‘Denial,’ Dad noted, gung ho about staging this intervention. ‘You’re sixteen years old, and that’s mature enough to make your own decisions, some of the time, but in this instance your mother and I both feel that you’re making a serious mistake. Which war fought for equality and democracy, the foundation of our society? Meanwhile, which war had casualties exceeding the United States’ losses in all our other wars combined? Which document do you hear quoted more often: America’s Declaration of Independence or the Southern States’ Declarations of the Causes of Secession?’

Okay, whoa, attack of the rhetorical questions!

‘Who’s pictured on the penny?’ Dad went on. ‘Abraham Lincoln! Who’s pictured on the quarter? George Washington! A quarter is worth twenty-five times as much as a penny, just as the American Revolution is worth twenty-five times as much as the American Civil War!’

‘Oh my God,’ I said. ‘Dad, do you have porphyria or something?’

Next to me, Fiona was shaking with silent laughter.”

Thus I can wholeheartedly recommend Past Perfect if you’re looking for a funny book, a book with real female friendships, a good light romance, and a startlingly nuanced portrayal of heartbreak and how to let go of it. Which leads me to my

Disclosure/Personal Digression

which is that when I put this book on hold all I remembered about it was fact that it had to do with historical reenactment as a summer job, and that that sounded like a nice light summer read. Also, at that point I had a boyfriend. By the time it came in for me on hold at the library, I had been broken up with and found out that the book was really about a breakup.  I kind of wanted to avoid reading it for that reason, but it ended up being just the right mix of funny, sweet, and sad.  So it helped me get through the initial really tough period of being dumped. Does this mean my heartbreak is on the emotional level of a teenager? I don’t think so.  Rather, I choose to believe that Chelsea’s struggles are more universal than that, and less shallow than the drama that gets dredged up and passed off as important adult emotion on reality dating shows.

And, Rebecca, take note: Leila Sales did gymnastics for 8 years. So you should read her books.

Readalikes

An Abundance of Katherines / John Green
Also about getting over a breakup, also about nerdy but socially functional people and finding new levels of friendship.  I originally doubted this book before I had heard about John Green solely because both of its covers suck. Someone get this book a good cover. It’s now my favorite John Green book.

Pastoralia / Civilwarland in Bad Decline / George Saunders

Both of these collections of short stories have offerings set in historical theme parks. One is a caveman theme park and one is Civil War themed, obvs. George Saunders will make you laugh and cry SO HARD. You can read an excerpt of Pastoralia here.

Read The Summer Away!—No, Seriously, Make It Get Away From Me

A List of Books That Embrace, Glorify, Make Bearable, and Distract From the Summer

By REBECCA, June 24, 2012 (omigod, it’s only June!?)

Some people think summer is like this

According to the alignment of the planets, Wednesday was the first “real” day of summer. I don’t know what the planets are talking about, though, because it’s been approximately as hot as the outer reaches of the sun for, like, months now over here in Philadelphia. I realize that for many the summer is a wildflower-draped, lemonade-drenched, beach-volleyball-studded, school’s-out-for-summer love-fest. But me? I hate the heat. I hate the sun. I hate sweat. Thus, as you can imagine, it’s extremely necessary for me to have a cache of amazing books that convince me that these fires of hell they call summer aren’t really that bad—or, at the very least, can distract me from it. If you are a sun-worshipper, bully for you! I’m sure you’ll find some favorites here, too, and perhaps you’ll leave some tips about how to better enjoy this five-month-long trip to the cosmic dentist.

But to me it’s more like this

Weetzie Bat Francesca Lia Block

Weetzie Bat, Francesca Lia Block

Basically, I want every day of summer to be like Weetzie’s L.A. The food, the clothes, the surfing—so dreamy. “In the daytime, they went to matinees on Hollywood Boulevard, had strawberry sundaes with marshmallow topping at Schwab’s, or went to the beach. Dirk taught Weetzie to surf. It was her lifelong dream to surf—along with playing the drums in front of a stadium of adoring fans while wearing gorgeous pajamas. Dirk and Weetzie got tan and ate cheese-and-avacado sandwiches on whole-wheat bread and slept on the beach. Sometimes they skated on the boardwalk. Slinkster Dog went with them wherever they went” (6). “Duck was a small, blonde surfer. He had freckles on his nose and wore his hair in a flat-top. Duck had a light-blue VW bug and he drove it to the beach every day. Sometimes he slept on picnic tables at the beach so he could be up at dawn for the most radical waves” (28-9).

The Truth About Forever Sarah DessenThe Truth About Forever, Sarah Dessen

Or really almost any Sarah Dessen book. The Truth About Forever takes place over a summer in which Macy decides to stop playing it safe and start taking risks to be herself. I love this book because it gives a prismatic view of summer: there’s Macy’s new job at the chaotic catering company, her late-night truth-telling sessions with Wes, and lazy evenings with her new friends, etc. My favorite scenes are the casual summer night hangouts at the diner, going for soda at the gas station, walking and talking with nowhere to be and nothing to get back to. SUMMERY!

 

Same Difference Siobhan VivianSame Difference, Siobhan Vivian

Emily is a girl from suburban Jersey who thinks she has her whole life planned, until she attends a summer art program in Philadelphia and realizes that she wants different things altogether. All the stuff at the art program in Philly is awesome (art, fashion, food, hair dye), but the stuff in Emily’s hometown is particularly summery. Lying by the pool, blended drinks at Starbucks, meetups at the local Dairy Queen, and cheering at boyfriends’ baseball games. It all sounds nightmarish to me, but it’s super evocative and summertastic. Check out the complete review here! and C&M’s interview with the lovely Siobhan Vivian here!

The Toll Bridge Aidan ChambersThe Toll Bridge, Aidan Chambers

Piers feels suffocated by his parents, by his girlfriend, and by everything that’s expected of him in college. So, when he sees an advert looking for someone to live in a small cottage and be keeper of a toll bridge three hours away from his home for the summer, Piers jumps at the chance to get enough space to figure out what he wants. I read this book when I was maybe 11 or 12 and I so badly wanted this to be my summer job. Living in isolation with one or two new friends popping by, barely having to talk to anyone, the beautiful English countryside: what’s not to love?!

 

13 Little Blue Envelopes Maureen Johnson13 Little Blue Envelopes, Maureen Johnson

I haven’t read this one yet, but I know Tessa really liked it, so I’ve put it at the top of my summer list. Ginny receives 13 envelopes and is told to buy a plane ticket to London, where she has an epic and (I imagine) romantic summer adventure. Note: anyone who would like to send me envelopes (of any color, really) that somehow lead to my ending up in London is more than welcome.

 

 

The Secret Circle L.J. SmithThe Secret Circle trilogy, L.J. Smith.

The Secret Circle trilogy opens with a series of delightful summer scenes. Still, I think the real reason it seems so summery to me is that the first time I read it, the summer after sixth grade, I was so enthralled that I stayed up all night to finish the trilogy. It was the first time I ever stayed up all night by myself (as opposed to at a sleepover or something, you know). I finished it at like 6am, before my parents were awake, and I made breakfast and was feeling all floaty and witchy, and I took the bus downtown and . . . it was MAGICAL, is what I’m saying. The Secret Circle feels summery the way that Harry Potter feels Christmas-y! Anyway, despite the recent terribleness of the show, this is a must-read summer series. Read more about why in my full review.

White Oleander Janet FitchWhite Oleander, Janet Fitch

Another L.A. book. Astrid is groomed by her mother to observe the world with all her senses—to smell the Oleander, taste the fruit on the trees outside, and really look at things. When her mother is imprisoned for murder, sensitive Astrid is shuttled from place to place, always hyper-aware of the world around her and always mistrusted because of her beauty. Astrid goes through a lot of shit, all against the backdrop of a gorgeously rendered L.A. and its surrounds. While not exclusively a summer book, White Oleander has that summer feeling of lazy days, brunch, and, of course, the California heat.

The Body Stephen KingThe Body, Stephen King.

Okay, so Stephen King isn’t exactly synonymous with bright and sunny. Still, his novella The Body, made into the coming-of-age epic Stand By Me, is total summer fare. It’s the 1960s and four friends set out on a quest to find a dead body that is purportedly in the woods. Along the way, they tell stories, outrun trains and dogs, tease each other mercilessly, and basically do what best friends do. Of course, the premise of finding a body is a touch grim, but if you haven’t read The Body or seen Stand By Me, you have to give it a chance—it’s in the same collection of novellas as Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (also movie-fied), and it’s definitely of that ilk. Dude, SO GOOD!

Bonus!: Your Recommendations

I queried the Facebook crowd as to their favorite summery YA reads and they have spoken. Here are a gems few gems from them:

A Summer to Die Lois Lowry

A Summer To Die, Lois Lowry; recommended by T.C. One summer, Meg’s family moves to a little house in the country and has to share a room with her popular sister. Meg envies her sister’s popularity and beauty . . . and then her sister dies! Nothing says summer like a good guilty sob, eh? No, seriously, though, I haven’t read this since I was little and I totally will re-read it this summer!

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn Betty Smith

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, Betty Smith; recommended by T.C. Resourceful Francie lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn at the start of the 20th century. Like the tree that pushes up through the cement in Brooklyn, Francie must transcend her circumstances (code for class and gender) to come of age. I first read this because my mom’s from Brooklyn, so I kind of thought it would be like reading about her childhood but, um, it wasn’t.

Bridge to Terabithia Katherine Patterson

Bridge To Terabithia, Katherine Patterson; recommended by A.R. Omigod, such a perfect summer book! The entrancing creation of a fantasy world, best friends, learning hard lessons. (It makes me cry, too, A.R.)

Bartimaeus series Jonathan Stroud

Bartimaeus series, Jonathan Stroud; recommended by A.R. This boy-magician-in-training series sounds like a perfect summer read. Indeed, A.R. says it’s his favorite series of all time! I will definitely check it out, although it’ll probably just make me sad all over again about how my letter from Hogwarts never came.

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing Judy Blume

Anything by Judy Blume; recommended by S.W. I am in total agreement that Judy Blume provides some stupendous by-the-pool reading. While some may gravitate to Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, I am more of a Fudge fan, myself: Tales of a Fourth Grade NothingSuperfudge, hell yeah!

A Wrinkle in Time Madeleine L'Engle

The Time Quartet, Madeleine L’Engle; recommended by A.H. A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels are exactly the kind of summer series that I want to read. For one thing, it’s not summer in them (indeed, at many points, it is a dark and stormy night), but always seems autumnal, which will distract me from feeling as though the ten minutes I spend outside waiting for the trolley are going to cause me to spontaneously combust. Great adventure, wonderful and flawed characters, and supergeniuses!

His Dark Materials Philip Pullman

His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman; recommended by Au.R. Like The Time Quartet, His Dark Materials series is a wonderful summer series that will cool us down (polar bears!) and distract us. Au.R. says that since it’s about Lyra’s budding sexuality and growing maturity it’s a total summer read, and I couldn’t agree more.

Dandelion Wine Ray Bradbury

Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury (R.I.P!); recommended by E.H. Omigosh, such a summer book! Dandelion wine is the concentration of all of summer into one cup, and Bradbury packs exactly that into this book. Must re-read this summer. (Oh, and the 50th anniversary edition has a forward by Stephen King!)

Legend Marie Lu

Legend, Marie Lu; recommended by M.U.  M.U. says that this is a great, fast read, and I’m psyched about something like that for the summer; this dystopia sounds like the literary equivalent of a summer blockbuster.

Earthsea Ursula K. Le Guin

Earthsea Cycle, Ursula K. Le Guin; recommended by A.D. I am so delighted by the rush of older fantasy series in response to my asking folks for their summery recommendations! Le Guin’s Earthsea books are another series that I really must re-read this summer, preferably near the ocean.

So, what of you, dear readers? What are your favorite summer celebrations and distractions?

Keep the Pile Fed—Vintage Veronica

A Review of Vintage Veronica by Erica S. Perl

Knopf, 2010

by REBECCA, February 24, 2012

characters

Veronica: she finds herself among the detritus of vintage clothes, iced mochas, and solitude

Lenny, aka The Nail, aka Dead Boy Walking: kind and waifish reptile lover

Zoe: mean teen-sociopath who cows all who walk before her

Ginger: seemingly-unwitting sidekick/pale shadow of Zoe

Bill: Veronica’s ally at work, he lives by the Sacred Rules of The Pile

hook

Veronica works in the consignment section of a vintage clothing store the summer after her freshman year of high school. There she discovers pink flannel pajamas from the 1930s, a beaded dress that looks like a flag, and her first real friends. The question is: will she know what to do with them?

worldview

photo, Swank Underpinnings on Etsy

Vintage Veronica is a lot like the outfits Veronica likes to wear: from the ankles up, it’s all “tulle crinolines, full circle skirts, bolero jackets, silk dressing gown jackets, [and] beaded cardigans,” but this “girly stuff” is paired with “stuff like two-tone creepers and bricks, good clompy shoes that go with everything” (9). Most of what’s here is frothy, fun, shiny, and well-worn. If you’re an enthusiast of the “formerly-antisocial character meets new people and has her solitary ways complicated by social drama” plot line then this is right up your alley. At the feet of this familiar glitz, though, is a pretty sturdy (although also well-worn) story about the ways that our perceptions of ourselves can be so strong that we assume others share them, and never give them the chance to know who we really are.

Veronica’s consignment corner is upstairs, away from the bustling Dollar-a-Pound floor at “the largest vintage clothing store in the Northeast: THE CLOTHING BONANZA (HOME OF THE ORIGINAL DOLLAR-A-POUND!), otherwise known as THE STORE CAUGHT IN A TIME WARP!, according to the big neon-pink and black sandwich board sign out front” (6). “It is exactly like it sounds: a huge, towering heap of used clothes (known to those of us who work at the store simply as The Pile), spilling like a giant stain over most of the painted wood floor” (6). Speaking of metaphors, The Pile, in addition to contributing Bill’s philosophy of life, also provides the central metaphor(s) of the novel.

Veronica has been happy all summer, away from the Pickers—the hyper-enthusiastic customers who rummage through The Pile—in her own world, when she is “befriended” by Zoe and Ginger, who work in the retail section of the store. Now: Veronica relates story after story in which she has friends only to be abandoned by them in some horribly humiliating way, all of which are because she’s fat. Needless to say, she has developed quite a paranoia about trusting people, but when Zoe and Ginger seem to be sincere, she is willing to do almost anything to maintain their approval and friendship.

And this is where the novel lost me. Don’t get me wrong: I am sympathetic to the character that is so lonely that the promise of a friend feels like a lifeline. But. I find it unbearable to read about. Especially when the character who basically sacrifices her ethics and lies about their real feelings to keep the friendship of someone who is obviously a friend-eater is a pretty cool girl who is just a bit lacking in the self-esteem department. Veronica, I just want to shake you and scream: why do you even want Zoe to like you when she’s obviously a sociopath (no, seriously dude, she kills animals) and a mean person? I want to sit down with you and have an iced latte or whatever the hell you’re drinking and explain the glorious and not-often-enough used concept of saying: “no thanks, I’m not interested in [talking about this; doing that; being your friend].” I know, I know, it’s easy to say that when I haven’t been a teenager in ten years, but Veronica’s investment in Zoe’s opinion of her was really painful to read.

One of the many things that Zoe disapproves of is Veronica’s burgeoning friendship and romance with Lenny, aka The Nail (it gets explained), aka Walking Dead Boy, as Zoe and Ginger call him. Lenny and Veronica are totally into each other, but Veronica just can’t quite slip the pressure of the Zoes of the world and make peace with her feelings. Does Veronica and Lenny’s relationship glitter like one of Veronica’s vintage prom dresses? No. But it doesn’t quite clomp like her creepers either. There are sweet moments here, but nothing that breaks the mold.

what was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?

This is a slice-of-life story, mostly taking place in the store and the doughnut shop next door, and it does the cozy, my-work-friends-are-fun vibe well. My favorite character is Bill, The Pile Master, who gives us such wisdom as:

“Shit is shit.”

“Shit is shit?”

“Yeah,” says Bill, grinning proudly. “I made it up the first year I started running Dollar-a-Pound. I was in the john one day—”

“I think I’ve got it.”

“Yeah, but dig this. It’s a Sacred Rule of The Pile because it’s about clothes, but . . .” He pauses dramatically. Jeez, you’d think he was talking about reading tea leaves or tarot cards or something. His eyes are the most un-drooped I’ve ever seen them. “It’s not just about the clothes. Capeesh?” (188).

My experience has been that most young adult novels with fat protagonists are written from a really fat-negative perspective, whether it’s overt (the character hating herself and the author hating her weight) or slightly more subtle (a fat character tries to lose weight and is rewarded with a boyfriend when she does). Veronica is fat, as she tells us, and she has the attendant feelings about her size that come from living in our society, but overall Perl’s attitude here isn’t one of judgment or shame, which is extremely refreshing. Perl clearly cared about writing a book that wasn’t a narrative of Veronica trying to lose weight. Quite the contrary, Veronica takes pleasure in putting together her outfits (even if she does try to avoid crowds, since they make her feel like the magnetite of nasty comments) and altering clothes to fit her body. For further discussion of representations of fat characters in YA fiction, see, among others: Fat Girl Reading, Shapely Prose, and Rebecca Rabinowitz.

All in all, then, this was a fine read, super-quick and entertaining, but definitely mostly tulle.

personal disclosure

When I was thirteen or fourteen, my friends and I used to go to this internecine little secondhand store in Ann Arbor, where the guy who owned it would have us put up posters advertising the store in exchange for flannels and jeans (it was the mid-nineties). I picked up Vintage Veronica at the library mostly because I liked the cover (and because my love of Veronica Mars has instilled in me the hope that anyone named Veronica will be awesomeness personified). I kind of hoped that it would bring me back to my pubescent days of wandering rainy streets with a tape gun and a bag full of Sharpie-d signs on neon paper, visions of that perfect green-and-navy flannel dancing in my head . . . but, alack, alas, it wasn’t to be.

readalikes

Keeping the Moon by Sarah Dessen (1999). Extremely similar stories: heavy, loner protag with workout-queen mother gets summer job where quirky employees and summer romance help her become more herself.

Same Difference by Siobhan Vivian (2009). Vivian’s protagonist goes through a very personal transformation when she commutes to a summer art program in Philadelphia (yay!) from her suburban home in New Jersey. Check out my review here. And check out Tessa’s interview with Siobhan Vivian here!

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