The Next to Last Mistake by Amalie Jahn (YA)

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Inscribe Digital through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on March 19, 2019.

Writing: 3.5/5  Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4.5/5

Blonde haired, blue eyed, Iowa farm girl Tess Goodwin has her life uprooted when her father reenlists in the military and relocates the family to Fayetteville, North Carolina. “Trading farm crops and silos and tractors for soldiers and loud guns” — it’s a rough transition for Tess. She leaves behind a beloved lifestyle and her best (and in some ways only) friend Zander … for whom she may have some stronger feelings than just friendship. She also enters the very real and dangerous world of the military where “the practice of staying alive is incentivized” with a billboard displaying the number of days with no unit fatalities. However, as they say in her farming community, you “grow where you’re planted,” and this is the story of how she manages to develop in a wildly different environment.

Leaving the homogeneity of Iowa behind, this is Tess’ first experience with racial diversity. Establishing a strong connection with a group of three other girls — military and townie, black and white — she is forced to come to terms with her own implicit biases. While I got a little tired of her feeling “humble and thankful for clemency” so frequently when faced with racial realities of which she was previously unaware, I did appreciate the frank discussions of the topic, exemplified via experiences, educational mini-lectures, and a couple of really good literary discussions drawn from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

A coming-of-age story, it does a nice job of describing the experience for a specific, rather than generic, teen. Tess is a chess enthusiast, a skillful farmer, and has a much closer relationship with her father than her (perfectly normal) mother. The book does a nice job of challenging multiple gender, race, and role assumptions simultaneously.

At times the book feels a little over simplified (problems are solved with far too facile measures) and a few passages feel like mini-lectures rather than the natural expressions of teenage girls, but the characters are appealing, the descriptions of both farm and military life are engaging, and I liked the clear descriptions of difficult racial subjects from the perspective of a white girl who had not needed to consider them before.

Rayne & Delilah’s Midnight Matinee by Jeff Zentner

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 3.5/5

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Random House Children’s through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on Feb. 26, 2019.

A funny and poignant YA book about friendship and making your way in the world. Jackson, Tennessee High School seniors Josie Howard and Delia Wilkes are best friends who created and host their own public access television show. Midnight Matinee is a campy creature-feature complete with dorky attire, low budget “so-bad-it’s-good” horror movies, and two delightfully risible, costumed, witchy hosts named Rayne and Delilah.

As BFFs Josie and Delia work through what will happen to the show and their friendship after high school, the action is peppered with a search for a long-lost, deadbeat, dad; a cartoonishly over-the-top sequence with a has-been film producer and his Russian mafia sidekick; a slowly developing love story with the world’s greatest guy and wannabe MMA champion; and plenty of (gratuitous?) butt and fart jokes.

The writing is good — some hysterically funny live and text-based banter (the collection of one-line descriptions of country music alone is worth the price of admission) mixed with heartfelt scenes of connection, questioning, and resolve.

Great for fans of John Green.

The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project by Lenore Appelhans

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Lerner Publishing Group through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on March 5, 2019.

(My last YA review for a while…)

Cute and whimsical, this early YA book explores the world of stereotypes using fictional characters who long to be more than their boilerplate dictates. Riley is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy who works hard and is true to type, but chafes a bit under perceived Author mismanagement. He is sent to Group Therapy with a set of Manic Pixie Dream Girls — just one step away from termination — in order to learn to “remember his place” and “The Author is always right.” However, when the Trope Town Council decides that perhaps the Manic Pixie Dream trope is more trouble than it’s worth, Riley and his therapy cohort have to come up with something big to show how truly important their trope is.

On the surface this is fun and a little silly and will appeal to the younger part of the YA demographic. However, there is some depth to the discussion of literature, the use of stock characters (stereotypes) and the impact that can have on readers. In the Trope Museum the characters bear witness to old stereotypes that have been “retired” due to being offensively racist, sexist, etc. The Uncle Tomfoolery trope is a prime example. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope is on the chopping block for being sexist. But Riley, as an experimental “Boy” version, shows how it may be the association of a particular race, gender, sexual preference with a particular trope that is the issue, not the trope itself. I liked that a lot — there are various personality stereotypes that exist in the world — the damage (I feel) is associating them with whole groups of people based solely on physical characteristics.

*** Spoiler alert *** One more small thing I appreciated. Riley finds himself at the center of a love triangle between Zelda (a Manic Pixie Dream Girl) and Ada, a “Developed” girl in the novel he is working on. At the end of the book, all three step off into the sunset on the Termination Train to Reader World without having to resolve the triangle. They are happy to pursue their own lives and see where it takes them without necessarily “winning” the boy. When I was growing up, just about every movie I saw and book I read focussed on the girl falling in love with the right boy. Regardless of her other pursuits, if she didn’t get the boy at the end, she felt like a failure. Since I was never taught this explicitly, it was difficult to question to the premise. Fiction has a powerful ability to teach us norms of expectations and behavior under the covers as it were. I like the not-so-subtle messages in this book.

Famous in a Small Town by Emma Mills

#2 in the children / YA review series!

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on January 15, 2019.

Writing: 4 Plot: 4.5 Characters: 5

A beautifully written book about the strength of friendships.

Sophie loves everything about her small Illinois town of Acadia — the Yum Yum Shoppe with its fourteen flavors, the school marching band, and the music of their one famous singer / songwriter — Meagan Pleasant. Most important is her close friend group, encapsulated in their WWYSE (where will you spend eternity) group chat — though newcomer August is a pretty intriguing addition.

There is plenty of plot — some romance, some adventure, and some revenge planning along with a well-paced unfolding of surprising secrets. However, the real attraction of the book lies in the characters themselves — likable kids dealing with the realities of life in ways that are focussed, but not dripping with drama. The dialog is natural and (very) funny. There were several points where I teared up reading inspired descriptions of the importance of friendships and family in life. While there is little of the grit present in some urban YA novels, it doesn’t shy away from elements in the environment that today’s teens may be exposed to: blended families, drug use, casual sex, single mothers, open sexual preferences, and even relatives in jail. Acadia isn’t a fairytale locale but a very real place where teenagers are simply trying to grow up and understand what is important to them.

The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik by David Arnold

Writing: 3 Plot: 3.5 Characters: 4

A bizarre ride through a coming-of-age story laced with philosophical conundrums on the nature of reality and our place in the world. Noah Oakman is a high school senior equally focused on typical high school matters such as girls and where to go to college and more atypical matters such as the nature of reality and his place in the universe. He is somewhat obsessed with David Bowie and his Pathological Authenticity. Spinning on Bowie’s biography — “Strange Fascination” — Noah has his own four Strange Fascinations. These play an important role when he wakes up after a drunken party to find that the world has changed subtly: his mother has a scar she never had before; his best friend Alan is now a Marvel Comic fan, rather than a DC Comic fan; and his Shar-pei “Fluffenberger the FreakingUseless” is now a highly energetic alternate animal and thus renamed “Mark Wahlberg.”

I found the novel deeply interesting, though a little long winded. To be fair, I read an advanced copy so perhaps it has been tightened up a bit. Thought provoking and appealing characters, plenty of juicy (to me) reflective commentary on the universe, and streaks of sci-fi spread throughout. Great lessons on friendship, family, doing the right thing, honesty, forgiveness, and (my favorite) the understanding that you can love flawed things.

The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas

Thank you to Random House Children’s and NetGalley for an early review copy of The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas, which will publish July 31, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

A gripping YA whodunit replete with surprising plot twists. Monica Rayburn is still trying to find out the truth about the horrific events that took place 5 years before. This is when Sunnybrook stopped having cheerleaders — because they all died within a month of each other.  One of the cheerleaders was Monica’s beloved older sister, Jen. (As an aside, what is it about towns with “Sunny” in the title — Buffy’s Sunnydale was not a happy place to be either!)

It had just the right amount of suspense — not so much that I couldn’t get to sleep at night, but enough that I could not put the book down. Full of realistic confusion, false leads, and the impact that suspicion — whether warranted or not — can have on relationships.

Great for fans of One of Us Is Lying.