Tag Archives: high school

Laugh, Laugh

Populazzi by Elise Allen (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99, 400 pages)

Populazzi, by Elise Allen, is a cautionary tale about climbing the social ladder at the expense of one’s true self.   Specifically, the social ladder in high school, that petri dish of pain in which only the most popular kids can thrive – or so we think.

When Cara is forced to go to a new school at the start of her junior year, BFF Claudia convinces her to use the experience to test her theory that a girl can work her way up the popularity ladder by dating guys on ever-higher rungs.   The goal is to supplant the reigning “Supreme Populazzi,” Trista, who is known for her (parents’) wealth, lavish parties, and the loyalty she engenders in her ladies-in-waiting.

Cara throws herself into the project, batting away the dreaded social rejects who want to be her friends, and reinventing herself with the clothes, makeup, and demeanors necessary to land the right boy at each stage of the game.

Allen, who also writes for children’s programs on the Internet, DVDs, and TV, gives nods to some of the pitfalls of adolescence, such as pot habits and bulimia; to some of the major sources of pain, such as divorced parents; and to the geeks, nerds, and other “types” who roam the halls of high schools everywhere.   Absent, however, are the self-doubt and the humiliation phobia that might hobble more realistic heroines, and the disadvantages and danger that might challenge more dramatic ones.   Even when Cara gets the slap down of her life, she remains perky and positive.

But this book is a romp, not an exploration of teen angst.   The characters’ cartoonish quality serves to underscore the book’s message.   Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children’s Book Group will launch Populazzi on August 1, just in time for rising freshmen to read it before school starts in the fall.   And there will be a test.   Recommended.

Kimberly Caldwell Steffen

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of the YA novel Populazzi by Elise Allen.

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Hold On

Life On Hold by Karen McQuestion (Amazon Encore; $9.95; 168 pages)

High school sophomore Rae Maddox wants three things: to stay in town long enough to finish high school, to learn who her father is, and to take her grandparents up on their offer to finance college.   All of these things hinge on turning eighteen, and Rae is literally counting down the days.

Blocking those ambitions is Gina, Rae’s mother, a nail artist and more a roommate than a mom, who changes jobs and cities like other women cycle through handbags.   Rae has a policy of not making friends in school.   She operates on the assumption that she won’t be in town long enough to reap the rewards.   When a “friend” is thrust upon her by a school administrator, and Gina encourages the relationship, the stage is set for Rae to seize control of her life.

Readers will identify with the lure of independence and the concomitant dread of breaking a parent’s heart.   Depicting this tug of war is one of the book’s greatest strengths.   Another is its offbeat characters – one of the kids on the fringe of social acceptability with whom Rae eats lunch every day is unusually small, a fact that she refuses to allow to hobble her.   And the “friend” is a complex character whose own teen rebellion has gone horribly wrong.

The way Rae finally asserts her independence comes as a surprise, however, and this lessens the book’s impact.   It’s not that we doubt Rae has it in her – she’s a bright, observant young woman.   But since the story is told in the first person, we feel a tiny bit cheated that we weren’t privy to her intentions, if not her plan.   Nonetheless, Life On Hold, which was self-published, is a good read with compelling and nuanced characters.   This reader is looking forward to more from author Karen McQuestion.

Well recommended.

Kimberly Caldwell Steffen

A review copy was received from the author.


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Teach Your Children

Night Road by Kristin Hannah (St. Martin’s Press; $27.99; 400 pages)

For a mother, life comes down to a series of choices.   To hold on…  To let go…  To forget…  To forgive…   Which road will you take?

In a compelling novel of love, loss, hope and understanding, author Kristin Hannah redefines the pluses and minuses – challenges, tenderness and empowerment – of motherhood.

Jude Farrady has everything.   She lives the ideal life; a loving husband, a custom-built home, friends that support and love her, and twins that have an extraordinarily close relationship.   Her life revolves around her twins, ensuring that they have everything they need to be happy and successful.

Lexi Baill has nothing.   The orphan of a drug addict, she has grown up living in multiple foster homes, without a family, abandoned and alone.   With a heart of gold she selflessly carries hope that someday things will turn out differently.

When Lexi befriends Jude’s daughter Mia on their first day of high school, their lives are forever changed.   Lexi brings out the best in the shy sister of the most popular boy in town.   The bond between the twins and Lexi encourages the Farraday’s to treat Lexi like one of their own.   Finally finding a permanent home with the aunt she never knew she had combined with the love she is shown from the Farraday’s, Lexi feels she has finally found the life she has always dreamed of.

Yet tragedy finds a way into the lives of even those with the most fortunate of circumstances.   The resulting loss forces everyone to reevaluate the future of their relationships and life beyond the boundaries of the predictable.

Author Hannah presents an endearing and engaging story that uncovers a path of unpredictable events…  Events that will leave you laughing, crying, wishing and hoping but above all feeling fully appreciative of the love, devotion and trials that come with the territory of being a mother.

Well recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was received from the publisher.   Night Road was released on March 22, 2011.   “Longtime fans will love this rich, multilayered reading experience, and it’s an easy recommendation for book clubs.”   Library Journal

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When I Was Young

The Last Time I Saw You: A Novel by Elizabeth Berg (Ballantine Books trade paperback; $15.00; 288 pages)

last-time-i-saw-you

The Last Time I Saw You by Elizabeth Berg is a novel guaranteed to appeal to Boomers.   It’s the story of 58-year-olds who attended Whitley High School together and who are gathering for what is said to be their “last reunion.”   Why they won’t be gathering again is never clear, but we do know that the glamorous Candy Sullivan has just been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.   Her husband insists that this is just a first opinion, but Candy knows better and is determined to enjoy what little time is left to her.

“The diagnosis let her recalculate the meaning of time and relationships.”

Berg, the author of Home Safe, has a smooth and relaxing style and she’s at her best when describing human vulnerabilities.   At one point, a male character feels sorry for the spouses who have been dragged along to the reunion.   Then “all of a sudden he feels sorry for everybody.  Here they all are, these people, all these years later just…  what?   Trying, he guesses.   Just trying.”

The Last Time celebrates the joy of spending moments with those who knew you in times past, while highlighting the futility of getting them to accept you as a new and different person.   It’s an enjoyable read that’s deeper than it first appears.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Homeward Bound

The Last Time I Saw You: A Novel by Elizabeth Berg

“So many people who go to reunions think that doing so can somehow change what happened to them.   That the person you’ve become might erase the person you were then.   But of course that doesn’t happen.   …It’s not that you can’t go home again; it’s that you never can leave.”

Elizabeth Berg, author of Home Safe and 17 other novels, has offered a perfect argument for skipping one’s next high school (and maybe college) reunion.   In The Last Time, Berg shows us that people never act the way you want them to, even on the most important of occasions.   And even sadder, we don’t act the way we want or intend to, especially when meeting representatives from our dimly-lit but well-remembered past.

For one thing, everybody tries too hard at these events.   They try to be happier, smarter, more charming or simply more relaxed within their own skins than they were decades earlier.   They rarely succeed.   One of the men in this story comes to understand that, “All of a sudden he feels sorry for everybody.   Here they all are, all these people, all these years later just…  what?   Trying, he guesses.   Just trying.”

One of the women isn’t quite sure how to react as she observes the goings on:  “It comes to her that all of the people in this room are dear to her.   As if they all just survived a plane crash or something.   All the drunks and the show-offs and the nice kids and the mean ones.   All the people she used to know and all the ones she never knew at all.   And herself, too.   She includes herself and her stingy little soul.”

Eventually, we get to see in Berg’s story that people – some people – get out of these events what they must get out of them.   They learn to either completely let go of the past or to simply grip it tighter.   What other choices are there?

“If only people were given the opportunity to behave differently at certain times of their lives!”

But this is more than a Peggy Sue Got Married story.   It is a story about men and women who get a second chance with their original crowd – a chance at reconnecting and either succeeding or failing in life.   The rich graduates worry that they didn’t spend enough time with their kids while they were growing up.   The poor graduates worry that they have no impressive titles or stories of times when they were important.   But this is not really their story…

It is primarily the story of Candy Sullivan, the once-and-still beautiful and popular girl at Whitley High School.   She has been diagnosed with one of the deadliest forms of cancer.   Candy has little time to waste but decides to attend the reunion to enjoy herself while she can.   She leaves her husband at home and flies off to the reunion, where people notice her vacant eyes.   They’re vacant because she’s pondering the question, “Is death an end or a beginning?”

Candy is who we are – or at least we identify with her because she acts like we think we would in her place.   Frightened yet emboldened, imprisoned in a disease state, facing death and yet somehow set free.   Scared and calm, ready for what’s to come.

“This diagnosis has been a kind of gift.   It’s making me look at things and see them.”

You will want to keep reading The Last Time I Saw You to find out what happens to Candy and her all-too-human classmates.   Author Berg surprises us by also making the case that you simply cannot afford to miss your next reunion.

Well done, Ms. Berg.   Life painted large and small all at once.

An advance review copy was received from Random House.   The Last Time I Saw You will be released on Tuesday, April 6, 2010.

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Happy Jack: A Review of Our Boys

It may just be me…   Sometimes with non-fiction sports stories – especially ones that are intended to be inspirational – I feel like I can’t get any traction as a reader.   They start off slowly and I tend to wait and wait and wait and wait, thinking they’ll speed up and the excitement will hit me.   I had this problem with the book version of Friday Night Lights.   I bought the trade paperback while on vacation thinking the read would fly by.   Instead, I plodded and crawled my way through the story and somehow never located the part where it sped up.

Sadly, The Boys… is a very Friday Night… like tale.   It’s a non-fiction account chronicled by an on-leave newspaper reporter of his year spent with a high school’s football team on the plains of Kansas.   OK, if this makes your heart beat faster it may be a book for your vacation.   (Beware that the words wheat and wheat fields are used a lot.)Our Boys (large)

Perhaps part of the problem for me is that I was reading a galley/advanced reading copy of Our Boys.   There were no teaser quotes on the front or back cover – or even inside – stating things like, “The most inspirational youth sports story of the decade!” or “This is Drape’s youth sports masterpiece!”   Galleys can be a bit dull.

Then there’s Drape’s factual reporting style.   Here’s a sample:  “The coaches’ office…  was not much to look at – blue lockers on one wall and across from them a long desk fashioned from plywood and file cabinets.   Its top was buried under papers…   Beneath it were boxes full of jerseys and T-shirts and rolls of tape.   Scouting reports dating back five years were in red binders and lined the sleeves.”   Does this make you want to know what happened next?

To be fair, the author himself notes that the Smith Center football coach was hard for reporters to cover as his proclamations “rarely veered from too familiar themes.”   Oh, the coach would say that his team respected every opponent while fearing none; he’d also praise the opponents for playing hard.

In summary, I had hopes that this true life story would offer some fun like a ride in a Volkswagen GTI.   Instead it was a ride in a John Deere Harvester as it plowed through Kansas wheat fields, never quite managing to speed up.

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