Tag Archives: Kimberly Caldwell Steffen

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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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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When the Ship Comes In

Between Shades of Gray: A Novel by Ruta Sepetys (Philomel; $17.99; 344 pages)

In the epilogue to Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, protagonist Lina speaks to us from a time capsule:  “It is my greatest hope that the pages in this jar…  prompt you to do something, to tell someone.   Only then can we ensure that this kind of evil is never allowed to repeat itself.”

The story that she has buried in that jar begins in 1941 in Lithuania.   Lina, who is fifteen, her younger brother Jonas, and her mother are at home one evening when the Soviet secret police come to the door.   Through her eyes we watch as the three are deported to Siberia.   Lina’s father, a professor who has aided relatives’ emigration to Germany has been arrested.   His actions were prompted by the hope that the relatives might, in turn, help his own family escape Stalin’s tyranny.

As the truth of their situation gradually unfolds for Lina, she draws images of horror and images of heroism, and tucks the sketches into the lining of her suitcase.   It’s an act of silent rebellion that she knows is both brave and foolish.   But she is an artist who is desperate to record the history of the ordinary people swept up in Stalin’s purges.   Through Lina’s eyes we see a portrait of true grace emerge in Mother, a woman whose calm, kindness, and humanity buoy the spirits of everyone else.   We see how memories have the power to sustain and what happens when hope is lost.

What we do not see is why Stalin shipped this trainload of slave labor all the way across Siberia and north to the Arctic Circle to do work that seems only to sustain the comfort of the soldiers who guard them.   Perhaps Sepetys intended the apparent illogic of the labor camp’s location to be yet another layer of punishment – another obstacle to hopefulness.

Sepety’s characters are fascinating, even those who are the verbal equivalent of pencil sketchesthe bald man, the man who wound his watch, the repeater.   Her spare prose is reminiscent of Pearl Buck’s.   Between Shades of Gray depicts the effects of a moral disaster rather than Buck’s natural ones, but both authors know their story is so intrinsically dramatic that it needs no melodrama.   Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, published the novel, Sepety’s first, in March of 2011.   Highly recommended – and not just for young readers.

Kimberly Caldwell Steffen

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Mother and Child Reunion

LEFT neglected: A Novel by Lisa Genova (Gallery Books, a division of Simon and Schuster)

In an interview with Jennifer Northcutt, a buyer for Borders bookstores, neurologist Lisa Genova says an anecdote about left-side neglect in a book she read years ago by neurology and psychiatry professor Oliver Sacks piqued her curiosity.   She knew the clinical manifestations of a right-hemisphere brain injury, but wondered how one could possibly cope with such a condition.

The result of that curiosity is Sarah Nickerson, 37, protagonist of LEFT neglected.   Sarah is the hard-charging, Harvard MBA-toting vice president of a Boston consulting firm who can’t recall the last time she had sex with her husband, Bob, but does keep track of her wins when they play Rocks, Paper, Scissors to see who gets stuck taking their three kids to school/daycare before work on Fridays.   Sarah’s hyper-drive lifestyle downshifts abruptly when an auto accident (she’s looking for a number on her cell phone) leaves her with a traumatic brain injury.

Left-side neglect is an intriguing condition.   Asked to draw a clock, a patient will only draw the noon-through-six side.   Food on the left side of her plate will go unseen.   She knows that she has a left leg, but her brain is unable to find it or control it, making walking impossible.

Genova tells Sarah’s story in the first person, which lets the reader in on her unvarnished thought process as she comes to grip with maddening limitations.   Sarah retains her intellect and her competitiveness, which she and Bob assume will drive her to regain everything she’s lost.   She is blunt and funny, and her pity parties are few and brief.   Oddly enough, however, it is Sarah’s relationship with her long-absent mother that truly humanizes her.   When mother shows up at Sarah’s hospital bedside, Sarah openly hates her.   The reason, which resurfaces slowly, rescues Sarah from superwoman flatness and makes her a compelling and sympathetic character.   The evolution of the mother-daughter relationship colors the novel with poignancy and grace.

Genova’s writing is inventive.   She shows the stress of Sarah’s pre-accident life in the clack-clack-clack cadence of Sarah’s four-inch, Christian Louboutin heels and deftly contrasts it post-accident in Sarah’s cane-step-drag-breathe pattern of learning to walk again.

As a neurologist, Genova is well acquainted with the pathology of brain afflictions.   Her first novel, Still Alice, is about Alzheimer’s.   It was a New York Times bestseller, and odds are good that LEFT neglected will be, too.   Highly recommended.

By Kimberly Caldwell Steffen.   This is a “second look” review.   LEFT neglected was released on January 4, 2011.

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Dirty Old Town

The Vaults by Toby Ball

If The Vaults by Toby Ball is made into a movie, it will have to be shot in black and white.   A film noir mood permeates the City, from the desolate squatter camps in abandoned factories to City Hall, where heavyweight-boxer-turned-mayor Red Henry rules with a predator’s innate understanding of his opponents’ weaknesses.   It’s big-city America in the 1930s, the heyday of the newspaper, when deeply flawed men can become heroes by exposing corruption.   That’s where we meet Francis Frings, the Gazette’s star reporter, who’s working on a story that implicates the entire criminal justice system and threatens to topple Red Henry.

The hardboiled characters who populate Frings’ world – his lover, a sultry jazz singer; his hootch-swilling editor – are richly drawn.   Frings’ investigation, alone, would make a compelling crime thriller.   But his investigation is just one of three that threaten the mayor’s kingdom, and therein lies the genius of Ball’s novel:  Three “heroes” with vastly different motivations – and no knowledge of one another – simultaneously begin tugging on the threads of the central mystery.   Ethan Poole is a private eye with socialist leanings who’s not above blackmail.   Arthur Puskis is the rigidly methodical archivist of the City’s criminal files.   Mayor Henry lashes out at all who threaten his kingdom, his brutality kept in check only by the pragmatic consideration of public relations.

Ball’s writing is fast-paced and terse.   He rotates the action from one investigation to the next, and in the process, fleshes out a world of ingenious criminality, unionizing, strike-breaking, smoky nightclubs, and insane asylums.   The characters’ quests are provocative and timeless:  Truth, Justice and The Purpose of Life.   The book’s one weakness is the implausibility of the operation that Mayor Henry kills to protect.   But The Vaults is such a good read that it hardly matters.

The Vaults (St. Martin’s Press) is Ball’s first novel.   It’s a winner, and anyone who reads it will be standing in line to get his second.

Review by Kimberly Caldwell Steffen.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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