Audio book: Leah on the Offbeat

by Becky Albertalli
Read by Shannon Purser
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Or listen on Libro.fm
Content:  There’s a LOT of swearing. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

This is being billed as a sequel to Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, and it is, kindof, but I don’t think you need to have read that one to enjoy this one. Sure, there’s some little Easter eggs for those who have, but this — first and foremost — is Leah Burke’s story. And 1) because they’re all seniors now and 2) the book is through Leah’s eyes, this is a lot more angsty than I was expecting from this world.

The basic plot is this: it’s near the end of senior year, and everyone — Simon and Bram, Nick and Abby, etc. — is happy. Except Leah. She identifies as bi, and has a raging crush on Abby, which of course is unrequited because 1) Nick’s girlfriend and 2) Abby’s straight. But after Abby breaks up with Nick right before prom and then kisses Leah on a trip to the University of Georgia (where they’re both going in the fall), Leah’s not quite so sure. About anything.

It’s a lot of ups and downs and angst and friendships falling apart, but I think Albertalli got the uncertainty of the second half of senior year, when everything is just about to change and be different. It’s a tough time (change is always tough), and I think Albertalli caught that in Leah’s story. And I really enjoyed the narrator, as well. She got Leah’s voice down — kind of that apathetic, sarcastic front for someone who feels deeply but who doesn’t want to share — and I found it didn’t really matter that she didn’t do voices for the other characters. It made sense: this is Leah’s story, and keeping the focus on Leah’s voice was something I respected.

I didn’t like this as much as I did Simon, but I did like it.

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Hello, Goodbye, and Everything In Between

hellogoodbyeby Jennifer E. Smith
First sentence: “When Aidan  opens the door, Clare rises onto her tiptoes to kiss him, and for a moment, it feels like any other night.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy pilfered from the ARC piles at work.
Content: There’s some illusions to teenage drinking and sex, but it’s all tasteful and way off screen. If there is swearing (and now that I think about it, I’m not sure there is…), it’s all mild. It’s in the YA (grades 6-8) section of the bookstore.

Clare and Aidan have been a couple for the past two years of high school. They’ve been super happy and content in their relationship. But, it’s the night before they leave for college and they aren’t going the same place. Clare is headed to Dartmouth and Aidan for the opposite coast and UCLA. So, they’re going out this last night with one goal in mind (at least Clare’s mind): to break up. It’s a logical decision: they need to go away and be able to experience college fully, to not be constantly wondering if the other is being “faithful”. It makes sense.

Clare’s plan is to recreate memorable moments from their relationship, from where they first met through their first kiss and beyond. Except the evening doesn’t go as planned, and perhaps through the twists and turns that the evening throws at them, they can figure out exactly what to do with their relationship.

I love Smith’s romances. They’re generally sweet and simple, kind of like Baby Bear’s porridge: just right.  This one was a bit more angsty than the others I’ve read, but understandably so. I appreciated that Clare was the “logical” one and that Aidan was the more emotional center in the book; it’s a nice twist to have the girl pushing to break up and the boy wanting to stay together. And the adventures over the course of the night were fun as well. It was an interesting take on relationships as well: usually, books either deal with the falling in love part, or the ending part but I don’t know if I’ve read one where there was a “conscious uncoupling” and Gwyneth Paltrow so eloquently put it. I found that difference to be a nice change.

But while it was all nice and comfy and sweet, that’s really all it was. While it wasn’t bad, it wasn’t anything I totally fell in love with. (Ha!) Still: a good book.

I Was Here

by Gayle Forman
First sentence: “The day after Meg died, I received this letter:”
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Review copy pilfered from the Penguin rep pile.
Content: There is drinking, illusions to pot smoking, language, and some tasteful sex. It’s also a post-high school graduation book. For these reasons, it’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Cody and Meg have been best friends for as long as Cody can remember. Since her mother was gone pretty much all the time, Cody practically grew up at Meg’s house. Meg’s family became her family, Meg’s dreams her dreams. Until they graduated, and Meg got a full-ride scholarship away from their small Eastern Washington town and to a fancy liberal arts school in Tacoma. Suddenly, Cody was the one left behind.

A year later, though, Meg committed suicide. Leaving Cody behind again.

An aside here, in case this sounds crass: this book isn’t about Meg’s suicide. Not really. It’s about Cody, and her reactions to Meg’s suicide. Dealing with grief, dealing with loss, dealing with the reasons why. Meg isn’t a character in this book, even though you kind of get to know her. She’s a reason. A cause.

Cody heads to Tacoma to clean out Meg’s apartment and discovers an encrypted file. Suddenly what seemed like a simple suicide looks more suspicious. And with the help of one of Meg’s roommates (stereotypical Korean computer whiz) and an ex-boyfriend (tortured rock soul whom Cody ends up “saving”) Cody tries to make sense of the senseless.

In the end, it was less of a mystery than I hoped for and more of a romance. And while the romance was okay, I kind of thought it took away from the whole grief thing. Cody is hurt, and maybe one needs a Man to heal, but it kind of felt out of place here. Forman is a good writer, though, and she got across Cody’s raw grief and her questions that didn’t have answers and her need for closure.

A good read, if not an exceptional one.

Dear Committee Members

by Julie Schumacher
First sentence: “Dear committee members, Over the past twenty-odd years I’ve recommended god only knows how many talented candidates for the Bentham January residency — that enviable literary oasis in the woods south of Skowhegan: the solitude, the pristine cabins, the artistic camaraderie, and those exquisite hand-delivered satchels of apples and cheese…”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It’s very much an adult book in sensibility; not to mention about a half-dozen f-bombs dropped in frustration throughout the novel. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

This one has been on my radar for a while; I even was given an ARC by the publishing rep when they came to talk about the lineup a long while back. I just didn’t get around to it until my book group foist it upon me, saying the same thing everyone else did: It’s hilarious. You’ll love it.

It’s the story of Jay Fitger, a tenured English professor at a small liberal-arts college in the Midwest, told entirely through his letters of recommendation (and other letters) for various people. At the outset, it’s a brilliant work of fiction: you get a thorough sense of Jay and the kind of professor (and person!) he is through the letters. Also, you get a sense of not just the passing of time, but also the kind of responses he’s getting, without seeing those. These are entirely one-sided letters, and yet I felt like I got a complete picture of everyone in Jay’s life, from his ex-wife and ex-girlfriend (both on campus) to the woman he had an affair with and modeled a despicable character in one of his (bad) novels after. I knew these people (at least on the surface) from the way Jay wrote to them (and about them) in his letters.

But that wasn’t enough for me to love this one. No, I didn’t find it funny because it hit too close to home; my husband is a professor in a small department in a struggling liberal arts college in the Midwest, and the things Jay was dealing with were just too familiar to be funny. In fact, I think this book is funnier the further away from academia you are. (Or at least the English department; the person who chose the book is a biochemistry professor.) But for those of us in the humanities, or at struggling small colleges, it’s just not funny. It’s Truth. And, at least for me right now, Truth wasn’t what I wanted to read.

Everything Leads to You

by Nina LaCorr
First sentence: “Five texts are waiting for me when I get out of my English final.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some swearing, including a half-dozen f-bombs scattered throughout. And a mention of older teen drinking. Plus, it’s really a growing-up story. For those reasons, it’s in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore.

Emi Price is a golden California girl. (Except, for the record, she has a black grandfather and is NOT the blonde thing you see on the cover.) She as loving parents, a cool older brother who has a job as a site scout in a production company, and a fantastic best friend. She has a job as a set-design intern at the same production company as her brother (nepotism works).

She just broke up with her off-again/on-again girlfriend, though, and that’s getting her down. And so, when her brother leaves his posh Venice apartment to Emi and her best friend, Charlotte, for the summer with the one catch — do something amazing here! — she feels hopeless.

Then she and Charlotte discover an old letter written by a famous actor Clyde Jones (think John Wayne) that is a clue to a mystery: he had a daughter. And a grandchild. And so, Emi and Charlotte set out to find them and deliver the letter.

That’s really only the beginning of the book, and perhaps the least important part of it as well. It’s much more about Emi figuring herself out. The letter helps, but it’s also this job on an indie movie that she lands, thanks to her ex-girlfriend. And when they find Clyde’s long-lost granddaughter, that opens up a whole new avenue for Emi.

I loved this book. Wholeheartedly and unabashedly. I loved the peek into the way movies work, the facts behind the fantasy. I loved the way Emi thought about characters and set design. And I loved how sometimes she let fantasy overtake her reality. The characters were so real, so deep, so complex, that I couldn’t help but be drawn into their lives.

An absolutely perfect summer book.

Fangirl

by Rainbow Rowell
First sentence: “There was a boy in her room.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s quite a few f-bombs, and some insinuations of sex. Plus a lot of underage (and overage) drinking. Also, it’s about college freshmen, a subject which I’m not sure younger readers want to read about. It’s rightly in the teen section (grades 9 and up) of the bookstore.

Cath and Wren are twins. Wren is the outgoing one, the pretty one, the fun one. And Cath stays home and writes Simon Snow (think Harry Potter) fanfiction. She’s really good at it: her stories get thousands of hits, and are widely talked about on the fanfiction sites.

But none of that is going to matter now that they’re freshmen at the University of Nebraska. Cath wanted to go the safe route by rooming with Wren. But, for Wren, that wasn’t an option. So Cath is forced to branch out. Experience things. Actually have a life.

In many ways, this is a love story to those who write fanfiction. Yes, Cath is an introvert, and no she doesn’t want to engage in what most people call “living”, but in no way does Rowel make Cath seem pathetic. She puts her in contrast to Wren, who spends weekends (and some weeknight) partying until we hours (the “normal” college experience) and lets us choose on our own. Perhaps some readers will see Cath as pathetic and without a life, but I never did. (Perhaps, too, that’s because I’m an introvert and I have a nerdy family who actually read — and write — fanfiction.)

It’s also a traditional love story. Cath’s roommate, Reagan, has a boy, Levi, kicking around. Cath thinks they’re dating, but eventually realizes that it’s really her Levi is interested in. And it’s their romance that made the book for me. Levi is so danged good and it was a pleasure watching the good guy get the girl. (So often it’s the “bad” one.) I loved the banter, I loved the push and pull, and I loved watching Levi draw Cath out of her shell, while simultaneously wholly accepting her for who she is.

The ending was a bit pat, I thought, and all the drama with her parents (dad’s a bit on the manic side; mom walked out on The 9/11, and Cath is understandably resistant to her attempts to reconnect) was a bit over-the-top. And while I appreciated that Rowell was reaching out to those who immerse themselves in a fandom, including pages and pages of Cath’s fanfiction was a little boring for me.

Even with the quibbles, though, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this one.