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.”
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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.

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Landline

by Rainbow Rowell
First line: “Georgie pulled into the driveway, swerving to miss a bike.”
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Review copy nabbed off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: It’s all about marriage, so I don’t know how appealing it would be to teenagers. It’s also full of f-bombs and illusions to sex and drinking (but no actual, I don’t think). It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

After 15 years of marriage, Georgie and Neal are broken. Well, Georgie doesn’t really like to think they are; she loves her husband and her two  young daughters. But she’s gone all the time, writing for a popular TV sitcom. Neal stays home with the kids, and does a fantastic job, but increasingly it seems like it’s not enough for him. And so when an opportunity comes for Georgie, and her best friend Seth, to pitch a new show — their own show — just after Christmas, Neal digs his heels in. They were supposed to go to his mom’s house, in Omaha. And now Georgie is putting work first, again. So, he packs up the kids and takes them, leaving Georgie stranded a week before Christmas.

But then, Georgie discovers that her old yellow landline phone connects her to a Neal in the past, one the year they got engaged. And maybe, by talking to Neal-in-the-past, she can figure out what is wrong in the present.

Rowell is a talented writer; don’t get me wrong. There were some fun moments, and some beautiful turns of phrase in this book. But, I think she writes better about falling in love than about staying in love. There wasn’t much drive, much reason to stay connected to this book (and I didn’t cry!), much reason to care about the characters. It all felt very rote, very run-of-the-mill, and not at all fresh or original. Perhaps we were supposed to think it was, since Georgie is the breadwinner and Neal is the stay-at-home parent, but it felt like the same old conflicts with just a role reversal. And perhaps there was growth, but I just didn’t feel it. They are both self absorbed and unfit for each other, and although Rowell wanted us to believe that love is “enough” she never gave me enough proof to convince me that, in the case of Georgie and Neal, it would be.

Not bad, but not great, either.

Fat Boy vs. The Cheerleaders

by Geoff Herbach
First sentence: “Shortly before midnight on June 15, Gabriel Johnson, a sixteen-year-old from Minnekota, MN, was apprehended outside Cub Foods by Officer Rex McCoy.”
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Review copy pilfered from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s a lot of swearing, none of it strong. I put it in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore primarily because I like to keep the YA section toned down. Also, because that’s where all of Herbach’s other books are. I’d say, depending on your kid, it’s good for as young as 7th graders.

In high school, there are two types of people: the jocks and everyone else. Gabe is everyone else.  Actually, Gabe is a band geek, and a mostly friend-less loser. He’s been going downhill since his mom ran off with a Japanese guy a few years back, and his grandpa moved in. It’s not just that he has only two friends, it’s that he’s overweight. Massively so. In fact, everyone (including his friends) call him Chunk. And he’s okay with that.

Gabe spends his days chugging Code Red, primarily because the money in the school’s soda vending machine goes to support the band that is Gabe’s lifeline. He figures he can chug 5 bottles of the stuff, if the money goes to fund his program. Then he finds out that a Super Sekrit school board meeting took away the vending machine money from the band and gave it to the Brand Spanking New dance team. Which makes Gabe mad. Eventually.

There’s more to the plot, of course, but it’s more about Gabe gaining self-respect than any eventual result. You know from the start — the whole book is his confession; a one-sided conversation with a Mr. Rodriguez — that he’s gotten arrested for doing something. You assume it’s for stealing money out of the vending machine. But, things are more complex than that.

Part of the charm of this book is the format; I was entertained by hearing only one side of the conversation, and imagining what Mr. Rodriguez’s side was. But, it was also Gabe. He was such a loser to start with, and it’s empowering to see how he regains control over his life, in spite of the people — from his friends to his father — who are trying to hold him back. Everyone needs a summer in which they find their best selves, and this story of Gabe’s was a truly fun one.

The Year of Billy Miller

by Kevin Henkes
First sentence: “It was the first day of second grade and Billy Miller was worried.”
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Content: None. It’s currently in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but after finishing it, I’m wondering if I should move it to the beginning chapter books section. Since Billy’s a second grader and the type is pretty large and the words pretty simple.

Billy Miller is in second grade. That’s a Big Deal. He’s never done that before. And he’s not sure he can. Especially since the first day of school — with his very kind, and probably unrealistically good teacher, Ms. Silver — gets off to a bad start.

But, as the book unfolds in a series of short vignettes, each focusing on a different member of Billy’s family and in a different season, we find that Billy has ways of dealing with each and every challenge that comes his way.

It’s a very sweet little book. Simplistic, sure — there’s a girl, Emma, in Billy’s class that isn’t very nice, but instead of dealing with (or expanding) the problem, Henkes just kind of glosses over it — and without much conflict. But that doesn’t stop it from being sweet and charming. But really, that’s all it is.

Which isn’t a bad thing.

The Westing Game

by Ellen Raskin

First sentence: “The sun sets in the west (just about everyone knows that), but Sunset Towers faced east.”
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Content: There are about three mild swear words, and some talk of murder. Plus a couple of bombs. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore (actually, I have a Newbery Award Winner section; it’s in that), and I can see no reason for this not to be there. 
Review copy provided by the publisher as a complimentary copy for my bookgroup.
There are very few books I have fond memories of from when I was a kid. The Little House books, and Wrinkle in Time are a couple. And this one. I’m not sure why I remember it so well; maybe it was because it’s a pretty decent puzzle book/mystery, or maybe I just liked the spunk that Turtle Wexler has. Either way, this one has stayed with me throughout the years as a charming, fun little book.

I’m happy to say that this is still — even after all these years — a charming, fun little book. For those who don’t know the plot, it’s this: Sam Westing has died, and 16 people –all connected to Sam Westing in some way — are called into solve the mystery of his “murder” in order to win his inheritance. It’s a rag-tag collection of people, from a judge to a doorman, to a dysfunctional family, to a couple of restaurant owners. There are several sympathetic characters: Doug Hoo, the resident jock/track star; Theo Theodorakis, an incredible support to his disabled older brother; and (my favorite) Turtle Wexler, 13-year-old spitfire. There are also some despicable characters, most notably Turtle’s mom. She is the epitome of overbearing mothers who have good intentions but go about it all wrong. Pushing her older daughter (at age 19!) into a marriage she doesn’t want, and emotionally abusive to Turtle… I disliked her with every fiber of my being.

I’m not sure if the puzzle was terribly well-plotted. I knew the answer, having remembered it from a previous read (maybe 10 years or so ago), but A read it and kind of felt the answer came out of nowhere. That didn’t much matter; she enjoyed the story for the characters. And perhaps that’s the real charm of the book. Raskin created a group of people that we can’t help but identify with and either love or hate. Either way, we’re more than happy to go on a bit of an adventure with them.