Just Listen (by Sarah Dessen)

7 03 2014

justlistenFinishing up on Grasshopper Jungle is a hard thing to do, probably like coming off a drug cold turkey… so any book following that would have been, well… a letdown. That’s why I played it a bit safer and decided to pick up a book that I knew beforehand I would at least like. Didn’t need to love it, but like would have been good… which lead me to Sarah Dessen. And I got exactly what I expected from Just Listen. There was nothing in this book – which actually has a bit of a Speak-vibe, btw – that I didn’t expect, which means, that yes, although Dessen is definitely following a formula, her writing and character development is up to par – as per usual. Just Listen isn’t the best Sarah Dessen (I’m still very much in love with The Truth About Forever), but it’s Sarah Dessen, you know?

Next up? Adam Rapp’s The Buffalo Tree.

First summer impressions…

29 06 2013

OK, so the weather pretty much sucks at the moment. Nevertheless the cat has read 4 really excellent “summer reads” in the past week:

Game by Barry Lyga

game1Game is the sequel to last year’s I Hunt Killers, which has Barry Lyga doing something completely different from his previous YA books. Jazz (or Jasper) Dent is 16, and the son of the most infamous serial killer who’s still alive … and (spoiler alert) on the loose at the end of I Hunt Killers. To be honest, even though I Hunt Killers is clearly still YA, this sequel is a lot less “straight up YA”. By this I mean that it’s not so much about the character of Jazz, the teenager struggling with having a serial killer for a dad and not knowing whether he has/will have the same…err.. urges as his dad and how he should deal with that, but more of an actual crime novel/psychological thriller. If you could describe I Hunt Killers best as Dexter-Lite, then Game is like a mix of Criminal Minds and The Following…although admittedly a whole lot more entertaining. And that’s the immediate appeal of Game: it  is such a thrilling and enjoyable ride (after you have shown a great amount of suspension of disbelief, though: it doesn’t really make sense that a 17-year-old would be able to assist the NYPD in the way that Jazz is doing. Despite the often gruesome stuff that’s being described it’s hard to see how this could not appear to young adults, so yeah, maybe, YA is still a good enough “box”… A little bit disappointed that “the case” didn’t really get a resolution at the end, though. Sequilitis is catching, I guess.

Also, props to the people who came up with the hardcover design: that’s how you do the hardcover justice (not that boring black, but something that pops!).


3.5 stars

The Moon and More by Sarah Dessen

moonmore1By now, my Sarah Dessen adulation knows very few bounds. The Moon and More has not changed that. It’s almost predictably good. Every time I open one of Dessen’s books, I know the world – in this case Colby, which is also featured in a few of her other books – she has created will be painted into the very finest details. Everything is so recognizable: the settings are perfectly drawn, the characters have believable parent-child relationships, the relationships between friends are great, the love interest is (usually) hard to dismiss, etc. Nothing spectacular ever happens, but Dessen’s appeal definitely lies in the meticulous build-up of a her main character’s surroundings, and The Moon and More is no exception: everything fits, the puzzle is always complete by the end of the book. And although Dessen does deviate a teensy weensy bit from the Dessen-formula (the love interest Theo for instance), everything still stays very much within her (and her readers’) comfort zone, and everything remains Dessenesque. She’s a true author, not a writer. Love her books!

4 stars

P.S. I do have a remark in terms of packaging. The protagonist in the book is called Emaline. On the paperback cover I read (UK), she’s called Emeline. I just thought this was really sloppy work of the art department responsible for the packaging here.



Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

For a “cancer book”, this easily makes the top 3 of funniest books I’ve read this year! Greg Gaines has done his utmost not to make any friends in the place that universally sucks so bad: high school. Instead, he’s only “friends” – but co-worker would be a better way to describe him – with foulmouthed Earl, who’s not really from the most stable of families. Together they make movies. Their biggest inspiration is Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, a movie that not only strengthened their belief that they were totally different from all other high school specimens (hence the no-friends rule), but which led them onto the path of making their own fucked up movies themselves, movies that no one ever in the universe are allowed to watch. When his mom tells Greg to contact Rachel – the dying girl – again (they know each other from Hebrew school), his meticulous plan to fly under the high school radar goes horribly wrong.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is fucking awesome. Read it!

Also, check out the picture… just to illustrate that Greg Gaines is not alone in the Werner Herzog Adoration Society.



4 stars

Hold Still by Nina LaCour

holdstillIf Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was one of the funniest books for me this, year, Nina LaCour’s debut Hold Still is definitely the saddest book I’ve read in a long time. I guess topic-wise  this can hardly be called a summer read, but since it’s set over the course of a year – from one summer to another summer – I am including it nevertheless. Caitlin’s best friend Ingrid commits suicide and what Caitlin is left with is a whole lot of sadness… and Ingrid’s journal. Throughout the course of a school year Caitlin learns to deal with the sadness, the guilt, how to make friends again, finds her love for photography and building stuff again. LaCour’s strength is her poetic language, combined with a poignant use of symbolism and metaphor, which evokes a sort of serenity that ensures that this book is one of the best I’ve read to deal with the grief and guilt after losing a loved one. Highly recommended!

4 stars

Keeping the Moon (by Sarah Dessen)

7 05 2013


In light of the upcoming publication of Sarah Dessen’s new novel, The Moon and More, in June of this year, the cat wanted to get another Sarah Dessen fix real quick! There’s nothing better to pick you up after a slew of average books than a Sarah Dessen book! Even when she’s not at the top of her game, her books are always entertaining, immensely readable and like chocolate for my inner girl!

In Keeping the Moon – a Dessen oldie, her 3rd novel and originally published in 1999 – 15-year-old Colie Sparks is our protagonist. She used to be fat, but once her mom found comfort in exercising and found out that not only was she really good at it, but she also loved it with an unabashed enthusiasm that made her into one of the nation’s most famous fitness gurus, Colie lost 45 pounds. What she didn’t lose, though, was her insecurity. When her mom is off to Europe to tour with her fitness program, Colie is sent to her unconventional aunt Mira in Colby. In Colby she starts working at the Last Chance* diner, where she also meets Morgan and Isabel, who are potentially the first friends she ever has in her life.

Like in many of her other books, Dessen is very good at pointing out similarities and differences in people’s relationships and the reasons why people behave the way they behave. Dessen is a character-writer. She seems to love all of her (female) protagonists a lot (despite and because of their flaws!), which is very infectious! It’s hard not to feel with Colie and her insecurities. Dessen usually takes a lot of time to have her main characters build relationships with the people around her (including the love interests! No insta-loves here!), who all have their own past to deal with,… nothing is ever rushed in a Dessen novel. In Keeping the Moon, she hasn’t yet fully acquired that skill yet (it’s a slender novel, compared to some of her more recent work), but it’s great to see some really believably female friendships so early on in her writing career, and to see her be such a champion of self-esteem! I’m greatly looking forward to The Moon and More (which is apparently also set in Colby!).

* This book can also be found under another title: Last Chance. The 2012 Speak Reissue I read (cf. cover photo), has the original title, though.

Queens of Contemporary YA Romance

10 02 2013

Sarra Manning, meet Sarah Dessen… Sarah Dessen, meet Sarra Manning…

smsdOn one side of the Atlantic Ocean Sarah Dessen firmly holds the crown of Contemporary Teen Romance Queen. What Happened to Goodbye, Dessen’s 9th novel is the cat’s 5th encounter with the American Queen of Teen Romance, and yet again she scores big time with the cat, even though the romance aspect of the book is now probably the most understated aspect of the book compared to  any of her other works, instead focusing more on family dynamics. On the other side of the ocean, there’s Sarra Manning. She’s been slightly more prolific than Sarah Dessen, having published books for the Adult as well as Young Adult market (Adorkable is actually her 15th published book), but like Dessen, she equally  beats any other writer in the contemporary teen romance right back into their corner.

There are obvious similarities between these two Teen Queens. First of all, both authors clearly put characterization as their top priority. Even if that means that your protagonist is – well, let’s be honest – an insufferable bitch as is the case with Adorkable’s Jeanne Smith. Manning, in this case, does obnoxious with style and sustenance, though.

adorkableJeanne Smith is the 17-year-old avant-hipster protagonist, one of the 2 voices we get in Adorkable. Jeanne is a self-proclaimed dork, an outcast, a complete stranger to her own (Y-)generation[1] and as such she has more or less branded herself, with a totes adorkable blog, a twitter account with half a million followers, and guest appearances and presentations at actual hipster conferences. She lives alone (she’s a sort of emancipated minor with a sister doing an internship in the States, a mother doing a hippie degree in South America and a dad who only makes guest appearances in her life) and tries to do A-levels at the same time as taking over the internet with her self-made dork empire.

The second voice in Adorkable is that of 18-year-old Michael Lee, who lives at the opposite end of the “dorky unpopular outcast – cool  popular conformist”-spectrum. While Jeanne shops at jumble sales and prides herself on not even owning a pair of jeans, Michael Lee shops as Hollister and Abercrombie & Fitch and is the # 1 popular guy at school for whom the girls just line up. When Jeanne’s boyfriend and Michael’s girlfriend decide they like each other more than their respective girl- and boyfriend, Jeanne and Michael’s lives collide.

Whatever you say about Jeanne and Michael’s likeability – they both are pretty unlikeable – it’s a fact that Manning succeeds amply in giving the two some serious backbone. In the case of Jeanne this is perhaps the most obvious. She’s definitely her own woman (a real type of feminist who wants to reclaim the color pink and de-stereotypize it) and will not be dissuaded to conform or give in. But that’s not the sort of backbone I mean… I’m talking about what Manning does to establish her character. And she’s done literally everything to make her as believable as possible: Jeanne’s incessant tweeting (Oh.My.God.Kill.The.Bitch.Now!), her trying to change the other in her relationships, … This is the mark of a writer who’s not afraid to show that teenagers are often just obnoxious brats who think they own the universe. Jeanne as well as Michael are arrogant in their own ways. Jeanne because, in her claim to difference, she just disses everything that doesn’t fit in her ‘different universe’ (and that’s a lot!)… But seriously, how authentic can your claim to difference and the dorkside be when you tote an iPhone and your living room looks like nothing more than an Apple-endorsed commercial  because of the many Apple devices you’ve hooked up to link you to the interwebs. Can we say conformity?? Michael, on the other hand, starts off as an ultra-conformist and is just plain awful when he continuously calls Jeanne ugly and is afraid to be seen with her in public – even when they’re in a sort of relationship…  What sort of boy does that to their “girlfriend”? The total asshole-kind! So also in characterizing Michael, Manning goes the whole nine yards. Even though I would hate knowing either of these characters “in real life”, I completely believe their characters, which is a credit to Manning’s skills.

Sarah Dessen’s Mclean iswhtgsd equally as convincing. Like in Manning’s Adorkable, the female protagonist of What Happened to Goodbye has been drawn to a T, flaws and all. Mclean Sweet has moved four times in almost two years. After the divorce of her parents, Mclean decided she would rather follow her consultant-father around the States than stay with her mother (who she blames for the very nasty and public break-up) and her new family. Since then, every move has been a way to literally reinvent herself. At every new place she was Beth or Lizbeth or Eliza, but she’s never been just Mclean anymore… that is until she moves to Lakeview. Maybe for the first time in 2 years she feels that she’s found a place where she can just be herself again… maybe she’s even found a new home.

Identity and being who you  really are were so much a part of Adorkable, but in Dessen’s 9th book it’s probably even more prominent. Most of Dessen’s female protagonists can come off as somewhat resigned about their situation in the beginning of Dessen’s books, but not Mclean Sweet. From the outset, she’s very feisty, especially in her opinion about her mother. Mclean doesn’t hide her anger at all. And even her rebellion – inventing different persona – is an active one, rather than a quiet, passive one.

What is great about any Dessen book is that Dessen takes her time. She doesn’t rush characterization, but she doesn’t rush her plot either. Both are carefully built up. That doesn’t mean, however, that you get a slow story.  You get the feeling that this is exactly how it is supposed to go, because this is the life of these teens and you want to immerse you into their world as much as you can… and then you encounter characters and things you’ve encountered in other Dessen novels (Jason, Ume.com,…) – which, btw, is also something Dessen and Manning have in common – and then it makes you feel right at home, just as these kids are trying to find theirs.

Besides being the queens of characterization, Manning and Dessen clearly share a love for somewhat strange romantic hook-ups. OK, so you know that there’s going to be a romance, and you know how most of Manning and Dessen’s books are more or less going to end – some would say they’re formulaic and predictable stories (boohoo, you nay-sayers!)  – but the ride is what it makes it all so exciting! Dessen (especially her!) and Manning succeed in satisfying my inner girl needs… there I said it. Who doesn’t like a story of two unlikely people meeting and getting to know each other? Who doesn’t like a story in which the protagonists grown into themselves but get a little bit of help along the way? And neither Manning’s nor Dessen’s romances are of the insta-love type, which is another plus for these writers: they write about friendship and romance.

And thirdly, Manning and Dessen’s books all fall well within Freytag’s traditional dramatic arc: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement… If that’s being predictable, then so be it. But the cat for one, thinks that if something is done well, then something is done well and you just gotta give the girls props for doing it!

However, besides these very palpable similarities, the Atlantic Ocean really does serve as the great divider… Obviously, there’s the unmistakable language difference. For American readers, Manning’s language complete with British teen slang of totes cool and blates hip might be like a Close Encounter of the Third Kind. May take some time getting used to, but not an insurmountable difficulty!

The biggest difference between Manning and Dessen’s writing though, is in the way the romance is depicted and then develops into a sexual relationship as well. With Sarah Dessen – as with a lot of American contemporary YA romance writers – the teen relationships are of the very chaste kind. I mean, obviously sparks are flying all over the place, but besides kissing, there’s not a lot of actual sexual activity going on and it’s almost as if sex just doesn’t exist. Now, I’m not saying the teens should be doing the naked pretzel from page one, but considering that your characters are of the teen variety means you have to include at least some of their sexual adventures, because… Newsflash! They’re 17! They are having sex! And although Dessen does satisfy my inner girl needs – which are of the romantic rather than the explicit kind – Manning’s portrayal of the teen relationship is definitely more grounded in reality. I don’t think that American teens are less likely to encounter in sexual activity (duh!), but I do think there’s a bigger (self-)censorship with American YA writers, editors and publishers than with the British YA crew, who’re a lot bolder in what they reveal[2]. Manning’s portrayal of teenage relationships shows teens with clear wants and needs (there’s even talk about masturbation in Adorkable). I think the way Manning shows Jeanne and Michael having sex is well…real. Jeanne and Michael are very comfortable with their bodies, they are having safe sex, and are both just OK with that. It also shows that if you write your sex scene the way Manning does – i.e. very very well! Nothing overly graphic, but honest and respectful towards characters and readers – then the reader can almost feel both the awkwardness and the sexiness of the situation. Great stuff!

Reading Sarra Manning’s Adorkable right after Sarah Dessen’s What Happened to Goodbye was completely unintentional, but by doing so, it brought out the similarities and differences between two very skilled authors who can each proudly claim the crown of Queen of Contemporary YA Romance on their side of the Atlantic Ocean. The cat’s a fan!

[1] BTW, if you exchange the word ‘dork’ with ‘nerd’ and ‘adorkable’ with ‘awesome’, add a dash of self-indulgence and self-proclaimed ‘art of being different’ and you get a British version of… yeah, that.

[2] BTW, I don’t know who took the executive decision here, but the cover for Adorkable is just completely wrong! This is how Jeanne is described in the book: “[…] I have a very odd body. I’m small, like five feet nothing, and compact so I can fit into children’s sizes, but I’m sturdy with it. […] Anyways, I’m sturdy, stocky even. Like, my legs are really muscly because I cycle a lot and I’m kind of solid everywhere else. If it wasn’t for the iron-grey hair […] and the bright red lipstick I always wore, I could have passed for a chubby twelve-year-old boy.” (p.5)

Let’s Get Lost (by Sarra Manning)

26 12 2012

letsgetlostFor some reason, Sarra Manning has been flying under the cat’s radar for years… Her2004sophomore book Diary of a Crush 1: French Kiss has been in our library for a while now, it gets checked out regularly, but for superficial reasons, the cat never felt like reading it (1. Title of the book is off-putting, and 2. The cover doesn’t promise a whole lot of good…).  Then suddenly not one, but 2 Sarra Manning books kept on being recommended, and the cat is starting to get the feeling she’s made a mistake the size of the whole Sarah Dessen debacle

Let’s Get Lost was published after the Diary of a Crush trilogy. In it we follow 16-year-old Isabel Clark who’s feared at her school for being your typical Mean Girl. She doesn’t have friends either, but she’s got a gang of (not so faithful) minions, who she has to keep in check. It’s a girl eat girl world at high school, and after being bullied when she was younger, Isabel is not going to let herself be the victim again, especially not now that her mother has died. One evening at a party she meets 20-year-old college student Smith – like her also named after a character in a book and attending the Uni where Isabel’s father teaches – and hooks up with him. She convinces him she’s older, a lie which is (of course) going to catch up with her later on.

Even if the story of Let’s Get Lost isn’t the most original of stories and even though the protagonists are very reminiscent of other protagonists in books of this genre (contemporary YA romance), Sarra Manning’s take on it sounds fresher than e.g. in a book like Kody Keplinger’s The DUFF.  There’s a case to be made for the fact that Isabel is also just escaping the reality of her world (not coping with her mother’s death, dysfunctional relationship with her father) and using Smith in the way that Bianca was using Wesley. But the interactions between Isabel and Smith on the one hand, and Isabel and e.g. Smith’s friends on the other hand, read more like the interactions between Sarah Dessen characters than anything the cat has read in a while. And even though Sarra Manning’s protagonists are sexually a lot bolder than Dessen’s for sure (but clearly not as bold as Keplinger’s!), the similarities lie in the situation the protagonists finds herself in: she’s caught up in a web of her own lies, and has to find a way out of it in order to work through her problems.  And that is something she clearly needs to do before she can move on with her life.

Another reason for the freshness is the very distinct British setting. Sarra Manning is British, and the school setting, the going out scene, etc. all of that is clearly British and this is including the sexual boldness, the drinking and the smoking, which is always just a tad more matter-of-fact than many American contemporary YA romance novels. Teen angst is clearly something universal, but there are obvious (geographical, in this case) variations, and Sarra Manning is a good case in point for readers who like their Sarah Dessen and Caroline Mackler but want to try something more errr… edgy? Also, Sarra Manning’s language feels authentic, unforced (and non-amateurish) and all of this makes for a very enjoyable reading experience.

Once again, here’s a book that’s proof that you should never judge an author by a single book cover. Let’s Get Lost is a fresh take on an almost beaten down YA genre. I know that Sarra Manning has a ton of other books, and who knows, the cat may even give Diary of a Crush 1: French Kiss a try…

The 12 of 2012!

22 12 2012

Here are the books that rocked the socks off of the cat this year. Books with a * were also published in 2012. After making this list, it’s striking that genre fiction didn’t really make the cut this year. After careful deliberation, Insurgent, for instance, didn’t make the 12 of 2012-list. Libba Bray’s The Diviners also just didn’t make the list. Just goes to show that the cat’s heart is where the realistic fiction is.


In alphabetical order (by author’s last name) because that’s just the way it is. The cat could probably separate the first 5 from numbers 6-12, but what’s the point really?

If the layout is completely messed up, it’s because of WordPress messing it up!













































































































































Most honorable mentions:

Lock and Key (by Sarah Dessen)

18 09 2012

By now there’s one constant in the cat’s life: Sarah Dessen never disappoints. Lock and Key is not an exception. It is everything you want from a Dessen book, it is everything you want in a good (summer romance) book, it is everything you want from a guilty pleasure, it is everything you want when the guys are out and the girls stay in and you want some good old-fashioned girls night in fun.

This time around, we get to know Ruby, who can’t wait to turn 18. Her mother just left her one day, and she ended up with her older sister Cora and her husband Jamie. Like in every Dessen book, but basically like in any truly good book, there’s a whole evolution going on in our flawed and hurt protagonist. At the age of 17 Ruby has decided that it’s better not to rely on other people, because that’s the only way you can guarantee they will not disappoint you. When she is forced to stay with her estranged sister, she’s hellbent on following that same route, but then she discovers, that trust and hope can be better life coaches than low expectations and distrust ever could be.

Although every Dessen book has the same sort of pattern, with the same sort of flow, her characters always have something that makes them unique, a character flaw, or a thing in their past… None of her characters are perfect. They all have some growing up to do. Yet, despite the almost predictable Dessen formula, the cat feels drawn to each and every of her protagonists.

True conversation the other day…

At the school library, Girl A and Girl B come in. Girl B is looking around (she’s a regular, I’m sure she wouldn’t mind if I called her a book geek, she even helped reorganize the library a while back). Girl A, though, is not a big reader, and comes up to me:

Girl A:   I don’t know what to get. Can you help me?

Cat:        Well, it really depends on what type of book you want… What are you interested in?

Girl A:   Something romantic…

Girl B:    (friend of Girl A, on seeing that Lock and Key is in the new arrivals section) Oooooooooh!!!!! Sarah Dessen!!!!  You have a new Sarah Dessen book!  I love Sarah Dessen! What’s that book with the caterer? That one was soo good!

Cat:        The truth about forever….? That is such a perfect book, I absolutely loved The truth about forever!!!!

Girl B and Cat are by now being all hysterical  (I kid you not) over Lock and Key and The Truth About Forever.

Girl B & Cat in unison to Girl A:  You have to pick a Sarah Dessen book!

Cat:        I know, right. She wants something romantic, well, you can’t go wrong with Sarah Dessen. Sarah Dessen never disappoints, even if there’s a tragedy in the characters’ lives.

Another girl (Girl C) walks into the classroom…

Girl A:   Can you show me where they are?

Cat:        Sure…  we’ve got a couple, so you can just pick one out that looks the most interesting to you.

Girl C:    What was that all about?

Girl A:   Sarah Dessen, dude! It’s all about Sarah Dessen!

Girl C:    Um, okay… anyway, I need a book too…

Cat & Girl A:       Get Sarah Dessen!

Girl A & C leave the room with The truth about forever and This Lullaby.

Girl B got Ilsa Bick’s Drowning Instinct.

I love my reading geeks at school!

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