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“The Truth About Forever” by Sarah Dessen

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

My boundless love for Sarah Dessen … well, it knows no bounds. 😉 Sarah is my absolute go-to author for pitch perfect depictions of girl friendship, first love, and magical summers. Check out the Sarah Dessen tag below, because I’m a fangirl, y’all, and have read, cherished, and reviewed quite a few of her books. I mentioned in my previous entry that I was beaching it recently, and beach reading basically REQUIRES a healthy dose of Sarah Dessen. Hence, me, sand, the waves, an umbrella (I’m slightly vampiric!), and Sarah’s 2004 gem, “The Truth About Forever.” What a perfect combination.

Teen girl Macy recently (and quite unexpectedly) lost her dad to a fatal heart attack. Older sister Caroline is married and out of the house, mom is an uptight, driven mess, and boyfriend Jason is rigidly focused on his academic future. When Jason heads off to “brain camp” for the summer, Macy finds herself alone with a stack of SAT textbooks and a mind numblingly boring gig at her local library’s reference desk. [Which, no comment!] Macy stumbles upon Wish, a local catering company, at one of her mom’s events. The Wish folks, led by the pregnant and perpetually frazzled mother hen Delia, are a fun, quirky family. Their obvious warmth and affection for each other — as well as their ability to get the job done, even when things inevitably go awry — immediately appeals to Macy. On impulse, she joins the crew and starts working events, despite her mother’s obvious disapproval.

So, yeah, there’s a GUY on the Wish crew. Duh. His name is Wes, and he’s a reformed bad boy who makes these epic angel and heart-in-hand sculptures out of wire, sea glass, and other scavenged materials. He’s deep and dreamy, and you will love him instantly. Trust me. Wes and Macy somehow jump into a continuous game of Truth or Dare, played out over many long nights, in which each slowly reveals details about their lives, hopes, and issues. Basically, they fall for each other without ever really admitting it to themselves. You’ll dig it. Again, trust me! Plus, he creates some art for her. Swoon.

There are, of course, complications. Macy’s mom isn’t too keen on the Wish folks, who also include sci fi nerd (and Wes’ younger brother) Bert; the scarred but completely adorable Kristy; and the mostly monosyllabic Monica. Mom, who buries her grief in a frenzied workload, eventually isolates Macy from the crew, which seemed a bit unrealistic to me. Macy gave up her entire life following her dad’s death, including treasured friendships, teenage silliness, and her most beloved activity, running. You’d think mom would like to see a little sparkle back in her daughter’s life.

Complications also arise between Wes and Macy, as each remains on guard despite their attraction. When Macy spots Wes at a late night hangout with an old flame, she cuts him off and retreats back into her old, lonely ways. But try as she might, now that Macy has rediscovered life, she can’t quite cram herself back into her spare, constricted little world. After a long summer of talks, parties, laughs, and tears, Macy is left with a tough decision: continue to play it safe with Jason and the SATs, or move forward, dive in, and take all the pain that comes with being truly alive.

Sarah is an incredibly beautiful writer, and “The Truth About Forever” is chock full of her usual lyrical passages, quietly heartfelt moments, and loving characterizations. She perfectly captures the heady combination of sky-high joy and crushing fear that accompany falling in love, making us understand exactly why Macy runs from Wes. Sarah slowly, believably pulls Macy along on her journey, nailing that end of the movie, they finally get together moment. It’s so understated and charming that you get the payoff without feeling cheap about it. You know what I mean! Throw in empowering girl friendships and some exquisitely rendered mother-daughter scenes at novel’s end, and “The Truth About Forever” is an absolute winner. Summer or not, you older middle school (and up!) readers will adore this one. In case you’re like me and somehow overlooked “The Truth About Forever,” please get on that now asap. Even though summer is over, there is always a place for a summer book. Happy reading!

PS ~ Cute fan-created book trailer below. Check it out!

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Posted by on September 20, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“What Happened to Goodbye” by Sarah Dessen

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

My love of Sarah Dessen knows no bounds (check out my reviews of "Along for the Ride," "Lock and Key," "Just Listen," and "Keeping the Moon;" raves all!). For my money, Sarah is one of the finest YA authors around, always providing fresh insight into the classic teen coming of age / falling in love story. Sarah's latest novel, "What Happened to Goodbye," while perhaps not her strongest work, is still miles ahead of most teen literature out there. It's a winning, beautifully written novel that is sure to become a favorite of Sarah's legions of fans.

When we meet Mclean Sweet, she and her divorced dad, Gus, are settling into their fourth new home in two years. After her folks' contentious divorce — mom cheated with the head coach of dad's most beloved university basketball team — Mclean chose to travel with restaurant consultant Gus instead of remaining home with mom, a new stepfather, and twin half siblings. Mclean uses each move with Gus to reinvent herself, alternately playing the roles of theatre chick, athlete, and activity joiner. Mclean even uses a new first name in each town to go with each new persona. The result? Everything is temporary for Mclean; she forms no real ties or attachments, and she leaves behind so-called friends without so much as a backward glance. Even worse? By always pretending to be someone else, Mclean has lost the girl she really is.

In Lakeview, Gus's job is to reinvent Luna Blu, a local Italian restaurant managed by the overwhelmed but well meaning Opal. Inadvertently, Mclean keeps her own name and much of her true self at school, the restaurant, and with her charmingly weird next-door neighbor Dave. It's a new experience, just being Mclean, since there's nothing and no one to hide behind. She also befriends the delightfully bossy Deb as well as bickering but kind best pals Riley and Heather. As the kids embark on an outrageously overdone large-scale model project — and as Mclean slowly lets Dave into her closely guarded world — Mclean realizes she is becoming connected to these people and this town. She cares now, more than she ever intended. So what happens when she has to leave again?

I won't give much else away, because the joy of this book is discovering what ultimately happens to Mclean, Dave, Gus, and the troubled Luna Blu restaurant. I can easily discuss the many things I loved about this book, which I will do in no particular order:

* No great surprise here — this is Sarah Dessen, folks! — but Mclean has such great depth and emotional complexity. She's essentially a parent to her father, soothing his wounded heart, arranging their moves, and getting them properly settled into each new town. Yet, Mclean is also just a high school senior who, beneath this veneer of capability, is absolutely devastated by her mother's infidelity and her parents' divorce. Mclean is so emotionally disconnected from mom that she can only manage unreturned phone calls and carefully calculated, obscenely polite conversations with her. What Mclean doesn't realize is that by separating herself from her mom and her picture perfect former life she has also isolated herself from her peers and father. When Mclean finally allows herself to truly experience all that pain, betrayal, and loneliness, it's incredibly moving.

* Dave. Oh, I could write a lot about Dave. Yes, he's a standard YA love interest. He's sensitive, kind, smart, funny, cute in an offbeat way, quirky … you know the type. He could easily have stepped out of the pages of a John Green novel. But Dave also has believable conflicts with his parents about his boy genius status, a sweet friendship with Riley, and a slew of quiet, touching moments with Mclean. Very well done.

* The three main adults in this novel (Gus, Mclean's mom Kate, and Opal) are not just window dressing, thrown into a scene to stir up conflict only to disappear and leave the real action to the teenagers. These adults are all interesting characters with their own shadings, depth, and shortcomings. I thought Kate, in particular, was well developed. A cheating wife / shrill mother can quickly devolve into painful stereotype, which never happened here. Just as Mclean does, we eventually see beyond Kate's missteps to find a brokenhearted mother longing for her daughter.

* As always, Sarah creates a precise, evocative setting. We walk the streets of Lakeview with Mclean and understand exactly how this small, nondescript town can hold so much promise. There's something beautiful and alive about its alleys after a snowstorm, its starry skies on a clear night, its cozy woods surrounding Riley's house, its failing neighborhood restaurant and overly cheery local coffeehouse. The uber model project — which recreates the town in painstaking, oversized detail — only adds to this sense of community and place. Each building, street, and house clicked into the model is another chance for both us and Mclean to feel more at home in Lakeview. Similarly, when Mclean lovingly describes the shore town she often visited with her mom, we understand how surf, salt, sun, and freedom can transport her to happier times. Later, when Mclean grudgingly visits another beach town with Kate (shout out to Colby, Last Chance, and Heidi's bikini shop!), we readers are swept along on Mclean's same wave of nostalgia and longing.

* Sarah is an expert at portraying emotional moments with simple grace and lyricism. My only real complaint with this novel lies in its rushing past some of these scenes instead of allowing us to savor their impact a bit more. For example, presenting the dramatic culmination of Mclean's journey in a flashback undermines its intensity. I wish we could have stayed in the moment and enjoyed it more! Still, the depictions of the quiet beauty of friendship, parental devotion, and first love are real treasures here. When Mclean sees Dave's heartfelt messages for her in the completed town model … oy! That's good stuff. 🙂

"What Happened to Goodbye" is a perfect summer novel for readers looking for an understated coming of age story with well-developed characters, a charming setting, flawed but involved parents, and, of course, some kicking romance. There's the occasional bit of strong language here, but nothing that would offend an average middle schooler. "What Happened to Goodbye" is out now. I loved it. Go read it! :-p

 
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Posted by on May 18, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“Just Listen” by Sarah Dessen

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

I recently realized I've read (and loved) many a Sarah Dessen book in my time, yet had somehow overlooked 2006's "Just Listen." Forgive my omission!

I really enjoyed "Just Listen." Do I think it's Sarah's strongest book ever? No. Did I have some issues with it? Yes. Would I recommend it to a teen girl? In an absolute heartbeat.

There's some jumping about in the timeline of "Just Listen," which I found quite effective. We meet Annabel straight off knowing that something happened at an end of school year party, something that destroyed her friendship with the bitchy diva Sophie and made Annabel a popular topic for the rumor mill. For much of the novel, we just don't know what it is. As the new school year begins, Annabel feels completely ostracized, to the point where she spends her lunch hour sitting on a bench — a safe distance away — from the violent loner Owen Armstrong. While Owen intently listens to his ipod, Annabel just wishes for time to pass. Because this is a teen novel — and I say that with love! — one day Owen and Annabel start talking, shortly after Annabel is harassed by Sophie.

Owen and Annabel slowly form a friendship that revolves around music and honesty. Yes, you read that correctly. Owen isn't really violent, although he does have some history with the fisticuffs. Now he's a disciple of a court-ordered anger management program, meaning he doesn't let Annabel use the half-truths and evasions she usually employs to cover up her pain. Owen is flat-out honest, opinionated, and pretty much the type of friend any girl would love to have. He also basically lives for music of all genres and types, as long as it's not the popular bubblegum stuff. It's not surprising then that Owen's early Sunday radio show features tracks of chanting monks and industrial noise.

So what doesn't work so well here? I found Annabel to be a bit of a blank slate. I never felt a connection to her. Part of this is because for much of the book Annabel holds so much of herself back. Yes, she's hanging onto a tough secret, but it extends beyond that. Annabel is always agreeing to her mom's modeling gig requests or refusing to take the extra step to engage a long ago friend. She is forever tentative, leaving too much unspoken. It is only in her scenes with the patient, bold Owen, who challenges her repeatedly, that she truly blossoms as a living, breathing character. I often only understood or related to Annabel's character when she was paired with Owen.

Ok, so that was the major glitch for me but also, oddly, a strong point, because Owen is a fully developed character. He went way beyond the stock sweet-kind-secretly awesome YA love interest who lives in many a teen novel. Instead, Owen seemed like an actual boy. He could be obnoxious in his honesty — particularly about the purity of music — and demanding as a friend, but he was also caring without being cloying or earnest. Plus, he displayed a believably goofy (and, yes, endearing) side around his kid sister, especially for a tough guy. Indeed, as we learn in the end, Owen's not quite so cured with the whole anger management issue. Yay for flawed characters!

I also liked the family dynamic and how Annabel's older sisters play subtle roles in her own self-growth. In particular, Annabel's beautiful, broken sister Whitney serves as a quiet inspiration in doing small things like growing herbs in ceramic pots. Whitney's recovery from anorexia develops mostly offstage, which is how it should be. This is Annabel's story, and its depth is only increased by smartly inserting these small, telling moments with her family.

Lastly, I must again commend Sarah Dessen for continually showing that girls work better as friends than as enemies. (See my review of Sarah's "Along for the Ride" for more discussion of this topic.) It's just plain gratifying to see girls portrayed so positively. I loved in "Just Listen" how two different female characters, both one-time friends of Annabel's, had completely different interpretations of how those friendships ended and where they now stood. Those kinds of mixed signals among girlfriends are frustratingly real and, as such, a wonderful addition to the story.

"Just Listen" has been wildly popular at my library since its release, so I recognize I am preaching to the choir here. While perhaps not Sarah's best book, it stands quite well on its own merits. Read it for the lyrical passages, the quietly touching moments, the cool music references (watch out, David Levithan!), the important message about revealing your heart's truth, and, of course, for the small butterflies created by Owen and Annabel's relationship. There's a bit of strong language here, but, as with Sarah's other books, nothing that should bother most middle schoolers. I'm glad I finally got around to reading "Just Listen." I hope you enjoy it, too!

 
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Posted by on January 30, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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“Along for the Ride” by Sarah Dessen

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

"Along for the Ride" is author Sarah Dessen's 9th novel for young adults. If you're already a fan of Sarah, then rest assured that everything you've come to love about her — the graceful writing style, a beautifully conveyed sense of time and place, the complex characters and relationships, and (yay!) first love — is on display here. And if you're a teen girl who's not already addicted to Sarah's books, I'm pretty sure this one will win you over.

First off, many thanks again to the Penguin Young Readers Group for another killer ARC. I may have actually squealed in delight when I saw the advance copy of "Along for the Ride" in last week's mail. You literally made my day!

Now, onto the plot synopsis, which I'll admit is pretty standard stuff. Auden, the school-smart daughter of two literary scholars, impulsively decides to spend the summer following high school graduation at her dad's house in the beach town of Colby. Dad, a once famous writer struggling for years to complete a follow-up novel, has a new young wife, the apparently ditzy girly-girl Heidi, and a newborn daughter, the colicky and constantly screaming Thisbe. Upon arriving in Colby, Auden quickly discovers that her dad's attention is focused solely on his book, making him oblivious to Heidi's exhaustion and Thisbe's continual unrest. Still, Auden's only alternative to this chaos is a boring summer at home studying under the eye of her cold, brilliant mother. In other words, she'll stick this situation out.

In Colby, Auden starts to emerge from her isolated, smart girl shell. Turns out there's a whole lot more to Heidi than meets the eye, and when Auden starts doing the books each night for Heidi's boardwalk clothing and accessories store, she discovers that there's also a whole lot more to co-worker Maggie and her friends Esther and Leah. The idea that female friendship can be empowering is a constant thread in Sarah's novels, and it's just as effective here. When Auden finally confides in Maggie, it opens a world of friendship that changes her life. How refreshing it is to see the positive side of girlfriends instead of the cattiness and bitchiness that typically pervade teen novels. And guess what? It works.

Now, because this is a novel set in the summertime and aimed at teen girls, there's also going to be a cute, wounded guy who totally falls for Auden in an offbeat way. Yeah, that's a little boilerplate, but Sarah's lyrical writing and the slow unfurling of the romance are so well done that you won't mind. Our guy here is Eli, a once-great bike rider still suffering after his best friend's death. Like Auden, the tortured Eli can't sleep at night, so the two explore the quirky world of Colby after dark, which includes bowling, all-night superstores, and a hidden cafe in the town's laundromat. Once Eli learns that Auden never had much of a childhood, he sets out to give her a lifetime's worth of experiences, from food fights to prom night, in one summer. He also works at slowly knocking down some of her walls, while she carefully does the same with him.

Ok, so what worked so well for me are the characters. Auden is bookish and responsible, but she's also incredibly disconnected from her peers. Her slow transformation from aloof outsider to more of a typical high school kid is believable and endearing. Even better, I can't imagine there's a girl out there who won't savor reading about Auden's late-night adventures with the complicated but sweet Eli. I also really loved how so many of the characters had incredible depth to them, especially the parental figures. It's unusual for a teen novel to be at all interested in the lives and tangled relationships of grown ups, but in this case, they're just so complicated and flawed that you can't help but be drawn in. We get to see weaknesses and some surprising strengths in Auden's mom and Heidi, just as we learn that Maggie isn't simply the cute girl at the Clementine's counter. Again, this kind of multidimensionality in a teen novel is rare … and pretty great to find!

While some of the themes here might be a bit played out — summer love found, thwarted, and rediscovered in the end; the old idea that if you fall off a bike you need to get back on it — that's fine. Sarah's writing is so beautiful, the story is so touching and meaningful in parts, and her sense of place is so precise and evocative, that you won't mind if some of this feels a bit recycled. Plus, fans of Sarah's "Keeping the Moon" will love seeing the Last Chance Diner and old pals Isabel and Morgan one more time.

"Along for the Ride" is scheduled for release in June. Definitely keep an eye out for it. This is just about the perfect summer book for girls everywhere, say in grades seven and up. I have a feeling this book will go in a lot of beach bags this summer!

 
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Posted by on April 21, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

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“Lock and Key” by Sarah Dessen

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Sarah Dessen has acquired such a loyal group of readers that any review of her latest novel, "Lock and Key," will likely have zero effect on her circulation stats or sales figures. But since I really loved the story, maybe it'll attract some new readers to her!

Ok, so I'm about to heap praise on the book. First, though, one small negative point. I had a minor issue with the fact that several plot elements seem to have been recycled from "Keeping the Moon" (as in, emotionally detached girl gets shipped off to formerly unknown relative's house where she meets kind-hearted, attractive neighbor with angry, abusive father). Just saying.

With that criticism aside, "Lock and Key" is lovely, heartwarming, touching, and wholly believable. In other words, it's a Sarah Dessen novel, and her audience of high school girls will adore it. The basic plot outline here has high school senior Ruby being placed by child services in her estranged older sister's care after mom up and leaves one day. To survive life with a chaotic, unstable, alcoholic mom, Ruby has put up tons of walls around herself, none of which she'll let down easily. She blames her long missing sister, Cora, for abandoning her as a young girl, and she views all her new classmates at private school as one-dimensional, boring rich kids.

Over the course of the year, we see Ruby grow and begin to accept her new family, new friends, and herself. It's all so gradual, with many missteps and bruised feelings along the way, that you will absolutely accept Ruby's personal transformation. As I mentioned above, there's also a super-cute neighbor, Nate, whom Ruby immediately dismisses as a rich brat. Not true! Nate, like Ruby, is a believably complex, hurting, but still hopeful character. In other words, you'll love him, and you'll root for Ruby letting him into her life … and vice versa. The direction of Ruby and Nate's relationship actually surprised me a bit, although I guess I should've seen that Nate might need some saving as well.

With winning characters, gentle symbolism, an inspiring story arc, and beautiful writing, I have no hesitation recommending "Lock and Key" to girls in grades 8 and up. Younger girls will also likely enjoy the story, but they should be warned that, although handled with subtlety, there are several adult scenes in the novel.

 
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Posted by on April 22, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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“Keeping the Moon” by Sarah Dessen

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

In "Keeping the Moon," Nicole "Colie" Sparks is the formerly fat teen daughter of a national fitness star. Losing 45 and a half pounds hasn’t done much to help Colie’s self-image, though, and a nasty rumor about her at school only makes matters worse. When Colie’s mom goes on an international promotional tour for the summer, she leaves Colie with her eccentric Aunt Mira, a greeting card illustrator who lives in sleepy Colby, North Carolina. Colie soon lands a job waitressing at the Last Chance Bar and Grill, where she meets best friends Isabel and Morgan and a shy, sweet cook named Norman. Over one summer, and with the help of her new friends, Colie discovers that the kind of person she’d always like to be is already living right inside her.

This is a funny, touching story of the transforming power of friendship and the strength that all girls possess inside, even if they don’t always realize it. Definitely recommended for upper middle school and high school girls.

Check out Dessen's latest novel, "Just Listen," available now.

PLEASE NOTE: Our Moms & Daughters Sunday Book Club will be discussing "Keeping the Moon" on Sunday, December 10th, at 3pm.

 
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Posted by on September 28, 2006 in Uncategorized

 

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