Dare Me – Megan Abbott

daremeWe have cheerleaders at the high school where I teach, but they’re sure as hell not like the cheerleaders in Megan Abbott’s compelling YA novel, Dare Me. These girls are vicious.

Addy Hanlon is the  narrator of this sordid tale.

There I am, Addy Hanlon, sixteen years old, hair like a long taffy pull and skin tight as a rubber band. I am on the gym floor, my girl Beth beside me, our cherried smiles and spray-tanned legs, ponytails bobbing in sync.

Her ‘girl’ is Beth Cassidy, an acerbic teen who spits out insults like bullets. Beth and Addy have been besties since they were young enough to “hang on the monkey bars, hooking [their] legs round each other.” Now they rule their school, part of a cheer squad that makes boys go weak in the knees and girls run for cover when they swagger down the hall, an impenetrable mass of venom.

Ages fourteen to eighteen, a girl needs something to kill all that time, that endless itchy waiting, every hour, every day for something – anything – to happen.

The social order of things is thrown into disarray, though, when the squad gets a new coach.

The New Coach. Did she look at us that first week and see past the glossed hair and shiny legs, our glittered brow bones and girl bravado? See past all the that to everything beneath, all our miseries, the way we all hated ourselves but much more everyone else? Could she see past all that to something else, something quivering and real, something poised to be transformed, turned out, made? See that she could make us, stick her hands in our glitter-gritted insides and build us into magnificent teen gladiators.

Colette French is demanding. On the second day she “takes a piece of Emily’s flab in her fingers” and tells her to “fix it.” The girls discover they can’t fluster her, that she is already bored with their nonsense. Then, Coach dismisses Beth as captain, saying that she doesn’t “see any need for a captain.”

Addy knows Beth’s response, when it comes, will change everything, and it does.

Dare Me is a riveting look at the world of girls on the cusp of adulthood and the woman who allows them a glimpse of what waits for them on the other side. There are no parents here, no sane adults to pull back the reins. Even Coach, who seems dazzling and perfect to the cheerleaders, is soon revealed as damaged and flawed. Addy is particularly taken with Coach and as their relationship morphs into something more intimate, Addy realizes she’s been “waiting forever, my palm raised. Waiting for someone to take my girl body and turn it out.”

I can’t express how  terrific this book is. The writing is dazzling; it was like a mouth full of pop-rocks, you know that candy that fizzes in your mouth? Watching Addy try to navigate her sixteenth year, despite the fact that the world of cheer-leading is totally alien to me, was a thing of horrible beauty.

Highly recommended.

The Reading Promise – Alice Ozma

readingpromiseAlice Ozma’s dad, Jim,  made a promise to his daughter: he’d read to her every single night for 1000 consecutive nights. When they reached that pretty impressive goal they extended “The Steak” which, ultimately,  lasted for nine years. Nine years! Ozma shares their  story in her memoir,The Reading Promise.

“Our rules were always clear and firm: we had to read at least ten minutes (but almost always much more) per night, before midnight, with no exceptions. It should come from whatever book we were reading at the time, but if we were out of the house when midnight approached, anything from magazines to baseball programs would do. The reading should be done in person, but if the opportunity wasn’t there, over the phone would suffice. Well, just barely.”

Reading is something that Alice’s dad clearly values and is passionate about. As a librarian/teacher at an elementary school, he believes in the research that clearly shows that reading aloud is  “the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading.”   But this nine-year reading “Streak” serves another very important purpose: as a single father, Jim is doing his best to spend quality time with Alice. His older daughter, Kathy, had announced when she was in grade four that she no longer wished to be read to. Alice is different.

The Reading Promise isn’t all about the books Jim and Alice shared. I found the book more interesting when Alice talked about the books, though. I laughed when Jim read Dicey’s Song to fifteen-year-old Alice, skipping over the parts he felt too embarrassed to read aloud. I admired Jim and Alice when they patched up small squabbles through reading together. Not even teenage hormones or adult frustration stymied their reading. I was as incensed as Alice was when the principals at both schools where Jim worked decided he should read no more than five minutes a day to his students, that he should, instead, teach them how to use a computer.

Ozma clearly had no notion that she’d be committing the story of “The Streak” to paper when she started her reading journey with her father. If her memoir suffers a little because of it, so what? Their commitment to reading and to each other makes for a lovely story.

Ten Tiny Breaths – K.A. Tucker

tentinybreaths“New Adult (NA) fiction is a developing genre of fiction with protagonists in the 18-25 age bracket. The term was first coined by St. Martin’s Press in 2009 when they held a special call for “…fiction similar to YA that can be published and marketed as adult—a sort of an ‘older YA’ or ‘new adult’.”[1] New Adult fiction tends to focus on issues such as leaving home, developing sexuality, and negotiating education and career choices,” says Wikipedia.

K.A. Tucker’s novel Ten Tiny Breaths ticks all the New Adult boxes. Protagonist Kacey Cleary’s life is irrevocably  altered at sixteen when her parents, best friend and boyfriend are all killed in a drunk driving accident. Kacey is spared and so is her younger sister, Livie. Flash forward four years and Kacey and her younger sister, who is now fifteen, have left their aunt and uncle’s home in Michigan and headed for Florida. They had to go: Kacey had seen the looks Uncle Raymond had been giving her sister.

So now Kacey and Livie are in Miami. They’ve got enough money to pay for a skanky apartment they found online (luckily their superintendent has a heart of gold). They move in and meet the stripper and her daughter who live next door (luckily the stripper has a heart of gold and also gets Kacey a good gig bar-tending at the club where the owner and all the bouncers have hearts of gold). Then Kacey meets the too-hot-to-be-believed guy who lives in the complex (also with a heart of gold…and a big ol’ secret).  So, yeah, New Adult, sure since there’s a teensy bit of not-very-graphic sex, some swearing and a main character in the 18-25 range…but none of her story is plausible. None. Of. It.

Okay – it’s completely believable that Kacey would be messed up after losing her parents.  Kacey had “spent a year in physical rehabilitation to repair her shattered body, only to be released with a shattered soul…sank into a world of drugs and alcohol for a year to cope…doesn’t cry, not a single tear.”  I get that. Kacey doesn’t like physical touch, that Livie’s hand is the only one she can hold because it “doesn’t feel dead.”

The problem with Ten Tiny Breaths isn’t the writing; it’s the plot and the characters – all of whom seem to have completely altruistic motives. Kacey’s messed up, no question. And sure, Post Traumatic Stress can do some wonky stuff…but the last third of the book is just overwrought and unbelievable and saccharine.

If you want to give the New Adult genre a try, I recommend you check out  Easy. That’s a New Adult novel with some meat on its bones.



Early Decision – Lacy Crawford

Early Decision PB

Here is what was going to happen: Anne was going to wake up one morning in full possession of the authority she needed to go out and start her life.

Anne Arlington hasn’t quite figured out what to do with her life, but while she figures it out  she acts as a consultant to parents hoping their (mostly) spoiled, coddled and rich offspring make it into the Ivy League. Even Canadian readers will know that the Ivy League is comprised of eight schools considered, by reputation and name, to be  academically excellent, selective, and socially elitist. For those who need a refresher, the  schools  are Brown, Columbia,  Cornell, Dartmouth College, Harvard, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale.

Early Decision‘s author, Lacy Crawford, spent fifteen years working as just such a counselor, coaching parents and high school students through the highly competitive world of college applications and entrance essays. Although the names of the schools will be familiar, the process itself will be less so to Canadian students (unless they have made applications to American schools.) No matter, there’s a little something for everyone in Early Decision.

The novel follows Anne’s interactions with five of her students and their (mostly) helicopter parents. For five grand, she all but guarantees her students will get into the school of their (parent’s) dreams.  The interesting thing about Early Decision is that  the parents often don’t have a clue what their children actually want. These children are often merely an extension of their parents’ egos.

Anne isn’t that far removed from this process herself; she’s only 27. As she coaches her students through the essay writing process, she encourages them to consider what they really want for themselves. As a high school writing teacher, I particular appreciated Anne’s attempts to get the students as close to the truth of themselves as they could, to strive for an authentic voice.

And I don’t know whether it’s these students in particular or just where Anne happens to be in her own journey, but she finally gets the courage to make a change in her own life.

tlc tour hostEarly Decision was provided to me by the folks at TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review. I can honestly say that this is not a book I would have ever picked up on my own, but there’s a lot of great stuff here. The writing is terrific and Anne is a character who manages to see straight into the heart of the people she deals with, yet lacks the confidence to take her own life by the horns. Although the college application process isn’t quite as onerous here in Canada, Early Decision is a great book for people who are on the cusp of adulthood, trying to figure out what they want – juggling their dreams with those of their parents – and eventually figuring out what it means to be true to themselves.