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Bloomability has been one of my favorite books ever since I picked up first, years ago. It’s about Dinnie, a girl who’s always moved from place to place with her box of things, following her father from opportunity to opportunity. She’s quiet and introspective and adaptable, but when her aunt and uncle take her with them from her home, from the only family she knows, she doesn’t want to be adaptable. She wants to be with her parents and her sister, Stella, and Stella’s new baby, and her brother, Crick. This opportunity is a lot more than she realizes when she first leaves home, though. Her aunt and uncle are moving to Lugano, Switzerland, to work at an American boarding school. The school is American, but its students come from all kinds of backgrounds and from all over the world. Though she’s reluctant at first, this is an experience that changes Dinnie in amazing ways she couldn’t have imagined before.

This book inspired me. At first, it just inspired me to wish I could go to an international boarding school in Lugano, Switzerland, but after my parents told me I was being ridiculous, it didn’t stop being an inspiration. Bloomability inspires me to seek out new experiences, new places, new people, and to take advantage of opportunities. It’s also the reason I started looking to go to college overseas. I actually applied to a school in Lugano, and wanted more than anything to go there, but I can’t afford it. I might be going to school in Germany, though (my decision is still not made). I want to experience new parts of the world, and meet people from even more different places, and see it all from somewhere new, an idea whose seed was planted by reading this book. It’s one of the books that has most affected my life.

More than my personal love for this book, though, rereading it with a more critical eye was something I thought might be disappointing. It wasn’t; instead, I was only now able to realize how truly amazing this novel is. I want to read it again! Sharon Creech writes gorgeous, gorgeous prose, and creates fully realized, very interesting characters, and tells a story that really means something. Dinnie’s voice is distinct and honest and authentic and a pleasure to read. She recreates the setting of Lugano so vividly that I wanted to move there! It’s not just the characters I love; the way they relate to each other is also very well done. I also love the descriptions of Dinnie’s dreams, and, now, seeing how they connect to her life (connections I wasn’t always able to make reading it years ago). Her window signs, too! And Guthrie, his love of life is contagious even to the reader. 

I could go on, describing everything I love about this book, but then this review would be as long as the book itself, because I love everything. This book works on so many levels, too; when I was ten, it was enjoyable and inspiring and made me want to see the world. Now, it’s still those things but it’s also brilliant and meaningful and beautiful in ways I couldn’t recognize then. There’s so much more to this book than a story about a girl who goes to boarding school in Switzerland. I really don’t know how I can communicate how much you need to read this book effectively, but, trust me, you do. Bloomability is hopeful, gorgeous, inspiring, and, for me, life-changing.

Six out of six windows and a heart:

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Going Too Far is a lot more serious and intense than what I was expecting from Jennifer Echols, who has previously written romantic comedies. They’re awesome, but very different from this latest book, and she’s pulled it off beautifully; this is a fantastic novel about love, loss, life, and moving on. It starts when Meg and some friends head out onto a railroad bridge where it’s rumored that some kids died a few years ago, and are caught by a cop, who, it turns out, regularly patrols the bridge. He’s connected to it somehow, and John After, despite being a promising student when he graduated high school last year, can’t tear himself away from that bridge long enough to go to college twenty miles down the highway.

Meg, on the other hand, can’t wait to get out of their tiny Alabama town, go to college in Birmingham, and then see the world. She was excited about a spring break trip to Miami, the first time she’ll see the ocean, but that comes crashing down when she hears her punishment for trespassing onto the bridge: she’ll be riding with Officer John After on his night shift for a week, learning something about the law.

When their lives collide for a week, Meg and John will both have to face their pasts, complete with hard questions and even harder answers. 

I absolutely loved this book. Some books are solidly good, some are really great, and a very few are take-your-breath-away, can’t stop reading amazing, and for me, Going Too Far falls into the latter category. It’s powerful without being over-the-top, and reveals universal truths while still being a very personal story. The past haunts us all, and this book addresses wonderfully the hold that it has over us. It’s also a very good look into the complicated, real relationships between people, and the power of love (as cheesy as that sounds, it’s not). 

Speaking of the people, well, wow. Everyone in this book is believable, complex, and layered. The characters and their relationships are complicated, as people are. Meg’s voice, too, stands out as authentic and very fitting to the character. Everything feels real and moving and intense, but (and this is key), without ever feeling over-the-top, lifetime-movie-esque melodramatic, when it could have so easily strayed into that territory. I really, really can’t stress enough how much you all need to read this book. It’ll be out in March, but go ahead and preorder this one. You’ll devour it, you’ll love it, and it will stick with you.

Five and 1/2 windows out of six and a heart:

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In this tenth and final installment in the Princess Diaries series, it’s been awhile since we last heard from Mia, and her life is drastically different from what it was in most of the series. Why has it been awhile? Mia’s been too busy to write in her journal because she’s written a historical romance novel! She’s now trying to get it published under a pen name. She hasn’t told anyone about it; they think she’s been writing a senior project on Genovian olive growing. A four hundred page project on Genovian olive growing. Anyway, she’s collecting quite a stack of rejections as Daphne Delacroix when Michael asks to read the project (still thinking it’s about Genovian olive growing), and Mia is less than thrilled with the idea of her ex-boyfriend reading her romance novel. With sex scenes.

Michael has been in Japan for two years. He and Mia tried to stay friends, but it’s really just been infrequent emails, and they’re far from close. In fact, he doesn’t even tell her when he comes back to Manhattan, but of course it’s all over the news, because the project he went to Japan to pursue is a major success. Awkward situations ensue. 

It’s even more complicated because, even though she’s been going out with JP for two years, Michael’s return makes her rethink their relationship and JP, and see everything in a new light. On top of all of that, Mia’s also about to turn eighteen, and Grandmere is planning her party–never a good idea. She’s also going to graduate high school, and she still has to figure out where she’s going to college next year. Oh, and if that’s not enough for Mia to deal with at once, her father’s run for Genovia’s first Prime Minister isn’t going as well as she had hoped. And she’s only got about three weeks to sort out all of this!

In Forever Princess, Mia’s life is as crazy and confused as ever. Mia is herself, but I love how she’s grown as the series has progressed, too. She’s definitely a different girl than she was in book one, or even book nine, and it’s wonderfully realistic. As always, I loved every minute spent in Mia’s head. There are books I’m reluctant to put down, and then there are books that I literally cannot put down and must read during dinner–this one was definitely the latter type! I laughed loudly, I cringed in embarassment, I wanted to beat some sense into Mia for being so stupid sometimes (but still completely understood why she thought and acted as she did). That’s one of the many things I love about Meg Cabot–her characters always make sense. They’re always just like real people. Even more so in Mia’s case, perhaps, because Mia’s voice is so much like the author’s natural one (read Meg’s blog and you’ll see what I mean–it’s no surprise that the inspiration for these stories came from her own journals!). These are people, though, not just characters, and I’ve loved getting to know them over the past ten books (plus the short side stories). I’m sad to see them go. I wish that this book was not the last in the Princess Diaries series, but at least I have Ransom My Heart, Mia’s romance novel, sitting next to me, too! 

Meg Cabot is at her best here; this book is funny and well-written and still manages to feel fresh and new despite its predictability. I seem to remember Meg saying once on her blog that she still thought she wrote romance novels (correct me if I’m wrong), and it’s true; I love the romances in her stories. However, there’s a lot more to these books than romance (not to sell romance novels short or anything, as most of them are more than the romance, too)–these are books about life. And, sure, Mia’s the princess of a small European country, but she’s also very much someone you could imagine meeting at school or in the library or at a protest march. She’s someone you could imagine hanging out with and talking to. She’s trying to figure out herself and her future, just like most high school seniors. She’s a very relatable and still very interesting character. I’m sorry to see her go, because even though there’s a nice ending to this story, Mia’s so real that it feels like her story is far from over. I feel like she and the rest of the people in her life are out there somewhere in the world, and it’s a rare author who can make their characters feel that real. 

Five out of six windows and a heart:

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Before I get into a review, I must tell you a story about my reading of this book.

Last week, I ordered Let It Snow from Barnes and Noble. On Tuesday, I was thrilled to find it in my mailbox. Later that day, I sat down to begin reading. The characters had just entered Waffle House in the first story when a friend called, with an invitation to, you guessed it, Waffle House.

I threw deodorant, a toothbrush, and a change of clothes into my large purse, along with the book, because I planned to spend the night at her house, too. And then she picked me up, and we went to Waffle House, with me still thinking about the book.

The events of the next thirty or so hours, beginning with Waffle House and ending with a New Year’s party, allowed no time for reading. However, when I left the party, I also left my bag. Only two people were there before anyone noticed, one a good friend of mine. They opened the bag to see whose it was, pulled out a book, and my friend said, “That’s Jocelyn’s.”

Meanwhile, I was distraught. My mind was still in Let It Snow, but the book was nowhere near! I went to bed anxious.

Thursday morning, I left to meet my grandmother. We went to Target. I ran to the back, where the books are, and joy! Let It Snow was there. I grabbed the book and retreated to a shoe-trying-on bench to read.

After I read about a hundred pages, my grandmother was finally done shopping, and, since I already own the book, it would have been crazy to buy it. Sadly, I had to leave the book behind yet again, but it didn’t leave my mind.

Today (Friday), I convinced said grandmother to take me to the mall, where, yes, there is a bookstore! I convinced her to leave me in said bookstore for an hour until I finished the book, and I loved every second of it.

So you can see, my reading of this book was eventful, first interrupted by a visit to a Waffle House in Western North Carolina (and the book, incidentally, involves a Waffle House in Western North Carolina). I went to great lengths to finish this, my first completed book of 2009. And now, the review.

Let It Snow is three CHEER-filled holiday romances (to channel Maureen Johnson for a moment) by three talented authors. They all focus on different characters, but the setting is the same, and main characters in each story make appearances in the other two. The set up for all three is a blizzard on Christmas Eve that stops a train and traps people, and I believe Waffle House is also involved in all three stories (one more than the others) as well.

In the first story, by Maureen Johnson, Jubilee’s parents are crazy for the Flobie village, a collection of ceramic buildings with a holiday theme (you know what I mean). So crazy, in fact, that they get into a riot over an Elf Hotel and are arrested. As they don’t want Jubilee to spend Christmas alone, she’s put on a train to Florida, where her grandparents live…a train that stops in Western North Carolina due to the blizzard and isn’t expected to move anytime soon. Jubilee gets off and walks to a Waffle House, as do fifteen cheerleaders who are soon driving her crazy enough to leave Waffle House with a strange boy wearing plastic bags. He makes some insightful comments about her relationship with her perfectionist, always-busy boyfriend, Noah, and, well, you know what happens. Predictable, but absolutely hilarious, and I loved the characters. Maureen Johnson can always be counted on for hilarity and cheer! I loved it. I laughed out loud. In Target.

In the second story, by John Green, Keun is the cashier at the Waffle House full of cheerleaders, and when they arrive, he calls three of his friends to come oogle. Only problem is, one of these friends is a girl, and when the three of them make the eventful trek to Waffle House, two of the friends discover that their relationship is a little more complicated than they’d been previously willing to admit. I absolutely adored this story; it featured my favorite kind of absolutely crazy and hilarious adventure! Hilarious is a theme, huh?

In the third and final story, Lauren Myracle’s, Addie is in tears over her breakup with Jeb. She invited him to Starbucks (where she works) to talk things over, but he didn’t show…because, unknown to Addie, Jeb was also on the train that got stuck in the snow, and his phone broke, and he was also stranded at Waffle House. Also involved in this story is an early-morning shift at Starbucks, a teacup pig, and an epiphany of sorts for Addie. I loved this story, too (especially the teacup pig), but it was a tad less hilarious and CHEERtastic than the other two. It was awesome, just…slightly less awesome.

Between the first two stories, I can’t pick a favorite, but all three stories rock and are compulsively readable. As evidenced by my story, I had great difficulty putting this book down.  These three stories are full of CHEER and adventure and romance and hilariousness. They features characters that rock. Maureen Johnson and John Green are at their best here, which is certainly saying a lot, and Lauren Myracle’s story is nothing to scoff at, either. I highly recommend this book, at Christmastime or any other time of year.

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When the story starts, it’s been a hundred years since the Cubs won the World Series, and five years since Ryan’s father died in an accident. It’s opening day, and the anniversary of her father’s death, and Ryan’s at Wrigley Field instead of in science class. Her father loved the Cubs.

Ryan is unable to get a ticket, but she meets a boy in her math class who she’s never spoken to before, and the two of them, despite being unable to get into the game, soak up the atmosphere together. It’s one afternoon, but it’s one afternoon that will change everything for Ryan.

The Comeback Season is, yes, a book about baseball. The atmosphere of the Cubs games and Chicago is so wonderfully captured and real and alive; it made me want to move to Chicago and watch baseball. I don’t like baseball, and I’m hoping to move to New York next year. Although perhaps I should be taking the two awesome books I’ve read recently that make me love Chicago (where I’ve never been) as signs from the universe or something. 

It didn’t take me long to be completely absorbed into this story, despite the odd choice of third person limited present-tense. It’s different, but it worked; it wasn’t long before I felt myself fall into the rhythm of it. It’s so present, which sounds weird for a book about a girl who is having trouble moving on to the future, but it most definitely works. And there is rhythm here, and style, and voice, and an eloquence that is just lovely and unique, much like the book itself. 

Ryan is a complex, believable, and likeable main character. Her relationship with Nick is very real–after their initial connection, it ranges from comfortable to painfully awkward, just like any budding teenage relationship. The Cubs brought them together, and baseball is very much a theme that weaves this whole book together, and I love it. It’s a very orignal idea, to take what is otherwise kind of a girly romantic book and use baseball as the backdrop for it, but it works. It’s a very effective metaphorical mirror to what is going on in Ryan’s life. 

Much like any Cubs game, The Comeback Season is both heartbreaking and hopeful. It’s a different sort of book, and it’s amazingly poignant, powerful, and, in the end, breathtaking. It’s both predictable and unexpected, simple and complex, about the past, the present, and the future. It’s courage and faith and disappointment and hope. It’s brilliant. I never expected to love a book about baseball, but I did, and I feel certain that Ryan’s comeback season will stick with me.

In this beautifully crafted piece of historical fiction, fifteen-year-old Ruby is forced to quit school and work to support her family after her father’s death when her mother is no longer able to do so.  She doesn’t have any skills that will help her (she never took typing or shorthand in school), so she takes a job at a meatpacking plant. It’s harsh work, but there are few options for a girl in Chicago in the early 1940s, and she doesn’t see a way out.

All that changes after Paulie Suelze, neighborhood legend and a boy her mother would die to see her with, is impressed with her dancing and directs her to the Starlight Dance Academy. There, Ruby can get paid for dancing all night, as long as her mother never finds out (her cover story is that she’s found work as a telephone operator). Despite what its name suggests, Starlight is a taxi dance hall, where girls like Ruby (taxi dancers) are paid ten cents a dance, and sometimes more for extracurricular activities with the men, which range from casual conversation over dinner to, well, you know.

Soon, Ruby is deep into the world of nighttime Chicago–the music, the clubs, the dancing, the drinking, the gambling–and having trouble reconciling who she’s forced to become with the innocent girl she used to be.

Ten Cents A Dance is gorgeous. The setting comes vividly to life, and I do mean vividly. I felt immersed in Ruby’s world, and 1940s Chicago is certainly a fascinating place to be. I do love a nice setting, and, wow, I honestly can’t think of a better book in terms of the very real sense of time and place and the culture and language that come with it (I loved the 1940s slang!). I can’t even describe how well Christine Fletcher pulled this off–for those words, you’ll need to read the book itself.

It’s not just the setting, though. The characters are very real, and their relationships rung true as well. Ruby is a wonderful heroine, and her character develops nicely over the course of the story. She comes out a different person at the end of it all, in some ways, as would anyone, but she’s still Ruby–just the way it should be. Very believable. Ruby is strong and spirited and I can’t imagine not loving her. Even the minor chracters were well-drawn, and I was quite intrigued by some of them (I’d love to look deeper into the life of Ozzie, who plays in the band at the Starlight, for example).

Ruby’s voice is authentic and a pleasure to read. Christine Fletcher is brilliant in her use of language, and she chose an excellent story to apply it to. I’d never heard of taxi dance halls before, but suffice to say I am plenty interested now and have been doing a bit of my own internet research on them and the culture of the time. I was completely hooked by this story, and not just the story, but also, almost independently, its setting.

Ruby’s visits to the black-and-tans (the clubs where all races are welcomed) also provide an interesting window into another aspect of this time and place. It’s certainly not any kind of an issue book, but I did enjoy the insight into the race relations of the time. I enjoyed all insights into the time and place, honestly. As much as all aspects of this book stand out, it’s the setting and Christine Fletcher’s vivid portrayal of it that really pushes it to over-the-top amazingly brilliant.

I adored the author’s previous book, Tallulah Falls, and expected this one to be amazing as well, and it was even better. They’re very different books, too, and I love Christine Fletcher’s versatility; I can’t wait to see what she writes in the future. She’s an incredibly talented author, and you will be far from sorry for picking up this book.

In six words: 1940s Chicago, great characters, absolutely brilliant.

This is a combined review of Lisa Lutz‘s two novels about the Spellman clan, The Spellman Files (now available in paperback!) and Curse of the Spellmans. Though these are adult books, both I and my awesome school librarian are confident that teens will love them.

Both books are narrated by Izzy Spellman, age twenty-eight in the first book and thirty in the second, and she makes a rather brilliant narrator. Somewhat recovered from her rebellious youth, Izzy is still not what most would call grown up. She works as a private investigator for the family business, Spellman Investigations, as she has for the better part of her life, and she has a knack for trickery and espionage that surprises no one who knows her.

Other members of the Spellman clan are David, Izzy’s far-too-perfect brother who is two years her senior, Rae, fourteen in the first book, her younger sister with a similar inclination for detective work, though she is on quite the straight and narrow path compared to Izzy at that age, and Olivia and Albert, their wacky PI parents. Oh, and Uncle Ray, who disappears for days at a time on “Lost Weekends,” and who has something of a conflict with Rae. The usual activities of this family are far from normal, and include recreational surveillance and garbology (the science of hunting through garbage). David no longer works for the family business, but Rae and Izzy do.

In The Spellman Files, Izzy decides that she wants a life that is a bit more normal than that of a PI, but first she takes a missing persons case that’s years old–and then finds a missing persons case much closer to home when Rae disappears. This event is central to a character who is a major part of book two, Inspector Henry Stone.

Curse of the Spellmans has a lot to do with Rae’s relationship with Henry (she runs him over accidentally within the first few pages, and gets Child Protective Services called because of her unorthodox relationship with this man nearly thirty years older than she is). Henry becomes far more involved than is sane with the entire Spellman family, and his interactions with them are hilarious. Various family members and neighbors are acting strange and Isabel is arrested four times over the course of this book, often for investigating such strange behavior.

Yes, there are mysteries involved in these books, but I wouldn’t call them mystery novels. I’d say their fantastic cleverness and hilarity pretty much defies classification. Isabel Spellman is one of my favorite narrators ever–she’s hilarious! All of the characters have their quirks (I couldn’t tell you about each one specifically here, but all of the characters are so great, and so unique, I can’t begin to pick a favorite!), and they’re all delightful to read about. I wouldn’t say that plotting is Lisa Lutz’s strength, but with the overall awesomeness of these books, it doesn’t need to be. Someone described them to me as “choppy,” and I suppose that’s true. The stories are told in an unorthodox way, with transcripts and scenes with lots of dialogue and footnotes. But I didn’t find it to be a flaw–it’s all captivating and hilarious, and the format really just works for the story, though there are plenty of stories where it would be a flaw. It’s witty dialogue, interesting interactions between characters–and if it’s done well, any weird way of writing can turn out wonderfully.

Both Spellman books are smart, funny, and almost completely insane, in a way that is also just plain amazing. I seriously could not put either one down. The personal stories and interactions ring true, and the laughter is almost constant. Luckily, I believe there is a third crazy and chaotic adventure on the way!

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