book review of Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdoch

Magan: Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

book review of Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert MurdochDairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (facebook | website)
Publication Date: May 22, 2006
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Pages: 275
Target Audience: Young Adult
Keywords: girl playing on male football team, milk farm, sports and training
Format Read: Audiobook purchased from Audible.com

Narrated by: Natalie Moore

Summary: D.J. isn’t the smartest girl there ever was, but one thing she certainly knows is her way around her family’s farm. D.J. was a star basketball player until her family hit a few speed bumps and she was forced to quit the team to help out more. Her father’s friend, Jimmy Ott, recruits D.J. to train his lackluster quarterback, Brian, which leads to a surprising turn of events when D.J. decides to try out for her school’s football team.

Thanks to the fantastic Lori at Pure Imagination, Dairy Queen was on my radar. It’s been out in the wonderful world of published books for a few years (a 2006 release) so when I saw her audiobook review, I knew that a) I HAD to read the book, and b) I needed to use one of my audible credits to listen to it as an audiobook. I’m very new to the world of listening to books. In fact, this is only my second to finish. But before I begin chatting about the audio aspect of Dairy Queen, let’s get into the nitty gritty details of D.J.’s life.

Things you should know about D.J.:

  • Her family owns a milk farm. She single-handedly keeps it running and this has forced her to quit her high school basketball team and be pretty distanced from “normal” high school activities.
  • Her brothers are college athletes — athleticism runs in their genes. However, her family’s kind of at an impasse, feuding over something silly and mundane.
  • D.J. isn’t the smartest cookie; she failed her Sophomore English class because she couldn’t possibly keep up with the farm work and school.
  • D.J. attends Red Bend’s high school. Their arch-rival is Holly.

One day D.J. is approached by Jimmy Ott, the Holly football coach and her father’s best friend, about training Brian Nelson. Jimmy suggests that maybe Brian can do some conditioning and farm work so that he can get in better shape, build his character, and simultaneously lend a hand to a family who desperately needs the help. Brian and D.J. are practically complete opposites. He’s popular and well-known. D.J. has a bit of a reputation as a hick. Brian’s got the big headed attitude of an awesome athlete, but he’ll never become more than the backup quarterback if he doesn’t train more. D.J. has raw, natural talent, but the opportunity for her to participate in sports has been taken away from her.

There’s this fantastic dynamic between Brian and D.J. as they try to figure out how two rivals can work together. And you know, of course, there’s this amazing chemistry that flares up but both of them want to ignore. BUT Dairy Queen offers more than just a tense relationship. There’s so much happening with D.J.’s family; they don’t really speak or communicate well. Why is that? And why is D.J’s best friend, Amber, having such a difficult time with D.J. training Brian? Amber has always been a say-what’s-on-her-mind kind of girl, but the things she’s blabbing to D.J. are becoming hurtful.

So there you have it: a rocky friendship with a questionable best friend, a family that needs a little fixin’, and an awesome dose of two very unlikely characters spending tons of time together.

As for the audio, it was spot on. I loved the narrator, Natalie Moore. She really got into D.J.’s character and I think I probably laughed out loud more than I would have if I were speed reading through the pages. Moore captured my husband’s attention, too, as I asked to listen to Dairy Queen while we were driving to Florida. I had to pause the book and explain the characters, setting, and plot so he could follow along with me. (He was asking a million questions.) We both really enjoyed the story — not too girly for him and not too heavy on the football/farm setting for me.

One bonus? There are two more books following Dairy Queen. I didn’t realize there was more when I finished listening, but I’ve just added The Off Season and Front and Center to my audible shopping cart because I’m so anxious for more D.J. and Brian. (And the rest of the gang, too.)

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book cover for The Symptoms of My Insanity by Mindy Raf

Magan: The Symptoms of My Insanity by Mindy Raf

book cover for The Symptoms of My Insanity by Mindy RafThe Symptoms of My Insanity by Mindy Raf (website | twitter)
Publication Date: April 18, 2013
Publisher: Dial Books for Young Readers
Pages: 384
Target audience: Young Adult
Keywords: sick parent, best friend trouble, boy drama, chaotic teenage life
Format read: ARC received via NetGalley (Thank you!)

Summary: Izzy has a lot going on in her life — family, friend, and romance-wise — so much that she doesn’t really know how to handle it. She’s also a hypochondriac who looks up all the symptoms she feels. The problem is, in real life, there’s no easy, curable way to put all the dramatic pieces of her life back together.

Izzy looks up every symptom she feels to determine whether or not she’s sick. She’s a hypochondriac.

But, really, beneath the surface of all the pretend illnesses Izzy could possibly maybe have, she’s got a whole lot going on in her life:

  • a mother who refuses to accept she’s sick and needs help
  • a potential new boyfriend who wants to sprint around the bases faster than Izzy feels comfortable with
  • three art pieces to start/finish for a chance to study in Italy
  • a best friend who is acting completely out of character
  • an ex-best friend who seems to want to be friends again

Friends, there was a lot to absorb in The Symptoms of My Insanity. Izzy was under so much pressure and her passiveness didn’t help to sort through any of the tasks that were building up in her life. As an outsider, I wanted to scream at Izzy to run in the other direction when her best friend, Jenna, throws her into the midst of set design for the drama club. After all I’ve listed above, don’t you agree Izzy has enough going on? Sure, Izzy is definitely a pushover and should have stood up for herself (countless times), but it was painful to see the tornado of disaster that was about to sweep through Izzy’s life. Especially when she was trying to balance so much she couldn’t see the destruction heading her way.

Ultimately, I walked away feeling glad that I had finished Mindy Raf’s book, but I still wish she hadn’t put Izzy through quite so much. Reflecting on the story, I wish Raf would have left out the entire Izzy-starts-dating-Blake storyline (in which he’s a jerk with zero backbone and does something pretty craptastic to Izzy). I wasn’t entirely happy with the resolution here and it seemed unnecessarily dramatic (especially when there was a kind, nerdy boy patiently waiting for Izzy to recognize him as more than a friend). The subtle side romance would have been so much sweeter without the hasty relationship with Blake thrown into the mix.

In real life it seems when one terrible thing happens, a ton of others seem to follow. True as that may be, Izzy probably would have had a nervous breakdown if her story were real. And though things did end well, after so much negative buildup I would have liked to have reveled in the ending a bit more to see how things played out long-term in Izzy’s life. (I felt like I closed the book with a heavy heart.)

Sure, I definitely enjoy drama in books, but I am a firm believer that enough is enough for there to be a sense of realism. Raf’s writing was meticulous, but a ‘less is more’ approach would have helped me relate to Izzy in a more meaningful way instead of feeling like I was approaching a train wreck.

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Book Review of If He Had Been With Me by Laura Nowlin

Magan: If He Had Been With Me by Laura Nowlin

Book Review of If He Had Been With Me by Laura NowlinIf He Had Been With Me by Laura Nowlin <website | twitter>
Publication Date: April 1, 2013
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Pages: 336
Target audience: Young Adult
Keywords: boy next door, childhood best friends, friends growing apart, tragic love story
Format read: ARC received via NetGalley (Thank you!)

Summary: Autumn and Finn are next door neighbors; they’ve always been best friends — experiencing everything together since their mothers are also best friends. Once they reach high school, these once inseparable friends are distant and barely speaking. Though they aren’t close anymore, Autumn still finds herself knowing exactly where Finn is in a room and watching him from afar — in love with him, even if it takes her a while to admit it.

So there’s a girl (Autumn) who lives next to a boy (Phineas, or Finn for short). They were born mere weeks apart and their mothers are best friends. They have dinners together, alternate celebrating holidays at each others’ houses, and know practically every detail about the other person. From Autumn’s point of view (from which If He Had Been With Me is told), we see Finn as a strong, popular, kind, slightly geeky but athletically talented boy. Autumn is his opposite in nearly every way. She’s not popular and stands out amongst the crowd for experimenting with her hair color, dressing a bit oddly, and wearing a tiara as an every day accessory. She’s a misfit.

Somewhere along the way (oh, about the end of middle school) these two inseparable friends grow apart. As they enter high school, their lives still intermingle because their family traditions and weekly dinners continue, but they timidly orbit around one another. Finn and Autumn make independent groups of friends and they rarely talk with the same ease and candor they had been able to. By all appearances, these two friends seem to have drifted apart.

But from Autumn’s perspective, we see how she still yearns for him to do well, silently cheering him on, and how she’s jealous when Finn begins dating someone (even though she, too, is in a relationship). Every piece of their history is so intertwined that I couldn’t help but root them on. I wanted these two best friends to make their way back to one another and fall in love, despite knowing from the very beginning how their story would end — quite tragically.

I promise I’m not ruining any surprises by sharing that Phineas dies in the opening pages of If He Had Been With Me (even the Goodreads summary shares this in the first sentence). Then we hop, skip, and jump back in time to meet these two characters as babies and their history unfolds. I was a bit concerned because I didn’t want what I knew happened to Finn to actually happen, but let me tell you friends, Laura Nowlin absolutely blew me away with her amazing storytelling, character development, and rich settings.

Time and again, I feel let down by YA books because parents are absent in stories (but not here, even if Autumn’s parents have some marital issues they need to work through). Or because heavy issue books seem to dissuade cautious readers from picking up the book (but not here, because even though depression is present and very much plays a role in the story, Nowlin worked it into the story in a way that made me reflect and think, “OH! How clever!” instead of “Oh, I know where this is going…”). And sometimes I’m frustrated because it’s just so hard to connect with characters because I don’t know anything about them and their decisions make zero sense to me because of that (but again, that doesn’t happen here because I felt like I knew absolutely every detail, thought, and memory of these characters).

And the writing. Oh, the writing. So perfect and poetic. I felt like I was reading snippets of Autumn’s personal journal and I couldn’t put it down. Despite that I knew there was a *Romeo and Juliet-esque / tragic love story ending, I couldn’t help but allow myself to be swept away by Autumn and Finn’s story. There really wasn’t anything that I didn’t love, though oddly enough, I was maybe a little caught off guard by the ending. I’m not spoiling anything, but I was surprised by how I thought I knew what was coming and Nowlin still threw in a few punches at the end that left me blink, blink, blinking at my kindle screen. (So be prepared!)

I enjoyed If He had Been With Me so much that I’m adding Laura Nowlin to my auto-read list. Her writing, you guys, is just that sublime. Definitely take a chance on this story — allow yourselves to be caught up in Autumn and Finn’s lives and to root for two childhood best friends to fall in love.

*Please note: I don’t mean to imply that this is a Romeo and Juliet retelling, but I’m merely comparing the stories because even though we know how R & J’s tragic story ends, we still love and appreciate the story for all it’s complexity, beautiful writing, and passion — much in the same way I felt about If He Had Been With Me. Don’t make any assumptions about IHHBWM’s plot, storyline, etc. because of my comparison.

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book cover for Just One Day by Gayle Forman

Magan: Just One Day by Gayle Forman

book cover for Just One Day by Gayle FormanJust One Day (Just One Day #1) by Gayle Forman
Publication Date: January 8, 2013
Publisher: Dutton Juvenile
Pages: 368
Target audience: Young Adult
Keywords: Paris, College, Life Experiences, Falling in Love
Format read: ARC borrowed from Anna at Anna Reads (Thanks, lady!)

Summary: Allyson is on “the trip of a lifetime” in Europe with her best friend, Melanie, after their high school graduation; after following all the rules throughout the trip, Allyson decides to be spontaneous and go to Paris for one day with Willem, an actor she meets in a Shakespeare play.

Tomorrow is a day all book readers need to rejoice, rush to the closest bookstore, purchase a copy of Just One Day, and read it in its entirety. I am not kidding, not in the least. This book is probably one of my very favorite books I’ve read … ever.

Forman took me by complete surprise with her previous books, If I Stay and Where She Went. There are moments I still reflect on scenes from those books and find myself daydreaming about the characters. It’s always a bit scary to read something new when an author leaves that kind of impression. Regardless, Jamie and Anna talked up Just One Day and graciously sent it my way.

Within the first few pages, the confused and very structured main character, Allyson, had struck a chord with me. Her life was controlled and micromanaged by overbearing parents who planned every second of her life. It’s not until the end of her tour in Europe that she realizes how little she’s explored because she was too afraid to do something not on the itinerary (meanwhile, her best friend, Melanie, has made new friends and semi-reinvented herself).

When the chance to go to Paris for a day with Willem (a boy she meets through a local production of a Shakespeare play) arises, she pushes her hesitations aside and chooses to be adventurous. Willem is funny, intelligent, good-looking, and has a wandering spirit that’s up for the challenge of showing Allyson the city. Allyson morphs into an alter-ego, Lulu, who is the bold and daring version of herself. The girl that’s brave and doesn’t need to have every moment pre-planned.

Forman’s writing is beautiful and perfect; her prose is spot on. Her descriptions are vivid — painting clear pictures of the places they went, the people they encountered, the sights they saw. Though I may have expected a “touristy” and overly romantic trek through Paris, what I received was so much more than that. Their stops felt very realistic and not overly idealized. I loved that I didn’t receive the postcard description of the city, but experienced two people discovering themselves in a foreign city in a very natural way. Nothing feels forced, cliched, or contrived.

Maybe you’re like me and you assumed that Just One Day would be mostly an epic love story. Forman’s themes are so strong, making me believe that her words could reach a vast audience.

+ JOD is about a pressured, sheltered girl with high demands being forced on her by her parents (Go to med school. Make something of yourself. Collect clocks. Wear these clothes.) and how she struggles to break free of the mold they’ve so tightly cast around her.

+ It’s about the separation and distance we face when we part from our childhood friends to chase new dreams. (How do you remain friends when it seems life is pulling you in two opposite directions?)

+ There’s the sense of change and wanting to chase after something new and different and acting on it, even though (or maybe especially because) everyone expects you to stay the same.

+ It’s about making friends as an adult and how different that can be than the judgmental ways of high school… and how our preconceived notions of someone can be so, so wrong.

There are no words to describe my love/adoration/infatuation for Just One Day. One day can change the course of your life. I wish I could purchase copies for every person on the planet because it has affected me that immensely.

I highly encourage you, friends, to go out tomorrow and purchase a copy of this book. Allow yourself to fall in love with Paris, to seek answers to all the questions surrounding Willem, and to grow and change with Allyson.

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Estelle: Intentions by Deborah Heiligman

intentions by deborah heiligmanIntentions by Deborah Heiligman
Publication Date: August 14, 2012
Publisher: Random House Children’s Books
Pages: 272
Target audience: Mature young adult
Keywords: rabbi, temple, fighting parents, distant best friend, first love
Format read: ARC from NetGalley
How I heard about it: Heard DH read an excerpt at NYC Teen Author Festival in March

Summary: In a different kind of coming-of-age story, Rachel is forced to face uncomfortable truths when she overhears her rabbi having sex in her synagogue.

Rachel’s world is shaken to its core when she overhears her rabbi getting down in the synagouge. I mean, who can blame her? A man she has known forever, seen her through bad times, listened carefully when she had questions about her religion, and has been a person of superior authority in her life has just shocked the crap out of her. So not only are her parents constantly fighting and her favorite relative in the world a shell of her former self, but now she holds the heavy burden of keeping this secret.

It’s not even so much about who the rabbi was with… but the aftermath of Rachel’s discovery.

Basically, Rachel — a perfect student, devout to her religion, a goodie-two shoes of sorts — is a complete and utter mess. And I couldn’t have loved that more about her. She’s just clumsy with life in general and I could relate. The way she talks to boys, the way she tries to balance her school work or keep her room clean… it’s just never perfect, a tiny tiny thing always goes wrong. And sadly, she has no one to turn to. Her best friend is MIA (for reasons she doesn’t know) and she still hasn’t found the perfect avenue when it comes to talking to Jake, the boy she loves. Heiligman has really succeeded in creating a flawed character who despite her experiences with a traumatic situation is still spunky, funny, and sensitive without being a drama queen. Watching her rabbi teach about goodness and God after finding out his secret is confusing and causes her to have a healthy internal deliberation about her role within her religion and also who she wants to be on an everyday basis.

I loved the idea of adults who preach and then act in the opposite fashion. How exactly do you deal with this when adults RULE THE WORLD and you are supposed to follow their example? It’s a frustrating paradox but one that is a part of our reality, unfortunately. The other one being the need to be comforted by the very person who may be making your life a stressful wreck. How many of us can relate to those feelings?

One intriguing supporting character was Adam, the rabbi’s son, who has a tempting bad boy streak but also these quiet moments of understanding and sweetness. Even though we know Rachel has her sights set on Jake, I was very curious about what would happen with Adam, and if he was in the know about his father’s side activities. Was this why he was always acting out? I really enjoyed the arc of his character and the temptation he brought into the story. Jake, on the other hand, had his own secrets and was strangely distant with Rachel. Though, for once, it was nice to see a shyer relationship that wasn’t based on some wild chemistry. It was quiet and private, and Rachel expressed many relatable fears when it came to coming to terms with how she felt about him.

I love the technique of framing in a novel and Heiligman uses it here, beginning the books with an older Rachel, recounting the events of this particular year, and ending it the way it started — back to adult Rachel, who has returned to town for the first time since everything with the rabbi went down. I thought it was a great touch, but my only complaint is that Rachel’s younger years wrapped up a bit too quickly and we didn’t get a better glimpse at the supporting characters. The ending, however, is extremely extremely surprising, folks, in a way that made me really think about Rachel far long after I finished the book.

Intentions is a great representation of the time in your teenage years when everything just comes at you from all angles, and you are forced to see and learn things you never wanted to. For such a jaw-dropping premise, Heiligman has created a well-written world of people in various degrees of imperfection, while still weaving in the lighter moments in life. I was hooked from the very first page.

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