book review of Kissing in America by Margo Rabb

Kissing in America by Margo Rabb • Magan Reviews

book review of Kissing in America by Margo RabbKISSING IN AMERICA by Margo Rabb [web | tweet]
Published by Harper Teen on May 26, 2015
Pages: 400
Target audience: Young Adult
Keywords: first love, parental loss, airplane crash, detached mothers

Summary: Not many things have gone right for Eva, but when she meets Will and they connect over personal losses they’ve both suffered through, she feels like she’s finally piecing herself back together again. Until Will has to move across the country and she’s not sure how or when she’ll ever see him again.

• • •

Kissing in America was my in-flight book of choice a few weeks ago. Usually I do a little bit of reading about the book before I jump right in, but I’d momentarily forgotten to download my review books to my kindle so I quickly did that moments before I was told to temporarily turn off my devices. I hadn’t even read the summary when I began, and I’m pretty sure that made reading this book even more special – I had no expectations.

Eva is a pretty typical teenager — she struggles with fitting in, is angered by how detached her mom can be one moment and how suffocating she feels the next, and has one solid best friend, Annie. But there’s something that sets Eva apart, too. Her father died two years ago in an airplane crash. The piqued curiosity she received when telling people about his death infuriated her so much she began to tell people he died peacefully in his sleep from a heart attack. (Meanwhile her mother never, ever mentions him and discarded any trace of him weeks after he died.)

When she begins tutoring Will by proofing his college essays and English papers, they connect over their personal tragedies. His younger brother died as an infant and his mother has never recovered from the loss. As Eva’s adoration for Will grows, she can’t lie to him anymore about her dad’s death. She spills the truth to him and this bonds them even more; she loves that she can be honest about all of these pieces of her no one except Annie knows: how she secretly reads messages in a forum for the surviving family members of the airplane crash or how she hoarded some of her dad’s belongings before her mother could toss them out. Their love for reading and poetry, their losses, and their easy banter bind Will and Eva together over the course of the school year.

Just when things have hit their stride, Will’s forced to move to California. How will these two ever reunite (especially considering she could never fly there)? Kissing in America is a strong tale about first love, healing, heartbreak, parental struggles, not always seeing eye-to-eye, and best friendship stress when you suck at life and let someone down. Eva and Annie find a way to road trip to CA by entering in a game show competition to find the Smartest Girl in America. Annie is a brilliant girl destined for MIT, but she’s overwhelmed by the cost of it and knows her parents couldn’t afford it. This could be her ticket to her dreams.

With much hesitation and a few embarrassing rules in place, Annie and Eva are allowed to road trip from New York to Los Angeles. This was by far my favorite aspect of the book. They meet a crazy bus thief, a few Texas cowboys (who were severely over-exaggerated, but still so fun), and get some solid advice from Eva’s mom’s best friend Lulu. There were moments of such extreme realness in Kissing in America that made me feel like an eavesdropper/stalker along for the bus trip.

The remainder of Kissing in America needs to be experienced by you and I should stop babbling on. (But believe me I could chat forever about this one.) It made me giggle, brought tears to my eyes, made me think about the type of mother I hope to be, and even frightened me a little bit as the details of her father’s plane crash were revealed. It’s one of those books that gives you a whole lot of story in the best and simplest of ways, with characters you love, and a great sadness when it’s all over.

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An early copy of this book was provided by the publisher.

book review of Confessions of an Angry Girl

Magan: Confessions of an Angry Girl by Louise Rozett

book review of Confessions of an Angry Girl

Confessions of an Angry Girl  by Louise Rozett (website | twitter)
Series: Confessions #1
Publication Date: August 28, 2012
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Pages: 266
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: loss of a parent, first year of high school, comical and angry MC
Format read: Purchased digital version for my kindle.

Summary: Rose’s father died right before her freshman year of high school; she’d like nothing more than to wallow in her sadness, but somehow she keeps doing things that make her noticeable to the popular crowd (so not good).

Rose is pissed off. Her father died and he absolutely shouldn’t have. She’s entering her freshman year of high school and she’s overwhelmed with anger and frustration. Her therapist mom uses her “therapy voice” all the time and can’t be real about how she’s feeling. They don’t talk about her dad. At all. Her brother has flown the coop and gone to college, but conveniently, he’s finding ways of disconnecting from the family by dating a new girl and not coming home for family holidays. Popping up unexpectedly at school is Jamie Forta, the boy Rose has secretly (or maybe not so secretly) been crushing on from afar for years. Rose likes him. They kiss. Except they shouldn’t have. And maybe Jamie didn’t just decide to start hanging around Rose; maybe he was persuaded to?

Complicated doesn’t even begin to describe Rose’s freshman year. She’s trying to find her way and fly under the radar, but just can’t seem to get her footing. Her (non-existent) popularity further plummets when her honest, do-what’s-right-self makes her a target. Even though she wants nothing more than to be unseen, Rose just can’t seem to escape center stage. In many, many ways, Confessions of an Angry Girl reminded me of my good pal Ruby Oliver. In no way were the stories alike, but I think Ruby and Rose would have been quite the duo. Rose was full of spunkiness and blatant honesty. She made no apologies for being sad and needing to deal with her grief. Everything she said and felt was so real and honest to me, even if she (like Ruby) said some hilariously off-the-wall things that gave the impression she had no control over her mouth sometimes. Rose is a very imperfect girl who is simply trying to manage all the change that’s happening in her life.

Rose is trying, desperately, to deal with her grief, but she’s also afraid she’s going to forget her dad. She’s in the midst of losing touch with her best friend Tracy, who wants to make a name for herself in high school and is itching to be a cheerleader. (Rose is even more unsettled by Tracy’s constant contemplation over whether or not she should lose her virginity to her boyfriend, Matt. Personally, Rose thinks he’s a d-bag who just wants to sleep with her.) And then there’s her “relationship” with Jamie. She wants to be with him, but doesn’t understand what’s happening with Regina. Are they really together?

Confessions of an Angry Girl  was an unexpected delight — I breezed through the pages and connected instantaneously with Rose. She’s a little down on life (and sometimes herself), but she’s got a lot of insight and fight in her to push through all the bad. Even though Rose’s story stems from the loss of her father, I felt meeting her was very uplifting and delightful. The story does end on a bit of a cliffhanger, which I absolutely wasn’t certain was necessary, but I suppose you’ll have to wait and see what I thought about Confessions of an Almost Girlfriend soon. (I know — what a tease!)

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book review of When You Were Here by Daisy Whitney

Magan: When You Were Here by Daisy Whitney

book review of When You Were Here by Daisy WhitneyWhen You Were Here by Daisy Whitney (twitter | website)
Publication Date
: June 4, 2013
Publisher: Little, Brown
Pages: 264
Target audience: Young Adult
Keywords: loss of a parent, grief, Tokyo, relationships that don’t end well
Format read: ARC received from the publisher via NetGalley. (Thank you!)
Other Books Read by the Author: The Mockingbirds (a joint review)

Summary: Just a few short years after the loss of his father, Danny’s mom dies a few weeks shy of his high school graduation from the cancer she’s been battling. Danny is lonely and seeking answers; he goes to Tokyo to learn more about his mom’s last few months, treatments, and to seek peace after his unexplained break-up from his girlfriend, Holland.

Very, very thankfully I haven’t had to work through a parental loss. I can’t imagine what Danny must have been feeling when at 18, he finds himself without both parents. His father passed away after a freak accident in Japan a few years prior. Present day he’s reeling from the loss of his mother who passed away after a long battle with cancer, one month shy of his high school graduation. Further complicating his family dynamic, he and his (adopted, older) sister aren’t necessarily on good terms. Understandably, Danny is feeling very alone and lost.

He would turn to his best friend Holland for help and a listening ear, but Danny started dating her last year and then she completely cut off communication shortly after leaving for college. Even though she’s back home for the summer, things just aren’t the same. Danny and Holland can easily slip back into their witty banter, but Danny feels guarded because he’s still deeply in love with Holland. Without answers and a huge helping of honesty, he just can’t let things go back to the way they were.

To clear his mind, let go of Holland, and seek answers to burning questions he’s got about his mom’s passing, Danny takes off for Tokyo. His parents owned a house there and they frequently visited as a family. Danny’s mom visited Tokyo often throughout her last months for treatment and he feels speaking to her doctor will give him peace about why she couldn’t make it one more month to see him walk across the stage. He also must decide what to do with their family condo now that he’s inherited it. Kana, daughter of their property’s landlord, becomes his tour guide as he follows in his mother’s last footsteps.

When You Were Here was full of absolutely all of my favorite things — a deep, emotional story, shocking twists and turns that left me needing to collect my thoughts, and a journey to a new place that made me want to catch the first flight to Tokyo. Whitney’s writing was as beautiful as ever, and Danny’s voice was so spot on. He was full of humor that he used to protect himself from feeling all the pain he was going through. He was confused and in need of someone to protect him from more bad things happening.

There’s a major, major plot twist that made me gasp when I read through the scene. HOLY CRAP! — I was so stunned and silenced. I needed time to walk away and think about how I felt. Guys, that doesn’t happen often. Whitney made me feel like Danny’s life was real and I was being asked to lend a helping hand or offer advice. Hopefully you’ll feel the same protectiveness over Danny that I did; after I closed the book, I felt this spoke volumes for Whitney’s writing — she has an uncanny ability to make me want to take care of all her characters. (I felt the same way when I read The Mockingbirds.)

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BONUS: Daisy Whitney has another book coming out this fall, Starry Nights.
Don’t forget to add it to your TBR shelf on Goodreads!

Book Cover for Trinkets by Kirsten Smith

Magan: Trinkets by Kirsten Smith

Book Cover for Trinkets by Kirsten SmithTrinkets by Kirsten Smith <website • twitter>
Publication Date: March 12, 2013
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Pages: 288
Target audience: Young Adult
Keywords: shoplifting, unlikely friendships, cheating parent, alcoholic mother
Format read: ARC received via NetGalley (Thank you!)

Summary: Moe, Tabitha and Elodie are three girls very unlikely to ever form a friendship — that is, until they meet in a Shopaholics Anonymous meeting and bond over their one similarity: they’re all thieves.


Elodie, Moe, and Tabitha have one thing in common.

They’re shoplifters.

Aside from this (ginormous) fact, their lives couldn’t be more different. Elodie lives with her father and step-mother (whom she can’t stand) in Portland, where they’ve just relocated after her father’s remarriage and her mother’s death. She’s the new girl no one knows with one friend she doesn’t have much in common with. Moe and her older brother, Marc, live with their aunt who gained custody of them after their parents died when she was seven. Moe dyes her hair cherry-red and hangs out with a bunch of druggies. And then there’s Tabitha — the legendary popular girl who dates the boy everyone fawns over. But underneath her perfect exterior, she’s going crazy that her dad has endless affairs and how everyone (her mother, her friends, everyone) is always faking their way through life.

How do these three very different girls connect with one another? Through Shopaholics Anonymous.

Because they’re in such vulnerable positions and have to open up about their lives in SA, they let down their guards and speak truthfully and openly with one another about their home lives. (This is a big deal since none of their “BFFs” know any of this personal information.) While SA is supposed to lead them to understand why they want to steal and how to stop doing it, they band together and try to make the best steal after each meeting. Most weeks, after they’ve compared their loot, they spend time hanging out (in inconspicuous places where classmates won’t notice them together).

Tabitha, Elodie, and Moe’s stories are knitted together from each of their points of view. Elodie writes in verse, while Moe jots her entries down in a journal-like format, and Tabitha’s are more structured and formal. The different POVs move the story forward at a quick, enjoyable pace that makes the timing and new friendships seem plausible and realistic. One of the highlights is seeing three very outwardly different girls bond together, especially since many of their interior struggles are so much the same, each having faced abandonment or loss in some way.

The struggle is finding a way out of the cycle of their routine bad behavior. How do you stop doing something that fills the gap in your life? That makes you feel better? That gives you a high like nothing else? And what happens to this unlikely trio’s friendship when the twelve week program has come to an end?

Trinkets handles some pretty serious subject matter (death of a parent, a demanding boyfriend, remarriage, and scandalous affairs) in a manner that didn’t feel overwhelming, heavy, or overly dramatic. Smith maintained a light-hearted feel by placing the emphasis on friendship and letting the heavier issues play more of a secondary role. A huge takeaway for me was realizing that we all have “bad stuff” going on in our lives, but we can choose how we move forward and deal with those situations.

So the question is: does their unlikely friendship help these girls move past the negative circumstances in their lives or do they continue to be lured into thievery to seek attention? Guess you’ll just have to read it for yourself to find out!

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book review for How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

Magan: How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

book review for How to Save a Life by Sara ZarrHow to Save a Life by Sara Zarr
Publication Date: October 18, 2011
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Pages: 341
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: death, loss of a parent, pregnancy, adoption, abuse, new beginnings
Format read: ARC from ALA.

Summary: After her father’s passing, Jill’s mom decides to adopt a baby and allows the pregnant teenage girl, Mandy, to move in with them during the last few weeks of her pregnancy.


Jill’s dad is her best friend – they’re two of a kind, they understand each other. He’s the parent she’s closer to. That is, until he passes away. Jill and her mom, Robin, have never been incredibly close. After his passing, they find it even more difficult to communicate and grieve together. One of my favorite quotes (of the many I wrote down) from How to Save a Life best summarizes their relationship:

“Mom and I, different as we are, are twin planets orbiting the same
universe of grief but never quite making contact.” 
(page 41)

Robin chooses to act on something she and her late husband had always considered – adopting a baby. Jill doesn’t understand. She assumes her mom is trying to replace the loss of one person with the life of another. She’s angry and unsupportive – feeling like her mom is distancing herself from raising her since she’ll soon be off to college. She’s not sure her mom has thought through everything and questions how she chooses to go about adopting the baby.

Mandy, the 18-year-old pregnant girl, arrives on a train to Denver. Robin opens their home to Mandy during the last few weeks of her pregnancy. Things are quite amiss with raging emotions, unspoken grief, and hidden lies Mandy refuses to bring to light. Jill is skeptical of Mandy and takes every opportunity to tell her mom that she doesn’t believe her dad would agree with her decisions.

Each chapter alternates back and forth between Jill and Mandy’s perspectives. We see how cynical and hard Jill has become since her father’s death. We get a sense that she’s searching and cannot figure out how to be the happy, easy-going girl she once was. She’s pushed away all her friends and her boyfriend. Mandy is running from demons – a mom who jumps from boyfriend to boyfriend hoping to find a money-bag to take care of her. Mandy comes across much younger than she is, so innocent, but in fact, her history is much darker than anyone could predict.

This being my first Zarr book, I was completely mesmerized by her writing. I’m not one who usually writes down tons of quotes or re-reads sentences to reflect on the magic author’s create with words. I did with this book. I treaded slowly and cautiously because every word was so carefully weighed. I had a very real sense of Robin’s home, Jill’s place of work (a bookstore!), and the coffee shop Jill visited to meet up with her new friend Ravi. But, I also clearly saw distinguishable characters that were extremely authentic and original.

I admire how Zarr balanced grief with the prospect of hope. Each character had to strip away heavy burdens and went through an internal metamorphosis. While her subject matter was deep, Zarr didn’t weigh me down with agonizing details that took away from her main goal — to show us that we need people to lean on during the hard times in our lives, no matter what the trials or struggles may be.

How to Save a Life is a notable story about how our lives can be shaken up and we have to slowly put the pieces back together — even if those pieces don’t fit back together exactly how they used to.

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Estelle: Dreamland Social Club by Tara Altebrando

Dreamland Social Club by Tara Altebrando
Publication Date: 5/12/2011
Publisher: Dutton Juvenile
Pages: 389
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: Coney Island, NYC history, loss of a parent, starting a new school
Format read: Hardcover from library

Summary: After years and years of moving around, Jane, her brother, and her dad have settled in to Coney Island, New York, where her grandparents have left her and her sibling their home — a treasure trove of Coney history and perhaps the key to uncovering some new details about her mom, who died when she was 6. As Jane struggles to fit into Coney and her high school full of “freaks” (and the uber handsome tattoo-covered Leo), the island itself is going through a sea of (unwanted) changes.

During my junior year in college, I took a New York City history class. I don’t remember covering Coney Island, but I did do my end-of-semester report on young adult novels set in NYC, focusing on how the city was depicted through the eyes of a child. (Needless to say, I had no idea that 7 years later, I would be reading and reviewing these same kind of books regularly.)

I wish that Dreamland Social Club could have been part of that assignment.

Jane is new to the challenges Coney’s community faces as big business is trying to buy up all the retail space from locals (who have been there forever) and strip the place of its history. While she sees the effects of this firsthand, she is also on her own scavenger hunt to find out more about her mother. Altebrando does the work of a magician as she weaves in these (fascinating) social issues with an extremely personal story.

It’s really amazing how memory works — how it could just be buried at the back of your head and reappear at the strangest of times. I loved how Altebrando played with this and how we were able to learn more about Jane’s (short) relationship with her mother and how her mother made Coney very much a part of her childhood without her realizing it until much later. This was such a lovely and unique device for young adult fiction and I was enthralled and touched when these moments popped up. Structure in a book is always very important to me and you can tell that Altebrando worked diligently to connect these memories to Jane’s present life without making them seem too coincidental or too perfect. Everything meshed together to form this glorious picture of Jane’s life as her family history and her future beautifully collided.

And the supporting characters: beautiful, complicated tattoo infested Leo – a leading man who makes my mouth water. While romance does play a part in this book, it is a careful sidebar and never overpowers the plot. I liked that so much. In too many novels, the love story becomes the main focus and we lose the lush details of the background and maybe even the depth of the main character. It does not happen here. The chemistry between Jane and Leo is out-of-this-world wonderful. Altebrando also introduces a team of characters who are quite different… most fabulous was Babette, a goth dwarf, who is confident and sassy. There was also a legless boy who can work a skateboard, and a 7-foot boy named Legs. Jane is just average. She’s not uber talented at one thing, and she doesn’t have much style. But when confronted with her peers who have their own challenges to face but remain true to themselves, Jane begins to dig a little deeper to figure out just who she is and how she fits into this school, this town, and the world. (This growth was paced so naturally.)

Once I started reading Dreamland Social Club, I did not want to put it down for one minute or ever finish it. The characters and their stories were so intriguing and I loved going on this adventure with Jane. I yearned for her to have stability and to have a real handle on who her mother was. I wanted her to connect. While the novel dealt with serious issues, there was still a mystical and magical quality to it. I’ve read many novels this year (almost 60) and I read over 100 last year, but I have yet to find one that made me feel quite so passionate for style of writing, character development, and setting as this one. If I could buy everyone who reads this a copy, I certainly would.

Lastly, I need to take my first visit to Coney Island… yesterday.

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The closest I’ve come to Coney Island… our Disney Cruise ship passed it on the way out of NYC last weekend. I was so thrilled:

See that tall red spaceshipy thing? It’s the Parachute Jump!