Estelle: The Pursuit of Happiness by Tara Altebrando

The Pursuit of Happiness by Tara AltebrandoThe Pursuit of Happiness by Tara Altebrando (website | twitter)
Publication Date: March 7, 2006
Publisher: MTV
Pages: 288
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: loss of a family member, summer job, New Jersey setting
Format read: Paperback borrowed from library

Summary: After her mom passes away, Betsy challenges herself to get through the stages of grief in one summer. Her family is falling apart and a betrayal makes her suddenly single and best friendless, Betsy embarks on a summer job at a colonial village and begins to make new friends. At the same time, questioning her own self-worth, the memories of her mother, and her own passions.

In a multitude of books I’ve read so far this year, the death of a parent is a major plot point. A lot of the times the book is about the death of a mother (like The Survival Kit and You Have Seven Messages). It’s understandable. A daughter and her mother share an unparalleled connection — whether it’s good or bad. A mother is instrumental in the growth of her daughter, especially when she’s in her teenage years trying to figure out who she is and sort of rebelling against all she’s known. Mothers are supposed to be a constant and when they aren’t… there’s a tremendous amount of clashing emotions.

In Betsy’s case, her dad takes a backseat in the lives of his kids when his wife dies. They don’t talk about her, they feast on fast food; everyone is living in their own bubble, barely co-existing. Betsy is angry about that. She’s upset about it and yet she lacks the solution to this problem. How can she bridge this gap between her and her father? Her and her younger brother? Betsy also thinks she is “damaged goods”. Who could love her? Her boyfriend betrays her, so does her best friend (not in the way you think) and she has no mother. It’s the perfect summer to get a new job with new people and new responsibilities. She needs a fresh start in the worst way.

POH is meant to be taken very slowly. Altebrando’s writing is full of realistic, quotable quips and so much depth and emotion. I can’t pinpoint exactly why but the entire book had an old-school YA vibe while at the same time, felt rather adult. You could feel how Betsy was directionless, and I loved the inclusion of this colonial village she was working in. Every day she could escape to this simplier time, play someone who wasn’t herself (even though she wasn’t so good at it in the beginning), and discover things about herself without even realizing it.

Unlike a bunch of YA characters, Betsy wasn’t great at just one thing. In fact, her mother was always asking her about her passions. What was she passionate about? And Betsy just didn’t have a clue. But she wasn’t obsessively searching for it either. I liked Betsy’s cautiousness. I even liked when she messed up sometimes. She had flaws. She had secrets. She had judgements about people and learned to look past them. It was all about baby steps.

Don’t worry. There is a little romance. But what I love, absolutely love, is that it doesn’t appear because it has to, and it’s not an instant love or anything even close to it. Betsy’s affection for James is eased into, and has a bit of mystery to it. I can honestly say I didn’t know how to feel about him and I really liked that. It felt like I was experiencing the frustration and the sweetness along with her. (Plus this led to a Seaside Heights scene, setting of Jersey Shore — yuck — but where I spent many family vacations as a kid.)

Overall, I loved the characters in this novel. I loved the feel of the story, and the relationship dynamics (great sibling!). There are many layers to POH and it felt like each story received the attention it deserved. It always felt down-to-earth even when life turned into a bit of a drama fest for our main character. I so enjoyed her growth and getting to know her. I hope you do too.

P.S. I’m not normally a fan of Kristen Stewart but for some reason, I could not stop picturing Betsy as KS.

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Estelle: The Summer of Firsts and Lasts by Terra Elan McVoy

The Summer of Firsts and Lasts by Terra Elan McVoy
Publication Date: May 3, 2011
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Pages: 423
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: summer camp, sisters, first love, independence
Format read: Hardcover borrowed from the libary.
How I found out about it: Featured at my B&N this summer.

Summary: Sisters Calla, Violet, and Daisy (yes, all named after flowers) attend the same summer camp but all have very different experiences.

This book is the ultimate as far as light, summery YAs are concerned.

First: the setting. Three glorious weeks at a summer camp where you pick a concentration: writing, running, nature. When I was young I only attended day camps that ran for a few weeks, and McVoy had me secretly hating my parents for never sending me away to an overnight place like this one. (If there are any camps like this for 27-year olds, let me know because I am game!)

Second: the boys. Now, my husband’s name is James so I always feel secretly proud when there is a love interest in a book that shares his name (see: Unbreak My Heart). Middle sister Violet reunites with James after he skips a year of camp… although now he’s a counselor — a big no-no. Campers and counselors can’t date. Or make out. Or stare at each other from across the room and feel all tingley inside? Yum, their story was delicious. Each sister has some kind of boy in their life in some capacity and I really liked seeing the different stages the three were in.

Third: the drama. Now it wouldn’t be summer camp without some bitchy girls, unavailable guys, and a rebellious girl who loves to be the center of attention. Instead of being a counselor, Calla has a paying job in the camp’s office and is thoroughly worried about being perfect, making a good impression, and making the best out of camp even though her job duties take her away from the camp activities she has grown to look forward to year after year. Violet buddies up with a new girl who keeps getting into trouble, and Daisy is dealing with girls who are so jealous of her they will stop at nothing to humilate her. While each sister goes through their own thing, they do overlap with one another and provide support and friction at the same time.

At the core, this book is about the bonds of sisters. And it really made me miss mine. (We’re five years apart and don’t see each other that much because she’s in school and I’m a “grown up”.) I missed the days when I used to come home after school and see my sister or even the days during the summer when we hung out at the beach. It kind of just made me miss home. At the back of the book, McVoy shares that she indeed is part of a trio of sisters and I could tell. They were some very tender, sweet moments as well as those inevitable ragey ones. (By alternating chapters between the three, we were able to find out the inside thoughts each had about the other and I loved being privy to this insight.)

Best of all, McVoy shocked me completely with her ending. Reading it was just as disruptive as what happens to the girls (ohh the suspense) and it fit the situation perfectly. All I could think was “bravo” for taking the road less traveled.

I could see you reading this book on the beach (like I did), in the fall, or even with some hot chocolate in the winter. It doesn’t need to be summer to feel the excitement and freedom that the season and this book radiates.

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Estelle: Lovestruck Summer by Melissa C. Walker

Lovestuck Summer by Melissa C. Walker
Publication Date: May 5, 2009
Publisher: Harper Teen
Pages: 272
Target audience: Young Adult
Keywords: Austin, music, high school graduate, summer
Format read: Borrowed from library.

Summary: Quinn manages to wrangle an internship at a record label in Austin, TX. This means living with her college student cousin and hearing awesome music ALL summer. Quinn quickly realizes the summer may not be all she imagined when she lands in Texas for multiple reasons, including that cowboy country music loving boy next door.

When I was in college I had a boyfriend who LOVED country music. He even had a cowboy hat and boots he would wear sometimes. (I’m sure it was just to taunt me.) But this freaking kid would listen to country music in the car all the time and I despised it. I would never like country music. Well, I might as well have shot myself in the foot because guess what? He made a country music lover out of me. That was 7 years ago and country music is still my tune of choice. (Much to my husband’s chagrin, I’m sure.)

So I get the whole quick to judge thing. I do this all the time. Even after my change of heart when it came to certain friends, my husband, and country music, I still do this. So I understood Quinn and her sudden judgments about her sorority sister cousin and the annoying cowboy next door, Russ. Sometimes people are stubborn (hi, me) and sometimes they need to be proven wrong (that’s me again). I loved this premise. Even more so because Quinn was an older character for YA, on the verge of starting college.

Now the setting. You may know by now that Magan is from Austin and I live in New York and I met her at a friend’s wedding IN Austin. So Lovestruck Summer practically felt like OUR story. (Well, sort of.) I have such love for Austin even if I’ve only been there twice and I was giddy when reading about certain locations I went to visit. (Thanks to my pal Carly and her husband David for being such awesome tour guides!) The novel was practically a love song for Austin and I came very close to booking my next trip out there multiple times.

I first discovered this title when April from Good Books and Good Wine listed it as a book with a deceiving cover. WAS SHE EVER RIGHT! This book is more than neon swim tubes and water. In fact, I thought it was downright IRONIC that Lovestruck Summer had this cover when the book was basically about reevaluating judgments and first impressions. Lovestruck Summer dives beneath the surface and introduces some unique main characters and a summer that brings about much change for many of its characters. It’s fast paced and entertaining, and gee, my only complaint is that it wasn’t a little bit longer.

Look no further for the perfect summer read. It’s funny, it’s sweet, and just like it’s cover — more than meets the eye.

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