With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo

Information

Goodreads: With the Fire on High
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: May 2019

SummarY

High school senior Emoni Santiago is magic in the kitchen.  She can make food that brings back memories.  Food that can make you cry.  She dreams of opening up her own restaurant, but, with a two-year-old to care for, she knows dreams are luxuries she can’t afford.  But her school has new culinary arts class, complete with an opportunity to cook in Spain.  And, suddenly, Emoni can’t help but think of what could be.

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Review

In With the Fire on High, Elizabeth Acevedo introduces a fresh new voice in Emoni Santiago, a high school senior who dreams of going to school to become a chef–but who wonders if she should give up her dream to get a job and support her baby.  Emoni’s struggles, her love for her family, her desire to do things that seem out of reach–it all combines to create a story where readers are sure to sympathize with Emoni and cheer her on as she tries to find what makes her happy.  Fans of Elizabeth Acevedo, readers of contemporary YA, and lovers of magical realism will all find something to delight them in With the Fire on High.

One of the most notable aspects of Acevedo’s work is her beautiful prose.  YA novels, especially those in the first-person, tend to be written simply and directly.  YA novels that attempt “beautiful” prose often seem to end up with purple prose that may or may not appeal to readers.  Acevedo’s prose, however, flows effortlessly.  It has a musicality that makes it feel like it ought to be read aloud.  She’s not trying to be deep or beautiful–she just is.  And that is a rare and precious gift.

Also notable is Emoni’s voice.  With the Fire on High is, like most YA novels these days, told in first-person.  But Emoni sounds like a real teen, not an adult’s conception of what ‘the youth these days” sound like.  And it’s not just in the way she phrases things.  It can be heard in her concerns, her attitude toward school, her worries about the future.  She isn’t looking at life through an adult’s lens, but through a high school senior’s.  Acevedo has surely written a book that will make teen readers feel heard, seen, and valued.

The book isn’t all about the writing, however.  The story itself is compelling, with Emoni wondering what to do after high school: attend college or get a job at a restaurant.  The question of life after high school is, of course, perennial in teen books, but it feels particularly fresh and relevant here, with Emoni questioning if college is right for her, wondering if the adults in her life are too short-sighted and out-of-touch to realize not everyone has to or wants to go to school like they did.  Emoni is constantly reminding readers that, as a teen mom, she has a unique position to consider, one not everyone seems to appreciate or understand.

Altogether, With the Fire on High is a compelling contemporary YA novel.  Readers who enjoyed Acevedo’s last book will surely want to pick this one up, as well.  But it will also appeal to readers looking for a YA book with a unique voice, a fresh perspective on life after high school, and beautiful prose that never has to try too hard.

4 stars

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Serious Moonlight by Jenn Bennett

Information

Goodreads: Serious Moonlight
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2019

SummarY

After having a one-night stand, Birdie really does not want to see Daniel again–not even if he’s incredibly hot.  But she’s working her first-ever job as a night-shift employee at a Seattle hotel and he just happens to work there, too.  Birdie wants to avoid Daniel, but he gives her an offer her mystery-loving heart can’t resist: help him discover why a famous author is checking into the hotel every week, but only staying a few hours.  Birdie and Daniel are on the case.  But Birdie may lose her heart in the process.

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Review

Jenn Bennett has done it again.  Serious Moonlight is a sweet contemporary romance about deciding what one wants in life and whether one has the courage to pursue it.  In this book, Birdie is a somewhat introverted teen who has been homeschooled much of her life and is excited to have the opportunity to have her first job–even if it is the night shift a local hotel.  However, she is stunned to find out her co-worker is Daniel, the hot guy she had a one-night stand with, and she’s unsure how close she is willing to let him get.  He promises her they can solve a mystery together, which appeals to her bookish heart.  But, as time goes on, she realizes the mystery is becoming less important to her than her feelings for Daniel.  Readers who love contemporary YA romance will find this one enchanting.

Even though the book jacket promises readers a mystery, readers will likely have a more positive experience with the book if they go in realizing the mystery will not necessarily be a key part of this story. It is mainly a vehicle to have Daniel and Birdie hang out together, go on dates, and reveal parts of their past to each other.  As the novel progresses, the mystery falls to the wayside a little as Birdie begins to question what she wants out of life. Does she want Daniel?  How badly?  Does she want to sleep with him again?  Does he want to sleep wit her?  Should they sleep with each to determine if they’re compatible?  Because what if they’re not?

The book has gotten a lot of positive reviews from readers pleased that it features a one-night stand (somewhat unusual in YA) and that it features sex positivity.  I have mixed feelings on this as I think the message of, “Sex can be messy and imperfect” is essentially muddled as Birdie and Daniel (SPOILERS ahead in this paragraph) eventually have such a perfect sex life that they use up a box of condoms in one go (after their third try).  Then they’re basically like, I don’t know, sex machines?  Always sleeping together and it’s the best ever!  I appreciate a book that says, “Hey, the first time can be awkward,” but, then it just goes on to make everything perfect all the time anyway, which seems unrealistic, especially combined with Daniel who (like the protagonist in Alex, Approximately) is basically a walking advertisement for what men are supposed to act like when sex is involved.  I just don’t know that the average teenage guy is going to reach that level of perfect sensitivity, but I guess the book is aspirational and encouraging women to be treated with respect, so that’s good.

I did feel like Birdie’s character development got a little lost in the attempt to balance the mystery and the sex positivity message.  Drama is created by the author telling us Birdie has issues, but I never felt like those issues were integrated organically into the story or the character.  Birdie has to give Daniel a big speech about them before I realized they were even supposed to be a part of the plot.  And, eventually, I felt like her issues where left a little unresolved. (More spoilers ahead in this paragraph!)  Yeah, she’s in a relationship with Daniel, but does it only work out because sex is perfect all the time?  If it’s not one day, will she question their relationship?  And what will she do if Daniel wants to leave one day?  Can she actually handle rejection?  Readers don’t know. We only know that Birdie seems to be doing okay right now because nothing is really going wrong in her relationship–she’s not being challenged to handle adversity in any way.  If she can’t handle adversity, she really has not matured.

Overall, however, I think the book portrays a sweet romance.  Readers will likely feel sympathy for Birdie, especially introverted ones who feel a little naive (or like others are always assuming they are naive). Birdie is a promise to them that they can branch out, do new things, even do kind of wild and unacceptable (illegal?) things.  She’s the age-old shy girl who “finds herself” by stepping out of her comfort zone–and finds love in the process.  A sure hit with readers of contemporary YA romance.

3 Stars

Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson

Since You've Been Gone

Information

Goodreads: Since You’ve Been Gone
Series: None
Source: Gift
Published: May 6, 2014

Official Summary

It was Sloane who yanked Emily out of her shell and made life 100% interesting. But right before what should have been the most epic summer, Sloane just…disappears. All she leaves behind is a to-do list.

On it, thirteen Sloane-inspired tasks that Emily would normally never try. But what if they could bring her best friend back?

Apple picking at night? Okay, easy enough.

Dance until dawn? Sure. Why not?

Kiss a stranger? Um…

Emily now has this unexpected summer, and the help of Frank Porter (totally unexpected), to check things off Sloane’s list. Who knows what she’ll find?

Go skinny-dipping? Wait…what?

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Review

Morgan Matson has a gift for writing books with wild premises but relatable characters that bring readers the best of two worlds: a story that’s both unattainable for many readers but will also make them feel right at home.  Since You’ve Been Gone, for instance, is the story of a teenage girl whose parents are famous playwrights whose best friend has mysteriously disappeared and leaves her a list of crazy things to do.  She makes more friends in the meantime, who are generally as rich and well-connected as she is (one friend’s parents are well-known architects).  Yet Morgan’s focusing of the story on friendship and her talent of simply making the characters human grounds it.  You forget you’re reading about privileged rich kids who have a life you’ll never have and who are having improbably adventures, and instead you just see their troubles with life, love, parents, etc., and it’s a glorious ride.

Protagonist Emily’s character arc is truly compelling, as she must learn to go from being known mainly as “Sloan’s best friend” to a person more in her own right who can envision having a larger friend group.  Matson is extremely thoughtful navigating this, showing Emily’s shyness and growth into more confidence without any judgement (too many books equate introversion with a character failing that must be overcome, and Matson avoids this.)  She also portrays her friendship with Sloan as something that is both beautiful and good, while still being something that allowed Emily to hide behind Sloan’s more outgoing nature.  And the characterization is all accomplished with small details that add up, such as Emily’s tendency to respond “Oh” when someone asks her something she wasn’t expecting or prepared to answer, as she’s used to Sloan taking the lead in conversations.

Emily is not perfect, however, but I love that the book doesn’t really tackle some of her more obvious moral failings.  The list Sloan gives her, for instance, includes instructions to break something and to steal something.  I know there’s a movement in YA right now to make sure YA books have good messages and that these are all explicitly stated within the narrative to make sure no one misses it…but I think teens are capable of dealing with more subtle writing, or even writing that presents characters doing something wrong and having not much come of it–because sometimes life works that way. So when Emily sets out to steal something, it’s part of her journey, and she knows it’s wrong and presumably readers know it’s wrong.  But there’s no moralizing and no scene where she gets her just desserts.  It’s something she does and gets away with.  And maybe years from now, off the pages of the book, she’ll think back on what she’s done, but I like that in Since You’ve Been Gone, she’s just living in moments as they happen.

I’ve only read Since You’ve Been Gone and Save the Date so far, but both are so well-written and thoughtful that I am a confirmed Matson fan, and I think she ought to be getting more recognition in the blog community.

5 stars Briana

The Princess and the Fan Girl by Ashley Poston (ARC Review)

Princess and the Fangirl and Geekerella

Information

Goodreads: The Princess and the Fangirl
Series: Once Upon a Con #2
Source: Quirk Books for review
Publication Date: April 2, 2019

Official Summary

The Prince and the Pauper gets a modern makeover in this adorable, witty, and heartwarming young adult novel set in the Geekerella universe by national bestselling author Ashley Poston.

Imogen Lovelace is an ordinary fangirl on an impossible mission: save her favorite character, Princess Amara, from being killed off from her favorite franchise, Starfield. The problem is, Jessica Stone—the actress who plays Princess Amara—wants nothing more than to leave the intense scrutiny of the fandom behind. If this year’s ExcelsiCon isn’t her last, she’ll consider her career derailed.

When a case of mistaken identity throws look-a-likes Imogen and Jess together, they quickly become enemies. But when the script for the Starfield sequel leaks, and all signs point to Jess, she and Imogen must trade places to find the person responsible. That’s easier said than done when the girls step into each other’s shoes and discover new romantic possibilities, as well as the other side of intense fandom. As these “princesses” race to find the script-leaker, they must rescue themselves from their own expectations, and redefine what it means to live happily ever after.

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Review

The Princess and the Fangirl, a geeky take on “The Prince and the Pauper,” is a must-read for anyone who enjoyed the companion novel Geekerella.  This book has all the fun and all the pop culture references of the first book, but with a bit more of a serious take fandom, responsibility, and finding your passions.

When I reviewed Geekerella last year, I wrote:

However, ultimately the story is just pure fun, and I don’t think readers should over-think it.  The most common description I’ve seen is “super cute,” and this hits the right note.  So, while parts do read as “unrealistic” (I mean, a teenage fashion designer driving a vegan food truck named the Magic Pumpkin who goes on a badass mission with it, mowing over barriers at a country club does strain credulity), that’s part of the appeal. Geekerella is a crazy, improbable, but amazingly enviable adventure where the geeky girl next door has a chance to nab a movie star boyfriend who shares her geeky interests! So, yeah, cute.

And it turns out that re-reading this surprised me because, as much as The Princess and the Fangirl fits into the geek culture world Poston has created, it seems a little less wild and a little less carefree.  The main premise seems unlikely–that a regular girl and an actress would look like twins and decide to switch places–but the rest of the book actually seems a bit more grounded than Geekerella does, and it addresses some heavy issues involving what the main characters Jessica and Imogene want for their lives and what they want for the Starfield fandom they are so involved in.

It took me a little while to warm up to the characters–Jessica because she hates the movie that made her famous and seems occasionally dismissive of the fans and Imogene because she talks like a walking meme, which is one of my primary pet peeves.  Once I got into the story, however, I was gripped.  There’s a lot going on beneath the surface for both of these characters, and it was great to see them work through their feelings and their motivations for actions they had thought they understood and then change.  Both have strong character arcs.  The romance each experiences takes something of a back seat to this, and I think it might have been harder for the author to build two engaging love stories into one book, but I was okay with that because I don’t think it’s the main draw of the story.

The book also expands on some of the questions about fandom and online behavior that were raised in Geekerella (in which the main character runs a popular blog criticizing the new lead actor of the Starfield reboot without knowing much about him).  Here, Jessica Stone deals with a number of online bullies, people who criticize everything from her lack of love for geek culture to her acting to her appearance. She’s obsessed with checking her social channels and can’t seem to draw herself away, even when everything is negative.  Imogene doesn’t love Jessica either and can’t fathom why she’s not a geek, too–until she begins to realize how unwelcoming fandom has  actually been to Jessica.  She also starts to think about the consequences of her passionate campaign to have Jessica’s character appear in a sequel movie, in spite of Jessica’s own desires to leave the franchise.  This books revels in online culture and communication, and there’s a lot for readers to think about in terms of cyberbullying and the interactions of online communities.

Some spoilers this paragraph.  I do have mixed feelings about the ending.  Here, Jessica turns around and starts to love Starfield fandom herself, starts to think she might actually want to be in the sequel.  This is nice and uplifting, and it’s a good message about the value of science fiction and other genres that sometimes get sneered at for being too commercial or too fluffy.  However, as much as I love and value science fiction and fantasy and think other people should see their beauty, too…the implication that Jessica was wrong for wanting to be in a serious literary-based film instead of a sci-fi flick rubs me a bit the wrong way.  No, people shouldn’t sneer at sci-fi, but sci-fi fans also should not think that everyone who prefers other genres is a pretentious snob who needs to see the error of their ways.  Sometimes people just like different things, and I think it would have been interesting if the book had let Jessica just prefer and pursue her more serious films instead of becoming a real Starfield convert.

I did like the story overall. If you liked Geekerella or if you just like fun, contemporary stories that are very in-the-moment and up with pop culture, then you’ll probably enjoy The Princess and the Fangirl.

4 stars Briana

Cold Day in the Sun by Sara Biren (ARC Review)

Cold Day in the Sun

Information

Goodreads: Cold Day in the Sun
Series: None
Source: Publisher
Publication Date: March 12, 2019

Official Summary

Holland Delviss wants to be known for her talent as a hockey player, not a hockey player who happens to be a girl. But when her school team is selected to be featured and televised as part of HockeyFest, her status as the only girl on the boys’ team makes her the lead story. Not everyone is thrilled with Holland’s new fame, but there’s one person who fiercely supports her, and it’s the last person she expects (and definitely the last person she should be falling for): her bossy team captain, Wes.

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Review

Cold Day in the Sun is a quick, cute contemporary romance that’s all about the hockey: both the protagonist and the love interest play, and the story is set in a hockey-breathing Minnesotan town.  While the book doesn’t have quite the same character depth or complex family interactions as books by writers like Huntley Fitzpatrick, it does have a steamy (but totally PG-13) romance, as well as a lot to say about the way female athletes are treated when they play on a boys’ team.

The focus, then, is interestingly split between two somewhat disparate things: the fun and adorable romance and the very serious topic of the misogyny and verbal abuse that Holland faces for daring to play hockey with the boys.  I suppose one could argue that that is exactly how the protagonist’s life is split–she has beautiful and fun moments, but the sexism and people gossiping and hurling abuse are always in the background.  Yet readers generally expect books to be a bit more “pat” and cohesive than real life, and I think the sense that this book is being pulled in two different directions is a bit hard to grapple with.

I also think the hockey atmosphere is something that readers may be divided on.  The book truly is a celebration of all things hockey–Holland’s choice to  play for a boys’ team, her romance with her team captain, the big HockeyFest coming up that her team will play in, the school newspaper article she’s writing about HockeyFest, the local foods that are named after hockey players, etc.  If you like hockey (or even if you are/were an athlete familiar with how being dedicated to a sport colors your life–your schedule, your diet, your partying habits, etc.), this book will speak to you.

However, I think there’s an interesting “dark” side of this that is never addressed, is not a theme of the book at all: people who live in this down who do not like hockey or play hockey are probably complete outsiders.  As an example, only hockey players can be elected to the Snow Ball court (similar to a homecoming court).  The town literally thinks they will be cursed if they nominate non-hockey players.  Talk about special privileges.  The book presents this as if it’s a fun quirk of the town, but I couldn’t help thinking about all the students who at the high school who were probably bitter about this and the rest of the glorification the hockey team gets.  I think even a snide comment from a side character would have felt realistic, but I also think that the book isn’t interested in this type of realism.  It tackles the the tough real-world stuff of sexism, and it wants to just leave hockey as a fun thing to celebrate that everyone can love.

But onto the romance: it’s definitely cute. I think the pacing in the beginning is a bit rushed, and there’s some very predictable drama because that, apparently, is what YA romances do, but overall I enjoyed it.  Holland and Wes are great together, and they have real chemistry in their relationship.  The book puts them in some interesting situations involving snow days and such so they can (well, so they can make out), so it is a bit on the steamy side.  I think of it kind of as “hockey romance book lite appropriate for teens.”  (If you need more specifics on the content so you can guide other readers or yourself, there is no sex, but the characters do get to second base, and Holland is *accused* of some vulgar things because people think that’s how she was accepted to the boys’ hockey team.)

Overall, this is a fun read.  I think it’s a great winter romance that isn’t Christmas or holiday-themed.  It’s isn’t 100% light because of the prejudice Holland faces, but it is a cozy and entertaining read.

3 Stars Briana

Paper Towns by John Green

Information

Goodreads: Paper Towns
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2008

Summary

Quentin “Q” Jacobson has had a crush on his neighbor Margo Roth Spiegelman forever, but they have not spoken for nine years.  Then one night she appears at his window and asks for a ride around the city she wreaks revenge on her enemies.  The next day, she disappears.  Q believes Margo has left clues to her location, and that she wants him to find her.  But how far is he willing to go to chase an ideal?

Review

I feel conflicted about Paper Towns because I personally hated the main characters and I constantly had the sense that the book was trying a little too hard to be deep.  However, I cannot help but wonder if John Green was actually doing something interesting, despite my visceral response to the story.  The story centers eighteen-year-old Quentin “Q” Jacobson and his obsessive crush on popular girl Margo Roth Spiegelman, whose name is always said in full and intoned like a prayer.  To Q, Margo is badass perfection, a girl who lives life to the fullest in a way no else dares.  He worships his ideal of her.  And, of course, in the end, he must realize his dreams were always only in his head.  Maybe this is a worthy story, a wise coming-of-age tale.  But Margo is so obnoxious, readers know from the start that Q’s ideal must be dashed.  Why read hundreds of pages just to see it happen?

Maybe I would enjoy reading hundreds of pages to see Q’s personal journey, if I cared about Q or about Margo Roth Spielgelman.  But Margo is far from likeable.  She and Q were friends as children, but they do not speak for nine years, until Margo arrives at Q’s window in an obvious attempt to “fix” him by taking him on a spree of revenge and vandalism.  You see, Margo’s idea of “carpe diem” is breaking into homes, playing mean-spirited pranks, and actively harming people.  She spray paints her initials on walls and cars like she thinks she is Zorro fighting for justice.  And Q buys it.  He really believes she has a passion for life, that everyone should be more free-spirited and open and daring like Margo Roth Spiegelman.  And Margo?  Oh, she believes it, too.  Her contempt for poor rule-abiding Quentin who does his homework and cares about college is palpable to probably everyone but Quentin.  And she thinks she is gracing him with her crime spree, teaching the poor boy how to break out of his shell.

Readers will understand that Margo is not as free-spirited as she wants to appear.  She is clearly troubled, possibly in part because of her home life.  But I still couldn’t stand her.  Like Q’s friend Ben, I thought Margo was selfish and playing games to get attention.  And, like Q’s friends, I was annoyed he bought into the game.  Q doesn’t even know Margo–they move in completely different social spheres–but shows himself willing to throw away everything he’s worked for to chase her.  He lies to his parents, starts to skip school, and ignores his friends.  He thinks everyone else should give up their lives to help him get Margo.  And he’s one of those guys who seems to think girls should date him because he’s “nice.” Except I’m not convinced he is.

Now, all of this is very interesting.  John Green, I think, created Q as a protagonist who is supposed to be a sort of “average” teenage boy.  He’s generally “nice” but a little dorky and overlooked.  He’s not perfect.  He is a poor friend and he lies to his parents and he is obsessed with the idea of a girl because he doesn’t actually know her.  And he’s friends with Ben Starling, whose obnoxious sexism (He calls girls “honeybunnies” and talks constantly about how he would pleasure them, if given the chance.  He also likes to joke about getting it on with…Q’s  mom.) will likely make many a reader want to throw the book across the room.  Yes, the teens here are very realistic.  But that doesn’t mean I want to read about them or that I think any girl should ever give Ben Starling the time of day.  (Indeed (spoilers), the fact that popular girl Lacey does start to date Ben reads like a teenage boy’s fantasy, and not like a realistic depiction of how the average female would respond to being called a “honeybunny” and listening to a guy brag about his genitalia just about every time he speaks.

Honestly, I think the only reason I finished Paper Towns was because I was trying a Penguin Mini and I was intrigued by the experiencing of holding my book in one hand and flipping the pages vertically.  I really loved the Penguin Mini!  But, until Penguin Mini releases books not by John Green, I might have to pass on reading them.  Because Paper Towns makes me never want to read a John Green book again.

2 star review

Famous in a Small Town by Emma Mills

Famous in a Small Town by Emma Mills Review

Information

Goodreads: Famous in a Small Town
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: January 15, 2019

Official Summary

For Sophie, small town life has never felt small. With her four best friends—loving, infuriating, and all she could ever ask for—she can weather any storm. But when Sophie’s beloved Acadia High School marching band is selected to march in the upcoming Rose Parade, it’s her job to get them all the way to LA. Her plan? To persuade country singer Megan Pleasant, their Midwestern town’s only claim to fame, to come back to Acadia to headline a fundraising festival.

The only problem is that Megan has very publicly sworn never to return.

What ensues is a journey filled with long-kept secrets, hidden heartbreaks, and revelations that could change everything—along with a possible fifth best friend: a new guy with a magnetic smile and secrets of his own.

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Review

Famous in a Small Town combines a slice of life story about protagonist Sophie and her friends as they navigate high school life in, well, a small town with a side mystery plot about why the town’s only famous (former) resident, country singer Megan Pleasant, refuses to return to Acadia.  Sophie really wants Megan to come back and perform a benefit concert to help fund Acadia High School’s expensive trip to the Rose Parade in Los Angeles, so figuring out what Megan has against her hometown is an important part of the plan to get her to come back.

However, I’m not sure the Megan Pleasant story line is an enormously important part of the novel. It does give the book a bit of structure and the sense that there’s a “point,” but the mystery generally takes a backseat to the everyday lives of the characters as they figure out friendship, romance, family, summer jobs, and college applications.  Personally, I like when YA books focus on everyday issues and don’t go crazy with unique plots that are interesting but, frankly, wouldn’t really happen to most people, so this was a plus for me.  Readers who really want a mystery and serious sleuthing might be a bit disappointed, however.

The characters, however, were a bit hit-or-miss for me.  The friend group is bit eclectic, as one might expect from a small town where there may not be enough people for friend groups to form around common interests or personalities.  Sophie is the “average” one (until the second half of the book, when everyone starts making speeches about how good and kind and unique she is, which was a bit baffling to me and also something I generally see in fantasy rather than contemporary).  Brit is the “daring” one, who hooks up and gets drunk and gets fired from every job she gets.  Flora is the “innocent” one who is soft-spoken and still plays with dolls.  What do these people have in common?  Unclear, but they’re close, as well as a couple guy friends.  I assumed they were just close because they’d grown up together, and in another town with more options, they might not have been friends at all.

The banter within the friend group was also a hard sell for me.  Sometimes it was laugh-out-loud funny, and sometimes it wasn’t funny or believable at all and simply felt forced.

Overall, my main impression of the book is that it is unmemorable.  I enjoyed myself decently while reading it, most of the time, but I can already tell it’s one of those books that, at the end of the year, I’m not even going to remember I read, much less have an opinion about it.  I couldn’t even remember half the characters’ names while writing this review, which is a bad sign of what’s to come for me.  I’ve seen other people rave about Emma Mills and a few says she’s usually better but Famous in a Small Town isn’t her best work, but I probably won’t be reading anything else by her.

3 Stars Briana

 

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