I Read It So You Don’t Have To: How To Rock Braces and Glasses by Meg Haston

How to RockMiddle school. It sucked, didn’t it? And for Kacey Simon, head Queen Bee at Marquette Middle School, middle school is about to suck big time.

In Meg Haston’s How to Rock Braces and Glasses, Kacey Simon and her coterie of mean girls rule the halls of Marquette. However, it is Kacey who is the Alpha and she won’t let you forget it. She’s got the lead in Marquette’s production of “Guys and Dolls” where her co-star is the school hottie, Quinn. She’s a budding journalist and has her own show at her school’s television network news program. On her show Kacey doles out unforgiving advice to Marquette’s lowly peons not blessed to be as cool as her. In other words, Kacey Simon is a bitch on wheels.

However, Kacey’s life takes a tragic turn when an eye infection due to some messed-up contacts requires her to wear glasses and some wayward wisdom teeth call for braces.

Glasses and braces, you ask? What’s the big deal about glasses and braces? Lots of kids (and adults) wear glasses and braces. It’s hardly a big calamity to be overcome.

Yet, for our young protagonist, glasses and braces are a one-way street to loserdom, and soon Kacey’s friends Molly, Liv and Nessa reject her. Due to a braces-induced lisp, Kacey loses her coveted lead in “Guys and Dolls” and her news segment is put on hold. And it doesn’t help that a video of Kacey and all her lisping glory goes viral and Molly is now Marquette’s new “It Girl.” That skank even takes over the lead in “Guys and Dolls.” The nerve!

Well, Kacey refuses to be usurped and is hell-bent on retaining her Queen Bee status no matter the consequences. To do this, Kacey recruits her old friend Paige, who she threw under the bus back in fifth grade. For some odd reason, Paige doesn’t hold a grudge against Kacey and using political campaigning skills that would make Karl Rove blush, comes up with some schemes to make sure Kacey reaches the upper echelon of popularity.

At the same time, Kacey befriends a fellow student and musician named Zander. Even though Kacey had derisively coined Zander with the nickname “Skinny Jeans” due to his choice of trousers, he introduces her to cool local music venues and vintage vinyl record stores. Zander also invites Kacey to sing lead in his band. And even though Kacey’s former bestie Molly has a major crush on Zander, Kacey finds herself drawn to this rock and roll rebel.

Throughout this ordeal, Kacey wonders if she will be a loser forever or will she grasp the golden ring of popularity that is so rightly hers. Will she realize she’s a mean girl and needs to change or will she claim her snotty remarks are just her way of “keeping it real?” And will she ever get rid of those pesky glasses, braces and that horrific lisp?

To be honest I didn’t care if Kacey got her comeuppance, regained her Queen Girl status or learned a lesson worthy of one of those old “After School Specials” I watched when I was her age. I found Kacey a loathsome character—shallow, malicious, rude and spoiled. However, I did get an idea of how “Chicks on the Right” got their start.

I don’t expect characters to be perfect and to make the best decisions. In fact, I prefer that they don’t. It makes for more interesting reading. But I do expect a bit more nuance and dimension; Haston doesn’t seem capable of doing this. For a brief moment, I thought Haston was writing a parody of a middle school mean girl, but parody seems something beyond Haston’s skill set.

Furthermore, I found a lot of the plot points and other characters totally unrealistic. First off, braces are pretty much a rite of passage for most kids, especially those from upper middle class families like Kacey’s. Also, glasses are downright fashionable these days so I couldn’t imagine a kid being teased. Even I didn’t get teased when I started wearing glasses as a middle-schooler, and this was back in the stone age.

And though some teasing of Kacey seemed a bit realistic, I couldn’t imagine Molly, Nessa and Liv abandoning her completely even though she’s kind of snotty towards them at times. And I was also perplexed on how Paige was so willing to help Kacey regain her popularity after being rejected so cruelly. I think it would be more realistic if Paige held a grudge and refused to help her traitorous former friend.

I was also befuddled by the lack of adult guidance towards Kacey and her friends. I counted around only two adults in this book. One was Kacey’s mother who rarely called Kacey out on her odious behavior. Instead, Kacey’s mom kept coddling her special snowflake and convincing her that everyone else wants to emulate her. I guess Kacey’s mom wanted to be a “cool mom.” The other adult was a teacher called Sean who’s pretty much just a cardboard cutout. With bullying such a pressing topic today you would think someone would try to discipline Kacey about her foul behavior towards her peers. Perhaps Marquette Middle School is just another “Lord of the Flies” but one with smart phones, fruity lip gloss, and skinny jeans.

According to How to Rock Braces and Glasses’ book jacket a sequel was slated to come out in 2012 and the book was made into a short-lived TV show for Nickelodeon. Needless to say, I won’t be reading the sequel or I’m glad the TV show was cancelled. There are countless books (and TV programs) that show young people in an honest and compelling way. How to Rock Braces and Glasses did not do this. In fact, it sucked.

Or as a lisping Kacey Simon would say, “It thucked.”

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Book Marks

bookmarkDisgusting. Copies of  Anne Frank’s “Diary of a Young Girl” are being vandalized in Japan.

Best-selling author, James Patterson, is giving away $1 million dollars to independent bookstores.

The Duggars have given birth to another…book.

To cleanse the palate of the Duggars putting out another book, here is an article about the wonderful men who supported great women writers.

You’ve heard of binge-watching. Try binge-reading for a change of pace.

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Astor Place Vintage by Stephanie Lehmann

AstorPlaceVintage-thumb-300x458-5429Modern women are glad to live in a time of equal opportunities, the right to vote, education and careers that eluded our fore mothers, and the ability to make our own decisions whether they are financial, sexual or professional. Yet, sometimes we look to the past with a bit of yearning. Hence, the popularity of television shows like “Downton Abbey.” Just what was it like to live nearly a century ago?

Amanda Rosenbloom is about to find out…

As Stephanie Lehmann’s book Astor Place Vintage opens, Amanda Rosenbloom is meeting with Jane Kelly. Jane Kelly is 98-years-old, in ill health, and has several vintage for clothing items for sale that she has placed in a trunk. Amanda is the proprietor of Astor Place Vintage, a boutique located in Manhattan featuring decades of amazing vintage fashions.

Amanda finds a lot of glorious treasures in Mrs. Kelly’s trunk, but the most surprising treasure is a diary from 1907 found in the lining of a fur muff. The diary belongs to one twenty-year-old Olive Westcott, a woman very much of her time. Yet, she is also filled with ambitions and desires that wouldn’t seem out of place in our modern age.

Amanda can’t help but read Olive’s diary. And while she’s getting sucked into the past, she also is dealing with some very unyielding present-day problems. Professionally, Amanda is struggling to keep Astor Place Vintage afloat. And her landlord just informed her that the lease on her boutique will not be renewed. Amanda has to come up with the money to find a new place or go out of business.

Personally, Amanda is closing in on turning forty both single and childless, which has her quite disheartened. She’s also having an affair with her very married high school sweetheart who helps her out financially. And to top it off, Amanda is also coping with killer insomnia. Olive’s diary is a means of escape and in a way, therapy.

As Olive’s diary commences, we find out she has just moved to Manhattan with her father who has been hired to manage a Woolworth’s on 34th Street. Compared to other women of the time, Olive has quite a few luxuries. She lives in a refined home and though not college-educated, she did attend finishing school. However, Olive knows what it’s like to suffer tragedy. Her mother died giving birth to her. She also seems hopelessly naïve for a grown woman. She’s never been kissed and she’s woefully uninformed about the basics of her own female anatomy.

However, Olive desires to have a career of her own. She wants to be a store buyer. But working is for low class girls, not well-heeled young ladies like Olive.

Olive’s life soon takes an unforeseen turn when her father dies unexpectedly. Olive is totally on her own and needs a job to survive. She gets a job as a shop girl at a department store. At her job Olive tries to stake her claim as an ambitious and resourceful young woman and also befriends her co-worker, Angelina. Angelina experiences as the child of poor Italian immigrants is quite different from Olive’s upper-class, WASPy upbringing. And Angelina is also having a scandalous affair with a man who helps her financially.

Olive is shocked by Angelina having sexual relations without a ring on her finger. But she also values Angelina’s kindness and support. Olive is also oddly attracted to Angelina’s brother, Joe, who is a bit of a dastardly rake (man whore). Will Olive deny her growing desires or will her bloomers stay firmly in place?

Meanwhile, in the modern day, Amanda is coming grips with her own issues. She knows it’s up to her to make the important changes to transform her life both professionally and personally. Will she find a way to keep Astor Place Vintage in business? Will she give her married lover the big heave-ho? Will she actually get a good night’s sleep? With Olive’s diary as guide (and her own modern girl smarts), maybe Amanda will. This diary might also give Amanda a clue on how Jane Kelly is connected to Olive.

I’m not always a fan of chick lit. I find most chick lit trite and formulaic, but Lehmann’s Astor Place Vintage is the thinking girl’s chick lit. I loved how the ending was not wrapped up in a pretty bow, which made me wonder how both Amanda and Olive’s lives might play out. The ending is totally left up to the reader’s imagination.

I also loved how Lehmann conveyed two characters that are very relatable and multi-dimensional. Sure, Amanda probably shouldn’t be having an affair. And I found Olive’s snobbery a bit off-putting at times. However, Amanda and Olive’s flaws made just made them more real to me.

Furthermore, Lehmann does a tremendous job of showing, not telling. I could actually envision the vintage fashions Lehman lovingly describes and I also appreciated how she brought New York City fully-alive, whether commenting on the foul tenements of 1907 or Jane Kelly’s tasteful apartment. Furthermore, the photos interspersed in Astor Place Vintage of New York City at the helm of the twentieth-century are a delightful bonus.

Ultimately for me, Astor Place Vintage is as satisfying as finding a gorgeous cashmere sweater for only ten bucks at my favorite vintage clothing boutique. I highly recommend it.

Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater by Michael Sokolove

Drama HighThere are good teachers. There are bad teachers. There teachers somewhere in between. And then there is Lou Volpe. And journalist Michael Sokolove deftly tells Lou Volpe’s journey and how he has affected his students and their town in the book Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater.

Lou Volpe is the drama teacher at Harry S. Truman High School located in the struggling, blue collar town Levittown in Pennsylvania. Truman High is most notable for its amazing theater program, which has not only helped launch some of its graduates into entertainment, arts and media careers but has also caught the attention of successful Broadway producers. The drama program has also won countless impressive drama awards that often go to schools in much more upscale areas.

Most of this is due to the hard work and dedication of Volpe, a man truly committed to his students and the idea that the arts are an educational necessity. A strict taskmaster who challenges his students to fulfill their greatest acting talents, Volpe often chooses plays and musicals that encompass thorny topics like teen sex, rebellion, bigotry, homosexuality and other issues most high school drama programs would eschew. Though Volpe knows these productions may court controversy, he knows his students have the talent, maturity and intelligence to handle them. Included in these productions are the musical “Spring Awakening” (the Broadway production starred Lea Michele of the TV show “Glee”) and the play “Good Boys and True.”

Drama High covers one particular school year, in which Sokolove focuses not only Volpe but several students in the drama program and former Volpe students who are now being mentored to take Volpe’s place once he retires. Sokolove doesn’t only write about the arduous task of choosing the plays, long, difficult rehearsals, various backstage activities, limited funding for arts programs, delicate egos, the glory of performing on stage in front of a packed house and the joy of winning awards and rewards. He also writes about the what Volpe’s students deal with when they aren’t performing, including their classes, homework, money troubles, after school jobs, applying for colleges and assorted family issues. And though the “show must go on” Volpe is truly empathetic regarding his student’s off-stage lives.

Furthermore, Volpe’s students are not all the typical hammy, extroverted theater geek types. Many of his most gifted performers defy stereotypes. Some are shy and retiring offstage, and some are “macho” jocks who are talented on the football field and on the theater stage. Sokolove also covers Volpe’s personal life in Drama High, including coming out as a gay man while married with a young child.

Drama High is a riveting read, and Sokolove clearly has nothing but respect, affection and concern for Volpe, his students, Truman High and Levittown. I found myself not able to put this book down, truly wondering how things would turn out for everyone, especially the students. Let’s face it. Being a teenager isn’t exactly easy.

But I also felt a wee bit jealous of these talented kids. Where was my Lou Volpe when I was in high school? We all need a Lou Volpe. Damn, I need a Lou Volpe now!

Drama High also reminded me, in time of strict educational budget cuts, No Child Left Behind, and the attacks on public schools, the importance of arts education in young people’s lives. Not all of these students will go to Broadway or Hollywood. But the lessons of creativity, discipline, expression, teamwork, dedication, dealing with failure and success, and building a strong work ethic will stay with Volpe’s students throughout their lives.

Ultimately, Drama High truly conveyed the importance of teachers, and how those like Volpe, deserve our respect and admiration even though they are Public Enemy No. 1 to some political pundits. Many teachers are not babysitters and they didn’t get into teaching so they could have their summers off. They teach because the love kids and want to shape their future in a positive way. Or as Lou Volpe puts it in Drama High, “They are the reason why I come in every day. I love working with them. They make me happy and frustrated and all the other emotions you can imagine.”

Brag Book

When I write a review, or anything for this blog, I always wonder how it’s going to be received. It’s nice to know people like my reviews and are following my blog.

However, it is quite another to have the actual author of a book you reviewed leave a comment at you blog. Mike Adelberg who wrote the wonderful novel Thinking Man’s Bully left a comment thanking me for writing a review. And I am kvelling, KVELLING!!!

Here is a link to the comment:
https://thebookselfblog.wordpress.com/2014/02/01/thinking-mans-bully-by-michael-adelberg/

I really enjoy supporting talented writers and to get that support right back is truly heart-warming. So thank you Mr. Adelberg.

Thinking Man’s Bully by Michael Adelberg

thinking mans bullyMeet Matt Duffy, the protagonist of Michael Adelberg’s novel Thinking Man’s Bully. His son, Jack, is getting into trouble for bullying his peers. Jack has also attempted suicide after Matt thwarted a teen-age romance. Things are not going well for Matt and his wife encourages him to see a psychiatrist. Matt is not crazy about the idea but thinks maybe getting some type of therapy will help him deal with his problematic, troubled son. What doesn’t expect that seeing a shrink will force him to confront the own harsh reality of his past and how it has impacted his somewhat less than ideal child-rearing practices.

Matt’s therapist expects him to do much more than lie on his couch and talk. No, instead, she expects him to email her stories before each session discussing his past and how it may have led to this moment in his life. She also thinks that may also help Matt discuss his feelings and emotions that he might have too much difficulty discussing face-to-face.

Through these emails we learn about some very disturbing, yet relatable details of Matt’s past. Like many teenagers, Matt hung out with his friends, tried to survive high school, navigated the rocky terrain of teenage romance and indulged in the pop culture of the day (personally, as a card carrying member of Generation X-er, I loved the book’s references to the music, movies and television of the 1980s).
But Matt soon realizes that maybe Jack’s bullying didn’t come from nowhere. Maybe the apple didn’t fall to far from the tree. As Matt examines his wayward youth he recognizes that he, too, spent a great deal of his teenage years bullying his classmates. Sure, a lot of it was because he was an immature jerk. But a great deal of Matt’s bullying was due to wanting to impress his BFF nicknamed Dog. Dog was the alpha male to Matt’s more beta male style, a leader who Matt was all too willing to follow.

Some of Matt and Dog’s adolescent shenanigans are just harmless pranks. But far too many of them were cruel and vicious and made my blood both curdle and boil. I can only imagine how their bullying of their peers would be worse in today’s age of social media.

As a teenager, Matt thinks his bullying makes him a cool guy and it makes him put Dog on a pedestal. But Dog has serious issues that go far beyond being the school bully and it isn’t long before these serious issues lead to dire consequences for Dog. And these consequences affect Matt long after the age of the mullet, acid-washed jeans and when MTV actually showed music videos.
Both these emails and Matt’s subsequent conversations with his therapist allow him to make a connection between his teen years and his experiences as a father. The connection isn’t easy, and makes Matt very uncomfortable. But he knows he has to go through this so he can deal with Jack and himself, and possibly grow up as a human being. Will Matt become the perfect father? Well, of course, not. But he is committed to helping his son by helping himself.

Being a victim of bullying myself (and sometimes being a bit of a bully at times), I expected to hate Matt Duffy. And at times I thought to myself, “What an asshole!” But I also saw Matt as a very real, complex and vulnerable person, filled with both good and bad qualities that are a part of the human condition. In the end, I felt empathy for Matt and his issues, both past and present.

Much of my empathy has to do with Adelberg’s rich and vivid writing style. Both of Matt’s emails relating the past and his present are written with such a three-dimensional clarity that had me drawn to Matt’s life. They also often made me think about my own misspent youth and how it is still affecting me today. You don’t always get this from a novel.

Thinking Man’s Bully is one book I had a difficult time putting down and was a bit bummed when it ended. Thank goodness Michael Adelberg is a prolific writer. If Thinking Man’s Bully is any indication of Adelberg’s writing talents, I’m definitely going to read his other books.