Contemporary, Fiction, New Adult

Jessica Darling quintet by Megan McCafferty

Jessica Darling helped me survive high school. I was first introduced to the delightfully snarky, sarcastic and spunky teen heroine of Sloppy Firsts when I was a freshman in speech and debate practice after school one autumn afternoon back in 2003. A frenemy of mine was testing out an excerpt from Second Helpings for a speech competition and it was certainly effective: I remember nothing else of the speech and debate season but hearing about Jessica handle the popular girls in a Jersey mini-mall still resonates in my head a decade plus later.

The series consists of five books and originally Megan McCafferty only intended to write the first two and they stand alone very well. I also read Second Helpings before Sloppy Firsts and while slightly confusing, I think it just made me love Marcus even more. I also had the great pleasure of meeting Megan McCafferty my junior year at Pitt and she has now started a Jessica Darling in middle school series which is quite wonderful as well, even though it differs from the originally established timeline.

Sloppy Firsts Synopsis

When her best friend, Hope Weaver, moves away from Pineville, New Jersey, hyperobservant sixteen-year-old Jessica Darling is devastated. A fish out of water at school and a stranger at home, Jessica feels more lost than ever now that the only person with whom she could really communicate has gone. How is she supposed to deal with the boy- and shopping-crazy girls at school, her dad’s obsession with her track meets, her mother salivating over big sister Bethany’s lavish wedding, and her nonexistent love life?

Sloppy Firsts looks at Jessica’s predicament as she embarks on another year of teenage torment – from the dark days of Hope’s departure through her months as a type-A personality turned insomniac to her completely mixed-up feelings about Marcus Flutie, the intelligent and mysterious “dreg” who works his way into her heart.

Series Review

There are, thus far, 8 books about Jessica Darling. Therefore, understandably, my review cannot simply be contained to one book, each reading changes and effects how I view the books so it may be a bit garbled and I’ll try to review book by book without any spoilers, but bear with me!

Sloppy Firsts I have read only once and I did so after reading Second Helpings, the stronger of the pair, writing wise. I was introduced to Jessica after Marcus, after her sister’s wedding, and after she’s met, and discovered the truth about, Hyacinth Anastasia Wallace. All of these things take place in Sloppy Firsts but I didn’t know the full story. At the start of Sloppy Firsts, Jessica is broken, though she does her best to hide it. Her best friend Hope has moved away and while Hope does not actually physically enter the story until the end of Second Helpings, I had already met her. But her influence on Jessica’s life is profound – she is her best friend, her confidant. For a young girl to have such a strong friendship is an incredible thing to behold and when that friendship is no longer as present, depression can quickly ensue. Throughout Sloppy Firsts, Jessica must handle changing feelings, embarking on a friendship she fears Hope would disapprove of, and betrayal of her trust by a new friend. The waters of high school are choppy and Jessica must learn how to cross them safely without her navigator and first mate, Hope.

Second Helpings: My copy of Second Helpings is thoroughly beat up. I love the book, I’ve read it over and over and over again whenever I have been in need of inspiration for my own writing, or when I just want to read about characters that I love dearly. So who came up with it first, JK Rowling or Megan McCafferty? Both have a character known as “he who shall not be named” and Jessica is horribly mad at the one who walks around her high school’s halls. Her feelings have been hurt, irrevocably, she claims, and she swears to never forgive the sinner. Second Helpings is set during Jessica’s senior year and from the very start, it seems as if all hell will be breaking loose. She must deal with national tragedy (9/11), personal tragedy when a beloved family member is lost, and coming to grips with her own moral quandaries and whether or not a friendship is still a friendship if secrets are kept.

Charmed ThirdsFourth Comings: In which Jessica follows her heart and goes to her dream college and lands what she believes to be her dream job. Charmed Thirds & Fourth Comings are my two least favorite books and for the longest time I would not read them. Laura had started them and was unimpressed. However, when I met Megan McCafferty, I needed a book for her to sign and so I picked up a copy of the new edition of Charmed Thirds. I will cherish it always as it bears McCafferty’s lovely looping signature and I got to meet her with some of my best college friends. However, Jessica, is just not Jessica in these two books. While Sloppy Firsts & Second Helpings cover roughly a year and a half between them, Charmed Thirds & Fourth Comings span almost 8 years and everything feels so rushed.

Perfect Fifths: When I went to hear Megan McCafferty speak, she read aloud from the recently released Perfect Fifths and I was hooked. It was the first time we the readers get Marcus’ point of view and WOOHOO!!! I powered through Charmed Thirds & Fourth Comings just to get to the part Megan McCafferty read in the dimly lit auditorium of Frick on my beloved Pitt’s campus. As the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series did years later, the fifth book takes place when the main characters are in their late twenties. And it is pure literary gold. It’s an ending, without being final but also without fully answering all the questions that have so far gone un-answered. But it is perfect, perfect for you, yes, you to enjoy.

Jessica Darling is a relatable girl for those who grew up feeling pressure in high school, fearing being misunderstood, missing their best friend, wondering when their lives would really begin and if their relationships with others were/are meaningful. Jessica, Marcus, Hope, Bridget, Percy, Bethany and even Mr. and Mrs. Darling make up an unforgettable cast of characters. As is the case with all series, there high points and low points, both within the story and the story telling but all-in-all, Jessica is a character to depend on and a role model for those who don’t quite fit in, feel a little lost or who simply want a shoulder to cry on. She’s your girl.

Series Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Sloppy Firsts Edition: Paperback • $13.99 • 9780609807903 • 304 pages • published August 2001 by Broadway Books • average Goodreads rating 3.94 out of 5 • series finished April 2010

Megan McCafferty’s Website

Sloppy Firsts on Goodreads

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Jessica Darling

Non-Fiction, Poetry

Adultolescence by Gabbie Hanna

When this book first showed up at the bookstore on Monday, I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it. After my less than stellar experience in reading modern poetry last week with Milk and Honey, I didn’t think I would really want to try again. But after all the teenage girls started asking for it on and after its release date Tuesday, I figured I better see if we were going to have another Milk and Honey type of situation on our hands at the store.

Synopsis

In poems ranging from the singsong rhythms of children’s verses to a sophisticated confessional style, Gabbie explores what it means to feel like a kid and an adult all at once, revealing her own longings, obsessions, and insecurities along the way. Adultolescence announces the arrival of a brilliant new voice with a magical ability to connect through alienation, cut to the profound with internet slang, and detonate wickedly funny jokes between moments of existential dread. You’ll turn to the last page because you get her, and you’ll return to the first page because she gets you.

Review

I’m not a big poetry person, but I am a millennial, and the publisher marketing synopsis’ last line is absolutely true. I could launch into a whole big long thing about being a millennial, what that means to me vs. the rest of the world, and how Adultolescence is a perfect example of the millennial mindset, etc. etc. But that would be ranting, and annoying, and I don’t want to be either today.

So let’s start out with why I actually started reading this book – yes, the teenagers at the store did have a little something to do with why I read it so quickly after it’s release date, but I bought it on Monday, before it was technically available to said teenagers for many reasons. There is, though, one that truly sticks out: Gabbie and I both went to Pitt, The University of Pittsburgh, Hail to Pitt! So not only do we have the shared experiences of being part of the same generation, we have four years worth of memories and, I’m sure if ever meet and have a chance to chat, we would be able to go on and on about Oakland (the Pittsburgh neighborhood, not the CA one), the Cathedral of Learning, the Penn State rivalry, the uniqueness of Pittsburgh weather, how awesome it was to be done for the school year before May even started, though we’d probably disagree on sports – I’ll take the Eagles over the Steelers any day.

To say I connected with Gabbie and her poetry is an understatement. I have anxieties, panic attacks, and I have no idea what I want to do with my life, no really. While I love my bookstore job and I one day want to go back into teaching and I’m happily married, I still don’t know what I want my life to look like in five years, ten years, twenty years (other than I would like to be employed and still happily married). My brain is filled with the same doubts and insecurities as Gabbie’s and, while I don’t presently make videos of my life (though I’d like to try at some point), I do have this book blog, so I guess that counts as another similarity.

Adultolescence is the perfect book for anyone who needs to know that they are not alone in the world – their doubts and fears are felt by many others as well. It is the perfect book for my generation – a week into owning it and it already looks well worn and loved because I keep going back to my already favorite poems because I’ve needed a pick me up or some cheering up during the week.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars (I’m still getting used to poetry)

Edition: Paperback • $16.99 • 9781501178320 • 256 pages • published September 2017 by Atria Books • average Goodreads rating 4.32 out of 5 • read in September 2017

Gabbie Hanna’s YouTube Channel

Adultolescence on Goodreads

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Adultolescence

Non-Fiction, Poetry

Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur

I received Milk and Honey as a wedding present over a year ago. Last night I decided I might as well pick it up and see what all the fuss is about. 

Synopsis

this is the journey of
surviving through poetry
this is the blood sweat and tears
of twenty-one years
this is my heart
in your hands
this is
the hurting
the loving
the breaking
the healing

Review

So… I still don’t think I fully understand the obsession. This book has spent over a year as a bestseller at the bookstore, first on the New York Times list, then on the Indie list. Milk and Honey was originally self-published and I will readily admit I am skeptical of anyone who is self-published. Milk and Honey was then picked up by a major publisher, Simon & Schuster, who published the edition that is readily available on the shelves of most bookstores. It’s popularity is even to the point that when people come into the store looking for our poetry section, we immediately ask if they actually want the whole section, or if they’re looking for Milk and Honey.

This is not a book about feminism. This is a book about femininity. There is a HUGE difference between these two terms and one that I think is frequently lost when people start describing this book to each other. One of the few reasons I finally decided to read it after looking at it on the shelf for over a year, was that I had been told yesterday that it was a book that celebrated feminism. While recanting her own experiences with hurt (abuse), love, and heartbreak, Kaur encourages women to love themselves. When, in the last chapter, she attempts to turn to feminism, I take great issue with many of the poems in that chapter, one in particular:

our backs
tell stories
no books have
the spine to
carry

women of color

I’ll let that one sink in for a minute. Rupi Kaur spends pages of poems before that encouraging women to support each other. She looks out for her sisters, her fellow women. And then she includes that poem. Until I read the last line, it was my favorite in the entire book – it was the one that I finally felt I could connect with. Throughout Milk and Honey, Kaur uses that last line (beginning with a hyphen) to indicate the audience of a specific poem, or to guide your thinking towards a particular phrase or point in the poem. And I realized, this particular poem was not for me. I felt like I could not claim to identify with it because I’m a white middle class suburban blonde haired blue eyed young woman.

And then I realized, that yes, this poem must be overwhelmingly true for women of color, particularly in the US and Canada – I cannot begin to understand the differences in their experiences of life here and my own. But I think the power of poetry is for all people, all of Kaur’s “sisters” to find themselves in her words and I believe her last line here is exclusionary. These words rang particularly true of my grandmother, an immigrant from Germany post WWII. These words fit so many immigrants, women who identify as part of the LGBTQI community, victims of abuse, the list can go on and on.

But what it boils down to, is that Rupi Kaur’s poetry made me feel something. It may not have been the feelings she intended – I was angry most of the time I was reading – but the point of poetry is to elicit a feeling, so on that part, well done.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $14.99 • 9781449474256 • 208 pages • published October 2015 by Andrews McMeel Publishing • average Goodreads rating 4.26 out of 5 • read in September 2017

Rupi Kaur’s Website

Milk and Honey on Goodreads

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Milk and Honey

Fiction, Mythology

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

I have to admit, I’m a bit obsessed with the Norse. Since I first discovered the protagonist of my own novel, a Norse princess turned pirate back in December 2014, I’ve been trying to read anything I can get my hands on that might prove to be worthwhile for research. Add into it my love of everything Neil Gaiman writes, and it seemed like a perfect fit.

Synopsis

In Norse Mythology, Gaiman stays true to the myths in envisioning the major Norse pantheon: Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring, and cunning; Thor, Odin’s son, incredible strong yet not the wisest of gods; and Loki – son of a giant – blood brother to Odin and a trickster and unsurpassable manipulator.

Gaiman fashions these primeval stories into a novelistic arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds and delves into the exploits of deities, dwarfs, and giants. Once, when Thor’s hammer is stolen, Thor must disguise himself as a woman – difficult with his beard and huge appetite – to steal it back. More poignant is the tale in which the blood of Kvasir – the most sagacious of gods – is turned into a mead that infuses drinkers with poetry. The work culminates in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and rebirth of a new time and people.

Review

Prior to doing any sort of research for my own story, the bulk of my Norse mythology knowledge came from watching the Thor Marvel movies. Not the greatest source of information, I’ll admit, but not the worst. I’d been looking all over for a comprehensive and easy to read book about the Aesir and Vanir, the two families of Norse gods, but had yet to find anything that really fit the bill.

When we first got word at the store that Gaiman was writing his own tome on the subject, my coworkers and I got very excited. I even more so when the books finally came in and I found the one signed copy the publisher had sent in! I started reading it straight away. Back in February. It’s July, and I just finished it.

Admittedly, I was going through a reading slump, but trying to get through Norse Mythology felt like slogging through the world’s densest bog. It has been the biggest chore of a read that I have undertaken in quite some time, and it’s not even 300 pages of prose. When I thought back on it, though, I realized that I actually don’t really like Gaiman’s writing. I love his stories and world building, but I don’t love his style.

Gaiman recounts the tales of the gods with prose that reads similarly to how a person would reasonably tell a story – the stories were oral traditions, and Gaiman clearly made a point to try to continue to honor that medium in print. As such, though, there are often times sentences and phrases that are clearly asides meant to be mentioned to those listening in the middle of a story – emphasis on the verbal component.

While I have not yet listened to the audiobook of Norse Mythology, I’m guessing that my review would read differently – it would probably be more favorable as then I would be hearing the stories in the manner in which I believe Gaiman actually intended – I would have been listening and not reading.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $25.95 • 9780393609097 • 304 pages • published February 2017 by W. W. Norton & Company • average Goodreads rating 4.13 out of 5 • read in July 2017

Neil Gaiman’s Website

Norse Mythology on Goodreads

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Norse Mythology