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Originally published at Schrodinger's Bookshelf. Please leave any comments there.

In one tragic night, high school tennis star Ezra Faulkner’s life is turned inside-out, when a car crash shatters his knee and destroys his athletic dreams. Now, as he enters his senior year, he’s forced to reinvent himself. His girlfriend broke up with him, his friends drifted away while he was recovering from the accident, and he’s lost his place in the school hierarchy. With no one expecting anything of him anymore, what’s he to do with himself?

First, he reconnects with his former best friend Toby Elliot, whose own fall from grace (involving a Disneyland ride and a tourist’s unexpectedly severed head) occurred years ago. Toby, captain of the school debate team, tries to lure Ezra into competing.  Second, he meets Cassidy Thorpe, a newcomer to the school.  She’s smart, attractive, quirky, independent, and fascinating. She’s also mercurial, capricious, and hiding some dark secret deep in her heart.

Still, the chemistry between Cassidy and Ezra is almost instantaneous, undeniable, and irresistible. They become fast friends, which evolves into something more over time, as they go on unconventional dates (flash mobs, auditing college courses, midnight picnics) and help each other as part of the debate team.  But it turns out that Cassidy used to be a debate team superstar for another school…until she unexpectedly retired, and she’s none too eager to get back on the competition circuit.

The closer they get, the happier they are, the more Ezra sheds his former golden boy status for something closer to his true nature, the more he wants to understand why Cassidy keeps pushing him away at random moments. But can their relationship survive the revelations that eventually come out?  And will Ezra succumb to temptation when his girlfriend Charlotte tries to lure him back into a social life of parties and privilege? 

In this emotionally rich teen drama, Schneider utterly turns the “manic pixie dream girl” trope on its side. Cassidy may fit the bill with her carefree ways, unpredictable behavior, convention-defying manner, and apparent goal of teaching Ezra how to overcome the past and be himself, but some of the revelations, the twists, the complex depths shown along the way, undermine and overturn expectations.

One part romance, two parts slice-of-life, this book has all the right elements going for it. A likeable protagonist, an eclectic group of friends, a convincing coming-of-age arc, a believable connection between characters, and a tongue-in-cheek look at the world of high school debate. Schneider takes all of the usual tropes, and subverts them gleefully. Charlotte and her crowd may be wealth, or entitled, careless and a little cruel, but it’s not the all-consuming pack of mean girls and alpha males that so often populate these books. While you can paint Ezra’s former friends as self-absorbed and shallow, they’re not necessarily bad people; indeed, there seems to be a sincere effort on their part to welcome him back into their midst, with bygones being bygones.  It’s not they who changed, after all, it was Ezra, who proves to have more depth and different desires than they do. (Think of them like cats: when he shows up after a summer away, a summer in which they pretty much forgot he existed, their reaction is sort of a “Oh, you were gone? It’s been a while. What, no, it’s not awkward at all that you can’t play tennis, I’m the new team captain, and I’m dating your ex-girlfriend.  Want to go to Taco Bell with us?”)

Moreover, while Ezra does find new companionship amongst the debate team, it’s not  automatically the noble group of quirky yet sympathetic outcasts and underdogs who teach him how to be a better person. Some are cool in their own way, some are still losers in their own way, and some are douchebags who like to argue, and there’s no reason why they all need to be friends. A refreshingly realistic take on group dynamics.

As for Cassidy? Her manic pixie dream girl act may be an illusion, hiding emotional wounds which can’t be healed through the magic of love and debate. (Should Schneider consider a sequel to this book, I deeply, profoundly, beg her to focus on Cassidy, a compelling and complex girl who deserves more exploration, with or without Ezra.)

Severed Heads, Broken Hearts, may suffer from a bizarre, even disconcerting title, but its contents are as sincere, authentic, and enjoyable as any you’ll find in the YA field. I really was blown away by the skillful manner in which Schneider plays with predictable characters and tropes, before yanking the rug out from under us. It’s a little bit heartbreaking, a whole lot uplifting, and has just the right blend of realism and positivity.  There’s also a great subplot regarding one character’s sexuality, where the result, never in question, is one of slightly amused acceptance. Again, the sort of thing one really likes to see. I was particularly struck by this quote:  “I’m not gay. I mean, I think I am, but I’ll figure it out in college. You have to really know to be out in high school.”  Schneider shows that she gets how hard it can be to find oneself in high school, no matter how sure you might be at the time.

Bottom line: a book I loved, and I can’t wait to see what the author has planned next.

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Originally published at Schrodinger's Bookshelf. Please leave any comments there.

Cricket Thompson is psyched when she gets invited to spend the summer on Nantucket Island with her best friend, Jules.  After all, ever since Cricket’s parents divorced and her mother sunk into a cloud of depression while her father found a girlfriend and adopted a kid, she’s pretty much adopted Jules’ family as her own.  It’s going to be a summer of parties, tanning, and maybe getting her crush, Jay Logan, to return the attraction. 

Everything changes when Jules’ mother, Nina, suddenly dies from an aneurysm. The grieving family goes to Nantucket, but Cricket is most definitely uninvited.  Looks like it’s a summer of hanging around home with her gloom-and-doom mother, babysitting for spending money, and no friends or Jay in sight.  Unless….

Cricket decides to go to Nantucket anyway, on her own.  Unfortunately, the job she originally lines up doesn’t pan out as intended.  Rather than head home with her tail between her legs, she finds a job as chambermaid for a small bed and breakfast, which offers her room and board.  It’s hard work, but it’s worth it.  But Jules doesn’t seem to want her around at all.  How did their friendship sour so quickly, when Cricket wasn’t even looking?  Fine.  Cricket finds other ways to distract herself…by accidentally falling for Jules’ brother, Zack, who, at sixteen, is two years younger and really, quite off-limits when you think about it from a friend-and-family point of view. 

But can hard work and a newfound, illicit relationship satisfy Cricket?  Will this be the best summer ever, or a crashing disaster?  Sooner or later, she’s going to find her breaking point.

I really enjoyed Nantucket Blue. It’s a beautifully-told tale of love and loss and trying to find one’s way in the world.  Cricket’s a great character—feisty, resourceful, and loyal to a fault.  Which is why Jules’ betrayal hits so hard.  Cricket’s done nothing but try to be there for her friend at one of the worst possible times of her life, only to experience a cruel, unworthy rejection…even though she’s hurting as well, having lost the woman she all but calls mother as well. 

I love that Cricket’s first thoughts are to help her friend, to be there for her, to support her even if it means taking a job she doesn’t like in a strange place.  I love that Cricket’s the sort of girl who stands up for herself and tackles rough jobs and doesn’t wilt under pressure.  I love that her name is Cricket.  She’s definitely not perfect; her emotional blowup when dealing with her family late in the book demonstrates that.  The fact that she’s hooking up with her best friend’s younger brother at a time when she’s supposed to be giving them space is likewise proof, as is the moment when she and her long-time crush Jay finally have a chance to act on those feelings.  Unwise decisions and rash moments, yes, but she’s understandably pushed to that point.

So why don’t I like this book more than I do?  I mean, it was a fun read, kind of breezy, packed with genuine emotions and a likeable heroine and an awkwardly real romance. There’s a terrific subplot where Cricket finds her mother’s diary and gains new and interesting insights into her mother’s own sordid teenage past, and uses it to try and spark new life and emotion.  There’s another fun subplot where Cricket makes friends with, and semi-interns for, a writer doing a piece on a local celebrity, which gives her a chance to see some interesting corners of the island and its inhabitants.

Maybe the book feels a little too breezy, a little too shallow and to-the-point.  While we can understand that Jules is hurting, her anger towards, and rejection of, Cricket just seems a little too sudden and sharp, even mean.  From the depth of the friendship they supposedly had, this development is hard to swallow, that Jules would shut her out so viciously and display a never-before-seen side.  But teenage girls are a strange and treacherous species, I’m told.

The ending feels somewhat abrupt.  While there’s the sensation that the book’s been moving towards a certain point all along, it arrives with a surprising quickness, and then it’s all over.  I daresay a little bit more cushion to soften the stop would have been nice.

But really, this is a lovely, well-written, highly-enjoyable story about finding love and healing, and finding that perfect, calming state of mind, the “Nantucket blue.”  This marks a strong debut for Leila Howland, and I look forward to seeing what else she can do, as I expect she’ll only get better.

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Originally published at Schrodinger's Bookshelf. Please leave any comments there.

He’s a teen movie star with a pet pig and a severe case of the sort of loneliness only the famous can know. 

She’s a small town girl with daddy issues and her own reasons for keeping out of the spotlight.

When an email goes to the wrong address, it sparks a conversation and unlikely friendship between Ellie O’Neill and Graham Larkin. Despite the simmering chemistry found in their electronic exchanges, they hesitate to reveal actual names, giving their relationship an air of mystery and anonymity. 

That all changes when Graham’s newest movie chooses Ellie’s home town of Henley, Maine, to do some local shooting. Soon enough, the two have met face to face, and they finally have the opportunity to take things to the next level. But can they embark on a relationship without the whole world knowing? How will Ellie’s friends, or worse, her overprotective mother, handle her dating a movie star? Is Graham the sort of guy to settle for a girl like Ellie?

For the most part, This Is What Happy Looks Like is a fairly standard romantic drama/comedy, albeit an entertaining, wholly satisfying one. As I read it, I made certain predictions about how things would go wrong, and at what point (since, as we know, things always go wrong…) To my pleased surprise, I was generally wrong.  Smith manages to avoid most of the obvious pitfalls and stumbling blocks, and steers clear of the usual sort of awkward miscommunications which are standard romcom fodder.  In a sense, my enjoyment of this book stemmed not from what happened, but from what didn’t happen.

The initial email exchange between Ellie and Graham is both cute and a perfect insight into their characters; it’s hilarious that a seventeen-year-old movie star stays up late emailing random people because he’s got nothing better to do…and yet it’s totally fitting in Graham’s case. (Though a Hotmail address?  Really? People still use Hotmail?)

The only part of the story that didn’t quite work for me was when Graham and Ellie took the time out to go find her father, who she hasn’t seen in years. It’s not that it was a bad sequence—in fact, it was a perfect opportunity to see both of the characters out of their natural elements, giving them a chance to, well, just be themselves—but it felt like a whole different story altogether. Sometimes a road trip element works, sometimes not, and this was a case where it felt out of place and could have been handled in a different fashion.  (I can just imagine circumstances where Ellie’s father, a U.S. Senator, decides to visit Henley to meet with Graham to bolster his image among the younger audiences…)

I really did enjoy this book. Ellie and Graham’s romance is believable and sweet, and they overcome all the various obstacles with a minimum of effort, mostly stemming from Ellie’s own issues.  Graham, it must be said, felt almost too good to be true, unspoiled by fame and fortune and Hollywood success, a teenager struggling with loneliness as his career alienates him from friends and family. Is it possible to remain that normal when you’re one of the hottest teen actors on the market? (Okay, he has a pet pig named Wilbur, how normal is that?)

In short: a lovely story that works wonders from a slightly improbable premise, starring likeable characters and a satisfying romance. This may not be ground-breaking, but it’s definitely what happy looks like.

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Originally published at Schrodinger's Bookshelf. You can comment here or there.


Seventeen-year-old Carmen Bianchi is a violin prodigy, a world-class, Grammy-winning, Stradivarius-wielding musician at the top of her game. She’s on track to compete in, and quite possibly win, the prestigious Guarneri competition, which would catapult her to a new level of fame and fortune. Her life should be perfect.

It’s not. Her mother is a control freak, a former singer now living vicariously through her daughter’s career. Carmen’s stage fright is so bad, she’s now hooked on anti-anxiety meds. She’s seventeen but has never had a “real life.” And she’s obsessed with her competition, the flamboyant, handsome Jeremy King.

As the Guarneri draws closer, Carmen’s life takes an unpredictable turn. She meets Jeremy King face-to-face, and unexpectedly finds a kindred spirit. They should be enemies, but they develop a friendship blossoming into romance over stolen moments of baseball and Chicago pizza. But can two people competing for the same prize also be in a relationship?

To be honest, Virtuosity is fairly standard romantic fare in how it’s structured. It hits most of the usual beats like it’s playing from a music sheet: girl meets guy, they bond over their similarities, quarrel over the differences, have a huge fight when the tension gets to them both, and ultimately find a resolution. Furthermore, we’ve seen Carmen’s character arc numerous times before. Of course she’s going to yearn for a normal life, and break training to find a measure of happiness, and find out what it’s like to be a teenage girl in love. It’s a common arc for Character Driven To Excel In A Field, and she plays her part to perfection.

When prompted to make a moral choice near the end of the book, Carmen again plays along without missing a beat. It’s the dramatic twist that puts her entire life into perspective and we’d almost be disappointed if she didn’t take that course of action.

So we’ve established that Virtuosity is, regrettably, a fairly predictable coming-of-age romance. However, it’s a beautifully-written one. It starts off with, “Everything before me was perfectly still: a black starless sky over Lake Michigan, my bare arm jutting out between metal bars, and the burnt-orange scroll of my violin rising out of my clenched fist.” The entire book is full of these little bits of evocative imagery, which help to sell this as a story in a lovely evening gown, all gussied up for a more discerning crowd.

Martinez, herself a former student of the violin and classical music, uses that experience to good effect, bringing the performance scenes to life, balancing detail with suggestion. Few readers want to slog through the intricate specifics of performing a violin solo, they just want to understand why it was good, and so she obliges. “Tentative at first, the music began to flow, and then rush, and then soar. I was free, and everything else melted away.”

The romantic chemistry between Carmen and Jeremy is genuine and sweet, exactly what you’d expect from a pair of musical prodigies trying to carve out space for themselves against a backdrop of practices, performances, and high expectations.

So while Virtuosity may be a new iteration of an oft-played song, a YA romance that we’ve seen in dozens of other circumstances, it’s still a well-played one, done by a promising author. You could do a lot worse if you want a feel-good story set in the high-stakes, high-strung world of classical music.

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