Tuesday, January 14, 2014

REVIEW: Freshman Year & Other Unnatural Disasters


Here's what it's about: Kelsey Finkelstein is fourteen and FRUSTRATED. Every time she tries to live up to her awesome potential, her plans are foiled – by her impossible parents, her annoying little sister, and life in general. But with her first day of high school coming up, Kelsey is positive that things are going to change. Enlisting the help of her three best friends — sweet and quiet Em, theatrical Cass, and wild JoJo — Kelsey gets ready to rebrand herself and make the kind of mark she knows is her destiny. 

Things start out great - her arch-nemesis has moved across the country, giving Kelsey the perfect opportunity to stand out on the soccer team and finally catch the eye of her long-time crush. But soon enough, an evil junior’s thirst for revenge, a mysterious photographer, and a series of other catastrophes make it clear that just because KELSEY has a plan for greatness… it doesn’t mean the rest of the world is in on it. 

What initially attracted me to this novel was twofold: I adored the name (you can see it in an old "title love" post here) and I've rarely seen freshman-age characters as the leads in YA, so I was curious. Would I connect with a character so young? Would the book be as funny and witty as the title? Could this book live up to the pressure of being the only one I packed on vacation?

The answer to all three was a resounding, "Yes!" I love humor but it's one of the hardest things to write and write well. Meredith Zeitlin, however, does this with such ease and grace that her prose not only won me over but engendered me to her characters. In fact, I finished this novel in just a few short hours and laughed so hard that at times I cried, my abs got a workout, and my endorphins were on overdrive. So read this book! You'll have a fun time and get a workout :-)

As readers we're taken along for the ride with Kelsey Finkelstein and her BFFs as they embark on their first year of high school. Kelsey feels a distinct need to make a change: to step up her game in soccer, to finally go after the guy, to be noticed. I think we've all felt this way at one time or another: that we're somehow a secondary character in our own lives or that our lives are somehow background fodder to some bigger narrative going on around us, and we (whether because of school, the start of a New Year, or an inciting incident) decide to make a change--to be leading lady (or man) material. While the novel is very uniquely its own, I couldn't help but draw comparisons to another favorite contemporary girl seeking to carve out her own place but encountering obstacles and ending up in hilarious scenarios nevertheless: Bridget Jones.

Kelsey's desire is contagious, and so incredibly relatable. In fact, all of the characters are. That's part of what makes the book so fun. The narrative holds up because as the plot builds, things genuinely get harder and harder for Kelsey and, as things become more difficult, we're that much more anxious to see how our main character is going to make out.

Reading the pages is like visiting with an old friend--a sentiment I've seen in other reviews too, because readers alike agree that in today's YA-ripe world of super natural beings or the uber rich, this girl from Brooklyn is really the one we see ourselves in. So many novels serve as an escape from reality which I support (I love vacations!); however, it's refreshing to see a book that's so grounded and real. This, in part, is what incentivized Zeitlin to write the story in the first place, although you'll have to wait until Thursday's Q&A post with the author to hear more about that!

Although Kelsey encounters obstacles from bad school newspaper photos, casting as an overweight man (hello fat suit!) in the school play, and is moved back to goalie on the soccer team after dreams of being a left wing, her greatest struggle--and triumph--is one with a friend. Learning to navigate the dating waters is never easy, most especially in high school and particularly so when you feel like everyone else is moving on without you. Navigating these waters after being betrayed is even more so. The heartache that Kelsey feels is equal parts at the loss of her dream guy and of her friend. I congratulate Zeitlin for including this portion of the storyline because Kelsey handles it so splendidly. She gets angry but she doesn't get even. She mourns over the guy but more so over her friend. And she communicates about it rather than cuts people off. She's incredibly real and refreshingly mature about an event that is all too common in high school and few go unscathed. And, in the end, it frees Kelsey up for her real possible love interest--the one who has been there all along but not in the obvious way where the readers are in on it far far before Kelsey. No, this book continues to have surprises until the very last pages and, when you finally close it, you'll wish you could start it all over again.

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