John here: It has been my experience as a reader and a librarian that funny is perhaps the most elusive quality for a writer to capture with any consistency. It’s a lot like telling jokes. Most of us can crack a funny when we’re among friends or at a party where we feel relaxed, but could you channel Robin Williams. I didn’t think so. Carl Hiaasen does a really good job, but tends to lose his edge when his outrage hits a certain point. Christopher Moore does it well, Bill Fitzhugh wrote the funniest book I’ve ever read (Pest Control), but I never felt his other books came close. Dave Barry can write funny pretty consistently, too. Really good funny is sorta like walking a tightrope…Too much snark and it spoils, too much sappy and it smells. Finding really funny in Young Adult is a challenge. When I come across one, I want to shop it to as many patrons as possible. Maine’s own Carrie Jones got it right with Love and Other Uses For Duct Tape and Tips on Having a Gay (Ex) Boyfriend. Not long ago, a review on Amazon.com caught my eye relating to a YA title. Here’s an excerpt:”I love these books like a 12 year old girl loves Justin Bieber! Jenny B. Jones is hilarious, and she totally gets being a teenage girl and what sort of things run through our minds (like how much Ben & Jerry’s can solve your life problems). I’m a sucker for romance drama, (but not the kind that makes you gag) so I was glad for plenty of that. She keeps her books light and funny, so warn your family you’ll be bursting into laughter at awkward moments. I discovered that the hard way.” I read through a bunch more and each one commented on how funny the author was. I’m copying a multi-book review I wrote after buying and reading all nine of her books. Six are YA, two are adult and one is a crossover between the two because it has a teen protagonist connected with people in one of the adult stories.
Playing Nine-An Appreciation of Jenny B. Jones
Last month, I bought a three-in-one YA paperback because the reviews on Amazon.com raved about how funny the author, Jenny B. Jones, was. While I’m not what anyone would describe as a Christian, I’ve found some dandy YA books with Christian themes in recent years (more about them in another review). A Charmed Life which contains So Not Happening, I’m So Sure, and So Over My Head, was worth every cent and more. Imagine you’re a pampered teen in NYC whose dad is a world famous plastic surgeon. You have your own credit cards, go everywhere in a limousine and have everything you want, everything that is except your dad’s interest because he’s too busy with TV appearances and chasing younger women. In less time than it takes to have a mani-pedi, your parents are divorced and Mom has found the man of her dreams online and is going to haul you off to Backwater, OK where your new stepdad works in a mini-pad factory and harbors a secret dream to become a pro wrestler. Mom is going through guilt waves about being a non-parent and is going overboard, reading applying everything her stack of teen parenting how-to books are telling her she must do to save your soul.
Goodbye luxury, hello cow pies and going to church. Bella Kirkwood is in for the biggest and rudest awakening a teen has seen in ages. Add in a new school, two stepbrothers, one of whom resents losing his room and the other who is ultra-smart and probably has OCD and you get the picture. Changing schools and friends would be hard enough, but Bella has to struggle with the whole God thing and her ambivalent feelings about the editor of the school newspaper who irritates her while also making her wonder why she wants to kiss him.
Each book is connected and builds on the others and in each one Bella and Mr. Hot have a mystery to solve. The mystery elements are really good, but what really pulled me in was the mix of romance and laugh out loud funny. Bella has to endure things like getting peed on by a horse while a reality TV show is filming her, suffers through an assignment where Mr. Hot has her spend several hours (more than once) hiding in a school dumpster to investigate food waste and wear a clown costume while investigating a murder at a circus. The trio makes for terrific, fun reading and as soon as I finished, I ordered everything else Jenny had written.
I read the books in more or less backward order because that’s how they arrived. I saved her first YA trilogy for last. I’ll say up front, the God stuff in them is heavier than in any of the other ones, but fit and wasn’t something that put me off. In Between, On The Loose and The Big Picture are about Katie Parker who doesn’t know who her father is and whose mother is a complete loser. The first book opens with Katie in a van with her case worker headed for In Between, Texas where she’ll be living with a foster family which consists of Millie and James plus a huge dog who slobbers all over everything and everyone and a completely crazy foster grandmother Maxine. If you’ve ever read any of the Maxine cartoons, you’ll realize that Jenny borrowed her and brought her to life perfectly.
The author does a terrific job of letting readers get into Katie’s head and experience the fear and hope that foster kids go through when they’re placed. Katie is used to being the adult. After all her mom is in prison for dealing drugs and Katie was the one who had to pay bills, stall bill collectors when the money ran out and make sure she and her mother ate more or less regularly. Rules were nonexistent, her education was fractured and her trust level zilch. All of a sudden, she has two adults who don’t lie, have values and really care about her. That’s a lot for Katie to wrap her head around. She’s a smart cookie and realizes that this loving couple have their own secret hurt, but aren’t willing to share it. James is pastor at one of the churches in town and Katie struggles with how God can exist, given what’s happened to her.
Like the trilogy about Bella, these three build a great story about a girl who has trouble trusting and believing in other people as well as in something that makes little sense, given how many times life and other people have let her down. She makes friends, starting with ultra smart Frances who is a member of the church youth group. This girl has a monster crush on Nash, a member of the church youth band, and the scenes where she has major meltdowns every time Nash is near her are hilarious and will resonate with plenty of teens who have found themselves tongue tied when close to someone they really like.
By the time you finish the last book, Katie Parker will feel like a best friend. The author makes her come to life better than 90% of the teen characters I’ve read about in the past few years. Katie is kind, funny, caring and questioning, all qualities that will resonate with readers. Many of them will identify with her ambivalence about God and her growing realization that there really are strangers in this world who can become better than blood relations when it comes to family.
There You’ll Find Me is another in the rich trove of YA books about teens struggling with loss. In this instance, Finley Sinclair lost her older brother when he was killed in a terrorist bombing while reading to kids in the Afghan school he helped build. His death hit her so hard that she changed completely, becoming a party girl and doing things she now regrets. His loss also made it impossible for her to complete the audition necessary to get accepted at the music school of her dreams in New York. Every time she tries to finish the composition she must write in order to be accepted, she remembers Matt and can’t continue.
She decides to try living as an exchange student in Ireland for a year, something Matt did and felt changed his life, and see if she can capture a little more of him through his journal of that year. She meets teen movie star Beckett Rush on the plane and sparks fly. Sparks of attraction on his part, sparks of annoyance on Finley’s because he’s the sort of person she wants to put behind her, or so she thinks. When she discovers he’s staying at the bed and breakfast her host family run while filming a movie, things get interesting. When she helps him with actors block one night and reluctantly agrees to work for him because she’s really helpful, things get very interesting. Beckett made her an irresistible offer. He knows Ireland and is willing to take her to the places Matt wrote about in his journal. The clincher is his offer to help find the Celtic cross gravestone that seems to be the key to Matt’s spiritual epiphany while in Ireland and is something Finley desperately wants herself.
This is a dandy book with a mix of love story, realization people aren’t necessarily who we think they are at first glance and recovery from deep grief. Jenny creates two extremely likable people in Finley and Beckett.
Her two adult books will find ready acceptance by any teen who likes her YA stories. They have the same flavor as the ones I’ve discussed here. Save The Date will resonate with teens because it features a younger Finley in a minor role. It’s a love story about her older brother Alex, recently retired NFL quarterback who is running for congress. He’s as devastated by his brother Matt’s death as Finley, but used football and the glamorous life surrounding it to hide from his pain. Now, he wants to get elected to public office and needs a way to make himself look more respectable and responsible.
Enter Lucy Wiltshire who runs a home for teen girls who are in danger of falling through the cracks when they outgrow foster care, but lack the skills to cope. Alex’s family hotel empire has been her biggest financial supporter. When they cut most of their donation and the city starts squeezing her landlord because they want to raze her place and build a parking garage, she’s in a real bind. It doesn’t help that Lucy gets clumsy when stressed and her actions at the society gala where she gets the bad news turns into a comedy of errors that leave her humiliated, angry and desperate. When Alex makes her an offer, her initial response is to tell him where he can put it, but when she realizes he may be her only hope, she grits her teeth and signs a contract. Alex will save her group home and she will get $2 million to keep it running. In return, Lucy will pretend to be his girlfriend, accept his fake marriage proposal and not breathe a word of what’s really going on to anyone except her best friend.
Lucy grew up poor, never knowing her dad. Her mother cleaned the homes of the very people she’s now expected to socialize with. The parallels between her relationship with Alex and that of Finley and Beckett are very much alike, something readers of the first book will enjoy as the story unfolds. There are some really interesting plot twists in this book, especially one involving haughty socialite Clare Deveraux, the older woman who made life miserable for Lucy’s mom, but who is enlisted by Alex to help Lucy learn to swim in the shark pool that is Atlanta society. Anyone who enjoys a love story will like this book and it has the same kind of humorous stuff that her two YA trilogies have.
Last up is Just Between You and Me. Maggie Montgomery escaped Ivy Texas because it had too many memories she anted to leave far behind her. In fact, most of her life has been about escaping herself and any feelings she can’t handle. Her job as a cinematographer takes her all over the world and provides the kind of thrills and excitement she needs to keep those feelings and emotions at arms length.
When her estranged father, a distant workaholic begs her to come home because her ten year old niece, Riley is in a world of hurt, she answers the call, albeit very reluctantly. She has every intention of staying long enough to apply a band aid fix and then going on with her life. God and circumstances, have other plans. Things are worse than she imagined and her father is way over his head trying to handle the needs of a ten year old whose mentally ill mother vanished and left her scared, angry daughter on his doorstep. Maggie has to make a decision. Does she risk losing her career and try to make things right in Ivy, or run again from the ghosts of her past.
Riley grows on her pretty quickly and she sees some of her own lost youth every time the girl looks at her. Her niece is no dummy and part of the reason she gets in trouble at school is because she sees another girl being bullied and tries to protect her, but the other kid is too scared to verify that she’s being terrorized. Then Riley runs away and when Maggie finds her, it’s at the local animal hospital where she has taken the puppy she found that was seriously hurt and near death. Enter Connor, the local veterinarian who remembers the wild, self-absorbed girl that was Maggie growing up. He has serious reservations about her having changed and Maggie is really intimidated by him, but Riley loves the puppy as well as helping at the animal hospital. Maggie has to accept that she’ll need to deal with Connor’s memories and less than favorable opinion if she’s going to have any hope of helping Riley heal.
How these two adults, wary of each other, but connected through a little girl who has her own history of hurts, turn things around makes this a hard book to put down. Add in Jenny’s trademark way of putting characters in awkward, but humorous situations, the mystery surrounding why Maggie’s sister hates her and you have a really good read waiting for you.
I’m extremely grateful I read some of the customer reviews for A Charmed Life because they got me to buy it. I wasn’t finished with it when I ordered the other six books because I had no doubt I would enjoy them. I was right and hope you have a similar experience.