Freshman Year & Other Unnatural Disasters by Meredith Zeitlin
"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.
Kelsey’s hilarious commentary throughout her disastrous freshman year will have you laughing out loud—while being thankful that you’re not in her shoes, of course…" (from Goodreads)
Kelsey was a very enjoyable narrator. At first I was a bit worried she was going to be too perky and optimistic for my taste, but once she started landing in some less-than-enviable situations, her self-deprecating sense of humour rose to the occasion. She's kind of sarcastic, but not bitter, and her voice comes across as quite relatable. Kelsey's written to be an easy protagonist for the reader to sympathize with — you have to feel for her! I really admired the way she was able to let things roll off her shoulders without dwelling on them. While I wouldn't say there's a ton of character development happening, she is somewhat self-absorbed at the beginning of the book, and that improves. She's also annoyingly obsessed with crushing on this one guy. I dislike the hopelessly-infatuated-crush trope, by and large, but thankfully that dies partway through.
We don't get to know the other characters as well as we do Kelsey; in particular, I would have liked to have seen more depth to Cassidy and Em. And although Kelsey's mom feels quite present as a character — oh, the pain of being a teenager and getting embarrassed by your mother — we don't really get to find out what her dad's like at all. I love what we see of Ben, though! He's adorable, and the tension and banter between him and Kelsey was very cute.
I also appreciated the author combating a couple of stereotypes. It seems like all too often in YA books the protagonist befriends the bully and then they bond. Yeah, it doesn't always happen like that in real life. Some "mean girls" never change, even if you are nice to them, as Kelsey finds out. Second, Lexi manages to be a beautiful, popular girl who is also genuinely nice. You don't see too many of those! Usually they are walking around, ruling the halls as the snotty Queen Bee cheerleader-types.
There isn't really one overarching storyline driving the book from beginning to end. Rather, it's more like a collage of all the events that happen to Kelsey in freshman year. It's episodic more than anything else, which means that some parts feel kind of separate and disjointed from other storylines. That said, the humorous plot of Kelsey's repeated photos in the school newspaper does thread throughout the novel, and in fact is responsible for sparking the romance. I found this storyline, full of seeming coincidences, to be quite amusing (although I wanted to actually see a bit more of the teasing Kelsey claims she endures about the photos...we're told this more than we're really shown it).
There's nothing startlingly new about the plot; Kelsey faces some pretty typical challenges that other teens face. There's the girl who has it in for her from day one, the friend who kind-of-backstabs her, the other friend she thinks might be lesbian, and all the guys who walk in and out of Kelsey's life. Not to mention playing on the soccer team and acting in the school musical, of course.
Speaking of which: really, you should read this book for the hilarity of the calamitous "Fiddler on the Roof" musical scene alone. I was positively chortling with laughter as I read that part! If you enjoy slapstick humour, you'll love it. (I have a few different brands of humour, and I admit that slapstick is one of them. Don't judge.) I wish there had been more uproariously funny scenes like this one! I think her being a hapless goalie on the soccer team could have been played up more and resulted in similar hilarity.
So, yeah, it's quite predictable, but that doesn't really matter so much. The embarrassing situations Kelsey finds herself in are enjoyable in an oh-so-glad-that's-not-me kind of way, and her attitude makes it easy to read about her experiences, because she's not overly whiny.
I did feel like the book ended kind of abruptly — I wanted more pages at the end! Perhaps an epilogue would have helped give us a sense of what all the characters would be doing in the near future. Plus, I wanted a little bit more from the romance at the end. (Spoiler, highlight to read: she kisses Keith and Sam, but we don't see a kiss with Ben? What's up with that? I totally wanted a romantic declaration, and then a kiss to seal the deal!). I'm not sure if there's a sequel planned, although I think there could be since Kelsey still has room to grow and mature.
There were a few errors (formatting, punctuation, etc.) sprinkled throughout, but nothing to detract from the reading experience. Kelsey's voice felt really spot-on for her age, as did the maturity level in terms of content and language. There's a bit of swearing, but not a lot, and some sexual references, but nothing explicit. In essence, it manages to stay away from gratuitous "gritty" content without resulting in a dumbed-down or sanitized feel.
Final verdict: 4 shooting stars. This one was a pleasant surprise for me! Well-written, funny in parts, true to life, and surprisingly readable. It probably won't stick with you for very long, but you'll enjoy reading it in the moment. (Plus, it contains the grossest kissing scene I've read in quite a while.)
Note: there is a bit of mature content, language, and references in this book. It might not be suitable for some of the youngest YA readers, but I think it's a good fit for junior high-level.
Disclaimer: I received an e-book for review from the author's PR (not sure if it was an ARC or a finished copy).