Freshman Year and Other Unnatural Disasters by Meredith Zeitlin

Release Date: March 1, 2012

Publisher: Putnam Juvenile

Format: ARC

Source: Inkwood

*to be reposted at a date closer to release date*

Freshman Year & Other Unnatural Disasters

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…

Most of the people starting to read this synopsis will be like "Oh great, another girl starting high school story." But it's not a cheesy, life-decisions story. It does rely a lot on character building and development, but it's also laugh-out-loud hilarious.

I picked this up because I'm in eighth grade. Of course, I'm terrified for high school. Not so much for high school itself though, mostly because I want more than anything to make an uber-competitive dance team at the high school. There's a nervousness there, and excitement for starting school.

The thoughts rolling through my head are "YES! I'm FREE!" because a) I won't have to wear a uniform anymore and b) I'm sick of people treating me like a kid in middle school. High school is that level where you have enough experience to be treated like an adult, but with the freedom to make mistakes. It's where you decide what your life is going to be like.

I've always kind of put it on a pedestal. There are some awful high school stories. Some people were bullied; others had terrible experiences. And yet with hearing all these things from people I know and trust, I can't help building it up for me. I imagine it to be much more exciting than it actually is, but even though it's high school (and the best part of that phrase is  the adjective in front of it), it's still a school.

So I was ecstatic to hear about a girl my age, with the frustration that I feel, experiencing all these things for the first time. I was right that she did make stupid mistakes, but she had the room to fix it where it wasn't hanging over her head forever. It affected her, but it was flexible.

Kelsey was likable. For books like this, when the main focus relies on sympathy for the main character and a connection, she worked very well. She reacted in a very honest way for somebody my age, and I found myself laughing at some of the situations that she managed to get herself into.

One thing that I didn't agree with was the fact that Kelsey and her friends would drink. They said that they had first had drinks in seventh grade. This may be in a different place, but I found that unrealistic. But in a way, I'm sheltered, so it may just be a difference in upbringing. They would drink at parties obviously, and they would also drink at sleepovers. They didn't drink a lot, just enough to annoy me.

Some of her experiences were a bit over-the-top and imaginative, but they were rooted to a grain of truth. She would find herself in the most ridiculously strange situations that she was struggling against.

I loved how we didn't just see Kelsey develop, but we saw her friends as well. Her relationship with her friends changed as the books went on, and it actually seemed like the type of relationships that would occur in real life. Her friends got mad at each other over boys and trivial matters, but also some deep-rooted betrayal and bruised feelings that people often don't know that they're inflicting on the other person, or they choose to ignore it for their happiness.

Her friend group was also naturally diverse. By "naturally", I mean that the author didn't purposefully make one of them a certain way to appeal to a certain audience. It was realistic. For example, Kelsey had suspicions that one of her friends was gay, and that another was thinking a certain way. Suspicion does pop up in normal friendships and affects them short-term and long-term, so I was happy with that.

Most books like these usually end with a girl falling in love with the last person she would think of. I've gotten so sick of these type of plot! It's usually like each author is trying to work off of the same blueprint, and it irritates me. To my extreme relief, this book didn't follow the blueprint.

Y'all know which blueprint I'm talking about. The oh-I'm-making-friends-everything-falls-into-place that morphs into the my-life-is-falling-apart into I-made-a-mistake-and-I'm-making-up-for-it into oh-they-accepted-me-for-my-true-self. Cheesy, yet true. Sometimes I love a good feel-good book like that, but when I read this book I was glad for the change of direction.

I thought it was funny to read about a normal girl in NYC. I loved how the synopsis is actually right...a lot of stories about teen girls in NYC do tend to be about TV shows or extreme drama. This was more of a funny and dramatic coming-of-age story.

Certain parts of it made you laugh at loud. Others were the type of scene where you're a bit overwhelmed, DEVOURING the drama there. Still others were tender. It wasn't the type of thing that I'd expect with this book, the tenderness.

This is possibly one of the very few books that I've read where the mistakes that Kelsey makes and the routes that she uses to fix them aren't cheesy. She had to atone for them, but they were forgivable. There was no sneaking in of a moral story. Things like that were subtle and interesting while still focusing on Kelsey's ability to see right from wrong.

For those of you looking for a romantic read, there's still romance in this. What was a relief was that it wasn't the main point. A lot of this book was focused on friendship and mistakes, but romance came after.

Kelsey falls for boys who are the school studs, guys who are jerks, sweet guys, funny guys. Well, not so many as I'm insinuating but it was a range. They were different and with each crush came out a different part of her personality. They were almost like mirrors for her. They showed us a bit more about her each time.

The romance was a bit of everything. There was nothing inappropriate about it, and s tone makes me believe that it would appeal to both high schoolers and middle schoolers, but there is both sweetness and an older maturity.

The thing about Kelsey and her friends is that although they think of themselves as seasoned teenagers, they have a charming naivety about certain things and how the world works. It's interesting for me personally because I wonder whether I do the same things. Seeing some of their mistakes, I found myself thinking about whether if I were in their shoes, would I do the same thing? Would I make the same mistakes?

The entire book had this factor about it, this factor that makes you just want to read about it. No matter who you are (I heard this from a friend whom I lent it to), you feel like this book connects with you in a way. It was almost like a chameleon in the sense that it seems to affect each reader. And yet it was also still entertaining.

She didn't feel intimidated by her friends, and she didn't feel like she was in control of them. They had a healthy relationship and although they had their ups and downs, these are the types of friendships that I like to read about: unconditional acceptance and the ability to have fun and joke around when they want to. They had their problems, and Meredith didn't shy away from talking about them.

This was also a contrast because the first line of the synopsis is "Okay, so let's say you're fourteen and live in New York City. You'd think your life would be like a glamorous TV show, right? And yet..." My sister has recently gotten the two of us hooked on Gossip Girl due to the profuse urging of our friends and the Target sales the weekend after Thanksgiving, where we picked up the first three seasons. Kelsey was just normal, but got herself into quirky situations.

This book takes place throughout the year. It's not a short or particularly long period of time, but enough for us to understand the characters and feel like we know them, but not enough to get bored with them. Other than Kelsey's various escapades, it felt realistic in her monologues about how she felt about starting high school and the feelings that came with it.

I liked how Kelsey liked soccer. Not many books focus on girls being serious about sports, and even fewer have recently focused on soccer. Her experiences on the soccer team were entertaining, and you didn't need to know the lingo to keep up. The soccer team acts as a sort of introduction for the rest of the book because many conflicts seemed to streamline through it. The soccer part of the book was able to develop and introduce various problems.

Everybody expects the MC to always to the right thing, right? Although Kelsey didn't. Not all the time. That's what made her real. She did good things and bad things, but nothing really happened that seemed strange for her character. She tried to do the right thing, but sometimes her pride took over and she found herself going for the easiest option.

Let's face it: we do that. All the time. So many times, we opt out of doing the right thing for the easiest option. And yet in spite of this, this book didn't encourage Kelsey's behavior or condemn it. It won't appall straight-laced girls who read this and it won't make girls who are more relaxed about their behavior roll their eyes. What I liked about it is that it explored the issues, solved most of them, and didn't preach about it.

The writing was pretty great overall. Good characterization and an ease for transitioning between scenes and events made it flow very easily. The only thing that I found myself not enjoying so much was that Meredith tended to end up telling us things instead of showing us. Kelsey's viewpoint could be narrower sometimes than I would have liked but the writing did manage to cover more.

The book says that it will have you laughing out loud. I didn't think that it was as hilarious as the book made it sound, but it was amusing. There were a few moments that I laughed at, but it wasn't where I laughed so hard my stomach hurt. It was more of a quiet chuckle and a dog-eared page.

By far, the best part of the book was watching Kelsey grow from her experiences. In a way, that was the main point. It's a big change entering high school for the first time and navigating through it. Friendships will change, relationships will change, everything will change. Kelsey showed us how to deal with it and helped us see how she worked on it. Change is a big part of this book and in the end, Kelsey is like an entirely different person. She keeps some of her good and bad traits and gains good and bad traits. She was excellently drawn.

I don't think that this is for an older teen audience. Actually, it's not for a particularly young audience either. The writing and character development is suited for older teens, but the plot itself seemed younger. It seems solidly in the middle. It could vary though, and it should be enjoyable for most, teens and older.

Overall, Freshman Year & Other Unnatural Disasters was flawed in some ways, but shone in others. We got to see Kelsey grow and change, and we saw change affecting everybody as they went into freshman year. This is definitely going to be a book that I'm going to reread before high school starts for me next year.

Recommended for anybody who loves: The List; The Winnie Years; Before I Fall; Anna and the French Kiss; etc,.

Possible book club questions:

Compare and contrast Kelsey at the beginning of the book and at the end.How did her friends influence Kelsey? Who in particular were positive and negative forces?How do you think this could help an entering freshman prepare for high school?If you've already been a freshman, do you think this book is accurate? Why or why not?Have any experiences of Kelsey's been similar to experiences of your own? Share your story.


UPDATE: After seeing the amount of people responding to her book with confusion about the alcohol in the book, Meredith wrote an excellent and informative article as a guest post responding to the comments. After reading this, I'm no longer annoyed with the amount of alcohol in the book because I can see her reasons for doing so. Please read it; it's very well written!

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