How to Be Popular

Lately I've been immersed in Showtime's The Tudors, a steamy drama about King Henry the eighth and all the awful things he did to various women, men, countries, half his aristocracy, etc. over the years. If you know what happened to some of these people, and I do, having worked at a Renaissance Festival for more than a decade, you can imagine that it's not exactly cheery subject matter. Between the stress of having to do my taxes and concern about imminent beheadings, I thought I'd better make sure any books I read were funny, with little to no violence, so I turned to Meg Cabot, devouring several books from her Princess Diaries series and a stand alone called How to be Popular that was quite good.

How to be Popular is the story of Steph Landry, who is unhappy because everybody knows her name, but not in a good way. Five years ago she had a little accident and messed up the most popular girl in town's clothes. Now whenever someone does something boneheaded "Way to pull a Steph Landry" is the response. Now about to enter her senior year, she's determined to change her reputation and her social standing with the help of an old book she found in her grandfather's fiancée's attic, a book I would guess was written in the 1950s.

Armed with such advice as "Popular people make the person they are speaking to feel important – and do it sincerely. They always make the conversation about YOU, not about themselves!" she gives her wardrobe a makeover and spends the first day of school showing school spirit by organizing a student talent auction to raise money for the senior class. Steph's plan doesn't take into account her best friend's reaction to her new status and spirit. Jason, who went away for the summer and came back bigger, stronger and much more attractive, doesn't understand why Steph wants to be friends with a bunch of phonies who have been cruel to her for years. Becca, who just moved to town after her family sold their farm, understands, but has her own concerns, mainly trying to find out if Jason like likes her.

Steph is juggling more than old friends and new; her family is in turmoil. Mom is pregnant again and not speaking to Grandpa, who is about to marry Jason's grandmother. Dad is trying to make it as a novelist, writing mystery stories about an Indiana high school basketball coach who solves crimes, only nobody wants to buy his manuscripts. Throw in the fact that the family bookstore is failing and there is a great deal of tension around the house.

Convinced she can overcome anything with a perky smile and a winning attitude, Steph attacks her problems one by one. Unfortunately the reigning queen of popularity at her high school is not about to step aside without a fight. Will the tips in the old How to Be Popular book really help Steph?

But what's all this got to do with you, you might be thinking. Why should the travails of a fictional teenage girl interest me? I can think of a few reasons, starting with the fact that good YA (Young Adult) fiction is very good indeed and working right through to the idea that retired people still watch The Office so why shouldn't adults read about high school? If nothing else it should make you grateful that you escaped it. You may be wondering how to pay your mortgage but at least nobody is stuffing you into a locker or the opposite sex's bathroom. (If they are, please accept my sympathy. And if you are still stuck in high school please accept my condolences. I'm very sorry.)

Meg Cabot's stories are charming and funny, and she makes it easy to empathize with her characters, whether young or old, male or female. She's the perfect antidote to the plague, increasingly gruesome executions, tension and intrigue I've been watching in The Tudors. If you’re wondering if I like episode one, I do, it's quite well done, but not something you’d want to watch with your children. I'm not even sure I'm old enough.

One-Paragraph Review
This week's one-paragraph review is from Jo Thomas, who says, "Check the late Octavia Butler’s novel, The Fledging. It’s a captivating story on vampires and a different prospective of their relationship with humans. Quite romantic actually and I thoroughly enjoyed the reading to the point of wanting a vampire of my own. Ms Butler was a sci-fi writer before her death last year or the year before. If you are a serious sci-fi fan you might also want to read Lilith’s Brood." Have you got a one-paragraph (or smaller) review you'd like to share? Send it in to me and I'll run the most interesting ones. You can reach me at feedback@qualitytimeweekly.com.