Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Off Season by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

"every labor day, the jorgensens--they own jorgensens' ice cream--set up a little ice cream stand right in their yard..."

The Off Season by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
288 pages (Paperback)
Published: March 18, 2008
Publisher: Graphia
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult
Series: Second in a Trilogy
Goodreads Rating: 3.96/5
Amazon Rating: 4.6/5
Shelfari Rating: 4/5


Life is looking up for D.J. Schwenk. She's in eleventh grade, finally. After a rocky summer, she's reconnecting in a big way with her best friend, Amber. She's got kind of a thing going with Brian Nelson, who's cute and popular and smart but seems to like her anyway. And then there's the fact she's starting for the Red Bend High School football team—the first girl linebacker in northern Wisconsin, probably. Which just shows you can't predict the future. As autumn progresses, D.J. struggles to understand Amber, Schwenk Farm, her relationship with Brian, and most of all her family. As a whole herd of trouble comes her way, she discovers she's a lot stronger than she—or anyone—ever thought. This hilarious, heartbreaking and triumphant sequel to the critically acclaimed Dairy Queen takes D.J. and all the Schwenks from Labor Day to a Thanksgiving football game that you will never forget. -from

This review may come off sounding like nothing more than a whole fangirl squeal. Because I LOVEEEE Catherine Gilbert Murdock. And D.J. Schwenck. And these books. I read Dairy Queen during my long hiatus, and it was like a breath of fresh air. The book was exactly what I needed, and I wish every book could be like Dairy Queen. It might just be my absolute favorite book of the year. But the verdict is still out. I don't read contemporary fiction very often. If I deign to pick one up, its only those that have been most highly praised. I have exactly 4 contemporaries on my shelves. One is a John Green and one is 13 Reasons Why. Both are highly touted among contemporary lovers. I really only picked up Dairy Queen because of the gorgeous cover (Those blue skies! That green grass!), and I vaguely remembered hearing about it around the blogosphere.

Everything in D.J. Schwenk's life is looking bright since we last saw her in Dairy Queen. She has made it onto her school's football team. Not only made it but playing, pretty darn good if she would say so herself. It looks like she will have a great season, one in which her time might actually beat their long-time rivals. That means a chance to play against Brian Nelson, but he is actually understanding about that now. He might even have a thing going with D.J. Along with what might be a new boyfriend, she also regains her friendship with her best friend Amber. Work on the farm and communication with her family is starting to look up as well, now that Brian has taught her to speak up for herself. At least, she thinks she has learned that lesson. Until things begin to start sliding downhill again. As things begin to fall apart. D.J. starts to understand that she has many more lessons to learn about life.

The Off Season was an amazing book. It was spectacular in its own right, especially with how it holds up to other books I have read this year or during my whole life. But compared to Dairy Queen, it was as great. Don't get my wrong, I loved this book as I'm sure I will love Front and Center when I get around to it, but Dairy Queen was just something else with how out of this world it was. One of the reasons I adored Dairy Queen was the perfect feeling of being in the country and living in a small town. It actually made me love being a country girl, something I never would have found myself being proud of before. The cows grazing in the fields; the long dusty roads leading no where; the weekends filled with nothing but going to the movies and sleepovers; the feeling of being trapped by your surroundings; and especially the rush of friday night football are all such an important part of D.J.'s, and any country girl's, life. I loved how they were all added into the storyline, either subtly or obviously. In The Off Season, I felt like I didn't get enough of this feeling. It was there for sure, but it took a backseat to other elements, and I wasn't too crazy about these other elements.

The part of the plot where I found the down home country feel most prevalent was in D.J.'s relationship with her best friend Amber. After Amber comes out as lesbian to D.J. in Dairy Queen, their friendship is not what it used to be. But Amber begins to repair the broken ties when she starts dating for the first time in The Off Season. Things become tough for her at school when everyone in their small town notices her spending a lot of time with a girl and makes their own assumptions. When the stares became too much, Amber makes some decisions that probably aren't the best for her. Her decisions are extremely common in my area. I haven't done too much study on the subject, so I will only speak for my community. I liked how Ms. Murdock handled the situation. D.J. never condemned Amber's decisions and supported her as only a best friend can when she doesn't exactly agree. However, the choices weren't praised and, in my opinion, were subtly shown to be bad because they didn't solve anything. The series also does a great job with Amber's coming out story. Malindo Lo has a great list of young adult books with strong queer characters, and guess which series made the list?

Another one of my favorite parts of Dairy Queen was D.J.'s humor. These books crack me up like I had previously thought only Louise Rennison could. Everything D.J. says is so funny because it is so true. She words things in ways I never would have thought to say it, but they fit perfectly. One of my favorite parts from Dairy Queen was her awkward and embarrasing first kiss because first kisses are awkward. Maybe not nose bleed embarrassing, but still not angst-filled or heartbreakingly tender like some young adult novels like to potray them. I would like to give you a little tidbit of D.J. humor from one my favorite paragraphs:
I hadn't really been alone with Brian-not counting the barn, which I don't because Dad's there all the time and also the straw is super itchy-since the Mall of America, and while I hadn't Done Anything Stupid, I wasn't sure where exactly I stood on the whole subject. I mean, it's not that I wanted to do anything Really Stupid, but I wouldn't be so against doing something Kind of Stupid-something A Little Silly, maybe. (pg. 102)

D.J. is an amazing narrator because her voice is so informal. Usually this doesn't work for me, but somehow I love it when D.J. talks. But there were so many times throughout this book when I wanted to reach through the pages and slap D.J. across the face. The whole premise of Dairy Queen was "When you don't talk, there is alot that ends up not being said." Many times during The Off Season, it felt D.J. was back to square one. She would not speak up for herself, even if talking would get her out of a sticky situation or explain a miscommunication. I definately understand that this is the whole point of the series: D.J. learns to speak for herself. But sometimes it is so hard to just sit there as someone is screwing up their life when there is a simple fix: talking. Then there was her relationship with Brian, which made me hate Brian Nelson with a passion even though I thought he was a pretty nice guy in Dairy Queen. For three-fourths of the novel, I was steaming because I believed things between D.J. and Brian were going to end up in a very unhealthy situation. But I should never have doubt D.J. or Ms. Murdock; things worked themselves out exactly as the should have for the second book in the trilogy. What I love about these stories is how they show that without communcation, relationships die. I think thats an important lesson to learn. The stories don't shove the lesson down your throat, but time and time again when talking fails, the relationship fails.

I think the number one reason I couldn't fully adore The Off Season as much as Dairy Queen was because of Win and his accident. D.J.'s brother Win plays college football, and during the course of the novel he becomes injured. After the tragic accident, most of the story is focused on Win's recovery and how D.J. helps him and her family through it. The story took a turn towards cheesy during this point. It felt a little too Hallmark family movie, and while I like watching Hallmark, I know I'm watching it for cheeserific tears and not because it is movie greatness. I wanted The Off Season to contain only greatness, and for this reason and maybe only for this reason I didn't enjoy it quite as much as I loved Dairy Queen.

Rating: 8 out of 10. An amazing read standing on its own, but compared to Dairy Queen, fell a little short. D.J. is a funny as ever, and her relationships begin to take shape and gain strength in this second installment. However certain aspects felt sappy to me, and I hate sappy more than anything. Maybe that's one of the reasons I don't read much contemporary fiction, because most of the plots play like Hallmark movies.

Source for copy: Bought (for 50 cents at a Half Price Bookstore! Sorry, just had to share my gleeful steal.)

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