This is self-confessed travel junkie Autumn Cornwell's first noveland she's hit one out of the park…Cornwell genially skewers both Ivy League-obsessed nerds and the Lonely Planet crowd.
The Washington Post
Take a traveler as reluctant as Anne Tyler's accidental tourist and add the number of misadventures found in The Out-of-Towners,and you have the recipe for Cornwell's hilarious, adventure-packed first novel. Valedictorian hopeful Vassar Spore has her summer all planned out when her bohemian grandmother somehow blackmails her Type A parents into letting her take Vassar backpacking through Malaysia, Cambodia and Laos. So instead of enrolling in AP courses in summer school, Vassar finds herself hiking through jungles with Grandma Gerd and an Asian cowboy chaperone, and battling food poisoning, venom-carrying critters and primitive tribes (one of which holds Vassar hostage). The more humiliations and unwanted surprises Vassar endures, the more likable she becomes, shedding pride and primness along with her obsessive reliance on routine. Her rapid succession of crises, while jaw-dropping, appears more plausible than the family secret that is revealed bit by bit during the course of their travels. Although readers will probably figure out the mystery long before the protagonist does, the exotic settings and the wacky predicaments will exercise a strong enough grip to hold readers' imaginations. Ages 12-up. (Sept.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
VOYA - Ed Goldberg
Imagine one's life planned down to the minute by an efficiency-expert father and a life-coach mother. Then imagine a Bohemian artist grandmother blackmailing those rigid parents, coercing them into making one take a summer vacation with her traipsing around Southeast Asia. Meet sheltered, sixteen-year-old Vassar Spore. What is this secret causing her parents to cave in to Grandma Gerd's request, possibly ruining Vassar's chance at class valedictorian and acceptance at Vassar College? Vassar and her friends devise a plan for her to keep her class ranking: Write a novel about her adventures. Her autobiographical novel includes her encounter with an ear-nibbling Vietnamese old man, her trek through the Laotian jungle sans her ten pieces of luggage and hygiene paraphernalia, sleeping in and escaping from an opium den, various other escapades and blunders, and her first romance with Hank, a Malaysian cowboy sporting paste-on sideburns and a pompadour. Of course, the secret is revealed as well. This novel is cute. It contains easy and descriptive writing, e-mails from Vassar's friends and parents, excerpts from her book, and cutesy quotes from the various guidebooks that she totes around. The pacing is quick. Vassar's evolution from life planner to live-in-the-moment teen is predictable as is the love interest. The locale, Vassar's gaffes, and quirky characters-especially Grandma Gerd and Hank-are what set this book apart. The epilogue, a quote from Pascal's Pensee, is the most thought-provoking part of this good beach read.
Children's Literature - Michele DeCamp
Vassar Spore is a new breed of teenager. With an efficiency expert father and a life coach mother, she has planned her life out right up until she wins her first Pulitzer Prize. And she is only a sophomore in high school. However, Spore discovers the summer before her junior year that being Valedictorian and going to Vassar are not as important as "seizing the day." Just as she is about to settle in for a summer of improving her GPA, her mysterious Grandma Gerd invites her on a Southeast Asia backpacking trip, and she has no choice but to go because her grandmother is holding a secret over her parents' heads that is more important than her ability to take Advanced Placement classes over the summer. Vassar's journey from Washington State to an opium den in the Laotian jungle, among other interesting locales, is an engaging tale that explores the psyche of an over-extended teenager who is desperately trying to hang on to predictability while everyone and everything around her is telling her to LIM (Live in the Moment). Her changing relationships with her grandmother and parents, her crush on a Malaysian cowboy, and her inner struggle to let go of her ten pieces of luggage, all come together in a novel that is an original and well-executed take on the archetypal coming-of-age story. Cornwell, a first time novelist, deftly writes a satire of a modern teenage overachiever's experiences while still creating a character that readers will laugh at and cheer for as she treks through the wilderness to discover what really should be on her "List of Life Goals."
School Library Journal
Gr 7 Up When she is blackmailed into backpacking across Southeast Asia with a grandmother she barely knows, 16-year-old Vassar Spore is reluctant to disrupt a summer devoted to furthering her life plan-to become class valedictorian and win a Pulitzer Prize. The overachieving teen, named for the college she hopes to attend, overhears her parents arguing with Grandma Gerd about a "Big Secret" and is shocked that they've agreed to send her off to the jungles of Malaysia. Vassar arrives at the Golden Lotus guesthouse with a mountain of luggage and a plan to write a novel about the trip for her AAP (Advanced Advanced) English class. As the setting shifts, so does the story's tone, from Vassar's stilted home life and stuffy parents to a vividly described environment and array of colorful characters focusing on her bohemian artist grandmother and a comical Malaysian bodyguard, Hanks, whose Elvis haircut and cowboy drawl both irritate and captivate his charge. Vassar begins chronicling the travel adventures of Sarah, her fictional alter ego, as the trio trek through cities and the lush and humid jungles of Cambodia and Laos while Grandma Gerd offers cryptic hints about the mysterious family secret. Committing a lion's share of cultural faux pas, Vassar accidentally angers one tribal family and is imprisoned by opium-smoking animists. In a climactic episode, she escapes the bamboo dungeon and blindly heads down a dangerously steep jungle mountain. Suspenseful and wonderfully detailed, the well-crafted story maintains its page-turning pace while adding small doses of cultural insight and humor.-Vicki Reutter, Cazenovia High School, NY
A naive teen learns how to carpe diem after spending an adventurous summer in Southeast Asia. Sixteen-year-old Vassar Spore attends a private school where she's prepping to be valedictorian, attend Vassar College, marry a surgeon or judge, write a book and win a Pulitzer by age 37. Her life has been carefully scripted by her efficiency-expert father and life-coach mother. But Vassar's hygienically sealed world capsizes when her parents reluctantly let her spend the summer backpacking through Malaysia, Cambodia and Laos with her bohemian Grandma Gerd. Suspecting that Grandma has blackmailed her parents, Vassar is determined to discover their "Big Secret." A novice traveler, Vassar arrives in Melaka with ten pieces of matched luggage, her laptop on which she plans to convert her experiences into a novel for Advanced Placement credit, her Genteel Traveler's Guides and her Portable Travel Planner. Appalled by Grandma Gert's "live in the moment" philosophy, Vassar gradually jettisons her obsessive-compulsive behavior and emerges knowing who she really is and what she really wants as she travels from the temples of Angkor to the bamboo huts of Laos. A witty coming-of-age adventure. (Fiction. 12-17)
From the Publisher
“As the setting shifts, so does the story's tone, from Vassar's stilted home life and stuffy parents to a vividly described environment and array of colorful characters . . . Suspenseful and wonderfully detailed, the well-crafted story maintains its page-turning pace while adding small doses of cultural insight and humor.” School Library Journal, Starred Review
“This is self-confessed travel junkie Autumn Cornwell's first novel--and she's hit one out of the park . . . Cornwell genially skewers both Ivy League-obsessed nerds and the Lonely Planet crowd.” The Washington Post
“The locale, Vassar's gaffes, and quirky characters--especially Grandma Gerd and Hank--are what set this book apart.” Voice of Youth Advocates
“A witty coming-of-age adventure.” Kirkus Reviews
“Take a traveler as reluctant as Anne Tyler's accidental tourist and add the number of misadventures found in The Out-of-Towners, and you have the recipe for Cornwell's hilarious, adventure-packed first novel.” Publishers Weekly
“Cornwell brings the setting to life so vividly that you can practically feel the sweat running down your body as you read parts of the book.” The YA YA YAs / blog
“. . . a classic coming-of-age story and one that I thoroughly enjoyed.” Bookslut
“Carpe Diem is a gem. I loved the plot, enjoyed the characters (although Grandma Gerd really ‘ticked' me off sometimes) and appreciated that the author could draw me in so completely to Vassar's world. This book is so much fun; I recommend you give it as a gift to someone else who is searching for good, fun young adult books.” Armchair Interviews
“. . . anyone who has lost their luggage; has felt their well planned [day, trip, life] slip through their fingers; or has made a list of goals, or even things to do; will laugh out loud and love this book.” Keri Holmes at The Kaleidoscope
Read an Excerpt
You Can Plan Your Life
THE PACKAGE CAME DURING THE HOUR OF REFLECTION, that sacred time after dinner when we peruse goals accomplished during the day and set goals for the day to come. ("If it worked for Benjamin Franklin, it can work for us," as Mom would say.)
We were sitting in our living room, my favorite room in the house, with its stone fireplace and floor-to-ceiling books--all in Dewey decimal system order. And no TV--because that's "living vicariously through other people." Dad was editing the proofs of his latest book, How to Increase Your Personal Productivity in 2,000 Easy Steps; Mom was writing in her Journal of Excellence; and I was tackling my Life Goals. This is what I had so far:
VASSAR SPORE'S LIFE GOALS
1. Graduate valedictorian from the Seattle Academy of Academic Excellence (with a minimum of 5.3 GPA).
2. Graduate with honors from Vassar (and receive an honorary certificate because of the whole same name thing) then get PhD in (TBD) from an Ivy League school (TBD).
3. Marry a 6'5" blond surgeon (or judge) for love by age 25; have three children by age 35 (two girls, one boy).
4. Publish the definitive book on (TBD) by age 37.
5. Receive Pulitzer prize.
The particular goal consuming me that evening was #2. Graduate school was only six years away, so I couldn't afford to waste a single minute.
See, I'm not the odds-on favorite to be class valedictorian because I'm extra gifted or super smart. Oh, no. It's because I do the Big P: Plan. ("Chance favors the prepared mind." Louis Pasteur.) My rival at the Seattle Academy of Academic Excellence, Wendy Stupacker, never plans--she procrastinates, then crams. Lucky for her she has a photographic memory. We're tied for valedictorian--for now.
Of course I had other personal life goals--just not for my parents' eyes. Like planning my first boyfriend. I had him already picked out: John Pepper. It wasn't that Mom and Dad necessarily wouldn't approve of John Pepper. He was one of the first guys admitted to the Seattle Academy of Academic Excellence once it stopped being girls only. He was tall, blond, dressed in primary colors, aimed to be a neurosurgeon, had only minor acne, and no longer wore thick glasses thanks to laser surgery. He totally fit my prototype. Not that he even knew I was a carbon-based life-form who attended his school. However, once I plan something, it's as good as done. Even if my parents claim I don't have time for serious relationships if I want to get my doctorate at an Ivy League school.
"Boyfriends are like water--endlessly available," Mom told me. "Attending an A-list school is a once in a lifetime opportunity."
I'd refrained from correcting her that water is endlessly available unless you happen to be tented in the Sahara Desert.
"How's this?" I handed my list to Mom, who skimmed, then returned it.
"After the Pulitzer, then what? Think big, Vassar."
I thought a moment, then added Life Goal #6: "Create the Dr. Vassar Spore Betterment Foundation to train the less fortunate around the world how to plan their lives like I did" and handed it back. Two could play this game.
She laughed. "Excellent! Now that's what I call thinking big. Wasn't that a fun exercise? As W. Clement Stone says, 'Aim for the moon. If you miss, you may hit a star.' Goals give you targets to shoot for. Too many teens today have no idea where they're going. They're lost, they're drifting. Lilith's daughter hasn't even applied to colleges yet--and she's a senior! No wonder she's on the verge of a nervous breakdown." She patted my hand. "Not all parents are lucky enough to have daughters like you, Vassar."
Mom used to be a life coach. Once I was born, she gave up her career. Or, as she puts it: "I switched careers: from life coach to Vassar's coach."
A full-time job these days.
But I actually don't mind the nightly recaps--or visioning for the future. Sure, it borders on geekdom and isn't exactlymy first choice how to spend my evenings, but it keeps me organized. And since I'm aiming for the Ivy League, I need all the help I can get. In fact, once a month, Amber--one of my three best friends (and fellow academes)--comes over during our Hour of Reflection so Mom can oversee her daily, weekly, and monthly goal lists. Amber also needs all the help she can get since her parents are sports fanatics and only care about her three older brothers' collegiate football and basketball achievements. Academia holds absolutely no interest for them. Without our support and Mom's guidance, she'd have been kicked out of the National Honor Society months ago.
I'd just finished the pros and cons of a PhD in Physics and was starting on the pros and cons of Archaeology when Amber text-messaged my cell phone: Have U asked yet?
I cleared my throat. "Uh, I was wondering, could I skip my Calculus Tutoring Session on Friday night so I can go to the dance?" Not that any guys ever asked us to dance--we all danced in the "four-girl molecule cluster." As if that's how we wanted it. No boys needed here, thank you very much. Better to pretend you don't care--don't care that Wendy Stupacker is always every guy's first choice. Always.
Dad looked up from his manuscript. He's an efficiency expert and consultant. Corporations and factories hire him to discover where they are wasting time, money, and manpower--and then to remedy it. In his spare time hewrites. This is his second book. The first was coauthored with Mom: Plan Is Not a Four-Letter Word.
"Did you say something?" Dad asked, clicking his mechanical pencil.
Mom laid down her pen and asked, "And where is this dance?"
This is where it got tricky. "At the public high school." Before she could respond, I hurriedly used my best ammunition: "Amber's, Laurel's, and Denise's parents are letting them go." In Denise's case, they were forcing her to go. They felt she lacked social intelligence and needed practice in the necessary male-female interaction skills.
"You know how we feel about functions at the public high school. It's not the idea of recreation that concerns us. Of anyone, you certainly deserve downtime activities."
"But you can trust me--"
"Of course we can trust you, Vassar. It's the public school crowd we can't."
"However, as you know, we're not going to tell you what to do," said Mom. "Your father and I reared you to make the right decision. Isn't that right, Leon? Leon?"
Realizing he'd missed his cue, Dad affirmed quickly: "Right, right. The choice is completely up to you."
I hate it when they do that. That's the problem with having parents like mine: You're genetically programmed not to let them down.
"I'll think about it," I said. But we all knew what my "choice" would be. I couldn't bear the looks of disappointment on their faces.
As Mom and Dad went back to their journal and book respectively, I text-messaged Amber: They said NO. Told U.
The doorbell rang.
"We aren't expecting anyone, are we?" Mom asked with mild irritation.
Dad and I shook our heads. Visitors during the Hour of Reflection were strictly verboten.
"I'll take care of it." Mom rose regally from the overstuffed chair that threatened to swallow her up.
Although a pint-sized five feet two, Mom carried herself as if she were six feet tall with a crown on her blond bob. Birdlike--but a bird of steel. Nothing delicate about her. Dad was only a few inches taller than her, with unruly, reddish-blond hair cropped short, pale blue eyes, freckles, and a compact body in perfect shape for his age--thanks to his daily five-mile run and aversion to beer. Where I got my five feet ten lanky build and dark brown hair and eyes was one for the geneticists.
Mom placed a beige envelope with a mosaic of foreign stamps on the coffee table, next to the tea things.
"UPS. For you, Vassar."
For me? I wasn't expecting anything. I'd already received my Jumbo Wall Calendar for the next school year. What else had I ordered from www.planyourlife.com?
Mom poured boiling water over our tea bags. Herbal.No caffeine in the Spore household. ("We get our energy from the thrill of a job well done," Mom would say.)
"Who's it from, Althea?" asked Dad, not lifting his eyes from How to Increase Your Personal Productivity in 2,000 Easy Steps.
"Your mother," said Mom in a flat tone, showing him the return address: Gertrude Spore.
How to Increase Your Personal Productivity in 2,000 Easy Steps dropped to the floor and a handful of pastel Tums popped into Dad's mouth. Tums were always within easy reach in his breast pocket, since emotions of any sort triggered heartburn. Especially emotions about Grandma Gerd. Dad claimed it was acid reflux, but Mom said it was psychosomatic.
"What does she want? Tell me she's not coming to visit." He chewed rapidly, calcium gathering in the corners of his mouth.
I wiped off the raindrops and examined the cancellation marks. "It's from Malaysia." It was postmarked April 1--my sixteenth birthday, a month and a half earlier.
Dad burped softly.
I sliced open the envelope with a butter knife and removed a plain white envelope and a card made of tree pulp decorated with grains of brown rice in a starburst pattern. I opened the card and read aloud:
"Happy Birthday, kiddo! Can you believe it? I'm sorta on time for once! But, hey, turning sixteen is a BIG DEAL. Open the white envelope."
It was a round-trip plane ticket. To Singapore.
"Ta-da! One all-expense-paid summer vacation backpacking through Malaysia, Cambodia, and Laos--with ME! Southeast Asia won't know what hit it! Toss some drip-dries into a backpack, apply for a passport, and get ready for the adventure of a lifetime ... ." I trailed off, stunned.
"It's obviously Gertrude's idea of a joke." Mom picked up her Journal of Excellence and resumed writing with her fountain pen. (It's her sole inefficiency.)
"But the ticket looks genuine," I said.
"Oh, she's up to something. I can feel it," said Dad, massaging his stomach.
Poor Dad. Not only was he adopted, Grandpa died when he was six years old and Grandma Gerd had flipped out--turned bohemian. She'd disappear for days, carousing with the seedy artists who lived in the seedy areas of Seattle. So Dad was forced to become a man. He wore a little blue suit and hired and fired his own babysitters, shopped, cleaned the house, and even managed the checking account. Mom said it was the "Only Child with the Impractical Parent Syndrome": When no adult seems to be taking responsibility, the child by default must, in order to maintain some semblance of a normal life. When Dad met Mom, he was finally able to relax and leave life's more assertive duties to a woman even more type A than him. An efficiency expert and life coach--it was a match made in heaven. (Or, to be more precise: in an office supply store. They simultaneously grabbed for the same Post-it notes.)
"We'll simply thank her and refuse the offer," Mom said, setting her teacup in its saucer with a decisive clink. She smiled at me, showing her dimples. "Gertrude just doesn't understand the responsibilities of the gifted student." Mom insisted upon calling me gifted, even though she knew perfectly well my academic record was the product of good planning.
The thing was, I'd never even met Grandma Gerd. Or seen any photos of her--Dad said he "misplaced them." (Highly suspicious, coming from a man who filed his socks. By color.) All I knew was that she was a nomadic artist of sorts. But I always got a birthday present from her, even if it was usually five months late. A Vietnamese mollusk hat on my eighth. A pair of mustard-yellow, pointy-toed Moroccan slippers for my tenth. An oversized leather wombat on my twelfth. And the "collage" made out of a rubber ball and fifteen swizzle sticks on my fifteenth. Then there were all the long-distance calls from Third World countries, with the fuzzy background noise and hollow clicks.
"Strange," I said as I put the ticket back in the envelope. "I wonder what made her send--"
The phone rang.
CARPE DIEM. Copyright © 2007 by Autumn Cornwell. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Feiwel and Friends, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.