Carpe Diem by Autumn Cornwell (Square Fish)

vassar Vassar Spore is a sixteen year old over-achiever who has her life planned out for the next ten years.  She will take AP and AAP (Advanced Advanced Placement) classes over the summer and is determined to be valedictorian of her high school class.  She has no doubts about being accepted and graduating from the college which bears her name, and she intends to win the Pulitzer Prize.

However, one calm evening Vassar receives an envelope postmarked from Malaysia—sent by the grandmother she’s never met – Gertrude.  Inside is a note that says “Happy Birthday, kiddo! Ta da!  One all-expense paid vacation backpacking through Malaysia, Cambodia, and Laos –with ME!” Along with the note is another envelope.that contains a round-trip ticket to Singapore.  Of course, Vassar decides, there is no way she has time to accept this present, not with her meticulously planned life.

But after Vassar’s parents receive a collect call from Grandma Gertrude, for some reason they allow their daughter go to Southeast Asia.  The small fragments of their conversation with Gertrude that Vassar is able to overhear contains words like “Bubble…birth…too young…rubber ball…dying…egg”.

No idiot, Vassar realizes that Grandma Gertrude has somehow blackmailed her parents into agreeing to the trip that will put such a big clink into her Life Goals.  But now she has more than enough reason to go – to find out what Gertrude’s Big Secret is.

With only two weeks to plan for her odyssey, Vassar and her parents pack whatever they think is essential to her safety and well being--which turns out to be ten fully loaded bags of luggage.  Setting off with her PTP (Portable Travel Planner) and her entourage of baggage, Vassar finds herself on an airplane to Singapore.  Having never before done anything without intensive planning, Vassar is full of anxiety as she sets foot in her first foreign country. Her anxiety intensifies as there is no Grandma Gertrude to meet her and a stranger has been sent to drive her to Malaysia.

When Vassar finally meets her grandmother, she is told to rest because they will leave for Cambodia the following morning.  She tries in vain to find out what the Big Secret is from her grandmother, who finally agrees to give her clues that will help her solve the mystery on her own.

And thus begins Vassar’s adventure.  She will go to the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, walk the streets of Phnom Penh, trek through the jungles of Laos, and learn what it means to really live life – all without a plan.  The only thing Vassar knows is that she will never be the same again.

At the end of this debut novel for young adults there is a short interview with the author. It’s here where you will find that almost eighty percent of Vassar’s adventures and situations were experienced by the author. In fact, after reading this book, you may want to take the next flight to Southeast Asia yourself.--Ernie Hoyt