Now that she's graduated from the K-8 Catholic school in her small Kentucky town, Ricki Jo Winstead is about to start her freshman year at the public school. So even though she's lived in Breckenridge her entire life, she's going to be the New Girl.
She's desperate to fit in, to be popular, and to be seen as something other than a redneck. So she changes her name to Ericka, works on befriending a group of glamorous girls in her homeroom, and goes out for cheerleading.
Of course, not everything goes as smoothly as she'd like. Even though his looks help him get away with it, the gorgeous boy she's head-over-heels for can be kind of, well, a jerk. And her new girlfriends are fun, and they know lots about boys and clothes and stuff, but sometimes they can be kind of, well, mean.
Her best friend, Luke (who is suddenly, like, not just her best friend, but, like, a guy), thinks that she's turning into another person—a person that he isn't sure he likes. And sometimes, Ricky Jo secretly agrees with him.
Can Ricki Jo get what she wants out of her high school experience and stay true to herself?
Pros: Great sense of place (with some nice details about tobacco farming that never feel forced or didactic), and it's always so, so nice to read contemporaries set in rural areas about characters who are actually from said areas, rather than Ye Olde City-Girl-Roughs-It routine. It deals frankly with alcoholism and underage drinking, but realistically and with no lecturing.
Ricki Jo, herself, is a likable, believable heroine who reads the Bible (almost) every night, but who makes mistakes and sees the sexiness in Song of Songs. When she makes mistakes, they're almost always especially cringeworthy because she knows that what she's doing is wrong, and so at times, it's a painful, painful read. In a good way.
Her new girl friends are all distinct personalities: some are meaner than others, but none of them comes off as two-dimensional-Cruella-evil. It's clear that they're all just trying to navigate high school, and that they just go about it in different ways. Wolf, her crush, is the strongest secondary character in the book. On one hand, I wanted to slap him for being such a toolshed (bigger than a toolbox) all of the time (and, for that matter, shake Ricki Jo when she put up with his nonsense), but it was also quite clear that he was just as insecure as Ricki Jo: like her female friends, he just dealt with it in a different way. Ultimately, I still found him slappable, but that was just because of who he was: not because he was in any way a caricature or a moustache-twirler.
Cons: My major issue was that Luke came off as really, really mature—like, almost fatherly in a I'm So Above All Of This Popularity Nonsense, But I'll Indulge My Best Friend In Her Drama Trauma way—for his age, but some of that can be explained away by the fact that he's not new to public school, and to his home life, which would give anyone perspective.
The second issue is less an issue and more of heads up to readers who prefer their stories to be connect-the-dots linear. Queen of Kentucky doesn't have a distinct Here's Ricky Jo's Problem, Here's How She Deals With It storyline: it's about the first few months in her high school career, and everything that happens in that time. That, in itself, isn't a detractor—I like Day in the Life stories—but some of the minor storylines felt extraneous. At the same time, life is muddled, sometimes, and rarely has clean story arcs, so it's logical that this sort of story would occasionally feel like that.
Recommended to: While comparisons to Dairy Queen are bound to be made, the only things that the books really have in common are rural settings and a love triangle between the heroine, the is-he-or-isn't-he-a-jerk jock, and her best friend. I'd recommend it to teen readers looking for a contemporary with lots of soul-searching and dramarama.
Book source: ILLed through my library.