Review: Aces Up by Lauren Barnholdt

Title: Aces Up
Author: Lauren Barnholdt
Publisher: Delacorte BFYR
Pub. Date: 8.10.2010
Genre: Contemporary YA
Keywords: Gambling, Collusion, Secrets, Lies, Family, Love, Friendship
Pages: 288
Description (from GoodReads):
Seventeen-year-old high school senior Shannon Card needs money. And lots of it. She’s been admitted to Wellesley, but her dad just lost his job, and somehow she has to come up with a year of tuition herself. But Shannon’s dream of making big bucks waitressing at the local casino, the Collosio, disappears faster than a gambler’s lucky streak. Her boss is a tyrant, her coworker is nuts, and her chances of balancing a tray full of drinks while wearing high-heeled shoes are slim to none. Worse, time is running out, and Shannon hasn’t made even half the money she’d hoped.

When Shannon receives a mysterious invitation to join Aces Up, a secret network of highly talented college poker players, at first she thinks No way. She has enough to worry about: keeping her job, winning the coveted math scholarship at school, and tutoring her secret crush, Max. But when Shannon musters up the nerve to kiss Max and he doesn’t react at all, the allure of Aces Up and its sexy eighteen-year-old leader, Cole, is suddenly too powerful to ignore.

Soon Shannon’s caught up in a web of lies and deceit that makes worrying about tuition money or a high school crush seem like kid stuff. Still, when the money’s this good, is the fear of getting caught reason enough to fold?

ACES UP was my introduction to Lauren Barnholdt and her writing, and I must say, it was a great first impression.

Despite the fact that I know nearly nothing about poker and the colorful world of gambling, I found it remarkably easy to identify with Shannon. It wasn’t so much the fast, faintly sinister world she found herself in that I found intriguing, but the reason she felt she needed to venture there.


Shannon’s family has fallen on hard economic times and they’ve had to give up many extraneous expenses. The one thing Shannon refuses to give up is her dream to attend her Wellesley after she completes her senior year. Shannon must decide is the money and the guarantee of being able to afford Wellesley worth the risk. And the risk is huge.


It isn’t hard to put myself in Shannon’s shoes… I think the majority of college and college bound students will empathize with her fear and stress. It’s insanely difficult to pay for school today. Students are often told that if they work hard, get good grades, etc, etc, everything will be fine. Shannon’s story is very true to life: sometimes, everything isn’t fine.


The novel primarily focuses on Shannon, but she also has a sister who is also struggling to pay for college as well. The difference between the two, is that her sister doesn’t attempt any get rich quick schemes, illegal or otherwise, but instead, continues to work hard and remains positive. I liked that the reader was able to compare the vastly different paths each sister chose.


The one element of the novel that I wasn’t completely sold on was the romantic bits. I felt more of a connection to the boy Shannon wasn’t supposed to fall for than the one she did, which made for a lackluster response.


The story’s resolution may have been idealized. Shannon does, of course, learn her lesson and the story ends, more or less, happily. But many are or will be facing a similar situation and I think that ACES UP will guide them. Yes, we are all free to make our own decisions, but there is comfort in picking up a novel where the main character is in a similar situation. Even if the reader’s situation isn’t identical to Shannon’s, it still serves as a reminder that no matter how good that “bad” choice may seem, it’s in one’s best interest to veer toward the “good.”


Grade: B+

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6 thoughts on “Review: Aces Up by Lauren Barnholdt

  1. Barnholdt has been on my 'must read' list since her first novel, but for some reason I still haven't picked up any of her work. This sounds like it might be an interesting 'in', particularly as it sounds like her writing has matured quite substantially since her first few novels (although I still want to pick up Two-Way Street!)

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