Saturday, October 31, 2009

Fire, by Kristin Cashore

Identified as a "Companion to Graceling," this story is actually chronologically a prequel, although it shares only one character in common with Cashore's acclaimed novel. Set in the same world as the earlier book but in a largely inaccessible portion of territory, Fire is the story of a young "monster" human named Fire who, like all of the monsters who inhabit this area, has the ability to bend people's minds to do her bidding. It is an unwelcome talent to the girl Fire, whose father used the power to pervert the mind of King Nax and sent the kingdom into debauchery and self-destruction. After's Fire's father's death, she tries to maintain a lower profile.

Two events thwart her plans: the appearance of mysterious archer with a foggy brain and the command that Fire come to the King's city (a place she has avoided all of her life because it was where her father did his evil deeds) to help the surviving royal family unearth their enemies. Once in the city, Fire becomes embroiled in untangling the politics of the court, unraveling the plots to overthrow the royals, and averting all-out war. It is a calling she resists but ultimately proves adept at, although she must approach it on her own terms. And always in the background, there is the threat of an unknown force that put that mysterious foggy-headed archer out there.

I've done something of a disservice in my simple summary of the story's plot, but it is a long novel (460pp) and a very complex narrative. You'll do well to simply believe that it all works very nicely. As for the story, I have a number of things on my mind upon finishing this book.

First of all, there is the theme of generations and inheritance. Almost every character in this book bears the scars and the legacy of their parents (or grandparents). Fire fights off the guilt of being related to a literal monster. Archer struggles with the legacy of his parentage as well. The royals are who they are because of the mistakes of their King Nax. Everyone struggles with not wanting to repeat the mistakes of their ancestors and with wanting to atone for those mistakes. It's a beautifully universal theme and adolescents (and older!) readers will appreciate a familiar theme in their own lives.

The second theme I want to mention is a bit more controversial: sexuality (and sexual violence in particular). Cashore's first novel was noted often by reviewers for containing a number of mature themes. That pattern is replicated and expanded here. It is not that Cashore is ever explicit, but sexuality is quite persistent in the world of this novel (with regular mentions of menstruation [which is admittedly an important plot device in this case], birth control, pregnancy, childlessness, etc.). None of this bothers me. I'm all for a healthy dose of mature and responsible sexuality in YA as it sets a healthy standard. What is trickier is the high presence of rape and sexual violence in this story. Within the first 100 pages, there are mentions of at least three rapes and many more of assaults and sexually-motivated attacks. It is integral part of the plot that Fire's powers include the liability that men feel uncontrollable desire for her and that that passion frequently leads them to attack her. This sets up dramatic tension of course, but it also creates a truly terrifying world.

I myself am torn over the issue. I appreciate the author witnessing for the overwealming presence of sexual violence in modern society. If young women are not aware of such things, then they need to be and if reading about a strong heroine who confronts it and actively protects herself can empower the reader, then this is a good thing. But at the same time, I worry that becoming aware of the prevalence of sexual violence can also make a person see it everywhere and retreat into a world of fear. I suppose others will say "it's just a book!" but it won't stop my conflicted sense of loyalties about this message. Is it a good message or a bad message to be sending out to readers? I honestly do not know.

In general, this is a very good book. It will please fantasy fans and it has something to offer folks who never shy away from fantasy (like myself) because they want more human interest than the ol' hack-and-slay normally offers. It is a worthy successor to Graceling and I look forward to the next installment.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Remembrance, by Theresa Breslin

And now for something completely different...

Remembrance is the story of five young people who participate in the Great War. Francis and Charlotte come from a wealthy landowning family, while John Malcolm, Maggie, and Alex are the children of the local shopkeeper. However, their friendship and their involvement in the War effort brings them together. Wound up by patriotism and idealism, these teenagers of another time grow up quickly in a War that surprises everyone with its brutality and harshness. Breslin has crafted a story that is YA only in the sense that its protagonists are in their teens. You will find no familiar tropes here. No proms, boy crushes, or any of that fluffiness. This is a fairly mature story of a time in history which is probably only seen by most teens now in two-dimensions in some World Civ class. Kudos to the author for attempting to make it more alive!

Telling a story from at least five points of view is a difficult undertaking, but Breslin does it well. Each character has their own voice and their own purpose for being in the story. As a result, the narrative rarely felt confused or cluttered. Excellent detail helps the period feel and anachronisms are kept to a minimum (Maggie's proto-feminism is nicely explored without imposing modern ideas upon it). In sum, this is a lively way to view a world of nearly a century ago.

I am not convinced that the book is truly YA. The characters mature and come of age, but we see very little of that development. Breslin is more interested in external details and in lofty statements about the horrors of the War than in writing of the micro-level growth of the characters. Love, for example, is accepted as fact rather than shown. There isn't much room for emotional growth in war time, at least not in Breslin's stiff-upper-lip depiction of it. As a result, this story works best as an adventure story.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Waiting for You, by Susane Colasanti

Marisa has the hots for Derek, who is involved with Sienna. Meanwhile, Nash who has known Marisa for ages is annoyingly interested in her at the same time. Marisa's best friend Sterling is hopelessly infatuated with guys she meets on-line. Marisa's parents are separating. And a stranger on-line named Dirk seems to know something about everyone. Who ever knew that Sophomore year could get so complicated?

In her third and latest outing, Colosanti gets high marks for getting the tone of contemporary teens down so well. As in her other books, dialogue is her strength (it's also her obvious love as most of her writing is conversations). Unfortunately, as with When It Happens, the rest of the writing just doesn't keep up. From the looks of it, she really isn't very interested in telling the story and most of the plot sort of falls in here and there in random order. At first, I figured it was an attempt at authenticity (having the narrator tell her story in the sort of random way that a teen might), but even that really does not hold together. It's a terrible handicap that turned this novel into painful reading. Such a difficult balance (excellent dialogue with badly disjointed narrative) and the result is a story that hangs together best when the characters are speaking and quickly falls apart when they are not.

In sum, a sweet story that feels authentic and has a great voice, but is not terribly original and is poorly told.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead

In April 1979, Miranda's mother gets invited to appear on the 20,000 Pyramid [for you young'uns, that was a popular game show at the time] but the most interesting events of this story are occurring closer to home in the neighborhood. Miranda is receiving cryptic letters that she becomes convinced are being sent from a traveller from the future. The message is not benign: a friend of hers is in danger and she must write a letter to save this friend from certain death. But to whom is she to write to letter? And to when?

This modest but strikingly original novel is complex and multifaceted. On its face, this is a coming-of-age story of a sixth grade girl in New York. It's a nice story (twelve years old in 1979 is something I can personally relate to quite well), but nothing extraordinary and not really the point after all. The more interesting part is the riddle about time travel (told from the perspective of the people not doing the traveling). This is the clever part of the novel - never entirely spelled out - with just enough paradox and open-ended twists to get the mind going. Finally, there is a subtle but loving tribute to Madeleine L'Engle who inspired the author to write this story and whose books I remember loving myself when I was twelve years old. This is the kind of a book that makes you want to rush back to read those books again. Other details (about friendship, reaching for one's dreams, and confronting prejudice) are nicely added in, but not dwelled upon.

My problem with the book is figuring out who would be the likely audience. I personally found it a bit confusing to read and suspect I'd have to go through it another time or two before I really understood what was going on. I'm not sure that middle readers would keep up with at all. Teens won't find it very interesting because of the youth of the characters. So, I fear that this may slip off people's radars. The book itself has been well-promoted, but there is no wait list to check it out, so I suspect my fears are justified.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly

Going back a ways for a classic....

It's 1906 in the Adirondacks and Mattie Gokey is the 16 year-old daughter of a poor widower farmer, with dreams of going to college. Although she is bright and intelligent and her progressive teacher believes she has the talent to go to school, there are a lot of barriers in her way: a father who doesn't believe that higher education is appropriate, a family that needs her now that her mother is dead and her older brother has run away from home, a beau who expects her to become his adoring wife, and the grinding poverty of the North Woods itself.

Ostensibly told through the lens of the story of a murder of Grace Brown, her death is only a device to introduce the story of Mattie. Donnelly did her homework well (a bibliography at the end will give you her sources) and the book is full of rich detail (it's a great illustration of how to write good histiorical fiction). At the same time, the details are also just decorative and secondary to the author's purpose: which is to address the subject of identity at a time (and place) where finding your identity if you were a woman was particularly challenging.

I fear that this wonderfully-nuanced book has been taken over by the formal pedagogues and turned into an exercise to occupy the shelves of school lockers. The reprint edition I read comes complete with an author interview and a list of discussion questions -- the type that some lazy High School teacher is probably assigning their students to answer in perfect five paragraph theme essays. The story, with its healthy dose of political correctness probably brings that treatment on itself, but it never ceases to sadden me to have a book intended for enjoyment become a tool for formal learning.

Discussing whether I like or dislike a classic seems mostly pointless. If you haven't been forced to read this book for a class, then you'll probably like it (if you have been assigned the book, then hopefully you'll like it anyway!). There's plenty to like: memorable characters, the aforementioned intricate historical details, soaring hopes, and terrible set-backs. The unfortunate appearance of symbolism, irony, and Deep Meaningful Scenes is unfortunate, but intended mostly to keep frustrated English Composition majors (also called English Teachers) happy. Personally, I'm not a big fan of the interrupted narrative (too much jumping forward and backward in time) that Donnelly uses throughout the story, but it's very chic. It is, in the end, one of those awarded books that really deserved its awards.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Cracked Up To Be, by Courtney Summers

Once upon a time, Parker was the perfect student, captain of the cheerleaders, and the center of attention, but then everything started to plummet and no one can figure out why. Why she started showing up at school drunk, failing all of her classes, or finally in a hotel room with a bottle of Jack and another bottle of sleeping pills. Now, she is bad news. With hardly a kind word for anyone and a determination to drive everyone away, her anger mostly focuses on her ex-boyfriend and a new guy at the school who is determined to break through to her. All of this is a thankless task as she spends 212 (out of 214) pages being a calculating witch to everyone around her.

Now, I really am afraid of the people who are going to take me to task with statements like "I really related to her" and so on. If you can relate to Parker, then you must be something of a sociopath...and a very scary individual. The point of a story like this is mostly to show the dead end nature of self-loathing (and to eventually show the character overcoming their problems and going through some sort of rebirth). At least, that's the only reason I can see for trudging through the sheer nastiness of a story like this. We want to know what could make a nice girl become so mean and how she'll break out of it. The irony that you begin to realize, though, is that Parker was never a nice person. A self-absorbed perfectionist, she seemed (even in her better days) to enjoy belittling people and promoting herself. This insecurity combusts though when faced with the reality that she too can become vulnerable and fail. The lesson, Summers would like to teach us, is that hedonism at this scale is self-destructive. As such, there shouldn't be a soul out there that wants to follow the example.

So, is it a good book? Summers is a decent writer and the whole thing comes across authentically. The story is complex and thus engaging. But again, this is hardly a book that one reads for pleasure. The main character is so nasty and so mean that I was writing her off early. And in the end, the explanation for her pathology seemed pathetic after all of the wind-up leading to it. I never quite had the pay off that I needed to reimburse me for the time spent enduring the character. So, how do you rate a well-written story about a character that you despised? If you don't mind despicable heroines, then you might like the book. As folks who've read my other reviews know, I have to like my characters (or at least see something redeeming in them) to make it worth the effort to learn about their lives. Parker Fadley doesn't deserve my time.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

The Sweet Life of Stella Madison, by Lara M Zeises

Stella definitely has a pretty sweet life. The only daughter of two major big-name culinary figures, she has all the friends, fun, and looks a 17 year-old could ask for. But she's horribly conflicted by having to choose. On the one hand, there's her loyal and adoring boyfriend Max. On the other is the gorgeous intern that her mother's hired to work at the restaurant this summer. So what that he's nearly 21 and so what that Stella's idea of a great eat is a ball park frank instead of the haute cuisine promoted by her parents? These are minor complications! But as summer progresses, Stella struggles to figure out what she really wants.

Now, a book by one of my favorite authors (Zeises) with glowing reviews from two of my other faves (Dessen and Lockhart) on the book's cover has a lot to live up to, but I think the reviewers got it right: this is indeed "the perfect summer read" (Dessen) that is "full of broken hearts, broken promises, and broken eggs" (Lockhart). It is no instant classic and I'll probably forget the details quickly enough, but it fulfills all of your nutritional needs and leaves you with a full stomach.

In a book like this, it is all about the details. Sure, I'm not huge fan of long descriptions of the clothes she wears or the make up choices she makes (I rack that up to being a clueless guy!) and I can't stand it when a character totally abdicates on their responsibilities (e.g., Stella's pathological ability to ignore phone messages), but it is one of Zeises's skills as a writer and Stella's charms as a character that the book devotes so much attention to those details. The food angle itself is fun and Zeises explores it in all sorts of ways (from Stella's flirtation with food reviewing to the way that her Dad communicates through cooking). Finally, the side characters (while fairly stock) are humorous and an integral part of the story.

And then there is the smart writing. Zeises caught my eye with her absolutely outstanding novel Bringing Up the Bones. As I've already said, this book is hardly that sort of classic. However, even in a light read, Zeises combines wit and insight with some very down to earth moments when she needs to be. Stella is very much alive and strikingly authentic. And while she has that caustic wit that we expect from our summer reads (think Ruby Oliver), she never really forgets that she's a teen and not just some sit com character.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Wherever Nina Lies, by Lynn Weingarten

Two years ago, Ellie's older sister disappeared. And while Ellie has tried to follow her friends' advice and move on, it simply hasn't been possible. Instead, she wonders where her sister has gone. Then one day, while sorting through some old junk at a thrift shop, she finds a drawing that was obviously drawn by her sister in an old book. This leads her to other clues and also to a hot guy named Sean. And at a speed that takes her breath away, Ellie is off on a cross-country road trip with Sean following a trail of clues that she hopes will lead her to her sister. A romance sizzles and things get interesting....

I'll start by talking about the first two hundred pages of this book, which unfold in a fairly traditional YA sort of way: with a few small exceptions, Weingarten has spun a beautiful and lyrical story of loss and rebirth. It's really quite breathtaking how well she writes. The party scenes got a bit jumbled for my tastes, but I really got under Ellie's skin and could see how her obsession both drove her and humanized her. The romance with Sean (and her friend Amanda's seeming jealousy about it) is also really nicely done and I totally got into the characters. If the story had ended on that note, I would be easily claiming that this life-affirming story was one of the best of the year.

*SPOILER ALERT* But unfortunately the story does not end there. Starting around page 224 (about where a good book like this ought to end), Weingarten decided to kick the story up a notch and take it from angst into creepy. Now, if you like suspense and psychos and icky stuff like that, then this is probably where the book starts to redeem itself. But from my perspective, this is where the story goes downhill. Sean, who admittedly had some bad vibes around him, suddenly becomes ultra psycho and pulls out a gun and the whole thing falls into melodrama. I'm left wondering why? Why take a carefully crafted tale with some really interesting characters on an interesting quest and plunge the story into a third act of silliness (and it isn't just the violence, but the terrible implausibilitty that the story falls back on)? It seems like Weingarten, having written a wonderful story, had run out of ideas and didn't know where to go with it. So, she took it over the edge. But it's more than a bizarre twist in the story, it's also a total decline in the quality of the writing. The ending (starting on page 294) should be skipped altogether as it adds nothing to the story. Rather than conclude the story, we are treated to a slow motion replay of the story with all of the gaps filled in (written at the level of a TV sitcom). This is especially jarring when contrasted with the smart writing at the beginning.

So, I'll have to issue a split verdict on this book (and probably upset the book's fans): I really loved the first 2/3 of it and was looking forward to praising it. However, the switch of genre from YA family interrelationship novel to psycho thriller was too abrupt for me (and unwelcome). If you like thrillers than you'll probably like the ending too, but I not only didn't like the switch, I felt that the actual quality of the writing declined in that last section.

That said, the first part holds out so much promise that I will be interested in Weingarten's next book and hope for better luck with it. She does good angsty stuff and I'd like to see more of it.