Monday, June 27, 2011

Tutored, by Allison Whittenberg

Hakiam is a boy from the projects. Wendy is a volunteer at a GED tutoring center. She's on her way to college (a traditionally white college, if her ambitious father has his way). Hakiam's trying to escape from a life of petty crime and his dead-end life. That desire brings him to the center to go through the motions of getting his diploma (although his heart isn't in it). Seeing right through his bs, Wendy is initially disdainful, but gradually warms to his charms.

Any possibility for romantic sparks are challenged by their peers and family. Wendy's father, having lifted himself out of the ghetto, doesn't approve of "people like that." While denying his prejudice, he clearly tries to steer Wendy away from Hakiam. Hakiam's cousin, a young mother with whom Hakiam is crashing, doesn't think much of Wendy either. And both Hakaim and Wendy are sensitive to the class clash and their peer's appraisal of the relationship.

Other critics than I have pointed out the overly tidy ending and the preachy tone of the writing. I would add that the level of the writing seems pitched a bit low for a teen reader (but perhaps that is intentional because of the author's assumptions about the readership?). However, there are many things to like in this book.

Obviously, I don't have much shared experience with the characters (although I did spend a good deal of time doing community work in the not-so-nice neighborhoods of Philadelphia described in this book), but there are several fascinating themes worth calling out. If nothing else, I really liked the character of Wendy's father, who comes off as a bit of an "Oreo" but who would be completely unapologetic about the comparison. He's proud of his accomplishments, obviously afraid of any chance of sliding backwards, and ultimately far more complex than his daughter or the reader initially suspects. Hakiam is also a complicated figure. In a very believable way, he is capable of rising up, but never quite frees himself of his own self-limitations and prejudices. You know he wants to, but he struggles with figuring things out. Surprisingly, it is Wendy who really remains the least developed character. Her baby steps towards independence are interesting, but she remains far more straitjacketed than the others.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Seaglass Summer, by Anjali Banerjee

Poppy has always dreamed about becoming a veterinarian, so when she gets the opportunity to spend the summer with her Uncle Sanjay and help at his vet practice, she is overjoyed. Even though it means being stuck on a remote island in Washington and not getting to go on her family's annual trip back to India, she doesn't care. It is a dream come true and a chance to start pursuing her life's ambition. But when she actually gets there, she finds out that the job is not nearly as glamorous as she thought. She begins to have second thoughts about her decision.

While some parts of the book may be a bit traumatic for sensitive young readers (or grown up ones like my girlfriend!), this story has nice details about veterinary science and Bengali culture, neither of which probably seem related to each other but are worked in seamlessly. Some gentle references to racial discrimination and dealing with age differences are also included.

The book is a fast read and perhaps a bit too short (I was disappointed that Banerjee didn't delve more into Poppy's difficulties with adjusting to her new environment). However, young readers will like the pace and the story (especially, if they are animal lovers), and will enjoy Poppy's adventures.

What Happened on Fox Street, by Tricia Springstubb

Mo and her Dad (along with her totally feral little sister Dottie) live on Fox Street. It's a cozy place with lots of wild critters, but never a fox (although Mo is convinced that she'll find one some day). Mo has lived there all her life and it has become the only remaining link to her dead mother. It is also her link to her best fried Merce (who only shows up during the summers to be with her grandparents who also live on Fox Street).

Things are changing. Merce's grandparents are getting too old to keep their home and Merce herself is talking about not coming back next summer. Even worse, Mo's father is considering a developer's offer to buy their property. Mo is distraught at the thought of losing her friend and the only home she's ever known. And it all comes to a head when Dottie runs away.

There is a light wistfulness to the story and a gentle pace, but the story never seemed to gel for me. Part of the issue is the fairly large cast of characters (friends, neighbors, family, etc.), few of which are memorably distinct. Also, the narrative jumps around a bit from subplot to subplot, and left me in the position of trying to grasp at which story I was supposed to fix on. As is, the primary threads (selling the land, seeing the fox, and Mo and Merce managing to maintain their friendship) never reach resolution, leaving a strong sense of unfinished business. This would be fine in an adult novel and we could rack this up as an atmospheric exercise, but I imagine that a middle reader would find the process boring and frustrating.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Fallen Grace, by Mary Hooper

Grace and Lily are two penniless orphans attempting to survive in Victorian London. Grace is the youngest, but Lily suffers from a mental defect, so it is Grace that must take care of both of them. As their luck turns south, the girls are driven into the arms of the Unwins, an empire of undertakers. Grace is hired as a mute (a silent witness that serves at funerals) and Lily is taken into service. While Grace assumes at first that it is a charitable act, the girls are unaware of a secret that could set them free, but which the Unwins are determined to exploit for their own ends.

This adventure serves at least two explicit purposes: providing a glimpse of Victorian mourning customs (as well as illustrating its rigid class structure) and also paying tribute to the Victorian melodrama (with its florid prose, amazing coincidences, and sense of righteous justice). The novel effectively evokes the morality and sensibility of the serialized stories of the period, albeit with a healthy dose of modern emancipation and enlightenment to make the tale more palatable to contemporary readers.

The story is far from perfect (there's a fair share of loose ends and entirely too convenient events, the characters lack much depth, etc.), but as a tribute to the genre, the book is quite effective. The rich historical detail creates an enjoyable and educational read. So, it's fun and good for you, too! With its morbid fascination with Victoriana and death, this should appeal to the goth crowd as well as Anglophiles.

Smile for the Camera, by Kelle James

At the age of sixteen, Kelle decides to leave her abusive father and go to New York City to pursue her dream of becoming a professional model. Innocent and naive, she has a fair share of problems getting started, ranging from financial insecurity and unsafe living arrangements to dealing with sexual predators. But with the right friends she learns how to navigate the dangers of the modeling industry and eventually succeeds on her own terms.

As this is an autobiography, there isn't much of a point in criticizing the story itself. The bigger question is whether it is worth reading? There's no denying that the subject matter (small-town girl struggles to make it big in the big city) has inherent appeal and any girl who has dreamed of becoming a model will find the lessons taught here to be valuable. But, as told here, the path from rags to riches, is not terribly compelling. There is certainly plenty of difficulties in the beginning, but actually finding work doesn't seem to take Kelle very long and there never seems to be much risk of failure.

The story is also cluttered with a tangential subplot about a friend who is accused of murder. And this causes other subplots about things that would normally be considered important in a story like this (her strained relationship with her family, for example) to be underdeveloped and sidelined. Flashbacks to Kelle's childhood are also surprisingly unrevealing. The writing itself is technically strong, so there is no denying Ms. James's talents, but the narrative is rough and poorly executed.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi

In the near future, Nailer is a lucky boy. He's small enough to crawl inside of rusting old tankers to help salvage crews strip the wrecks of copper wire and other useful parts. It's rough work and his people live dangerous and hard lives. But things may be changing for the better.

After a heavy storm, a luxury boat washes up on the shore and, while salvaging it, Nailer finds a girl inside, barely alive. The easy solution would be to finish her off and claim the fortune in salvage that awaits. It could be the very break that he needs to start a new life elsewhere. But instead, something causes him to rescue her, launching a high stakes race to save much more than Nailer could ever have dreamed possible.

Rough and explicitly gruesome, this is a hard book to stomach. In comparison with, let's say, the last Hunger Games book, this is excruciatingly violent. And, like Matched, after a while the violence just numbs you because it comes on so hard and heavy that there really is no way to raise the volume. So, as with my review of that book, I'd say that Bacigalupi could benefit from learning that less is truly more. I was also distracted from the obvious pitch to get Hollywood interested in the story. Every description seemed designed to guide a screenplay. And it left it difficult for me to enjoy the story as a novel.

But that much aside, this is gripping stuff. While only explained in bits and pieces, this is basically a post-global warming world (think Waterworld for the obvious parallel) with a number of logical conclusions about the nature of things. Just the right mix of Mad Max and An Inconvenient Truth. The characters are rough and mean (there's not much human development here), but they get the job done and it's very effective. And if it is all a bit derivative, so much the better for making it familiar.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Okay For Now, by Gary D. Schmidt

When Doug's father loses his job, he drags the family to Upstate New York, settles them in "the Dump" (as Doug calls it), and Doug and his brother are forced to eke by in "stupid" Marysville. Doug hates the town, he hates snooty Lil Spicer, he hates the teachers (and they hate him), and he hates his angry abusive Dad.

But things start to change when Doug discovers a copy of Audobon's classic drawings of birds in the town library. With some patient prodding from a librarian, Doug discovers his own talent for drawing. And when Doug learns that the town is cannibalizing the book (selling individual pages out of the book) to pay its bills, he sets out to "make things whole." This mission, along with working things out with his brother and father (and an older brother returning from Vietnam), present a series of challenges which Doug manages (sometimes implausibly) to resolve through a mixture of luck and mature insight.

Schmidt is a great writer and has given Doug a very distinctive voice which makes Doug seem very uneducated despite his insightfulness. It's a stereotypical New Yowrk voice (think Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs as an example) and a bit less original that Schmidt's other heroes, but he still draws you in. Besides Doug, there are a lot of characters here and Schmidt manages to make each of them distinct. The narration, meanwhile, is well-done and spare (for a children's book, surprisingly little is spelled out, leaving the reader to often do the work of inferring what has happened). Schmidt also works in a number of subtle historical details (the story is set in 1968-69) that will intrigue readers and inspire further study. Schmidt does seem to feel the pressure to give the book a too-good-to-be-true ending, but is brave enough to leave a few crucial plot threads unresolved to give the reader a dose of reality.

All that said, there is an odd tension in the book that causes me to withhold giving it the high marks that others have offered. While Schmidt paints a pretty dreary view of Doug's life (poverty, illiteracy, and abuse), he seems scared to really run with the ramifications of this darkness. And so, in almost the counterpoint to his oft-quoted phrase "when things start to go pretty good, something usually happens to turn everything bad," every time something bad happens to Doug, a miraculous solution presents itself and Doug (often in implausibly mature fashion) digs himself out. How else to describe ridiculous subplots like getting cast in a Broadway play and having baseball idol Joe Pepitone asking for his autograph? I get the idea that Schmidt wants to show how even a young person can think their way out of trouble, but given the dark nature of the book, I little more honesty seemed called for.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Other Words For Love, by Lorraine Zago Rosenthal

When Ari starts at Hollister, her best friend Summer (who already goes there) isn't around to guide her, but she quickly befriends another girl, Leigh. Leigh comes from a wealthy family in Manhattan and, in turn, introduces Ari to an entirely different lifestyle of fancy penthouses, parties in the Empire State, and hired cars. Leigh also introduces Ari to her cousins Del and Blake. Ari is immediately infatuated with bad boy Del, but Leigh warns her off. Instead, it is Blake that gets Ari under his spell. Despite her mother's warnings, Ari is swept away. Soon, her grades, her friendships, and her family life begin to suffer from her infatuation. When it ends abruptly, Ari is devastated and has to rebuild her life.

Set in the 1980s, there are obviously autobiographical elements present in the novel. This helps fill out details (and the book is chock full of amazing details). But, as usual, my worry is whether Rosenthal actually has a real work of fiction within her -- it's one thing to tell the story of your life, but can you write as well when it doesn't all come from within? We'll only know when/if she brings out her second novel. One thing is for certain, she has cut no corners in depicting her characters in depth, with the sympathy that can only come from living for each and every one of them and having decades to separate herself from the inspiring events. The book is dark and depressing, but captivating and addictive. What we get here reminded me an awful lot of the film "An Education" (a decent film set about 25 years earlier in London) -- same idealistic girl going places and getting sidetracked by love.

The details can grow burdensome. Somewhere after 200 pages, Rosenthal seemed to realize that the pace needed to be picked up. As a result, the ending is more than a bit rushed. Some of this is also because the story (so interesting when it was in the romance-phase) just doesn't hold much once we're in the recovery phase. Hardly anything is said about the healing process, which is a shame since it probably would have been the best part.

Friday, June 10, 2011

So Shelly, by Ty Roth

Imagine if the bad boys (and girl) of early 19th century English Lit (Keats, the Shelleys, and Byron) were alive today, and if (instead of being iconoclastic, gifted, and idealistic young writers) they were gifted and narcissistic contemporary adolescents. This is what Roth invites us to do in his novel, which is part ode to the ideals of the Romantics and part mash-up of early-modern and contemporary culture and values.

Ostensibly, the story is about Gordon Byron and John Keats's plot to steal the cremains of their mutual friend Shelly from her funeral and to scatter them on an island in Lake Erie. But the exercise becomes an excuse for Keats (the overall narrator) to reminisce about where the three of them have been and to hash through their ideas and ideals. As one would expect, Byron plays a larger than life role in all of this and Keats mostly exists to humbly record Byron's extravagance and Shelly's neuroticism.

It's a fascinating concept and often works in its ability to find clever parallels between the often self-centered life of these literary titans and the insular world of a contemporary teen. The idealism of the trio in this novel sounds authentically adolescent, while simultaneously mirroring the models. But there are problems with the parallel as well, not least of which are the age discrepancies. The commitment and agency of the originals doesn't translate well to the cloistered life of 21st century young people. More to the point, it's hard to accept that these young people could be as artistically successful (or educated) as their role models were. This makes the idea of Gordon's early literary prowess implausible (could a contemporary teen write Manfred?).

As for Roth's writing, it is inconsistent. The first eighty pages or so are witty and smart, but Roth starts to lose steam after that. His overall weakness is dialogue and as the characters grow chattier and engage in philosophical observations about life, the narrative grows dull. The words are mostly out of the 19th century and out of synch with the characters.

Still, as someone who is himself rather obsessed with the Romantics (and the Shelleys in particular), I can definitely see the appeal in the idea. Laying out the youthful optimism of the period and pointing out its relevance even 200 years later is a valuable insight. As imperfectly as it may have been implemented, it is a wonderful concept.

Bitter Melon, by Cara Chow

Frances has lived her life so far (or rather, had it lived for her) in the name of her mother and her mother's needs. Couched in the terms of Confucian filial loyalty, she has devoted herself totally to pleasing her mother, which has meant focusing of her education so she can get into Berkeley and then go to medical school (and thus care for her mother financially and physically for perpetuity). It's a clear plan and one that Frances's Mom drives into her head constantly. But when a clerical error lands Frances in a speech class (instead of Calculus), an unorthodox teacher helps Frances discover her talents as a writer and public speaker. And she discovers that she has a lot to say in her own voice.

Starting as a stereotype about tiger mothers, and a predictable tirade against Asian child-raising techniques, the story morphs into abuse as the story progresses. There's a point at which this becomes less plausible and more one-sided, and thus less compelling. It's also a depressing affair and the book doesn't really attempt to redeem itself. So, while the writing is good and the characters (especially the daughter, but there are some attempts to explain the mother) are well-developed, there is an overriding helplessness to the narrative that makes reading less-than-enjoyable.

As usual with novels that seem so transparently autobiographical, I have to ask whether Chow is really capable of writing fiction. Does she have another story in her that isn't just settling scores with her childhood? Having told this story of a familiar childhood, will she be able to move on to something else?

Saturday, June 04, 2011

The Fortune of Carmen Navarro, by Jen Bryant

A shy military cadet meets a sexy and enticing gypsy girl who works at the local convenience store and dreams of becoming a popular singer. They have a passionate affair but the girl loves her music most of all and eventually finds the boy's attentions too constricting. The boy doesn't handle the rejection well, becomes obsessed, and chases after the girl, with tragic results. If the story sounds a bit familiar already, this last detail will clinch it: the girl's name is Carmen.

Loosely based on the story that inspired Bizet's famous opera, Bryant has not just modernized the tale (placing it in contemporary Valley Forge), but added more nuances to the title character. More than a seductress, this Carmen is a young woman with vision and will. She know who she wants to be and will fight whatever demons she has to in order to fulfill her dreams. It is Ryan (this version's Don Jose) who is the relatively less substantial character. Both Ryan's best friend Will and Carmen's best friend Maggie play substantial roles as well.

It's a good adaptation that just may draw a few readers to the opera, by showing that a great story is a great story. I don't see it is earth shattering (and it is obviously not original), but it performs the valuable purpose of decent modernizations: taking a classic story and making it accessible to a newer audience.