Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Speechless, by Hannah Harrington
Labeled a snitch, Chelsea is shunned by her classmates. She decides that the root of her troubles lie in her inability to keep her mouth shut, so she takes a "vow of silence" and refuses to speak aloud. Without the ability to speak (and defend herself), Chelsea begins to notice things about herself and her peers that she never did before. And in that silence, she gains understanding, new friends, and an opportunity at a new life.
As a Quaker, I naturally love a story about the power of silence. For a normal teenager, it must seem like a horrendous ordeal, but I think Chelsea shows us quite well what it can do. In fairness, however, she is actually hardly ever silent since she is the narrator of the story. Instead, we have to imagine what it must be like for her friends and family who don't benefit from her inner dialogue as we do.
The story itself is not all that remarkable. The plot is predictable (self-centered girl learns to care about others and conquers her enemies with kindness), but it is of course a winner. You can't not root for Chelsea as the bad guys keep getting in shots -- you want revenge just as much as she does. So, you flip the pages in anticipation of the payback. Other parts are less compelling. The romance is warm, but nothing terribly exciting (which is surprising for a Teen Harlequin novel). The repartee at the workplace (a diner) is meant to be interesting but also feels a bit like we're going through the motions. Even the bullies and the clueless teachers seem lackluster. The energy simply isn't there. Readable, but not surprising.
Posted by Paul at 8:39 PM No comments:
Saturday, May 25, 2013
Tangerine, by Edward Bloor
And with this knowledge, Paul is thrown by a series of events onto the soccer team at Tangerine middle school, a group of kids so unlike Paul that they have a lesson or two to teach him - about the game and his life. The result is a thrilling sports novel and an enlightening story about loyalty and honesty. Some fun facts about citrus farming are an added bonus.
For a book that is definitely targeted at boys, this is an odd pick for me. But I've always said that what draws me to a good read is the characters and the message. Bloor has written a fascinating book that combines an appealing story about awkward friendship with some great social commentary. Paul is a great character, with some geekiness and yet a clear sense of social justice and the strength to stand up for the right thing (even when the adults around him won't do so). These are the ingredients for building a classic that his endured for multiple reprintings. It's amazing to think that this was Bloor's first novel.
Posted by Paul at 9:40 PM No comments:
Friday, May 24, 2013
Burn for Burn, by Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian
Team-written novels are usually painful ego-stroking exercises, best left in rough draft at a writers' retreat. Their sole source of entertainment is watching the authors try to trip each other up (see, for example, anything written with David Levithan). Thus, it is notable how well this one actually works. I recognize all the beach town details as Han's milieu and the insights on clique psychology are Vivian's strength, but the writing is stylistically seamless and the reader doesn't trip over abrupt shifts from one author to the other.
The characters are quite interesting (as both Han and Vivian excel at building strong complex young heroines). These are dark people and it takes quite a bit to make ostensibly mean girls into interesting (and even sympathetic) characters, but the book largely succeeds. Liliya, torn between her loyalty to her best friend Rennie and simultaneously helping Kat exact revenge against Rennie has particularly complex motivations. All three girls waver a bit on their convictions as they find that their commitment to striking back is not necessarily iron-clad.
The story itself is less smooth, and this is ultimately what defeats the tale. In all the effort to collaborate, Han and Vivian can't quite figure out where they want the story to go. And there are tantalizing subplots (including one that suggests supernatural forces at play) that never get developed. The ending is particularly wimpy and seemed more like the authors just got tired of the exercise and threw in the towel.
Final Note: There is absolutely NOTHING in this book that says "trilogy" (aside from the atrocious ending), so the recent announcement that this is part one of the "Burn for Burn Trilogy" is obviously a cynical post-publication marketing ploy. The story doesn't have enough steam to justify two more books, so I won't hold my breath for the rest of the series. I wish Han and Vivian would both focus on putting out good books instead of trying to cash in on the trilogy craze!
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Openly Straight, by Bill Konigsberg
At first, the plan works great. Rafe goes out for sports and becomes "one of the guys" hanging with a group of jocks whom Rafe can't imagine being so close with back home. But things get complicated as Rafe tries to get Claire Olivia and his parents to understand why he's back in the closet. And as Rafe's attempts to evade the question of his sexual orientation at his new school become white lies and the white lies become outright deception, Rafe discovers that he's in a trap (of his own making).
Surprisingly interesting and effective. Decent gay literature is hard to come by and a book that goes far beyond the whole coming-out scenario to explore what being "gay" really means when you are a teen are rarer. Konigsberg writes well with a good ear for boys. The characters are strong and interesting. And while placing the story at an all-boys boarding school won't win any prizes for originality, the story itself is fresh.
[Disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher, but no other compensation. I am donating my copy to the Middleton Public Library after I finish with it]
Posted by Paul at 6:52 PM No comments:
Friday, May 10, 2013
Gorgeous, by Paul Rudnick
Tom Kelly invites Becky to New York with an even more extraordinary invitation: an offer to transform her into the Most Beautiful Woman in the World with an mysterious dose of magic. Famous stars and glitzy life awaits Becky as her supernatural looks give her access to a world she could never have imagined. From co-staring in a blockbuster action pic with heartthrob Jate Mallow to meeting Crown Prince Gregory of England, nothing is beyond her reach. But she knows that all this fame is based upon her external appearance (and an appearance which itself is achieved through deception). What everyone would think if they knew the true Becky Randle?
The story is not all that special -- a sweet story about finding your inner beauty wrapped in a coating of magic and a huge dollop of outrageous romantic fantasy. The charm of the book is really in the writing. Rudnick is a would-be Faulkner, easily spinning out sentences that fill half a page, but which sound much more like the verbal diarrhea of a ninth-grader than a southern literary giant. A cornucopia of cultural references and social satire are buried in these long-winded sentences and they deserve at least re-read or two. Still, it can all get a bit too precious and even clever writing can't save a story that is more wishful and silly than meaningful.
[Disclosure: I received a free advance copy of the book to review, but will be donating it to the Public Library. I received no other compensation for this review.]
Posted by Paul at 3:53 PM No comments:
Saturday, May 04, 2013
Not That Kind of Girl, by Siobhan Vivian
Natalie is a strong-minded young woman, with good grades and the esteem of principal and her teachers. She even wins the position of class president -- one of only nine girls to do so at her school. Two things threaten her position: the antics of a girl in the freshman class who challenges Natalie's notions of propriety and a whirlwind romance with a guy on the football team which Natalie must keep secret from the school at all costs to prevent the exact type of scandal from which she wants to protects other girls.
It's a strikingly insightful book about agency and self-identity. On a broad stage, Vivian brings in the major debate between feminists who argue that women need to seize control of their sexuality and others who argue that women cannot "play the game with the boys" in a world that is so stacked towards patriarchy. She then pitches the conflict in terms that young readers will understand -- the struggle between desire and reputation, and the anger and frustration that that struggle creates in the minds of young women. Whether it's young Spencer's attempts to control the boys with her sexuality or Natalie's grasping for a safe space to experience sexual pleasure, it's powerful stuff and should give most readers food for thought. Obviously girls will relate more readily to the material, but boys could stand reading it as well.
Natalie is a great character -- she's strong-minded, independent, and well-spoken. Her positions make sense and are laudable -- it is easy to identify with her and even admire her. So, watching her struggle and make mistakes is hard for the reader, even as it feels authentic and plausible. There is that strong sense (maybe even a degree of horror at the realization) that we would do the same things in her position. The ending (and ultimate resolution of Natalie's issues) comes on a bit too quickly and easily, but the point has been well-made by then: when in the business of telling yourself "who you are" and "who you are not," you need to consider what you are trying to achieve. Does labeling yourself and others bring you comfort or simply stress you out? Siobhan Vivian's novel begs the reader to figure it out for themselves.
Friday, May 03, 2013
Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick, by Joe Schreiber
As they are heading to the Prom, Gobi promises Peter that, before the night is over, he'll understand her a lot better than he does now. Peter doesn't know how to take that statement or what it means. But when Gobi pulls out a gun and leads Peter on a nerve-wracking marathon across New York City knocking off bad guys, Peter realizes that his initial perceptions of her have all missed their mark!
Fast and fun, there's nothing like a genre-defying book! If we're going to search for a mash-up, this is probably Risky Business's Joel meets La Femme Nikita (although I like the review that called it "Nick and Norah's Infinite Hit List"). Despite the over-the-top action, there's a surprising amount of depth to Peter and Gobi and a nice chemistry between them (although Gobi is primarily relegated to Schwarzenegger-ish monotone). And, like a good action movie, there's humor to drive the story along. I enjoyed the combination of a coming-of-age story with serious gun play and fast car chases.
And then there's the central conceit of the story: the way that each chapter is introduced with a real-life college application essay question, which is then answered in the chapter itself. This works surprisingly well (and also reminded me a bit of Risky Business).
Posted by Paul at 3:14 PM No comments:
Freshman Year & Other Unnatural Disasters, by Meredith Zeitlin
It's a readable, but unremarkable story -- basically, a series of familiar tropes ranging from family (mother-daughter conflict, obnoxious younger sister, and clueless father) to peers (disappointing crushes, unexpected knights in shining armor, etc.). This is not necessarily bad, but it makes the book painfully predictable. I understand the appeal, but did we really need yet another example of the genre?
Posted by Paul at 2:54 PM No comments:
This Is Not A Test, by Courtney Summers
The central character, Sloane, is initially the most unstable. She's angry at her sister for running away from their abusive father six months before. Left on her own to face a hellish homelife, Sloane grew suicidal (even before people around her started getting killed). It is ironic then that, as the hopelessness of the situation grows, it is Sloane who develops survival instincts.
It's a decent book that suffers from trying to do too much. As a coming-of-age story about domestic abuse, sibling separation, and even interpersonal relations in the hallways of Cortege High, the novel works. Even as a zombie adventure story, it works pretty well (plenty of adventure and dramatic events). But combined together, the pace fluctuates too much. The dialogue seems whiny and drags on too long. The zombie action feels like a story from an entirely separate book. It is jarring mash-up.
Posted by Paul at 2:32 PM No comments:
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