Sunday, November 28, 2010

Wolves, Boys, & Other Things That Might Kill Me, by Kristen Chandler

With a title like this, you'd probably be expecting a werewolf book, but this is actually non-fantasy lit. It's the story of KJ Carlson who struggles to win her Dad's trust and her own self-confidence, but gets far more than she bargained for when she agrees to write a column about the wolves in Yellowstone for her school paper. Living on the edge of the park, tempers run hot over the issue of the reintroduction of the wolves. When a series of violent acts threaten her father and her boyfriend Virgil, KJ has to take a lesson from the wolves about standing up for what she believes in.

A bit longish and awkwardly paced, Chandler still deserves major kudos for writing a book about an interesting subject (wolves, ranchers, and the conflict between them). It's an insightful book and fulfills a criteria of mine for truly great books: they teach me something. I really don't know much about wolves and this book manages to work in some fantastic details. Despite the pacing (which jumps strangely ahead at crucial points, causing major plot developments to be underplayed), the characters are varied and the heroine is sympathetic. There is more than enough human interest to keep things going (although the romance is bit lame). I especially liked the gentle way that wolf behavior and teen behavior is juxtaposed and found the analogy quite effective.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Hard Kind of Promise, by Gina Willner-Pardo

When they were in Kindergarten, Sarah and Marjorie made a promise to each other to always be best friends. For many years, that's what they were. But as they enter seventh grade, the girls are drifting apart. Marjorie is just plain weird and sometimes her behavior embarrasses Sarah. Sarah wants to stay friends, but it's hard when Marjorie doesn't share her interests. As the two girls branch out and acquire new friends, they struggle with their feelings of guilt and loss, trying to figure out if there is a middle ground that can save their friendship.

This is fairly familiar ground for middle readers (the classic example is Lynne Rae Perkins's All Alone in the Universe), probably because changing loyalties are common enough for this age cohort. As such, the book doesn't exactly chart new territory, but it makes a nice supplement to its predecessors. The story is notable for avoiding any of the sort of bitchiness that permeates so many books about girl friendships. There are some not-so-nice kids in this story, but they are quickly sidelined. The characters that matter are all fairly decent to each other. Willner-Pardo's message that, despite one's good intentions, sometimes you just drift apart, is nicely delivered.

I do take some issue with the plot for drifting aimlessly. The primary narrative thread (about participating in a choral competition) is pretty tangential to the purpose of the book. But, the action in this story is inconsequential: basically, the girls could be doing just about anything. The purpose of the story becomes an excuse to show the gentle parting of ways.

The Body Finder, by Kimberly Derting

Violet has a supernatural ability to sense dead humans and animals, but only if they have been killed. And she also has the ability to sense the killers as well. Ever since the talent first revealed itself when she was eight, Violet has had to keep this talent a secret and only her parents, uncle, and her best friend Jay know about it. But when a series of kidnapping and murders start to take place in her town, Violet gets involved in finding the killer. The situation escalates when the killer starts to stalk her.

Derting has expert pacing with the suspense and mystery angle of this story. The "hunter" as he's called is sufficiently creepy. But the story overall drags because of Derting's insistence on throwing in a romance. In itself, this might be a good idea as Violet and Jay's shifting feelings add a bit of spice to the story and allow the pace to run a bit more slowly, but this is a romance without much spark. I get that they are friends but I just didn't see much fire between them. In fact, most of the relationships in this novel lack much feeling. As a result, I really found myself pushing by them so I could get to the juicy and creepy sections of the book.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

As someone who never caught the Harry Potter bug, the Hunger Games series has been a significant literary event. The first book impressed me. The second transcended the usual sequel curse by being both true to (and better than) the first book, except for its ending. That put part three in an awkward place. Having pretty much hated the ending of book two, would I really enjoy book three? There really wasn't much of a choice as to whether I would read this last installment -- I was seriously invested and thus I had to read it.

Mockingjay picks up a few weeks after Catching Fire. The basic gist is that the districts are now rising up and the leaders of the uprising are looking to Katniss to play the role of the agitator. The truth, though, is that (just as in the Games) it is the image of Katniss that they want -- her real self is not actually all that interesting. Still, she wants to be helpful and reluctantly agrees to help out as she can. Along the way, she has plenty of ghosts to face and unresolved issues with her two loves (Peeta and Gale).

There are several interesting tracks to this much darker installment in the series. Having expanded out of the colliseum of gladiator games, Collins is building in a much larger theater both physically and narratively. There is, of course, the action story (the part most likely to be adapted into a movie, if rumors of a film optioning are true). There is also a very complicated political story about paranoia, corruption, the impact of the media, and the depths of greed. These themes have been present in the previous novels but Collins expands on them here. Finally, there is the personal story of Katniss herself and how she copes with survivor guilt, vulnerability, and her conflicting desire to act. Sadly, this last part is the most neglected part of the story. While she is constantly plagued -- to the point of reader distraction -- with guilt and doubt, her ability to work through those feelings remain underdeveloped.
A friend commented that she felt that Collins rushed the ending. I'm prone to agree. In the last half of the book, Collins jumps from one thing to another, seemingly uninterested any longer in her characters or even in the story. It seems as if she simply can't wait for the whole thing to end.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green and David Levithan

Will Grayson's best friend Tiny Cooper is "the world's largest person who is really, really gay, and also the world's gayest person who is really, really large." The two of them have been best friends since little league when Will stood up for Tiny and Tiny towered over anyone who had a problem with it. Now that they are in high school, Tiny wants to return the favor by including Will in his fabulous musical about love. Will isn't so sure how he feels about the attention. He's managed most of the time to get through life with a low profile.

Enter a different Will Grayson, living a couple dozen miles away. This Will lives in constant battle with himself, taking pills to deal with his depression. Through a cruel prank from his former best friend Maura, Will ends up at a porn shop, where (through a string of coincidences) he meets the first Will Grayson. And through Will, he also meets (and falls in love with) Tiny.

The rest of the book traces Tiny and the second Will's romance in chapters that alternate between the two Wills. That Tiny never takes a chapter is irrelevant as he is the center of attention from beginning to end. And, like Tiny, the story is larger than life, culminating in a completely over-the-top ending that can only appropriately be described as gay.

I'm not a fan of David Levithan's writing and just as less a fan of his other collaborations (Nick and Norah being a classic example for me of a book where only half of it was any good in my opinion). This one didn't change my opinion much. I'd like to imagine that I could ascribe all of the parts of this book that I loved to John Green (who seriously rocks!) and all the parts I hate to Levithan, but I suspect that this book was so corroborative that that is not possible. I liked Tiny and the o.w.g Will, while the lower case spelling of manic-depressive Will annoyed me and his plot line seemed like a serious distraction. Tiny and the first Will's relationship though reminded me of some of the same buddy relationship in Looking for Alaska and An Abundance of Katherines.

Side note: One of the things that one notices in reading a book like this (when I spend so much time reading chick-lit) is that it takes a lot of digging (mostly through profanity) to get at the inner souls of boys. I'm not entirely sure if that is really true, but it is certainly the modern style. And I wonder what others think: do all the "bitchsqueeler" references make the relationship more realistic or does it seem overly pumped up?

Friday, November 05, 2010

The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet, by Erin Dionne

Having to start eighth grade with your genius seven-year-old sister taking your classes with you is pretty bad. Add to it your amazingly nerdy parents who show up at school in medieval garb (they are utterly obsessed Shakespeare scholars). Now stir in the unfortunate coincidence that you are studying a unit on the Bard and that your English teacher is convinced that you are a theatrical genius and should play Puck in an upcoming production of Midsummer's Night (when you're already prone to terrible stage fright). Top it all off with being a girl named Hamlet (with a sister named Desdemona)!

In sum, it's waves of unspeakable humiliation for an image-conscious junior high schooler. Hamlet certainly has her hands full. There's the task of both ignoring and covering for her sister. There's a pair of popular girls who are being suspiciously friendly to Desdemona. There's trying to prevent her parents from embarrassing her further. And finally, there's the small matter of small origami piglets that keep showing up in her locker. Is someone playing a prank or does she have a secret admirer?

The narrative can be a bit uneven at times, but Dionne's story is brilliantly over-the-top. Realism is not the point here and the good-hearted characters and tween-ish dramatic exaggeration target the book's middle reader audience well. This is a fun book, intended to make you smile. The foils are typical -- clueless adults, insecure queen bees -- but that simply makes this book literary comfort food.

The Year I Turned Sixteen, by Diane Schwemm

Four sisters take turns recounting their eventful and pivotal sixteenth years. It starts with Rose, who wants to pursue a career on the stage, but has to balance her dreams with a responsibility to help her mother with the family after Dad dies. Two years later, Daisy rebels against her good girl image as a way of acting out her frustration that Mom is dating their next-door neighbor. Three years later, Laurel suffers a deep personal loss. And finally, after all of this, baby-of-the-family Lily struggles with an identity crisis in the wake of all of her sisters' successes and failures.

Strikingly, all four sisters have the same absolutely lousy taste in boys, each one starting off with Mr Wrong and initially clueless about the Right Guy who is right in front of them. Thankfully, they each recognize their mistake and pull through before the nice guy gives up on them. All of which left me wondering how poorly Mom raised her kids to be unable to tell the difference between a nice boy and a monster!

And that underlines my first basic problem with this breezy 700-page epic -- it's terribly repetitive. Each section (envisioned as a standalone book) is basically the same: young woman arrogantly ignores family and friends and throws herself at a worthless creep. After a lot of painfully obvious abuse, she recants and the spurned good guy (who she's treated like crap) takes her back. I get that it's a formula, but I didn't need it repeated again and again!

My second problem is the writing style. For a book pitched at teens, the vocabulary and sentence structure is pedantic and simplistic, as if it was more aimed at tweens. The tone was condescending and written more like a parent would like to imagine teens talk/behave, than how they actually do. It seemed sloppy and careless, and I was disappointed.