Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Sledding Hill, by Chris Crutcher

Elliott has suffered a double whammy:  his best friend and his father are both killed within three weeks of each other in separate accidents.  In both cases, he's the one who first discovered them. With a touch of ADHD, Elliott in general has trouble communicating and decides to deal with his losses by shutting down and going mute.

His plans to lay low, though, are challenged when his town is plunged into a censorship debate that pits a liberal English teacher against a bigoted minister and his church.  With the help of his late best friend's father and the ghost of the best friend himself, Elliott goes up against the church.

It was probably intended to be clever, but Crutcher's decision to put himself in the story and make one of his books (admittedly, not one that actually exists) into the challenged text seemed like incredible hubris.  Reading repeated testimonials from the characters about how transformative Crutcher's writing is (from the pen of the author himself) seemed self-serving.  My immediate (uncharitable) reaction was that Crutcher's writing is not in the same stratosphere as the literature that one normally associates with challenged books.

And there is no getting around how dreadfully Crutcher actually writes.  His command of grammar is weak and despite apparently significant editorial intervention, there are some pretty obnoxious errors (it's "would have" not "would of"!). The characterizations are weak and facile.  An attempt to humanize the minister by belatedly bringing up childhood abuse is half-hearted.  Crutcher's primary position seems to be that organized religion is intrinsically evil and plagued with mob-mentality.  It's fine for dramatic license, but it doesn't really enlighten the reader about the debates surrounding challenged books.  The overall story is awfully random.  The ghost best friend is a bizarre character, to put it mildly, and the relationship with the grieving father and his own mother are left underdeveloped.

Flyaway, by Lucy Christopher

Isla and her father bond in the early morning hours over following the migration of the swans.  They tirelessly trudge after the birds, trying to protect them and study them at the same time.  But those trips are interrupted when Dad gets sick.

At the hospital, Isla makes two discoveries:  she befriends a sick boy who shares her love for the swans and she discovers a swan in a nearby pond that has lost its flock.  So, now there are three things on her mind:  helping her father get better, hoping the boy gets well, and finding a way to reunite the lost bird with its flock.  Along the way, she also deals with her grandfather's fear of hospitals and with her feelings about various boys (including the sick one).

It's an odd and unusual book that defies convention.  There's a little bit of Fly Away Home, but also threads about family reconciliation, first kisses, and solving ancient mysteries.  At times, the story is strongly realistic, but flies (so to speak) into fancies at other points.  The overall result will probably fly over the heads of its target demographic (and truthfully left me a bit confused).  I'm really not sure what to make of the book.  I finished it (so it can't be that bad) but it's really hard to see what it was trying to do.

Wonder, by R. J. Palacio

"The universe has not been kind to Auggie Pullman," says one of his friends.  And, at first glance, that is true.  August has a lot of challenges.  Born with facial and cranial deformities, he's endured numerous surgeries and yet he still shocks people when they first see his face.

In fifth grade, his parents decide that (after years of homeschooling) he should be mainstreamed and enter regular school.  The idea terrifies August.  He's a bright kid and knows how people respond to him.  Can he be brave enough to face that every day?  He isn't sure, but he's about to find out!

It's a lovely premise about a boy with a flawed exterior and a heart of gold, struggling to win over his peers.  Engineering the story to make you root and cheer for Auggie, Palacio is reluctant to show his hero's flaws.  August is intelligent, caring, and patient with the cruelties of his peers.  I didn't buy it.  Showing August make some mistakes and bad choices would have made him a more endearing boy, rather than the Buddha she has crafted.  Instead, the set up is straightforward:  August is good (although he occasionally gets mildly upset at the treatment he receives) and the kids around him fall into two camps (evil and good).  A few of them may backslide, but if they are good, then they come around.  It's all too simplistic and we're deprived the opportunity to really explore why even kind people might not always behave well.

And then there's the narrative design itself.  I was fine when August was telling his own story, but Palacio regularly shifts the storyteller -- in a GoTo Meeting-like style -- from one character to another.  Sometimes, this reveals interesting information about the side character, but rarely does it tell us much about August or about how that temporary narrator feels about August.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker

When the rotation of the Earth suddenly begins to slow down, the effects are initially subtle but ultimately cataclysmic.  Every day grows five minutes longer.  Within months, the duration of day light and night time have doubled.  At first this causes minor inconveniences, like deciding whether the "day" should be a cycle (and grow steadily longer) or whether it should remain 24 hours (and fall out of sync with physical reality).  But the changes become more and more grave, as the tides become extreme, the climate changes, flora and fauna begin to die, and the Van Allen Belt collapses, letting in deadly solar rays.

Meanwhile, for eleven year-old Julia, there are changes as dramatic taking place:  her body and the bodies of her friends are changing, her friendships are collapsing, and the rules of nature at school are evolving.  At home, her parents are growing distant to each other and to her.  Even her grandfather is becoming different and more distant.  So many changes!

It's an interesting experimental book, combining science fiction and apocalypse with more common middle reader fare.  I like the juxtaposition of end-of-the-world with starting middle school and the novel frequently contrasts Julia's changing world with the collapse of civilization quite effectively.  But after a while, the point has been made and I started looking for more.  Unfortunately, the book doesn't deliver it.

There are plenty of great anecdotes (moments taken from the author's own childhood perhaps?) and the usual suspects (bra shopping, first kiss, dealing with cliques, etc.) but nothing really new to say about them.  And the apocalypse material can grow distracting (particularly, since it's more original and interesting).  Julia and her family are never really developed.  Instead, we go from one episode to another -- we know what they do and how they reacted, but aren't really allowed inside of their heads to see what makes them tick.

I have previously observed that male writers often prefer to write action (packing their novels full of activities and events), while female writers are more likely to create books where little or no activity occurs.  Instead, we spend the entire story inside of our characters' heads (and hearts).  The stereotype is crude and not altogether true.  There are male writers who do a wonderful job getting inside of their characters' heads.  Walker, I think provides an example on the other side (a woman who writes an effective action story). 

As a sci-fi adventure, this book works well enough, but the pesky girlie stuff then becomes a distraction.  For anyone else interested in Julia's coming of age, the end-of-the-world material is scary and overpowering.  Her story gets lost. And thus the book is a paradox: not written in a way that will appeal to either traditional audience, it falls through the cracks.  You can love it for its originality and for busting through standard marketing, but finding its readers will be a challenge.

The Minister's Daughter, by Julie Hearn

Told in two distinct separate narratives (separated by a half-century), this is the story of Nell, the granddaughter of a village healer, who suffers at the hands of the town ministers' two daughters.  The eldest daughter (Grace), desperate to cover up her illegitimate pregnancy, claims demonic possession, pointing the finger at Nell and her grandmother.  With rich historical detail and some (slightly distracting) subplots about the English Civil War and local pixies, we see the terrible way that minor transgressions quickly escalate into deadly tragedies.

It's an enthralling story, but unfocused.  Hearn doesn't seem to know if she wants to write a paranormal story or historical fiction.  The pixies and fairies are intended to illustrate rural folk beliefs of the period, but they are jarring in a story that is otherwise rooted in historic reality.  Given the choice, I'm a greater fan of good history and the story didn't need the supernatural creatures (even though Hearn weaves them in pretty solidly).  I also found the ending a bit of a let down.  The blurb promises a shocking conclusion and it certainly has a bit of pathos, but seemed underwhelming compared to what could have been done with it.  Overall, a beautiful book, but a bit of a letdown.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Skunk Girl, by Sheba Karim

Nina Khan struggles with the things that other girls like her in High School do (getting good grades, avoiding social gaffes, getting noticed by a cute boy), but she also faces some unique issues in her small Upstate New York town.  She's the only South Asian in her school and is burdened with her parents' rigid rules and expectations (no fraternization with boys, no parties, etc.).  While she respects her parents' concerns, it is frustrating that they are so ignorant of how embarrassing it is to be a lone Muslim girl in such a Western place.

When it came out, the book received a lot of attention for its complex depiction of life as a Pakistani teenager in America.  That initially turned me off from reading the book.  Was the author just trying to score points on a political correctness scale?  Was this some token book for Pakistani kids?  But, like with any good book, I was able to find things about this novel that were universal and enjoyable.  You can certainly read it to experience a bit of Pakistani culture, but that is not the sole point. It's not that Nina's racial and ethnic identity is irrelevant (it's an integral part of her character), it's just that she's so basically "normal" in all other ways.  Her parents may have high standards, but what child hasn't felt that way about their parents?

The story itself lives on the strength of its characters.  Nina is, of course, a major force, but the supporting characters are also interesting, ranging from her friends (and even her nemesis Serena) to the boy interest (a mildly shallow but thoughtful Italian boy) to Nina's parents.  I especially liked Nina's father, who showed a complex ability to sympathize with Nina's struggles while upholding his values for her.  The only character that didn't work for me was Nina's older sister, who becomes rather preachy and seemed more a mouthpiece for the author than a legitimate character in a fairly slapdash finale.

Overall I liked it.  It avoided cliches and easy solutions, leaving open lots of possible solutions to a situation that is complex and treated as such!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Sabriel, by Garth Nix

Sabriel's father, Abhorsen, is the man charged with preventing the dead from returning to the land of the living.  Sabriel, still a teen, has been raised far away from her father's work, at a boarding school in Ancelstierre.  One day, a messenger brings Sabriel her father's sword -- a sign that that he has passed on.  But Sabriel doesn't believe it and she sets out on a very dangerous mission to find and rescue her father.

Unfortunately not the coming-of-age novel I really hoped it would be, Sabriel's odyssey is still entertaining.  The plot is packed full of adventure and the settings are rich and full.  The details of the magic that they use is fascinating and original on its own, but there is also the vivid detail of the Afterlife (which would put Dante to shame) and the incongruous modernity of Ancelstierre.  All in all, it's a fascinating world.  So, while the lack of a stronger human element is a turn-off for me, the book itself is readable and introduces an exciting world.

The Perks of Being A Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

In a series of letters to an anonymous recipient, Charlie writes about his discoveries and fears during his first year of high school.  He has more than a normal share of them:  struggling with love, sex, drugs, alcohol, violence, and hanging out with a group of equally messed-up seniors.  In ways that are never really explained, Charlie is a bit of a simpleton, and his naive observations can be both endearing and shocking.

Apparently, one of the more "challenged" books in American libraries, the explicit nature of the book makes it a perfect "forbidden fruit" (and thus immensely popular with teens).  However, this is something of a distraction as the appeal of the story is not really its sins, but the basic decency of the narrator.  Charlie's naivete and well-rooted moral compass makes him a regular good guy throughout, even if his social ineptitude gets him into heaps of trouble.

That said, Charlie's ignorance can be a grating device.  The cause is never identified - an artistic conceit meant to keep us wondering (and one that won't work on the big screen), but it is at times a bit too precious.  Without an outside observer, I found myself getting suspicious of the narrative, and distracted by the attempt to figure out what was "really" going on.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

One Thousand Books!

Today, I hit a major milestone on my blog:  My one thousandth review.  It's a bit like the social media equivalent of becoming a million-mile flyer (look for THAT milestone sometime next year!) or celebrating a Golden Anniversary (ha!).  But what does it really mean?

The milestone itself is a bit of a misnomer.  I've read a lot more than a thousand YA books.  Not counting all the books I read as a kid and the hundred or so odd children's books I read as a grown-up before I started posting reviews, there are dozens of books I started but couldn't finish since then (yep, if you think my reviews can be caustic at times, you should have seen what I would have said about the stuff I didn't even try to review!).

I'm not exactly going to suddenly stop writing (I've got a nice pile of books to read for my next flight and I'll be posting those reviews in a few days).  Rather, it's a nice moment to sit back and reflect on why I'm doing what I'm doing.

Among other things, I've learned that there are plenty of good books out there.  I would swear that YA books are better than they were when I was in the correct demographic.  They are more sophisticated, they deal with more intense subject matter, and they expect the reader to be brighter.  They are, in sum, far more worthy of my time.  I enjoy them.

I re-started reading YA because it spoke to me as an adult. It reminded me of hard moments in my own life that I had worked through.  It made me reflective about the choices I had made and helped me come to terms with whether I had made the right decisions or not.  The characters could be annoying or naive, but that was appropriate for who they were.  And in the foibles, I was reminded of how I too had once been that young and done such stupid things.  And, far more surprising, how I really was still so "stupid," even if I wasn't so young.  All this, because YA doesn't just address the difficulties of growing up, it deals with the process of finding one's place in the world and learning how that place is situated in relations with others.  And no one ever really settles that issue.  Sure, plenty of grown-ups stop caring and worrying about it consciously, but I see the same anxieties in the adults as I walk into a conference room (do I look OK? will they like me? ) that adolescents feel in their high school cafeteria.  Only the settings change.

I named this blog "not acting my age" in order to call out the societal prejudice that becoming a responsible adult involves tossing aside certain things (like reading YA books).  And as a frequent business traveler, most of my reading is done sitting in planes with old guys who wouldn't be caught dead reading a book with a pink cover.  In truth, I do tend to hide my book covers, but it seems a bit sad that these grown-ups are so undeveloped, so adolescent that they cannot find a place in their lives for a little pink in their life!  It's been a while since I fretted to the point of complete distraction about whether the "love of my life" felt the same way about me, but even grownups know what it is like to have unrequited relationships.

All that said, I'm not the world's greatest reviewer.  I once was a aspiring writer myself and I recognize the hard work that goes into writing a novel.  I know that my short comments rarely give justice to the work of the book's creator.  Many times, I'm not at my best when I write an entry.  I try my best to distill the essential elements of the book's plot and congratulate myself if I can pull that off.  Trying to come up with something original to say about a book (when you've read dozens like it) is often asking too much.  I'm sure that makes my reviews repetitive and boring.  I rarely feel that I have much insight to offer on a book.  Sometimes, I wonder why I'm even posting the review.  But I keep doing it (and I thank you for continuing to read them).

I'm not a children's librarian, not a school teacher, and I don't even have children of my own.  In that way, I'm a true fan of YA literature.  I'd like to think that that gives me a unique perspective on the books.  I'm not primarily trying to figure out if kids will enjoy the book (although I occasionally will hazard a guess).  I'm trying to figure out if I enjoy it.  Hopefully, even if you are a librarian, teacher, or parents, you're doing a little of the same.

Amber House, by Kelly Moore, Tucker Reed, and Larkin Reed

Amber House, the ancestral home of Sarah's mother's family, just off the Chesapeake Bay, is a complete unknown to Sarah.  She's never been there before.  But when her grandmother dies, Sarah and her autistic brother Sam are brought there by their Mom.  It's a grand place, with room after room to explore.  However, it is much more.  Within its walls, Sarah finds that she has an ability to see into the past - echoes of things that have occurred to her family.  As she sees these visions, she learns the complicated story of her ancestors, and uncovers a terrible tragedy that lies in wait in her future.

A strikingly original work that covers horror and fantasy (with a healthy inspiration from the Grimms Brothers), but branches into YA romance and more than a little fancy ball fantasies.  I didn't hold out a lot of hope for the book (it came as an ARC and I wasn't very keen on the premise), but it grew on me as I started reading it.  I enjoyed it.  The plot can meander a bit and some of the twists and turns in the plot seem driven by literary ADHD, but the story is complicated and rich.  By the end, there's plenty of food for thought and I liked that complexity.  So, if you like a storyline that doesn't condescend and can put up with a few mildly scary scenes (mostly involving spiders!), you should give this unassuming novel a try.

[Disclosure:  I received this book for free from the publisher without solicitation, and without any promise of special consideration in my review.]

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Skinny, by Donna Cooner

Ever Davies has a weight problem.  At over 302 lbs, she feels completely out of control of her body.  She's subject to the usual taunts from classmates, but she's her worst critic.  A voice within her head (who she's nicknamed "Skinny") taunts her constantly.  Skinny tells her that she's fat, that she's unloved and unlovable, and that no one wants to be around her.  And, while Ever realizes that Skinny isn't real, she's grown to believe every word that she hears.

When it becomes too much, Ever seeks out a drastic solution: gastric bypass surgery.  And while the surgery helps reduce her weight, it doesn't make Skinny's voice go away.  Instead, it seems that the world grows crueler and more complicated as Ever's physical appearance changes.

I have complicated feelings about gastric bypass surgery (especially for teens).  I dated a person who had had the procedure so I understand the complexities of eating disorders and what gastric bypass can (and can't do) to help.  It is a bit disturbing to me that Ever's character is allowed to go through with the procedure when the causes of her overeating are so obviously psychological (and tied to her egomania).  I do give credit to Cooner for never claiming that it was a solution, but in many ways I'm not sure that she went far enough.  And the eventual solution to Ever's problem is a bit vague and muddled.  I worry that readers may well see the surgery as the cause for Ever's eventual self-acceptance.

All that said, I found Cooner's story compelling and interesting.  She does an excellent job of getting us inside of Ever's head.  I got a bit weary of Skinny's voice, but I understood the point of it and I think that it (unfortunately) speaks to a lot of young people.  They will recognize the pain of self-loathing.  Readers may lose patience with Ever's cluelessness (about the kindness and caring of her friends, who she treats pretty badly), but when she eventually comes round, we all get to cheer.

Disclosure:  The book will come out on October 1st (I received an ARC from Scholastic, but no other compensation for this review - my copy of the book will be donated to our local library).