Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Sin-Eater's Confession, by Ilsa J. Bick

In the midst of serving as a medic in war-torn Afghanistan, Ben recalls the events surrounding the violent death of his friend Jimmy back home in the rural town of Merit, Wisconsin.  Despite the fact that he witnessed the murder, he was unable at the time to come forward and still doesn't really know what happened.  That failure to protect Jimmy, before his death or after, drives Ben to deep despair and he struggles with the doubts it implanted in his mind.

An intense psychological exploration of guilt and personality formation.  And definitely not a cheery piece!  I wanted to hate it for its depiction of rural Wisconsin as some sort of redneck bayou country, but ultimately Bick's depiction of the town Merit was nuanced and authentic.  The stereotypes (beer, brats, and the Pack) come mostly from Ben and are not borne out by the actual actions of the characters.  In fact, the entire novel bucks convention painting a world that is full of infinite shades of gray and less full of certainty than a reader is comfortable with.  Chief among the uncertainties is Ben himself, who struggles with almost every part of his story (not least of which is what he truly felt for Jimmy).

It's an ugly book and a story I don't particularly care to read again.  Yet, it rang true and one has to admire the artistry of the author and the fine craftsmanship of the novel.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Dancing Naked, by Shelley Hrdlitschka

Sixteen and pregnant, Kia is faced with the most difficult set of decisions in her life.  And while she has the support of her family, a social worker, and a kind youth group leader at church, a lot of the weight falls on her shoulders.  Week by week, the story tracks the development of her pregnancy and Kia's adventure with the experience.

Despite some subplots about Kia's relationship with the youth leader and her work at a seniors' home, the novel sticks pretty tightly on the pregnancy.  And it stays pretty matter-of-fact.  This works mostly because pregnancy is an inherently interesting subject and because teen readers will generally relate to Kia's character (who is level-headed but definitely a bit over her head).  For many, the nature of the story provides sufficient dramatic tension.  In apparent consideration of that reaction, the story leans so hard away from drama and theatrics that it comes across more as non-fiction.

The issue that it raises for me, though, is that this isn't much of novel.  In terms of depicting the experience realistically (and thus being educational), the book deserves praise, but it's a bit cold and clinical.  We know that Kia struggles with the decisions about whether to carry the pregnancy to term and whether to give the baby away for adoption, but we really never get inside her head.  Thus, the emotional attachment to the character doesn't develops.  Perhaps the most insightful part is the book's actual title (an allusion to exposing yourself entirely to the world), but in that sense we never really get to see Kia dance naked (at best it's about as fuzzy as the book's cover).

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Paradox of Vertical Flight, by Emil Ostrovski

My Alma Mater (Vassar) has contributed a fair number of YA writers to the world (most notably Emily Jenkins/E Lockhart). Here comes a new one...

Jack is interrupted in the midst of a suicide attempt brought on by existential angst with a phone call from his ex-girlfriend, Jess.  She's about to give birth to their baby and - out of the blue - asks him to be at the hospital with her.  That reunion doesn't go so well, but Jack is so struck by the momentous idea of being a father that he decides to kidnap the baby.  A madcap road trip to take the baby to meet Jack's grandmother ensues with Jack, his best friend Tommy, and Jess and the baby in tow.

Very much the boy book, the novel is liberally littered with scatological and raucous humor, some implausible adventures and a fair amount of irresponsible and illegal behavior.  There's a fair amount of the razzing that passes for male bonding and the girl definitely gets short changed as a character.  In case you don't get it, I'm not a fan of the genre but occasionally feel obligated to read a book intended for young male readers.

But Ostrovski has other higher (and contradictory) ambitions for this novel.  Jack is a philosophy aficionado, names the baby Socrates, and engages in long imaginary discourses with the child throughout the book.  This mental masturbation is fairly dull (and I studied philosophy at Vassar just like the author!), largely irrelevant to the plot, and really far out of character.  The topics of the conversations might thrill an undergrad, but since Jack is supposedly a high schooler, it's a little hard to believe that he would have the knowledge to know these topics (even if he's a bright kid, how many high school teachers can expound intelligently on Nietsche?).  The literary conceit simply didn't work and it fills a great deal of pages (particularly towards the end).  Might have been better in an adult novel, but it hangs on awkwardly and will search hard for an audience.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Velvet, by Mary Hooper

It's the Turn of the Century and Velvet is sure that her fortunes are about to change.  She ekes out a living in London as a laundress, working long hours in back-breaking labor.  So, when one of her wealthy customers, Madame Savoya, offers her the opportunity to join her household as an assistant, she thinks her dreams have been realized and she accepts the promotion without a second thought. 

Her new mistress is a medium and Velvet is introduced the arcana of seances and spiritualist sessions.  Velvet's never given much thought to "the other side" (as Madame calls it), but she notices early on the great comfort that communicating with the deceased bring their grieving relatives.  It is only later that Velvet begins to notice suspicious events and begins to question the motives of her new employer.

Another richly documented historical novel from Hooper.  Picking up some related material from Fallen Grace, we get a thorough introduction to the Edwardian obsession with the occult and some of the unsavory practices of the era.  There is the expected attention to detail in clothing and dining, as well as a lot of information about everyday life in London.  The story is a bit predictable, but Hooper unfolds the story well and the pace is lively.  Combined with the well-developed setting, this is a satisfying read.

You Look Different in Real Life, by Jennifer Castle

Ten years ago, Justine and four other kindergartners were placed around a table and interviewed on film in what was to become Five at Six - a groundbreaking documentary about growing up.  Five years later, the filmmakers returned and produced a second installment, Five at Eleven.  Now, it's time for a third visit to the kids.  However, in the intervening five years, things have changed dramatically and the inseparable children have become sullen adolescents with hidden dramas that they no longer want to share with the world (for Justine, it is the nagging feeling that all the promise she showed at eleven has fizzled into nothing and she has become unremarkable and unworthy of the attention).  The filmmakers' initial attempts to reignite the chemistry between the kids falls flat. But then a crisis occurs that brings the five together again and helps them come to terms with what drove them apart.

What starts as an interesting premise (more on that below) turns fairly conventional as the crisis that pops up mid-book turns this potentially deep study of changing priorities in adolescence and the process of coping with fame, into a predictable kids-hit-the-big-city adventure.  At that point, the book for me becomes dull and unremarkable.  A series of challenges brings the kids back together again into a tighter bond and Justine finds her special talent.  It's all very Disneyesque.

The draw of this book for me was really the premise itself.  I'm a big fan of Michael Apted's Up series (the obvious inspiration for this story).  Last year, I had the opportunity to watch a screening of 56 Up where Nick Hitchon (who lives near me) was in the audience.  He was seeing the film for the first time and afterwards spoke about the experience with the audience.  What I learned from him was how emotionally wrenching it is to be part of the film and what difficulty the participants go through every seven years.  It made a deep impression and I was interested to learn how Castle would approach this fertile material.

In the first couple of chapters where Justine is struggling with whether she'll participate or not and where she recounts the embarassments of being in the film, I heard a great echo of what Nick had told us and thought that I was going to get a lot out of the novel.  However, apparently it wasn't enough to sustain Castle.  The shift into high gear action addresses the issue of the separation between the kids and ties up some loose ends from their past, but we never really revisit Justine's (or any of the other children's) ambivalence towards the project.  That's really a shame as it was the most unique and original part of this story.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

The Moon and More, by Sarah Dessen

In her last summer before college, Emaline has a lot of decisions to make.  Living in the small coastal town of Colby, there aren't too many opportunities, but she wants to reach for anything she can.  And she's looking for encouragement wherever she can find it.

Her life has been defined by her relationship with her (adoptive) Dad and her (biological) Father.  Dad has always been there for her but not been too ambitious, while Father showed up only infrequently but pushed her to succeed.  At the same time, Father's let her down recently, bailing on her just as she almost realized her career dreams.  A similar tension develops when Emaline meets ambitious Theo, in town to help on a documentary about a local artist-celebrity, and she chooses him over her long-term safe boyfriend Luke. 

It's a summer beach story with a complicated storyline:  Emaline sorts out these complicated relationships she has with men and tries to figure out how to realize her dreams.

Sarah Dessen is a fantastic writer, with a major talent for expressing emotion and turning beautiful prose out in (increasing-longer) novels.  She also creates complicated and realistic young women on the cusp of adulthood like no one else in the literary world today.  No one should doubt her talent.  But, while Suzanne Collins can decimate a population and overthrow entire regimes in 400 pages, Sarah Dessen can barely get her heroine around the block of a small coastal Carolina town in the same space.  To say that barely anything really happens in the story might be overstating things (lots of stuff happens between chapters), but Dessen hates writing action sequences.  She would rather do all her action in recap and kill forests of trees in service to dialogue and emotional responses to the (off-screen) action.  That isn't all bad (and the focus on emotion is a trademark - and stereotype - of chick lit), but is seems a bit of a cop out when you're reading a 440 page book.

Emaline is an amazingly well-developed character.  Perfect for a sleepover and maybe a new BFF, but she doesn't really do very much in this story.  And, like so many other Dessen heroines, she's terribly autonomous and isolated.  That's all to be expected, but most of the time, it's interesting.  Here, I feel like I've read this character before and seen better.  In sum, it's another Dessen installment, but not one of the best of the lot.