April 29, 2005
I was initially attracted to the first two Pants books because of the over-used-yet-never-tired theme of girl friendship. As someone who has a solid group of four women friends (friendships lasting over ten years), I connected to Pants on a deeper level that probably is more than the books deserve. I agree with TadMack's lament that Chick Lit is a double-edged sword. Why do books that focus on girl power only succeed in enforcing stereotypes?
I found some magic in the first two books. While the writing overall was uneven at best, there were certain moments that spoke true to me (In Sisterhood, Lena flies to Baja to comfort and confront Bridget. While the idea of a 15-year-old girl changing her flight from Greece to Baja without any parental concern is laughable, the moment when Lena finds Bridget huddled under the covers spoke true volumes to me. How many times did I live that moment--when only your best girlfriend can say and do the right thing and get you out of bed, making you realize that life isn't going to end and that you were melodramatic? Or in The Second Summer of the Sisterhood when Carmen introduces Lena to her friend/step-brother Paul and has one of those moments when you see the future because you know the two people standing in front of you so well. I've had those moments of clarity.) I enjoyed the Sisterhood and Second Summer like one enjoys Snickers bars after a five-mile run. So bad they're good.
This is not true with the rushed, forced tone of Girls in Pants. Character development takes a back seat to un-necessary, cutesy scenes of hand-holding, crossing legs to trip each other (yeah, amusing to whom?), plunging into the surf together, eating too much junk food, and lots of i's dotted with hearts. Like her first two books, Brashares relies on stereotypes to emote. There is heavy emphasis on this being the last summer for the Septembers; even the stoic Tibby cries at the thought of their separation. Normally the indication of a last summer in teen-land means something grand and life-altering. The greatest disappointment with Girls in Pants is that nothing changes. Oh, sure, Carmen's mom is pregnant. Tibby realizes she loves Brian. Bridget sees Eric again after two years. But Lena is still Lena--big feet and beautiful face. Bridget still has her glorious hair. Carmen still throws gigantic tantrums that no one notices. Tibby still mopes in her bedroom wearing cute tank tops and plaid jammies. The girls are no wiser than the first book. We are lead to believe at the end of the second book that they learned something their mothers didn't: you're stronger together than apart. But that doesn't necessarily make you smarter.
Brashares seems to favor fast moments over carefully crafted scenes that allow the reader to savor the magic. The best example is Tibby's story. Brashares establishes a potentially wondrous moment between Tibby and Brian, only to deflate the plot trajectory with nonsensical Tibby reactions that are supposedly obstacles to her relationship with Brian. I think I read this before. Oh yeah, I did. In Sisterhood and Second Summer.
I'm not going to throw anything at anyone who voices her opinion about the Pants book. But I may throw the actual book across the room, which is what I normally do when I'm disappointed.
April 28, 2005
This topic is really germane to the conversation we had at Chat last week about 'Chick Lit,' and how that genre itself has proved so capitalistically viable as to have spawned its own imprints, including Harlequin's Red Dress Ink, Pocket Books' Downtown Press, Random House's Harlem Moon, (a small romance imprint for women of color now trying hesitantly to expand into new avenues-- anytime you read the word 'Harlem' it's only gonna mean one thing in marketing, yo.); the imprint Strapless & the now defunct HarperCollinsUK imprint, Flamingo. A large part of the rousing success of the pastel, mass-marketed paperbacks publishers surmise, is purchase by readers who formerly didn't like to read, but are finding that it's not as bad as they thought, especially when often their novel is followed up by a blockbuster film. You can bet the film options are going to keep coming, strengthening once again the link between Lindsay Lohan and literature. Uh, yeah. Fashionistas and Gossip Girl to the rescue again.
While I wish Miss Viswanathan every success, I'm a little terrified for her. $500K and a two book deal for the germ of an idea on a college application... a plotline that's part of a trend that may or may not be in its ascendancy by the time she's through... It's really risky for the publishers, and perhaps for Viswanthan's future publications (although, to be fair, she had determined that she was going to be an investment banker when she grew up.) Also, 'Chick Lit' as a sub-genre seems to be written mostly for and about the young, white, urban, upwardly mobile career woman -- and the YA equivalent about the children of same. Will an Indian woman find a way to fit, and retain her East Asian roots?
Stay tuned. This may be a story worth writing.
April 27, 2005
Young girls have been disappearing in Hallow Hill for thousands of years, and sisters Kate and Emily, their parents lost to them, have been landed at the old house and are forced to live with spinster aunts and a miserly bachelor guardian. But something quite odd is going on, between getting lost in sight of home, "helpful" gypsies appearing in the dark, and Something watching them from the woods. When Kate learns the name of her fear, no one believes her, at first. Her guardian summons the psychiatrist. But there really are goblins under Hallow Hill. They're merciless. They're patient. And they've got plans for Kate.
From its mildly spooky beginning to its end, this is a thoroughly enjoyable tale, and I am especially smug that I read it before I knew it was a Junior Literary Guild pick, or a YALSA favorite! It truly deserves its kudos, however, as a quirky, humorous story of self-reliance, compromise and determination against daunting odds. The multifaceted characters are immediately engaging -- even the 'bad guys' are given a highly polished patina (that one of my favorite characters is a metal snake gives you an idea of just how skilled Dunkle is!), and the 'good guys' don't win all in the way you might expect. The detailed and sumptuously intricate world gives a tiny nod to a less Disney-fied castle of Beauty & The Beast, but it's only a shadow of that simple story plus a whole lot more.
And the best news yet? It's another trilogy! What a great treat for the reader! Close Kin is the next in the series, followed by In the Coils of the Snake , which is due to be released October of 2005.
This series was my favorite find so far this month. Check it out!
April 26, 2005
I found myself eager to read Kate DiCamillo's The Tale of Despereaux soon after hearing about it on NPR, and wasn't disappointed. This book about a mouse who falls in love with a princess is one which I will not hesitate to describe as charming, and I mean that in the most non-patronizing way possible. It is a charming story, with funny twists, scary turns, and appealingly goofy-named characters. With names like Chiaroscuro, Miggery Sow, and Princess Pea, how can you go wrong? Its skewed-fairy-tale aesthetic will appeal to readers looking for something a little deeper and less trite than your average retold Grimm or Andersen story; something that's a tiny bit more Roald Dahl than Walt Disney.
Plus there's DiCamillo's amusing take on the Victorian convention of addressing readers directly within the writing—with "Dear Reader, take note" and so forth. It's a device that was often used to draw the reader's attention or signal overt moralizing, something that I've already mentioned disliking. In this book, it has a surprisingly disarming effect, and is, of course, used to full humorous advantage. I immensely preferred this novel to her previous one, Because of Winn-Dixie. Though I did enjoy Winn-Dixie, I felt Despereaux had much more depth of story and craft, and I definitely agree that it's a winner.
This year's Newbery Award winner was vastly different in every way possible, but no less of a good read. Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata chronicles a story of a family's loss of one of their daughters to cancer, and its effect on the remaining family members, through the eyes of the younger daughter, Katie. Running through the whole book is the theme of growing up Japanese-American in the 1950s and 60s. This world was unfamiliar to me but described in such loving, down-to-earth detail, vivid and bright and glittering, echoing the meaning of the title word kira-kira.
In the end, it is a world that seems brittle, but is ultimately strong, like Katie herself. It is a world that is funny and tragic at the same time; a world of contradictions where there isn't always a happy ending, but there is always room for hope. This last message is one present in both Newbery winners—that life doesn't always present you with a fairy-tale ending. People die. People fail to fall in love, marry, and live happily ever after. And life doesn't always seem fair. But the struggle, in the end, is so often worthwhile just the same, thanks to the small moments of friendship and family, love and adventure.
April 21, 2005
You'd laugh if you saw where I am -- desk shoved back into a corner and half-covered by plastic sheeting. It's chaos and drama, but I just had to sit down and write today. Aside from the really good reason of finally having an agent show interest in my work (what am I saying "finally?!!" I've finally contacted one! My fault no one showed interest prior to that!!), I wanted to write today because I realized that if I don't write I feel... Disconnected. The 'wrestling match with my Muse' that began so long ago has become second nature. Email, essays, something -- I've just got to write.
And -- no! This isn't meant to be one of those write-every-day things they tell you in Grad school that you sort of go grey just thinking about. I'm not trying to say that I never have a bad day -- far from it! I think I've just slowly come to realize that a bad day writing is better than a good day... doing a whole lot of other things. I've had to enlarge my definition of what writing is, and what it does for me, and let myself be a part of the process of writing -- which sometimes means reading, sometimes means thinking and letting my thoughts range wide into dreams.
And now I sound all esoteric and crap. So I'm going to stop.
Meanwhile, my creativity isn't exactly sparking at this moment (due to the fact that it feels like one of those sledgehammers is crunching right between my eyes), and I have a bunch of files I'm supposed to go through for one of my many part-time jobs, but I'm here. Still hanging in there.
Hope you are too.
April 19, 2005
Many fantasy series writers fail to write episodically and struggle to achieve that balance between ending a story with future developments still unfolding, and ending a story with unexplained and bedeviling loose ends flapping. One novelist who succeeds in pulling off a good balance is Amanda Hemingway. Her semi-YA novel The Greenstone Grail, Book I. of The Sangreal Trilogy, is complex and nuanced, and filled with surprises that remind me a little of A. Fortis' Olwen novel, but the danger is certainly darker and the adults in the novel play a more complicated part.
I think the characters really bring this piece the most to life, because it is in many ways a strictly Lore-driven mythical tale, with almost stock characters, scenes and events, including a night of Destiny, a seeking after three items of Power, an innocent Woman, a mystical Child, and an inscrutable but kindly Guardian. That the fierce Companion is a little girl, and part of the deadly evil is held at a museum, and stolen by a troll is only a side note. Part sci-fi, part fantasy, and wholly intriguing, I'm anxiously awaiting the second installment, due out in November '05, entitled The Traitor's Sword.
I'd be interested to hear from anyone who has read any other Hemingway novels, or have read this one. I like the modern setting, and the various genre twists it produces. What say you?
April 12, 2005
I admit it - I'm a sucker for a happy ending, and this book doesn't exactly provide "happy," but I think the angle of the story is refreshing enough for it to be forgiven its, at times, uneven narrative and aggravatingly sly and knowing 'wink,wink' in-jokes. Like it or hate it - it's a good shot for a boy-and-girl-friendship novel.
Chris and Jack are best friends. Chris is a better swimmer, tennis player, and runner than Jack, but that doesn't bother them. Chris had to teach Jack what vowels were in the first grade. This still isn't a problem for Jack. What becomes a problem is when Chris starts to grow into her birthright of being Christy - a girl with beautiful eyes, long legs, and boyfriends. This is not your typical 'Pretty in Pink' scenario when the ugly duckling grows up and gets the hunky boy, loses him, and goes back to her best friend. (Okay, so that probably doesn't happen in the movie either. Sue me.) In those scenarios, boys don't faint, and girl's don't knock them out with their fists. But, Farrell has a bittersweet, ambivalent story of growing up that is quirky and funny and all about the 'tween' years.
The theme of resisting change is a good one, and Jack resists change with all his might. He does some truly brainless things in order to, in his mind, Keep Things The Way They Are. And his meddling is not appreciated. Chris's reaction to Jack's last attempt to hold back change might surprise you -- but then again, it might not.
The unevenness of the book shows more towards the end, because Farrell's characterization of the way a boy thinks and might react don't ring quite as true to me, and at some points, the misapprehensions of what is really going on vs. what only seems to be going on appears to be stretched just a tad. However, I did like the refreshing idea that sometimes romance is overrated, and that a solid friendship is really well worth the effort. And the scenario which places Christy's dad, a former construction worker into the role of a professional hair stylist-- who is straight -- just blows yet another stereotype all to hell and back.
Read it? Comments?
It's time. I've stalled and stalled, but it's time to put up my review of The Second Summer of the Sisterhood, the companion novel to Ann Brashare's The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. I have to, because the third novel, Girls in Pants, is coming out, and someone needs to read and review that one, too. The problem isn't the books, as much as the genre... yeah, I'm talking about Chick Lit.(And NO, I don't mean the cheerfully low concept slideshowI found on Slate, which is HYSTERICAL, but those chicks are not at all what we're talking about.)
Go into any bookstore, and you see them: stacks and stacks and stacks of pastel books with skinny models on the covers. It's wildly popular, and it's everywhere. This postfeminist's women's marketing niche is SO trendy right now that it would be really easy to jump on the passing bandwagon, and ride. It's now, it's hip, and it's a big box into which publishers are scooping all women's literature, and labeling it. Even YA fiction for girls is being labeled and packaged into neat and attractive junior league stacks of Chick Lit. This publishing phenomenon (because you know it's not a real writing trend, we've been writing about women and women's issues for years) started in the mid-90's, and there seems to be no end in sight. (Marketing people everywhere breathe a huge sigh of relief.)
I'm all for breathless and spunky twentysomething heroines, maintaining their professional and love lives by the skins of their teeth, having adventures and rushing all over Paris and Greece. I'm even all for neurotic protagonists, obsessing, as we all do, about our teeth, our weight, our hair, our bums, our guts, and our male friends. But I do wonder about the women who aren't "chicks," and about the writers who want to go a little deeper in their writing for women and young girls, who aren't cut out for this cookie-cutter 'Chick Lit' thing. Is there room for any of them? Are we still allowed to write women's literature if what we write isn't necessarily trite? Can we imagine characters who are not emotionally stunted, gushing, 'sassy' or attractively eccentric? Can we write about real girls and not Barbie clones? I think so. I hope so. An article I discovered in The Utne Reader says it's time to challenge Chick Lit. Maybe we do need to learn the difference between entertainment reading and a trite storyline. Maybe it'll be you who changes the so-called 'Chick Lit' for the better.
The Second Summer has this magic as well, and thankfully a slightly sturdier plot. Bridget is not the sex-crazed soccer player of the first novel, and is, in fact, overweight, although there is not much time spent with the idea of eating to fill an emptiness, or any of the psychological ramifications of someone gaining so much weight in so short a time. (Of course, this minor flaw in Pretty Girl Land must be allayed by the end of the book -- no one would actually want her to --eww!-- be really fat, or anything, but for a brief moment she flirts with that Ultimate Disaster.) Brashares allows Bridget to be anonymous as she pursues the truth about her family, and more than any of the other characters, Bridget seemed to lack a 'need' for the magical pants to make sense of her life. Tibby, at film school for the summer, fares less well, and waffles between being the character to whom we were introduced, and someone reeking of desperation, and over-eager for popularity. This seems a little thin to me plot-wise, as Tibby has ample opportunities to be bigger than life, as the friend of the gorgeous Lena, and the popular Bridget, at the very least. Her turning away from old friendships is surprising, and gives us less insight into her character than I wanted. It could have made more sense, with just a few more sentences about some internal process. Finally, Lena... remains Lena. Everytime Brashares reminds us of how beautiful Lena is supposed to be, I find my eyes rolling. Yes, yes, beautiful, skinny Lena, all right, enough already. Her emotional trauma over maintaining perfection and finding safety in the 'perfect' boyfriend feel tiresome and unbelievable, yet the Pants girls rally around her and mother her up until her flawless complexion is tear free. Puh-lease.
What? You're ready to throw something? Okay. Fine. I know A. Fortis maybe has a difference of opinion with me regarding these books. I know there's going to be dissention in the ranks about them, so I will say this before I duck: YES, I enjoyed some parts of both novels. YES, I believe in women's friendships, and I think this book presented a facet of the jewel that makes them priceless. I do, however, also long for someone to write a novel about a girl who does better being friends with boys, and who wears HIS jeans, and plays football with him, and listens to his boring talks about the girl he likes without a.) liking the girl herself, or b.) feeling pangs for the boy, but I guess I might have to write that myself, since it won't quite be 'Chick Lit.'
All right, all right. You know you have something to say. Let's hear it.
April 11, 2005
Oh, and check out the pictures of this guy's editors -- both of whom donned monk's robes and picked up ceremonial swords to pitch the series to their people. Can they BE any more enthused about him? Do you all want to slap him yet? Jeff Stone is probably a really nice guy. Let's hope so. It seems he's taking a page out of the book of so many writers and writing about... an ethnicity not his own. In the words of Leonard Chang, it's not that you shouldn't do it... it's just that you'd better do it right... So, good luck to the very Caucasian Jeff Stone and his seven-book series called The Five Ancestors, a story combining the disparate elements of adoption, Shaolin kung fu, and more.
April 07, 2005
AFTER, by Francine Prose
Prose is a National Book Award Finalist and her satire has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, GQ, and so on and so forth. This is her first book for young adults. Her writing style is accurate for a YA book; the characters seem realistic, but somewhat shallowly drawn. I don't "see" them, which, to me is a minus, but since this book is less character driven that most, it's not necessarily as big a problem as it could be.
The premise of this book is that, after the shootings at Columbine and at another innocuously named Pleasant Valley, teens at Central High and all across America lose their constitutional rights, and begin disappearing. Teen violence is used as an excuse to wage war against teens. Schools send out massive emails about new school rules, etc., to parents, and expect the parents to read them, nightly, and share the contents with their children. Part Patriot Act, part Stalinist Russia, the school systems methodically weed out unsavory "outsider" profiled children who wear red, bring cell phones to school, and disbelieve the school district's version of American history. The high school becomes essentially an Orwellian re-education camp, and who knows what happens at Operation Turnaround, the place where 'outsiders' are sent?
The book is tightly written, and has the Fahrenheit 451 (or Fahrenheit 911) feel to it that makes it a fast-paced read, but there are some pin-holes in the plot that make me think this is just another book written by an adult to scare kids into thinking about their civil liberties in a post-September 11 world. Not that that's a bad thing, by any means, but it just disturbs me how some adults use 'worst-case scenario' to prove a point. When a book is so heavily plot driven instead of character driven, the plot has to be airtight, and this one isn't, at times fairly bizarre and sci-fi-ish instead of realistic, which it strives to be. It's a bit heavy-handed, and has fewer moments of humor than it should, so it comes across as slightly 'teachy,' which can be a real problem in a YA novel. All in all, it's a fairly good book, but I'd give it a B- for lack of subtlety.
"We went to the moon, and it totally sucked." What a hook! That's such a fun first line. It's from FEED, by M.T. Anderson, which is one of those really frighteningly brilliant books where you're not sure if you like it at all, but it's just so -- good. By now, it's one of the more talked about books, so I'll keep my comments short. Basically, Anderson has created a world where there's a different language, and 'everyone' who is anyone has the feed -- the 24/7 personal ad service which is basically a computer chip in your head, telling you everything you ever need to know. No one reads, or writes, because they can't -- and don't have any interest in doing so. The feed gives you everything you need to know or think anyway.
There are some classically funny things in this book about consumerism and brand distortion that are just on the bare edge of scary, in light of the brainwashing that ever takes place via the web, TV, radio and every other outlet. (Even the word School is trademarked, which cracked me up.) As technology advances, there's this feeling of "have to have it" that ramps up higher and higher, and teens as well as the adults in the protagonist, Titus' world, are in an ever tightening spiral of government control that very few of them can see. Who tells you what you want, what you need? Who tells you what is cool, and what is no longer an option for the upwardly mobile? To how much of this do you listen?
JENNIFER GOVERNMENT by Max Barry became known to most people by way of a game -- which was the snazzy advertising gimmick Barry thought up to go with this novel. Likely because of this gaming connection, this novel is listed in MY library as a young adult book, but I'm not sure about the thought that went into that choice, as it's not just the under-18 set who play. Anyway. This novel is funny, punchy satire, but it's also violent on a mindless and large scale, with splatters of gore that become so commonplace that the reader stops recoiling and simply reads on. This book would certainly engage and interest older teens, but the hypercorporate-speak, and the lack of engaging dialogue early in the novel will bore slower readers early on.
Barry's world is divided into megacorporations. Employees take the last names of the companies for which they work, and only the French are the holdouts from the massive free-market 'capitalizm' which has taken over the world. Even the Police and the NRA are publicly-traded security firms, and the Government can only investigate a crime if they can find someone to bill.
Hack Nike is a low-level cog in the Merchandising wheel for his company, who runs into the company brass from Marketing. He is pathetically grateful to both John Nikes for offering him a job, until he realizes what it is... building street cred for a new $2500 a pair Nike's line by killing teen agers.
Buy Mitsui, a stockbroker who is golden and on-fire in his employment life, but who is haunted by the sterility of his world, is lonely and desperate internally. In an effort to make a difference by changing someone else's life, he gives a random teen $2500 to make her Nike's shoe dream come true... and then crumbles himself as he sees the results.
Enter Jennifer Government, a stereotypically street-tough U.S. agent who bends the rules, has something against 'bad guys' and lives in a very black-and-white world of me-against-them. Like the typically hardboiled detective type, she has a soft side, and a tattoo, and her job is to rid the world of John Nike. Legally, if possible. If not...
From there, it gets dicier, with characters like Billy NRA, Theo Pepsi, BILL NRA, and more. It's twisted, it's amusing, and it's been optioned for a film by Stephen Soderbergh and George Clooney's Section 8 Films, so that should give you the gist of the depth of the action. There are no deft and brilliant flashes of insight from this book, and the writing isn't at all deep, but it's an entertaining satire. Paranoia-as-fiction is a very 'now' literary theme, and happily, the absurdities of the corporate world are now grist for more mills than Dilbert's. In my mind, this is not necessarily a topic for your typical YA novel, but it works well enough for that other post-teen group of 18-25 that publishers are trying so hard to define.
Thoughts on any of the above? Do tell.
April 04, 2005
Fantasy writers, creepy mystery novelists and 'ghostwriters,' you've got to check out Llewellyn Worldwide, one of the oldest publishers dealing with the paranormal -- they opened up their publishing line to YA stuff about three years ago, and they're likely one of the more open-minded about "creepy" fiction and paranormal mysteries than the average publisher. They claim that they publish stories on the 'edge of teen culture.' What struck me most about them is that they claim to prefer to deal with unagented writers -- PREFER, my dears. Possibly they feel this is more authentic? I have no idea. Their YA guide is here, and is very, VERY specific, including a detailed questionnaire to be immediately forwarded to their marketing people. Efficient. If my fantasy novella weren't in such a snarl, I'd get chattin' with them immediately. As it is...
...back to the keyboard.
April 01, 2005
I also wanted to clarify that my active collecting of rejection slips is due far more to impatience than moxie. Simply put, I do not want years and years to go by before my first novel is published. But I guess the important thing is to be persistent, regardless of where your motivation comes from. However, I find persistence to be very difficult, and the submission/rejection process to be very discouraging, whereas I excel at impatience; so I figured I might as well use the one in service of the other. So my advice for the day is to find what motivates you to keep writing and submitting; even if that's something as lowly as frustration, or as lofty as hubris, just keep at it!
One more thing. Though I would love to say that I made confetti from my rejection slips, I'm too afraid to destroy them in case I get audited one day and have to prove that I was sincerely trying to pursue a writing career. I'm also not masochistic enough to make wallpaper out of them. Basically they just sit in a file folder, holed away in a drawer and out of my immediate awareness. They also get logged on a spreadsheet with date of receipt, because I'm anal that way.