November 30, 2005
"Please, sir," I said. "Can't we wait for Alaska?"
Looking for Alaska, by John Greene was the big buzz on 'edgy.' I don't know why. For some reason I equate "edgy" with sexual content, and this book really didn't have much. What it did, have, was an energetic, free-spirited, disturbed and brilliant character who lived and died like the proverbial 'candle in the wind.' Her friends at boarding school spend pages by turns grieving and raging over her abrupt, difficult, mysterious, blow-hot-blow-cold life. In the end, they all have to admit that they all were a little in love with her, and move on. A really nice aspect of this book is that it's mostly about boys coping with grief -- holding each other, weeping, being personally introspective, and surviving. Spots of funny, spots of sad. Beautifully written.
"She's gone. What else is there to say?"
Adele Griffin's characters are sisters; one dead, and one alive, who live side-by-side in a world seen through a murky window in Where I Want to Be. That seems typical of many of Griffin's books. Also typical of her books is a character who is deeply dependent on others, in this case a far-too-long-suffering boyfriend, to help them cope. Lyrically crafted with beautiful, subtle language the shade of smoke gray grief, the story uses flashbacks to make sure the reader isn't overwhelmed. It was a bittersweet relationship between the sisters, at best, and the ambivalence understandably makes moving on a lot harder.
"One moment, you're flying over snow with the person you love, and the next you're plunging into cold dark water toward the end of everything. Just like that."
Marsha Qualey has written a book about loss and self discovery -- and it looks to be a contender for next year's ALA Best Books award.
It begins with a break-up, and with character Hanna Martin feeling like she should feel more upset about losing a boyfriend, or something. Her friends are certainly making a big enough deal about it. One of them even bought her flowers! Sitting by a frozen Minneapolis lake, Hanna has a chance to consider the vagaries of dating, as she surprises a woman skier and her partner engaging in a snowy grope, and has gets an unwrapped condom thrown at her as a couple her own age whiz past on their snowmobile, headed across the lake. The ice on the lake is thin, the skiers have reported, and Hanna should really have go home. Should she have also warned the obnoxious snowmobiling teens? When the girl is found the next morning, frozen, and the boy and snowmobile are missing, Hanna begins a spiral into guilt that could be allowed to become annoying and obsessive, but isn't. From the first intense chapters of the book, Hanna finds first herself, and then other pieces of the story becoming more clear. There's more to everything than she realized - even to the reason why she was sitting by the frozen lake that night.
This is an engaging novel about grieving for lost moments, lost actions, lost relationships and friendships, and then having the courage to explore the truths about oneself and others with perseverance, without anger -- sometimes things are just what they are. The novel's close will bring a smile as well.
Check 'em out!
Maybe it's just hitting me wrong today, maybe, but I cannot bear to read one more cluess character YA novel. Yes, I know people make mistakes -- stupid mistakes, and yes I know that its rumored that they may make more of them in adolescence. (Though I doubt it- myriad and spectacular are the idiocies of alleged maturity.) Yes, I know that often people can't see what's right in front of them, and they enter into damaging behavior sort of blindly. BUT. If I, as reader, cannot tell WHY the character chooses to ignore the bright neon yellow signs warning DANGER: DROP OFF, then it's a pretty poor storyline contrivance that finds me longing to SLAP the clueless characters, and may leave readers truly annoyed. (Incidentally, my agent has a name for this -- 'the strained plausibility issue.' And yes, it was ascribed to a story of mine. It's definitely a problem when agents have names for it.)
I really liked the premise of Anna Fienberg's book, Borrowed Light. I, too, had a weird high school sorting theory that classified people as things like carnivorous and herbivore, or moons and stars. I could get behind the character believing that all of her choices were predetermined by her particular role as a moon - a borrower of light, and I could sense her deep alienation from the rest of the high school herd -- she was a junior astronomer, the other students were...distant planets. Been there. Get that.
What exasperated and annoyed me about the novel is that the character, otherwise cosmically hip and intelligent was "dating" a star, and she just sort of glossed over the fact that they were, oh, having sex, and oh, not using any prophylactic. And when she, oh, got sort of pregnant, it seemed all a huge surprise. I fairly itched to give her a clout 'round the ears. Her grandmother is an astrophysicist, and she can't figure out how babies are made? She has a telescope and can tell you all about Gallileo's theories and locate Ganymede, and she doesn't have a clue about sperm!? What a cop out to assume that because you're a borrower you lie back and just let the stars of the world run you into the ground! Fortunately, the novelist decides to allow the character to wake up, and her distraction and abstraction from reality is explored. The novel ends, if unevenly, reasonably happily, and the ALA thought it was good enough to put on their Best Books list, and she shoveled up other honors with the Australian writer types. So maybe it's just me...
But this book, Caught in the Act, by Peter Moore, made my head hurt. I know plenty of guys who've done dumb things for the sake of a girl, but this -- no. The series of incidents in this novel cause me to feel that its plausibility is officially strained. And that's a shame, too, because the title is excellent - especially because the main character is an actor at school, acts like the perfect son at home, and is generally all-round never being his true self, whomever that is.
But tell me: would you, or anyone you know be hot to hook up with a fellow student who threatens a teacher with a sexual harassment scandal unless he changes your chemistry grade? Would you think that person was normal?? Would you maybe be concerned about...oh, lawsuits, if you had no moral or ethical scruples about this? Would you maybe wonder what would happen to you someday if/when you pissed this person off?
Would you still speak to them after they manipulated them into getting a tattoo, and then paid the tattoo artist to ink a different word than you wanted -- their name?? No? I found that I wouldn't, either. Unless Moore is trying to make a statement about guys in theater, or high school sophomores in small towns in particular, it seems there's something lacking from this characterization. The character has parents who are mainlining him toward a medical degree. They're not artistic, they don't seem especially emotive or expressive. He's definitely the odd one out in his family, and so for him to hang on and hang out with someone who tends to be loud, keeps pushing him into bizarre situations, etc., seems... unbelievable.
I know. I know. Writers don't always write books about absolute never-can-happens, most of the time. Much of fiction has at least a tinge of fact. I've had scenes I've written rejected and have heard people tell me "no, it doesn't happen that way," and I've had to do my best to not bite their heads off because all I had written was exactly what had happened. So, in defense of the writer, I don't say this could not have happened. I just wish that the reader had been given a little more of an opening into the how and why of the character development.
The cranky rant, for today, is over.
Let's hope we don't have to go there again soon.
November 29, 2005
Shopaholic, by Judy Waite, tells of a British girl who doesn't fit into the spangled and glitzy landscape of the world around her. Her friends are growing into different people, and she can't keep up. Her mother is no longer working, and is entrenched in a debilitating depression because of the death of her younger sister. As Taylor becomes more and more invisible, she is desperately grateful for the attentions of an older, glamorous girl at school. Kat is flashy, and Taylor is enormously flattered by being singled out, but it seems as if Kat, too, is on the verge of depression. She doesn't have enough money to fund her faltering modeling career. Taylor longs to help Kat feel that her life is worth living, but the reader can see clearly that Kat is manipulating her. It is a wrench to discover just how much, but when Taylor begins to see her own value, the reader cheers.
Certainly not for the reasons that were hyped, or for the promotional travel tumbler (Um, Simon & Schuster marketing department? Maybe that was trying too hard? Just a thought...), I actually found that I loved the much ballyhooed novel,Gingerbread, by Rachel Cohn, very much, even though I took my time in picking it up. Heroine Cyd Charisse is very much a 'reformed-hellion,' but she never lets on that she's reformed too much. She sounds like a younger, goofier Weetzie, down to her love of collecting unique people (an elderly woman named Sugar Pie, for instance), except she has well-moneyed and more mentally-present parents.
Speaking of parents, Cyd's mother is about through with her trashing her curfews and running wild on the beach with her surfer boyfriend, Shrimp, and his brother. She's unhappy enough to ship Cyd off to her father -- the man she's longed for. After all, he once gave her a rag doll that she still keeps, and he gave her the best gingerbread she'd ever had. So what if he's her "little indiscretion," and she's got older sibs she's never even met? He'll want her, even if her mother doesn't.
It's a surprise to Cyd to find that the father she sought isn't such a big deal. Things are much more complicated on the East Coast than she could have believed. Cyd has to discover a more mature version of herself before she wrecks herself, and how she does it is what makes this book special.
It's rare that a book brings a scary moment in my adolescence back to me in living color, but that's what Kicks, by Janet Fitch, did for me. Laurie Greenspan thinks her friend Carla's parents are way cooler than her own -- her father had a head injury that has taken him from the scientist he once was to being little more than a TV watching zombie; her Russian mother is a workaholic, driven to allow her brother to succeed and holding the family together by sheer willpower. It's not that there isn't any love, it's just that there isn't any time for it. There's work to do.
Laurie would rather hang out with Carla, whose psychologist parents understand that sometimes people just have to do what they have to do. Nobody makes Carla do chores, or get a job. Nobody gives Carla any lip, either. Laurie has to stand by idly while Carla goes to all of the parties, and gets all of the boys. Then, Laurie watches her take off with the cutest guy ever, on his Harley, to ride up in the hills around Topanga Canyon, when he was talking to her first. Sometimes a girl's just got to do what she's got to do... and Laurie decides that she needs to start taking risks. Unfortunately, her risk involves real life - and Carla's near brush with death by drug overdose dissolves a friendship that has lasted since childhood.
This story has a somewhat sad ending, but not for the reasons you might think. It's not a cautionary tale as much as it's a story about realizing where you stand. It's an important read for teens who feel like they're doing things to keep up with others - it makes you think about who's calling the shots for them - and why.
It's important that writers continue to write books about risky behavior - eventually almost everyone gets involved with it. Here's hoping more of the novels are stories with heart like these.
November 23, 2005
You know, there are really no new stories. Pretty much every novel we read is just a spin off of an archetype. Sometimes, the plot shows through threadbare and worn, but mostly I'm surprised by how well the retreads work. Cameron Dokey's two novels The Storyteller's Daughter and the modern ghost story twist How NOT To Spend Your Senior Year are two retakes on a couple of very old stories. Both work, but for different reasons.
Storyteller is an older story than most. A retelling of Ali Baba's classic tale, the storyteller's daughter, Shahrazad, inherits her both her mother's blindness and her talent for spinning an enchanting yarn. This saves her life for days -- but then what? Dokey fills out the blanks in this story in a way that makes it both more logical and more palatable than the original fragments, and creates some poignantly sweet moments as well. Containing an intriguing blend of romance and history, this novel was a long, slow trip into another realm, what an enjoyable YA fantasy should be.
Senior Year has been retold, but not in a classical sense. It's a typical spy-life story: Girl frequently changes schools, without wondering why. Girl finally discovers that she and her parent are on the lam, for their own safety. Girl refuses to go underground one last time without telling the boy she loves that -- she loves him. Just one more time... Because of girl's bad judgment, chaos ensues and death and drama follow.
Yep, you've read this one; simply add Caroline Cooney and it becomes an epic tragedy. Dokey, however, decides on a bit of slapstick. The girl in question, one Jo O'Connor, decides to go back to tell the boy she was crushing on that she wasn't quite dead, not really. Except he decides he's seen a ghost. He tells the school counselors, and... then chaos ensues. It seems the ghost was more intriguing than the girl, and once there are 'Jo O'Connor Sightings' all over campus, it seems it's time for the intrepid troublemaker to rise from the grave -- one more time... a rather complicated tale, but without the Tragic Mistake Costs Girl Her Family's Life shadings, so it's actually pretty funny.
Both of these are quick reads, and lots of fun for a holiday weekend. And, since it's not only being obligingly holiday-esque, but it also looks like rain tomorrow, what better time?
A book that's not a quick read is How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship & Musical Theater by columnist Marc Acito. This novel was on my List because I thoughtit was nominated for a National Book Award. (Turns out that's another book I just picked up from the library, which I have yet to review.) This novel instead was on a list of "most popular fiction" or some such. Okay. The title sort of explains that. I don't know how many teens get past the title and actually read the densely narrated literary romp, but at least a whole bunch of them check it out from the library.
There's got to be some netherland between YA lit and ...whatever this is. This is set in the 80's, and there's a lot of ...mmm, self-revelation? Multi-syllabic words? Oh, and did I mention so much sexual activity that borders on becoming everyday? It's a definite coming-of-age/coming out story, but set in such a radically different time that it's almost another genre. It very much reminded me of something jennifer s. might write, or might enjoy (and I'd love to hear her take on it, at some point!). What I personally didn't enjoy about it was that there was so much sex that it was blasé. There was hardly any breathless newness to it, or the freshness which seems characteristic of the YA lit. genre. On the other hand, the novel got absurdly good reviews, from "endearing" to "goofy" to "rolicking." It was readable, but everyone was aggressively sexual, aggressively alternative, aggressively worldly and cool and Artsy, most of all. I guess it just ran right past me.
However, I'm pretty sure that, as opposed to standing in line for a $9.50 movie on Thanksgiving day, it's a good deal.
more reviews anon...
November 22, 2005
As for my own brush with glory, it's decidedly less glorious than I had hoped. I do have an agent. I do have a manuscript being shopped. I have had rejections. No more than the usual, but having them come through the filter of someone so sympathetic is almost -- seems -- no, is worse. Having someone tell me that 'this is the way the business goes' isn't helpful -- I want to hear where next we're sending it!
Some of the reasons for not liking my last piece were that:
a.) it featured far too much about a secondary character,
November 17, 2005
For instance, I just plain ate up a relatively recent Diana Wynne Jones novel, The Merlin Conspiracy. I have been a fan of her novels since junior high school, and recently rediscovered them after a long hiatus. The parallel worlds she creates in her fantasy books are so well realized, so like yet unlike our own world, and this latest example is no exception.
Arianrhod, or Roddy, and her dyslexic friend Grundo, are part of the magic-using group of courtiers' children in the King's Progress--the traveling royal caravan in their version of England, in a world called Blest. One day they find that the new appointee to the post of Merlin--the King's magician--may be in league with power-hungry baddies.
Unfortunately, everybody else in the King's Progress has been charmed with bespelled water, and none of them believe Roddy or Grundo. They have to strike out on their own to foil the conspiracy, and their adventures are, as usual, filled with wonder, danger, and humor. There's also a huge subplot - Roddy and Grundo have to be helped along the way by Nick Mallory, who joins them from our own familiar Earth--eventually. He encounters his own set of tribulations along the road, including being jailed for inadvertent vagrancy and assault in a hostile parallel universe.
The setting of Blest is just fabulous - cars and buses that run on some mysterious fuel that isn't gasoline but is equally foul-smelling, magical cell phones, and other incredible details make the world come alive. A really absorbing adventure if you enjoy fantasy! A-double-plus!
November 15, 2005
November 10, 2005
This compels me to point out that deadlines can be an amazing motivator. If I can churn out 50,000 words of rough draft in three weeks, well, what CAN'T I do? (Answer: move objects telekinetically, impel people to publish my writing, and plenty of other exciting things.)
November 09, 2005
The Library of Congress lists this one under 'smuggling, alcoholism, single parent families and poverty.' And more.
Long distance runner Chance Taylor and his alcoholic, Gulf-War Veteran father live, on their broken-down 30-foot sailboat, a bare half-step away from homelessness. Clarence's worries about his father's chronic joblessness lead to concerns about power and grocery bills, moorage fees for the boat slip, and an host of other concerns that average teens don't have to shoulder. Clarence can't afford the fees and the shoes to run for the high school, so he runs on his own, and one day he meets up with someone who makes him an offer he can't refuse. It's just picking up a few things.
Financial peace of mind seems too close to ignore. His Dad just can't pick himself up, and his Mom's never coming back. It's up to Clarence to be the hero of his own story this time. But what does it take to be a hero? Clarence's dad saw action in the Gulf War, and now he's just a broken down drunk. A high school thug shows up in a spiffy military uniform and is suddenly a respected member of the community. He is mourned as a hero when killed on duty in Iraq. Who is a hero? And what does heroism take? Deuker dispels simple assumptions in this thoughtful, timely, and relevant novel.
"He was 75 pages into writing an adult novel and realized "it was boring." Then one day he was in the American Library in Paris, in the room with what he calls stories of the marvelous and the supernatural -- "I hate to say children's literature because it sounds condescending" -- "and I thought, those are the kind of books I loved with all my heart and soul, rather than reading with my mind and taste. And as long as I was going to write a book, I wanted to write it from my favorite images and my deepest obsessions, and that was the kind of book where the magical and extraordinary suddenly enters into the life of an ordinary person."
The article gives a quick sketch of the book's premise; The King in the Window tells the tale of 11-year-old Oliver, an American boy in Paris with his family who gets drawn into a parallel universe by the revenants in the hotel mirrors who've stayed 'active' since the reign of Louis XIV. This middle grade novel sounds like an extraordinarily creative jaunt into the paranormal.
Admittedly, it's always great when an able, articulate general fiction writer crosses over to the kid's side of the world. However, Gopnik bewilders me a little when he tries to find an apt description of the other literature from the American Library in Paris that he read as he was working on this piece. Do the words 'children's literature' sound condescending to you? (Gopnik prefers to call it 'literature of the marvelous and the supernatural.') Whatever you call it, the heartfelt sentiment that 'these are the books that I love' rings true, and I hope we all follow the call to write what we love, no matter what anyone else says is marketable, acceptable or trendy.
November 07, 2005
I wish I could enter, but my book is about 100 pages longer than the specified maximum of 224 pages. Evidently I'm long-winded on the printed page, but not so much in person...
November 02, 2005
The storyline's not slouching, either. Written by Australian novelist James Moloney, who wrote the most recently YA-novel-trashed-by-TV book, A Bridge to Wiseman's Cove (which I haven't yet read), the plot revolves around Rosie Sinclair, whose Granddad is just a bit of a crook. When his crooked ways catch up to him, it's granddaughter Rosie whose entrusted with his classic black Mercedes. Rosie also is inadvertently entrusted with his elderly riders, and she begins to feel like she's got a black taxi as she ferries oldsters from the hospital to the grocery store.
I didn't relate personally to Rosie as a character -- she's not much for school (and her mother is a hairdresser and wears fake animal skin skirts). I've noticed that quite a few of the books I've read from Australian writers are about teens who aren't the most reliable students, and I actually think that's cool -- who says all of teen readers are good students, or even still bother to darken a classroom door?
Anyway, Rosie's life gets more complicated fast, because since her grandfather's gone for six months, she's discovered that someone thinks he's left a little business undone. Rosie needs help and advice -- fast. She's got both, since she's got a great best friend and she's mixed up with two guys, too -- one a good cutie, the other a bad hottie. Of course, the bad hottie is more interesting. Lots more interesting. I won't elaborate, but the ending will make you stand up and cheer. A fast, fun read with enough twists in the mystery storyline to keep me hooked. Check it out!
November 01, 2005
The best part for me was Moriarty having Elizabeth getting letters from her subconscious. That's the part that resonated the most with me, since I am forever having doubts, second thoughts and simple paranoia crop up in my brain as if it's my brain's job to tell me every little thing that could go wrong. The weird Greek chorus that serenades my conscious mind likely sings to others, and Moriarty captured the finest point of good YA literature -- that part that lets everyone know that their secret fears are shared. Thanks for suggesting this one, a.f., and I really hope Moriarty puts out something else soon.
It would be fun to figure out how to incorporate more letters in my writing. Here's hoping letter writing doesn't become an art that is completely lost!
1. Girls In Pants: The Third Summer of the Sisterhood by Ann Brashares
2. The Truth about Forever by Sarah Dessen
3. Looking For Alaska by John Green
4. My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult
5. Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick
6. Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment by James Patterson
7. The Gangsta Rap by Benjamin Zephaniah
8. Teen Idol by Meg Cabot
9. The Garden by Elise Aidinoff
10. How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship & Musical Theater by Marc Acito