Sunday, December 02, 2007

Such a Pretty Girl by Laura Wiess

This book, in many ways, reminded me of Cut by Patricia McCormick. The styles seem to be very similar--easy/fast to read but the content is unsettling, to say the least. Self mutilation (Cut) and sexual abuse (Such a Pretty Girl) are difficult topics to cover well. It's easy to trot out the stereotypes and statistics and try to make characters out of them. Cut was loved by my eighth grade classes, but adults felt the book was, in the end, too easy, too uncomplicated for such an intense topic.

Such a Pretty Girl does a better job of capturing the turmoil of sexual abuse than Cut did of self-mutilation, but even with the intense flashbacks (of both good times and bad with her father), it is still too uncomplicated. The whole story takes place over the course of just a week or so, from the time Meredith's father is released from prison to the time he is sent back. Conveniently, a cop living in the complex, as well as her best friend/boyfriend (who as a boy was also molested by her father) and her grandmother who lives across town, offer Meredith sorts of sanctuary since her mother is unwilling to do so.

Also, it is my understanding that men who are interested in molesting children are seldom interested after they've reached puberty, which is not the case here. Meredith's father seems determined, in a very Humbert Humbert way, to want to continue to want his daughter, no matter how old she gets. (Humbert Humbert wanted to continue to want Lolita, though he did eventually lose interest as she became a woman instead of remaining a "nymphet.")

In the end everything is just a little too neat--her kind of story (unfortunately) really wouldn't get such a bright red bow.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson

A student recommended this to me. I haven't read much of Anderson's work since she published Speak (one of my all-time favorites), but the student recommendation (while I was subbing--heaven of all heavens--in the high school library) pushed me to go to the public library for this book. I marvel at Anderson's ability to create such different characters from book to book (despite some very telling stylistic tendencies). In Twisted, she tells the story of a smart kid who did something stupid (but not particularly harmful) in order to get some attention, and who is now paying ten-fold for his prank when some nasty things happen to a girl in his school. His father, a workaholic who works for the girl's father, blames his family for making his life difficult, doesn't necessarily believe his son is innocent of what he's been accused of doing.

I think the only real faults I found in the book are at the end. The suicide contemplation seems less involved than I imagine such contemplation would be and the father very promptly (and conveniently) in the end apologizes for being an emotionally abusive father and husband and promises to do better. It's not that I believe people can't change--I just don't know that the guy's going to change without some serious therapy, which was never mentioned.

More readable than Catalyst (which took a little bit of patience) but not as good as Speak, I would still recommend Twisted to any teen looking for an intense and involved reading experience. Books that are (kind of) in the same vein? Sharon Draper's Tears of a Tiger and Paul Fleischman's Whirligig.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

This book has won Sherman Alexie the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. I haven't read any of the other books that were nominated, but I am glad that this book has gotten so much attention. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is about a kid who grows up on the rez, the kid nearly everyone picks on because of some physical problems he has (stuttering, lisping, and having a big head). But when Junior's teacher makes him consider options he didn't realize he had, Junior decides to take on a different future--he decides to attend school off the reservation, and though he was never a favorite child of the reservation's people, he pretty much becomes public enemy number one (traitor) for daring to have dreams and to go after them.

Though there were some things in the book I was skeptical of (the extent of his post-birth brain injury, for example), the truth is in the characters--the way his best friend reacts to his enrolling in a school off the rez, the way Junior finally sees the rez from a bigger perspective than as an inhabitant of it, when he realizes just how screwed up his life could be and the things he can do to keep from falling into the trap that was long ago set, and how people not on the rez have their share of problems, too.

Perhaps the best surprise of the book are the illustrations. Junior is a cartoonist, and he shares his doodlings, which are "taped" to the pages of his story. (The cartoons also make this book a fast read. I read it over the course of a day of substitute teaching while students were working on review sheets and watching a video.)

Fans of both Sherman Alexie and Chris Crutcher should definitely read this book. (Yes, I got a very Chris Crutcher feel from this book; maybe because of the significance of the basketball team to Junior's life.)

**Though the cover says that this is Sherman Alexie's first young adult book, his book
Flight was published last spring. Does that mean that this book initially had an earlier publication date intended? I don't know, but for some reason, it bothers me.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

This book is a fun, fluffy read. If you approach the book with a lighthearted, playful spirit and expect a typical happily-ever-after sort of story, you will enjoy it. Well, most of it, anyway. The magic is fun; a little heavy on laying out the purposes of plants (I didn't really need or want to know and it felt a little Ophelia-like in one part), but I loved how each Waverly had her own niche. Evanelle and the apple tree (yes, the tree qualifies as a character--it had far more personality than several of the humans) were more fun than the two Waverly sisters around whom the book centers. I would even go so far as to say that they made the whole book worthwhile. Without them, this review would be very, very different.

I'd give it four (out of five) stars if it had a more satisfying ending and slightly stronger main characters, but as it is what it is, I give it three.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Mostly mystery, but also part love story, book lovers everywhere should read The Shadow of the Wind. Our hero is a young man named Daniel who grows up working in his father's bookstore and who finds himself driven to discover all that he can about an enigmatic author whose book he adopts from the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Along the way he encounters people almost as strange and mysterious as the author whose story he's trying to track down--he makes decisions which have strange outcomes and accidentally falls in love on the journey.

Though die-hard mystery fans might find this plot too predictable, the rest of us should enjoy the bookish premise, the setting and characters, and take on the adventure without really trying to guess the end.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Nature of Monsters by Clare Clark

Though the characters tend to be inconsistent, especially at the end, and not particularly likable, the plot is interesting because it's clearly so well researched. Men (one in particular) interested in medicine and general scholarly endeavors, heedless of the grief and havoc their actions bring about, use household maids to experiment with what causes birth defects in children. Mr. Black, the apothecary, is determined (through his opiated haze) to prove that the highly sensitive nature of women can cause their fears to imprint on the form of their unborn by experimenting on his maids Mary and Eliza, the narrator.

Long story short: This is a book for people who love the history behind historical novels.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Perfect Man by Naeem Murr

The Perfect Man is a novel of character complexity; were the characters not so well done, it wouldn’t have been worth reading. Strong Annie, disturbed Lew, puerile Alvin, sophisticated Nora. And then there is our main character Raj, the Indian-English boy who is foisted upon his uncles by his father and then a woman who has no blood relation to him and no reason to allow him to stay except compassion (though she says she said yes just to take away any reason for his uncle to stay).

Raj is interesting because though the book’s stories twist around his life, he isn’t really much of a character throughout. He’s more of a catalyst for other characters, despite many events in the story taking place before Raj ever appeared on the scene (1950s’ small town, Missouri). Raj never completely develops as his own character, despite efforts to clean up in the end. In fact, the end felt a little rushed, a little last minute, a little too much like an expected but untidy red bow. Still, I liked Raj, ever a joker, usually unpredictable.

But I was amazed at how many of the characters I didn’t like. This town was full of humanity at its worst—or at least, the worst was highlighted. The plot itself is fairly simple (a boy without identity trying to find it among strangers), told staggeringly, jumping years ahead and then back. Subplots involve cruelty, alcoholism, murder, adultery, love, and the opposite of love. It’s not a particularly uplifting book. Many times, it’s absolutely disgusting. Alvin is inclined to find dead or almost-dead things and show his friends, and the group of middle-aged men in the book are manipulative and vicious and you wonder how they get away with it. And the women are sad, trapped, wanting what they can’t have and don’t know that they ever had, even for a minute. Ruth, the woman who takes in Raj, is the only independent woman in the book—she resists needing anyone or anything. Annie, Raj’s first friend in his new town, aspires to be like Ruth but it’s not in her nature to be free of needing to be loved.

I recommend this book to people who enjoy getting lost in characters more than plot, to people who have ever felt scornful of the place where they live and the people who live around them, and to people who enjoy writers who play with language—whether they play successfully or not.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland

I've read quite a few books about writing, and I can't say that I like this particular book. However, I can't say that I don't recommend it; it had its moments of brilliance (usually involving quoting someone else), and some of what I didn't like about it probably needs to be attributed to the writing styles of the era (first published in 1938).

Just to get it over with, what I didn't like was how the book felt condescending, mostly based on the number of I-want-to-tell-you's and the I-am-trying-to-get-you-to's. In one chapter, she uses another writer's article and parenthetically inserts her comments; I would have preferred to make my own opinions before reading hers. And she refers to what she calls "Truthfulness"--Truth with a capital T scares me because it implies a singular truth, which is not something that we humans are privy to (much as some of us would like tho think otherwise). Attributing this capitalization feature to the era of the writing though, she could have had a very interesting conversation with Tim O'Brien about capturing truth through writing.

Also, Ueland seems to subscribe to the belief that anyone can be a writer--she would have made a fantastic middle school English teacher, I imagine--and though I don't agree (there are plenty of books published that should have ended up in the editors' pitch piles), I think it is important to encourage students who might otherwise never even try (really try) to write a good story and so I would recommend this book to any keepers of libraries and middle/high school English teachers.

All in all, I don't think that there's much she advises that books about writing haven't been advising ever since. Keep it simple, don't try to force your voice, etc. Ueland's gems, I think, lie in quoting Van Gogh (on page 20) regarding the capturing of moments and Chekhov (on page 126) regarding characterization through dialogue and the personality and voice of the writer. Also, there is a paragraph (on page 86) in which she describes beautiful writing: "It is impossible to cut it. I try to take out a sentence here or there, but cannot bring myself to do it. They are all too good and necessary and contribute too much."

Friday, October 05, 2007

Looking for Alaska by John Green

You know, I was hopeful that Looking For Alaska would be an enjoyable read--I liked the cover and the ambiguous jacket blurb. And it was very much what I had hoped. I'm not so sure that I would have enjoyed it as a high school underclassman, but as an upperclassman I think I would have found it very educational.

I very much enjoyed the main character Miles/Pudge, a young man who at the beginning of the book is just starting his first year at boarding school. The nickname is ironic, assigned to him by his new roommate Chip/The Colonel. The Corporal is who introduces Pudge to Alaska, who he immediately becomes infatuated with.

I found Pudge's voice to make for some intense reading. His "thing" is to learn people's last words, so throughout the book, you learn what a number of famous people's last words supposedly were (there are some comments from the author after the books is over regarding the accuracy of these last words). And he and his new set of friends are far less shy about talking about anything than I was at 16.

And the chapters are a countdown (158 days before, forty-eight days before, three days after). I don't know how long it took me to notice that--I was a few chapters in--and then you start to wonder what the countdown is leading you to. (I'm not telling you what--read it yourself.) The only major flaw I found with the book is that there seemed to be a major overlap of time just before the "before" countdown ended; I just couldn't get the timeline to match up with how events "after" were described. It's entirely possible that I missed a key sentence that would eliminate this confusion, but I reread the parts in question several times and can't reconcile them. But even with that said, the timeline is less important than the events of the story, however they happened.

Since this is the end of Banned Books Week, I think it should be noted that this book has been challenged, and not surprisingly so. There are frank sexual situations, drinking, smoking, tons of swearing, flagrant disregard for authority--all the usual stuff that causes parents to get their feathers ruffled.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Likes of Me by Randall Platt

I chose to read this book because I really liked the cover. I thought the book sounded interesting enough to give it a try, and if that doesn't sound like I was eager to read it, well... No, I just really liked the cover.

The story is told by a 14-year-old albino girl named Cordelia who runs away from her Northwest logging mill settlement home in the early 20th century, following (what else?) a young man who's paid her some attention (which she didn't get a lot of). This is the kind of book that doesn't ever feel real because the characters and events are so fantastic--she stays (as a guest) at a place of ill repute and becomes part of a freak show where she makes quite a bit of money from people who think she'll bring them luck. Squirl, the boy she followed, is a charming, cunning creature; Babe, her stepmother, is a superhumanly strong giantess of a freak herself; Sally, Squirl's sister, owns the lavish establishment where Cordelia takes up residence.

This is definitely an enjoyable read, though overall I think I'd only rate it as slightly above average. (B)

Friday, September 14, 2007

Thank You for Not Reading by Dubravka Ugresic

In Thank You for Not Reading Dubravka Ugresic presents a collection of insightful, cutting essays about writers, readers, exile, form, and the state of the publishing world. She discusses agents and the role of the book proposal, foreign writers (she's Croatian), good writing, bad writing, and the concept of literature (just to name a few).

I found myself laughing out loud (often in inappropriate settings) at her observations about characters and writers, gender and location, successful novels as gossip. The copy I read (from the library--but I may have to buy my own) is tabbed as though I could do something with her ideas, as though she could support a paper I have yet to write. (I do wish I had read this book before/during grad school.) Mostly it's memorable language or analogies I've marked, but there are too many--I'll never write them all down, and so all my tabbing has been for naught. The book's already overdue.

I recommend that you don't sit down to read this cover to cover. Read a few essays and let them settle before going on to the next few. Maybe read a novel as you're making your way through Thank You for Not Reading. I started losing focus with the last essays, probably the result of having read nothing else for weeks and the more academic style (and length), but I do highly recommend this book to anyone who loves reading and/or is especially interested in the publishing field. I'll be buying my own copy, and I'll return this one to the library now.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Last Summer (of You & Me) by Ann Brashares

I was tickled when I saw that Ann Brashares had a new book coming out, and it was of special interest as her first adult novel. I love her Sisterhood series for teens. (The first book of which was given to me by our school librarian as a summer reading "assignment," and I was to come back and report to her at the end of the summer before the students came back.) But I was concerned that what I loved about her writing would disappear in an attempt to write for a grown-up audience.

I am delighted to say, therefore, that in The Last Summer (of You & Me), Brashares has not changed her style. It seems a tip of the hat to the sophistication of her teen readers with the Sisterhood books and an acknowledgment for this audience that even when we are grown up, we still have a lot in common with our seventeen-year-old selves. She holds onto her omniscient writing style and wields it well through the lives of childhood trio Alice, Riley and Paul. The story is surprisingly simple on the surface, and only when you've finished it (or are close to finishing it) will you notice just how complex it really is. And I find this book to be as highly-quotable as her other books, which I read with Post-It tabs to mark favorite sentences or paragraphs.

For all my excitement about this book release, though, I waited till it had been on the shelves for a few weeks to buy it, and then I waited another month and a half to read it. The first couple of chapters feel strange because the insightful, observant protagonist Alice seems so much older than the 22-year-old she is. And I wasn't in a place to feel sad. You know from the title that this book cannot end with a typical happy ending for all characters involved, and you'll know from the first few chapters where the sadness will come, if not how.

So I allowed myself two weeks to get through the first few chapters. Then last night and this afternoon, I read the last half of the book. I knew from previous experience that Brashares writes grief well, and you have to trust her to get through this book. She does not make readers cry just because she can (something that really can't be said for a lot of writers).

And I love this book. I am putting it in my mom's stack to TBR books, but I will want it back soon (within the year).

If you--and/or your daughter(s)--love Brashares's Sisterhood books, you have to read this one.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

I read this book in spite of my instinct to ignore all of the hullabaloo that followed its release, but a few too many people whose opinions I generally trust told me I should read it, so I picked it up at a garage sale. I may not be listening to the next recommendations of those people who told me to read this.

I can't say that I don't understand why so many people were fascinated by this book; its presentation of facts (false facts or true facts, I'm not differentiating) was captivating. I would have loved to have fallen into this book as completely as everyone else seemed to. I'm not sure whether I found doing so difficult because it's now more than three years since its publication and because I've seen too many news blurbs about people (especially tourists) who take everything in the book literally, or whether it was mainly the style of the writing.

I'm leaning towards: style. I was so fed up with the choppy chapters, the constant shifts in point of view, the refusal to let narrative flow naturally, and the unevenness of the characterization that I almost put the book down about halfway through. Brown uses chapters to indicate a point of view switch--but not consistently. Within chapters a few times, he also switches POV's on readers (which isn't difficult to follow because there's a section break). I found the shorter chapters made it harder to keep track of all the characters, and I certainly didn't feel that I needed to be shown the story from every character's point of view.

Brown, besides being heavy on his adverbs, couldn't let a story unfold without a few false starts. He'd hint that there was something coming, a story to be told, but then he'd refuse to tell it. It felt like a cheap suspense-building tactic, and I thought it could have been better.

Also, the characters are supposed to be smart, but it didn't feel like that thoughout the whole book. They'd have consistent memorization-smart and mini strokes of brilliance (because the plot couldn't continue if they didn't) and then they'd go and do something incredibly stupid like stealing an armored truck from a bank when they know the cops are after them--and really, really close--and not even consider that the truck (of course) is trackable. And even though Brown tries to explain away sudden shifts in behavior through plot after the fact, it doesn't really work. Sometimes, too, the characters' reactions to overly narrated dialogue seemed weird. (Sophie gives Langdon "surprised looks" at the stuff that comes out of his mouth, even when it's nothing extraordinary.)

Overall, I'd have to say that despite the fun Indiana Jones-iness of the whole thing, you can do better. I don't know what to recommend instead, but you can do better. If you have to know what happens at the end of this story, go rent the movie. (I say that without having seen the movie, but being of the opinion that in this case, the movie is probably better than the book.)

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling

I approached this book with trepidation and every intention of reading as slowly as I could. I had to put the book down every third chapter or so to make sure I had processed all the information. A couple of times, I went back and looked up stuff in previous chapters.

And since many of the people I know haven't finished this book yet, I'm not really giving anything like my normal review. I will say that I loved this book every bit as much as I loved the previous six.

Also, I want to say that I took a quiz on The Leaky Cauldron to predict what would happen in book 7--and I was oh-so-very wrong with most of my answers. It's probably a good thing that I never took the others. (I think there were two more.) Really, that just made the reading all the more fun--I like being surprised.

And I'd be more than happy to discuss this book with any other HP fans out there--I just don't want to post spoilers.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

In an Instant by Lee and Bob Woodruff

In this well-rounded memoir, Lee and Bob Woodruff write a joint accounting of their experiences of Bob's head injury in Iraq. They describe their history as a couple, and the friendships and previous experiences which helped them to deal with this life-altering event.

Though Lee's accounts aren't as polished as Bob's, the book is still a fascinating read. (I wasn't prepared for that--I expected to feel luke-warm toward this book at best.) The Woodruffs' life together has been topsy-turvy since its beginning, so the only point in the book that I found myself impatient with was the beginning, and that was undoubtedly due to my own expectations of the book.

If I would have changed anything, I would have included more details about brain injury treatment and therapy. At one point, Lee mentions that the collaboration of the military and private sector doctors treating Bob "would ultimately have positive implications for all soldiers with traumatic brain injuries." But that's all that is ever said about it, and I would really, really like to know. (And more importantly, will that ever change how civilian head injuries are addressed/treated?)

And of course, there was a little thrill when I saw my own last name in the book. (It turns out that a relative of mine was Bob's doctor on the plane to the US.)

The book is more focused on pre-accident events than Bob's journey to recovery, which makes it seem like lighter fare than the other TBI memoirs I've read, but since the details are important and interesting, I can say that I would easily recommend this book.


Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Summit Avenue by Mary Sharratt

How can you not want to read a book that begins, "How can you weave a life from fairy tales?" I encountered this book while looking at small press websites. I don't even think I read the rest of the summary blurb until I was actually a few chapters into it.

The protagonist is Kathrin Albrecht, a young woman who emigrates from pre-World War I Germany to find a better life in America. She begins her life there as a flour mill worker, learns English, and then finds herself in the good graces of Violet Waverly, a widow who is working on a project and needs a German translator.

I enjoyed the way the fairy tales are woven within Kathrin's story and that the similarities she sees aren't necessarily the parallels the reader sees. I also enjoyed the framing of the story, so that you have a sense of where the story will end--or where you think it will end.

The only slides in my enjoyment of this book were in little moments that I didn't find to be consistent with Kathrin's voice or traditions of the period. There were just a couple paragraphs--one about pre-legal abortion methods that really felt like a rushed mini history lesson (or like it was an interesting bit of information that Sharratt intensely felt needed to be integrated somehow) and the other was regarding wedding rings. (Double ring ceremonies were not common until World War II and as they were both children of European parents, I am doubtful that either of their fathers would have worn wedding bands.)

But those were just a few paragraphs, and the rest of the book was easy to fall into. People will call this book unconventional, but only because the relationship between Kathrin and Violet becomes Sapphic. Like all fairy tales, this is a story of maturation, fear, and love--and it's well worth your attention.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Weather Balloons Make Rotten Sex Toys by Annabelle du Foust

Clearly, this book is supposed to be funny in a ridiculous way. But the intent probably only makes it worse. This book had so many possibilities, and yet we're presented with a narrator who is probably at least twice as clueless as the most clueless person you know, and who claims to be a researcher, but she's incompetent. (Again, this is supposed to be funny, but really it's just annoying.)

Though the jacket blurb indicates that the book is of a less than serious nature, I would have far preferred a competent narrator who poked fun at the world of "kink" with real facts and observations.

All in all, a silly waste of time and money.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Flight by Sherman Alexie

I love Sherman Alexie’s work, so I was eager to get my hands on his new teen fiction book Flight.

The protagonist, a hurting, “half-breed” foster kid who only wants to identify himself as Zits is headed for trouble—the tragic, mass murder kind. And then, he becomes the receiving end of a miracle. He becomes a body-jumping time traveler (yes, kind of like the TV show Quantum Leap) who jumps into the body of a murderous FBI agent in Red River, Idaho in the ‘70’s, a young teenager at Little Bighorn, an Irish Indian tracker in the 1800’s, a middle age pilot, and a middle age drunk, homeless Indian. In each of these instances, he is faced with choices and motivations that are not his own, all involving death, but he is offered them as experiences to learn from.

I know that some adults would be uncomfortable letting their teens read this because Zits is defiant or because of the coarse language—it will definitely be immediately challenged in plenty of libraries across the country—but this is a kid of the streets, and kids of the street talk tough and tend to have more issues than usual with adults. I think this book should be on the list of encouraged readings in every high school library.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Kommandant's Girl by Pam Jenoff

Pam Jenoff has created a story that you won't want to put down. I love the cover--that alone would have been difficult for me to resist. The characters are, for the most part, well developed, and Emma's/Anna's involvement with the Jewish resistance makes for a driving plot.

At times, I confess, I found the internal dialogue feels tedious--she keeps having the same argument with herself. But this conflict is actually part of what makes it readable. How often do you have an argument with yourself about a major decision just once?

One problem I did have was Anna's insistence that she "had no choice" throughout the last half of the book, when her aunt-in-law Krysia made it very clear in the beginning that there's always a choice. I don't know if it's that I think she needs to be called out for the choices she's made, or if I just didn't like her refusal to acknowledge that these were her decisions, for which there would be consequences.

The only character who was underdeveloped was the Kommandant himself, but I'm not sure that we would find his so irresistible otherwise.

An intense and enjoyable book. If I rated on a five star scale, I'd give it four stars.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Big Emtpy by JB Stephens

This book provides a fair foundation for teens' science fiction reading. After a horrible plague decimates the American (and probably the world's) population, martial law is instated by a self-proclaimed President, and the surviving population of the interior US is relocated to the coasts. There are renegades, however, who refuse to leave--and there is a settlement somewhere in the Midwest of people who want to live a different way. The story follows a group of teens who either leave the 'safety' of the military state to look for this settlement, or they just happen across the others who are looking for it.

The number of characters in the book is its only complexity, but for those who are unfamiliar with science fiction, that may be enough. (A simple plot is not necessarily a bad thing, and this is the first in a series, so perhaps it will get more complex.)

At least they stay in one time period--this is not the kind of science fiction that involves time travel, space travel, light sabers or moleculizers.

Teens who like this should try Stephen King's The Stand and Margaret Atwood's Oryx & Crake.

The Sledding Hill by Chris Crutcher

This is a book about grief and censorship. Crutcher draws from his own experiences (as always) to mold this story of a boy who lost his father and his best friend within a month of each other, and how books--his right to choose what he reads--helps him to remember and honor his father and his friend through his actions.

I particularly appreciate the way that the narrator points out this this story has no real "villain"--because everyone has good, honorable intentions--even though it's very clear who the antagonists are. No one is behaving badly just for the sake of behaving badly. As so many are, the conflicts in this book are about of ideas and ideals.

I was also amused that Crutcher wrote himself into the story--not just as a fraction of the characters, but as Chris Crutcher the Challenged/Banned Books Writer (in this case, the book Warren Peace).

As always, Crutcher writes to encourage teens to think for themselves, to not automatically buy into the beliefs of family and friends without their own examination of the implications of those beliefs. The book also serves as encouragement to read his other books, since he writes about the aspects of his books that are so often challenged, and as he points out, there's not really a better way to ensure that teens will read these books than to suggest or tell them that they're not allowed to.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography by Chris Crutcher

Chris Crutcher's autobiography will alter the way you read his books. It is enjoyable, even when he shares some of his more humiliating moments. Know all those things you did when you were young and stupid and you hope they never come up as conversation when you bring your significant other to meet the family because you don't want him/her to know just how stupid you've been, even as a kid? Crutcher confesses to many of those things. Many of these incidents, for Crutcher, seem to have been instigated by his brother (on the premise that the result would be "neat"), and you will wonder, when you've finished, what other stories were cut or left out.

You will also see many of his characters floating through the pages--athletic or otherwise--and you will probably never read his books the same way again, because the characters will become a little more real for you. For me, this is distracting--I would far prefer to be reading this book after I've read all his others, and saying, "Oh, this happened to [this character] in [this book]," instead of reading his fiction and thinking, "I remember--this happened to [so-and-so] when he was in high school," or whatever. Knowing the real background pulls me out of the fiction a little too much. Even when you know that the stories must be based on real experiences Crutcher has had or known, it's very different to know the real stories when you're reading fiction.

So, by all means, read this book. It's funny, sad, and I wish there was more of it. But if you suspect you're like me, wait till you've read all his other books before cracking this one.

The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron

I found this to be a delightful book. The book follows Lucky, fearless and compassionate, whose mother died after being struck by lightning, whose father doesn't want her, and who is therefore being raised by her father's first wife. Her friends are her dog, her classmate Lincoln who is obsessed with tying knots, and little Miles who takes a copy of Are You My Mother? everywhere.

Lucky is a girl with moxie. Her fear: that her guardian Brigitte is leaving her to go back to France. But Lucky knows what she wants, and she has ideas about how to get it. Misguided though she may be, she's the kind of bold that even adults envy. And she's determined to figure out how to find her higher power--something she's heard about while eavesdropping on various 12-step programs--because she is convinced that finding this mysterious higher power is going to make everything all right.

The unusual setting and the enchanting and well-flawed array of characters make this a warm, memorable book. I especially like Lincoln, and his affinity for proper punctuation.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Eragon by Christopher Paolini

Eragon is not a great book. It's not even a good book. I like the fantasy genre, and I like teen and YA books, but I could not get past the tedious dialogue and convenient contrivances of the plot. I got to a point where I dreaded opening the book to face another page. It isn’t even original—just a composite of other fantasy series.

And I’m mad that so many well regarded review sources showered praise upon this book. For shame. Those people should know the difference between good writing, and teenage writing that may someday be morphed into something much better.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Over My Head by Claudia L. Osborn

Claudia Osborn loved being a doctor, but when a truck hit the bicycle she was riding, her life changed forever. This book recounts her injury and recovery/rehab, focusing on the rehab process which was, for her as a doctor, a particularly harrowing experience. I was amazed as she, time and again, somehow managed to get herself to her place of rehab, right in the middle of Manhattan, which, with all of its bustle, is a far cry from the ideal place for a person with brain injury. Osborn frankly writes of her inability to process her surroundings, her inability to remember processes that people without brain injuries take for granted like getting ready to go out for the day--showering and getting dressed--or buying groceries. In one memorable chapter, she thinks she has tissues in her pocket, only to, step by step, realize that what is in her pocket is the bra she was supposed to wear that day. It takes her five or six steps, including actually removing and uncrumpling the bra, to realize this. Osborn’s straightforwardness is, at times, unnerving.

As a memoir written by a person who suffered brain injury (most brain injury memoirs are written by parents or spouses), this book offers a unique and very readable perspective. Osborn, while she obviously loved the life she had, openly shares her process of learning to accept her new limitations and to reshape her life to accentuate her remaining and new skills.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Better Than Running at Night by Hillary Frank

Better Than Running at Night is about an art student named Ellie and her attempt to create/define a relationship in terms of love, physical attraction, and sex. Her other pursuit—art—seems secondary and fairly effortless. Ellie is a normal college freshman; more so, perhaps, than her peers at art school (who go out of their way to be extremely weird), which serves to make her a more sincere narrator. The story itself, however, involves too much navel-gazing, which will be tiresome for readers older than the teen crowd the book is intended for. Ellie is a passive narrator, and her fellow characters remain pretty static from beginning to end, seeming more like the objects Ellie draws than characters. What compels the reader to keep going is merely to see how it ends, not any particular investment in the outcomes for any of the characters. But at least it does compel the reader to keep reading.

Ellie’s narrative voice is frank, and at times it's funny, even witty; when it is, her voice is similar to the narrator of Speak (by Laurie Halse Anderson). The short chapters also remind me of Speak, which may encourage readers with short attention spans to give this book a try. Also appealing to its teenage audience will be the steamy (but not smutty) sex scenes.

(Readers of this book should be in at least high school; the sexy parts would probably be a bit much for middle school readers, and I’m pretty sure most parents would be appalled to find their 7th or 8th graders reading this.)

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Where is the Mango Princess? by Cathy Crimmins

No one is immune to brain injury, and that is just one reason this memoir is well worth reading. Crimmins skillfully weaves perfect proportions of pain, grief, fear, humor, and facts and statistics to tell her story, and secondarily, her husband’s. Her recountings of post-injury Alan are contrasted with descriptions of pre-accident Alan, a successful trusts and estates officer, and thus, Crimmins offers us a complete picture of what exactly she has lost. You also won't find her ranting about American health care and HMO’s, though she's given reasons galore, and it would be easy for her to drown the narrative with a woe-is-me attitude, but instead, she has obviously taken much care to make sure that this story resists self-pity or sappiness. She includes painful, intimate stories—because they are necessary to completely tell this story—without being crass or trying to create a buffer for her or her husband's roles. And in no way does Crimmins try to protect, nor to unnecessarily horrify, the reader.

Brain injury stories are not easy to read. You will experience, to lesser degrees, what Crimmins experienced, and more remarkably, you will want to keep reading, even when it hurts—especially when it hurts.

Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks

I found this book at Grounds for ThoughtLink, my favorite used bookstore/coffeeshop. Though it's a decade old, written several years before 9/11, I thought that it would provide a good platform for beginning to understand the life of Muslim women in Middle Eastern cultures. It seemed straightforward, and since Brooks is a journalist, the book seemed even more promising. I hoped that meant that she would be likely to produce a more unbiased interpretation of events as she experienced them.

Full of stories from nearly every country in the Middle East, Nine Parts of Desire did prove to be enlightening. Brooks seems to have befriended many people in her time as a foreign correspondent, and to have gleaned an appreciation for the beautiful parts of the cultures, and horror for those customs she (with her Australian upbringing) finds ridiculous. She shows how Muslim practices vary from country to country, and even within a country. Early on, she explains the roles of Muhammad's wives and daughters, particularly the two that Brooks claims is responsible for the splitting of Islam into two groups: Sunnis and Shiites.

Brooks's stories are interesting, sometimes beautiful and sometimes abhorrent, and while she cannot completely hide her disdain for many customs, especially the coverings women are forced to wear in some cultures, she does an admirable job of trying to respectfully present a Middle Eastern world to those of us who know little or nothing about it. I'm sure that many readers will find plenty to argue with, but since I know next to nothing about the subject matter at this point, and am only using this as a springboard to learn more, I found it adequately educational, and certainly intend to continue learning more.