Monday, September 28, 2009

Alibi Junior High

While it is not entirely uncommon to find a haunted 13-year-old, Cody, in Greg Logsted’s Alibi Junior High, is haunted in an unusual way for teens in the western world.

You see, Cody has been living deep undercover with his CIA agent father pretty much his whole life. He speaks five languages, has two black belts, has lived all around the world, and can make lethal weapons out of whatever is around him. But in all of the dangerous situations he’s survived, he and his father have finally encountered someone who REALLY wants them dead. And now Cody must go into the deepest cover he’s ever known: Normal Kid. And junior high? Far worse than anything he’s ever imagined.

Just so we are clear, THIS IS NOT A TWEEN NOVEL. I know you might be tempted to give this to your average 10 year-old, but know this:

“There’s someone lying next to me. I look over and see the waitress who had winked at me. Her lifeless eyes are now permanently opened wide and there’s a large piece of metal sticking out of the center of her chest. The Yankees cap is still on her head, but it’s now soaked in blood and almost unrecognizable.

There’s an arm near me. Just an arm, and it has a wedding band on the ring finger. I pick my head up and look around at what’s left of the restaurant. There’s blood and bodies all around me. I start to scream but it’s a silent scream. All I can hear is the ringing” p 11.

I just made you either move this one up your queue or drop it entirely, didn’t I?

We originally had this one in the children’s section. We don’t anymore. That passage is by far the most graphic incident in the novel, but since it looks so incredibly kid-friendly with that cover and title, I thought you might want a heads up.

All of this said, you can also probably tell from that excerpt that Logsted captured the spy novel tone. Logsted also did well with that captured, helpless, alienated feeling junior high instills in most of us. Even with the fact that I MUST believe that he exaggerated the nightmare of school a little bit. That school was a misery, although the principal did begin to develop some depth through the novel.

Unlike some of the other characters. Most of Cody’s friends remain one-dimensional. Logsted did far better with the adult characters, most notably the Iraq War vet, Andy, who lost an arm in combat. Logsted handled the disability of that character frankly, never pandering and without didacticism.

An obvious match for Alex Rider and Charlie Higson fans. It’s more… believable than either of those, and immensely readable. Could be a series, although I've found nothing in my cursory searching that indicates it will be.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Don’t ALL throne rooms have that feature?

Ok, The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale was published 6 years ago, so I’m not really worried about spoilers at this point. If you are, you might want to stop reading. However, I assume that if you are reading this blog you are in possession of an astute and finely honed intelligence, and nothing I say here would be any surprise to you, even if you haven’t read the novel.

I say that because there was nothing about The Goose Girl that was not entirely predictable. Entirely. I mean, it’s a given in this type of story (usually) that the heroine wins the prince, however, this went beyond the natural level of predictability with the villain being obvious, the villain’s goal and motive being clearly apparent (before there was ever real confirmation of WHO the villain would be, or, at that, IF there would be a villain), who the mysterious noble was, and, above all, exactly HOW it would all work out (not THAT it would work out, of course that would happen).

But here’s the remarkable thing. I DID NOT CARE. I did not care one whit that I knew how it would all play out, down to the very mode of resolution. And that, my incredibly intelligent friends, is a remarkable feat of writing. I read The Goose Girl almost straight through.

Now, I can’t really say that fairy tale plots get old; they generally turn into cozy blankets (although, to be honest, I’m a little sick of that 12 dancing princess tale, authors, please stop adapting it, thanks), but that alone can not make a compelling read to a discerning audience. What carried this novel were the characters.

It is not a surprise to me that this one book has gone on to inspire an interlocking series. The secondary characters were interesting and varied, and I am eager to read Enna Burning and River Secrets based on my introductions to the main characters in those two titles in this book. And Ani. Oh, Ani, how you grew through this novel. How you learned strength in yourself, first through (possible) artifice, then strife. And while I hate this term, you truly blossomed into a confident future queen. You never would have been able to rule your birthland, not with their nature (for even the settings had character), nor without the travails.

The language was great, and Hale truly captured the tone of the fairy tale in a wonderfully developed world. Some of that predictability, is as I said, unavoidable when working with this genre, other elements are due to some rather clunky foreshadowing.

The novel, as I’m sure you realize, is based on a fairy tale, but Hale, as she did with The Book of a Thousand Days, owned that world, skillfully setting up the next installments. Or so I assume, as I haven’t read them yet. But, as I picked up Forest Born at WASHYARG last week, I’ll need to read all of them before December 4th, when my review is due for that. Since I’m cursed with an obsession with chronology…

Monday, September 21, 2009

I'm sure this is someone's favorite book...but...

Here's some honesty for you: I don't care for novels where the protagonists are unlikeable. Sometimes the novel can overcome unlikeable characters, and it is realistic to expect them to pop up occasionally, since, you know, they pop up more often than occasionally in real life. Of course, I generally read fiction to escape reality or experience new realities, so that whole concept doesn't really jive much with my goals. But, like I said, I can get over it if the book is good in other ways.

Unlike A KISS IN TIME by Alex Flinn.

(omg, that was so harsh.)

That is not to say that this book didn't have it's high points - there was definitely some very good humor. And the two protagonists, I suspect, were supposed to be unlikeable, and they DO become more endearing as the book neared the end...but...they just...GRATED against my skin. I read on mostly because the plot was interesting and I wanted to see how it would all work out:

Talia was always told never to touch a spindle or the curse would descend upon their kingdom. Problem was, no one ever bothered to tell her what a spindle looked like... and so Sleeping Beauty slept for 300 years. And her prince never came. Well, until Jack stumbled into the forgotten kingdom... But Jack was no prince, he was just a kid from Florida whose parent's had gotten rid of for the summer by sending him to Europe. Now Talia's parents, the King & Queen, are FURIOUS at Talia and she so she runs away with Jack - back to Florida. Hijinks ensues.

So, Talia is a spoiled, but ignorant, princess who has just been plunged into the 21st century after 300 years of sleeping. Jack is largely ignored by his parents and expected to follow a career path he has no interest in. It's not that they don't have issues or the right to be surly. But seriously. Stop whining.

High points:

Talia, upon leaving her kingdom:

" will hard to be a commoner. They have to do a great deal of work, and sometimes they smell bad" p 113.

Talia, on living in the 21st century:

"I have never heard of a party without gowns. This is turning out to be a very disappointing century" p 167.

It's actually out-Disneyed Disney in that even the bad guys aren't really all that bad - just misunderstood. It has a happy ending. Which I can appreciate.

I know that I should write more in depth about other issues I have with the novel, but, I just don't want to expend the energy. So instead, I leave you...

Other opinions:
Young Adult Literature Review Blog
Sonder Books
And Another Book Read

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Ok, now here's something I've never done:

turn this blog over to someone else. Sure, I've done interviews, but I've never allowed anyone to wrest this helm from my cold, diamond encrusted hands (ha!). But, then there's the encruster.* He has unusual sway over me. And by golly, since he had something to say about Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins's sequel to her blockbuster, Hunger Games, and I had no intention whatsoever to spend any time on the most reviewed title of the season, I thought why not? Besides, he just introduced me over at the Cybils.

Here's Kyle:

Being the wonderful librarian and fiancé that she is, Jackie handed me Hunger Games to read on our recent vacation to Michigan. I read the whole thing in three days, and, as she reasonably expected, I loved it. Looking around on the internet and talking to friends of Jackie, it's very clear that I'm not alone. Hunger Games is just one of those great books.

Jackie and her mom, giddy about their success of getting me, a typical non-reader, so interested in a book, quickly got my hands on Catching Fire, the sequel. However, I can no longer say that Jackie is now batting 1000, because in so many ways, Catching Fire failed in all of the places where Hunger Games succeeded. By the end, I found myself frustrated with just too many things to enjoy what I felt could have been a good story.

So naturally I was quite surprised when Jackie tells me that she'd be interested in having me write a review and post it on her blog. I've never written a book review before, let alone one that's going to be read by as many readers as Jackie has. Not to mention, this is a sequel to a very popular book - the second in what is going to be a very successful trilogy. Who am I to affect other people's reading of this book? However, I will still try my hand at this.

The end of Hunger Games is a good non-ending. In fact, it is so good, that it could have stood on its own without the promise of a sequel (I could go on for a while about my opinion of sequels and non-endings, but not now). I spent some time between finishing Hunger Games and starting Catching Fire thinking about how the sequel should play out, and I struggled coming up with anything good. The games were over, Katniss had successfully defied the Capitol, and she had broken two hearts in the process. But back home, she would once again be a powerless teenager. The only hope I saw for an interesting story was for something to happen that would cause her to become the strong character that she was by the end of the first book, the survivalist with a strong grasp of humanity, character, and defiance.

Well, that "something" happens in Catching Fire. Suzanne Collins puts in the perfect story arc that could precisely pull out the crafty, cunning girl that I'm begging for Katniss to be. Except, to my dismay, the arc happens at the end of the book, and the arc doesn't cause any transformation in Katniss at all. Instead, we are treated to 2/3 of a book full of angsty love tryst where Katniss realizes over and over again that yes, both boys in her life are perfectly nice boys who she could end up with if she had to, and yes, it would be unfair if she had to.

In the meantime, a rebellion is starting all around her, and Katniss is practically oblivious to it except to feel fear and guilt whenever someone gets hurt. The entire time, I felt like reaching into the book and strangling her saying "Where's the anger? Where's the defiance?" Instead, except in a few small instances, the only defiance she shows is a completely illogical defiance of her friends who she is aware are going out of their way to save her. She simply doesn't care. What I assume is supposed to be seen as a decision based on logic and self-sacrifice instead comes across as a decision based on the selfish belief that it’s better to die than to live in guilt even if it means making everyone else around you live in guilt. The level-headed thwarter to the Capitol from the last book suddenly became the emotionally-wrecked thwarter to her level-headed friends. This goes so far as to make me wish that I could listen to another character narrate for a little bit just so I would stop wringing the book in my hands.

Katniss remains completely unaware of the situation around her until the last few pages of the book when the whole mystery is explained in one unsatisfying quick paragraph. I think that it was supposed to be a mystery to the reader as well, but it was too obvious to not guess. For a character who, in the first book, was so quick to correctly judge a situation or a hidden message, the entire final third of this book was filled with way too many things that were clear to the reader but somehow not so clear to the smart girl that we wanted to root for.

The ending of the book sets the stage for the third book, and it does so in a way that successfully makes me want to pick it up and read it. Some of that optimism is because I think that the only way to write the third book is to have Katniss step up and become the strong character she was always meant to be. However, there's a worry in the back of my mind that Collins is going make the same mistake as Catching Fire, and spend too much time dealing with the main character's irrational emotions and less time dealing with actual plot advancement.


Thanks, hon!

It's Jackie again. If that wasn't apparent.

Ah, how I love disgruntled reviews. They are by far the most entertaining to read, don't you think? I asked Kyle whether he was Team Gale or Team Peeta, he decided that she should just dump both of them (well, he did after I explained what Team Fill-in-the-blank WAS) and move on with her life.

If you are a tweet-a-holic like us, you can follow Kyle (and me!) if you so desire!

*By the way, Kyle reallly doesn't want me to call him the encruster. He really prefers something sappy, like fiancé, or beloved betrothed. I'm liking encruster. Personally. ;)

Monday, September 14, 2009

You might think YOUR power sucks, but at least it's not Rogue's.

I feel pretty "meh" about this one. There wasn't enough paranormal activity early on for me to really buy into the premise, and frankly, I'm having a truly difficult time separating DEADLY LITTLE SECRET and WAKE in my mind. Now, partially that is my fault for being on a paranormal kick and reading similar books right in a row (followed by EVERMORE, I might add - which I have pretty much ENTIRELY forgotten - to the extent that I know I read it, but can't remember what it was about. My notes tell me that it was massively similar to WAKE, TWILIGHT & Meg Cabot's MEDIATOR series, that I was emotionally invested, but not intellectually. And that I didn't plan on reading the sequel.)

Anyway, back to the actual book on hand (don't expect a review on Evermore, k?):

What was, I believe noteworthy in Laurie Faria Stolarz's book was that the main character wasn't the one with any paranormal powers. Why I say this in the wake of Twilight, I have no idea, except that while Camelia, like Bella, lacks a certain self-preservation gene, she does struggle with believing in the paranormal powers Ben claims to have, and does, for fleeting moments wonder if she should trust her instincts. Furthermore, at the end of the book, there really isn't anything special (power-wise) about our main character, just that she's para-paranormal.

Two things have coincided in Camelia's life: the arrival of a new boy she's inexplicable attracted to and creepy, threatening messages start plaguing her life. Her instincts are to trust Ben, but the coincidence of his arrival and the stalking starting at the same time is certainly suspicious. Besides, there are some seriously worrying rumors about this guy. Rumors from his last school regarding his last girlfriend. The girlfriend that died...

There was definitely a well-crafted tone to the novel - oniminous and tense. It followed the constructs of a classic mystery/thriller teasing you with the unnamed villian's point of view, leaving the reader to suspect everyone, even when aware of who it can and can not be due to the nature of the genre (like, it can't be the most obvious person because this is a book, not real life, right? right?).

So, well done. It is exactly what it was supposed to be.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Love is the Higher Law

This is a remarkable book. Even, I think, for David Levithan, who has a history of remarkable books.

Some of you know that I take notes, of varying depth, while I read. Sometimes it's just notes on plot and character. Sometimes the notes consist of sentences that strike me as emblematic of the novel as a whole or are just beautifully written. In LOVE IS THE HIGHER LAW I took no notes on plot. I did however manage to copy out ONE WHOLE PAGE of the text into my notebook. I thought it would just be a couple sentences, but it ended up being pretty much the whole page (page 39, if you were wondering).

Anyway, I didn't read this because the eighth anniversary of 9/11 was coming up. I don't really need to relive that day - ever - I haven't read or watched anything dealing with the subject prior to this. I read it because it was David Levithan writing about 9/11. I know that Levithan is a New Yorker. And I trusted him as an author to deal with this subject with barefaced honesty, never pandering, never with any sense of self-importance or false heroism, or anything else that sullies that day.

Or something.

Love is the Higher Law follows three teenage New Yorkers through September 11, 2001 and beyond that to the marvel of living on. It follows how one day has lingering effects on their lives and what it meant to be a New Yorker, and a human, on that day.

It was beautiful from the first page. Each of the three voices were distinct and unique.

Claire started out the morning of 9/11 paranoid and worried over the what-ifs in life. It took a what-if she never expected to realize what life - and love - is.

Jasper began that day self-absorbed and self-important and deals with it by pushing everyone away.

Peter sees the world through the goggles of the truly music-obsessed, but is at a loss when the world drowns out his music.

These three teens who barely know each other before these events somehow eventually find each other in a masterful and utterly believable weaving of storyline. High school and college typically see teens grow and change, but those who came of age during this period had their transition sparked by one shared event, which makes them unique among recent generations. Levithan explores this thought with sensitivity.

Yes, I'm raving. And nominating it for my library's Mock Printz.

Here are some quotes:

Peter, p 39: "I know if I press play, the song will never be able to work for me again, because instead of the song playing under the moment, the moment will weigh on top of the song, and I am never going to want to remember this, I am never going to want to be here again, so I walk withougt anyone else's words in my ears, and all the music falls away from the world, because how can you have music on a day like today? Whitenoise is not the same as silence. White noise is different because you know white noise is deliberate, composed to cancel everything out. It is the opposite of music, and it is all that I can hear and all that I can imagine hearing right now. I keep going back to that first moment - seeing that black hole on the tower, seeing the site of the crash, that image, that one image is what I am picturing right now. That tower is our history, our lives, all the minutiae and security and hope. And that black hole is what I'm feeling. It will effect me in ways I can't even begin to get my mind around. This day is a dark crater. There is no room for songs. The songs are wrong. Every song is wrong. And I don't know what to do without music."

Claire, p 106: "I think that if you were somehow able to measure the weight of human kindness it would have weighed more on 9/11 than it ever had. On 9/11, all the hatred and murder could not compare with the weight of love, of bravery, of caring. I have to believe that. I honestly believe that. I think we saw the way humanity works on that day, and while some of it was horrifying, so much of it was good."

Jasper, p 125: "I went the whole day withought thinking about it...I didn't let the world in at all. or that day. Until, of course the end of the day, when i realized I had gone the whole day without thinking about it, and wondered what that meant."

Claire, p 111: " can't find a common humanity just because you have a common enemy. You have to find a common humanity because you believe that it's true."

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

There were no ghosts in this book.

I say that upfront because the fact kinda ruined the book for me. In turn, that fact makes me contemplate the idea of reader expectation. Which I'll subject you to for a moment (nice, right?).

Reader expectation can be formed in more ways than I am likely to think of. On the most basic level it can be the cover, the jacket material, summaries, blurbs, reviews, word of mouth, the reader's past experiences with the author, etc. I'll admit that, personally, I am most swayed (one way or another) by a cover.

So, what led me to believe that there were ghosts in this book? Well, the title, for one. It seems reasonable that a book called Nothing But Ghosts, would in fact, contain ghosts. Now, I have not read anything else by Beth Kephart, but via word of mouth, I have heard nothing but praise toward the author's work. That, combined with a very lovely cover, and the potential for ghosts made me want to read this particular book.

So, as stated, I liked this book less because it was so very different than what I was expecting. I picked it up wanting and expecting ghosts, and in a way I got them, but they were metaphorical ghosts. And, frankly, those are less interesting to me when I'm hoping for the ones that say "boo" and give me goosebumps.

Now, had I read the jacket copy, I might have been prepared, but since those are notoriously spoiler-riffic, I avoid them like the plague if I actually plan on reading the book.

ULTIMATELY, ALLOWING MYSELF TO BE LET DOWN BY A BOOK FOR THE SIMPLE FACT THAT IT WAS NOT ABOUT WHAT I EXPECTED IT TO BE ABOUT IS NOT FAIR TO THE BOOK ITSELF. Basically, it's my own fault for being swayed by marketing. Especially when you figure that the author, who owns the words, most likely had nothing to do with the marketing department, who owns the appearance. I hate it when that happens.

So, let us set all that appearance crap aside and take a look-see at the ACTUAL BOOK (also, let's have MORE CAPITALIZATION!):

This is a book about grief. This is a book about a mystery. This is a book that takes a mystery to understand the mystery of death. And life. And a little about how cope with both.

Katie's mom died. She and her dad are operating in an autopilot haze that insulates them from the world they were forced out of upon her mother's death. Katie doesn't see her friends; her father pours himself into his work and trying to make up for his wife's absence. They are both functioning, but miserable.

Katie takes a summer job landscaping a local mansion to keep herself away from the memories and plunges herself into distraction by researching the mysterious landlord who communicates her instructions only through the groundskeeper and hasn't left the mansion in decades. But the groundskeeper has his own mysterious plans and he's using the summer help to find something himself. Why hasn't Martine Everlast left the house, and what, exactly is the groundsman looking for?

In researching a woman who decides to waste her life shut up alone for decades, when her mother could have used those years, Katie begins to understand some of her mother's last actions and wishes - and what she would have wanted for Katie.

"Maybe I can't really save my dad from sadness, but maybe so much time goes by that you start to understand how beauty and sadness can both live in one place" p 165.

The dynamic between the grieving father and daughter is quite well-done. The metaphysical musings of the opening ("There are the things that have been and the things that haven't happened yet. There is a squiggle of a line between, which is the color of caution..." p 1) that will turn off some, more reluctant, readers. The story is interesting, but frustrating, both in pacing and plot.

Other than the lackage of ghosts, my biggest problem with the novel is the level of coincident: just as Katie becomes curious about Martine Everlast a box of historical clippings containing important clues to the reclusive heiress shows up at the public library; her father, out of nowhere, suddenly takes an art restoration job on a painting he suspects was done by Martine's father. No one has heard anything of this family in decades and suddenly, just as Katie gets curious two clues surface? hmm.

Voice was good. The style weaving flashbacks and present day was effective. The setting was very good, so good that I'd be interested in other books set in this small town that concerned completely different characters. The primary and secondary characters all felt well-rounded. Kephart did not answer all of the questions a reader might ask, but she left breadcrumbs toward those answers that can be reached with some reflection.

Besides, all is well, because there was a pretty kick-ass librarian character. No bun OR sensible shoes included. ;)

Books to recommend alongside this one:
If I Stay by Gayle Foreman
The Pursuit of Happiness by Tara Altebrando
The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen
and many, many more. Feel free to add to these three in the comments.