Book Review: The Implosion of Aggie Winchester by Lara Zielin

For Aggie Winchester, life in her small northern Minnesota town is fairly standard. She spends most of time cutting class with her goth-girl best friend Sylvia and avoiding the fact that her mom is the principal of her school.  But things start to change when Sylvia announces that she’s pregnant, Aggie’s mom tells her she has cancer, and Aggie’s getting weird mixed-signals from her ex-boyfriend.  When both Sylvia and Aggie’s mom get embroiled in a scandal involving ballot burning during the prom queen election, Aggie’s investigation uncovers more questions than answers.

Although Zielin’s novel about a lost, surly outsider struggles to balance the teen melodrama with it solid, important content, there’s still a lot to like.  Aggie herself is a nicely-developed protagonist and narrator, and Zielin raises some tough questions that don’t have easy answers.  Unafraid to tackle darker issues, Zielin’s coming-of-age novel will resonate especially for readers looking for like-minded disaffected youth.

To her credit, Zielin writes teens especially well.  She gets them, understands their motivations, and doesn’t make it easy for them or the reader.  Aggie screws up a lot and Zielin lets her without interfering.  Aggie’s lessons are all learned through experience.  She’s not always lovable, but she does always feel authentic, real, and honest.

Unfortunately, Zielin doesn’t give the same care or consideration to her other characters.  While Aggie’s relationship with her parents is fairly well-developed (and completely aggravating in that way that’s so common for sixteen-year-old girls), her friendship with Sylvia and the entrance of new-bad-girl Beth never really gel.  Beth (and to a lesser extent, Sylvia) is completely irredeemable and one-dimensional.  There is no depth here, and there is never even an attempt to explain or justify her nastiness.

While the overall story moves quickly and the central dilemma is interesting, Zielin loses focus near the end.  Aggie’s relationships with her mother and Sylvia seem to get lost as the story’s events veer off into overwrought, melodramatic territory.  Most readers won’t have a problem with this (some won’t even notice), but sophisticated readers might find themselves frustrated with the lack of follow-through.

Recommended to fans of contemporary YA featuring persnickety heroines.

The Implosion of Aggie Winchester by Lara Zielin.  Putnam Juvenile: 2011.  Library copy.

(#92) Book Review: Bitter End by Jennifer Brown

Alex is a senior in high school when she falls for the new boy at school named Cole.  He’s funny, cute, and a rising sports star who seems to adore her as much as she adores him.  Alex has always felt like something was missing from her life, and it seems as though Cole is that missing piece.  The only problem is that he seems a little jealous of her friendship with her two best friends, Zack and Bethany, but Alex can understand why he doesn’t want her spending all her time with them.  But as the two get deeper into their relationship, she starts to realize that Cole’s subtle put-downs are increasing in frequency and are being accompanied by violent behaviors.  As she struggles to reconcile the fact that this boy whom she loves is also a boy who can hurt her, Alex faces some of the toughest decisions of her life.

This is the third book I’ve read this year about teens in abusive relationships, and it is by far the best of the three.  While I really liked Deb Caletti’s Stay and really hated Amanda Grace’s But I Love Him (this is actually a case where the more I think about the book, the angrier I get), Jennifer Brown’s sophomore effort surpasses these other books because she manages to create the most authentic tale of abuse that I’ve ever read.

The book’s power comes from Brown’s honest portrayal of Cole and Alex’s relationship.  The pacing is slow at the beginning, but it feels deliberate as Brown sets up the relationships and the unavoidable outcomes.  Brown has an expert ability to handle difficult subject matter (she did it in her debut novel Hate List as well): everything from Cole’s abuse and emotional manipulation to Alex’s inability to speak about the abuse to Bethany and Zack’s frustration and fear about the situation all feels so real that it hurts–it really hurts–to read it.  This is a raw read, Gentle Readers.

What was hard to accept in other books about abuse is made much more clear in this one.  As hard as it is to watch Alex remain in a relationship with Cole, who grows increasingly more violent as time passes, the reader understands what is happening.  Alex lives in a post-after-school-special world, one in which kids are taught about how to spot the signs of abuse.  It is actually this that makes it harder for Alex to accept the fact that she’s in one because she’s supposed to be a strong, enlightened girl who would never succumb to such a situation.  And yet, she does, and it is easy to see why.

Never didactic and highly visceral, this is an important book.  Highly recommended.

Bitter End by Jennifer Brown. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers: 2011.  Library copy.

 

 

(#91) Book Review: Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang by Chelsea Handler

Chelsea Handler is back with a third collection of stories about her crazy life.  These stories run the gamut from her weird youth to her even weird family to the nasty pranks she likes to play on her friends.  As each story seems to get crazier and even more ludicrous, Handler still manages to top it with the next.  Anecdotes from her life continue to entertain in this collection of conversational essays.

The problem with Handler’s third collection of essays about her life is that the joke is starting to wear thin.  Whereas Handler’s first two books were very funny and seemed generally focused, this one feels rushed, a little forced, and completely disjointed.  There’s no cohesive feeling to this one, and when I read about the fact that Handler has talked openly about how hard this one was to write and how much she hated doing it, it made sense.  There’s an undercurrent of resentment running through this one, and it made for a rather unpleasant reading experience.

That’s not to say that there aren’t moments where Handler is particularly funny or on-point.  The early parts of the book are its strongest moments, including the story about how Handler discovered masturbation as a child & the story about the day she stayed in bed and watched the Sex & the City movie twice in a row.  These bits give way to meandering stories about vacations with her friends and elaborate pranks she’s played on employees, and it is here that I started to get uncomfortable as a reader.  Not only were the stories overly-long to the point where I wondered where it was all going, but some of them were so mean-spirited that I no longer felt comfortable reading about her exploits.

Some readers have taken issue with what they think is Handler’s tendency to grossly exaggerate her stories.  This makes some people question the legitimacy and veracity of the stories Handler weaves, but that isn’t my issue.  Handler is a comedian; exaggeration is comedy’s bread and butter.  My issue lies with the fact that in this third book, Handler is not very funny, nor is she very unique.  This book read like a woman who has run out of good stories and resents the fact that she’s expected to keep coming up with stuff.  Give this one a pass and revisit one of Handler’s first two collections.

Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang by Chelsea Handler.  Grand Central Publishing: 2010.  Borrowed on Kindle.

(#90) Book Review: And Then Things Fall Apart by Arlaina Tibensky

For fifteen year old Keek, things have certainly been better.  She’s in a huge fight with her boyfriend, her best friend betrayed her, her parents are splitting up, and Keek’s suffering from a wicked case of the chicken pox.  Because her mom’s across the country visiting her sister and her dad is moping in the basement, Keek’s staying at her grandmother’s house, where technology doesn’t exist and all she has to distract her is her beloved copy of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath  an ancient typewriter.

Arlaina Tibensky’s cynical coming-of-age debut is, all things considered, pretty great.  Told in diary-format, Keek’s documents her time at her grandmother’s house on the typewriter, alternating between writing poetry, lamenting about how sucky her life is, and comparing herself to Plath’s heroine Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar.  This is a smart, self-aware novel told in a conversational tone that is likely to resonate especially with slightly-more-jaded youth.

Keek is fifteen, and while much of her personality indicates this, she also often seems older than the average fifteen-year-old.  This works, for the most part, as her entries vacillate between self-centered melodrama and highly introspective musings on the state of her life and on the characters in her favorite literature.  She is oftentimes funny and passionate, and while she’s clearly taken with the fictional character of Esther Greenwood, her fascination with her never takes over Keek’s own personality.

Because of the novel’s format, voice is essential to the story working.  The element of Keek’s voice is strong: it is clear, real, and honest.  She fixates on the small details that would plague a teenage girl who is stuck without technology to distract her, which lends credibility to what Tibensky is attempting to do.  There are moments where Keek is almost too self-aware for a young teenager though, and these moments are almost too “meta” to be authentic.  Most readers will overlook this, though.

The novel moves fairly slowly (because Keek’s world has slowed down) and lacks much in the way of dialogue.  Readers who prefer a quick story are going to struggle with Keek’s internal monologue.  However, those who don’t mind narration (especially smart narration) are going to be rewarded: this is a book worth reading, and it’s a strong contender for what makes great contemporary YA.

And Then Things Fall Apart by Arlaina Tibensky.  Simon & Schuster: 2011.  Library copy.

(#89) Book Review: Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

When the contestants in the Miss Teen Dream pageant find themselves stranded on a desert island after their airplane crashes, they assume rescue will come soon.  The surviving girls continue practicing their routines for the pageant, but it isn’t long before they realize that they have bigger concerns.  As the girls struggle with limited food and water resources, they also start to discover who they are when they aren’t being judged.  Oh, and there are sexy pirates.

Bray’s latest novel isn’t interested in presenting a linear story about beauty queens.  With her trademark wit and scorching satire of the culture in which these girls were raised, Bray tackles big identity questions.  Sexual identity, gender politics, and feminism are well-covered here.  She isn’t interested in making nice so much as she’s interested in creating a surrealist satire of the current world, and nothing is off-limits: reality TV, corporate sponsorship, product placement, and obsession with youth and beauty are all covered.   To say that this is a busy book is an understatement.

The book is inter-cut with transcripts from commercials for products produced by The Corporation, as well as informational sheets featuring each of the surviving girls.  There are a lot of funny moments to be found in Bray’s writing, but the funniest moments are some of the quieter ones–the song titles of the former boy band the girls discuss and the repetition of the subtle digs at race and class are some of the best–and the cultural take-downs are strongest when they don’t feel too over-the-top.

That being said, there are a lot of moments that feel like overkill.  The parody and satire is so thick that it can be difficult to slog through some of it.  Each girl gets her own moment to take on her personal demons and obstacles, which is maybe a little bit too much message, especially when one considers the fact that it takes at least half the novel to get all the contestants straight.

This book is sarcastic and often brainy, and it’s clear that Bray is pissed about the state of our cultural world.  She has a sharp, unique voice, and this book is going to resonate with readers who are fed up with the beauty obsession placed on girls today.  Recommended for those looking for an eccentric read.

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray.  Scholastic: 2011.  Library copy.

(#88) Book Review: The Last Little Blue Envelope by Maureen Johnson

When the last envelope her aunt Peg left her disappeared when her backpack was stolen last year, Ginny thought her adventure trekking around Europe was over.  Resigned to the fact that she’d never know how Peg wanted the experience to end, Ginny went on with her quiet life.  But over Christmas break of her senior year, she’s contacted by a mystery boy in London, who says he’s got her bag–and the last letter.  Ginny can finish what she started.  Without giving it too much thought, Ginny meets him in London, determined to put it all behind her.  Instead of providing closure, though, the last letter leads to more adventure, more shenanigans, and once-in-a-lifetime experiences with friends new and old.

While I liked Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes, it never quite clicked for me.  With The Last Little Blue Envelope, my reservations disappeared, because this fast-paced, fluffy little story is wholly enjoyable.  Fans of Johnson’s first book featuring Ginny Blackstone are nearly guaranteed to love this one.  It’s a quick read, full of the same wanderlust that made the first book so much fun to read.  Johnson also delves further into the characterization of Ginny in this one, which is helpful in creating more of a connection between her and the reader.

Like with the first novel in the series, a suspension of disbelief is required.  Ginny’s parents are completely nonexistent in this novel, and her decision to gallivant off to Europe (again) seems to be solely hers.  The fact that her uncle Richard was able to receive her in London again is supposed to waive away some concerns about a girl traveling in Europe with no clear plan, but I still have a hard time swallowing it.  Once Ginny’s there, she has very little interaction with him.  Johnson chooses to focus instead on the complicated relationship Ginny has with Keith, who seems to have suffered a bit of character decay since the last book.  As a reader, I can’t help but feel that this change in Keith’s personality was partly intentional on the part of Johnson to make the new character of Oliver more appealing to readers (I feel like this is happening in books a lot lately).

However, Johnson’s trademark humor and subtle, wry observations about travel and people and life are present here.  This is another wonderful romp through parts of Europe.  The scenes in Ireland alone are worth a read of the book.  While Johnson leaves open the possibility of a third book, this one stands well enough on its own.

Recommended.

The Last Little Blue Envelope by Maureen Johnson.  HarperTeen: 2011.  Library copy.

(#87) Book Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Jacob Portman’s grandfather has always told him crazy stories about the orphanage he grew up in during World War II.  He even had a collection of strange photographs of children doing peculiar things to accompany these stories.  Despite all this, Jacob always dismissed the stories as tall tales.  Then his grandfather is killed by some sort of creature right in front of him.  In order to deal with his grief (and guilt) and to make sense of what happened, Jacob and his father travel to the mysterious island which houses the orphanage, long-since-abandoned.  It is there that Jacob begins to unravel the story of his grandfather.

Ransom Riggs uses vintage photos interspersed in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and it isn’t hard to understand the appeal.  With these often creepy old photographs, even everyday moments have a sort of mystery about them: the people featured in the photographs are long-dead, the places they inhabit are changed, and the aging of the photographs lends a sense of melancholy or eeriness to what would otherwise be a normal photograph.  The photographs present in this story are the best part, which is both a good and bad thing: it is good because it creates a depth to the story that would otherwise be lacking, and it is bad because it only further highlights the problems with Riggs’s prose, story, and characterization, which are all sorely lacking.

The first third of the novel is the most compelling as Jacob provides some back story and describes the rather brutal murder of his grandfather.  The initial exploration of the mysterious island is also very interesting, and then the book takes a turn for the ridiculous and loses steam quite quickly.  It is here that the gap between the photographs and the prose is most noticeable: while the prose is just serviceable, the photos offer such potential for great storytelling that readers can’t help but be disappointed by what is offered.  Many readers will struggle with the authenticity of Jacob’s voice as a narrator: at times he sounds like a sixteen year old boy, and at times he uses the stilted vocabulary of a tweedy professor.  This uneven narration only further illuminates the novel’s flaws.

It is clear that Riggs has his eyes on future volumes (the book’s movie rights were optioned before it was even published), and perhaps because of this, he wastes no time on character development (to the story’s detriment) and instead focuses on setting up the story, which isn’t anything new.  It’s the well-trodden “chosen one” trope, and it’s not even particularly well done, which makes it that much harder to swallow.   The end of the novel clearly panders to the inevitability of a sequel, offering readers no closure whatsoever.*

That being said, some will enjoy this one.  It’s certainly a twist on the paranormal genre.  Casual fans of stories like X-Men might enjoy this one, as will fans of Neil Gaiman, if they’re looking for something that’s pretty light on substance and character development.  This reviewer probably won’t pick up future titles in the inevitable series, but she will probably flip through to look at the vintage photographs, which gave her nightmares and lit up her imagination.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.  Quirk Publishing: 2011.  Library copy.

*After writing this review, Quirk announced on August 25th that a sequel is indeed in the works, to be published in the Spring of 2013.  Told you so.