(#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.

(#86) Book Review: Girl, Stolen by April Henry

While Cheyenne Wilder’s stepmother fills her prescription at the pharmacy, she takes a nap in the back of the car.  Before she can even react to what’s happening, the car is stolen with her still inside it.  Griffin hadn’t intended to kidnap a girl while stealing a car, but when his father finds out that Cheyenne’s dad is the head of a huge corporation, the game changes, and there’s a reason to hold onto her.  Things are complicated by the fact that Cheyenne is sick with pneumonia–and is blind.  How will Cheyenne survive this?

The good thing about April Henry’s novel is that she wastes no time jumping right into the action of the story.  We meet Cheyenne as she is kidnapped, and the fast pacing draws the reader in immediately.  The first third of the novel is the strongest as Henry sets up the kidnapping and plotting done by Griffin’s family as they realize there is something more valuable to be had than the stolen car.

The suspense in Henry’s novel lacks an edge from the start, and the blame can be placed upon the decision to offer narration from dual perspectives: Cheyenne and Griffin take turns narrating chapters, and the second that the reader is treated to the inside of Griffin’s head, they know that Cheyenne isn’t in any real danger.  Griffin makes it clear that he has no intention of hurting her, and once the reader knows that, much of the danger is gone.  With that danger goes most of the story’s potential, and the result is kind of sloppy.

Henry clearly did her research with respect to seeing impaired people.  These insights into how Cheyenne lives her life and how she makes sense of her surroundings are interesting, but they are not enough to drive the narrative.  Too often, Henry relies on info-dumping, giving the reader a lot of exposition in a way that is awkward and jarring, not to mention a little insulting.  The pacing is also uneven once the story gets past the initial car-jacking.

There’s a lot of unexplored potential here: Henry could have delved deeper into the concept of Stockholm Syndrome, or into Cheyenne’s complicated feelings for Griffin, who is, in many ways, also a victim.  None of this is done adequately, though, as the reader is left with a very surface-level understanding of the characters and their motivations.  In the end, I couldn’t help but with that Henry had done a little more with everything the reader is given.

Girl, Stolen by April Henry. Henry Holt & Co: 2010. Library copy.

(#85) Book Review: Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin

Forever the good girl, forever the sidekick, Rachel has stood in her best friend Darcy’s shadow since grade school.  That changes the night of Rachel’s 30th birthday, when she confesses her long-held feelings to Darcy’s fiance Dexter and is surprised to find that he reciprocates them.  The two embark on an affair in the days leading up to his wedding to Darcy.  Although they know it’s wrong, Rachel can’t help the way she feels, and she starts to learn that sometimes things aren’t quite so black and white.

Emily Giffin’s Something Borrowed is one of the titles often held up as the standard of quality chick lit.  It was recently made into a movie (which I reviewed).  I read the book before viewing the movie, but I’m so behind in writing book reviews that the movie review was published first.  So it goes.  That being said, the movie was only slightly worse than the novel on which it was based.  This is not going to be a positive review, y’all.

It should be said (as it has been before) that it’s not issues of betrayal or adultery that I take issue with.  I think that both are issues with a great deal of complexity inherent in them, and I enjoy reading about them when they’re dealt with well.  I say this so that it is understood that my dislike of Something Borrowed doesn’t stem from the character’s actions as it does from the fact that it isn’t a likeable book in any way.  It’s overly long, contains clunky transitions between past and present (meant to provide the reader with the lengthy history of Darcy and Rachel), and is full of characters that are stereotypes devoid of any actual personality.

The problem begins with the premise of Darcy and Rachel’s friendship.  The two have been friends since elementary school, but it’s clear from the onset that they no longer have anything in common.  It’s also clear that Darcy is a classic toxic friend, and equally clear is that Giffin goes out of her way to make her unsympathetic so that readers will side with what Rachel and Dex end up doing.  I don’t know that I buy the fact that the two girls are still so close despite having nothing in common, having attended different colleges and living completely separate lives.  The friendship feels flimsy from the beginning, which makes the basic plot feel precarious at best.

Of course, the weak friendship is only the tip of the iceberg.  Readers aren’t supposed to sympathize with the impetuous, selfish Darcy, but Rachel and Dex are pretty awful, too.  Much has been made of the fact that Rachel is a wishy-washy doormat with no spine (or personality, to be honest).  Dex is even worse, ending up as a sort of whiny, emasculated man-child who still manages to be completely bland.  There is no depth here, no dimension to the characters or their own histories.

If this is the standard of what quality chick lit is supposed to be, then it’s no wonder that the genre gets a bad rap.  There are some great books out there that qualify as chick lit, but this isn’t one of them.  I don’t really recommend this one, but it might resonate with readers who just want some mildly provocative romance without any substance underneath.

Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin.  St. Martin’s Press: 2004.  Library copy.

(#84) Book Review: Bad Taste in Boys by Carrie Harris

It doesn’t take long for football team manager Kate Grable to figure out that not only is the coach giving the team steroids, but they’re having an unintended effect on the boys.  The boys who have been dosed turn into zombies with a thirst for human flesh.  As the zombies threaten to take over the school (and the town), Kate rushes to figure out a way to protect herself, her crush Aaron, and her little brother, Jonah.

Carrie Harris’s Bad Taste in Boys is pretty mindless.  It’s a fun, often funny romp through a world in which zombies exist but aren’t as terrifying as they maybe should be.  Harris has a light sense of humor and a quick wit, and those two things carry the rather thin premise of this book all the way to the end.  Cartoonish violence and virtually no sexual content make this a good pick for the younger teen set.

The character of Kate is given more development than any of the characters who populate her world.  She is smart, funny, and mostly fearless.  Added to this is the fact that she’s a total science nerd with clear goals and aspirations, and we have a much stronger heroine than many YA books today.  Of course, Kate’s quest to find a cure to the zombie virus takes a little too long, as the answer has been staring her in the face since nearly the beginning of the story.  This obtuseness was hard for this reader to swallow but will likely be ignored by many readers.

The rest of the characters in the story aren’t given nearly as much development.  Kate’s crush, Aaron, is literally an every boy because I couldn’t tell you a thing about him.  He could be anyone.  Kate’s parents are almost nonexistent, her friends are pretty interchangeable, and while her brother Jonah has a couple of good moments, he’s pretty underdeveloped, too.  All of this almost doesn’t matter, though, because Harris’s story is whip-fast, paced extremely well, and really, really fun.

Recommended for reluctant readers and the younger teen set looking for a fun summer read.  This is one that can be torn through in a day.  Fans of series are in luck: this is the first in a planned series; the next features Kate taking on werewolves.

Bad Taste in Boys by Carrie Harris.  Delacorte: 2011.  Library copy.

(#83) Book Review: Blueprints for Building Better Girls by Elissa Schappell

Schappell’s collection of short stories presents the lives of females: girls and women who are aching to tell their experiences.  These uniquely funny, observant, sometimes heartbreaking stories are the ones that are largely secret.  Girls being shaped into women can be found here, and it’s a unique experience.

The eight stories collected in Schappell’s book are remarkable not only because Schappell is a good writer who gets in close to her characters but also because she writes tough, smart characters who connect with the reader during moments of revelation.  There is not only a great sense of care taken with each of the characters, but a great deal of detail given to the characters and the stories they are telling.  These stories are intelligent, unflinchingly honest, and contain an uncanny ability to observe the dichotomy of toughness and vulnerability present in women’s lives.

The stories in this collection interconnect with one another.  In the first story, “Monsters of the Deep,” a young girl struggles with being labeled the town tramp.  Readers revisit her in the last story, “I’m Only Going to Tell You This Once,” as she talks to her teenage son and tries to reconcile her own past.  In “The Joy of Cooking,” Emily, a recovering anorexic, has a prolonged phone conversation with her mother that explores the complexity of their relationship (this one hit me particularly hard).  The women in Schappell’s stories go in and out of each other’s lives and provide a richness to her stories that is memorable and satisfying.

These stories contain characters that will leave lasting impressions on readers.  The examination of female identity pervades these stories but never feels overpowering or too didactic.  Fans of smart short stories should look no farther: this collection embodies that completely.

The collection is out now.

Blueprints for Building Better Girls by Elissa Schappell.  Simon & Shuster: 2011.  Electronic galley provided for review by publisher via Netgalley.

(#82) Book Review: Small Town Sinners by Melissa C. Walker

Lacey Anne Byers has always had faith and has always been active in her church.  This year, she’s finally old enough to take a crucial, active role in her church’s annual Hell House: an event which uses dramatic enactments of sins to scare people into (re)committing themselves to Jesus.  When Lacey’s childhood friend Ty shows up and the two feel a connection, he also forces her to ask some hard questions about her religion, her beliefs, and her faith in people.

I’ll admit it: Melissa Walker’s thorough examination of one girl’s faith caught me by surprise.  I always go into books that focus heavily on religion with a bit of trepidation.  I’m not always sure how message-happy the author is going to get, and I worry about how that will impact my opinion of the book.  Luckily, Walker’s book walks the line between sincere and preachy and balances it beautifully.  This is a challenging book, but it is also very respectful.

Lacey and her friends are interesting, rare characters in YA these days: modern teenagers living in a small town, they are also very sheltered and innocent.  In a world where seven-year-olds are performing sexual acts when the teacher’s back is turned and teens are being arrested for sexting, it’s this innocence that seems almost archaic, but it never feels false or inauthentic.  In fact, Walker’s sensitivity and attention to detail with regard to these characters is the driving force behind much of the novel.  As Lacey discusses her beliefs with Ty and begins to question the purpose of Hell House more and more, she also learns to find her own voice and articulate her thoughts.  There are moments where these conversations are in danger of becoming too didactic, but Walker’s focus on Lacey’s journey ensures that the line is never completely crossed.

The story is also quite atmospheric, as Walker takes care with creating the sense of a small town.  Lacey and her friends are products of their environment, kept away from outside influences and protected from the world’s messier aspects.  When Lacey’s best friend Starla Joy goes through a family crisis, the shock the other characters feel is genuine.  So too are the complicated feelings Lacey feels for Ty, whose past is a little shadowy and whose signals are mixed.  All of this–especially the tentative teen romance–is done very well.

The book is not without its problems, though.  I struggled with one thing in particular, relating to Lacey and her relationship with her father.  Lacey’s father, a youth pastor, is described as being the one person she could always talk to about her life and about her faith.  But the second she starts questioning some of the church’s beliefs, her father shuts down completely.  His unwillingness to communicate or engage in any form of dialogue didn’t jive with his previous characterization.  While I understand that people can change, especially when confronted with difficult questions, it didn’t make sense for a character who would have had extensive training in talking with teens about issues and faith.  It felt too much like a plot point to create conflict than it did actual character development.

Overall, this is a tender, thoughtful read.  Although I wonder a little about the intended audience (and whether or not it will ever be read by them), I think it’s a book that can be enjoyed by people of all faiths and belief systems (or lack thereof).  Recommended for fans of contemporary YA.

Small Town Sinners by Melissa Walker.  Bloomsbury: 2011.  Library copy.

(#81) Book Review: The Beginning of After by Jennifer Castle

When Laurel’s parents and younger brother are killed in a terrible car crash, her life is turned upside down.  Complicating the tragedy is the fact that her neighbor David’s father was behind the wheel when it happened.  David’s mother was killed, too, and his father is in a coma.  As Laurel tries to cope with her grief and adjust to the new life that has been forced upon her, she also struggles with growing apart from her best friend, questioning whether or not she’ll ever be seen as anything other than the girl whose family died, and wondering whether what she feels for David–who keeps disappearing and reappearing in her life–is real or is a result of their shared fates.

Jennifer Castle’s debut novel is a quiet little story, and although comparisons to Gayle Forman’s wildly popular If I Stay are going to be unavoidable, I actually think it does the book a disservice.  While Forman’s book flirts with the supernatural, Castle’s book is firmly rooted in reality, and it is her realistic portrayal of the aftermath of a tragedy and the very real process of grief that makes her book work so well.

This is largely a character-driven novel, and Castle gets it right, especially when it comes to Laurel and David.  Each character must navigate their own grief, and while each chooses to do it in different ways, they also find themselves drawn to one another.  The depth of their sorrow can only be understood by the other, and Castle does an admirable job of creating a relationship between the two that can only be forged through a shared sense of loss.  Laurel and David share an emotional connection that could be physical but is hindered by Laurel’s confusion about her feelings and David’s tendency to pull away.  It is an interpersonal relationship that is done extremely well.

The story is one that could be rife with cliches, but Castle manages to sidestep them, choosing instead to focus on the little moments that life offers in the wake of a huge loss.  This is done in part by allowing readers to trace the evolution of Laurel’s grief as she struggles to reconcile her loss with her desire to be normal again, but it is also helped along by creating a cast of secondary characters that are largely sympathetic.  Laurel’s grandmother, her best friend, and her crush Joe are some of the characters that help add dimension to the story without falling into stereotypes.

A compelling and subtly emotional read, Castle doesn’t go for the big tear-jerker moments so much as allows the readers to gently empathize with the pain that Laurel and her grandmother experience.  This is not a fast-paced novel, but it is still compelling, and I couldn’t put it down.  Highly recommended for fans of well-done contemporary YA.

The Beginning of After will hit bookshelves on September 6, 2011.

The Beginning of After by Jennifer Castle.  HarperTeen: 2011.  Electronic galley accepted for review via NetGalley.