Showing posts with label coming-of-age. Show all posts
Showing posts with label coming-of-age. Show all posts

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Starbird Murphy and the World Outside by Karen Finneyfrock


Rating: WORTHY!

This amazingly-named novel, from an author I now intend to read more of, is about a teen-aged girl in a religious cult (not an evil one, just a misguided one as they all ultimately are). Starbird has grown up leading a rather sheltered life, but she gets the chance to go out into the world and this is her story.

All of the characters have bizarre names. Starbird's brother is called Douglas Fir. Apparently the cult went through eras of selecting names from particular inspirational sources, so the founding members are all named after planets in our solar system. The leader is called Earth, and the name is always capitalized, but he's disappeared. He went out on some sabbatical, and no one heard from him since.

Starbird ends-up working with a girl named Venus Lake (daughter of Venus Ocean) in a restaurant owned by the cult. Venus is not a founding member but since her mother, who was a founder, died in childbirth, they gave her name to her daughter. Yes, it's that kind of weird. It was really hard to get into for the first couple of pages, but then it started making sense and I really liked it, which is a good feeling form a new novel by an author I was not familiar with. It's the best part of a novel, right? Before you've become disappointed in it and ditch or, or worse, before you read it avidly and then are disappointed that it's over! LOL! The manic world of novel addicts.

That;s not to say it was perfect. I had a problem with, in the space of 6 pages in chapter 9, meeting two guys and two girls. In each case the guy is described in terms of his hair, while in each case the girl is described in terms of how pretty or attractive she is. Fortunately, this was the only instance of this I encountered, so I let it slide, but this business of typing females by how pretty they are has to stop. I'm getting so tired of it that I'm ready to start rating novels based solely on that, if it's indulged in to absurd lengths, regardless of how well-written or otherwise the novel is.

Women have other qualities and the people who should perhaps most realize this are female writers, yet so many of them sell-out their characters with this genderist bullshit that it's nauseating. As I said, the author went on to show admirably how these women had other qualities and she backed-off on the skin-deep garbage, so I let it slide this time.

I can understand it if a character, in the novel reduces a woman to her looks alone; this happens in real life, but these descriptions came directly from the author, not from one of the characters. In each case the woman is reduced to her looks and in doing this, the author is very much announcing that women who are not considered attractive need not apply, because when it comes to women, looks are all that matter. I don't subscribe to that and I wish that a lot fewer female authors did, particularly in the YA genre.

That caveat aside, and because it was so limited in this novel, I do consider this a worthy read.


Wednesday, March 16, 2016

It Ain't So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas


Rating: WORTHY!

This is a kind of coming-of-age story and although I typically don't like those, this was not your stereotypical USA cutely white-washed pretense. Instead, and this was the reason I was attracted to it, it was about an Iranian girl growing-up in the USA during the time of the Iranian Hostage crisis in 1979 - 1980. It's autobiographical, but with a lot of fiction mixed in.

Note that Iranians not actually Arabic. They are Aryan, aka Indo-European. Arabs are a Semitic people, so there is a difference, although to western eyes they are all-too-often "just the same." Iran used to be known as Persia, which sounds far more exotic, doesn't it? The hostage crisis arose out of the overthrow of the US supported (or perhaps more accurately, 'puppeteered') Shah of Persia, and is one more example of the US getting itself into embarrassingly hot water because of poor foreign policy choices and grotesque short-sightedness in demonstrating a complete lack of empathy for what a people need and instead exhibiting a tunnel vision for what the US demands. I was glad to see some of this come through in the story that was told.

The whole process of having the Shah dance to the US's tune because of oil is what has led not only to the hostage crisis which brought down the Carter government (although the Reagan government for all its bluster, continued exactly the same policy!), but also directly to the present troubles which are no more than the just deserts of poor policy choices in the past. Of course, there is no excuse for taking hostages and punishing the innocent, but this punishing took place on both sides, and the Iranians began by punishing their own people after the Ayatollah took over, remember! It began with US policy effectively punishing poor Iranians. Later, Iranian students punished the US embassy people. Subsequent to that, US residents punished innocent Iranians living in the USA, and so the wheel turns. As Ghandi said, an eye for an eye ends up leaving everybody blind. What he didn't say is that if people start out blind to begin with, this exactly what we should expect.

This author does a wonderfully humorous job of depicting other events, as some of the chapter headings make clear:
Sultans of Suntan
Never Owned a Camel
and
Are You There, Allah? It’s Me, Zomorod

The crisis, for me, was rather too intrusive, although it was obviously a critical and tragic event which cast a huge shadow over their lives. That said, it wasn't such a large part of the story that it overwhelmed other things which to me were more interesting because they were less predictable. I loved the humor in contrasting Iranian life with the life she experienced in the USA, but it bothered me that the wider perspective she thought she was bringing was in its own way just as blinkered as the one she sought to supplant, since the impression given here is that an exile can only get a decent life in the USA! There is this strong suggestion that nowhere else in the world can really offer anyone a life except for the US, and while Iran was criticized routinely, this same gimlet eye was never applied to the USA except in the most limited fashion. Frankly, that's nothing but a jingoistic insult to the rest of the world!

Those complaints aside, I did enjoy this story - the humor more than the horror, but both were engaging - and I recommend it as an educational and entertaining story.


Monday, January 12, 2015

Walking on Trampolines by Frances Whiting


Title: Walking on Trampolines
Author: Frances Whiting
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Rating: WARTY!


DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often enough reward aplenty!

I know it’s a novel because it announces itself as such directly there on the cover! I am so grateful for that, because I would never have known otherwise! It's about the relationship between Tallulah de Longland and Annabelle Andrews, who met when Annabelle strutted into her life at Saint Rita's School for Young Ladies, or as Annabelle insisted upon naming it, Saint Rita's School for Young Lesbians. And no, this isn’t a LGBTQ story, not even close.

This novel is set in Australia. I usually enjoy stories set in Australia because they seem so much like stories set in Britain. That sounds like a back-handed compliment but it's really not - I feel just as much at home reading an Aussie story (though I've never been there) as I do a Brit one. Indeed, it’s even possible to forget the location sometimes, and start feeling like it is set in Britain, but then along comes a reminder, and it trips me right up and it’s a real joy to read like that, ones where you’re being frequently shaken out of your cozy safety zone.

I vacillated (yes, vacillated, I shall have it no other way) over whether to rate this positively or negatively. The story is told in three parts and had it been just part one, presented as a short story, I would have, without question or qualification rated it a winner because part one was brilliant and beautifully-written. Unfortunately, then came parts two and three, and while part two only began a gentle downhill glide, part three tipped-up and dunked the reader into a swamp of maudlin Newbery-medal-winner-wannabe material which frankly colored me green - not with envy but with nausea.

If I were rating only parts two and three, I don't doubt that I would even flushed this novel unfinished. So what to do? I think on balance I have to go negative because I can’t rate only a part of it. As I've said before, I can’t say a book is one third worth reading. It’s either worthy or it's warty. There is no in between. If you can stand the sad betrayal of a main female character, as featured in parts two and three, then you should read this. If you are willing to pay the price of a glorious part one in the currency of a miserable parts two and three, then read it. Otherwise avoid it.

The first third or so was tightly focused and brilliantly written, but then it was like the author lost the thread of it or ran out of ideas, and instead of it being about Annabelle and Tallulah, it became about anything and everything, and was nowhere near as entertaining or as engaging as the first part.

I loved Annabelle, and I liked Tallulah in the first third, but Annabelle essentially disappeared after that, and Tallulah went off in so many different directions it was dizzying, and none of that was anywhere near as engrossing.

A new character, Duncan, showed up, and although the author tried to portray him as a good guy, he was, at his core, no different from Josh-the-Jerk, Tallulah's faithless first love. The only difference was that Tallulah worked for Duncan rather than dated him, and he was older than Josh. Otherwise they were the same person at different stages in life, both equally unsavory. Whereas Josh was shown for exactly what he was, for some reason the author chose to portray Duncan as somehow noble - really a good guy underneath his faithlessness, manic cruelty, and cynicism.

Tallulah's two friends: Stella, the stereotypical (in everything save name) Catholic baby-machine, and Simone, the requisite token lesbian friend. Actually, Tallulah's whole take on lesbianism is interesting to say the least. She's convinced that a woman by the name of Maxine Mathers isn't a lesbian because she spent one night in bed with Duncan. A girl can’t change her mind? Yes, if you want to be strict and technical, that makes her bisexual, but the issue here is that Tallulah seems to be under the impression that sexuality is a binary proposition: on or off, plus or minus, yes or no, one or zero. It’s not.

The novel see-saws back and forth between past - Tallulah's almost idyllic recollections of her long teen-age years with Annabelle - and the hellish present-day which Tallulah has created (and has had created) by two major events, the second of which we learn in the very first chapter: she slept with Annabelle's husband Josh, on their wedding night!

Annabelle the younger has the mildly amusing habit of making word mash-ups such as "glamorgeous" and "tediocre". This is faintly reminiscent of Frankie Landau-Banks's behavior in the eponymous novel by E Lockhart, but that novel was better.

Annabelle's parents are artists with all that artistry brings. They're renowned but retiring, friendly, and warm, and creative, really easy-going, flamboyant and rule-skirting. They also have personal issues with each other.

Annabelle lives in a wondrous house, surrounded by trees and beautiful flowers, and the garden rolls readily down to the water, yet for reasons which only slowly become clear, she prefers to visit Tallulah's house, which is smaller and doubles as the home-base of her father Harry's plumbing business. Her mother, Rose, had a difficult childhood, running away from a disastrous home and being raised in a orphanage where she learned to be an excellent cook and dress-maker. She names her dresses with female names which Annabelle thinks is 'astoundible'. When Rose is wearing her 'Doris' dress, it means she's having a Doris day - and that's not an encouraging sign.

The two young girls become inseparable and get along famously - that is when Annabelle isn't inserting herself a little too presumptuously into Tallulah's life. Even when Tallulah hooks up with Josh - her apparently devoted boyfriend - Annabelle is still very much an integral part of their lives. Anyone a little less gullible than Tallulah might have some pause for thought at this point, but she doesn’t. Nor does she devote enough attention to the most pressing two issues she has with Josh: his desire to bed her, and his desire to travel the world immediately after they graduate. The phrase goes, 'he who hesitates is lost', but that homily, notwithstanding its wording, is not actually gender-specific.

At one point in part three, Tallulah decides to open a B&B, but she does none of the work for it - from what the author writes, that is. Everyone and their uncle pitches in to lend a hand, and Tallulah spends all of her time directing everyone in what to do. She herself, of course, has no time to work on executing her own plans because she's fully-occupied 24/7 in griping about being a bad person who isn’t meritorious of the inevitable attention from the inevitable manly man who shows in the form of outdoors-man Will Barton.

Seriously, why in god's name would any healthy girl ever want to become involved with a city gentleman? Yuck, no! If he doesn’t have a rime of bristles on his chin, a few laugh wrinkles hidden in his tanned outdoors skin, and a really gentle manner despite his rough lifestyle, why the hell would any girl be even remotely interested? Where is your thinking at for goodness sakes?! Shape up now!

Will shows up half-way through and it’s glaringly obvious from the first time his name ever appears that he's destined to bed this flighty Tallulah wench. No surprises there. The fact that he's a jerk who runs off in a huff every time Tallulah, in her self-obsessed flagellation, rebuffs him has no bearing on the matter. Trust me.

The real killer for this getting a positive rating from me was chapter twenty nine and beyond. It took the story right into the crapper. This was, coincidentally, right where I’d started skimming a paragraph here and there because it had become so pathetic and maudlin that I couldn’t stand to read the actual words one by one, so the whole thing became more like a fairy-tale than a real tale and not a good one, either.

It felt to me like the author had sat down, and cynically and calculatingly made a list of what she could do to pull every emotional string she could get her little fingers to, and it was truly pathetic where this went. It was at this point, not coincidentally that I quit reading because I really didn’t care how it ended, even though reading only a few more pages would have told me. I wasn't interested in what had increasingly in parts two and three, become nothing more than an exercise in taking potshots at the easy targets in the fairground-stall of pop-the-hear-strings.

One thing which seemed to me to be definitive of this novel was the interview with the author in the last few pages of the advance review copy I had. In the Adobe Digital Editions version which I was reading, the interview is abruptly cut off at the point where the author is asked who her greatest love was, and she answers "My greatest love would be" and the page ends right there, with no more pages to follow! Lol! It was priceless and really summed-up this novel for me. I think Annabelle might describe this as terminknackered.

When I finally gave up on this I kept asking myself how the writing could have gone from being so brilliant to becoming, as Annabelle might have put it, so tediocre in only 260 pages - pages which took seven years to write, even when writing by numbers! I have no answer to that, and in the end I don’t care. I cannot in good faith recommend this novel.


Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M Danforth


Title: The Miseducation of Cameron Post
Author: Emily M Danforth
Publisher: Harper Collins
Rating: WORTHY!

In other reviews where I've railed against the use of first person PoV, I've always said that once in a while it works, because the writer knows what she's doing and can carry it off. This is one of those rare and welcome exceptions. I'm not saying that it couldn't have been done in third person. It could, but whether that would have been a different novel or pretty much the same, we'll never know. Just let me leave it here: that I'm grateful that this writer didn't screw-up a great story like this one turned out to be.

The other trick to successful novel-writing (aside from figuring out how to get the word out about your own effort when you've chosen not to sell-out your work to the mega-bucks of Big Publishing™) is how to grab your readers on page one. Unless you're a comfortably established writer, you usually cannot afford the risk of asking them to bear with you for a page or two, much less a chapter or two. You have to corral them fiercely on page one, and Emily Danforth did that with a vengeance with me. I don't know what it was. I wish I knew, but she did it and I was hooked.

A quick note on the cover: it has nothing to do with the novel, but this isn't the author's fault. It's one of those Big Publishing™ covers where the artist evidently either never read the novel, or simply didn't have any interest in truly representing it with any degree of industriousness or integrity. Don't judge this (or any book) by the cover. Judge it by the brilliance of the interior. On that score, also please note that this YA novel has mild drug and alcohol use, moderately explicit sexual situations, and bad language. It doesn't bother me because that's how people actually are, but it may bother those who like their stories sanitized.

Cameron Post is your every-day young teen on the threshold of entering high-school, finding her way in the world, enjoying her summer, when there's this almost-accidental-but-perhaps-not kiss between her and her best friend Irene. Since Irene is leaving town that fall, it never really goes anywhere other than another peck or two, but even though Irene isn't sure what she really wants at that point and later evidently decides to travel a different path in life, along comes Lyndsey shortly afterwards. She's a fellow competitive swimmer, but at a different school. This new relationship goes somewhat further, but not much beyond second base.

Living in a small Montana town, and having lost her parents to a motor vehicle accident, Cameron, Cammie, Cam falls under the wing of her religiously-deluded aunt Ruth. Ruth isn't a bad person. She's rather nice and decent, and obviously cares for Cam, but she's been cruelly blinded by theistic zealotry and evidently isn't smart enough to see through it, so Cam has every reason to hide her predilections from everyone, particularly those who can harm her or who control her life at that point, and she does fine at this until along comes Coley Taylor.

Unlike With Irene and Lyndsey, Coley makes no overt moves, so Cam is never sure if what's going on is all in her own mind, or if there's something in Coley that wants to express itself to Cam on a very personal and intimate level. Coley has a boyfriend and she makes Cam get one - her best friend Jamie - for the school prom. It's at the prom where Jamie confronts Cam about her attraction to Coley. There's an minor altercation, tears, and then Jamie kisses Cam and she responds, but as this pseudo-relationship continues, she learns that she's not deluding herself about her orientation at least, or about where her heart and mind is at.

This is where things really start to move, because Coley isn't shy about experimentation even as she appears to be freaked out about what her true orientation might just be. And all around them, the cold, small, lonely, distant, religiously-warped town is watching. Salvation/Damnation is at hand, however, when Coley gets her own apartment so she doesn't have a forty mile commute to school each day from her parents' ranch, and the two plan to spend the evening there.

This novel wasn't all plain sailing. I know! Aren't I cruel to say not a word about what went on in that apartment that night?! You gotta get the book to find out. I promise you that if you like this kind of novel at all, then you'll likely love this particular work. One of the great things about a story like this is that it's truly my idea of a romance - not necessarily a gay one, but a romance between two people - the gender is irrelevant. This kind of novel is far, far better and more deeply romantic than almost any novel which actually bills itself as a romance.

But I digress. As I mentioned, I had a couple of issues, which were really varieties of the same issue when you get down to it. I was reading this on my smart phone because Apple is doing its damnedest to keep me from reading anything that I actually want to read on its iPad! Until I figured it out with some timely help from a good friend (thanks, LL!), the so-called ease-of-use corporation was making me work my tail off to creatively get around something which Apple claims is designed to facilitate creativity. Trust me they LIED! The smart phone, huge as the screen is, is still quite small. Even at 12cm by 7cm (~4.75in by ~2.75in), it's too small to read some things which authors include in their books, and from a writing perspective in this multi-device, multi-media era, this is worth keeping in mind.

In this case, the things were: a letter written by Jamie to Cam and left in her room, a post card sent by Lyndsey from Alaska, and a tri-fold church leaflet which plays a part about half-way through the story. These things were included in the book in the form of images. The post card was just large enough to be legible, but neither the letter nor the tri-fold were, and they didn't really lend themselves to enlarging by the old finger-split maneuver wither, which is normally a really cool thing to be able to do. The letter enlarged some, but the tri-fold not at all. The issue was that the author assumed that both of these would be readable, and so never reproduced the text in the body of the novel.

This is one case where you need something the size of a pad (I checked the images on an iPad and they look good and are quite legible), or you need the actual print book in order to get everything there is from this novel. I've noticed this "image problem" in other things I've read on my phone and I find myself wondering how these images would look in another format. I'm not in a position to check that, but it's a pity our technology isn't quite where it needs to be, even after all these years.

I digress. Again. As you will know from the blurb, things come crashing down - in an interesting way, too - and Cam is sentenced to the gulag - a Christian fundie school where she will serve two terms at least, getting a brief parole only for the hols.

Despite my love for this story and many of the characters, there were still parts of it which I felt lacked oomph, or which in one way or another betrayed a character, or which were not as I'd thought they'd be (and don't confuse that with what sometimes I felt they ought to have been!). I was surprised, for instance, that it took fifty percent of the novel for Cam to get inducted into the "de-gaying" school (or is that gay-bashing school?). I'd thought that would swing by much earlier. This isn't a problem as it turned out, because the first fifty percent of the novel was really engrossing for me. This erroneous idea was something which I'd evidently derived from the blurb, but which wasn't actually in there to begin with.

In contrast, the part where she was in the deluded Christian cult induction facility, which is where I was expecting fireworks and fun, or at least some determined subversion going on, turned out to be completely flat. This was where the oomph was lacking for me. It was, however, interesting, and I can understand (and I support - for what it's worth!) the author's decision not to paint this story in broad sloppy strokes of black and white. That was way smart, but for her to tame Cammie, to effectively neuter her in fact, at this point was wrong. I didn't like that the school got to preach medieval and clueless diatribes about the gay community without any honest push-back at all.

The author tried to get around this by portraying the teens at the school as 'normal teens', very much aware of what was going on and what was supposed to be going on. They were depicted as feisty, smart-mouthed, joking, making sly remarks about the program, smoking pot once in a while when they were not being observed, making friends, having fun, and so on. There was even one unexpected and fun instance of a night-time rebellious interaction.

This didn't get it done for me though, because what happened was that the author came across almost as though she approved of these programs (pogroms?!). I don't believe that she does so approve which was why I was so surprised that there was so much smug and arrogant preaching going on with so little corrective action in return, especially when these ignorant myths and blind platitudes are so easily exposed and refuted.

The worst character at the school was the co-director, Lydia. She was a control-freak who was very nearly the only person there who was actually in need of sustained psychoanalysis and perhaps medication. She wouldn't even let Cam take off her sweater at one point, for example. Cam was too hot in the room where she was in a one-on-one with Lydia, and there was nothing wrong at all with what she was doing, but Lydia forbade it because, she asserted, Cam was acting-out and being disruptive! Good Lawd A'mighty! I thoroughly detested Lydia. No one like that should ever be in charge of children or teens. Or anyone. Having said that, it sure would have been interesting to learn what her back-story was.

One major betrayal for me was Cameron, who starts out as a rebel, but one who flies under the radar. She presents to the world as "normal" - the "normal" her closed-mind community expects from its teens - but underneath, she was up to all kinds of things, and she was steadfastly and resolutely pursuing her natural impulses. I know that the fundie Christian lie is that homosexuality is not natural, but the truth is that it's found throughout nature, not just in humans, so yes, it's perfectly natural and normal. That doesn't mean everyone should be gay, just like it doesn't mean that no one should be gay. It's a part of nature like everything else out there, and pursued with integrity and compassion, it harms no one. Some people seriously need to internalize that.

To see Cam become so subdued then, was a betrayal of her very core, to me. It's not like she became brainwashed. The author commendably showed her as rejecting some aspects of what she was taught, even as she appreciated the value of some of the other things, but she offered no real resistance! In my opinion, this was out-of-keeping with what we'd been learning about her for fifty percent of the novel thus far! Worse than this, not one of the teens who were in this school showed any real push-back. It was like all of them passively accepted the school's deluded premise that they were indeed sinful, abnormal, deviant, broken children in need of fixing. This complete passivity was hard to take and it was unrealistic, especially since none of them were there voluntarily.

I've seen some reviewers negatively rate this novel for this very reason, but I think they're just as guilty of misrepresenting what happens as are some Christian readers who've accused the author of universally bad-mouthing the Christian community - again, something which never happens. Yes, there should have been more push-back, but no, there wasn't a complete absence of it. Yes, Christian cluelessness over the nature of homosexuality is inexcusable, but the author doesn't bad-mouth Christians per se.

Instead, the author tells it like it is - some black and white and a heck of a lot of grey. She should know, having actually grown-up in the town in which she sets this novel. She authentically portrays the ignorant and misguided attitude which some people - real people in the real world - do have about gays. The fact that one person or even one group worships a god for which there's no evidence whatsoever doesn't give that person or group any right at all to dictate to every other law-abiding citizen how they should live their personal life, what they should think and believe, or what their morality must be. Period. They are quite entitled to practice their religion. They're not entitled to try to force it upon others.

In the end, I can do no other than rate this highly, despite a misgiving or two here and there. It was beautifully written and for a debut novel (or even one way beyond debut for that matter), expertly done. I loved Cameron, Lindsey, Jane, and Adam, and despite some problems I had with Coley's behavior, I really liked her, too, and I wished we could have heard her story. I really thought that we would. I felt strongly that there was unresolved material between the two of them that needed exploring, but realistically, real life doesn't always have a happy ending or offer closure either!

Some reviewers, I note, have chided this for its ending, but I thought it was perfect. It was not your standard trope romantic finale, but despite that (or perhaps because of it) it was perfect; however, it does leave the way open for a sequel, and whether there is one to come or not, I would love to read it. I volunteer right now as a beta reader!


Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd


Title: The Secret Life of Bees
Author: Sue Monk Kidd
Publisher: Audible
Rating: WARTY!

I am seriously going to have to quit reading certain categories of novel - novels which have titles like The Mermaid Chair and The invention of Wings. Anything which won a 'medal' is out. Medals are for heroes. I see nothing heroic and everything formulaic about the bulk of such pretentious novels. What else can we ditch? Well, anything which includes a female name in the title (with few exceptions), such as An Abundance of Katherines, and especially if the name does double duty, such as Looking for Alaska. Anything which includes 'dreams' or 'stars' in the title, such as The Fault in Our Stars. Anything which uses a bad or sad and weak metaphor, such as Paper Towns.

Oh, and one more which just came to mind: anything which uses a reference to botany or zoology as a comment on human behavior or the human condition, and then employs quotes from some book on the topic as chapter headers is right out. Which explains my attitude towards this novel. Fortunately, I got it on close-out, so I don’t feel robbed.

Since it was taking me forever to get to the print version I had of this, I actually pulled it from the library on audio disk so I could listen to it on my daily commute. I quite liked the reading voice at first, since it seemed to match the character, but I discovered after several disks that I probably wouldn't want to spend much time with this character if all I ever got out of her was this flat, rather monotonic slightly southern twang which wasn't so peachy after a while. Nevertheless, I managed to listen all the way through which was more than I can say for several other audio books I've had to endure!

One major problem with this novel is that it really doesn't know what it wants to be. On the one hand, it’s a rather unconvincing tale of a young teen's escape from an abusive father. On the other, it’s a white person once again coming to the rescue of black folks - because y'all know they sure cain't hep th'sel's. Talking of heroic, Martin Luther King was a hero, and he's rightly held in high esteem, but I think it’s really sad that he fomented an escape from a situation where one race appallingly abused another, while he never himself escaped another kind of slavery: that which goes hand-in-hand with organized religion.

But I digress. This novel is set in the summer of 1964, when Lily Melissa Owens, the fourteen-year-old, is a very effectively a white slave on her father's peach plantation. She has grown-up thinking she shot her mom (accidentally), and now all she has is a father, Terrance Ray Owens. For reason unexplained, she addresses him as T-Ray, and he punishes her by making her kneel on grits. The family has a house slave, Rosaleen, who is Lily's stand-in mom.

One day, while accompanying Rosaleen into town so the latter can register to vote, Lily observes Rosaleen perpetrate the idiotic act of 'repaying' verbal abuse from some local jerks by dribbling snuff juice over their shoes. She's arrested and tossed into jail along with Lily, who is shortly thereafter picked up by T-Ray. After T-Ray explains that Rosaleen is lucky to even be alive, Lily discovers that Rosaleen was beaten and is in hospital, so she engineers her escape, and they flee to Tiburon, a nearby town which holds an attraction to Lily because she believes her mother lived there.

By unbelievably miraculous once in a billion coincidence, Rosaleen and Lily end up at exactly the same house in which her mother did indeed stay for a while before her death. That's pretty much the entire story, but of course, the author puts the pedal to the medal and runs on long after this because clearly this is nowhere near enough angst, suffering, metaphor, and cuteness to make it medal material.

So we start with a young girl in a kind of slavery, and we end with her in a different kind of slavery, albeit less abusive. We start with her knowing precisely nothing about exactly what happened that fateful day when her mom was shot, and we end with her knowing precisely nothing about exactly what happened that fateful day when her mom was shot. We start with her living a sheltered life, and we end with her living a sheltered life. We start with her having a father and no mother, and we end with her having a father and no mother. Rosaleen starts out as a housekeeper, and she ends-up as a housekeeper. She starts out unregistered to vote, and she ends-up unregistered to vote.

Alrighty then.

Quite frankly I don’t see the point of this novel.

I would have liked it better had it not trivialized African American struggles by including two stories of a person of color being arrested for a legitimate offence, and trying to portray it as an abuse. There was no need to include the struggle for equal rights in a story which had nothing to do with that struggle, so I assume it was done merely show the story's medal, er mettle….

The story rambled far too much. It went on an on about trivial details which did nothing to paint a better picture or to move the story along. It was boring and predictable, and it had nothing whatsoever to do with bees (except in that Lily's middle name is from the Greek for 'bee'), beehives, honey, or secret lives. Frankly, Lily Melissa ought to have been named Mary Sue. This sad excuse for a novel was actually a waste of my time.


Thursday, October 16, 2014

Anywhere But Paradise by Anne Bustard


Title: Anywhere But Paradise
Author: Anne Bustard
Publisher: Egmont
Rating: WARTY!

This novel was a complete bust for me. Set in 1960 for no apparent reason, it's the story of Peggy Sue Bennett who has moved with her family to Hawaii and now is the subject of racism from the locals since she's in the minority (about 20% of the population in her new school), and bullying by a local girl named Kiki.

Once again we have a YA novel featuring unrestrained bullying which goes so far(cicle) as to be completely unrealistic, rolling way past ridiculous and into the nearby neighborhood of complete parody. As if that wasn't bad enough, the story itself is devoid of any interest whatsoever. It's one blessedly short chapter after another of tediousness. We follow Peggy through lesson after lesson, abuse after abuse, bullying after bullying, and this complete wuss makes zero complaint, not even mentioning it to her parents.

If women had not complained and made themselves thoroughly obnoxious, they'd probably still be waiting to be granted the right to vote by old white men. Peggy Sue, aka Mary Sue, is, in her blind inertia, an insult to those women who fought for enfranchisement. If the story had seemed like it had been thinking about going somewhere, that might have made some sort of a difference, but it didn't - unless the lesson here is that bullying is best dealt with by kow-towing to it by going out of your way to please the bully.

Maybe it got better but I had better things to do with my time than stick around and read it to the end in the hope that the writing would improve. Believe me, if it hasn't shown any sign of it by 75% of the way in, which was further than it deserved to be read, it ain't gonna get better. I quit there and the only thing I regret is reading that far before I wised up and dropped it.

In closing - and this isn't a dig at this novel per se, although the ARC for this was a great illustration of the problem - I'd like to say another word or two about wasting trees!

And yes, I get that this is a non 8.5x11 format novel showing on an 8.5x11 format page, so let's take out the excess white space, and bring it down to the area within the cross-hairs - and coincidentally render it into the same dimensions as the cover illustration above:

See it now? This is yet another problem caused and sustained by Big Publishing™ because they're the ones demanding a certain layout for a novel, and part of the layout is 250 words per page. Every time we give in to this, trees are wasted. That's why I urge writers not to turn out typescripts like this one, and to buck Big Publishing™'s demands, and write more per page.

Naturally there are constraints on how much you can fit on a page. Certain amounts of white space are required for margins and for gutter (to permit binding - the thicker your book, the more gutter you need). Additionally, you don't want to cram words everywhere - for readability if not aesthetics you need to provide a decent layout of course, and in the ebook, it doesn't matter how much white space you have because it isn't wasting any trees.

I'm not telling you how to write; I'm just asking that we as writers consider what the environmental impact is of what we do. Is it necessary to write a trilogy? Can you shorten the book and make it just as good? Can you run to three hundred words per page? I'm just saying it's worth thinking about.


Friday, September 26, 2014

Something Wiki by Suzanne Sutherland


Title: Something Wiki
Author: Suzanne Sutherland
Publisher: Dundurn
Rating: WARTY!


DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review.

Something Wiki sounded really interesting from the blurb, but of course it's the blurb's job to make the novel sound interesting no matter what its intrinsic worth. I'd rate the blurb worthy because it did its job - it got me to get this book, but then I found myself having to slog through the mindless, endless, rambling of a twelve-year-old. And in first person PoV too boot. I hate 1PoV because few writers can do it really well, and it's all 'me' all the time, the narrator filled with irritating self-importance. It's usually impractical, very limiting to the telling o' the tale, and typically a huge distraction from the story for me.

As it happens in this story there were other, huge-er distractions so I didn't notice it so much. I don't know if a twelve-year old would find this novel at all interesting much less entertaining, but I certainly did not. I have two middle-grade kids myself, but I sincerely doubt either of them would find this appealing. OTOH, neither of them is a girl, so maybe that's not a good measure.

The first big problem with this is one which we find in all-too-many novels where the writer is significantly older than their subject (especially in a case like this which seems like it might be a bit autobiographical) is that instead of getting a true picture of the main character, we get the author in disguise, with this middle-grader improbably liking and referencing things which no twelve-year-old would be seen dead near.

It destroys credibility to read about young kids being represented as liking bands which were old before the kid was born. Yeah, some kids are outside "norm", but for the most part they're not, which is some ways is sad, but it's a fact of life. Unless you have a really original point to make, which this novel did not, you don't get anywhere by disguising yourself and trying to pass yourself off as a twelve-year-old.

A lot of writers have tried to cash in on the Internet by incorporating it into their novels one way or another. Some have even taken their blogs and forcibly squeezed them into print form. I haven't been impressed by any of this kind of novel that I've read so far.

I don't think these writers really get what the Internet is all about. They don't seem to realize that the Internet is on a different frequency than is a print book or even an ebook. It has a difference cadence. It's like trying to get two people to sync up where one is dancing a waltz and the other a jitterbug. It needs fancy footwork to make it work and all-too-often it trips over itself. This novel is not an Internet novel as such, but it does lean heavily on the culture with each chapter beginning with a mind-numbing definition ostensibly lifted from Wikipedia, which I skipped every time because it was too gimmicky.

This novel really isn't about anything other than the activities of a twelve-year-old named Jo Waller, and her three friends. These activities are, I can tell you pretty darned tedious and mundane indeed. The Internet and Wikipedia have no bearing whatsoever on the story and could have been eliminated altogether, which begs the question: why it was even raised in the blurb, misleading potential readers?

Jo is obsessed with zits, and distracted by her older brother's girlfriend becoming pregnant, and by betrayal from her best friend. In short, nothing that hasn't been written about before. The novel starts out at ninety miles an hour with Jo rambling all over the place trying to get to her point about her zits. I'm glad she didn't really get there because who cares? Really? The problem is that after that initial spurt, it reads just like a normal novel, thereby slapping the reader's face again with the glaring fact that this, like the wiki quotes at the start of the chapters, is nothing but a gimmick.

The novel had too little authenticity. I mentioned the highly unlikely referents for a twelve-year old, which were much more like those of a twenty-seven-year-old than they were a middle-grader. There were other instances of this kind of thing, too, such as on page 16 where Jo is chatting online with a friend who mentions Beethoven's "Für Elise", spelled exactly like that. That's the correct spelling, of course, if you want to be prim and proper, but since this was typed online in a chat between two middle-graders, it's hardly likely that the writer would take the time to reproduce the U-umlaut. It's much more likely she would simply type "Fur Elise". Little things like this matter when it gets right down to it because they can either support or ruin suspension of disbelief. One or two aren't that important, but when that suspension is challenged too many times, it really makes for a dissatisfying reading experience.

I can't in good conscience recommend a book with this many problems and with so little to offer that's new, original, or interesting, but given how undiscriminating and hungry middle-graders are, perhaps there is an audience for this out there somewhere. It's just not in my back yard.


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Olive's Ocean by Kevin Henkes


Title: Olive's Ocean
Author: Kevin Henkes
Publisher: Harper Collins
Audio: Simply Audio
Rating: WORTHY!

Read beautifully by Blair Brown

If I'd known this was a Newberry medal winner I would never have picked it up, but since I did, I actually found that I enjoyed this in spite of its Newberry-ness. Sorry I have to go vomit, I used the bad word twice....

Ok, I'm all better now. The novel is a coming-of-age story (of course it is - Newberry [gag] doesn't give medals to any other kind of story) about Martha Boyle who belatedly realizes that she could have had a good friend in Olive Barstow. Belatedly, because Olive was run down by a car while she was out biking. The only way Martha discovers all this is from a list which Olive had been creating which comes into Martha's possession. It's a doomed list of things which Olive wanted to do before she died.

So this is why I loathe and detest medal-winning books: one requirement for medal-ization is that a kid dies. A second requirement is that the dead kid is always noble and selfless. A third - maybe not a requirement, but certainly a plus, is that the kids all have names which no thinking parent would ever inflict upon their child. Seriously, Martha and Olive - in 2003?

That aside, I did like this book. I liked Martha's voice, and that she called her grandmother Godby (or Godbee - it's impossible to tell in an audio book) out of a misunderstanding when she was younger. And while we're on the audio topic - sorry this is a Newberry >gack!< book, I should say: whilst we're on the audio topic, I have to nobly and selflessly say that this is a great example of an older person reading a young novel and doing a fine job of it. Blair Brown was excellent. See? It can be done right!

That aside, what the ∫∪⊂∑ was with the screeching violin music? Was that in the original novel? I DON'T FRIGGING THINK SO! Can we dispense with the abysmal musical interludes in audio books in the name of all that's holy? At best they're an irritation and utterly irrelevant. Good god what is wrong with these people?

Ok, I'm all better now. So Martha tries to figure out how she feels about the non-existent friendship, but the burgeoning relationship between herself and Olive. In process of running this through her CPU, she becomes attracted to Jimmy Manning who, it turns out, is just using her to win a bet - the inevitable crushing let-down/grown-up understanding that is the penultimate requisite of a medal winner. But - and this is the final requirement for a real medal candidate - Martha eventually puts all these issues and disasters and concerns and discoveries in perspective and comes out of this a better and more mature person.

So yes, I can't believe I'm saying this, but I recommend it. And it's very short (3 disks on audio)! So even if you dislike it, you haven't lost much. It has to be short to win a Newberry »ack!« medal - the the judging panel's attention span really doesn't....

Thanks for all the fish.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Nest by Esther Ehrlich


Title: Nest
Author: Esther Ehrlich
Publisher: Random House
Rating: WARTY!


DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review.

This is a really odd novel because I felt like, despite some setbacks during the reading of it, I was ready to give this a favorable rating, but then I sat writing the review and the more I considered it dispassionately, the less reason I could find to support a positive rating.

This is a middle-grade novel set in the early 1970's about Naomi Orenstein, an eleven-year-old who lives by the coast and likes to watch birds. Naomi is commonly known as'Chirp' (which is actually a pretty cool nickname) amongst other names (including Chirpy and Chirps), and she lives with her family: an older sister named named Rachel, and their mom and dad. Chirp's mom used to be a dancer, but once she developed multiple sclerosis she started being a jerk, and not because of uncontrollable body movement.

I had a problem on page 20 when Chirp's mom tells her youngest daughter (one more time!) the story of how she first discovered that she wanted to spend her life dancing, and the sorry time she had of it when she revealed this desire to her own mother. The switching of stories from the current one to Chirp's mom's recollection wasn't handled very well. There were a couple of times when I wasn't sure who was speaking and to whom they spake, and this interrupted the flow of my reading. It could have been written better.

Other than that, this was technically well written. Once I started it, it was interesting and engaging enough to make me want to keep turning pages, and since this is such a short novel, it made for a very easy reading experience. I had repeated problems with it being all about mom, in a novel which was supposed to be about Naomi. I felt that Naomi's story was being derailed or undermined, which was a weird feeling to have.

I know it was awful the fate that befell the family, but it didn't imbue me with any sympathy after the despicable way Mom behaved. It didn't help either that her condition kept morphing into something else throughout the story. First it seemed like it was cancer, then maybe a brain tumor, then we get multiple sclerosis, then, suddenly, and without any warning, it's all about depression? I got whiplash trying to follow the litany of ills that befell her.

What really got to me in this novel, however, was how thoroughly obnoxious and uncompromising every adult in this entire story seemed to be. Naomi's mom and dad were both jerks. Her teacher at school was a jerk, as was the principal. Naomi's sister wasn't a complete jerk, but she dabbled in it, like she was practicing for when she was an adult herself. Fortunately, the rest of the time, she's endearingly sweet with Naomi. I would have liked to have read a story about her, actually.

Chirp's dad is a psychiatrist, yet still manages to be a complete dick when it comes to relationships. I'm guessing he's not a child psychiatrist because he evidently knows diddly about raising children. Either that or he actually is a child psychiatrist but he has his head so far up his child psychiatrist hat that he's forgotten that he's first and foremost a father. He makes one bad child-care decision after another. For example, when his wife abandons her family to go into hospital, he abandons his two young daughters to chase after her all the time, leaving the kids - 13 and 11 - quite literally to take care of themselves.

Despite all this, he's actually not quite as big of a jerk as their mom is. She uses her health as an excuse to abandon her family and flee to hide in an institution for months where she has a 'keeper' who coldly repels her family whenever mom doesn't want to acknowledge them. I found myself detesting both these kids' piss-poor excuses for parents in short order, as well as the bullying aid who controls their access to their own mother/wife. And yes, I know she's ill, but I wasn't willing to let her and her husband get away with using that as a cut-rate excuse for child-abuse. This just turned me off them both, and robbed me of any sympathy I might have been growing for mom.

The two guys across the street from where Naomi lives are jerks, but their kid brother isn't. He develops into quite a friend to Chirp although he's way too mature for his years. The only real friends that Naomi has, it seems, are her classmates, which was actually a refreshing change.

Here's a question to ponder: Is Mercedes the plural of Mercedes? Esther Ehrlich thinks so, but I think I disagree. I do agree that Mercedeses sounds really awkward, but so does awkward - and antidisestablishmentarianism for that matter, yet that doesn't automatically entail their non-use, does it?!

And now for the bad news: the tear-jerker ending seemed like it was trying way too hard. I mean it was just one thing after another and I'm sorry, but I began to find this a cause for amusement and then laughter rather than tears, because it started to feel far more like slapstick and burlesque than ever it did tragedy. I didn't find the children's reactions to be very realistic either, which seriously leeched any pathos from the story for me. Perhaps they found it as absurdist as did I?

I'm sorry, I know a writer puts a lot of effort into a novel - I know that first hand - but that alone is insufficient to persuade me to dish out awards to a novel just because it's a). set in the past and/or b). has tragedy in it and/or c). has young children in it and/or d). takes place near a beach. I need far more than just that and I felt I wasn't getting it from this novel.


Sunday, July 13, 2014

Zulu Dog by Anton Ferreira


Title: Zulu Dog
Author: Anton Ferreira
Publisher: MacMillan
Rating: WORTHY!

Yeah, I know, I should have posted this one earlier when I also reviewed Alpha so I could have had the start and end of the phonetic alphabet all in the same month! Oh well!

This middle-grade novel is really enthralling, well-written, and full of interest. On the micro level, it relates the story of Vusi, a growing Zulu boy who is something of a rebel, and who lives in poverty on a small Kraal in Eastern south Africa. Against his mother's express wishes, Vusi rescues a dog pup which has barely survived a leopard attack, and nurses it back to health, training it as his own hunting dog despite the fact that it's missing one leg.

On an expedition one day to prove his bravery by trespassing on the farm property of a nearby well-to-do white family, Vusi encounters a white girl, Shirley, who is something of a rebel herself. The two bond and start meeting regularly, out in the bush away from disapproving parental eyes, and learning of each other's life and hopes.

The more time they spend together, the more fond they grow of each other, but this isn't a romance at all. No, this is a novel, on a macro-level, about poverty and racism. When Shirley goes missing one day, all hell breaks loose, and it takes young Vusi and his trained dog to discover what has happened to her. The ending is happy, but it's a sorry thing that it had to go through all this just to get people to understand that we're all human, black, white or anything in between, and in the end it's the person you're dealing with, not the color of their skin, which is what counts above all else.

I recommend this novel as a great read.


Friday, July 4, 2014

Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier


Title: Born Confused
Author: Tanuja Desai Hidier
Publisher: Scholastic
Rating: WARTY!

I can see why Scholastic wouldn't want a reviewer like me reviewing a novel like this, but guess what? They can't stop me, they can only delay me! Now I've had a chance to look at it, I can tell you it's awful. This novel may be a better fit for you. All I can tell you is that it gave me fits.

Hidier declares in this tale that the only thing any young women, no matter what her cultural heritage, can have on her mind, is the desperate need to find a guy to make her complete. Like a women without a guy is pretty much useless: incomplete at best, and not even worth writing about at worst. How insulting can you get? Read this if you want to find out. Why do so many female authors insult women like this? More frighteningly: why do so many young women support novels like this? Do they honestly swallow the crap that's spewed from these stories, or are they simply so desperate that they'll literally read anything that even pretends to tell a decent tale?

Other than that the main character (Dimple) is stupid and clueless, the first thing you'll notice is that the gray-scale photograph at the beginning, which is, supposedly, Dimple, is not her at all - unless we've been lied to about Dimple's physical condition. Dimple is presented to us in this novel as being either somewhat overweight or as they put it, a 'large boned' girl, and relatively short at five feet or so, by American standards. That's a plus (pun intended), but it's wasted. Instead of running with a promising start like that - a start that's different from the vast bulk of YA novels, the author trips and face-plants repeatedly, starting with a photograph in the front which bears no resemblance to the girl in the story.

Rather than accept her physique and deal, Dimple lies even to herself, trying on (or rather, trying to try on) ridiculously under-sized clothes when she gets to shop with her mother for her seventeenth birthday. These idiots ignore and insult the girl who works at the store, who doesn't exactly own the most winning of personalities, but who does honestly try to advise the pair of them as to a realistic choice of sizes for Dimple.

Here's a quirk that makes you wonder where the editor was: The author doesn't use quotes! She uses neither doubles as is in fashion in the USA where she has lived, nor singles as in the UK where the author now lives. Instead she uses em dashes! Weird. This novel has more em dash per m² than any novel ever published. The em dashes are at the start of the speech, never at the end, and it can be confusing when the speech itself contains an em dash. I never use em myself...but cute tricks like that can't cut a dash in a novel which is, at its very foundation, appallingly demeaning to women.

I read this because I love Indians. I grew up in England feeling that Indians. Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis were almost cousins, but instead of getting an interesting and engrossing story of mixed cultures, I got nothing more than a lousy, trite, predictable YA romance with an em dash of curry powder, which the author has tried to pass off as a four course meal at a fine India restaurant. She failed.