Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Nineteen Minutes: Jodi Picoult

Nineteen Minutes is the story of a high school shooting. It came recommended to me by a friend who said that Picoult is a great author, and from what I've read about the author, I was definitely interested to read something of hers. I must say, this is probably not the book I would have chosen to read first. As a high school student during the Columbine and ensuing Springfield shootings, I still suffer a little PTSD regarding high school shootings. I'll take this opportunity to inject my own personal view that technology has made traumatic events even more dramatic by making them readily, visibly available to the general public, and I'm not at all sure that it's a good thing.

As for the writing itself, Jodi Picoult is a good writer. As I tried to explain to a fellow reader, Picoult has the rare talent of infusing mass market publishing with some interesting phrasing. She's not the best writer I've ever read by any means, but she is better than many writers being published today. Picoult not only writes an interesting, empathetic story, but she does it well.

I say empathetic because she manages to make a large cast of characters dimensional. I don't think that Picoult intends for the reader to truly empathize with the teenage shooter, but she does write him as a very relatable character. My biggest frustration was that the omniscient narrator was completely neutral in tone regarding the boy, but the story itself did not allow for neutrality. The citizens of the small town where the shooting takes place swing between calling him a monster and a victim. A large amount of blame is placed on the parents of a teenager who showed all the warning signs. Well, if holing up in one's bedroom, wearing black, and listening to dark music are signs of an impending massacre, then almost every teenager should be locked up and questioned for motive.

The true genius of this story is the twisted ending. It is rare when an author can successfully turn a protagonist into a lifelong antagonist. I won't give away the ending, but I will say that the last 100 pages or so kept me riveted.

The underlying element in Nineteen Minutes is family. The shooter's seemingly normal home life contrasted with the dysfunctional household of the protagonist is a wide illustration of how family effects who we become. The story suggests that friendships are also crucial in personal development. Jodi Picoult has become an author well-known for her touching portrayals of the human condition. From what I can tell, her stories are often personal and emotional, teetering on the edge of trite sap, but she manages to pull them back into realism.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Westing Game: Ellen Raskin

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin is on almost every young adult booklist. It is a book that I thought I had read as a student and really enjoyed, so I decided to go back for a re-read. However, by the time I finished the first chapter I knew that I was mistaken. So this was a new read for me, and I really enjoyed it. I can see why it's on all the best booklists!

The Westing Game is really a murder mystery game, orchestrated by Sam Westing. With a cast of 16 possible Westing heirs and their various sidekicks, The Westing Game reads a bit like a game of Clue. From page one I was pulled into the plot of piecing together the mystery of Sam Westing's death. With such a large cast of suspects, every person holds a secret that is key to the truth. I was most entertained by Mrs. Hoo--the Chinese woman who speaks practically no English. After a bomber starts setting off bombs in the apartment building, Mrs. Hoo learns the word "boom" and walks around frightening people by cheerfully saying "Boom!" and smiling like an idiot.

I admit that I am a fan of stories that wrap up neatly in the end. Reality is harsh enough--when I read a story or see a movie, I want a plausible though improbable happy ending. I want to put down the book with a smile and the knowledge that it's really possible for the guy to get the girl and the bad guy to get thrown in jail. The Westing Game ties up very neatly without being too trite. For a young adult book, this is a very mature story that doesn't talk down to young readers, while still appealing to an adult audience.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Lost & Found: Jacqueline Sheehan

Lost & Found is a novel that I have seen on the best-seller bookshelves at the store. I finally picked it up and decided to dive in. Riding on the coattails of Marley & Me's success, this book is ultimately about a dog who changes the life of our protagonist. Rocky is a 38-ish year old woman whose husband dies suddenly of a heart attack within the first pages of the book. To handle the stress of her heartache, Rocky moves out to Peak's island, off the coast of Maine and takes a job she has no real experience in. She discovers Lloyd--an injured black lab who moves into her home and life.

Sheehan does something interesting in this novel by giving thoughts and a voice to the lovable lab. While it's not exactly believable, Lloyd's brief narratives do shine a light on the true plot of the story--the suspicious death of Lloyd's original owner. The cast of characters is peopled with small-town eccentrics. None of them are very well developed except for the anorexic teenager who dog sits for Rocky. The disappointment with the teenage girl is that her character has so little follow through. She is presented with such importance that I kept waiting for her role to become intricately involved with the plot, but it never happened.

This is yet another novel in a string of books I have read with little impression.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Confessions of a Shopaholic: Sophie Kinsella

Continuing with my addiction to weakly structured chick-lit, I decided to read Sophie Kinsella's Confessions of a Shopaholic before my inevitable viewing of the same-named chick flick. Having seen Kinsella's brightly covered novels gracing the bestseller shelves of the bookstores for a couple of years, it was not a hard sell to convince me to pick up the first "stand-alone" novel in the Shopaholic series. The fact that this particular piece of chick-lit made it to the silver screen gave me the impression that it must be really great writing.

The bottom line is this; I felt like Bridget Jones was writing about her younger years. While Kinsella's writing has a very distinctive Brit accent that I truly appreciate, the writing is otherwise un-notable. It is a conversational monologue about a young woman's struggle with the in-between age. Not quite prepared to take on the responsibilities of adulthood, but desiring all of the perks, Rebecca Bloomwood prattles on about her dull job, her shopping addiction, and her life plan that changes daily, per whim.

As the main character, Rebecca Bloomwood is the most developed of the many characters in Shopaholic. However, to say that she is a well developed character would be inaccurate. Despite the conversational writing, Rebecca remains a shallow and vain, rather two dimensional character. I suppose it was the purpose of Sophie Kinsella to illustrate the amount of personal growth Rebecca experiences throughout the novel, but I found her to be an unbelievable caricature. The other main characters of Shopaholic take up surprisingly little space. It's hard to know what we're meant to think of some of the various people in Rebecca's life because Kinsella has spent so little time describing them and their relationships.

I will give Kinsella props for kicking the tired old romance plot to the curb. While Rebecca Bloomwood does experience a little heart-twittering from time to time, the focus is on her own self-involved problems. It seems that every female writer is sucked into one of two writing options these days; romance or all-female girl power. Kinsella writes a refreshingly new storyline that is truly about a young woman and not about a young woman's quest for love. Though I can only imagine what the subtle romance plot line will turn into in Hollywood's hands.

I am admittedly curious to see how Hollywood will interpret this bit of fluff, but that's where my interest in the Shopaholic series ends. This paperback will be added to the stack of chick-lit I have read and almost as quickly forgotten.

Monday, March 9, 2009

New Moon: Stephanie Meyer

I feel a bit off kilter, making my first entry about a piece of fluff like the Twilight series, but it's the last book I finished.

I avoided the Twiligh series for a long time, but once I finally picked it up, I admit that I was hooked. Is the writing fantastic? No. Is the story ground-breaking? Course not. But there is something about the characters that drew me in.

The second book in the series, New Moon, reveals the second plot line. The focus is on Bella and her friend Jake, who I find much more attractive than the love interest in the first book. The story is actually pretty weak. It takes Meyer about 600 pages to tell us what most readers already know about Jacob Black. The threats in New Moon are far more tame than in Twilight, and the relationships seem to have been formed in the first book and are therefore taken for granted this time around.

Nevertheless, I remain interested in this trite storyline and am anxious to find out what happens next. New Moon picked up right exactly where Twilight left off, so I'm hoping that Eclipse picks up where New Moon left off, but with a lot more excitement.