Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Secret Rites of Social Butterflies: Lizabeth Zindel

Another book sale find, The Secret Rites of Social Butterflies attracted me with the beautiful blue butterfly on the cover. I should know better than to judge a book by it’s cover.

Maggie is a high school senior whose parents just split up. She and her mom moved to the big city—I mean The Big City of NYC—and Maggie was sent to the very prestigious Berkley Prep for girls. So she’s the new girl and of course she’s all nervous and trying to fit in. Except she’s not really that nervous and there’s nothing about Maggie in the first few chapters that makes me believe she’s desperate to fit in. Then again, she’s a teenage girl in The City. So when a chain of events leads to her invitation into a super special clique called The Revelers, she jumps at the chance to be uber popular. The clique isn’t what it seems though (are you surprised, readers?), and Maggie soon finds herself with top secret information about everyone in school. She begins to feel the inkling that it’s not right for a group of girls to know so much private information about the entire school, but she somehow manages to brush off the feeling of unease, because after all, being popular is more important than anything as silly as ethics. So Maggie is living the high life, dating a cute boy, hanging with the popular girls, blah blah blah. Surely you can see where this is going. There has to be conflict. Which comes so late in the story, I began to wonder if it was coming at all. The secret stash of secrets comes to light and Maggie has to face the fact that she placed popularity above good reason and ethical standards.

I imagine that those thirteen and fourteen year old girls who love love love to watch Gossip Girl because they think being seventeen and popular is the greatest thing on Earth, would love this book. It’s dishy and girly and emphasizes the importance of fitting in. Honestly, the underlying moral is a little too “under” for my taste. Maggie is basically a flat character who doesn’t seem to have any personality of her own. She’s uninteresting, and worse, she’s a bad friend.

The group dynamic was interesting in the sense that it was akin to “Heathers”. There’s a leader of the pack, and the other girls are basically interchangeable. Lexi, Sydney, Maggie—they’re all just following what the Queen Victoria demands they do. But hey, who doesn’t love a story about high school lemmings?

There is this really fascinating nugget of story that makes the book somewhat redeemable. The store of secrets—called The Wall—poses the question, when is information Truth and when is it just Gossip? It’s certainly a redeemable plot line, but the delivery is too weak. Lizabeth Zindel writes in a way that panders to the middle school crowd. It feels like she is more concerned with not offending the kiddos than she is with making a statement about gossip. Which is just plain confusing for an adult reader.

Overall, I don’t think much of this one. There’s definitely potential, but the language and the delivery of the plot are just too juvenile. I’m not sure it would even communicate any kind of message to young readers who might find the story engaging.

Rating: $

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Series of Unfortunate Events-The Bad Beginning: Lemony Snicket

I have wanted to read the Lemony Snicket series since I first saw them on the shelf. I finally found volume one at a book sale last weekend for the measly cost of a whopping fifty cents. The Bad Beginning introduces us to the Beaudelaire children and the devious Count Olaf.

The Beaudelaire children consist of Violet, Klaus, and Sunny. To start the book, the children become orphans when their parents both perish in a house fire. The very sad children are shuffled off the Mr. Poe, who is the executor of the Beaudelair estate. Mr. Poe’s house isn’t as comfortable as their own home, but the children are about to learn the true meaning of uncomfortable. As directed by the Beaudelaire will, the children must be awarded to a relative. Mr. Poe chooses Count Olaf as the closest—geographically—living relative. It doesn’t take long to realize that Count Olaf is a heartless, greedy nut-job who only takes in the orphans to get his hands on their sizeable fortune. What ensues is a terribly sad story about the misery of three orphaned children, Olaf’s disgusting plot including a marriage, and the triumph of a very smart trio of children.

It’s obvious that I am a fan of young adult fiction. I love the vivid characters, the simple plots, and the creativity of youth authors. Lemony Snicket is no different. He has created larger than life characters and put them into unbelievable scenarios. He writes as an adult telling a story, using an adult vocabulary, rather than talking down to his young readers. Snicket writes as though he assumes his readers are intelligent which I find incredibly refreshing.

I’ve had a really difficult time reviewing this book, and I think it’s because I was neither thrilled nor disgusted. It was a quick read, the characters were enjoyable, but I already knew the story from having seen the movie. I imagine young folks would dive into the story with vigor. I imagine most adults would slip over the pages with some interest.

Rating: $$

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Last Song: Nicholas Spark

The Last Song is a bit labyrinthine, with about a dozen plot lines to follow. I’ll try to touch on all of them, but don’t blame me if I forget to mention some of the finer nuances. To start with, there’s Ronnie; a seventeen-year-old New York teenager with anger issues who only wears black—even in the dead heat of a humid summer. She’s the bitter child of divorce who hasn’t spoken a word to her father in three years. Ronnie is now being shuttled off to her father’s house on the coast of Connecticut, along with her ten-year-old brother, Jonah. Ronnie is predictably pissed about it. Ronnie’s dad, Steve, is a pianist. A great one, apparently, and he taught Ronnie how to play. Ronnie has some God-given talent for music, but she quit playing piano when her father left. So she arrives in Connecticut and ignores her father for three solid days. She falls in with the wrong crowd, including people named Blaze and Marcus. There’s jealousy and crime and Ronnie ends up in trouble with the law. Turns out, her dad’s cool about it and believes her when she says she’s innocent. Ronnie is shocked! An adult who trusts a teenager?! There’s no such thing on Planet Teen! And so begins the reparation of Ronnie’s relationship with her father.

Meanwhile, Ronnie meets Will who is a preppy rich kid. They are intrigued by each other. Will turns out to be a volunteer at the Aquarium and he shows up again after she reports a sea turtle nest behind her house. What a coincidence. And so begins a brand new relationship between Ronnie and Will. No wait, it’s not a relationship, it’s Real, True Love. Between teenagers. Excuse me while I doubt the validity of teenage romance for a moment.

There are a dozen or so other little storylines, including a wedding, a girl set on fire, and a kindly pastor of the church that was burned to the ground. In many ways it’s far too much like real life—too much happening at the same time. Which is barely manageable in real life, and downright frustrating in a novel.

In my opinion, Nicholas Sparks is a terrible writer, but he is a fantastic story-teller. He tends to directly tell the reader what a character is feeling rather than allow their actions or dialogue to describe what’s going on with them. The Last Song is no exception to this theory, however, it does show some growth of Sparks’ writing abilities. There is definitely a lot more expressive dialogue than some of his other novels, although much of it is so very cliché. Yes, angry teenagers do exist and they say a lot of the same things and do a lot of the same stupid things, but c’mon man, you’re a writer! Stretch the ol’ creativity muscle!

Long before I even considered reading this book, I knew that Sparks wrote it for Miley Cyrus. He wrote the role of Ronnie based on the pop star, and it was obvious on every page that he put very little effort into creating Ronnie’s character, probably assuming that Cyrus would automatically portray the angsty, conflicted teenager without much coaxing. For that matter, the rest of the characters lay flat on the page. If Marcus wasn’t directly described as a sociopath, I wouldn’t have known it to be part of his character. Blaze is a confusing character who makes snarky comments and smiles a lot. Whatever that means. Even the love interest, Will, seems to be kind of bland. He’s basically just a pretty, rich boy who tries to prove he’s more than just a pretty, rich boy.

Overall reaction? It kept me interested enough that I read through it quickly. The story is poignant, and will likely make for a lot of tears at the cinema…which is what we expect from Nicholas Sparks now, isn’t it?

Rating: $ ¾…..meaning if you like this kind of thing, go ahead and check it out at the library. If you prefer less formulaic novels, skip it.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Catching Fire: Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire is the second installment in Suzanne Collins’ riveting Hunger Games series. Having tricked The Capitol into allowing both herself and Peeta to win the Games, Katniss has become a symbol. To the people of the poorest districts, she is an heroic rebel, outwitting the tyrannical government and inspiring nation-wide rebellions. To The Capitol, Katniss is a rebel who must be publicly squashed as an example of the government’s complete power. When Katniss receives President Snow in her home, her friends, family, and her very life are threatened. Amidst her fear, Katniss learns that the next year’s Hunger Games will be played by previous victors, which must involve herself and Peeta. It is devastating news and Katniss is immediately resigned to dying in the Games.

To be honest, it took me awhile to get into this second book. I’m not sure if it’s because I already knew the characters and the idiosyncrasies of the setting, or if the writing just wasn’t as good. However, once the Quarter Quell Games are announced and Katniss is informed that she will have to compete in the Games again, I couldn’t stop reading. The Hunger Games are filled with action and danger, making every chapter an edge-of-your-seat ride.

Catching Fire is far darker than the first volume Hunger Games. Having been introduced to the evil of The Capitol, the reader knows that the people in Katniss’ world are scared into oppression. However, it is Katniss herself who becomes a symbol for what a person can do against the tyranny that everyone has endured for seventy-five years. When she outwitted the Gamemasters and managed to keep both herself and Peeta alive, she proved that The Capitol could be fooled. There is a definite message of protest in the pages of Suzanne Collins’ novels.

There is also the ever-present romance in Katniss’ life. While she is publicly engaged to Peeta, she can’t help but harbor a flame of love for her childhood friend, Gale. When she is pushed back into the Games, Katniss suppresses her feelings for Gale and directs all of her energy on Peeta, knowing that Gale has to sit and watch as Katniss and Peeta carry on a romance for the largest reality TV program in the country. It’s heartbreaking on one hand, but I also hold a lot of hope for Katniss and Peeta. They have great chemistry and I’d be interested to know what their future looks like.


So, if you’ve already read this novel, you know that Katniss, Peeta, and a handful of others escape The Games and are headed to the supposedly deserted District Thirteen. Gale, as well as Katniss’ mother and sister have already been transported to the rebel district, and are awaiting her arrival. I don’t know what Collins has in mind for the future of these characters, but I have hope that it involves a national rebellion that overthrows The Capitol and abolishes The Hunger Games forever.

Rating: $$$