Monday, January 31, 2011

Young Adult vs Young Reader

I have been contemplating a topic for awhile, and I would like to post some clarification about it. The topic is young readers.

Where does a young reader stop and a young adult begin? Where do the middle readers fit in? How old is a young reader? How old is a young adult? When does a young adult stop being a young adult and simply become an adult? And how does it all relate to books?!

Here's my thought; I like binaries. I know that the world is full of grays, but black and white is so much easier to handle. So for the sake of my blog and my references, I will whittle it down to two categories: Young Readers and Young Adult.

A Young Reader is anyone old enough to read, through approximately middle school. Young Readers books are frequently fanciful and magical. Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. Young Reader stories should be about other kids, overcoming obstacles and encountering new and wondrous things in the world. As an adult, I like Young Reader novels immensely.

A Young Adult is usually a high school or young college student. Their books are less about fantasy and more grounded in reality, dealing with the things that teenagers face: drugs, sex, self-image, etc. A Young Adult novel could also be of the paranormal persuasion--think Twilight, City of Glass, etc.

What do you think? Do you agree with my definitions? Do you have any categories not listed here?

Shine: Lauren Myracle

I don't know what drew me to this book. It's about a hate crime against a gay teenager. Stories like this infuriate me, so I usually avoid them. But something about this one caught my interest, and I'm so glad it did. Shine is an incredibly intense story that literally left me breathless. The last twenty pages had my heart racing and my blood pumping.

Cat is a sixteen year old loner in her tiny Southern town of Black Rock. She is one of only three students who passed 11th grade. Poverty and drug abuse are rampant. They aren't quite the hill people of Appalachia, but very nearly. When a hate crime is committed against Cat's childhood friend, Patrick, she breaks out of her comfort zone to track down the attacker. Her first suspects are a group of boys, including her own brother, who taunted Patrick for being gay, but simultaneously offered him protection from others who might have hurt him. Cat interrogates each member of the Redneck Posse but comes up empty handed. While trying to find Patrick's attacker, Cat is forced to face the people she shut out of her life after a disturbing experience when she was just 13. After enlisting the help of several people who knew and loved Patrick, Cat makes a shocking discovery that may risk her life.

Wow. That's the only word to describe this book. It is intense and emotional and dramatic and painful and hopeful. It is about Truth and Justice and Poverty and Drug Abuse and Secrets and Friendship and Family. The characters are dimensional. The story is real. The mystery is intriguing. The ending is...breathless. I have read books by Lauren Myracle, always thinking that she's an average young adult writer: relatable teen characters, modern conflicts, happily-ever-after endings. Shine proves me to be wrong on so many levels. Which isn't to say that the characters in this book aren't relatable or that the conflict isn't modern, because they are. Cat is a very real heroine with very real faults and very admirable strengths, and unfortunately Hate Crimes are a part of daily life for people all over the world. However, this book doesn't have a happily ever after. Because it's a realistic story with a realistic ending, and the reality of Meth abuse is usually death.

A word of warning to my sensitive readers; this book is emotional and intense, at times even painful to read. If you have ever encountered sex abuse, drug abuse, or hate crimes, this book will hit very close to home and could be triggering.

On the other hand, Shine serves as an incredible piece of social criticism art, reminding readers of a forgotten region in America and forcing us to acknowledge that the battle against prejudice is ongoing.

Rating: $$$

ARC received courtesy of Abrams Books. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Reservoir: John Milliken Thompson

I'm not usually a fan of mystery novels. Not for any particular reason other than they don't usually grab my attention. However, something about The Reservoir intrigued me. Maybe it was because the story is set in 1885. Maybe it was because the mystery revolves around a pregnant dead girl found floating in the town reservoir. Maybe it was because Thompson based his novel on a true story.

There are three characters at the heart of Thompson's novel: Tommie, his brother Willie, and their cousin Lillie. On March 14,1885 a body is found floating in the reservoir in Richmond, Virginia. The body turns out to be a pregnant Lillie. The rest of the book is the story of Tommie's trial for the murder of his cousin, interspersed with Tommie's flashbacks that fill out the narration. Tommie files a not guilty plea, but his private narration alludes to his struggle regarding "the truth". Here is the truth; Thompson has written a novel based on an actual court case that is riddled with holes and unanswered questions. I warn you now, this book doesn't tell you outright if Tommie was guilty or innocent. Which makes The Reservoir a very well constructed character study, because while there is a plot line in this novel, I feel like the plot isn't as important as the people.

Though Tommie is the narrator, this story really belongs to Lillie. Sweet, young, naive Lillie who caught the attention of her Cluverius cousins at a young age, practiced seducing them both, but fell in love with Tommie. When she becomes pregnant, Lillie begs Tommie to marry her, knowing that having a baby out of wedlock will ruin her for marriage with anyone else. But is it actually Tommie's baby? When Tommie--who is on the verge of a bright future in law--rebuffs Lillie, she is devastated. Is it enough for her to take her own life?

The Reservoir is a classic example of excellent storytelling. Thompson has taken a few rusty court case notes and expanded them into a fully dimensional novel. I was slow getting through this one, but the story kept me interested.

Rating: $$

ARC received courtesy of Other Press.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Ingram Interview: KB Dixon

It is always a great honor when an author or publicist approaches me for a review, so when K.B. Dixon emailed me, asking if I would like to read and review his book The Ingram Interview, I was anxious to say yes. Further research into who K.B. Dixon is led me to his website where I found out that he is a local, published by a Portland press. I eagerly delved into his interrogative novel.

The Ingram Interview is not a novel so much as a recorded conversation. There is no distinct plot line in the usual sense (beginning, middle, end). Instead it is a series of questions and answers directed at Daniel Ingram, a retired English professor who, after having a heart attack, was placed at an assisted care facility where the interview begins. The interview follows Daniel through his leaving the facility and moving in with a former student, Michael, who is now a film-maker.

Dixon's adventure with storytelling reminded me of something my sophomore fiction professor told me, "A good writer never puts a gun on the table unless they're going to use it." There are moments when the interview meanders off in odd directions and I kept expecting those meanderings to lead somewhere. Finally, after finishing the book, I realized the purpose of all those seemingly side notes; The Ingram Interview is a character study. It's not a story so much as it is a close-up look of the character of Daniel Ingram, who is, as it turns out, fairly entertaining. Daniel reminded me of the beloved curmudgeons in my life, who never seem truly happy, and have opinions about nearly everything.

K.B. Dixon promised me "an unrepentantly quirkly novel" and he delivered. I didn't know what to expect, so I was open to the experimental story-telling at work in The Ingram Interview.

Rating: $$

Friday, January 21, 2011

Revolution: Jennifer Donnelly

Last year the book blog world was flooded with rave reviews about Jennifer Donnelly's historical fiction novel, Revolution. I was intrigued by this story about the French Revolution, but couldn't justify the hardcover price. Then the downtown Borders closed and offered me this beautiful hardcover at a 30% discount, much to my excitement. Now that I have read it I am so glad I didn't wait for it to come out in paperback.

Since witnessing her brother's death, Andi Alpers has lived in state of depression, lifted only by two things: music and her antidepressant medication. When her estranged father rolls into town, Andi's life is turned upside down. Her father has Andi's mother admitted to an asylum to help her get past her grief after losing her only son, and then he takes Andi to Paris with him on his next Genetics project. Angry, sullen Andi has no interest in anything except her music and doesn't want to be stuck in Paris with her father for two weeks. Her love of music quickly draws Andi to the discovery of a diary, written by Alexandrine Paradis during the French Revolution and stored in the secret compartment of an old guitar case. While writing her senior thesis on Amadé Malherbeau, Andi reads Alexandrine's diary and gets a very personal view of life during the Revolution. Alexandrine Paradis was hired by the Queen of France to entertain the Dauphin, Louis-Charles. Alex became deeply attached to the prince and found herself at the epicenter of the revolution that sees the royal family beheaded. Alex and Andi's stories are further entwined due the nature of the project that has brought Andi's father to France. A preserved human heart has been discovered and it is believed to be the heart of the Dauphin. Andi's father is in France to sample the heart and run genetic testing against hairs from Marie Antoinette which will prove if the heart shares the queen's DNA. Andi becomes emotionally invested in the results of the genetic testing because of what she reads in Alex's diary. In an interesting plot twist, Andi awakes in the year 1795 as Alex and not only witnesses life during the Revolution, but also meets Amadé Malherbeau.

I struggled a bit with the character of Andi. Being rather familiar with depressed and grieving teenage girls, I had a hard time believing all of her motivations. No matter how angry I may have been in my own teenage years, I would have looked upon a free trip to Paris with total and utter glee! Andi, on the other hand, doesn't want to go, and is eager to leave as soon as she arrives. However there are other aspects of her character that I really appreciate--namely her love of music and her survival skills. Donnelly has created a modern young woman who is intelligent and capable, if not altogether plausible. Conversely, the character of Alex is easily admired. She is a very real heroine; initially attracted to a job with the royals for the money and prestige, she finds herself truly caring about the Dauphin and his family.

Donnelly has obviously done a lot of research, sprinkling interesting facts throughout her novel that enrich her excellent storytelling. It seems as if every detail has been considered, which brings the scenery to life. The scenes in the Catacombs in 1795 made my stomach roll in disgust at the incredibly detailed descriptions of rotting corpses and the smells with which they filled the tunnels.  Donnelly's study of the French Revolution allows her to relate the story of how the people of  France threw off the Royal Robes in exchange for Emperor Bonaparte, but without sounding like a dry text book.

I have tremendous respect for Jennifer Donnelly. She has taken on the task of bringing history into context for today's modern young readers, and done it exquisitely. Revolution is filled with emotional layers of content that draw you in to both Andi and Alex's unforgettable stories.

Rating: $$$

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Hey Look Up There! ^

I have long debated how best to share the links for those inspiring reviews I come across. I have had a "gadget" on my sidebar for a long time, but unless I want to to stretch my blog page on for eternities, I am limited by the number of Inspiring Reviews by Other Bloggers that I can share.

But Aha! Google has solved my problem! Thanks to the Pages function, now there's a whole second page on my blog, created just so I can share awesome reviews! Are you on the list? Do you need a book suggestion? Want to read more about a book? Check out the list!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

This Girl Is Different: JJ Johnson

I requested This Girl Is Different from Peachtree Publishers because the storyline caught my attention. A home-schooled girl transitions to public high school for her senior year, and confronts the "normal" firsts all at once--romance, friendship, responsibility. I'm always fascinated by stories that reflect our culture back at us, which is exactly what JJ Johnson does in this novel.

Evie isn't like other girls. This girl is different. She has been home-schooled by a counter-culture hippie mom--Martha-- who has dedicated Evie's education to challenging the social standards. Evie decides that for her final year of high school, she wants to enter into the public high school as a kind of social experiment. With plans of going to Cornell to study urban design, Evie is curious to know how the reality of high school will live up to the movies she's seen. However, Evie is still just a teenage girl, and after her run-in with Rajas and Jacinda she is swept up in what it means to be an average teenager, with a boyfriend and a best friend. In the first weeks of school, Jacinda and Rajas are by her side, helping her adjust to a whole new set of rules. It doesn't take long for Evie to recognize that injustices are rampant at the Institution of School. The trio of friends devise a plan to give students a voice to speak out against their oppressive teachers, citing their First Amendment right to free speech. As you can probably guess, things quickly spiral out of control and Evie is soon faced with possibly the largest lesson she never would have learned without her high school experience; free speech has no value if the speaker doesn't take responsibility for the things they say.

My favorite thing about this novel was the use of quotes at the heading of every chapter. Emma Goldman, Mahatma Gandhi, Bill Bryson, and many many more lend thoughtful statements to help guide the reader to ideals and theories highlighted in Johnson's novel. This Girl Is Different focuses on very relevant issues regarding American freedoms and how our educational system exposes our young citizens to their rights. In a time when bullying has become deadly, Johnson has written a novel about how harshly the First Amendment can hurt our peers.

My second favorite thing is Evie. Evie is a wonderful character. She is so smart, independent, and caring that I want to be her friend. I love that she's this brilliant home-schooled kid who goes through the transition to become a (somewhat) typical high school teen with raging hormones and a sense of righteousness. She isn't perfect, and that's what makes her so great. Evie makes mistakes and she learns life lessons so that the reader can actually watch her grow as an individual. The characters of Rajas and Jacinda aren't quite as developed, but this isn't their story, so it's kind of okay. The story isn't even really about Evie; she's an illustration of millions of people all over the world. Because aside from just being a story about a smart teenager, angry about the enforced authority of high school, This Girl Is Different also takes on the very heavy topic of bullying. Johnson dates this novel with references to Glee and Avatar, but the theme of high school bullying is--unfortunately-- timeless.

Rating: $$.5

Friday, January 7, 2011

Pure Drivel: Steve Martin

If you are at all acquainted with Steve Martin, you most likely know him as a funny man. He has had a very long and successful career in film as a leading man of comedy. If you are at all familiar with the world of celebrity writing, then you most likely know that Martin is also a tremendously humorous writer. His novella, Shopgirl, went on to become a delightful movie. So when I had the opportunity to pick up Pure Drivel at a deep discount, I jumped on it.

Pure Drivel is a collection of miniature essays. There are 26 essays in all, most of which have been previously published in magazine media. They are more like vignettes than essays, running the gambit between poignant and absurd. Some of them, like "Dear Amanda", which is written in the form of a series of letters from an ex-boyfriend who starts nearly every letter with the phrase "this is the last letter I'm going to write to you", are laugh-out-loud hilarious. Especially if you are able to read them and hear Martin's voice with his droll wit. Some, like "Michael Jackson's Old Face" are narrated with a dry kind of humor that is actually a bit sad and retrospective. I take a private, snobbish appreciation of the essays titled "The Nature of Matter and Its Antecedents", "The Paparazzi of Plato", "How I Joined Mensa", and "Lolita At Fifty", simply because they make it clear that Martin and I share a useless knowledge of over-played literature.

Steve Martin's writing is thoroughly enjoyable. He is simultaneously erudite and pedestrian, humorous and depressing. I read this slim collection in a single day, but I can see the great value of reading each essay individually, on it's own time, so that it fully sinks in.

Rating: $$$

Thursday, January 6, 2011

SLAM: Nick Hornby

I like Nick Hornby. I picked up About A Boy years ago at the airport and I was thoroughly entertained. It was a novel that even translated well to cinema, though I'm not sure I'd have chosen Hugh Grant to play Will. I've come to respect Hornby for his multi-dimensional characters and great story lines. I mean, he's not Homer writing the Illead or anything, but he's a good storyteller. When I see a Hornby novel with a cover like the one above, I don't really have to think twice.

SLAM is an epistle to the reader. Sam narrates the book as though he were writing to a friend to tell them about the things going on in his life. Sam is 16 years old and things are going along well. His single mum has finally quit seeing her rubbish boyfriend, making him an EX-boyfriend. School is actually going well for once; his art teacher even suggested he might consider going to college for arts and design. His skateboarding is good--he's getting to be a little better than some of the other blokes at the skate park. And Sam's poster of skateboarding legend Tony Hawk has begun talking to him, offering advice about life. All in all, things are good--and yes, perhaps a little strange. Things are even better when Sam's mum drags him to a boring party where he meets the only other teenager there, Alicia. Alicia is beautiful. Like, take-your-breath-away beautiful. Like, make-you-stammer-nonsensical-sentences beautiful. And Alicia-the-beautiful is about to make Sam's life even better when she begins to date him. Sam is officially on top of the world! The relationship with Alicia goes on for a bit, with lots and lots of snogging and the usual teenage relationship patterns: never home, stops skating, spends all his time with Alicia. Then of course comes the boredom. I mean, when you've essentially given up your life to spend every waking moment with a beautiful girl, that girl starts to get dull and boring once her beauty becomes ordinary. Suddenly Sam's life isn't going so well. His skateboarding isn't so good anymore because he never practices. His mum has a new boyfriend. His girlfriend isn't interesting anymore. And then everything takes a decidedly downward turn. Alicia is pregnant. What's worse is that Tony Hawk doesn't seem to have any sage words of wisdom about this situation.

First of all, let's address the obvious; there have been many books written about teenage pregnancy. This isn't exactly ground-breaking fiction. However, Nick Hornby manages to write from the male teenage perspective so well that I never once thought "Ah, no dude would say/think/do that!" In fact, throughout the reading of this novel I was frequently reminded of my 16 year old cousin and her baby's daddy. I'm not familiar with Nick Hornby's biographical context, but I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to learn that he had been a teenage father.

My only complaint about SLAM is that it loses steam once Alicia gets pregnant, which is just barely more than halfway through. Once Sam and Alicia know they're going to be parents, things get very real and a bit uncomfortable with the soon-to-be grandparents. There's an interesting bit when Tony Hawk whizzes Sam into the future to see how it's all going to work out, but after that the novel borders on the mundane. Alicia has the baby. Sam and Alicia try to make a go of being parents together. Things get a bit sticky and the relationship ultimately comes to an end, with both kids promising to be dedicated parents for their baby's sake.

In short, SLAM is a great story written by a good contemporary writer who knows how to relate to his characters. It's not the best thing I've ever read in my life, but it is enjoyable and even worth an LOL at times. Had the laughs continued into the second half of the book, I could have given it a full $$$.

Rating: $$.5