Read in November 2014

3 12 2014

I didn’t read as much as I would have liked to in November. I also don’t have the time right now for more than sketchy impressions of the books I read, rather than the full reviews they rightfully deserve. So here goes nothing…

Power books by power women, or also: books that will kick your ass as they rightly should:

GloryOBrien

 1) Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future (by A.S. King aka the most missed author at NCTE/ALAN 2014)

I really hope to write a longer review of this, because this book and this author so deserves all the praise! This is a veritable horror story too. And can I be shallow and say how much I love my signed copy? Look at it!! But seriously. Read this!ASKingNCTE2014

4 stars (but really, it already has 6 starred reviews!)

2) The Truth about Alice (by Jennifer Mathieu)

There’s definitely an overarching theme in my November reads and that is cruelty. In this particular case, it’s cruelty in the guise of ‘slut shaming’. The Truth about Alice is Jennifer Mathieu’s debut YA novel and I was completely and shamelessly sucked in by it.

I “loved” every bit of this book: the multiple perspectives, the ruthless investigation of stereotyping people (and characters in a book), the way it unflinchingly shows how boys and girls are seen and judged in a completely different light. I also “hated” everything about this book: the way the boys and girls are shown and how stereotypes are reinforced. How some people have (too) loud voices and others don’t have a voice at all.

This is such an important book. For boys and for girls. And not in the least: for the adults raising those boys and those girls.

4 stars

3) Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (by Meg Medina)

This is a book from the heart. It’s not a ‘nice’ story, though. On the contrary, Meg Medina wrote a harsh psychologically layered story about bullying and female relationships. It’s edgy – and I’m not even talking about that title (which, by the way kicks so much ass 😉 – and I’m sure not just girls will identify with Piddy Sanchez or possibly even the mysterious Yaqui Delgado. If there’s one thing that’s abudantly clear after reading this provocative little book then it’s that everyone has a story: the victim, but also the bully, even if we don’t know what that story is, as is the case with Yaqui Delgado. And more than being ‘just another bullying book’, what really stands out is Medina’s great rendering of female relationships.

3.5 stars

Power books by power men

1) Knockout Games (by G.Neri)

Based on true events, comes G. Neri’s Knockout Games. I read this one right before Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass and what the two definitely have in common is the violence. This one is a ruthless book. Set in St. Louis it’s all about a knockout club, a group of middle and high school kids who basically get into random violence (knocking out random people on the street for the fun and thrill of it). When Erica is uprooted to St. Louis after her parents’ divorce, she gets mixed up with the game (she’s good with a camera) and its leader, K (Kalvin), the Knockout King.

The narrative and the language are very straightforward. There’s no needless fancy talk, which wouldn’t really fit with the book’s topic anyway. Also like Yaqui Delgado, I see this being liked by a younger audience (Yes, yes, I know: there’s violence. And sex. Bite me). There’s also the same trope of the outsider trying to fit in, which that age group really seems to appreciate a lot. In this case, the protagonist is the white Erica who moves to a predominantly African American neighborhood and who’s trying to keep her head above water after her parents’ divorce.

3 stars

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2) He Said, She Said (by Kwame Alexander)

This is described as a ‘hip hop’ novel and the language use of esp. the male protagonist Omar or T-Diddy (I did the same eye-rolling as the female protagonist!) in the book also reflects this. However, I can’t really say I was into it all that much. I also don’t like hip hop, so maybe it’s that. The story is too stereotypical for my taste: a good looking star football player (a real “player” too, of course) and a studious and responsible girl. Of course they’re destined to meet. Mixed in with this tale of destined yet too good to be true romance is a fight for social justice at the local high school.

I don’t know, it’s all very much in your face. I just couldn’t see past the shallowness of it all (maybe that’s the point?) and I just like my stories more nuanced and my characters with a lot more depth.

2.5 stars

Graphic novels:

1)  The Silence of our Friends (by Mark Long)

This graphic novel – also drawn by Nate Powell – is another (historical) graphic novel/memoir in the same vein as March Book One. It’s not quite as powerful as March Book One, but I can see this being liked a lot by my reluctant readers who’re really into history and the Civil Rights Movement.

3 stars

2) The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil (by Stephen Collins)

GET THIS BOOK NOW. GET IT! NOW! Absolutely brilliant graphic novel. What can I say? There’s the neat and orderly island of Here. The threat of a chaotic There. And there’s a *gigantic beard*. I repeat: there’s a gigantic beard. What more do you need? Brilliant artwork? It’s all there.

Gigantic Beard 1

Gigantic Beard 2

It’s the ultimate surrealist and eerily honest truth metaphor about the state of man in our current society (unfortunately it’s probably also the ultimate hipster book). This book is  awesome. Did I mention there’s a gigantic beard? That is evil?

5 stars

 

Up next: photo impression of NCTE/ALAN 2014

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Overdue update (August reads)

5 09 2014

A long overdue update about books read in August.

The disappointments:

  • Crazy (Amy Reed): Even though it gives an insight into a important mental health issue (bipolar disorder), it’s not done very convincingly. The book is told in emails between Connor and Izzy, which is a poor choice of narrative device to tell this particular story, because it gets in the way of real character development and it actually hinders the plot advancement. The result is a fairly predictable course of events. It also doesn’t really help that the main characters are…well… dull.
    2.5 stars
  • California (Edan Lepucki): mCaliforniaore dullness… I got Californa mainly for the Colbert Report / Amazon / Sherman Alexie reason. The hype about this book was huge, it helped Edan Lepucki immensily, but the book itself…meh…I’m not too wild about it. It’s the story of Frida and Cal in a post-apocalyptic world that seems to just be… It looks like something environmental happened, but there’s hardly any world building so it’s all a bit sketchy.
    The main problem with this book though is that it seems thoroughly underdeveloped: the characters are dull and need fleshing out, the plot is not really going anywhere and meanders its way towards a sort of non-conclusion, there’s a lot of talk about actions that have been taken / are being taken but that we never get to experience being taken… if that makes sense? No? Don’t worry, the book itself makes very little sense as well. And nothing gets any sort of satisfying explanation because the reasons mentioned to do something are all so very arbitrary (like the whole Containment – Children bit: doesn’t make sense). A poor man’s The Road, I guess?
    2.5 stars

Onto the better stuff…

Picture book classics

  • Robot Dreams (Sara Varon): a wordless picture book about a dog and his robot-friend. This picture book classicsis a timeless and universal tale of the search and need for finding a connection and friendship. I also adore Sara Varon’s visual style. It’s so soft and easy-looking. My kid loves it as much as I do (Odd Duck is probably my kid’s favorite book).
    4 stars
  • The Dark (by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen): I think Jon Klassen’s Hat-books are a stroke of pure genius, but what he does here with Lemony Snicket is equally brilliant: a variation on a child’s age-old fear: fear of the dark. Really not to be missed!
    4 stars

Great YA books

  • 17 & Gone (Nova Ren Suma): I have to say that me liking this book came as a bit of a surprise. I liked – didn’t love – Imaginary Girls, but 17 & Gone is such a step up from that, in my opinion. Yes, I did guess from the very start what was going on, but despite that I continued to be enthralled by what was going on with Lauren and her visions of the lost girls. The main reason for this is Nova Ren Suma’s lush writing: her sentences are more than words on a page. They’re vibrant and have a sense of urgency that is mesmerizing and just urge you to keep on reading. Definitely the surprise of the summer.
    4 stars
  • We Were Here (Matt de la Peña): I have to say that I have completely fallen for Matt de la Peña’s books. I liked Mexican Whiteboy a whole lot, but I have to admit that I fell a bit in love with We Were Here. We Were Here is about a boy Miguel who’s sent to Juvi for a crime he’s doesn’t reveal, but which obviously haunts him. There he meets 2 ‘companions’ in Mong and Rondell. Three teens, each with baggage aplenty on a ‘road trip’ to Mexico. This story of (especially) Miguel and Rondell is the stuff classics are made of and it’s done so well. We Were Here really made me think of Of Mice and Men, a book that is also referenced in the story. We Were Here really broke my heart in the exact same way as Steinbeck’s classic did. I can’t wait to hear Matt de la Peña speak at NCTE’s Annual Convention in November!
    4.5 stars

 

 





Fat Boy vs the Cheerleaders (by Geoff Herbach)

20 07 2014

Geoff Herbach has a thing with sports and ‘funny’ (intentional or not) male voices. In Stupid Fast, Felton was the boy ‘on the outside’ who suddenly came to the center of attention because of his athletic prowess. In Fat Boy vs the Cheerleader, Herbach once again has a look at ‘a boy on the outside’, Gabe ‘Chunk’ Johnson, a fat band geek who – after hearing that funding for summer marching camp is going to the new dance squad – decides to wage the war of the vending machine.

And although this book definitely has a couple of things in common with the Stupid Fast-trilogy, it’s more of a watered down version of ‘the funny’ and ‘the great male voice’ we are getting here – it’s like a Stupid Fast meets Glee ultralight.. And I have to say that I am more than just a bit disappointed.

Stupid Fast – Herbach’s debut – remains the strongest of his novels up to now, and with each consecutive book it seems to me that the narrative element that stood out the most in his debut, namely “the voice”, just gets watered down and doesn’t manage to grab me anymore. In Fat Boy vs the Cheerleaders, we get Gabe’s voice as he is recounting the events that led up to where he is now, namely talking to Mr Rodriguez, an attorney. We’re not actually getting the dialogue here, but just Gabe’s responses, which takes a bit of getting used to at first, but which is just annoying after a good couple of chapters. This type of narration also just seriously stands in the way of actual character development.

The thing that irks me the most about this book, though, is once again the ‘absent’ (mom left) or ‘clueless’ (Gabe’s dad) parent trope. Instead we’re getting a grandfather who used to be a bodybuilder champion, and who serves as the voice of understanding, but I can’t shake the feeling that we’ve also seen him before in I’m with Stupid.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any interesting things about Fat Boy vs the Cheerleaders. There’s a thing to be said about the name-calling that goes on (and one of the characters does say it), there’s bullying, there’s a whole lot about the social stratification at high school, there’s something about friendship and shifting allegiances and changes. All that could and should have been combined in a very interesting way, something Geoff Herbach managed to do in his debut, but hasn’t managed to do since in my opinion. Here everything just felt really fluffy and coincidental. All in all, I sincerely hope Herbach finds what’s missing soon, because I definitely loved the pants off of Stupid Fast and I refuse to believe that Geoff Herbach was a one-book wonder!





The Waking Dark (by Robin Wasserman)

22 04 2014

wakingdarkThe town of Oleander is nothing exceptional… except for one thing, something brewing underneath the surface that one horrible day led to the most gruesome of things: The Killing Day. 12 people in the small Kansas town were killed by 5 other Oleander people. Four of them killed themselves afterwards, except for Cass whose suicide attempt failed. With no recollection of what happened, she’s put in an institution hoping that this means things will be buried forever.

But then, a year later, a storm came, the town of Oleander is put under military quarantine (for which you don’t exactly get a reason until…) and the distrust that had been plaguing the people of Oleander ever since The Killing Day is about to come to the surface once again… no more hiding, not for Cass, who’s now out of the mental institution, but not for the other group of ‘outsiders’ in the ‘normal’ city of Oleander either: Jule (the girl trying to escape her family reputation of meth addicts and meth dealers), West (the high school football star mourning his dead lover, Nick), Ellie (the religious zealot who’s trying to save all of their souls) and Daniel (who’s the son of a Preacher and has taken the care of his younger brother Milo upon himself as he sees his father suffering from his own personal demons) and a bunch of other teens, like Grace and Milo who all blend in and out of the story as you go along.

Wasserman changes focus so very often throughout her narrative that getting to the essence of a character was really hard. The book is told in the 3rd person, which here is a very distancing perspective, and which always prevents the reader from internalizing the often shocking things that happen to the characters or that the characters do themselves. Each of the protagonists has something that sets them apart, and each of them has baggage galore, so once the mayhem starts the book almost feels like an experiment in human behavior focusing on rage, violence and (im)morality of certain acts. Something to watch, rather than experience. It’s also the main reason why I never clicked with any of the characters, and there’s nothing worse than feeling indifferent about the fate of a character in a book.

The Waking Dark is very much set in a Stephen King horror tradition…that much is clear, from Wasserman’s own acknowledgements, to the blurb, to the marketing of this book, and also to the brewing menacing style of writing. However… Stephen King is more than just horror and style. For me, Stephen King is first and foremost a brilliant storyteller who manages to create a menacing universe, yes, but whose characters within that universe are so well-rounded that even at the creepiest of times, the characters (that I can care for or have actual emotions about) and the lavish plot always – always – win over style. “Style” is not so much secondary with King, as that it feels like he’s not even trying and it’s an integral part of the overall plot. It’s not that Wasserman is trying too hard in The Waking Dark, though. What bothered me the most is that the style becomes an impediment to the plot, the mystery and the characters. Ultimately the style drags out the sentences and the paragraphs and the pages, until you really have to look for the plot – which is there, for sure, but which should have been to the forefront and not in the background like it is now.

As for the ultimate resolution of the story? Well, I don’t think that this was Wasserman’s intention in the first place, and it shows… because when we get to the why, it’s not very… well, original. It’s just a bit of a cheap way out.

The Waking Dark is horror, but there’s much better to be found out there, not in the least in Stephen King’s magnificent oeuvre. However, if the Maine Master of Horror doesn’t shake your bones enough, try Daniel Kraus’s Rotters and Scowler or Andrew Smith’s The Marbury Lens and Passenger.





Girls, girls, girls… (Fat Angie, Fangirl & Doll Bones)

7 04 2014

Doll Bones (By Holly Black)

Doll BonesIt’s a fact universally acknowledged that porcelain dolls are exceptionally creepy. From Holly Black – of The Spiderwick Chronicles, Modern Faerie Tales and much much more fame – I expected nothing if not a creepy old tale of a superweird doll scaring the bejeezus out of me. In that respect I didn’t get what I came for, because rather than a scary story, we’re actually getting a fairly standard middle grade road trip ‘adventure’ story of 3 friends, Zach, Poppy and Alice, who want to lay the bones of this creepy little doll to rest.

Maybe I just went into this with the wrong expectations, but I thought it was all fairly safely played and written, especially when it comes to the characterization of the three protagonists. This reads like an adventure book about friendship, but the characters making up that friendship aren’t pronounced enough to be wholly successful. Holly Black also merely touches upon some of the family dynamics, making this novel to only scratch the surface of much deeper things and in that respect, I think Doll Bones and Holly Black missed a few opportunities.

3 stars

 

Fangirl (by Rainbow Rowell)

FangirlLast year’s hit sensation was definitely Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park (for a variety of reason, not in the least that it’s just a really great book!). So when Fangirl came out, I got an e-ARC, but didn’t get around to reading it BECAUSE I JUST HATE READING STUFF ON A SCREEN. Anyway, I finally got a hold of a print copy and… was disappointed with the outcome.

Don’t get me wrong, I get the concept of fandoms. Hell, I belonged to the X-Files Fandom way back when. Yes, that’s before the Harry Potter Fandom, on which Fangirl’s Simon Snow Fandom is obviously based. The main problem I have with the Fandom stuff in the book is that it’s all.so.incredibly.boring. Seriously, there’s nothing exciting whatsoever about the characters that Cath, the protagonist is obsessed with, Simon and Baz. Rowell introduces every chapter with extracts from either the ‘actual’ Simon Snow books, or with an extract from Cath’s fanfiction, but after one or two of those, I just couldn’t bring myself to actually read them anymore, because: SOoooo Boooooring.

This leaves the other aspect of this novel – which is obviously not just about fandoms and fangirling, namely the character part and Cath growing up into college as her own person and not an appendage of her twin sister Wren, and/or out of the fandom. There are a whole bunch of minor characters around Cath (like her twin sister Wren, the love interest Levi, her roommate, the writing partner Nick, her bipolar dad, etc. etc.), but I’d argue that also on this front Fangirl can’t bring what Eleanor & Park brought: real characters I could root for.

Add to that that this book is a way way too long (+400 pages) and dragged all the way until the end, which was then completely rushed, and you can safely say that I thought Fangirl was a big disappointment. I missed spunk in the main character, I missed sparks in the romance, and I missed guts in the writing.

2.5 stars

 

Fat Angie (by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo)

fatangieSpunk and sparks is not something I missed in e.E. Charlton-Trujillo’s Fat Angie. And I’m sorry, Simon Snow Fandom, but a Buffy mention in the first couple of pages of any book will bring a smile onto my face, even if the main character of said book has to go through the worst of things on a daily basis: extreme bullying, a shitty home life… When KC Romance walks into Fat Angie’s life, things are looking up, even though Angie at first doesn’t really know how to react to a person who genuinely seems to want to be friends with her, rather than kick her when she’s down.

Fat Angie was one of the two winners of the 2014 Stonewall Book Award, along with Kirstin Cronn-Mills’ Beautiful Music for Ugly Children. Unlike that book, Fat Angie definitely has more literary spunk and where I felt Cronn-Mills’s book was first and foremost “an issues book about a very important topic that needed to be told”, to me  Fat Angie is an actual good book as well, regardless of topic or issues dealt with.

3.5 stars

 





Independent Study (by Joelle Charbonneau)

25 03 2014

independentstudyIndependent Study is the 2nd book in The Testing trilogy. The plotline is predictable: just more Testing like Catching Fire was just more Hunger Games but in a different arena. It’s almost formulaic dystopia: blend Divergent together with Hunger Games and you get The Testing. It features stereotypical main characters: (too) intelligent & perfect female main character who asks all.the.right.questions.all.the.time. There’s really nothing original or groundbreaking in this book what.so.ever. But it’s also highly entertaining, a fun ride (although lacking somewhat in the action department, which seems to be symptomatic of middle book syndrome) and a sure winner with reluctant readers. So yeah, Charbonneau sucked me in.





The Dream Thieves (by Maggie Stiefvater)

16 03 2014

dreamthievesThe Dream Thieves is the follow up to Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys, which was probably the cat’s biggest surprise of 2013: paranormal fantasy could actually be good, a (conventional) good old-fashioned bulky read, you know ? That is why I could not have been more disappointed with The Dream Thieves.

Even though I already had the feeling that Ronan would become an important character – and he is really the focus of The Dream Thieves – the way that this is done is… well, dull… as opposed to the wild and exuberant way in which his character deserved to be at the center of things.

Oh, this book is written well enough but plot and characters just couldn’t hold my interest here because it was soooo slow-moving and really isn’t furthering any of the elements of book 1. The Raven Boys was really an ensemble book. Yes, there was a girl protagonist (Blue) and a boy protagonist, (Gansey), but all the other characters weren’t really secondary… they really all played a pivotal role. That has definitely changed in The Dream Thieves, which is mostly about Ronan (as a dream thief) and when the other characters do appear they don’t really add anything to the overall plot. Their quests from The Raven Boys are almost ‘forgotten’ and they just seem to be filler characters, especially Adam and Noah, who could both be such interesting characters.

This one has all the stereotypical weaknesses of the middle book. Anyway, major major letdown and I don’t really know if I want to continue this series.








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