Something for the reluctant readers out there.

27 05 2014

Mojo (by Tim Tharp)

mojoTim Tharp scored a bit of a minor hit there when his The Spectacular Now got nominated for the National Book Award. It had a certain something that also James Ponsoldt (director) and Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (screenwriters) noticed. The result: a critically acclaimed indie-feeling film with the now almost omnipresent Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller.

Mojo, however, is a completely different type of story than The Spectacular Now. It reads a lot younger, for one. At the same time, it might appeal a lot more to reluctant readers because of its fairly straightforward whodunit premise.

In order to find ‘mojo’, Dylan starts investigating a case involving the disappearance of a rich and beautiful girl, Ashton Browning. His investigation brings him to a world almost unknown, that of an elite private high school and an underground club called Gangland. It’s also a spider web of lies and deceit and obviously Dylan gets caught up in it.

Mojo isn’t very ‘subtle’, and as such its plot is also rather predictable, the characters fairly one-dimensional, stereotypical even. But if the mystery doesn’t keep you on the edge of your seat enough, Tharp has infused his book with a dose of healthy humor. It’s this mix of reasonably undemanding plot, a bit of mystery and a dash of humor that makes this an ideal book for lots of reluctant readers.

3 stars


Notes from the Blender (by Trish Cook and Brendan Halpin)

notes from the blenderEven though the plot is completely different than Tim Tharp’s Mojo, Notes from the Blender might appeal to the same type of reluctant reader, and if nothing else, it will make you grin and chuckle at the sometimes silly and often confusing things its main characters experience. Notes from the Blender by Trish Cook and Brendan Halpin, is the story of Declan and Neilly and how their respective separate family become a blended family.

Declan lost his mom about 6 years ago and has spent the time not getting over that. Now as a healthy teenage boy (!), he’s obsessed with (Finnish black) metal, violent videogames, doesn’t have a lot of friends and fantasizes about hot girls like Neilly. Neilly is in the in-crowd: she has a popular boyfriend, a best friend, goes to all the hip parties, is beautiful and the object of Declan’s obsession… sort of. Then Neilly finds out her boyfriend cheated on her with her best friend, so she’s now date-less for her father’s wedding ceremony – after her parents divorced, her dad’s now marrying another guy. And now her mom is also getting married again. As if things couldn’t get any worse, her now also pregnant mom is marrying Declan’s dad. Lives get turned upside down: new house, new family, new church, new people to hang out with… Things aren’t so hot for Neilly now and Declan too can’t stop feeling let down by his own father for trying to replace his mother. In a sort of reversal of Parent Trap (the movie is even referenced in the book) things get all complicated, but work themselves out by the end of it all…

Notes from the Blender is a fun little book, which – despite its complicated relationships and friendships – isn’t that complicated at all. And it has the kind of life-affirming message we wish everyone believed in: that love and family are positive things, in whatever size or form or blend they come.

3.5 stars

The Raven Boys (by Maggie Stiefvater)

24 09 2013

ravenboys1It pays off to go into a book without expectations! Especially when dealing with a paranormal fantasy thingie, which is so not my thing! This just to say that I absolutely loved reading Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys: it was mysterious, it’s a real bulky read (love me some of those!) and it provides some good old-fashioned fun to get sucked into.

I’m glad too that paranormal fantasy doesn’t always need to equal paranormal romance. Even though there’s a bit of romance involved obviously (that’s the whole prophecy thing that starts the whole book!), it really is more in the background of the book, and the focus is definitely on “the boys” (with Gansey being at the forefront here) and their friendship and I’d argue that the female protagonist Blue is – up to now – merely a character in the margin of that friendship and the mystery of the ley lines and the search for this really weird Welsh king!

Yes, yes, you got that right: we get a whole tapestry of strange and X-filesy stuff here. And although it’s definitely a book that sets up a whole new series (complete with slow buildup, which I actually liked) and is as such not entirely satisfactory (lots of unexplained elements), there’s more than enough here to get the cat interested in the rest of the series (which couldn’t be said of other firsts in a series…), especially the somewhat unusual male protagonists (I feel Adam and Ronan will become quite the characters, more so even than Gansey…).

More please!

Skin Deep (by Laura Jarratt)

17 01 2013

Told as a dual narrative, Skin Deep is a cutesy contemporary romance that actually explores more than just first love. Jenna is 14 and is literally scarred for life after haviskindeepng been in a car accident that killed one of her best friends and disfigured a large part of her face. As a result of this, she has withdrawn from life because she can’t live with the way people look at her and be shocked, feel pity, etc… until she meets Ryan, a 16-year-old traveler, with baggage of his own. His mom has bipolar disorder, she’s an old New Age hippie, and travels around with her son on their narrowboat. Ryan not only has to live with his mom’s moods, but also with the intolerance of many town people against travelers (he’s often called gyppo, for instance, or people assume he’s only there to steal, get into fights…).

Jarratt also delves into hot teen topics like prejudice and being judged by appearances, peer pressure and even throws in a bit of a murder mystery in her debut novel. Seems like a lot to pull off all in one book, but Jarratt manages it adequately, turning out an emotional and honest book that the cat definitely sees as a clear winner with the middle-graders.  There’s nothing spectacularly new or exciting about Skin Deep, but a book doesn’t always have to be that way for it to be a solid read. And that’s exactly what Skin Deep is: solid.

The Diviners (by Libba Bray)

24 10 2012

If there’s one undisputable thing about Libba Bray it’s that she writes and writes and writes like her life depends on it. Give her a pen, a typewriter, a laptop, a napkin, anything, and she will fill it with what’s inside that fantastically maniacal brain of hers. No wonder that her novels hardly ever clock in under 500 pages… Libba has things to share. On her blog, Libba recently confessed that she has “only one extreme sport in [her] and it’s writing. [She] plunge[s] into the unknown morass of [her] novels armed with some weird ideas, a handful of nascent characters, vague connections, a tingling in [her] Spidey senses, and the hope that it all comes to something.” It’s also been no secret that the cat feels the result of that brain effort has been a mixed bag: from the incredibly übertastic Going Bovine to the almost shockingly atrocious Beauty Queens. Clearly there must be something that – for the cat – works and something that just doesn’t work.

Her newest exploit, The Diviners, was a hit even before it reached the shelves. There’s also a great advertising spielgoing on, which – although probably necessary in this day and age of dwindling book sales (e- or otherwise),  you gotta grab’em any way you can, right? – seems as over the top as an author walking around Manhattan in a cow suit. So hypes get built, great expectations arise which may or may not be met once you finally get your hands on the book. Every time a novel is built up like this, it makes the cat very wary

But… luckily, Libba Bray hasn’t turned out another miss, but a a pos-i-tute-ly divine – although completely over-the-top (as per usual) – page turner! Just to be clear before we continue: the cat loved reading The Diviners! A fascinating and engrossing read. A mystery and a fantasy. And totally addictive! A definite 4-star book!

17-year-old Evangeline O’Neill (Evie) is sent from Ohio to New York City to live with her uncle, Will Fitzgerald, curator of The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult – aka The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies. Although her parents intended for this to be a punishment for Evie, she can’t wait to escape her tiny hometown to the buzzing New York City, which is – in the roaring 1920s – the city of speakeasies, movie palaces, glamour and all that jazz…  Evie also has a secret,  a special ability (she can ‘read’ people), that may actually help her when New York City is being haunted by a mysterious killer. Besides Evie, there’s a string of other characters: Memphis Campbell, a Harlem boy who used to have the healing power, Sam, whose sleight of hand even lands him a job with Evie’s Uncle, Uncle Will, the mysterious Jericho who works with Will at the Museum, Theta Knight, the stunning Ziegfeld girl… Each of these characters has their own back story, and some are even more fantastical than the next.

Libba Bray has clearly done her homework, setting the 1920s NYC scene with panache and her usual effortless writing flair. She certainly has that down even to the slang used at the time. The story itself – with Evie at the core of it – has more tentacles than an octopus. Libba is throwing it all in, in true Libba Bray-style.  And yes, I do mean, all… and that of course, is a blessing as well as a curse. The Diviners is a book to lose yourself in. And the cat knows that she’ll get the same reaction from it as the one she got the other day with A Great and Terrible Beauty. Two girls come into the school library and one of them recommends A Great And Terrible Beauty to the other. Two days later the girl comes back and checks out both Rebel Angels and The Sweet Far Thing. Once Libba’s got you, she’s got you and reading her words on a page comes natural. She’ll suck you in and you’ll believe anything she throws at you, because it’s just such a great and thrilling ride! Same thing with The Diviners: Libba is a generous story-teller. She leaves no stone unturned, no detail unwritten, no word unmentioned. And you’ve got to love her for it, because that’s exactly the appeal she has, and that’s exactly what makes this book such a fantastically fun (though creepy!) ride from start to finish. But, yes, it’s also her major flaw – it’s always been her major flaw. Usually this is something an editor weeds out, but I guess after six books, to weed out the over-the-topness, to weed out that one idea too many, to get rid of the excess and the extravaganza, would be like taking the Libba Bray out of a Libba Bray book. Like asking Stephen King not to write creepy stuff anymore. We don’t want that to happen.

The cat takes Libba Bray the way Libba Bray is: no bullshit detector/editor necessary. Libba literally writes on that edge. Just like we want more middle-finger writers, we want more edge-writers. And you know what, the cat doesn’t care if Libba churns out a stinker now and then (BTW, that’s not The Diviners!). She’s a writer with heart, and even when she crashes, you know she did it in the most spectacular way possible. And even that is better than reading the tons of lackluster middle-of-the-road stuff, the crowd pleasers, the panem et circenses that’s thrown at us everywhere you look.

PS to Libba: did you and MJ have a bet on who could write the creepiest murder story?

Anya’s Ghost (by Vera Brosgol)

21 10 2012

The cat doesn’t read too many graphic novels, so there’s not a lot of stuff to compare this to, but one thing’s for sure: Vera Brosgol’s Anya’s Ghost sure as hell beats Ghost World, both graphically and story-wise.

Graphic style, of course, is something very subjective, but Vera Brosgol’s black and white drawn figures of Anya and her ghost have an appeal that is both creepy and tender, which made this graphic novel into a real page turner – unlike the aforementioned GW!

The cover of Anya’s Ghost  shows a blurb by Neil Gaiman, which isn’t all that surprising either, when you know that Vera Brosgol worked as a storyboard artist on the Coraline movie. And when you look at some of the stills of Coraline, I think you’ll recognize Brosgol’s touch.

Here are images of both Anya’s Ghost and Coraline:

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Anya is the oldest daughter of a Russian immigrant and single-mom of two. She has struggled to fit in for a long time, but she has finally reached a sort of point of ‘normalcy’ in her high school existence: she no longer has an accent, she cuts class (especially gym) like any other high school teen, she smokes and struggles with her weight. She attends a private school (the only one in the state her mom could afford) on the advice of her mom’s Russian (church-) friend, whose son, the complete fobby – fresh of the boat – Dima, got a scholarship there.  Her life gets a weird(er) edge when she falls down a well and meets a ghost, Emily Reilly. When Anya gets saved from the well, Emily manages to escape from the well too, courtesy of a small bone from her skeleton that ended up in Anya’s bag. Although she’s sort of cautious at first, Anya soon enjoys the advantages of have a ghostly BFF: Emily makes sure she gets good grades and that the high school’s most desirable jock she has a crush on notices her.

Vera Brosgol addresses a number of elements that contemporary teens often struggle with. She understands that the balance between family life and school life is a precarious one – something which gets even more complicated when you are the daughter of a Russian orthodox immigrant. She also deftly manages to incorporate a teen’s need to belong and the need to transgress (the thing about the plaid uniform skirts is so recognizable!).  Add to that the nice touch of fantasy, a smattering of mystery and intrigue, a great sense of (yes, snarky) humor, a main character who shows some actual growth and a incredibly cool no crap-taking side character (Siobhan), and the mix you get is a layered graphic novel the cat would recommend to anyone!

Amelia Anne Is Dead and Gone (by Kat Rosenfield)

5 10 2012

One of the buzz-books of that past summer was definitely Kat Rosenfield’s fiction debut Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone. With good reason too, because from the very first – uncomfortable – scene till the last page when the mystery surrounding Amelia Anne gets its – confusing – resolution, you get the feeling that this book is definitely something else.

Amelia Anne Is Dead and Gone is another type of mystery novel, another type of coming-of-age (the official blurb has it as an un-coming-of-age), and another type of YA literature. It’s the type of book of which you just know that the author has been brooding on for the longest time. And it definitely has a prose writing style which is not often seen in contemporary YA: lyrical to the point of poetic, haunting almost dizzy-making language that is shrouded in similes and adjectival and adverbial phrases almost as mystifying as what happened to the dead unidentified girl by the road of small town Bridgeton. There’s a sense of urgency and inevitability oozing from the language Rosenfield so deftly employs.

Becca just graduated as her high school salutatorian. At the end of this summer, the plan is to leave her small, gossipy and mind-stifling town behind, and to make a future for herself, anything that can make her not come back will do.  So Becca as at a point of transition in her life. There’s just one last summer separating her from freedom from close-mindedness, gossip and standing still. One last summer she can spend with her boyfriend James (who dropped out of highschool), one last summer which is rudely interrupted by a dead girl – Amelia Anne, known to the reader, unknown to Becca and the rest of Bridgeton – and all the insecurities her appearance invokes in Becca.

Becca’s stoy is that of someone running to escape. Likewise, once we get to know Amelia Anne, we see that her story too, was one of escape, an escape from a future that was all laid out for her, but which she gets an opportunity to escape from through going for an acting degree. That is, until she died of course, which is when her future was taken away from her.

The cat loves ‘small town’ books and Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone is another great example of one, very reminiscent of books like Stephen King’s Misery or Dolores Claiborne and even Lauren Myracle’s Shine, for the same sense of eeriness they evoke! The florid – sometimes even confusing – writing style may not be for everyone, though. You will find yourself rereading certain scenes just to make sure you didn’t miss anything vital about the plot. Obviously, this may be an obstacle to readers who prefer their mystery stories to be straightforward and fast-paced. However, if you’re up for the style challenge, and don’t mind being off the beaten track once in a while, then Amelia Anne Is Dead and Gone is your book!

Dead End in Norvelt (by Jack Gantos)

5 08 2012

Jack Gantos is the odd one out when it comes to (children’s books) writers. In his 2003 award-winning autobiographical (YA) novel, Hole in My Life, he lays out how he helped smuggle a ton of hashish from the Virgin Islands to New York City, but was later caught by federal agents, and consequently landed himself in jail. The money he’d supposedly gain from this illegal activity – $10 000 – would about just cover his college tuition money (Gantos wanted to go to a school with a good writing program), so an ideal way to get out of a precarious situation.

Dead End in Norvelt follows the same (semi-)autobiographical vein. Blurbed as a book “melding the entirely true and the wildly fictional”, it features an 11-year-old boy called Jack Gantos, who grows up in the small Pennsylvania town of Norvelt in the 1960s, a town built during the Depression as a model community for poor coalmining families and named after Eleanor Roosevelt. In the summer when he turns twelve, Jack is grounded for life because he accidentally fired a bullet from his dad’s Japanese WWII rifle, but most of all, because he went against his mom’s wishes when he cut down her corn crop (his dad needed it for a landing strip!). While mom thinks that the family’s future lies in Norvelt, his dad – a WWII veteran and self-proclaimed commie hater (btw, Jack’s dad is also building a bomb shelter!) – feels that the family should move to Florida to find better opportunities and because “someday [he wanted] to live a life where [he] won’t be bullied by [his] wallet. The only way to get at least a little bit out of his summer is when Jack helps out (or has to help out!) his neighbor, Miss Volker, the town’s official nurse, medical examiner, and obituary writer, all skills which come in handy during this particular summer as Norvelt seems to be plagued by a string of deaths…

Dead End in Norvelt is not just about a boy in the summer between childhood and young adulthood, it’s also about the (hi)story of a town, and the way in which different people look at how history influences our world views. Jack’s mom, for instance, is nostalgic about the town’s past community spirit, when neighbors used to help out each other when they needed it most and through her bartering, she desperately clings to the customs of the past. Jack’s dad on the other hand feels it’s time to move on from the past – something which is even quite literally mentioned in the novel with so many houses literally being picked up and moved to other more thriving towns. Because lots of families are leaving Norvelt, and many of the original Norvelt residents are dying, Miss Volker feels that part of her job is to keep the history of Norvelt alive. In addition to being a nurse and an ME, she’s also the unofficial town historian, linking the death of a Norveltian (?) to events that happened in history, at the same time also teaching  Jack how to respect the past.

This insistence on the importance of history is also what contributed to Dead End in Norvelt not just winning the Newbery Medal, but also the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. Dead End in Norvelt deftly combines the history of a boy with the history of a whole community, appealing to a person’s feelings of nostalgia.  What Gantos also manages to do is whipping up an array of unusual characters, which adds a layer of (often black) humor to the mystery of the deaths in Norvelt. Of course, Miss Volker is the one who stands out here (the scene in which Jack witnesses what happens to her hands is legendary!!), but there are other characters who add to the colorful mix: Bunny, Jack’s friend who’s the daughter of the town’s undertaker and  Mr  Spizz, who rides around on his giant tricycle, reporting people to the council, and then there’s also that Hell’s Angel… Add to these characters, Jack’s penchant for getting nosebleeds whenever he gets stressed (looking at him the wrong way might even set it off), Jack Gantos’ offhand way of writing without missing a beat, and this is a novel that will make you chuckle, wonder and reminisce about your own town’s past, and which is a deserved award winner.

Even though Dead End in Norvelt won the Newbery Medal (target audience: children), this is a wildly funny, in that tragic-comical way, book that will appeal not just to (middle grade) kids, but to many young adults and the somewhat older adults out there.

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