Monthly Archives: October 2014

I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson

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i'll give you the sunNoah and Jude are twins and each tell their stories: however Noah’s narration is set three years before Jude’s, and in the intervening time, a terrible tragedy has hit their family. Their’s is a family “locked up in secrets and lies” with each twin knowing pieces of their story, without realizing that between them they have the whole picture, and because we have the privilege of being in both their heads, we can see what they, at least initially, can’t.

This has got to be one of the buzziest YA book around at the moment, and when I first started reading it I was astonished, staggered by the sheer brilliance of the writing. The twins are so luminously drawn through such precise writing, that I could feel the author burnishing and burnishing each phrase till it shone. Noah’s narration is embellished with his visual images expressed as paintings “SELF-PORTRAIT: Boy Rowing Madly Back Through Time” and Jude’s has excerpts from her ‘bible’ – a collection of her dead grandmother’s kooky wisdom: “A broken heart is an open heart.” Yes, I was a little put off that everyone in this novel is beautiful, talented and smart, but they are also charming and their artistic sensibility makes them glow.

But it’s when we move to the post-tragedy account that sadly, the novel takes a turn for the predictable. While the writing is still beautifully crafted the whole way through, the plot signals its intent with little of the words’ subtlety. It droops a bit in the middle too, as Noah and Jude take more time than is probably necessary to reach their respective and joint resolutions.

A couple of other things. I really liked the descriptions of the characters’ artistic processes. As a hapless artist myself, I’ve no idea whether or not painters and sculptors work in this way but it felt authentic. Also the dynamics of the relationship between the twins, and between them and their parents made me suck my breath in a little with recognition.

And a trendlet alert! Hot English guys seem to be a bit of a thing. We have one here, though for no apparent reason – his presence in Lost Cove, California far from the shores of Blighty is never explained, which seems particularly odd when he is a homeless 16 year old – and there is one in Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar. It’s our sexy English accents and dissolution that drive teens crazy you know, though maybe not our jaggedy teeth.

Now I’m going to venture into spoiler territory here, because I have a pretty significant beef with the latter part of this book, so click away if you (like me) prefer to read a book without having other people’s fingerprints all over it. While we wait for people to move along, here is a picture of some sculptures by Ugo Rondinone, which look a bit like how I envisioned Guillermo Garcia’s work.

Ugo_Rondinone

OK, we’re in spoiler territory here, so walk away if you don’t want to get a hint at the ending of this book.

In Ruth Graham’s somewhat controversial Slate article about Against YA, she complains about the ending of YA novels always being satisfying. And I have to say in this instance I agree with her – and I think teen readers might do too. Really the ending of Sun is just toooo perfect. Not just ends tied up, but these are exquisite ends, tied perfectly with lashings of red ribbons. It’s not that these kids’ lives went off track for a few years and now they’re finding their way back – that would feel like a reasonable resolution. No, it’s that at the age of 16, they have both found their perfect match and the perfect expression of their art. Really? That’s it? For the rest of their lives, there’s nothing else to strive for? This just doesn’t feel like life, and Ms. Nelson had got me so mesmerized with her skills that I wanted the complexity and misshapenness you get with that, There is no ambiguity here whatsoever – even the mystery of the irritating parrot next door has to have a solution!

So overall, is I’ll Give You the Sun worth reading? An unqualified yes – I could easily put my irritation with the somewhat glib plotting aside and just bathe in the glories of the writing.

Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater

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blue lilyIn this third book of The Raven Cycle, the gang is back on the trail of Owen Glendower, after a detour into Ronan’s psyche in The Dream Thieves. Blue’s mother, Maura, has disappeared searching for Glendower and, in the prologue, Adam and Persephone see three sleepers – one to wake, one not to wake and one in between. The three sleepers are the ley line of this book, though there are many wanderings off it.

One of the glories of these books is the characters. On the side of the angels (probably) are the Raven Boys themselves – all adorable in their own way, like a good boy band: Gansey the charming one, Ronan the dark, brooding one, Adam the apparently ordinary one and Noah, the dead one. The women at 300 Fox Way come into focus a bit more too. Then we have Roger Malory, Gansey’s mentor and “international ley line expert” who comes with his Dog on a visit (and the Dog, even though mute, manages to be a character in his own right), the Grey Man, assassin and courter of Maura; and JESSE DITTLEY, guardian of a cave and a curse. Wearing black hats, we have the banally evil Colin Greenmantle and his wife, the Stepford-perfect and conscienceless Piper. And the jury is out on which side crazy Gwenllian is on – she’s the daughter of Glendower, and may or may not be one of the sleepers. This is a huge cast of characters but each one is distinctly drawn and smacks you around the head from the page.

The other glory is the writing. With a few choice flicks of words, Stiefvater can conjure up a mood, place or character that is so sharply defined you can taste and smell it: Adam “had spackled confidence too heavily over his anxiety for it to be invisible.” And she easily manages the balance between the flights of ethereal fantasy and the bathos of everyday life in Henrietta: “It was cool and overcast, with no interference from the sun’s force or the lunar schedule or nearby road construction.”

To be sure the plot is very dense and a little rambling. I suspect it would be pretty hard to pick up without having read at least the first book of the series. I’m not sure I always knew what was going on, but that was probably because I was chunking it down in great gobbets instead of savoring it as it really requires.

Why hasn’t this series got the traction it deserves? Are the plotlines too complex? Maybe it’s the slightly nonlinear, vignette-style of writing. Or perhaps dead Welsh kings just don’t have the pulling power of werewolves. Whatever it is, I’m on a mission to get more readers into this series.

Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy.

Wicked Games by Sean Olin

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wicked gamesI know many bloggers prefer not to post reviews of books that they don’t like – why give the oxygen of publicity? Why trouble the blog reader with something you don’t want them to read? I do agree, to an extent, but when I find a book offensive, I feel like I want to make sure nobody else makes the same mistake I did, and pick it up because it sounds cool or it has an appealing cover. Which is why I’ve put up this review….

Lilah Bell, a high school senior with unspecified mental issues, pursues her boyfriend, Carter, and the girl he had a fling with, Jules, in increasingly obsessive ways.

The three main characters slot into their appointed roles: Lilah is an avenging harpy with weighty psychological problems and emotionally absent parents, Carter is a sensitive passive blank, and Jules is a free spirit whose sexuality comes back to bite her. There is no characterization beyond these caricatures. This is a novel that does no favors to women – Jules is punished and humiliated for not being a ‘good girl’, even though it is Carter at fault, while Lilah is unsympathetic and erratic, due to the plot device of her mental illness.

The Fatal Attraction-style plot becomes increasingly ludicrous (no boiled bunny, though) as no authority figure appears to have a clue what’s going on, and Lilah becomes astonishingly (not to say credibility-stretchingly) resourceful in her pursuit of Jules. The writing is clumsy, with random switching points of view and is full of pop culture references that will age it very quickly.

I thought maybe there was going to be a Gone Girl style twist (which btw, is a great idea for a teen novel – I’m sure even as we speak someone is doing that) but to no avail – what you see is what you get. The biggest twist is that there’s going to be a sequel.

Teens looking for a sexy thriller can find many better choices than Wicked Games.

Kate Walden Directs: Night of the Zombie Chickens by Julie Mata

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Kate-Walden-DirectsAspiring filmmaker Kate Walden finds herself at the bottom of the 7th grade pecking order when her best friend, and leading lady, ditches her for the most popular girl in the class.

Debut author Mata, has written a somewhat generic tale of social drama, which is much enlivened with the sub-plot of Kate’s endeavors to finish her movie, Night of the Zombie Chickens, and with the integration of cinematic, undead and gallinaceous metaphors into the social situation.

Kate’s misery at being on the social outs is painfully well captured, though the resolution seems too quick, trite and overly complicated, and she actually gets away without being completely honest. Her voice is warm, sparky, and humorous even if, at times, her reflections on life seem somewhat too mature for a 12 year-old (“what is it about fame and its feeble cousin, popularity, that makes normal people turn into mindless zombies?”); the other characters, however, are two-dimensional players straight from central casting.

Nonetheless, tweens looking for an easy read that reflects at least some of their experiences, may enjoy this, and may even learn a little about film noir.

It looks like this is the first book in a series – I hope subsequent ones will use the film side of Kate as more than just a fund of metaphors for another commonplace social drama.

Auditing my reading

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wndbI was at KidLitCon last weekend, which was on the theme of ‘Blogging Diversity in Young Adult and Children’s Lit: What’s Next?’ Kelly Jensen, of Stacked and Book Riot, threw down the challenge to us all, to audit what we read and assess how diversely we are reading. I decided to have a look, with a sneaky feeling that the answer would be: not very. And, indeed it was.

It’s not a particularly scientific audit – I just went back through Goodreads for 2014 and tried to remember if a book had a main or support (but important, not just in the background) character that was ethnically or culturally diverse, in any way mentally or physically challenged or GLBQT.  I realized that somehow I didn’t have any shelves that would highlight ethnic and cultural diversity – fixed that straight away. Because I’m a bit lazy, I did not check the diversity of authors as that involved me looking stuff up.

Of the 51 kid or YA books I’ve read so far this year, as far as I could remember there have been a total of 12 with diverse main characters (mostly ethnically or culturally diverse) and 16 with diverse support characters (pretty evenly spread across my three categories – well done, the gay best friend!).

So not as bad as I thought, but I definitely could do better; so I’m planning to actively look out for books with diverse characters in the future. (And also try and read a bit more – 51 was a lot lower than I thought!)

The Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton’s Lair by S. S. Taylor; illustrated by Katherine Roy

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expeditioners2Following their debut adventure in The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon, the West siblings – map-loving Kit, charismatic animal-champion Zander and cheerful engineer M. K. – are now at the Academy for the Exploratory Sciences, while continuing to follow the map clues that their apparently dead father has left for them.

Author Taylor develops the intriguing steam punk/alternate history world and the cast of characters established in the first novel, while also making it accessible for readers new to the series.

Before I get into more about the book itself, a few thoughts about the illustrations. I love the style of the black and white ones scattered throughout the book – and it actually makes me think of the characters as being older than I read them. Secondly, it’s a bummer for libraries that they have to cover and secure the dust jacket, as there’s a really cool exploded diagram of Amy, the submarine. And finally – why no map of the world? It would be great to see more than just the area where the adventure takes place. All good fantasy books should have maps and, in this case, there should be more maps!

The plot is a little unbalanced, with a drawn-out set up before the team embarks on their expedition to explore the mysteries of a Bermuda Triangle-type patch in the Caribbean, where ships disappear, and where there may also be oil.

14 year-old Kit, the narrator, continues to be the most interesting character with his geeky intelligence, unrequited crush on a fellow student, and jealous adoration of his older brother; the rest of the large ensemble is much less nuanced.

Some questions are unanswered and plot threads left dangling, setting the Expeditioners up for a sequel that promises to go deeper into the political structure of their world.

The Infinite Sea by Rick Yancey

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infinite seaThere’s something about middle books in trilogies. Often, they’re just marking time between the set up of the first book and the conclusion of the last book, and they’re used to get the chess pieces in place. Of course there are some middle books that are terrific – The Subtle Knife is my favorite book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. But mostly they are dull filler and padding. And, very disappointingly, The Infinite Sea, the sequel to The 5th Wave, is no exception.

After a chilling opening in which we realize just how beastly the aliens are, as they’re using small children as weapons, the main narrative picks up four days after the end of the previous book, with Cassie Sullivan and other survivors from the destruction of Camp Haven holed up in an old hotel waiting for Evan Walker.

But the focus in The Infinite Sea is now on Ringer/Marika – one of these survivors and a child soldier of the 5th wave – and Cassie, who was such a strong presence in the first book, takes a backseat. I remember the resistance I felt at the opening of The Subtle Knife when Will is the main character instead of Lyra, but I was soon swept up. Sadly, that did not happen here for me; I didn’t find Ringer a particularly sympathetic or even well-developed character.

There’s a lot of discussion about why the aliens have chosen to destroy the human race in such an elaborate and inefficient way. There’s a fair bit of discussion about how the humans can respond to them. There’s lots of recurring themes and metaphors: promises and hope, chess and rats. But there’s precious little plot; for most of the book, there’s just too much talking and not enough showing.

And what is the infinite sea? It was an image in the first book – “the infinite sea of upturned faces” of children. Here, it’s mentioned several times in several different places: the untended wheat fields; the blood in a human body and, in the Shakespearean epigraph, love (are we getting all Harry Potter here? Is love really the answer to the aliens?).

From the notes at the end, it appears that Mr. Yancey poured his soul into this book. So it feels extra sad that it’s such a let down for me. But I have high hopes that he’ll gather all the threads back up and give us a finale worthy of the first book.