Thursday, February 28, 2008

wrong character

Dramarama by E(mily) Prescott
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: YA fiction
Challenge: A-Z (title)
Summary/Review: E(mily) Prescott has clearly been to drama camp. She gets that part of the book right-on. The rest of the book is quite a disappointment, though. The characters are flat; our narrator, Sadye, is set up to learn a lot through the people she meets, the criticisms she gets, and the experiences she has at drama camp, but she doesn't. She makes a grand sacrifice that gets her kicked out of camp, but not because she's really learned anything, except that her best friend, Demi, has more talent than she does. She returns to her boring small town and continues to be the same person she was before camp, although we don't really get any details about it. Nor do we get much closure for Sadye. We learn where the future is taking Demi (NYU), but all we know about Sadye is that she has a summer internship in New York City after she graduates high school. There being every indication that Sadye is reasonably intelligent, it felt odd that there was no discussion of where she wanted to go to college, or where she applied or was accepted, even though we learn about Demi's college-choice process.

Not that I could really bring myself to care that much about what happened to her. I never found her to be a compelling character. Although she has thoughts and ideas, too often they seemed to come from nowhere, and every time someone tried to tell her something or teach her something, she got resentful, and failed to come even close to apprehending the lesson (which is not to say she was always wrong, but just that her continued failure to get the point became annoying).

I think this story would have been much more interesting if told from Demi's point of view. Here we had a character with some actual talent, as well as substantial issues to face. He's a black, gay teenager who comes from a primarily white world with parents who only pretend to be ok with his sexual orientation. When he gets to camp, we're given hints that, although he's still a minority by far (we're told there are fewer than 10 black campers), he's pleased to be with people with whom he feels like he can be black (this is the topic of a very disappointing scene between Demi and Sadye where he tries to talk to her about how he feels that she's trying to deny the fact that he's black, and she tries to explain that it just wasn't important to her, and wasn't that better than acting like it's a big deal -- but like most of the rest of the book, that scene just fizzled into nothing). More importantly, though, he can truly "come out" for the first time. He forms a crush, gets betrayed, and finds love, all in the span of a few weeks. This is the story I would have enjoyed reading, along with the entertaining stories about rehearsals and the like.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

even worse

One Part Angel by George Shaffner
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Challenge: A-Z (title)
Summary/Review: This book is just as incomprehensible to me as the first one (In the Land of Second Chances) was, possibly more so. In many ways this book is little more than a retread of In the Land... except the "sermonettes" are slightly different. Instead of hope and faith, we have the difference between smart and stupid, and strong and weak. But the reasoning is the same: Let me prove to you why it makes more sense, from a rational perspective, to behave a smart way, as defined by the author, of course.

It's clear, from the title, if nothing else, that we're supposed to believe that Vernon Moore is something close to an angel. Maybe that's why the entire town accepts him into their lives and treats him as their long-lost best friend. I found it entirely unbelievable though. Yes, it's a small, friendly town, and yes, he's a nice guy, but that's about it. And yet, the entire town comes to believe that he's the only answer to all their troubles. So much for that old-fashioned mid-west belief in self-reliance!

Fortunately for them, though, he does return, and does manage to solve all their problems, while at the same time maintaining his secret identity and denying that he had anything at all to do with getting things fixed. Humble to an extreme, and way past the extreme, if you asked me.

I had just one other problem with this book, and it grated on me so much that I feel like I have to mention it: It's possible that Shaffner has never heard a teenage boy speak, even when he was one. He has his 16-year-old male character talking like a California valley girl who's been dropped into southeast Nebraska.

In short, this book bothered me on many levels and in ways that I can't fully explain. I'm only going to read the third book because I've already agreed to do so, but I hope some questions are answered there, because I'm certainly not going to read a fourth book (if there is one).

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Philosophy lite

In the Land of Second Chances by George Shaffner
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Summary/Review: I just did not know what to make of this book. The voices of the characters are very well-written, I could hear the Midwestern small-town twang in so much of the dialogue and narration. And if the book had been a story of small-town life, I probably would have loved it. But this is the story of how Vernon Moore comes to this small town and allegedly changes the lives of so many of its residents. Moore's origins are a mystery, as is what he's actually doing in the town. But while he's there, he manages to convince several residents to have hope in the existence of God and an afterlife, all through using rational thought and mathematical probability. Knowing that Shaffner has also written a non-fiction book on the same subject made me feel as though I'd been tricked into reading a lecture. Nonetheless, the book is well-written and, for the most part, a pleasant way to read about the author's philosophical ideas. Still, I would have liked to see more about the characters, not to say some character development that could be explained by something in addition to the revelations from the entire town's new best friend, Vernon Moore.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Reading is dead, long live reading?

From the NYT BookLust blog, and interesting response from Timothy Egan to Steve Jobs' claim that reading is dead in another NYT article. Read Steve Jobs's comment here and Timothy Egan's response here.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

the hardships of being Princess Elizabeth

The Redheaded Princess by Ann Rinaldi
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: young adult historical fiction
Challenge: A-Z (title)
Summary/Review: An easy read of a period of Elizabeth I's life not often studied. The book begins when Elizabeth is a child and ends when she is made Queen. In between, we learn of how she was a Princess one day and a "mere lady" the next, only to have her title and her place in the line of succession to England's throne returned to her, all at the whim of her father, Henry VIII. We hear of how she was treated when her brother Edward was King, and when her sister Mary was Queen, and how she observed the reigns of her father and siblings closely and took lessons from them that would help her when it was her turn to be Queen.

Although this book does little more than gloss over the turmoil of the time and the factions warring for the throne, this is a good book to read for anyone interested in a basic outline of what Elizabeth's life was like before she became Queen.

Friday, February 15, 2008

only for true Buffy fans

Chosen by Nancy Holder and Joss Whedon
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: TV novelization
Challenge: A-Z (title)
Review: So awful! I mean, so true to Season 7, and in that sense, wonderful, but so awful! Full of typos, and just poorly written (except the dialogue, of course). True blue Buffy fans will love this, but anyone else should steer clear.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Jane Eyre with a twist

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
Rating: 4 stars (out of five)
Genre: fiction, mystery, Gothic
Challenge: A-Z (title)
Review: This was a very engaging story. Written in the style of a Gothic novel, this story is very reminiscent of Jane Eyre, with a unique twist. The secret to the story is revealed to the reader as the main character figures it out, in a very realistic way.

What prevented this book from getting 5 stars was what I felt to be an unnecessary subplot that only served to bog the story down. I understand that our main character needed a "hook" of some kind to be convinced to write the biography she's been charged with writing, but I felt that Setterfield took the "ghost story" aspect of her lost twin too far.

That would not stop me from heartily recommending this book to anyone who likes Gothic novels.

Monday, February 11, 2008

too trite

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fantasy, YA
Challenge: A-Z (author)
Review: My first problem with this book is that there was a lot of talk about Greek mythology in a Latin class. That just seemed like an odd setup. The author could have made it any class he wanted, and chose to make such an odd pair. It grated on me every time it came up.

Although the idea of using Greek mythology is quite clever, the story itself is fairly trite. Our "hero" is possibly one of the dumbest 6th-graders ever. It could be that he was written that way on purpose so as to allow for long expositions by other characters, but I found it annoying that he could not pick up on what was staring him in the face.

Perhaps my many problems with this book came from the fact that I listened to it, and the narrator decided to tell the whole story in his surfer-dude voice. Any seriousness there may have been to the story itself was completely driven out by this. If this is the reason I didn't like the book, it's a pity, because I'd heard really good things about this series. If I ever decide to read the next two books, I'll make sure to actually read them myself.

Friday, February 8, 2008

not good till the end

Winter Haven by Athol Dickson
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Challenge: A-Z (title)
Summary/Review: I was really not enjoying this book until I got to the very end, which almost made up for the turgidness of the prose. The last chapter saved the book from getting an even lower rating.

This is a story of Vera, a young woman (much younger than she acts) who sets off to pick up the body of her brother who has washed up on the shore of a small Maine island. How we got there, and why he doesn't appear to have aged in 13 years, are the "mystery" of the book. The answer, when it is finally revealed, is fairly straightforward, and not unsatisfying.

In the course of finding that out, though, Vera must deal with her own guilt over not stopping her brother from running away, and her belief that her "visions" of what happened to her brother are actually punishments from God. She must also deal with unkind islanders, a "ghost", and a too-handsome man (with a wandering eye) who might be friend or might be foe.

One might suppose that all of those factors would combine to make a compelling story. Alas, that is not the case. Dickson gets too bogged down in his first-person narration to let the story run naturally. We are teased with hints and glimpses of what's really going on, but Vera's overdrawn naivete prevents us from finding anything in the story that will allow us to be drawn in.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

A Nice Book

Blessings by Anna Quindlen
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Challenge: A-Z (author)
Review: This book does not require much effort to read. Everything slides along in a fairly predictable way, so much so that even that bigger moments in the story sometimes slide by without being noticed. Don't look to this book for a gripping plot or very-compelling characters (although Skip, the main character, is very sympathetic) but read this book for a nice story, and you'll enjoy it.

Monday, February 4, 2008

easily overlooked flaws

Gardens of Water by Alan Drew
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Challenge: A-Z (author)
Review: Sometimes, obvious flaws in things like characterization can be overlooked because of how well the book is written overall. Such is the case here. It wasn't until I was nearly at the end of the book, when things were clearly winding down, that I realized that most of the major characters had not been fully developed, nor were their motivations always totally clear.

But perhaps in this book the individual characters were stand-ins for the eternal conflicts of East vs. West and one generation against another. Both are realistically drawn as Irem struggles with herself against the traditions with which she's been raised, but is unable to completely break away from them. Her mother struggles to reconcile the choices she’s made, and her desire to raise her daughter in the same way she was raised, with the evident changes in the world around her and the greater opportunities Irem could take advantage of. Sinan, Irem’s father, struggles to support his family and to maintain the religious traditions that are important to him. None of the characters ever fully resolves their struggles, which is perhaps very realistic, although in some cases their own actions or events outside their control inadvertently lead to a resolution.

Drew portrays these struggles very well. Indeed, in some places he demonstrates a rare gift for the ability to paint a scene. One scene in particular that deserves special mention is the scene where Sinan takes his son to visit the holiest mosque in Istanbul. There, while trying to teach his son how to pray, Sinan must deal with the distraction of Western tourists who are touring the mosque. This scene is so vividly rendered that the reader can’t escape the implications of the potential dangers to Sinan’s faith and way of life inherent in the encroachment of Westerners.