Tuesday, September 30, 2008

darker than Dark

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: science fiction, YA
Challenge: A-Z (author)
Review: If Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials are supposed to be a darker Harry Potter, than Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking series is shaping up to be a darker His Dark Materials.

The book starts in Prentisstown, where all men's Noise (thoughts) can be heard by everyone, and there aren't any women. Todd, 30 days away from his 13th birthday, at which point he will become a man, has been told that the Noise came with the same germ from the native inhabitants of the planet that killed all the women. But one day Todd starts finding out that everything he's known about his town and his planet is not what he's been told.

Ness opts to reveal the secrets to the reader as they are revealed to Todd, a technique that can be frustrating, but mostly works well. Most of the secrets are revealed (we think) by the end of this first book in a projected trilogy, but there's still plenty of suspense as to what actually happens to our hero and whether good will triumph over evil.

Friday, September 26, 2008

with a whimper

The Ghosts of Kerfol by Deborah Noyes
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, historical fiction, ghost stories
Challenge: A-Z (title)
Review: Noyes bases her stories on Edith Wharton's Kerfol. The first story is just a retelling of Kerfol, fleshed out, and from the point of a serving girl newly arrived at the house. From there, Noyes each story moves the the house closer to the present time, with various manifestations of the hauntings.

Her descriptions are uneven though. In one story, the house is haunted only by the dogs, as in Wharton's story. In other stories, there are various other ghosts, and it's not always clear who they're supposed to be. In one story, a girl dies. In another, a couple is only hurt. I would have felt better if all the stories were building to a grand exorcism of some kind, or if the hauntings all got worse until some drastic action were taken. In other words, I wish the stories had all built on each other in some way. But this isn't really how Noyes chose to write her stories. Except she did, in some ways. I wish she'd chosen either to write completely individual stories, or chosen to write stories that all built up into something. As it is, the tension of the hauntings builds for a couple of stories, and then just kind of fizzles.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

knowing the unknowable

Between Here and April by Deborah Copaken Kogan
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: This book is built around Elizabeth's search to find the truth about what happened to April, her first grade friend who disappeared from school one day. At the time, Elizabeth couldn't get an explanation from her teacher, and her mother was too busy with a new baby and her own issues to really notice that Elizabeth's friend was gone. The truth of what happened isn't too hard for Elizabeth to find out as an adult. After all, when a mother kills herself and her two daughters, there are newspapers articles, which Elizabeth is easily able to find. But it turns out that her search is really to know the unknowable: why did April's mother do this seemingly unthinkable thing?

On a quest to try to answer this question, Elizabeth confronts issues of postpartum depression, especially in the early 1970s, before it was recognized as a treatable condition, and the common prescription of Valium to help women who were depressed, whether it actually benefited them or not. Although Kogan gets a bit heavy-handed on these subjects, her characters are well-drawn and believable.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

very straightforward

The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Challenge: TBR
Review: This is a very straightforward book. When Laurel's father dies, she must deal not only with her own grief but that of her friends and neighbors (her father was a well-loved judge in their small town). On top of that, she also has to deal with the histrionics of her stepmother, a woman younger than herself, who does not react in a way that Laurel finds seemly.

The night after the funeral, Laurel finds herself alone in her childhood home. Going through things from her past, she reminisces about her parents, and is able to come to terms with aspects of their relationship and her mother's final illness.

Welty writes her scenes sparingly, allowing characters to speak for themselves. The disparity between the actions of Laurel's stepmother's family and those of the locals is told through dialogue, rather than description, to great effect. One can't help but cringe on Laurel's behalf for what she has to go through before she is free to mourn her father.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

coming out funny

Absolutely, Positively Not... by David LaRochelle
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: YA
Review: Aside from the fact that I can't really relate to the story of a teenage boy coming to terms with the fact that he's gay, I really enjoyed this book. LaRochelle divides the story about equally between Steven's growing realization that he's gay and his process of coming out to his friends and family. Although the first half of the book became a bit tiresome after a while, the second half of the book more than made up for it. LaRochelle writes Steven's coming out scenes with humor and sensitivity.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

another Holden

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To you by Peter Cameron
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, YA
Review: I did not like Catcher in the Rye. Not the first time I read it (in high school) and not the second time (in my 20s). And this book is little more than Catcher in the Rye updated for the 21st century. Except they still use words like "faggy".

James, which at least is a better name than Holden, has not been kicked out of school, but has just graduated from high school and is considering not going to college, although he's scheduled to begin at Brown in the fall. Aside from a somewhat meaningless job, he spends his time being introspective and disaffected, and seems determined to remain so. He does strange, antisocial things for no apparent reason and with no apparent thought of the consequences and then not quite understanding why people are upset about what he did.

I can't quite put my finger on why I had a problem with this book, or why I don't like Catcher in the Rye. I guess characters who know they're acting in an asocial way and refuse to acknowledge why other people might think they're a little strange just bother me. It's fine to be asocial, but a character (at least an intelligent character, as both James and Holden are supposed to be), ought to have enough insight to understand that they're outside the norm, which is going to be troubling to some people.