Saturday, September 25, 2010

Book Review: Waiting for You

Waiting for You (2009) Susane Colasanti

Back Jacket: At the beginning of her sophomore year, Marisa is ready for a fresh start, and hopefully her first real boyfriend. Could it be popular, dreamy Derek? Or geeky Nash, who just might have a crush on her? Then there's the underground, anonymous DJ, whose podcasts are the hottest thing at school and who seems to totally understand Marisa. But she doesn't know who he is...or does she?

Review: This was kind of an impulse buy, and impulse buys are notoriously mistakes. Happily, this one was not. I found Marisa to be likeable and real, and her desire to reinvent herself resonated with me as a reader. She says, "Can I just say that when you're hoping things will get better but they don't, it majorly sucks?" and adds, "Because when everyone expects you to be a certain way, it's really hard to escape that image. It's like once everyone decides who you are, you're locked into their version of you and that's it" (p. 13). What I liked so well about this book was that it moved quickly and it had a purpose--at the end of each chapter, I was aware that something had changed, even if it was only a small thing, or even if I wasn't aware exactly what had changed.

In addition, Marisa is grappling with an anxiety disorder as well as wondering how everyone else makes friends/is social so easily and why she is left struggling with the simplest things sometimes. So when Nash, an old childhood friend she reconnects with during a science class comes along, she is pleased with his company but reluctant when he starts to show an interest in her. Which is the other good thing about Marisa as a character: she has her flaws, like the kind that people don't really like to admit to other people. But she has a lot of revelations about herself and those around her that ring true: like, she admits that her reluctance about Nash has more to do with his clothes and his hair and less to do with who he actually is.

And then there's the anonymous DJ, Dirty Dirk. No one can figure out who he is, but he has lots of inside information about the highschool, rats out the people who deserve ratting out, and protects those who don't. His podcasts add a nice element, as the topics he covers move parallel to the events in Marisa's life and in some ways illustrate that this is not just Marisa's experience, but the human experience at large. The nature of his podcasts also bring up an interesting theme: one might hear "anonymous DJ with all the dirt on the school" and think of someone whose podcasts might be a little rebellious, sticking it to the Man, someone who is wryly flipping the proverbial bird. And Dirk's podcasts do a little of that, but he is far more concerned with creating community and a sense of safety, giving his listeners a space where they can ask questions they would not ask elsewhere. I think this was actually sort of a subversive move on Colasanti's part, to include a character actively working to establish this ethic of care: kindness, support, community. I don't feel like I genuinely see much of this in books--certainly between individual characters, the elements will be there--but not characters who actively, purposefully cultivate it on a larger scale.

Conclusion: This book deserves a 4/5. Colasanti's writing has a lot of understated intelligence, warmth, and grace. This book is thoughtful but lighthearted, and she does an excellent job of raising deeper issues while never directly saying, "MORAL OF THE STORY! MORAL OF THE STORY!" instead letting the themes and characters unfold and grow in organic ways.


Friday, September 24, 2010

A Reprise: Other People's Contests and Cool Books

Did you know Steph Su Reads is hosting a contest to win Cassandra Clare's Clockwork Angel?

Well, now you do. It ends October 15, 2010, so hurry over if you're interested in winning the prequel to the Mortal Instruments series!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Book Review: The Best of the Best

The Best of the Best: Becoming Elite at an American Boarding School (2009) Ruben Gaztambide-Fernandez

Inside Jacket: For two years, Ruben Gaztambide-Fernandez shared the life of what he calls the "Weston School," an elite New England boarding school. He sat in on classes, ate meals in the dining halls, cheered at sporting events, hung out in dorms while students baked cookies or celebrated birthdays. And through it all, observing the experience of a diverse group of students, conducting interviews and focus groups, he developed a nuanced portrait of how these students make sense of their extraordinary good fortune in attending the school....This book gives us a rare perspective on the creation of social inequality. It shows how students at an elite school come to envision an elite future for themselves, and be confident that they deserve it.

Review: This book is nonfiction, but its content undeniably informs and parallels the same issues in contemporary YA fiction. There are three reasons I picked this book up: 1) It's interesting. 2) I'm doing research on boarding schools. 3) Gaztambide-Fernandez writes about the ways in which race, class, and gender intersect and inform the boarding school experience. He also takes it one step further; not only does he identify the fact that some people have more privilege than others, he examines how that privilege becomes part of one's identity. In other words, this book is about all the things I care about anyway!

The Best of the Best is a really nuanced look at the lives of students at Weston. Gaztambide-Fernandez examines many different aspects of the school experience, and includes interviews and discussions with real students, but also diagrams that they drew for him that explain the way they see the school hierarchy, or social landscapes. One review describes his approach as "both generous and skeptical," which I think really captures the tone. He is not judgmental of the students, but he does critically analyze what they say and how they interact.

Conclusion: 4/5. Gaztambide-Fernandez's writing is curious, compassionate, and thorough, making the book imminently readable. He has friendly rapport with many of the students he interviews, and it's clear that he genuinely likes and respects them, which I think is extremely important when writing about teenagers (or anyone you are studying, for that matter). I would recommend this book for others who are interested in the dynamics of power, gender, race, and class in institutional settings like schools. Also, I am a shallow being, and it doesn't hurt that he's good-looking. And has an earring. And a tattoo.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Book Review: Need

Back Jacket: Zara White suspects a freaky guy is semi-stalking her. She memorizes phobias and chants them when she's nervous. And okay, she hasn't exactly been herself since her stepfather died. But moving to a shivery Maine town to stay with her grandmother is supposed to be the perfect fix--so her mom says. Except, this new plan of getting away to help Zara stay sane? Yeah, not working. Turns out the semi-stalker is not a figment of Zara's imagination. He's still following her, leaving behind an eerie trail of gold dust. There's something not right--not human--in this sleepy Maine town, and all signs are pointing to Zara.

Review: My problem with this book is that it couldn't decide what it wanted to be. Even the climax shudders along like a VW bus low on gas, picking up speed one moment only to stagger haltingly the next. Is it going to build itself into a paranormal frenzy wherein pixies bash the door in while Zara and her semi-boyfriend have no choice but to wait for the inevitable moment in which the wood finally splinters? Is it going to devolve into a caricature of teenage interaction* and the most boring flirtation you've ever been witness to?** The answer is both (and within the same paragraph). Even the general writing was scattered. Sometimes I will read an astounding book where each sentence informs the next with powerful results, but Need is jumpy and disorganized, and there is no real purpose from one sentence to the next. My reading experience went thusly: Reluctantly submitting myself to the first few chapters, which grew into the pleased realization that the book was getting better, at which point it got exponentially worse, only to build into mounting resentment that it wasn't over yet.

Zara was not a compelling character for me. Despite her "quirks" (henceforth to be known as "quarks," which is my version of contrived quirkiness) like being a walking encyclopedia of phobias and her socially conscientious hobbies (Amnesty International), Zara felt empty. There was no there there. It was as though Jones developed individual characteristics and glued them haphazardly to an empty slate and then named it Zara. The difference is this: instead of growing organically from the character, the quarks were what made the character.

As for Nick, the supernaturally fast boy from track (don't take my language to mean anything, I am only dropping massive hints) who takes an interest in Zara, my opinion is not much higher. There has come to be a stereotype in YA novels of male main characters (possibly since the release of Twilight, because according to every paranormal YA blurb, all books are "like Twilight" now anyway) who are smokin' hot, secretly supernatural, over-protective, unswervingly devoted while being simultaneously hard to read, and hot-tempered. Nick, sadly, does not depart from this characterization.

Also, it is apparently a requirement for paranormal books to begin with a girl being stalked, whereafter she takes to Google to confirm her suspicions about said stalker's paranormality. Because, you know, of course that makes sense. And I'm not blaming this book for being a paranormal book; it's to be anticipated that some characters will reveal themselves to be not fully human. I don't even like a whole lot of "WTF? I can't believe this" when the human characters do find out. But it's hard to suspend my own disbelief when they barely so much as blink. This is actually something else that cooled my opinion for the book: Zara can't seem to prioritize. She doesn't seem to get upset when she ought to. There is a scene where she and Nick need to get out with relative speed; at first she is reluctant to even leave the house (but once they decide they really are going, she runs upstairs to grab her Amnesty International letters so they can mail them. Because of course getting your mail out is the first thing weighing on your mind when you're in imminent danger.) But when Nick informs her that they'll have to shovel the snow off the driveway in order to get out, Zara's reaction is basically, "But...but it's a half-mile long! And I've never shoveled snow before!" I would have been infinitely more impressed had she grabbed that shovel and dug like a beast.

Conclusion: You already know how I'm going to rate this book, I'm sure. It's not so much that it's actually bad as that there are so many books that do it better. I've no doubt that there are readers who would enjoy this book, so I'm sometimes reluctant to be so opinionated. But I've grown weary of giving mediocre books such safely neutral ratings. In terms of characters, plot, and writing, this book could pass as a 3/5. I suppose my issue is this: just because there are a lot of mediocre books doesn't mean mediocre should become the passing standard. If there is one place where I can experiment with being a mouthy critic, it is this blog, and my experience of reading this book was a 2/5.


*One example is constantly referring to the king of the pixies as "the pixie king guy" or the "head pixie guy."

His eyes melt me. "Really. I'd never let anything happen to you."
"Oh. Right. Hero-complex thing....That's so funny" (p. 185).

P.S. Fun fact: according to Justine magazine, "If you grabbed Stephen King and Stephenie Meyer and asked them to co-author a book, they would come up with Need." This comparison is more than a little entertaining, given King's blatant lack of regard for Meyer's writing. More likely, if you grabbed Stephen King and Stephenie Meyer and asked them to co-author a book, they would answer with an undeniably emphatic NO.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Book to Movie: Another Success

This is going to be a very short post, but is inspired by the incandescent joy that is the latest movie version of Jane Austen's Emma. I cannot recommend it highly enough; Romola Garai and Johnny Lee Miller are impeccable as Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley. This adaptation is sprightly, engaging, and had me writhing in delight. Garai is so likeable as Emma; neither Kate Beckinsale's nor Gwyneth Paltrow's previous performances can touch hers with a stick. This BBC miniseries was incredibly well-cast, well-written, and well-acted, which seems to be a trend with them. I can safely say it lives up to the quality of the famous BBC version of Pride and Prejudice with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth (and his wet shirt, heh heh).

Here is the trailer:

Go! Now! Rent it! Be hasty! Waste no time!


Saturday, September 11, 2010

Other People's Contests and Cool Books

So, I will admit up front that I am writing this post to enter in Brooke's Box of Books' contest, where she is giving away six different books! But I am also writing this post because I've had my eye on one of the books she's giving away and it made me realize that maybe I should say something about this book:

The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff!

I first found out about Brenna over at the Merry Sisters of Fate blog, where she writes with other noted authors Maggie Stiefvater and Tessa Gratton. I always found Yovanoff's writing to be eerie, quiet, and raw. In other words: excellent, if also unsettling. From what I've read about her new book so far, it does not disappoint; hopefully I'll get to find out for myself!


Book Review: As You Wish

As You Wish (2009) by Jackson Pearce

Back Jacket: Ever since Viola's boyfriend broke up with her, she has spent her days silently wishing--for someone to love her again and, most important, to belong again--until her wishes inadvertently summon a genie named Jinn out of his world and into her own. He will remain until she makes three wishes. But it's only after Viola makes her first wish that she realizes she's in love with Jinn...and that if she wishes twice more, he will disappear from her life--and her world--forever. Jackson Pearce spins a magical tale about star-crossed lovers, what it means to belong...and how important it is to be careful what you wish for.

Review: While this book doesn't break from conventional YA formulas--teen girl struggling with identity and belonging, "star-crossed" lovers--the components of Pearce's novel are original. In a time when vampires and angels dominate the bookshelves, it's refreshing to find a genie among them. And when I say "genie," I do not mean a blueberry with a goatee and the voice of Robin Williams:

I mean a lithe, golden boy with thick black curls and curious, dark eyes. One draw back: his "skin sparkles even under the school's bland fluorescent lights," and if that's not reminiscent of a well-loved vegetarian vampire, I don't know what is. Another way Pearce departs from current trends (in paranormal/supernatural/fantasy at least) is that Jinn and Viola's relationship takes time. They are not mysteriously or unavoidably drawn to one another, which ultimately makes their sweet, sweet lovin' more realistic and special. It's especially exciting because the stakes are so high: if Jinn stays on Earth with Viola, he will--in the words of David Byrne--age and die like humans do. On the other hand, if he leaves, he won't be with Viola. Clearly there are lots of opportunities for tortured yearning and bold sacrifices.

While the plot and characters certainly caught my fancy, I was disappointed in the book itself. Parts of it were done well, but I often felt that more could have been done. I didn't always connect well with the characters; at times, I think this was because there was more telling than showing. (This is, admittedly, Pearce's debut novel.) I also wanted to see more build-up or tension to the relationship between Viola and Jinn. Because the book alternates view points, readers are privy to exactly what both Jinn and Viola are thinking/feeling and this, perhaps, detracted from the excitement of their attraction to one another. For example, at one point Jinn uses his magic to help Viola without being prompted by a wish on her part and not knowing his motivations could have been more exciting.

Conclusion: I give this a 3/5. Pearce has an excellent, original concept with opportunities for nail-biting romance and adventure. Despite this, I felt the execution wasn't as good as it could have been and the story fell a little flat with me. While not particularly memorable, it's great for a quick, light read and slightly younger (13-15) audiences.


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Book Review: Nearlyweds

Nearlyweds (2006) by Beth Kendrick

Back Jacket: Everyone says the first year of marriage is the hardest...but what would you do if you found out that you were never really married in the first place? In this irresistible romantic comedy from award-winning author Beth Kendrick, three wildly different women form an unlikely friendship as they try to decide whether they'd do it all again. They've had the white dresses and the fancy receptions. But now that the honeymoon's over, Stella, Casey, and Erin have each had to face some hard truths about the men they've married and the lives they've chosen. So when the news breaks that the pastor who presided over their weddings failed to file a few critical pieces of paper, none of these newlyweds are rushing down to the courthouse to legalize their vows. Instead, the brides share their hopes, disappointments, and secrets while grappling with that pivotal question: Should they stay or should they go?

Review: While the set-up sounds intriguing, it also puts this book firmly in the stereotyped category of "women's fiction" or "chick-lit" (whatever that means, I hate those labels). Nearlyweds is marketed as a rom-com, but what they really mean is that it is a dramedy about women learning how to love themselves, one another, and how to be happy. The problem is that it's done in the trite, overused way where the women eat ice cream, cry, laugh, and then "empower" themselves by buying stuff they don't need. While at first it may seem the women represent a wide variety of traits--and buck traditional expectations (one is not good at cooking and is busy with her job as a doctor, another wants children more than anything in the world)--it ultimately serves readers the same superficial grrl power of Sex and the City. It's all the same old bullsh*t dressed up as feminism. There are ways it can be read as woman-positive, but nothing about it is subversive or powerful. I should mention, of course, that this book obviously isn't the only one to commit these crimes, but it's the latest I've read and I'm always so moderate about things that I decided it was time to take a strong stance.


Furthermore, the writing itself did not stand out and the whiny insecurity of the characters--vacillating between anger and self-doubt--got tiresome quickly. I found myself entirely unsympathetic toward the male characters. One was blinded by the evil, manipulative deathgrip of his mother (yet another instance where older women are bad women), the other repeatedly lied to his wife, and the last was reluctant to commit--and upset that his girlfriend proposed instead. There's not much to recommend these fellows throughout the entire book. Until, of course, they each in turn commit the last-second "heroic" act to prove themselves and win the ladies' love. At which point the women happily comply with their boyfriends'/husbands' appeal for marriage/re-marriage and discover that it didn't matter how much they learned about themselves during their separation, they still weren't complete without a man.

Conclusion: I give this book the dreaded 2/5 (authors all around the world fear my hand of judgment*) for all of the reasons above. Average writing, unsympathetic characters, and romance so unfeeling and unbelievable that it didn't matter. The story would have been more powerful if the characters had evolved in ways that mattered. But, um, none of them did.


*What I mean to say is that there are no authors in the world who fear my hand of judgment.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Book Review and Thoughts: Austenland

Austenland (2007) by Shannon Hale

Back Jacket: Jane is a young New York woman who can never seem to find the right man--perhaps because of her secret obsession with Mr. Darcy, as played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. But when a wealthy relative bequeaths to her a trip to an English resort catering to Austen-obsessed women, Jane's fantasies of meeting the perfect Regency-era gentleman suddenly become more real than she ever could have imagined. Is this total immersion in a fake Austenland enough to make Jane kick the Austen obsession for good, or could all her dreams actually culminate in a Mr. Darcy of her own? In this addictive, charming, and compassionate story, Shannon Hale brings out the Jane Austen obsessive in all of us.

Review: This review comes in four stages that chronicle my impressions of the book from the beginning--before I'd cracked the spine--to the end. I do this in a nod to the fact that Pride and Prejudice was originally titled First Impressions. Fun fact for you, there.

My first impression--i.e. looking at the cover, because I constantly judge books by their covers--told me I was going to enjoy the book. Largely because it is very clearly a rom-com, perhaps with young, posh, jet-setting people. It would not be particularly memorable, but I fully anticipated some laughs and (hopefully) some delighted squealing.

My second impression was that I did not like this book. It just seemed average, and thus disappointing. Despite my reservations, I didn't put it down.

My third impression was that I did like the book. It was turning out to be exactly the kind of book I'd hoped for! I liked the clever set-up (Jane is actually role-playing at an Austen-themed resort where they have all sorts of strict interaction rules just like in the old days!) There were enough dapper young men (hired to play their roles, they were not guests at the resort) to keep it interesting. Jane had to constantly wonder if a flirtation was the actor letting some small part of his real self slip through the character, or if it was a duty of his job to flirt with the guests. The answer, in case you're wondering, is both. You just don't know who's doing what. Which is what's great: you don't know who she's going to end up with--or if she'll end up with anyone at all--until the last few pages of the book.

My fourth impression is really what the book left me thinking about afterward. Even though I liked the book, it made me a little uncomfortable that the "usual" guests were depicted as kind of pathetic and living apart from reality. One guest's character was Miss Charming, and the story she'd chosen was that she was a lovely 22 year old come to visit the Pembrook family. Except the woman roleplaying her was in her fifties, had big old breasts too bountiful to be contained by a corset, and kept saying ridiculous things like "tallyho!" and "what-what" all while hounding after the men. There are several conversations about the "type" of women who pay to vacation there and pretend they are living in Austen's time, being courted by sharp young men in long coats and riding boots, and none of the conversations are flattering ones.

Part of the book's point was about how women (like Miss Charming and Jane herself) are set up with all these romantic expectations by the media (i.e. "look at all these women who are waiting for their real-life Darcy when there is no real-life Darcy!") But it's kind of hard to take that message seriously when the book itself contributes to that same fairytale narrative. {MINOR SPOILER} Jane gets with her real-life Darcy by the end of the book. It's like He's Just Not That Into You, where you are told, "HE'S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU. OH, BUT WAIT, YES HE IS. EVERYTHING IS HAPPY-FINE."

And the other thing is this: Jane, who is all those normative things (young, slender, white, heterosexual, middle/upper class) learns to relax and gets the happy ending. But Miss Charming (older, overweight, ungainly) does not. She is just there to be a ridiculous contrast to Jane, who can think to herself, "I am so glad I am not like that. I hope no one else thinks I am like that." All of a sudden, "like that" becomes a set of traits to which readers must worriedly compare themselves. I'll admit that the idea of an "Austenland" sounded cool to me. How fun would that be to wear the dresses, ride around in a carriage, and stroll the park with some man-candy (preferably not an actor) on your arm? But then I had to feel all squicky with myself because the people who want to do that (Miss Charming) and the people who are thrown into it and make the best of their situation (Jane) are portrayed very differently. The portrayal and language constructs an Other out of Miss Charming. I'm not saying there aren't people in the world who are hard to be around, or that we can't have ridiculous characters because it's politically incorrect, but it's important to ask: what characteristics or traits do we give the blatantly ridiculous characters? And what traits do we give to those characters we are supposed to root for?

Conclusion: I'm still kind of collecting my thoughts about this book, which is why I've declined to actually rate it. There were some empowering parts as well as problematic parts. I thoroughly enjoyed it for it's fun factor. It was an absolutely delightful romp with a likeable main character, dashing romantic prospects, and a satisfying end. On the other hand, I still had my issues with it. It can be hard to balance pure, surface enjoyment of something with the intellectual knowledge that its underlying themes conflict with values I hold. Like finding out that Beauty and the Beast, despite my love for it, can also be seen as a narrative about staying with someone who abuses you because your love can change them.

Thoughts? Questions? Comments?