Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Sweethearts by Sara Zarr (a review in which Caroline... is back).

At the age of nine, social outcasts Jennifer Harris and Cameron Quick are best friends. What begins as a companionship of necessity soon becomes an inseparable bond. Cameron is Jennifer’s only friend, the one person who understands her. Until she goes over to Cam’s house the first time, and sees what his life at home is really like. Until he disappears. Until a kid at school tells Jennifer that Cameron is dead. Until she goes home crying and tells her mother… who doesn’t contradict her.

Eight years later, Jennifer Harris is dead too, reincarnated as Jenna Vaughn- pretty, popular, dating, and happy. Cameron Quick has been an overwhelming presence in her memory, but that’s all he is to her. A memory. Impossible to let go of, but hard to recall entirely, also. Until, that is, a very much alive Cameron re-enters Jenna’s life, intent on resolving the unfinished business between them.

I’ve long held a fascination with the concept of childhood sweethearts. It’s one of the few clich├ęs that never gets old with me (be honest, you know you love some of them too). Admittedly, there are personal reasons for my fixation with kid romance, but I also just think there’s something pure and sweet about love existing before hormones. Plus, come on, it’s adorable. So that is why I initially picked this story up. But while Sweethearts is not the fluffy romance I was expecting, it did not disappoint me in the slightest. Upon turning the last page, I was surprised and refreshed and longing for more.

Sara Zarr has some serious skills in the areas of dialogue and imagery. The descriptions are astute, well-worded, and downright pretty without ever being ornate. Above all, it is fluid and continuous; the words never become stilted or awkward. Zarr’s prose does an excellent job of moving the story foreword; despite the fact that the plot is simple and not incredibly fast-paced, I read this book in one sitting and never felt compelled to put it down.

I’m a character girl, and I had mixed feelings about the cast of Sweethearts. Jenna and Cameron are both incredibly well-developed, but most of the supporting characters were two-dimensional at best. Jenna’s friends and family were entertaining and for the most part likable (or dislikable, depending on which they were meant to be), but they fell a little flat to me. But the best fiction teacher I’ve ever had once said that you only need two characters to make a story, and Jenna and Cameron are characters in the best sense of the word. The supporting cast just could have been a little bit deeper, especially considering how often they appear in the book.

Sweethearts is not a romance, but it is very much a love story. The poignant, beautiful, frustrating thing about Cameron and Jenna’s connection (for both characters as well as for the reader) is that it is too much. It’s the kind of love that no “relationship” can fulfill. Being friends is not enough, being like brother and sister is not enough, and being together wouldn’t be enough either. It’s incomplete; paradoxically overwhelming and insufficient.

Reading the book has a similar effect on me. It’s unfinished business. I flipped the last page both longing for more and feeling completely overwhelmed. That had something to do with the frustratingly open ending, but it was more the book as a whole. I had a lot to read, but I didn’t want to leave the world of Jenna and Cameron for anyone else’s- I was too wrapped up to move on. I wanted more of the story. I literally sat in my room and thought about the characters and what happened to them and what continues to happen to them for hours. And that’s why I wrote this review. I haven’t written one in quite some time, not because I haven’t been reading or because I haven’t read anything worth reviewing, but because I have not been this caught up in a book in a very long time.

4.5 cups for Sweethearts.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Ballads of Suburbia by Stephanie Kuehnert

Ballads. Truly genuine, gut retching ballads of punk that convey emotions of love and loss. Songs that tell a story through music and lyrics. These are the kind that Kara McNaughton likes. So when she comes across a notebook deemed "Stories of Suburbia" that holds newspaper clippings of strange and sometimes tragic events from suburbs across the country as well as personal stories of the moments her friends' lives changed, she gives them the ever-appropriate name of "ballads" and later becomes the keeper of the book. The one rule: don't read someone else's ballad until you've written your own. The problem is, Kara never could figure out what her song was about before she left at the end of her junior year to escape the problems she'd been facing in Oak Park, Chicago.

It all starts with an epilogue that serves as the prologue, set four years later when Kara returns for the first time to face the music and see her best friend Stacey, who started it all unknowingly at the beginning of her freshman year of high school. Kara finally tells the tale of her first three years of high school, and what happened with her and her friends. She talks about Stacey, who tries to win the affection of many guys, hoping to find one who will take care of her the way her parents never did; Maya, an eccentric redhead who has a theory about everything, including what type of cigarettes people smoke, and is very outgoing but who has problems talking about her mother's suicide; Cass, Maya's cousin, who drops acid in the hopes that it will help her deal with her brother's abandonment and her mother's depression; Adrian, who started the notebook and has issues with being adopted and how his birth parents react to him; Christian, who seems like a generally nice guy but is still torn up about his mother's death and his father sleeping around; and Liam, Kara's little brother, who idolized Johnny Cash until he was made fun of for it, and used to idolize his big sister until she let him down too many times. And there's even Quentin, whose ballad we never read, but who plays a crucial role in Kara's relationships.

Kara's story wouldn't be the same without all these people around her. Stacey, who moves to a different school right before their freshman year starts Kara's downward spiral. Kara feels abandoned and begins high school as a loner, spending her time on the couch with Liam, watching music videos and going to the occasional concert in between cutting herself when things get too hard to bear. Maya, who takes Kara out of this slump and introduces her to Scoville Park and the "misfit" kids that hang there. From that moment on, Kara spends the summer and school year going to parties, drinking, taking hits, and eventually winding up in the park, puking from a heroin overdose and almost dying right there. She survives and is able to realize this is the time for leaving Oak Park and all her problems behind in order to get clean.

Reading this spectacular second novel from Stephanie Kuehnert, I remembered what it's like for a novel to capture you tightly and to not let go. I fell, instantly, back into the poetic and sharp writing that I loved so much the first go around with I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone. The language is not wasted. Not a single word is superfluous and every sentence has its role. Stephanie is a wordsmith if I ever met one.

Besides the writing and language, there were many other things I enjoyed about Ballads. The characters--harsh, honest, eccentric--resonated and their ballads were poignant. Even the littler characters were fully developed and oustandingly and brilliantly written. Cass was the strongest of them all. She deals not only with her problems, but with those of her cousin Maya, her mother, her friends, and Quentin, who she becomes really close to throughout the novel. Wes, her brother, tells her before he leaves to take care of everyone for him because she is a guardian angel. So she tries. Even through her failures, she keeps going. Even when she's at her most vulnerable and she's collapsed in front of a friend strung out on heroin, she fights through it. Her character is powerful and provides a constant throughout.

I also enjoyed Stephanie's use of editing and restraint. She didn't "clean up" the novel and remove the profanities or the truths of the drugs, but she didn't put more than was necessary. There are so many tales of teendom and experiments with drugs that overdo it, the writers believing that, to make the story real, they have to include every profanity they can come up with and make every other scene one of teens shooting up or downing a jack and coke. The difference here is that Stephanie knows what makes a story real. It's in her. You can tell that when you read Ballads. She didn't have to live Kara's life to write it honestly.

Ballads of Suburbia is angsty, severe, mesmerizing, and incisive. I stayed up hours into the night, becoming myself a nocturnal creature, because I couldn't bear to put it down. I wanted to at so many moments, but I couldn't. That's what makes this novel so spectacularly hypnotizing and captivating--there are ballads that you just don't want to read because they're too real and you feel like it's your friend you're reading about, but you just can't stop because they are so real and honest. I admit to shedding tears multiple times, feeling as if I was a part of it all, just as I admit to smiling when things were going well.

It's hard to part ways with this novel, but I'm sure I'll come back to it later. I almost did already. I turned the last page and thought to myself "I want to read this again. Right now." I could have just then. Ballads of Suburbia deserves the full 5 out of 5, though I didn't expect any less from Stephanie Kuehnert.


p.s. You should pre-order this book if you're interested. Or go out an buy it asap. It's set to be released July 21. You can get it at your local bookstore (order it now or wait until it's released), or pre-order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, or Borders. Also, to get a taste, you can read the first chapter here!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Our book club? Surely you must have the wrong one?

Caroline and I just recently became co-presidents of our school book club. The "torch" (an imaginary one, I might add, to make it easier to split in two) was passed to us in the last weeks of school by the current and graduating president who just happened to be a friend as well. She picked us because we were the only ones who came to meetings (when we had them) and because we're just awesome.

This is exciting enough in itself (we have control!!! mwahahahaha!), but even more exciting is the news I received when I got home today from spending a few days at a friend's house. Apparently, this guy is interested in writing about our book club in an article he's doing about book clubs in the area and he wants to ask me a few questions. I'm really hyped about this but completely nervous. I don't know what I'll say or what he'll ask. Besides the fact that our book club isn't the best. This past year, we bought one book, ran out of money, and had to use the school's supply of books. This didn't last long and no one read them. The president even forgot the name of one of the books because none of us bothered to read it. Not even her. At meetings, we didn't talk about the books, just discussed what we would do next and what we were doing in drama club (she also happened to be the drama club president which held meetings the same day as book club). So Caroline and I have no idea how to run the club. We just know we want it to be better. We don't even have the books picked out for this year yet.

I'm calling him later today to set up a time to talk, but I'm hoping to have an idea of the books we'll be reading this year when he interviews me. If you have any suggestions, please put them in comments. Keep in mind they have to be appropriate for school (though we did read It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini last year, which includes attempted suicide and drugs so it doesn't have to be too clean, just no explicit scenes) and not be too focused on religion as we go to public shool. But please do leave suggestions. There are too many books out there for us to just choose a few without help.


p.s. Also, maybe we could make this a public thing, where we set up a chat at the end of the month and members of the book club from our school and anyone else who wants to join via the internet (you'd have to buy the book yourself or have read it, of course) could talk about it. We'll see when school starts back up in August if this is a good idea.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Giving It Away For Free (the only time Momma would approve)

Serena Robar is giving it away for free the entire month of June. That’s right. A book a day, every day in honor of her latest book release Giving Up the V. All you have to do to is sign up for her newsletter and you are entered to win. Enter once and you are in the running to win a YA book every day the entire month of June.

Summary of Giving Up the V by Serena Robar, available June 9 from Simon Pulse:

What's So Wrong With Waiting?
Spencer Davis just turned sixteen. But unlike most hormonal teenagers who seem obsessed with sex -- like her entire crew of friends
-- Spencer just doesn't get it. She'd rather wait for the right guy and the right moment. But that moment may be arriving sooner than she'd thought. Enter Benjamin Hopkins, a new transfer student who seems to have his eyes on our V-card-carrying heroine. He's gorgeous, funny, suave, athletic, and capable of making Spencer's knees wobble with a single glance. Spencer has never felt this way about anyone before, but is Ben truly V-worthy?

Sounds good, right? No wonder she's celebrating by giving away free books every day. So sign up and get ready to win.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Along for the Ride--Sarah Dessen

You might call what Auden has a sleeping disorder, or you might call it insomnia. Whatever it is, it's been years since Auden slept at night. It all started when her parents starting fighting daily. It was a habit she began to prevent the fighting (thinking that if she stayed up, they wouldn't fight) and that continued past their divorce. She lives with her mom in Lakeview, while her brother travels through Europe and her father lives in the charming beach town Colby with his new wife and baby. But the summer before she goes off to the nicest college in North Carolina, she's going to live in Colby.

All she plans to do is stay in the house and prepare for her college courses--especially Econ. However, when Heidi, her stepmom, offers her a job in her clothes boutique, Auden is suddenly dumped into teenage life. She never experienced that on her own, never had a real childhood, as she was too busy being the perfect daughter to her demanding mother. When she meets Eli, however, that all changes. To the other teens in Colby, Eli is a quiet, sad guy mourning the loss of his best friend. But he's also an insomniac which allows for Auden to see the real Eli as he introduces her to all the things you can do in the middle of the night, and takes her on her Quest for childhood.

Slowly, Auden realizes there's more to everyone than there appears to be on first sight. Even her mother, whom she's known all her life, has another side that Auden has never seen. Her brother Hollis is a completely different person than she once knew. And her father is so drastically different. He's someone she doesn't recall existing before, and all she needed was to see him with his new wife and daughter to realize he's not the best father, and never has been.

My first instinct, when nearing the end of the book, was to say that I felt nothing for it. It neither disappointed nor impressed me. But then, when trying to explain this to Caroline, I figured out exactly what I was trying to say. It didn't have the impact a great novel usually does. It didn't make me sad to see it end. I wasn't overjoyed, by any means, but I wasn't upset that I turned the last page and closed the pink polka-dotted back cover.

Auden is a great narrator and tells the story well, but for being the main character, she's just not strong enough. I mean, let's face it--she's no Remy. And I don't mean to compare two Dessen books (because I prefer to judge a book by what it consists of, not by what another book is), but it's true. She's not a stick-up-for-herself kind of girl. She bends to others when her heart is stronger than that. You can tell she has the power to stand up and speak for herself, but she doesn't. Besides that, though, it doesn't feel like her story. She tells it well, and she's in the center of it all, but more of what happens seems like it belongs to the other characters, even though it really is her story. Her narrative allows Dessen to make her point that all people aren't what they first appear to be, and there is always something more to them, but it would do just as well to spin the story a bit and give Auden a larger part in it all. She seems like a bystander in this crazy, mixed up world, when really, she's the heart of it all.

Despite all this, Auden is completely relatable. To me, at least. While everyone in high school doesn't experience the academic and lose the social, it is easier to identify with that than a character that is fully social, and less academic. It's a blatant stab at self-conciousness that everyone experiences, if not in the full amount that Auden does. She's completely aware of her bumbling ways and not falsely confident, as many YA narrators can be. This is surely Dessen's strong point: Creating a narrator that can be related to by many. And even if, by some odd chance, the reader doesn't identify in some way to Auden, they have many well-developed characters to choose from. No name is thrown about lightly in this book (with the exclusion of some necessary minor characters that even have a little interesting story themselves, if you look hard enough).

Plus, it's a huge help that Eli makes me squeal like a little girl. I mean, SA-WOON! He's not present through many of the scenes, but when he is, he just...has a commanding presence. He's not loud, not angry, and not exciting (in that caught-in-the-moment way), but his personality is huge. You can feel his pain and guilt, but also how he has moved on and is happy again. He has all these feelings mixed up in one massive ball of amazing-ness. And I like how he's very Norman (for fellow Dessen fans who have read Keeping the Moon) in the way that he's not the leading man throughout the book. Auden doesn't fall for him wholeheartedly and their romance isn't played up to be the largest part of the book. She has other options and she goes for them. He's not introduced on the first page and her boyfriend all the way throught the last. It's a progressive thing.

I, of course seeing as it was written by Sarah Dessen, read this novel like a speedy reading demon, but it still lasts, if you know what I mean. I haven't thought about it much since setting it back on my shelf, and I haven't wondered what happens next, but everytime I do think of it now, I feel a bit of nostalgia. It's one of those stories that feels like a personal memory, and I like that.

A 3.98 out of 5 for this one (I can't bring myself to give it a three point anything, really, because that three just holds so much weight, but I don't want to give it quite as high as a four, either. So this was my best compromise.)


P.S. For those of you that have read all the other Sarah Dessen books, I rate this one after Just Listen, This Lullaby, and The Truth About Forever, but before the others. It's about fourth on my list (and only barely better than Lock and Key. Almost tied with it, actually.)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

How to Buy a Love of Reading by Tanya Egan Gibson

To Carley Wells, words are the enemy. Her tutor's innumerable SAT flashcards. Here personal trainer's "fifty-seven pounds overweight" assessment. And the endless assignments from her English teacher, Mr. Nagel. When Nagel reports to her parents that she has answered the question "What is your favorite book?" with "Never met one I liked," they decide to fix what he calls her "intellectual impoverishment." They will commission a book to be written just for her--one she'll have to love--that will impress her teacher and the whole town of Fox Glen with their family's devotion to the arts. They will be patrons--the Medicis of Long Island. They will buy their daughter the love of reading.

Impossible though it is for Carley to imagine loving books, she is in love iwht a young bibliophile who cares about them more than anything. Anything, that is, but a good bottle of scotch. Hunter Cay, Carley's best friend and Fox Glen's resident golden boy, is becoming a stranger to her lately as he drowns himself in F. Scott Fitzgerald, booze, and Vicodin.

When the Wellses move writer Bree McEnroy--author of a failed meta-novel about Odysseus's journey home through the Internet--into their mansion to write Carley's book, Carley's sole interest in the project is to distract Hunter from drinking and give them something to share. But as Hunter's behavior becomes erratic and dangerous, she finds herself increasingly drawn into the fictional world Bree has created, and begins to understand for the first time the power of stories--those we read, those we want to believe in, and most of all, those we tell ourselves about ourselves. Stories powerful enough to destroy a person. Or save her.

This book is just--wow. The eloquence of the language, the syntax of the sentences, and the indirectness and honesty of the dialogue all come together to make is novel astounding and spectacular. Undeniably unique is this remarkable debut by Tanya Egan Gibson, who I'm sure to continue reading for her enchanting style, with and refreshing voice. She also has the ability to create a character, Mr. Nagel, who fully embodies wit, charm, and malignity all in one and creates, in his own, indirect way, Carley Wells herself. For, without Nagel, there would be no book and a change in character could not happen. He is never once present throughout the entire 389-page book, but his presence is overwhelming. Because this book is told in many points of view, the reader gains insight into nearly every important character's thoughts. When the story is told from Carley's point of view, you see how much Mr. Nagel has influenced her. She is constantly saying he did this, he said that, and questioning herself, believing she will always be wrong because she almost always is around him. This second-guessing girl is just trying to become what Hunter wants, and since he is an avid reader, she believes that literature and understanding Nagel will help her become that.

Gibson has the ability to become her characters (or, rather, her characters become her, according to the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote at the beginning of Part III: Devices) and write from their mind. When reading Carley's point of view, the reader understands her yearning and desire, and how much she truly doesn't understand or doesn't want to. When reading from Bree's point of view, the reader understands how out of place she feels and how she doesn't care to fit in if she has to be like these people. The best however, is Hunter's point of view. It resonates, it's poignant, and it reveals to the reader all the self-loathing he has felt throughout his life, his need for the drugs, and his worry about how he appears to others.

It is the characters that make this book, as the plot couldn't stand on its own. Not much really happens except for a change in the characters. And because of the change in them, their lives change. But mostly, Bree writes a book, Carley critiques it, Hunter drinks, and families have issues. I'm not saying this is bad. I actually liked this refreshing way of handling things. It's as if Gibson was trying to prove her own character, Bree, wrong by writing a book for the characters, not the plot or detail (which, actually, probably was her point. Funnily enough, you'll know why when you reach the end--which is really good, by the way).

It took longer than usual to finish How to Buy A Love of Reading and not only because I was busy. I was so immersed in every every section, every chapter, every sentence that I didn't want it to end. I could have sat in my room for hours, reading and rereading one page and constantly finding new meaning to some things and the same meaning to others and never get tired of it. I got half way through and wanted to slow down, not wanting it to end, but I wanted to keep reading--quickly, as if taking a long time would make it disappear.

This wasn't the best book I've ever read, and there were some issues I had with the fluidity of a few paragraphs, but mostly, this was thoroughly enjoyable, and it gives me an obsession with F. Scott Fitzgerald in quote form--he is a smart man. I'm ready for the next book by Tanya Egan Gibson.

4/5 cups of sobering coffee.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

This is not really a review of Slipping--Cathleen Davitt Bell

I got this book in the mail a really long time ago. I didn't really know it was coming, so I hadn't promised anyone a review to come soon. So I put it near the end of my TBR list. This was a good decision on my part, as I read many books before it that were really great and amazing. This one, not so much.

Michael will be the first to tell you: he barely knew his grandpa Kimmel when he was alive. And he didn't know the details about the big fight between his dad and his grandpa that made the whole family stop visiting seven years ago. And if you never really knew someone, and nobody ever talks about him, then you probably won't miss him when he's gone, right?

But when his grandpa dies, Michael's gut tells him that the cold, detached way his dad is acting isn't normal. Just as Michael recognizes that his own bizarre cravings for things like oatmeal and creamed spinach and a nice big cigar aren't normal either. Michael suspects that his grandpa Kimmel might be reaching out to him--or through him. But figuring out what his grandpa wants is a scary though, since it will require getting to know a man who was impossible to talk to when he was alive. As Michael begins to slip with his grandpa into the mysterious river between the living and the dead, an even scarier thought occurs: if Michael can't get out again, will anyone miss him?

Well, I know I won't.

I barely even made it half-way through this book before I had to set it down and stop reading (this is why this is NOT REALLY A REVIEW). It was slightly unbearable. It wasn't that the writing itself was that awful, or that the story was an uninteresting concept--in fact, the premise alone intrigued me when I first read the summary on the cover flap. It was that there were many minor things wrong that really, in the long run, aren't minor and are the first things a writer should check when editing.

One of these things was that the setting was completely unclear. I assume Slipping is set in New York City, but there are many allusions made to it being set in London, possibly, and it is never specifically stated that it is set in New York, but I just came to assume that that is the city Bell writes of. But you know what they say when you assume. I could be completely wrong. Another thing is that the main character is not defined enough by the time he accepts oatmeal as a breakfast food for you to realize that this is a strange occurrence. All you know by that time is that he didn't know his grandpa Kimmel (alright, we get it! Stop telling us that!), he loves video games, and that his father is absent during the days and works late (And the last doesn't even have to do with Michael himself, just his father and the way his family behaves).

I can give Bell this: She knows how to withhold information. The only reason I got even as far as I did was because the one thing I was even remotely interested in learning about this situation was why Michael's father and grandpa didn't speak anymore. Of course, I didn't even learn that before I closed the book for good.

I'm not the fastest reader ever, sometimes I'm even a little slow because I want to pace myself, but it took me nearly two weeks to even get through eight chapters of this book, and that is less than 100 pages. That shows how uninterested I was in this short-lived novel that is soon to be erased from my memory. That is, if I can get it off my bookshelf without feeling terrible about peddling it off to some poor reader who will have to endure it like I tried to. Of course, some might enjoy this book. I just didn't.

Based on what I read, a single cup of coffee for this one, but that isn't an entirely educated rating, since I didn't finish. Because I didn't finish, you can completely ignore everything I just said and formulate your own opinion. This is just mine.