Category Archives: Young adult book review

City of Bones

I’m reading City of Bones by Cassandra Clare, and loving it.  Though it’s similar in some ways to the Twilight series, I’m finding it much more creative and enjoyable than Stephenie Meyer’s juggernaut.  The main character, Clary, has considerably more depth and intelligence than Bella, and the concept of the Shadowhunters seems more fully developed than some key aspects of Meyer’s work.

Not that I should be falling into the trap of comparing this book to the Twilight series, but it is hard to read one without thinking of the other.  Perhaps I should just say that City of Bones is an engrossing , enjoyable, undemanding read, and a nice contrast to my other book-in-progress, Demian by Hermann Hesse.  Always good to temper an overly intelligent book with one that’s fun and action packed.  I recommend Clare’s book, and am looking forward to reading the others in the series (now that Lisa has reassured me that we’re not dealing with another Flowers in the Attic series…).

Envy by Anna Godbersen

I was really, really looking forward to reading Envy over my vacation.  Good, light, lusty historical fiction – an excellent vacation book.  And I enjoyed its two predecessors, The Luxe and Rumors; though they’re not great literature, they are engaging and have just enough history in them to balance the blueblood romantic shenanigans.  Like chocolate frosting on a saltine.

But what a disappointment Envy was!  The writing is simply atrocious in spots, plodding in others, never sparkling, never fun.  It feels as if Godbersen was rushed to a deadline and the book was under-edited.  Or perhaps she is sick of writing about these people and her heart wasn’t in it this time.  Or both.  Whatever the reason, I winced at word usage more times than I can count, and I got very tired of reading detailed clothing descriptions when a bit of romantic action would have been much more interesting.

Which was the main problem with the story:  there wasn’t much of a story.  Unlike the two previous books, the characters don’t end up very far from where they started 416 pages earlier.  Diana is still pining for Henry, Penelope has become a bore (what happened to the Penelope we loved to hate?), Liz is stultifyingly dull, and Henry is just a sad drunk.  Carolina makes the most progress, and she was the character I liked most at the end of Rumors, but even her journey in this third book left me bored.  Bored, bored, bored. 

Lisa, another Luxe series fan, also read Envy last week, and had much the same reaction that I did (though she did cite a particular plot point that had slipped my mind, using a highly descriptive word, and challenged me to “put THAT on your blog!” – which I won’t).  Lisa pointed out that this third book seems to have been written simply to set up the reader for the fourth book.  I wonder if either of us will even want to read that fourth book when it comes out…I doubt that I will.

Today’s Challenge: The Hobbit

As usual, I’ll be spending my Sunday doing my homework: reading the book that will be discussed in this week’s book group at the library.  The teen book group meets this coming Tuesday, so today I’m reading The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, a book that was chosen by one of the teens in the book group.

99.99% of the time I view this homework assignment as a wonderful opportunity to keep up to date on recently published children’s and young adult literature, since most of our book choices are newly published.  I love reading, I love children’s and young adult literature, and I love facilitating these book groups each week, so it’s all good (though it’s always that much better in the wintertime, when I can read by the woodstove).  But I’ll admit that The Hobbit falls into that .01% of the equation – I’ve struggled through this book several times, both on my own and while in grad school, and have never ever ever loved it.  Though I thought it was a great suggestion for the teen book group, I personally dreaded having to read it again.

When I read The Hobbit in grad school, I bought a fancy illustrated copy of the book for myself, hoping that Michael Hague’s illustrations would make the reading more palatable.  They didn’t, and I ended up donating that copy to the children’s room collection (it’s been gratifying to see that many children have loved reading my donated copy).  So when it came time to read The Hobbit this time around, at first I checked out that copy that I had donated.  But I realized that I had come to loath that yellow cover and Hague’s lush illustrations, and so I took a trip to the Concord Bookshop last week and bought a new copy of the book for myself, one which is illustrated by the author. 

And something surprising happened when I began reading it yesterday: I actually liked the book.  Huh?  What a shocking surprise.  My reaction supports the reader response theory that time and place and mood can affect the reader’s opinion of the book.  This copy feels good in my hand, not too big, not too small, smooth and clean.  The colors of the cover make me happy.  The size of the font is just right – large enough to read, but small enough that the book remains a manageable size.  Tolkien’s illustrations and maps suit his text, the careful spidering lettering matching the tone of the book.  And I’m reading it on a beautiful sunny winter day, the sun reflecting off the snow outside.  The woodstove is cranked, the cats are taking turns in my lap, and Jim is in the porch playing guitar.

All these things add up, and reading The Hobbit doesn’t feel like a chore this time around.  And who knows, maybe I’ve finally reached the point in my life where this is the right book at the right time for me.  Maybe I’m finally ready to read and understand and appreciate it.  I can only hope that the teens in the book group have a similarly positive experience with the book…

Peeled by Joan Bauer

Yesterday’s teen book group thoroughly reamed Joan Bauer’s Peeled, a book that I had liked until I heard the teens discuss it.  Peeled also received rave reviews from multiple review journals; that along with its great cover made me feel like this was an excellent choice for the book group (and all of the teen book group books this year have been suggested by one of the teens in the group). 

What did they hate about the book?  The core of the plot felt contrived and unbelievable to this group of teens; they asked why an entire town would fall victim to a developer’s plan to create mass ghost hysteria in order to buy up land cheap and construct a haunted theme park.  The group also felt that the town’s dependence on and faith in the local newspaper was odd – they wanted the townspeople to question the sensationalist articles that were printed there.

And the teen characters were too unrealistic to be sympathetic.  Elizabeth felt too idealized to them, Hildy too juvenile for her age, Zack too boring, Baker’s motives were unclear (“Hello?” said one teen, “If he just lost his job, why isn’t he out looking for a new one?????”).  The group also wondered why these fictional teens had so much free time to pursue their journalistic ideals – why didn’t they ever have to do homework?  Why weren’t they ever thinking of the academic challenges that they faced?

In sum, the book failed for this group on every level.  And towards the end of our discussion, one teen expressed it best:  “This book feels like it’s twenty years out of date, and it was just published.” 

The Sky Inside

My current book-for-fun is Clare Dunkle’s The Sky Inside, which I first heard of when placing my monthly standing order with Listening Library two months ago (it was one of the featured new titles for that month).  I was intrigued by the book’s premise, but couldn’t find any reviews online at that time – the only resource I could locate was the novel’s first chapter on Amazon.  I was home sick that day, so I took the time to read the entire first chapter, and I was hooked.  When Nanette brought me the processed, ready to circulate book last week, there was no doubt that I would be the first patron to check it out and take it home.

I’m about halfway through The Sky Inside, and enjoying it.  Living in a frighteningly vanilla world, Martin and his friends and neighbors have no idea how molded and manipulated they are.  Everything about their lives is tightly controlled, most especially the atmosphere, since their suburb is inside a protective dome with no direct access to the outside world.  “Packets” come and go from the dome, carrying food and supplies in and the bodies of those who have died out, but no residents are allowed to leave.  Any resident who disobeys the social order ends up on televised game shows that pretend to be fun and games, but really are a means for eliminating the problem citizens.  Though most viewers don’t realize it, when contestants fail on the shows, they are killed on live television, either by lethal injection or by falling to their deaths or by being shot.  And children?  Married couples don’t have children naturally, they purchase models of children that are advertised on television. 

Martin’s younger sister (in this world, it’s very rare to have two children in a family, since each child bears a high price tag) belongs to the troubling generation of Wonder Babies.  Though initially advertised as the best things to hit the suburb, Wonder Babies turned out to be children who are devastatingly intelligent and ask so many questions that no adult will teach them in school - these children teach themselves.  Over time, the Wonder Babies begin to be known as the “freaks,” and no adult protests when a man arrives in the suburb via a packet, a rare occurrence, and offers to take all of the Wonder Babies away with him…

And that’s where I am in the story right now.  Pretty creepy.  I’m not a science fiction fan, so my thoughts on this work aren’t as educated or sophisticated as, say, my brother’s would be (Dan does know his science fiction), but at this point in my reading, I give The Sky Inside an A-.  When I’ve finished it, I’ll let you know its final grade.

The Books That Got Away

I’ve been a bit remiss in the last month and a half or so, and haven’t written my usual detailed posts on book group meetings and the kids’ reactions to the book group books.  So here’s a quick overview of some the books we’ve read and discussed lately: 

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt ~ The 5th grade group discussed this book back in March.  To facilitate our discussion, I brought in my laptop and played the first scene-and-a-bit from the recent movie that starred Sissy Spacek and William Hurt.  Prior to playing the selection from the movie, I had read aloud that first lovely, perfect chapter from the book, then we settled in to compare and contrast.  To my dismay, there were several kids who preferred the movie’s opening (and there was a competitive scramble to see who would be the lucky one to take the DVD of the movie home that day), but there were also the kids who loved the language of the book and spoke eloquently about it.  Our discussion did end up focusing on the pros and cons of eternal life, and I was very impressed by what the group had to say.  (Too bad that the distance of a month has blurred my memories of their specific comments, but suffice it to say that they’re a smart, well-spoken bunch of kids.)

A Girl, A Boy, and a Monster Cat by Gail Gauthier ~ Discussed by the 3rd grade book group just a week and a half ago, this book proved to be a disappointment to both me and the kids.  We all had the same thought: the book didn’t live up to its title, and would have been better served by a different title.  All of us had expected the Monster Cat to play a major role in the story, and when it didn’t, we all felt a bit cheated and let down.  Not that this was a bad book – it was just less than we had hoped it would be.  On a side note, it’s fun for me to observe the formation of a new book group with these third graders, to see them learning to work together as a group and to share the discussion time with each other.  I’ll miss working with the younger kids when Jennifer picks up the 3rd and 4th grade groups in the fall.

The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke ~ Once again, I chose to go the multi-media route for the 6th graders’ March discussion of Funke’s modern classic.  Using the surprisingly excellent and entertaining movie of the same name, I played the merry-go-round scene for the kids, then read selected parts from the book (the merry-go-round chapter of the book is quite long, and it would be tough to read all of it aloud for an even comparison, so I had to pick and choose bits to share).   Our discussion was fairly good, but with the distance of a few weeks, I can’t honestly remember what we talked about.  I’m hoping that the next two 6th grade books will inspire an animated conversation that involves all group members…

March’s teen book group discussion centered on Airborn by Kenneth Oppel, a book that I chose to appeal to the boys in the group (who, ironically, either no longer attend or attend only sporadically…).  Surprisingly, given that I chose the book based solely upon my need to find a good book that wasn’t a “girl book,” it’s one of the best books we’ve read this year.  Taut plot, great premise, heart-stopping suspense – I loved this book, and so did everyone in the group.  One boy did attend that day, having picked up a copy of Airborn on the day prior to our meeting, and he said something like, “Finally!  A book that I liked in this group!”  The girls shared their happy surprise at having thoroughly enjoyed the book, and admitted that they would have never picked up this book on their own, but were very glad that they had been steered towards it.  We all agreed that we’d like to read the sequel, and E. was the lucky one who got to take the sequel home with her that day. 

So that’s the update on the books that we’ve read since March.  Three out of the four are exceptional reads, highly recommended by me and by the book groups, and the fourth is acceptable, though not fabulous.  There are only four more book group meetings this school year, and I’ll do my best to write posts on those as the groups happen.

And the vortex spits me out again…

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about the Twilight saga by Stephenie Meyer, and I praised the series for being fun and engrossing – for pulling me into its vortex.  Ah, the difference three books makes. 

I’ve now read all three published books in the series (Twilight, New Moon, and Eclipse), and reached the point of not wanting to ever read another word about these characters.  Maybe I overdosed by reading all three books in a two and a half week span, but I think that’s being generous. 

So here are a few of my harsh criticisms of the series, which are bound to make me some enemies:

  • Bella is annoying.  Very, very annoying.  The girl never seems to grow, change, or develop in any way: the Bella we meet on the first page of the first book is the same Bella that we leave on the 650-th page of the third book.   
  • Meyer overuses two words to the point of nauseum:  “grimaced” and “smirked.”  Can’t her characters engage in any other facial expressions than these two?
  • Speaking of repetition, why does Bella always have to a) pass out or b) be so exhausted that someone has to pick her up and physically carry her?  I can see this happening once in a while, but I’ve lost count of the number of times Bella is carried around in the books.
  • And, yes, more repetition:  Edward habitually takes Bella’s face between his two hands in order to gaze into her eyes.  Over and over and over again this happens.  Gag.
  • Then there is the surplus of Important Relationship Discussions in these books.  How tedious.  You’d think that after a year of dating, Edward and Bella would be tired of only discussing their starry-eyed feelings for each other.  Can’t they ever go bowling together?  Or watch T.V. together?  Or something???
  • Edward, by the way, is about the dullest hero to appear on the pages of a romance.  Yawn.
  • And then the stylistic quibble:  Meyer is a clumsy writer.  She tells, rather than shows, and writes copious amounts of prose where half as much would do.

My problems with the books lead me to make two conclusions:  these books are decisively sexist, and very much aimed at a young teenage female reader who has yet to experience a relationship of any depth or commitment.  Why sexist?  Because Bella consistently passes out, has to be carried, and needs Protection from her adoring male admirers (and occasionally from the rest of the vampires and werewolfs).  Yes, some of the other vampires are female, but our attention is focused on Bella, and Bella is a stupid, helpless, fainting female who can’t take care of herself and manages to bungle things up on a regular basis.  About all that Bella can handle doing is cooking dinners for her father, who, despite many years of living on his own, can’t seem to cook anything besides eggs.

As for the intended reader, I readily admit that I do NOT fall into the intended reader category.  I’m middle-aged, cynical, and happily married.  But I’d like to argue that that shouldn’t matter.  Even if the books are aimed at starry-eyed young female readers, Meyer could still add a bit of punch to her plots and backbone to Bella.  She could take her characters from that wonderful first fizzy phase of their relationship into a deeper, more realistic, established relationship.  Edward and Bella could, and should, move on and grow and change.  Meyer wouldn’t lose her teen audience if they did.

Now that I’ve left the magnetic pull of these books behind, I seriously doubt that I’ll bother reading the fourth one when it is published this summer.  I feel like I’ve lost the last couple of weeks to reading the series, and don’t want to waste any more time on them.  On to other, hopefully better, books! 

Sucked in to the Twilight vortex…

So, where have I been these last few days?  Reading, reading, reading — totally consumed by and sucked into the Twilight saga by Stephenie Meyer.  Over three days (Friday, Saturday, Sunday) I read the first two books, which comes to about 1000 pages, I think, and I have Eclipse at home waiting for me. 

This is my first paranormal romance (despite rumors to the contrary, Jim is NOT a vampire!), and I’m kind of enjoying it.  Reading Meyer’s books is a bit like eating those yummy fruit flavored Twizzler-type candies that we sometimes buy at Idylwilde: very addictive, can’t stop myself, but I feel a bit ill once I’m done.  Probably that ill feeling wouldn’t be there if I didn’t guzzle the books down in one sitting, but I have to know what’s going to happen next.

So my verdict on this series?  Compelling plot line, interesting premise, and a few excellent characters.  I have to admit to not liking Edward’s character much, though; to me, Jacob is far more appealing and well-rounded than the rather grumpy and two-dimensional Edward.  If I were Bella, I think I’d choose fun, sunny Jacob over boring Edward anyday.

After all this compulsive reading, I’m feeling a bit googly-eyed and incoherent, but it’s a good bet that I’ll be settling in with Eclipse next weekend…and then counting the months until the last book in the series is released.  They’re not great literature, but they are addictive and very, very fun.  Two thumbs up from me.

The Golden Compass and me

I’m pre-writing this entry on Sunday, prior to the teen book group’s Tuesday discussion of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass.  While in graduate school, I had to read The Golden Compass, and totally hated it; the hatred was probably mostly driven by my unadulterated hatred of the professor of my fantasy and science fiction class, but perhaps also partly by the book, too.  Because, lazy little reader that I’ve become, I’m struggling with this book once again.  It’s such hard work.  It makes me think.  And thinking makes me cranky.

Clearly, Pullman is brilliant, and has an amazing creative vision for this book and its sequels.  It’s not a book to try to skim quickly on Super Bowl Sunday before heading to a friend’s house for the game, though that’s what I’m trying to do.  And the depth of the fantasy in the text reminds me that I’m not really a fantasy reader – I struggle with many of the fantasy conventions and with things like daemons and Dust and althiometers.  So while I recognize Pullman’s genius, I can’t say that I’m engaged in the text.  I’d rather be reading the book for the older teen book group:  Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.  Delicate observations on humanity, gentle romance, and an ultimately optimistic view of the world and its people: that’s the kind of book that I like to read, not fantasy. 

Bloody Jack

Yesterday the teen book groups met, and my group discussed L.A. Meyer’s Bloody Jack.  Though they’re usually a very talkative group, there were many silences in the course of this book discussion, and towards the end of the meeting we all agreed that perhaps that was because there just isn’t too much to discuss in Bloody Jack.  Not one of us had a strong opinion either for or against the book, which is rare.

What is Bloody Jack?  Set in 1797 – 1799, it’s a tale about a young orphaned girl who has lived on the streets since the death of her parents and sister from the plague, begging for food with the company of a gang of fellow orphans.  When the leader of the gang is murdered, Mary decides to take on his identity (strips his body naked and steals his clothes) and go to sea as a boy in order to get off the streets and leave that life behind her.  Since she can read, she’s taken on by a Royal Navy ship as a ship’s boy, and embarks on a two year journey living a life of deception as she bonds with the other ship’s boys (falling in love with one of them), learns the workings of a ship, beats the ship’s drum during battles with pirates, fends off a would-be rapist, and kills two men – one the rapist, one a pirate.  After a particularly bloody battle with a pirate, the battle-scarred ship is close to sinking and must be beached on the shore of a deserted island.  Through an odd plot twist that involves Mary (known on the ship as Jack, or Jacky) being strapped to a large kite and unintentionally flown to another island, Mary/Jack becomes the hero of the ship.  She leads her shipmates to the island, which has the wood needed to repair the ship, and somehow the evil pirate shows up, too, and her shipmates are able to kill the pirate while rescuing her and discovering that she is a woman.  After this discovery, the captain determines that Mary/Jack will be put off in Boston and sent to a boarding school for young ladies.

I had expected a rollicking good read when I picked up this book, but was surprised by Meyer’s preoccupation with Mary/Jack’s sexual development.  After a hundred pages or so, I was pretty sick of hearing about how she dealt with the unknown of menstruation and the deception of peeing in the head on an all-male ship when you’re not a man.  Yes, these details needed to be smoothed out and addressed in order for the book to “work,” but enough already.  More action, please!  And I truly disliked the subplot of Mary/Jack’s love for her fellow ship’s boy Jaimy, a love that ultimately is returned when Jaimy learns of her true identity.  There was something about Mary/Jack’s discussion of her hormonally charged feelings for and encounters with Jaimy that creeped me out, frankly.  Blech. 

So the book fell flat for me, and didn’t thrill the teen book group.  Not that we hated it, or anything…it just didn’t capture our hearts and attention. 

Next up for this group, thanks to K.’s excellent suggestion:  The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman.  If the movie is still in theaters, Jim and I will have an excuse to go to the movies, too!