Bunheads: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Nineteen-year-old Hannah Ward is not a ballerina, not yet anyway. A dancer with the Manhattan Ballet Company, Hannah knows this is her year to finally land a coveted promotion from corps dancer to soloist. It has to be. Recruited by the Company when she was fourteen, Hannah has been working toward this singular goal for her entire life.

On a rare night off, Hannah meets a pedestrian–a non-dancer–named Jacob. A free-spirited musician, Jacob’s life is everything Hannah’s is not, filled with freedom from the regimen and commitments being a professional dancer entails.

As Hannah spends more time with Jacob and moves closer to her ballerina dream, she starts to wonder if ballet really is enough. It always had been before, but now Hannah isn’t so sure. Ballerinas are supposed to dedicate themselves to dance, but Hannah might be ready to dedicate her life to other pursuits in Bunheads (2011) by Sophie Flack.

Bunheads is Flack’s first novel. It was also a finalist for the 2011 Cybils in Young Adult Fiction.

As a novel, Bunheads falls short in several areas. Informed by her own experiences as a professional dancer (Flack danced with the New York City Ballet from 2000 to 2009) much of the novel feels indulgent and more like an exercise in wish-fulfillment on the author’s part than an actual story.

Hannah and Jacob’s immediate connection never feels authentic which raises questions about both character’s behavior throughout. Combined with a meandering, slow-paced plot the book often lacks the verve to keep things interesting.

With Hannah and her friends being wholly consumed by dance, there is little room for character development. There are even fewer opportunities to make the characters distinguishable from each other as all of the dancers, Hannah included, feel interchangeable for much of the novel.

Where Bunheads really shines is in setting the scene for Hannah and her world. Flack brings a professional eye to the story, expertly conjuring the narrow world of a corps dancer that is filled both with grueling monotony and brief moments of wonder found on the stage.

Bunheads is a moderately entertaining reminder of both the passion andthe commitment that being a professional dancer demands. It is easy to admire the glitter and tutus of a ballet. This book reminds readers to remember the stamina and strength that makes every ballet look effortless on stage.

Finally, and perhaps unexpectedly, Bunheads is a beautiful example of the bravery it takes to dedicate years to a specific plan only to choose a completely different path leading into uncharted territory. A must read for ballet enthusiasts, athletes, and anyone trying to strike out on their own–even if they don’t know exactly where they will be striking just yet.

Possible Pairings: So Much Closer by Susane Colasanti, The Year My Sister Got Lucky by Aimee Friedman, Virtuosity by Jessica Martinez, Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins, The Secret Sisterhood of Heartbreakers by Lynn Weingarten, Starry Nights by Daisy Whitney, Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee

Exclusive Bonus Content: How cool is that cover? I love that at first glace it looks like a geometric pattern until you realize it’s actually many ballet dancers. So clever.

Stupid Fast: A Review

Felton Reinstein is not stupid funny much as he would like to be. Even people who like him don’t laugh at his jokes, forget the people who don’t like him. Until his voice dropped and he hit a major growth spurt, Felton wasn’t anything special.

Then he started growing. The he got fast. Felton Reinstein is not a fast name. But Felton is stupid fast all the same.

In the span of one surreal summer Felton has a chance to remake himself. He can stop being the kid with the weird mother and the prodigy-piano-player little brother. He can stop hanging out with the Peter Yangs of the world and show everyone (especially that jerk Ken Johnson) what he’s really made of.

Maybe Felton can even impress the beautiful girl he finds on his borrowed paper route. He might even be able to find his place in his miniscule town and his own family. This is the summer Felton Reinstein finally knows he’s fast. This is the summer Felton Reinstein goes from joke to jock in Stupid Fast (2011) by Geoff Herbach.

Stupid Fast was a finalist for the 2011 Cybils in Young Adult Fiction. It was also selected as the winner for the 2011 Cybils in YA Fiction by myself and my fellow judges.

This is one of those books that has the potential for strong appeal along with a unique voice. The atmosphere of the book is top-notch conveying both a sense of small town pride** and team camaraderie that, I imagine, is what a sports team is supposed to look like.

Unfortunately, it also took a really long time for the story to actually start. Felton talks a lot in the beginning about growing hair and growing taller. Instead of the emphasis on that it would have been nice to get right to the plot soon instead of having Felton tease readers with foreshadowing or coy asides.

Felton and the plot pull themselves together during the second half of the story, but whether that is enough to hold a reader’s interest is a matter of personal taste. I’m still not sure I would have been invested enough to finish had I found this book on my own time.

Stupid Fast really does have a lot going for it though. A sports story told by a boy who doesn’t think he’s an athlete* this book never gets lost in sports jargon. The book remains approachable even when the focus shifts to football during key scenes. Felton is a fun narrator with his own quirks and occasional charms. Stupid Fast has a lot of heart after its rocky start.

*Despite the raw talent, Felton does not actually know how to play football. Shh, don’t tell the coach!

**Eventually, granted.

Possible Pairings: Bunheads by Sophie Flack, Virtuosity by Jessica Martinez, Fracture by Megan Miranda, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, Being Sloane Jacobs by Lauren Morrill, Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick by Joe Schreiber, Wild Awake by Hilary T. Smith

Everybody Sees the Ants: A Review

There are some things you need to know about Lucky Linderman.

First: His mother is a squid. She swims more than two hundred laps every day. No matter what. Even when Lucky has some new bruises courtesy of Nader McMillan or her husband once again flakes on his familial duties.

Second: His father is a turtle. Lucky’s grandfather never came home from Vietnam and Lucky’s dad never recovered. He spends all of his time hiding in his shell or working at the restaurant instead of actually being a father.

Third: Lucky doesn’t smile. Ever. Not since asking one stupid question for one stupid project in Social Studies (the class actually isn’t stupid–Lucky kind of likes it). He is definitely not going to smile since that one stupid question brought him nothing but trouble and the renewed hatred of Nader McMillan.

Fourth: Ever since Lucky was seven he’s been having strange dreams. Now the dreams are his only refuge as he spends each night in the war-torn jungles of Laos trying to finally bring his grandfather home from the war he could never leave.

But even dreams that seem as real as Lucky’s can only last so long before it’s time to really wake up in Everybody Sees the Ants by A. S. King.

Everybody Sees the Ants is King’s follow-up to her Printz Honor book Please Ignore Vera Dietz. It was also a finalist for the 2011 Cybils in Young Adult Fiction which is how I came to read it.

There are certain books that I enjoy upon first reading them. But the more I think about them, the more I really look at all of the little details, the more problems I have. Everybody Sees the Ants was that kind of book.

While not actually a mystery, Everybody Sees the Ants is structured in such a way that readers do not initially get a linear story nor do they get the full story. Anyone looking for a puzzle to put together will enjoy the multiple angles of this book. Lucky is a shockingly authentic* narrator with a voice and story all his own. King’s writing is painfully intense and quirky as Lucky drags readers through dense Laos jungle and the even deeper problems of his own life.

Unfortunately these strengths are not complemented by the book’s plot which is filled with numerous holes and seemingly random details that added little to the plot itself. Without delving into specifics, King never fully explains the nature of Lucky’s dreams which creates a fundamental problem with the structure of the book. Similarly, readers never really understand why one teenaged boy is able to not only bully but literally terrorize an entire town with absolutely no intervention from any adults or the authorities.** Other moments were easily predicted or simply heavy-handed as King was at pains to make certain points about Lucky’s relationships with his parents and the world at large.

If you aren’t looking for a book that needs to answer all of your questions or stand up to a close reading, Everybody Sees the Ants might still appeal.

*Unlike me, you probably already knew that King was a female author. I didn’t know that while reading the book and was completely floored to find out A. S. King was not a man. That’s how authentic Lucky’s voice is in this story.

**I maintain my stance that Nader should have been institutionalized as a psychopath long before the events of this book started.

Possible Pairings: Leverage by Joshua C. Cohen, Liar by Justine Larbalestier, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga, The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta, A Trick of the Light by Lois Metzger, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers

Exclusive Bonus Content: One of the biggest problems I had reading this book is one most readers will not have. Fantastical things happen to lucky throughout the course of the story. These things are called elements of magical realism but, for me, they pushed the book firmly into the fantasy genre. While judging this book as a potential winner in the Cybils’ YA Fiction category, that became a problem for me. I struggled with whether something fantastical was really happening or if Lucky was just delusional. Because if Lucky is really that delusional, how can a reader believe anything else he says? If you expect an answer to that kind of question this is not the book for you.

Leverage: A Review

Danny knows he’s small. He knows in terms of the pecking order at his school he falls near the very bottom (but above the Cross Country Runners at least). Doesn’t matter. He has a plan. Sure everyone makes fun of the boy’s gymnastics team–especially the varsity football players. They can laugh all they want when it gets him a full scholarship to a college of his choice. Danny is going places. All he has to do is keep his head down and stay out of the way of the football giants until he graduates. Easy.

Kurt Brodsky doesn’t care about high school politics. When you’re as big as Kurt is, you don’t have to. Classes, friends, sports. Doesn’t matter. As long as he can lift weights to stay strong and try to keep his past buried, it’s fine. No one is going to hurt him ever again. If part of that means joining the Oregrove High football team, fine.

Except nothing about the football team is simple. Not when the players keep taking questionable “supplements.” Not when the players can stomp anyone who looks at them funny in the halls. Not when the rivalry and tension between the football and gymnastics teams escalates to something violent and ugly.

Danny and Kurt should have never started to talk. They sure as hell shouldn’t have liked each other. But they did. That happened. If they can find the courage to work together maybe they can make this violent, ugly thing better. They can’t fix it or change it. But maybe they can make some things right in Leverage (2011) by Joshua C. Cohen.

Leverage is the first novel by Cohen who, before writing, parlayed his own high school gymnastics training into a professional career. Leverage was also a finalist for the 2011 Cybils in Young Adult Fiction which is how I came to read it.

Told in chapters alternating between Danny and Kurt’s narrations, Leverage is a book with great characters and strong writing. Cohen captures two authentic, distinct voices with Kurt and Danny while shedding light on what being a high school football player or gymnast really feels like.* I just wish the book had a different plot.

This is a gritty, brutal, painful story about a school being torn apart by something that is supposed to bring people together: team sports. While Cohen provides an unblinking look at some harsh realities, the execution is not ideal with gaping plot holes, unanswered questions, and an ending that pushes the limits of believability on almost every level.**

Leverage is a strange, tense read. Although it is filled with authentic details, the story has erratic pacing and ultimately lacks any real sense of resolution even after drawing readers in and making them care so much about these characters for the entire 425 (hardcover) pages.

The book will no doubt appeal to sports fans and athletes as well as anyone looking for a book that doesn’t flinch from the harsher side of reality. It will not work as well for readers who like every question raised in a story to also be answered.

*I read this book a month ago and the idea of a school gymnastics team still blows my mind. It never occurred to me that such a thing could exist. (I went to a really small, non-sporty school.)

**Not to mention being largely predictable. If you’ve finished the book you’ll probably see what I mean.

Possible Pairings: Everybody Sees the Ants by A. S. King, Boy Toy by Barry Lyga, Fury by Elizabeth Miles, Mostly Good Girls by Leila Sales, Between by Jessica Warman

Frost: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Leena Thomas is thrilled to be starting her senior year at boarding. Although she is nervous about what her future away from the close-knit community of her school might look like, Leena is ready for a memorable year in the school’s best dorm ever: Frost House.

Instead of dealing with the ugly, impersonal dorm buildings Leena and her closest friends will have Frost House to themselves; it will be their own little refuge away from the pressures of school and the uncertainty the future holds.

Then Leena finds out about a surprise change of roommates. Instead of a semester with a room all to herself, Leena has to deal with Celeste Lazar the school’s resident eccentric–not to mention the center of her own little drama-filled world. Exactly the kind of thing Leena hoped to avoid by living in Frost House.

Celeste’s presence brings the added bonus of her cute brother David hanging around. But Leena isn’t sure a cute guy is enough to make up for her derailed plans, strained friendships, or listening to Celeste’s insane talk about a threatening presence in Frost House.

As Leena struggles to rediscover the refuge she knows Frost House should be, she finds herself gravitating more and more to the closet in her room and the calming presence she feels there. Something is clearly wrong in Frost House but the closer Leena gets to the truth the harder it is to see whether the problem really is a mysterious threat, Celeste herself, or something else entirely in Frost (2011) by Marianna Baer.

Frost is Baer’s first novel. It was also a finalist for the 2011 Cybils in Young Adult Fiction.

With equal parts thriller and ghost story Frost is a suspense-filled journey through Frost House and Leena’s own troubled world. Baer expertly spreads information throughout the story to keep readers guessing as their understanding of both the house and Leena herself constantly change.

The tension between Leena and Celeste mirrors the tension of the narrative itself as Frost works up to its shocking finish. This tension works well here adding an eerie ambiance to the story with Leena’s ominous foreshadowing throughout the narrative and the constant push and pull between the logical and the fantastic in the story.

While some of the characters are under-developed, Baer more than makes up for it with a fully realized setting that brings Frost House to life on the page. The writing here exemplifies what a creepy, atmospheric story should look like.

This book is ripe for discussion and open to many interpretations depending on how the story is perceived. The beauty of that, and the best example of Baer’s masterful prose, is that every interpretation is correct. Frost is a mysterious, sometimes sinister read guaranteed to hook readers and keep them guessing.

Possible Pairings: The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson, The Tragedy Paperby Elizabeth LaBan, Liar by Justine Larbalestier, Dark Souls by Paula Morris, Bliss by Lauren Myracle

Between Shades of Gray: A Review

On June 14, 1941 Lina Viklas is taken by the Soviet secret police. Along with her mother and her younger brother, Jonas, Lina is forced to leave her home in the middle of the night to board a train to be deported from Lithuania with thousands like her.

As they are taken farther and farther from Lithuania, all hope seems lost. Lina’s father has been separated from the family to be sent to a prison camp. Lina’s dreams of one day attending art school or falling in love are dashed. With nothing but the clothes on their back and a few precious possessions, how can they survive? Will help ever come?

Refusing to lose her sense of self along with everything else, Lina clings to what she does have: her memories and her art. While dreaming of her past, Lina uses her talents to document the atrocities she and the other deportees are forced to endure. Lina may be far from everything she once knew, but she will survive. Any other options are too horrible in Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys.

Between Shades of Gray is Sepetys’ first novel. It was also a finalist in the 2011 Cybils for Young Adult Fiction which is how I came to read it. Since its publication Between Shades of Gray has garnered a fair amount of accolades and even critical acclaim in the form of a finalist spot for the 2012 William C. Morris YA Debut Award.

Sepetys,  herself a daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, brings light to one of history’s darker (not to mention lesser known) moments when the nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia disappeared from maps in 1941 as thousands were deported and sent to labor camps and prisons. These countries did not reappear until 1990.

Because of its content and its deft negotiation of this bleak subject matter, there is no doubt that Between Shades of Gray is an important, valuable book. It will undoubtedly be added to many history class curiculums and will raise awareness about Stalin’s cleansing of the Baltic region.

Unfortunately, being an important book does not make Between Shades of Gray a book without its flaws.

Both the story and its narrator, Lina, are difficult to connect with. The story has a linear narrative of Lina’s journey with the other deportees interspersed with flashbacks and memories of Lina’s old life in Lithuania. While the memories illustrate all that Lina has lost, they also appear abruptly and at little to the plot’s forward momentum. The ending is similarly abrupt not only having a a fifty-four year gap between the last chapter and the epilogue but also a gaping hole in terms of what happened to many of the characters.

Although Lina becomes a strong character as the story progresses, she spends much of the novel as a petulant girl who enjoys rash behavior and jumping to conclusions with little to no evidence to support any of her seemingly random assumptions.

So much emphasis is placed on Lina’s art but the book as a whole provides very little payoff in that department. Granted, Between Shades of Gray isn’t that type of book but I can’t help but wish that readers had been able to see Lina’s actual drawings after hearing so much about them.* If any book could have benefited from illustrations to add another dimension to the story, it’s this one.**

Between Shades of Gray is already a beloved book for a lot of readers. It will likely reach many more. The story and the characters are brimming with a potential that, in a lot of ways, was not fully realized. While Sepetys has created a story with many beautiful, compelling, important parts the sum of those parts never quite added up to a flawless read.

*Or at least to see a little more about what happened to some of the drawings Lina sent out into the world.

**Seriously, after you read the book, think about it for a second. How cool would that have been?!

Possible Pairings: The Rescue Artist: A True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece by Edward Dolnick, Alan and Naomi by Myron Levoy, Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, Tamar by Mal Peet, Maus by Art Spiegelman, Hitler’s Canary by Sandy Toksvig, Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Author Interview: Megan Miranda

Megan Miranda‘s debut novel Fracture came out last month. This month Miranda is here to talk about her writing as well as her first book–a unique combination of paranormal suspense, science, and old fashioned good writing.

Miss Print (MP): Can you tell us a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?

Megan Miranda (MM): I always loved to write, but I spent a lot of time after high school not writing. I loved science as well, and I pursued that through college, eventually working in biotech and teaching high school science. It wasn’t until I was home with my two young kids that I really wondered why I wasn’t taking a real shot at writing. I started writing again, at night, when my kids were sleeping, and haven’t stopped since. I think my writing incorporates my love of science as well—I’m so thrilled to be doing something that I love.

MP: What was the inspiration for Fracture? Did your background as a scientist and teacher (not to mention your BS in biology from MIT) play a part in your vision for the story?

MM: It did, but in a somewhat roundabout way. There is definitely science in Fracture, but the idea for the story came from questions I had about the things that science attempts to explain, but isn’t always able to. In that way, Fracture walks the line between science and paranormal… which is just something that science can’t explain. Yet.

Teaching high school really helped in creating characters. It removed me from the equation, from the way I remembered high school, and helped me see everyone, not just the people I would’ve been friends with. It made me realize that everyone is the main character of their own life. I hope all my characters, even the small ones, seem like real people.

MP: Fracture is filled with evocative winter scenes of Delaney’s small Maine town–I felt like I was really there while reading the book. Is Delaney’s town real or based on a real location?

MM: Thank you! My dad grew up in Maine, and we used to visit in the summers. We’d stay in this small town on a bay, and the water was always freezing, even in June. The setting for Fracture is based on that town, but after the tourists leave, in the winter. And I changed the bay to a lake.

MP: Les Miserables plays a significant role in the narrative. Did you always plan to include that specific book and its musical adaptation in Fracture? If not, how did it come to be included?

MM: I love Les Mis—both the book and the play. The first version of Fracture had a reference to the book, but it shifted through the drafts to be a reference to the play. It did always play a part in the story, but the way it was included evolved over time.

MP: Fracture has elements of paranormal in the story, but one of the most interesting things for me was how well the story dealt with the aftermath of Delaney’s accident. How did you approach writing about this complex topic?

MM: I tried to read a lot about the people side of the science. Researching medicine and details is one thing, but exploring how it affects a person is a different issue entirely. I was really drawn to the dichotomy of the before and after. If a person survives, but is slightly different, how do others treat them? Do they mourn for the person who used to be, or do they embrace the one that remains? In Fracture, this change takes the form of something “other,” but I think it can really be anything.

As far as writing about it, my method was the same as it would be for anything else. I closed my eyes and I tried to imagine being in that situation… with the doctors not trusting me, and then my parents…and maybe even my friends. Would I even trust myself?

MP: Can you tell us anything about your next project?

MM: Sure! I have another standalone YA set to come out in early 2013. It’s in the same vein as Fracture in that it walks the line a bit between science and paranormal, but it’s also pretty different. It’s a psychological thriller about the thin line between the real and the imagined.

MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?

MM: Write. Read. Whatever makes you different, throw it into your writing. And don’t be scared to start over.

Thanks again to Megan Miranda for taking the time to answer my questions!

If you want to read more about Fracture check out my review!