Blank Confession: A (Rapid Fire) Review

Blank Confession by Pete HautmanBlank Confession (2010) by Pete Hautman

Shayne Blank doesn’t expect to make friends or even really get to know anyone when he comes to town. Then he walks into the police station to confess to a murder. Shayne’s confession is woven with a narrative from the perspectives of Shayne’s newest (most well-dressed) friend Mikey and the world weary detective interviewing Shayne.

The story here has good writing as well as an intriguing premise. Unfortunately that does not make for a good book in this case. Mikey, who narrates most of the story, is a caricature at best with his pipsqueak persona and suit-wearing style. The phrasing throughout the novel verges on the absurd with motorcycles being referred to as “crotch rockets” at least three times, among other atrocities.

Shayne is an under-developed character. Readers learn more about him in the last chapter than they do in the entire rest of the novel. While the idea is sound, and the story is short making it potentially great for reluctant readers, the characters drag this book down. The premise of a high school bully having the capacity to menace an entire town quickly wears thin as do the stunningly flat female character (because yes, there is only one).

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Cloaked in Red: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Cloaked in Red by Vivian Vande VeldeSome fairy tales are just problematic. Rumpelstiltskin’s motivations are fuzzy at best. Does Rapunzel’s mother really need lettuce that badly?

Then you have Little Red Riding Hood. How oblivious can one child be? Why was she left unsupervised in the woods? Why a red hood at all?

Many questions. Not so many answers.

Plenty of opportunities for new retellings in Cloaked in Red (2010) by Vivian Vande Velde.

This collection runs in the same vein as Vande Velde’s earlier collection The Rumpelstiltskin Problem. An author’s note starts the volume in which Vande Velde outlines the numerous problems with the original Little Red Riding Hood.

In the eight stories in this collection Vande Velde offers a different slant on the story. “Little Red Riding Hood’s Family” offers a very clever, whimsical explanation of why Little Red would not be concerned to find her grandmother looking like a wolf. “Granny and the Wolf” delves deeper into the relationship between Granny and the woodcutter (not to mention the wolf). “Deems the Woodcutter” is a delightful story about a myopic woodcutter who misguidedly helps quite a few familiar fairy tale characters while out gathering wood.

While this collection ignores some of the darker undertones of the Perrault* version of the story–and only nods to the Grimm version in “Why Willy and His Borther Won’t Ever Amount to Anything” without mentioning Perrault at all–the collection is solid with a range of stories to appeal to readers of every age and persuasion.

With a snappy tone and amusing starts to every story along the lines of “Once upon a time, before department stores and designer labels . . .” Cloaked in Red is filled with stories that are approachable and fun. This would be a great collection to pair with picture book versions of Little Red Riding Hood, to read aloud, or even to use as a primer on short story writing.

*The moral from the Perrault story is as follows: “Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say “wolf,” but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.” It’s safe to say the moral is hinting at a bit more than actual wolves.

Possible Pairings: Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, The Curiosities by Tessa Gratton, Maggie Stiefvater and Brenna Yovanoff, The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Enchanted by Alethea Kontis, The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde

You can find some different version of Little Red Riding Hood (including both Perrault’s and Grimm’s) here: http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type0333.html

The Glass Swallow: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Glass Swallow by Julia GoldingRain’s father is one of the most sought-after glass makers in the kingdom of Tigral. Torrent’s mastery of stained glass is unrivaled with even the king and queen ordering windows from the Torrent forge for their palace.

The only problem is Torrent is not the visionary behind his stained glass designs. Rain, his daughter, is the designer–a secret that could get them both thrown out of the male-only glassmaker guild.

When an opportunity arises for Rain to visit a distant land and ply her wares, it seems like a fine opportunity. She will be able to promote her father’s forget and her craft all while keeping her secret and seeing the wonders of the kingdom of Magharna.

Unfortunately, within a day of her arrival everything goes very wrong.

Alone in a strange place, Rain must find her own way as she navigates the foreign language and strange customs of Magharna and tries to find her way home. As Rain learns more of her temporary home, she realizes something is very wrong in the state. With a flagging economy and a society on the brink of riot, Rain will have to get very creative to find her place and a way home in The Glass Swallow (2010) by Julia Golding.

The Glass Swallow is a companion Golding’s earlier novel Dragonfly. (The current king and queen of Tigral are the protagonists of Dragonfly while it’s fun to see the characters overlap you do not need to read one book to enjoy the other.)

The Glass Swallow is a cute if sometimes improbable story focused on Rain and a young Magharan falconer named Peri–a man deemed “untouchable” by the higher echelons of Magharan society. The story is written in third person with focus shifting between Rain and Peri (often highlighting deeply frustrating missed connections between the two characters).

Although Rain has a very rough start in Magharna things begin to go surprisingly well for her by the latter third of the novel as pieces of state politics and revolution fall into place as if part of Rain’s personal stained glass design. While groundwork is laid for the romantic aspect of the story, the romance too felt a bit contrived as it moved with surprising speed from flirtation to actual love.

The Glass Swallow is an entertaining fantasy. Given the characters’ ages I went into this book expecting something along the lines of YA fantasy. Instead the characters and plot read much younger marking this more as a middle grade level read. That said, The Glass Swallow is still very fun with the nice touches of both stained glass and bird handling as areas of interest in the story. While the story, particularly the latter half, felt cursory as if the characters were rushing to a resolution the story was often heartwarming. It’s very nice to read a well-thought-out fantasy with an unabashedly happy ending.

Possible Pairings: Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, The Selection by Kiera Cass, Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley*, Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, Castle in the Air by Diana Wynne Jones, Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

*Strictly speaking this isn’t a real read-alike for this book. BUT it does have art and glass working and birds so why not?

Bright Young Things: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“They were all marching toward their own secret fates, and long before the next decade rolled around, each would escape in her own way–one would be famous, one would be married, and one would be dead.”

Bright Young Things by Anna Godbersen1929: Cordelia Grey and Letty Larkspur are leaving their stifling Ohio town behind to seek fame and fortune in New York City. With a big voice and hopes to match, Letty knows it’s only a matter of time before she hits it big in the biggest city of all. Cordelia is seeking other things–things she can’t even tell her best friend Letty without looking like a fool–even if Cordelia knows her future is in New York.

Along the way to their dreams the girls will face hardships and separation. They’ll meet cads and swells. One of them will even take up with one of New York’s elite flappers–a girl named Astrid Donal.

Everyone comes to New York expecting big things. But Cordelia and Letty will both have to make hard choices to get everything they want while the Jazz Age is still raging in Bright Young Things (2010) by Anna Godbersen.

Bright Young Things is the first book in Godbersen’s 1920s series. It is followed by Beautiful Days and The Lucky Ones. (Godbersen is also the author of the bestselling Luxe series.)

I love historical fiction. Show me a book set anywhere between 1900 and 1940 and there is a 99% chance that I will want to read it. I especially love the 1920s and flappers. (I even wrote a research paper in high school about 1920s fashion. But that’s another story.) My point in sharing all of this? I am pretty well-read when it comes to 1920s–fashion, social mores, history.

What does that have to do with Bright Young Things? It’s part of why I didn’t like it more. I wanted to love this book and I wanted to be excited about the series. But after reading so many other books set in the period the plot and setting started to feel very familiar.

Most of the characters in Bright Young Things are privileged; they have money, they have status, they get what they want. They’re careless like Tom and Daisy Buchanan. And that is great if you want to re-live the frenzy and decadence of The Great Gatsby. But if you want more nuance or something new, well, that isn’t going to be found in Bright Young Things as it treads familiar themes with the decadence of the 1920s, the thrill of speakeasies and the danger of falling for the wrong boy.

My favorite parts of the story were when Letty struck out on her own and found work as a cigarette girl–something I never read about–which was fascinating and ended all too soon. Besides Letty the other characters felt painfully vapid and superficial.

Godbersen lays all of the groundwork for the series with the sprawling prologue and introduction of characters who will be key later in the story. But I never felt excited enough while reading Bright Young Things to feel any urgency in continuing with the series (if I ever will).

This would be a great introductory read for anyone hoping to start reading historical fiction in general or about the 1920s specifically. If you already know about the period and want to move beyond the basics I’d suggest The Diviners by Libba Bray which delves deeper into a variety of areas during the decade albeit in the midst of a supernatural murder investigation.

Possible Pairings: The Diviners by Libba Bray, What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell, Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson, New York City: A Short History by George J. Lankevich, Vixen by Jillian Larkin, Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters by Natalie Standiford, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

The Popularity Papers: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Popularity Papers by Amy IgnatowLydia Goldblatt and Julie Graham-Chang. Julie’s dads consider Lydia part of the family. Julie knows all about Lydia’s crazy goth sister Melody. Together the girls make a decision to venture into the unknown as they try to crack the mysterious code of popularity in fifth grade.

With Lydia acting as chief experimenter and Julie recording their (mixed) results, the girls are confident they will succeed where others have failed. The only problems: Lydia winds up with a bald spot early on, Julie unexpectedly becomes the object of Roland Asbjørnsen’s affections, all of their parents are mad (a lot). Worse, the more Julie and Lydia learn about the popular girls, the farther apart they seem to grow.

Lydia and Julie might be on the verge of being popular, but they’re both starting to wonder if their friendship will survive in The Popularity Papers (2010) by Amy Ignatow.

The Popularity Papers is Ignatow’s first novel as well as the first book about the ongoing adventures of Lydia and Julie.

Ignatow expertly combines drawings and handwritten notes and observations to create a book with a mixed-media feel as the girls pass letters, notes, and the book itself back and forth to tell their story. By combining the girls’ exchanges with first-person accounts from both Lydia and Julie, Ignatow makes sure the concept behind her fun plot never becomes overdone.

The Popularity Papers is also funny, plain and simple. Filled with clever jokes and entertaining illustrations, this is a smart book that will appeal to readers young and old (provided they can get past the youngish-looking cover). A great choice for anyone looking for a laugh The Popularity Papers also houses my favorite ever love poem, a funny re-writing of a popular movie song, and possibly the best illustration of Thor of all time.

Possible Pairings: Dramacon by Svetlana Chmakova, Friends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks, Alice, I Think by Susany Juby, Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney, Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison, Drama by Raina Telgemeier

Something Like Fate: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Something Like Fate by Susane ColasantiLani knows that fate is the real deal. She and best friend Erin are spending their junior year of high school learning about all different tools of fate from astrology to numerology. All of these things that other people dismiss or call silly bring order to Lani’s world and help explain who she is and why.

Erin couldn’t be more different from Lani, but she feels the same way. Bound together after a dramatic childhood event, Lani can’t imagine her life without Erin. And Erin feels the same way. What could possibly come between them?

Lani is sure the answer is nothing.

Until Erin starts dating Jason.

The more Lani and Jason start talking, the more they connect. But how can Lani be connecting with her best friend’s boyfriend? How can something feel so fated when it is so the wrong thing in Something Like Fate (2010) by Susane Colasanti?

I’m a big fan of Colasanti’s books. Although her novels always focus on soulmates, Colasanti always brings something new and original to the table. Unfortunately in the case of Something Like Fate that original spin is something that already came up in The Unwritten Rule by Elizabeth Scott.

Both books have their strengths–what Something Like Fate does well is examine changing friendships and high school dynamics. The story is a satisfying, if sometimes familiar, romance with the added touch of a narrator who is as passionate about astrology as she is about the environment.

The main problem with Something Like Fate is actually that Colasanti wrote her peripheral characters too well. Instead of rooting for Lani and Jason, I found myself wishing Connor played a more prominent role.

Possible Pairings: How to Love by Katie Cotugno, A Little Wanting Song by Cath Crowley, The Boy Book by E. Lockhart, Drawing the Ocean by Carolyn MacCullough, Vibes by Amy Kathleen Ryan, The Unwritten Rule by Elizabeth Scott

Anna and the French Kiss: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Anna Oliphant expected to spend her senior year in Atlanta with her friends. Her mom and her little brother are in Atlanta. Her car is in Atlanta. Her job and the coworker she’s been crushing on for months are in Atlanta.

But thanks to her father’s delusions of grandeur Anna is no longer in Atlanta.

Instead her wannabe-sophisticated-noveau-riche dad has exiled Anna to boarding school. In Paris.

And yes, it’s the City of Lights and of course that’s exciting. Except for being in a completely foreign city, not speaking French, and having no friends.

Anna still can’t speak French but soon she finds some friends and Paris starts to reveal its secrets–including the funny, charming, gorgeous Etienne St. Clair. Etienne is the perfect friend as Anna adjusts to Paris life. He’s probably the perfect guy period. Except for having a serious girlfriend and being completely off limits.

As Paris begins to feel more like home, Anna and Etienne have a lot of near-misses and close calls that bring their friendship to the verge of being something more. Even while Etienne is very much still taken. But anything seems possible in the City of Lights. Maybe Anna and Etienne really are meant to be, maybe Anna will even learn some French in Anna and the French Kiss (2010) by Stephanie Perkins.

Anna and the French Kiss is Perkins’ first novel.*

First things first, it has to be said: This book has a silly title. Go ahead, get the giggles out of the way.

Despite its deceptively saccharine title, Anna and the French Kiss is a book of quality. Anna is a first rate narrator with her own unique slant on Paris and boarding school. She is likable, funny and ultimately just plain old authentic. While not every has a father who is a quasi-Nicholas-Sparks writer to send them to a Parisian boarding school, everyone will find something essentially real and true about Anna and her numerous adventures (and, yes, misadventures) in Paris.

Etienne is a fine foil for Anna throughout the novel with his charm and humor. Though some of the other peripheral characters are less developed, the tension and chemistry between Anna and Etienne more than makes up for it. In addition to being a love story, Perkins packs in a variety of other themes and topics including the interesting idea that the place (or person) someone calls home can change over time.

At 372 pages (hardcover) the only real problem with this book is that the last quarter of the novel drags with nail-bitingly frustrating suspense as readers wait for Anna and Etienne to finally realize they are meant to be together. (They both have perfect hair so obviously they are meant to be together.**)

With beautiful descriptions of Parisian sights and landscapes, crackling romantic tension, and tons of humor, Anna and the French Read offers a refreshing combination of depth and effervescence all in one delightful story.

*Perkins recently published her second novel, Lola and the Boy Next Door, which is a companion to this book. A final companion book, Isla and the Happily Ever After is due out in 2012–I’m really, really excited about that one for reasons that cannot be revealed in this review because they are spoilers.

**I say that with complete seriousness. It was one of my favorite motifs in the book. No joke.

Possible Pairings: North of Beautiful by Justina Chen, So Much Closer by Susane Colasanti, In a Perfect World by Trish Doller, Better Off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg, King of the Screwups by K. L. Going, Girl at Sea by Maureen Johnson, This Adventure Ends by Emma Mills, Snowfall by K. M. Peyton, The Unwritten Rule by Elizabeth Scott, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith, Starry Nights by Daisy Whitney