Grasshopper Jungle: A (Rapid Fire) Review

This is more a critical analysis than a review and is therefore littered with spoilers of varying degrees.

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith (2014).

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew SmithBy this point, Grasshopper Jungle needs no introduction having already swept up a variety of accolades including wide critical acclaim, starred reviews, a movie option as well as winning the Boston Globe-Horne Book Award and receiving a Printz honor in 2015.  It is the bright green book that could and has helped mark a well-deserved turning point in Smith’s literary career as he joins the ranks of current hot authors. It is a madcap, diverse, clever book that blends genres, time periods and story lines.

Grasshopper Jungle is also one of those books where I can see all of the things Smith is doing that are clever and smart but I don’t particularly care for or appreciate any of them on a personal level because I am too busy deeply not enjoying it.

The diversity here and Austin being refreshingly whoever the hell he wants to be is great and much needed. Continue reading Grasshopper Jungle: A (Rapid Fire) Review

Conversion: A (Rapid Fire) Review

Conversion by Katherine Howe (2014) find it on Bookshop

Conversion by Katherine HoweThis book had a lot going for it. The cast of characters is diverse. The story is set in both present-day Danvers and the Salem village when the witch panic starts. The narrator is reading The Crucible. (Which the book mentions isn’t really about Salem but the 1950s.) On top of that, I really enjoyed Howe’s debut The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane and was incredibly excited to hear she was writing a YA novel.

Sadly, this one wasn’t for me. While it had all the right pieces, none of them came together quite right. Colleen and her friends never quite sounded like authentic teens. The plot never felt quite as urgent and compelling as it should. The writing did not come across as strong as it did in The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. Furthermore, this book felt stilted as if you knew the author was new to writing teen voices.

The story is still exciting and interesting but it was, sadly, not a good fit for me. Readers with an interest in the area will enjoy the evocative settings and readers with a fondness for Salem-themed stories will still find a lot to enjoy here.

Possible Pairings: The Fever by Megan Abbott, A Breath of Frost by Alyxandra Harvey, Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough, The Glass Casket by McCormick Templeman, The Crucible by Arthur Miller (or the play or the movie), The Caged Graves by Dianne K. Salerni, The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

 

The Fault in Our Stars: A (Rapid Fire) Review

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (2012)

The Fault in Our Stars by John GreenThis book hardly needs talking about. Certainly no summary is needed. Despite the hype and the accolades, I’m still not sure I understand the appeal here. Like every other John Green book there are overly intellectual characters pondering the universe and trying to find meaning in it. Because these characters both have cancer there is also the inevitable pall of death hanging over the novel.

The story is interesting in its own way. There is a fun thread about loving, truly loving a book. There is romance. There are grand gestures. There are also unconvincingly intellectual teens who are shockingly self-aware (which, I feel, is likely not a side effect of dying no matter how literary a book it might make).

I’m just not sure why all of that added up to making this book a huge phenomenon. Maybe that’s my fault. Maybe it’s because the hospital scenes and the illness hit too close to home. Maybe it’s because I really hated that Isaac is blind for most of the novel but is never shown learning to use a cane or travel on his own.

This book sells itself and you’ve probably already read it. If you have, maybe you can explain the appeal to me.

Struck by Lightning: The Carson Phillips Journal: A Rapid Fire Review

Struck by Lightning by Chris ColferStruck by Lightning: The Carson Phillips Journal by Chris Colfer (2012)

**This post has a lot of spoilers**

Chris Colfer is an actor on the TV show Glee. You might have heard of him. He is also a talented author with a bestselling middle grade series to his name as well as credits for this novel and the screenplay by the same name.

I like Chris Colfer. I do. I will never, ever question his talents.

But I still have so many questions about this book.

The initial story was interesting. Carson is driven and motivated and talented. He’s also a little neurotic and a lot callous to his other classmates (as evidenced by, you know, blackmailing everyone to submit to the magazine). Fine. Everyone gets to be self-centered and obnoxious now and then.

Then things get weird.

In one of the most contrived plot points I’ve recently read, Carson is poised to get everything he wants. Only to be foiled by his mother throwing out his acceptance letter. This made no sense. There are emails and phones and a thousand ways to contact college admissions offices not to mention attempts to woo applicants. I call shenanigans on Carson not catching this until it’s too late.

But fine. I can let that slide too. Reality can be harsh and absurd. Fine. Not everyone gets into their first choice college. That’s reality. Carson has obviously grown as a result and is much more positive and hopeful and experienced now. This is a guy who is going to be okay.

Then, as the title might suggest, he gets struck by lightning and dies.

Obviously, given the title, I should have expected this. But at the same time I was so angry when I read final page. In fact, I was so angry I considered tearing the last page out and pretending it didn’t exist.

What is the point of reading about Carson’s growth as a character and following him for an entire year only to have him killed by a freak accident? One page managed to invalidate any positive feelings I had for the book. I’m sure there was a reason for the ending, but it just felt like a hopeless waste and utterly ridiculous.

The writing was fine and the characters are fine but that hardly matters when the ending was a slap in the face.

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).

Where Things Come Back: A (Rapid Fire) Review

Where Things Come Back by John Corey WhaleyWhere Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley (2011)

Lily, Arkansas is a hopeless place full of sad people who tried to leave but failed. Cullen Witter, like a lot of people, wants desperately to get out of this stifling small town. The summer before his senior year in high school Cullen sees his first corpse. Then he sees the body of his cousin who overdosed on drugs. Later, after the corpses and the end of school, the entire town becomes obsessed with a woodpecker–long thought extinct–who may or may not be hiding in the woods around Lily. Stranger still, Cullen’s brilliant brother, Gabriel, disappears.

Chapters from Cullen’s first person narration are interspersed with third-person narratives from two unlikely missionaries. Other reviews will talk about these stories entwining in strange and surprising ways. They might also call this novel a mystery. I disagree with both statements.

Whaley’s debut novel was the winner of both the 2012 Printz Award and the 2012 Morris Award. While the prose is extremely literary, I contend there is very little mystery in this story. The narratives are not particularly shocking in the ways in which they overlap or the general story. Given the plot structure, the big reveal was ultimately predictable.

Where Things Come Back is about nothing so much as it is about waiting. The town is waiting for a woodpecker to return and change its fate. Cullen is waiting for his chance to get away and also for a simpler but much harder thing: the return of his missing brother. There are interesting ideas to be unpacked in this world of waiting–ideas that Whaley does examine in interesting ways.

Unfortunately that is never quite enough to make the story into a page-turner or anything more than a thoughtful, brief, meditation on the randomness of life.

Writerly prose can be found throughout the story which works in some instances to help Cullen develop a very unique voice. At the same time, it always feels like this novel is trying very hard to be thoughtful and contemplative in a way that feels forced.

Cullen’s mind wanders throughout the narrative as he goes off on tangents. While these flights of fancy are amusing (as Cullen imagines his town overrun by zombies and the like) they distract from the plot immensely. The structure reminded me so much of the “If you give a mouse a cookie” books that it became the only thing I could imagine as I read these imaginings. Worse, these elements added nothing to the story except to create a titillating ending that leaves a tiny bit of room for discussion.

By the end of the story, Where Things Come Back became a strange and arbitrary novel with a mildly interesting (and very open) ending.

Tiger Eyes: A Rapid Fire Review

Tiger Eyes by Judy BlumeTiger Eyes by Judy Blume (1981)

Davey’s whole life is falling apart. Her father was shot in a holdup. Her family is broken. And worse, her mother is taking Davey and her little brother all the way from home to visit relatives in New Mexico while they recover.

Davey doesn’t want to recover.

But New Mexico works its own kind of magic on Davey and her family. Wandering the desert landscape Davey meets a mysterious boy called “Wolf” with his own secrets and his own reasons for understanding Davey’s sad eyes. With his help, maybe Davey can finally move on.

So Judy Blume is obviously very popular. Most of her books fall into the time before I was reading YA (this one being published a few years before I was born) so Blume is never quite an author I get to. While I can see the appeal of this book, it largely didn’t work for me.

While Davey’s struggles are very contemporary and relevant, the story itself was often dated with Davey working as a candy striper (do those even exist anymore?) to name but one example. A general air of Cold War hysteria permeates the story as well with Davey’s aunt and uncle in a panic about the nearby nuclear plant malfunctioning.

I can see the appeal here and it might appeal to readers looking for this very specific kind of story. On the other hand there are also more recent stories that cover similar themes just as well.

My Basmati Bat Mitzvah: A (Rapid Fire) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman (2013)

My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. FreedmanThis is one of those books that can skew as either middle grade or a younger YA. Either works and either is appropriate. Tara, our narrator, is a lot of fun with a breezy voice that sounds authentic and true without being bogged down in vernacular or otherwise “talking down” to the reader. I also loved that Tara had supportive, understanding, present parents as well as friends.

Although the story deals with Tara understanding the two sides of her heritage she is largely comfortable in her own skin. Which is huge. There is just so much to like here from the light, fun story to the cover model who looks just like you’d expect Tara to look. This is a story about acceptance and identity but also about more than that. Recommended.

*This book was acquired for review from the publisher at BEA 2012*

Endangered: A (Rapid Fire) Review

Endangered by Eliot Schrefer (2012)

Endangered by Eliot SchreferIf you follow the book award season, you’ve probably already heard about this National Book Award Finalist from 2012.

Either way Endangered is an Important book about the political unrest in the Congo and the horrible state of affairs for Bonobo monkeys in the area. Sophie spends every summer with her mother in the Congo and expects this year to be much of the same. Until she becomes the reluctant (and unlikely) foster mother to a baby Bonobo she names Otto. Then war breaks out and Sophie is isolated and trapped with the Bonobos at her mother’s conservation preserve.

Schrefer went to the Congo to research this book and it shows in the details and nuances of the setting and Sophie’s relationship with Otto and the other Bonobos. The story is gripping and exciting. Because of the emphasis on action and survival, this is a great book for any reader. Endangered would also be a particularly strong choice for reluctant readers and/or readers who are hesitant to read books with a female narrator.

Reading Endangered it is immediately obvious why this book was a National Book Award finalist. As the story progresses it is also apparent why this book did not ultimately win. While Sophie and Otto are great characters in a page-turning story, Sophie’s voice was not always convincing. Sophie is fourteen during the events of the story. While her narration is insightful and contemplative, it also often sounds like a much older character. The epilogue is also frustrating. Without getting into spoilers it felt very incongruous to have an epilogue years later and have one of the supposed key things about Sophie’s life be that she is engaged and has dated several boys. There were so many other things to say, other details to share. After a totally empowering, dramatic read the epilogue brought Endangered to a close on a slightly sour note.

*This book was acquired for review from the publisher at BEA 2012*

 

Planesrunner: A (Rapid Fire) Review

Planesrunner by Ian McDonaldPlanesrunner by Ian McDonald (2011)

I liked a lot of things about the basic premise of this story. It seemed to have a lot of potential–a book about many worlds and a device to navigate them? Cool! A thoughtful main character who likes to cook and play video games? Rad. De facto diversity? Awesome! Even with some fairly obvious hints to Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld and the TV shows Sliders and Stargate, Planesrunner sounded like a good time.

Unfortunately this one never quite hit the mark. MacDonald seemed to have an idea of what a teen narrator should do and think and seemed to be checking marks off as Everett does all of these strange things in the narrative with random sound effects and a really annoying habit of providing a nickname for literally every character Everett meets.

I tend to be wary of adult authors trying to transition into YA writing because more often than not something gets lost on the way as if the author is so used to writing older characters that they are unsure how to transition. I really felt that here. Everett’s behaviors and decisions were very erratic–either too mature or too immature for his given age.

Uneven pacing and odd writing choices made for an uneasy read. The plot picked up significantly in the second half but problems remained as the story continued to feel like two books slapped together. What I mean is there is a very clear direction in the first half of the story and then priorities and focus shift very suddenly in the second half. (Speaking of the second half, McDonald also includes Pallari in the latter part of the novel which is really interesting but requires a lot of glancing at the dictionary in the back.)

I can see this book appealing to fans of pure science fiction as the plot here hits all the marks. Fans of A Confusion of Princes may also see some appeal here. That said, Planesrunner isn’t the smoothest read and it isn’t always easy to connect with Everett though I’m sure readers who finish the story will be rewarded and likely look forward to continuing with the series.