Sunday, June 24, 2012

Book Review: Between You And Me

Title: Between You And Me
Authors: Nicola Kraus and Emma McLaughlin
Publisher: Simor & Schuster
Imprint: Atria Books
Pub. Date: June 12, 2012
ISBN: 978439188187

The publisher’s summary:

In Between You and Me, twenty-seven-year-old Logan Wade has built a life for herself in New York City, far from her unhappy childhood in Oklahoma. But when she gets the call that her famous cousin needs a new assistant, it’s an offer she can’t refuse. Logan hasn’t seen Kelsey since they were separated as kids; in the meantime, Kelsey Wade has become one of Fortune Magazine’s most powerful celebrities and carrion for the paparazzi. But the joy at their reunion is overshadowed by the toxic dynamic between Kelsey and her controlling parents. As Kelsey grasps desperately at a “real” life, Logan risks everything to try and give her cousin the one thing she has never known—happiness. As Kelsey unravels in the most horribly public way Logan finds that she will ultimately have to choose between saving her cousin and saving herself.

Between You and Me has the kind of ripped from the headlines plot you expect from an episode of Law & Order. That’s not to say that this kind of inspiration is illegitimate; even Joyce Carol Oates took this route with her JonBenet Ramsey inspired novel My Sister, My Love. The allure of Between You & Me lies in how closely it shadows the story of Britney Spears’ personal struggles.  People like gossip, and it’s fun to read a story that allows you to imagine you’re discovering all the inside dirt on a (fictional) pop star so similar to Britney Spears that their names are almost interchangeable.

So far, so good. But the problem is that Kraus and McLaughlin have established a pattern of novels that have happy endings. Coming to the tragic ending of Between You & Me feels like being mauled by a chihuahua: while not truly painful, it’s totally unexpected. Surprising the reader is usually a good thing. But when you read a book by Kraus and McLaughlin, you expect glossy, fast-paced fun. Between You & Me adheres so closely to its inspiration that it forgoes the necessary happy ending of a fun read.

Kraus and McLaughlin alter the outcome of Kelsey’s tumultuous life to make her ultimate situation even worse than that of Britney Spears. Instead of suffering from an actual mental illness, Kelsey is the victim of a Gothic plot cooked up by her parents to retain control over her. After she rebels against her parents, Kelsey is placed under conservatorship despite the fact that she’s healthy and able to run her own life. It’s hard to decide which is more appalling: the real life example of Spears, in which a mentally ill woman legally under the control of her parents is pimped out for millions, or the fictional example of a healthy woman who accedes the legal control of her life to her parents because she’s sick of fighting for freedom from their pimping.

For the most part, the novel is well written enough to make you ignore the stock descriptions, constant label-checking and sentences so sloppy they weigh down paragraphs like lead balloons. But you don’t read a book like Between You & Me for its fine prose, and the novel fulfills its promise to entertain. Fans of Kraus & McLaughlin will enjoy the book, as will anyone who is looking for a decent beach read. The ending may even appeal to those who haven’t gotten a dose of fictional schadenfreude lately. Being forewarned about the ending should make the reading experience as reliable as it typically is for this genre and these authors.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Book Review: The Unquiet

As I read, I kept waiting for The Unquiet to improve. It has an interesting premise and an engaging narrator. But issues with plot, characterization and plausibility torpedo the novel. The Unquiet’s central theme of the ghost seeking vengeance is very common in both YA and adult literature. It’s common because we as readers enjoy experiencing it over and over again. But it's employed predictably and without sufficient logic, the ubiquity of the trope makes the book that much more disappointing.

Rinn, who suffers from bipolar disorder, and her mother move back to her mother’s hometown in small town Ohio.  They are dealing with the destruction that her illness has wrought in the lives of her and her family. Almost immediately, Rinn is embroiled in the mystery of Anneliese, a ghost who supposedly haunts a “tunnel” like hallway that connects a half-built pool to the rest of the high school school. There are some areas where the novel succeeds. The Unquiet is an interesting exploration of a teen struggling with bipolar disorder,  yet at times the descriptions of her manic episodes feel too generic. The depiction of Rinn’s relationships with her family members is the greatest strength of the novel. 

One of the main problems with The Unquiet is that underdeveloped characterization prevents the reader from caring about what the evil ghost does. We don’t develop enough of a connection to the new friends that Rinn’s made in Ohio to really care when the ghost starts to punish them. Similarly, the “instalove” romance that erupts overnight between Rinn and Nate, the boy across the street, doesn’t feel like it’s founded on anything more than a running gag about Rinn being a city girl and Nate being a country boy. However, Rinn has moved from L.A. to a small town in Ohio. Both Rinn and Nate act as though they’re in an isolated spot in Montana or Idaho. They’re not even in Iowa! Ohio just doesn’t fit the bill as the setting for a truly country bumpkin town. Minus the plausibility of the subject of the constant teasing between the two, the relationship feels completely random.

Garsee states in an author’s note at the end of the novel that her inspiration came from a real life “tunnel” at her school that was believed to be haunted. Garsee’s genuine attachment to this element of the novel is clear, but the underdeveloped plot feels like window dressing designed to enable the author to write about the tunnel. The final revelations of the ghost’s motivation in harming the teenagers of River Hills High School and Rinn’s ability to banish the ghost aren’t very logical. Without giving away too much of the plot, I was left feeling that Rinn beat the ghost because she was the main character, and that’s who's supposed to save the day. Needless to say, that’s not a great ending.

It's easy to find examples of recent, better written YA novels that I would direct fans of the ghost seeking vengeance theme to first. Anna Dressed in Blood is a much more satisfying read. Laura Whitcomb’s A Certain Slant of Light, while a totally different take on teenage ghosts, is another great book. But those who can't read enough books in this particular vein will still find some enjoyment in this book, as the appeal of the narrator helps smooth over the problematic spots in the book until the inadequate ending . For everyone else, I'd classify The Unquiet as a bench warmer, an adequate back-up for when you must read something but don’t have anything better at hand.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Bookish Public Service Announcement: Don't Reread

Danger! Danger! On their Books Blog, the Guardian recently asked "Which children's books should you avoid rereading as an adult?"

All of them! Don't do it! Rereading is like the popular conception of time travel: just being in the past will inevitably change things in unexpected ways. It's not that an adult reader can't get a lot out of a book that was a favorite in childhood. I think preserving those first memories is much more important than revisiting a book. As a child, you haven't accumulated hundreds of reading experiences, so any impression is stronger. Books take up emotional and mental space that isn't already cluttered.

When you layer the adult reading experience over the childhood one, inevitably the childhood one is retroactively altered. The first memory is harder to access, because you have to fight through the film of the most current read. The poignancy of the emotional response evoked by the book will never again be so sharp.

Here's my top five list of books I will never open again:

A Wrinkle in Time
Everything about this book was special. Meg's strength, her interesting little brother (I wasn't big on the idea that little brothers couldn't be interesting when I was a child) and the terrifying alternate universe they journey to were different from anything I'd ever read. I can't remember the names of people I met two hours ago, but I can remember almost every detail of this series.

Bridge to Terabithia
This book is special because it opened my eyes to issues of class for the first time. It's also special because it was the first book in which I saw my own tendency to create pretend kingdoms reflected back at me. Finally, the death was so unexpected and painful. I couldn't ever feel that punched-in-the-gut feeling again if I reread it. For some reason, I want to hold on to that.

Tuck Everlasting
I hated the fact that Winnie didn't choose immortality. I hated it so much I almost hated the book. But it forced me to confront the idea of mortality. Maybe that's not a memory one should want to hang on to, but it's a big part of who I am. I wouldn't want to change that.

Jane Eyre
Okay, this book is different because I've actually reread it multiple times. I still hold on to some of the feelings evoked by my first read. But I've lost the fear and loneliness evoked by the beginning, and the awe at the unique character whose brain I was inside. It's such a good book that I don't know how anyone could resist the temptation to reread. But I wish I did.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
My first experience of a Gothic thriller kicked off a lifelong obsession. The child heroines who beat the evil adults were pretty awesome too. I made the mistake of choosing this to read aloud to my resident Young Reader. I only got through about a paragraph, because the dense prose wasn't engaging to my listener. Honestly, I wasn't that impressed either. My surprise about not being swept away again is what I associate with the book now.

Of course, because I am perverse, all of the above books carry bittersweet memories strongly involving either death, sadness or fear. No happy frolicking adventures here! I think I'd extend this public service advice announcement against rereading to practically everything important of childhood that's been left left behind: schools, houses, friends, toys and foods. If you try to go back, you only experience a pale echo in the present.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Trash or Treasure: See It & Say It In Spanish

Title: See It & Say It In Spanish
Author: Margarita Madrigal
Publisher: Signet Reference 
Date of Publication: 1961 

I picked this book up at a Goodwill because of the kooky cover. See It & Say It In Spanish epitomizes everything that confuses me about books that claim to teach you a foreign language. The book does not speak to you! How are you supposed to learn how to say words in a foreign language if you don't hear them spoken? Ah, but the author Margarita Madrigal has come up with a handy pronunciation key, at right.

I may just be very slow, but I am positive that I would not be able to utilize that key to accurately pronounce any of the words in this book. Maybe it would be useful in learning how to read Spanish, but it's advertised in the title as teaching you how to speak Spanish.

If you had no prior experience learning Spanish, and took this book as a guide to any Spanish speaking country in hopes of communicating in the language, I'm pretty sure no one would understand a word you said. In the moment, while frantically flipping to the right page that teaches how to order chicken in a restaurant, the average novice is going to ask for "polo," not "poyo." Hopefully whoever utilized this book encountered waiters who were exceptionally gifted at guessing games. 

+It might be better than having no language guide book. Maybe.

- The drawings are so bad. Is it just me, or does the dinosaur in the picture at left look like it's praying?
- The book never mentions accents or tildes. The reader is left to assume that these are just visual decorations randomly sprinkled over various words, not an integral part of the language or anything.

Final Verdict: Trash! Totally trash. I feel sorry for anyone who actually tried to use this book for educational purposes. It's part of a Signet series that includes books on learning Italian, German, French and English. It might be fun to collect the set, so that you could brag you have the worst language books ever. Otherwise, just say no.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Book Review: Dark Companion

Title: Dark Companion
Author: Marta Acosta
Publisher: Tor/Forge
Imprint: Tor Teen
Pub. Date: July 3, 2012
ISBN: 9780765329646

First, the publisher’s summary:

Orphaned at the age of six, Jane Williams has grown up in a series of foster homes, learning to survive in the shadows of life. Through hard work and determination, she manages to win a scholarship to the exclusive Birch Grove Academy. There, for the first time, Jane finds herself accepted by a group of friends. She even starts tutoring the headmistress's gorgeous son, Lucien. Things seem too good to be true.

They are.

The more she learns about Birch Grove's recent past, the more Jane comes to suspect that there is something sinister going on. Why did the wife of a popular teacher kill herself? What happened to the former scholarship student, whose place Jane took? Why does Lucien's brother, Jack, seem to dislike her so much?

As Jane begins to piece together the answers to the puzzle, she must find out why she was brought to Birch Grove--and what she would risk to stay there... 

I love paranormal thrillers set at boarding schools for girls. I love school stories in general, but if I could only read one sub-genre for the rest of my life, the PTBSG would be it. Yes, that’s a pretty unwieldy acronym, but how often do you make up one in every day life? Never. It’s good to seize the opportunity to create one when it presents itself.

Among my favorite PTBSGs are Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle series and Lois Duncan’s Down a Dark Hall. There are tons more potential favorites that I haven’t read yet: Hex Hall, Vampire Academy, The Name of the Star. One could make the argument that there isn’t the need or room for another PTBSG. But Dark Companion has its own compelling spin on the sub-genre, and is definitely worth reading.

Warning: this review will be totally spoilerish. If you don’t want to know pivotal plot points and secrets, read no further!

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Back From BEA: 2012 Superlatives Awards

The Best, Worst and Weirdest

Worst Book: Six Weeks to OMG: Get Skinnier Than All Your Friends, by Venice A. Fulton. Is there really a need or market for an anorexia handbook? The internet is already crawling with thinspo and fitspo. Craziness.
New Book I’m Most Excited About: There were so many awesome books, but I’m currently reading the ARC of Jussi Alder-Olsen’s new Nordic thriller, The Absent One. Apparently Alder-Olsen has written a number of books in this series, but this is the second that’s been translated into English. I’m seriously thinking about learning Danish so I can read through without waiting for the next book to be translated.

Best Celebrity Sighting:
It’s a tie between Tom Wolfe & Tim Gunn. Tom Wolfe was being interviewed in a mini TV studio booth. His white hair perfectly matched his white suit. He looked exactly like you’d expect, except older. Tim Gunn was signing in a booth, and looked very pleasant and elegant.

Nicest Industry Professional:
Joanna Volpe.

Most Intimidating Industry Professional: Lynn Nesbit. Watching her on a panel made me sit up straighter in my chair and quit fidgeting.

Group Achievement Award:
The perfectly turned out young women who were 
working the publishing booths all day long in high, high heels. They were like the Ginger Rogers’ of BEA.

Best Booth: All of them? Seriously, it was a paradise of books.

Worst Booth: Dianetics, aka Scientology. It was front and center, and very red. The booth and its workers oozed creepiness.

Coolest Promotional Gimmick Bigger Than a Bread Box: The life size bubble mimicking the cover of the final book in Ally Condie’s Matched trilogy, in which you could get your picture taken. I got mine taken, and will have to update once I have access to it.

Coolest Promotional Gimmick Smaller Than a Bread Box: The postcard for Claire Legrand’s forthcoming The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls. Check out the bug!

Worst Promotional Gimmick: A young woman running around in a see through white bodysuit with angel’s wings. I’m still not sure what she was promoting.

Best Tote Bag: Olivia the Pig.

Best Purveyor of Confusion: The cart selling nuts at the back of the exhibition floor. Every time I passed by it, I thought I was smelling cookies baking and got excited. Nope. Just nuts.

Worst of the Javits Center: The most easily accessible bathroom while wandering around the exhibition floor was a 
four stall bathroom that had a long line of women snaking out at all times. Of course, there was no line for the men’s room. Come on, conference center designers! Four stalls?!

Best of the Javits Center: The pretty views available from perches on high staircases.

Worst Behaved: People pushing, shoving and clawing to get at tables of ARCs.

Best Behaved: People bonding while waiting in endless lines to get books signed.

Strangest Animal Sighting: A small dog being aggressively pushed through the aisles of the exhibition floor in a carriage.
BEA was awesome, exhausting and something everyone should go to once. Luckily, none of my anticipatory worries came to pass. I had lots of fun, and I'll definitely be back.

Monday, June 4, 2012

BEA Bound!

I leave this morning for my first trip to BEA. I'm more of a country mouse than a city mouse, so my preparations have involved mentally gearing up for the psychic onslaught of hordes of people, in addition to packing and all the usual things you do.

I'm not sure if I'll get the chance to do much blogging, but I'll be Tweeting my little heart out! If I accomplish the following three things while at BEA, I will die (or just go home) a happy woman.

1. Get Zadie Smith or Megan McDonald to sign a book. I will say really ridiculous things like "you are so amazing,"and she will wearily smile at my lack of originality and over-enthusiasm. But I will still be filled with glee.

2. Pick up ARCs without feeling guilty. They're free? And I can just take one? It just doesn't seem right! I'll be the one hanging out behind the crowd stacked three deep at at a both, waiting to get someone's expression permission to take a copy.

3. Not snoop around the apartment I am staying in with Phoebe North (author of Starglass, forthcoming in 2013! Get psyched, people!) via airbnb. I blame the writer in me. I visually case people's homes on a regular basis because I'm constantly curious. With the owner gone, I'll be like a kid in a candy store. The temptation to open drawers will be excruciating. If only I could feel worse about violating a stranger's privacy and better about taking free things!