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I stopped beating myself up about writing something about everything I read (quality over quantity being the idea) and instead I’ve been writing…nothing much. So here’s an attempt to dip my toes back into the water and make it fun again. These are all February reads that I haven’t already blogged about, but wanted to put out there as well worth picking up:
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. This one hardly needs more buzz, and books with buzz often end up being disappointing – but this is the exception. The buzz is not wrong, but it’s still best if you can set it aside and enjoy the book on its own merits. It’s funny and raw. Some readers have accused the book of doing exactly what the characters hate – somehow romanticizing kids with cancer or turning into entertainment – while others wonder whether teens actually talk and think this way. The second question bugs me because I want to see more characters like these – smart, intelligent teens who also act like teens. While I can’t claim to being this smart or well-read in high school, I would’ve eaten these characters up with a spoon because I would’ve wanted to read and think and discuss like them. There is nothing wrong with a high standard. The first question is trickier, and I won’t try to answer it except to say that it didn’t prevent me from finding the book emotionally and intellectually stimulating. Also, I started this on a dinner break at work, but for the love of dignity, read the second half alone, or around people who understand crying over books.
The Cheshire Cheese Cat by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright. I listened to this one, as read by the incomparable Katherine Kellgren. It’s full of nods to the works of Charles Dickens, and he features as a character in the story, but they’re more extras than essential to enjoying this fun story of a cheese-loving cat and a band of mice. Fun, and especially recommended to fans of stories told from the perspective of animal characters.
The Isle of Blood by Rick Yancey. I had this one checked out forever before picking it up, but I’m glad I did because it’s my favorite so far in the series. This one has all the appeal factors of the first two – Victorian style, gore, monsters, fabulous characters – but the relationship between Warthrop and Will Henry deepens in a way that caught me off guard. Will Henry is growing up! Plus, the whole monster chasing bit at the end had some great twists. Recommended to fans of the series, but you should really start with The Monstrumologist and go on from there.
Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos. You’ve got to listen to this one on audio if you’re an audiobook fan, because listening to Jack Gantos read you the story of Jack Gantos is perfection. His voice is quirky and distinctive and serves to highlight all the black humor. The cover does this a disservice, because the story is dark and funny and a bit rambling, but filled with a fascinating sense of history and place and childhood. The whole thing is awash in nosebleeds and dead old ladies, with some fantastic obituaries and an appearance by the Hell’s Angels. Just read it already. This year’s Newbery winner!
Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley. After something of a slow set-up (I was puzzled by the alternate chapters from different viewpoints for quite a while) the story gets going. It’s both suspenseful and ordinary, dealing with the disappearance of Cullen’s younger brother and the everyday despair of a dying small town. It’s also frequently funny, enough to keep the whole thing from dragging down, and has brilliantly realistic characters. Recommended for teens & adults who like stories that pack a punch without much action, and for readers who like character-driven stories. This year’s Printz and Morris winner!
I have a few longer reviews that I’ll post separately, and then we can move onto March and (sooner or later) my hesitant embrace of ebooks.
I’m often torn between writing nice little reviews of what I’ve read, and just gabbing about books as I go along. A more gossipy approach with a little critique thrown in – and today I’m in a gossipy mood.
I polished off three books last night, which sounds more impressive than it really was.
- The Curse of the Wendigo by Rick Yancey, the sequel to last year’s Printz Honor book The Monstrumologist. Horror’s not really my cup of tea, and in this one the gore was less concentrated in a few key scenes and more generally spread out through the book, but never anything I couldn’t handle. I wasn’t sure what to expect from a sequel, even though the first one definitely set itself up as the first in a series – would it follow the same basic pattern of Will & the doctor chasing a monster? Yes and no – the doctor doesn’t believe they are chasing a monster, describing the wendigo as a fiction and decrying fellow monstrumologists for believing it be real. We see more of the doctor’s background, and the story becomes a little more personal. Along with that, it’s also a little bit more depressing at the end. The story has enough resolution but leaves you hanging on larger questions about Will’s identity.
- Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing by Ann Angel – I picked this up when it made YALSA’s shortlist for the Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults (what a mouthful!) My sister has been a Janis fan for as long as I can remember, and certain of her songs are completely linked with certain memories for me, so reading the book had me pulling out her music and singing along. I didn’t know much about her life, and Angel’s biography provides just enough information to give you a sense of both her personality and the time and culture in which she lived, without ever overwhelming the reader with information. Short enough to read in one sitting on the couch, but enough depth to come away with a new appreciation for her music. The book also has a fantastic design with easy-to-read columns and the rest of the page taken up with psychedelic designs. The pictures were fascinating, but I would’ve liked just a few more (although that may have been an issue of getting rights).
- After I finished Janis, I remembered that I’d never quite finished the last chapter of They Called Themselves the KKK by Susan Campbell Bartoletti – another YALSA finalist that was also on this year’s Mock Newbery list and Mock Printz list. So I whipped that out and polished off the last chapter and browsed through the timeline, notes and afterward. It’s definitely an impressive work of scholarship, but I didn’t find it quite as gripping as her Hitler Youth from a few years ago, and I thought it was interesting that she left the story of her visit with a contemporary Klan group until the very, very end of the back matter. I can respect that she left it out of the main book, since it’s not really within the scope of the book, but I wonder if any more casual reader would ever find it, stuck in after her extensive bibliography? The writing is strong, though, and I learned more than I ever did in school about Reconstruction and the challenges faced by all sides. The book also does a great job of showing the effects of individuals on history – from choices made by politicians to the decisions of ordinary people.
I’m so behind, as usual, on writing up the books I’ve finished. I like having a reference for what I originally thought about a book, but so many details and impressions fade after a week or two has gone by. Oh well. Better late than nothing.
The Uninvited by Tim Wynne-Jones
A suspenseful story, driven by intriguing characters and a well-drawn setting. I was completely absorbed while I read it, partly by the style and partly by trying to figure out where the story was going. This should have a lot of cross-over appeal for adults, and it’s one of those rare young adult novels about college students who are grappling with real issues.
Horror is NOT my thing, but Victorian novels are. And since this is basically a horror story wrapped in Victorian clothing, I was able to stomach the gore and relish the story within a story, the old-fashioned language, and the narrator looking back on his childhood as the assistant to a monstrumologist. Snap to, Will Henry, snap to!
Most of the ick is confined to a few scenes, but it’s often key to the plot. And it’s not supernatural horror – it’s monsters of legend devouring people in very messy ways horror. But oh, I got such a kick out of all the Victorian novel trappings that it made the blood and maggots worthwhile.
Following the lives of three young adults, beginning on September 11, the book is hard to put down. It’s fairly short but packs a punch, and I kept prolonging lunch breaks to read just another page or two. It doesn’t really try to be anything other than a September 11 novel – even the romance takes a back seat to the characters sorting through their feelings about that day – but it succeeds admirably well.
It’s emotional and occasionally wrenching without ever feeling maudlin, and I just realized that even though the teens’ stories are incredibly personal, none of them loses a friend or relative in the attacks. This doesn’t make the story any less emotional, but allows it to focus on loss in a different way than through death. Hmm. Thoughtful and gripping, even though the characters do sometimes talk more like, well, book characters than real teens.