Friday, November 30, 2012

Book Review: Amy and Roger's Epic Detour by Morgan Matson

Book: Amy and Roger's Epic Detour
Author: Morgan Matson
Published: 2010
Source: Local Library

It was supposed to be a simple road trip. A cross-country trek for the purpose of getting the family car from California to Connecticut, carefully charted out by Amy's mother for maximum speed. Still numb from her father's recent death and the sudden changes in her life, Amy doesn't make a peep of protest, even when she's saddled with an unwelcome co-pilot in the person of her mom's friend's college-age son. Fine. Whatever. Someone else to do the driving.

Then Roger suggests a detour. Which turns into a bigger detour. Then they're off the map entirely, and journeying through all the dark places in their own hearts, with nothing to hold on to but each other.

So, this book was not what I was expecting. (I say that a lot in this blog. I like the books that surprise me.) I thought it would be a cute road-trip romp, with hijinks, and maybe wildlife, and definitely smooching. I didn't expect this quiet, reflective book, shimmering with pain, which gets worse before it gets better. (Okay, fine, there was smooching, too, and more. Just in case you were wondering.)

The road-trip-as-emotional-journey metaphor is a classic for a reason. You get out of your rut, you see new things, and of course, you change yourself, so that by the time you get back to your regular life you're able to see it more clearly. While the title references both Amy and Roger, this is really Amy's book. Roger has his own arc--a relationship that ended badly, some closure sorely needed--but Amy is front and center. We see her almost catatonic at the beginning, unable to muster up the energy to care about anything. As they trek on, encountering places and things that were special to her dad, we're treated to flashbacks that slowly assemble themselves into a picture of how Amy's dad died and why she's laboring under so much guilt. We also see her come back to life, learning to enjoy it again and also to accept what happened.

I couldn't decide whether I was disappointed or not by the source of Amy's guilt. On the one hand, she wasn't directly responsible for his death. A car ran a red light and slammed into the car she was driving, with her dad in the passenger seat. In some ways, it felt as if she was blowing it up far too big. On the other, that's precisely what she needed to realize. It was one of those horrible, awful things that happen sometimes. Living, really living, isn't a betrayal of the person you loved--it's a tribute.

I really, really wanted to go on a road trip after reading this book, and also download pretty much the entire soundtrack (chapters are punctuated by mixes assembled by the characters).

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Book Review: Prom and Prejudice by Elizabeth Eulberg

Book: Prom and Prejudice
Author: Elizabeth Eulberg
Published: 2011
Source: Local Library

As a scholarship student, Lizzie Bennet hasn't had an easy time of it at Longbourn Academy. She's been notified that she's not welcome in ways large and small. But she's going to stick it out, because Longbourn might be a viper's nest of spoiled trust-fund babies, but it's also the only place she's going to get the musical training that she needs and deserves. Still, it's hardly a surprise when arrogant Will Darcy dismisses her after knowing her ten minutes. But it stings more than she expects, and she strikes back with snarky remarks and attitude.

Unfortunately, because their two best friends are dating, they keep getting pushed together. Then he starts turning up even when Charles and Jane aren't around. His behavior is so entirely puzzling that Lizzie starts to wonder . . . is it possible that Darcy might have feelings for her other than contempt? Or are the feelings that have changed just hers?

Pride and Prejudice is my all-time favorite book in the universe, so anytime I see a retelling, I'm compelled to pick it up. It's always fun to see how plot points and characters get morphed into a different setting. This one was enjoyable, if a little clunky in spots. Darcy's interference in Charles and Jane's relationship is completely dropped, for instance, and there are strange moments where dialogue seems to be lifted straight from the book. What works in the 1812 English countryside is a little harder to credit in 21st century Manhattan. But it was an entertaining way to spend an hour.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Book Review: Meant to Be by Lauren Morrill

Book Review: Meant to Be
Author: Lauren Morrill
Published: November 13, 2012
Source: Review copy from publisher via NetGalley

Julia Lichtenstein should be over the moon. After all, she's in London for a class trip. Home of Shakespeare, Big Ben, and culture of all kinds. Unfortunately, she's been paired with obnoxious Jason Lippencott as her buddy, and now instead of spending her time viewing the cultural sights, she has to keep the world's biggest three-year-old out of trouble.

Jason may be the kind of person who will wrestle on the floor of the Tate Modern and sneak out to a party the first night they're in town, but he's at least willing to help her solve the mystery of her secret-admirer texter. Julia's heart is pledged to Perfect Mark (who will notice her one day; really, he will). But that's no reason she can't have a little London fling. Together, they'll discover a whole new side of London, and maybe Julia will discover the one that's Meant to Be.

If I had to characterize this book in three words, it would be unlikely, predictable, and delicious.

Unlikely: Boy, did these seventeen-year-olds get a long leash. One chaperone, and that one incredibly hapless and easy to fool? Hours and hours of rambling around in one of the biggest cities in the world? Okay. I get that some measure of independence was necessary to the plot. But as an adult reading, I was thinking, "Jesus, teacher-woman, you're so lucky none of these kids fell in the Thames or died of alcohol poisoning." We won't even get into the whole lack of jet-lag and the incredible hotel they got.

Predictable: Oh, come on, people. I knew who she'd end up with the moment I read the synopsis. I'm sure you did, too. Have all the romantic comedies ever taught us nothing? I also knew that Perfect Mark was going to be a prick in Prince Charming's clothing, and that Julia would be knocked off her rocker by both these revelations. Not to mention that, by the end, uber-uptight Julia would finally loosen up and learn that the rules don't have to be followed every second. Some details didn't work out exactly the way I thought they would at the end (the mystery texter, for example), but the shape of things was pretty much exactly the way I thought it'd be.

However, my last adjective? Delicious. Sometimes you need something that's pure sweet fluff, and Meant to Be fit that bill. I gulped it down in a couple of hours. Following Julia's roller-coaster ride to realization that the perfect boy is an impossible dream, but a flawed boy can be even better was just the kind of escapist fun I needed.

Also, Jason was a totally believable 17 year old. Sometimes the boys in these books are so perfect you want to hire a private investigator to find out their dark secrets. Jason is obnoxious, often thoughtless, and basically a teenage boy. There's a moment late in the book where I literally thought, "He's acting out."

If you're looking for something fun and sweet to while away the time and leave you with a smile on your face, Meant to Be is just the book for you.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Book Review: Sorta Like a Rock Star by Matthew Quick

Book: Sorta Like a Rock Star
Author: Matthew Quick
Published: 2011
Source: Local Library

Amber Appleton is the self-proclaimed Princess of Hope. She considers it her God-given mission to spread joy and optimism to those that need it. From spending time with a haiku-writing Vietnam vet to teaching English to Korean immigrants using R-and-B lyrics to weekly debates with a nihilistic octogenarian for the entertainment of lonely nursing-home residents, Amber does her best to let her little light shine on everyone else's life.

What nobody knows is that her own life is hardly hopeful. She's living with her mom in a school bus, barely scraping by. Amber's determined not to let anybody know, either. She's doing just fine, after all. Then a horrifying event brings Amber's world crashing down around her. She can no longer spread her message of hope. She doesn't have enough for herself.

But she's forgotten something very basic about hope and joy: they're infectious. They spread. And when you catch it, you want to spread it back, even if the person who needs it most is the person who gave it to you in the first place.

In case you haven't figured it out from that first paragraph, Amber's one wobbly step away from being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Her first-person narration overflows with verbal gymnastics. Full of optimism, running over with energy, and somehow able to make everybody and I do mean everybody love her, she's almost more quirk than character. What saves her from this fate is the very real darkness and self-doubt that permeate her quieter moments. Even before her mother dies, you have a strong sense that she is putting up a good front, sparkling as hard as she can just so nobody guesses that the darkness and the doubt are there.

I have to also mention the role of faith in this novel.  Amber is openly Christian, but not in the evangelical sense. She talks about Jesus as if he's a personal friend. Not one who'll fix all her problems (so often my problem with evangelical Christianity), but someone who's on her side. Her faith doesn't pull her out of the dark, but it does hold her up for awhile as she goes through it.

Somewhere between Weetzie Bat and Pollyanna, this girl may not be terribly realistic, but she could spread a little hope into your heart too.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Book Review: Leverage by Joshua C. Cohen

Book: Leverage
Author: Joshua C. Cohen
Published: 2011
Source: Local Library

At Oregrove High School, the football players are gods. It's the accepted social order. But Danny and the rest of the men's gymnastics team have decided they're not going to take it anymore. Pranks and bullying escalate until the three football co-captains viciously gang-rape a freshman gymnast, and their victim kills himself.

Besides the gymnastics captain, the only witnesses to the crime were Danny and Kurt, the incredibly talented new fullback that Danny has been building a tentative and unlikely friendship with. They know that they should speak out, but it seems as if the kings of the school hold all the power against them. Can they defeat their personal demons and show the world that everybody, even an athletic god, has to answer for their actions?

In many ways this was an incredibly disturbing book. Given the topic, I knew it would be, but I was unprepared for how intense it was. At one point, I had to set the book down and go do other things for awhile. Not during the rape, as you might think, but shortly afterward, when the football coach is spewing all manner of idiotic filth about the suicide of Ronnie Gunderson, painting him as a weakling who couldn't handle everyday life and his football players as the upstanding young men who will heal the community via football victory. You get a glimpse into how these narcissistic young men have come to believe that they can do whatever they want without consequences, because the adults in their life have taught them that athletic prowess equals moral superiority, which equals untouchability.

For me, one of the finest parts of the book lay in the believability of Danny and Kurt's friendship. After some initial wariness, they enjoy and respect each other for their differences and their similarities.

There's something almost cartoonish about the final showdown, which ends with the three rapists and the coaches who enabled their behavior being literally booed off the field by an entire field full of football fans, but I have yet to decide whether that's good or bad. On one hand, arrests all around might have better fit the serious and terrible nature of the act that was committed. On the other, the depth of that humiliation, in the place where they were so recently gods, might have been the strongest punishment that fate could dole out.

That quibble aside, this was an intense, unsettling, thought-provoking book.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Reading Roundup: October 2012

By the Numbers
Teen: 18
Tween: 7
Children: 7

Review Copies: 9

Purchased: 1
Library: 17

Teen: TIE
Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst
She was supposed to give up her life for her goddess. But her goddess never showed. What now? The core of this book was its amazing main character: Liana's faith and yet her practicality, her strength in the face of the upending of everything she'd ever believed. This is a beautiful and unique book with a setting that I loved. I'll stop gushing now, because the only book that could have rivaled it this month was . . .
Hush by Eishes Chayil
Raise your hand if you haven't heard of this one. Yeah, that's what I thought. Powerful, fascinating for its nuanced portrayal of an insular religious community and its secrets, and what it truly means to be a Woman of Valor.
Tween: Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities by Mike Jung
A superhero fanboy discovers Captain Stupendous's secret identity: he's a twelve-year-old girl. Well, now he is, anyway. And there's a supervillain, and mayhem, plus the usual angst and trauma of being a twelve-year-old. There's just oodles of fun awaiting you in this book.
Children: Me and Momma and Big John by Mara Rockliff
A boy watches his mother work on New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and comes to realize that though her work may be small, the great cathedral couldn't rise without it. A very different look at art and artists, when the individual isn't recognized but their contribution is invaluable to a larger endeavor.

Because I Want To Awards
Consistently Excellent Series is Consistently Excellent: The Hive Detectives by Loree Griffith Burns
This whole series is strong on the science, but this one is particularly good about it, showing how scientists are using the scientific method to formulate and examine theories related to Colony Collapse Disorder, and what the process teaches them even if they don't get The Big Answer to Everything.
No Easy Answers: Fall for Anything by Courtney Sheinmel
Struggling to understand her father's suicide, Eddie falls into a strange relationship with his protege. I really appreciated that this didn't offer one simple thing that made everything better for Eddie, because it doesn't work like that.
Yipppeeee, Finally!: The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson
I've been waiting to read this ever since I devoured The Girl of Fire and Thorns last year. This book is more complex as Elisa struggles with the mantle of ruling that she took on at the end of the last book. The end was a little ARGH but I did love this book.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Sorry Guys . . .

The reading roundup is postponed tomorrow, due to extreme tiredness. Hard to type when your face is flat on your desk.