Saturday, July 31, 2010

Book Review: Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Book: Before I Fall
Author: Lauren Oliver
Published: 2010
Source: Local Library

Samantha Kingston is beautiful, popular, with a gorgeous boyfriend and fabulous besties. Her life seems perfect, until the day it all ended in screaming tires and twisted metal. Then she woke up, into the last day of her life . . . again.

Now Sam is living through the same day over and over, but with the ability to change things. Somehow, she's got to change what led up to that fatal car crash. But to change it, she first must understand it.

What is so appealing about the Groundhog Day structure? It's something about second chances, I think. The ability to do something right this time, or to see what happens if you do something different. Oliver also uses it to explore the consequences of our actions, and how complex that is. Sam is not a particularly nice person. She and her group are the mean girls, the ones who make up the nasty names and decree who's in and who's out. But they're not all nasty all the time. Within their group of four, they are supportive and loving, and Sam has great affection for her parents and little sister. Still, being a nice person to some people doesn't cancel out what you do to others. At the root of the accident that takes Sam's life multiple times are the many-layered consequences of what she and others have done in the past.

Characters unfold gradually. Even though Sam is living through the same day, the same events, in the same pattern, she makes little changes that reveal information to us and cause other characters to reveal information to her. Sometimes this helps with Sam's quest, but more often it helps us to see the same people from different angles, just as Sam is learning to do. This was so effective that I actually worried about what would happen to her friends after Sam was gone. That's an indicator of good characters right there. Her family is less fleshed out, but given that they are less important to the story, I didn't feel the lack.

Okay, I'm gonna be spoilerific here and tell you all that . . .

Last chance to leave.

. . . that Sam does, in fact, die. That what she had to change was not her own death, but someone else's. She had confront the role she had in other people's lives and change it, just a little. Just enough. The final chapter is probably the hardest time I've ever had reading a final chapter. Normally I race through them, wanting to finish, but I kept setting the book down, knowing what was coming. Sam had come to terms with it, but I was struggling, because there were so many good places that her truncated life could go, and knowing that they wouldn't was what brought on the tears. (Overinvested in a book? ME?) Sam goes through a recognizable pattern of denial, grief, anger in dealing with the fact of her own death. Her acceptance of what has to happen at the party is what finally allows her to bring an end to the cycle, not only her own last day, but the cycle of thoughtless actions and cruel consequences that has been hurting others.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Book Review: The Big Splash by Jack Ferraiolo

Book: The Big Splash
Author: Jack D. Ferraiolo
Published: 2008
Source: Local Library

Matt Stevens has a reputation as a guy who can find things out. But he's an independent contracter, see? He's nobody's patsy. That's why he has reservations about taking a job from Vinny Biggs, the school's go-to guy for such contraband as forged hall passes and forbidden junk food. But twenty bucks can buy a lot of root beers.

Matt shoulda listened to his gut. While he's doing the job for Vinny, somebody takes out Nikki Fingers right next to him. Once she was Franklin Middle School's most feared squirt-gun assassin. One twitch of her trigger finger and her luckless victims were standing there with apparently peed pants, a subject of scorn and mockery forever. Now she's been served a taste of her own medicine, but who ordered the hit? To Matt's surprise, both Vinny and Nikki's cute sister Jenny put him on the case. As he starts to detangle the strange web of loyalties, grudges, and crushes that surround the event, Matt realizes that people who are his friends, his enemies, and a little of both may be involved. And if he's not careful, he might find himself staring down a Super Soaker with his name on it.

As a mystery, this worked really well for me. Loads of false leads and secret motives clutter Matt's path toward the truth. I got a little lost toward the end, but it all worked out reasonably enough. Mostly, though, I have to talk about the tone of this book. The softboiled, faux-noir thing has been done with Bruce Hale's Chet Gecko series, but for a different audience, and there it's played purely for laughs. The Big Splash can't really decide whether it wants to be funny or serious about its own tone. Initially, it's pretty tongue in cheek. Matt calls his school "the Frank," kids gather at a backyard shed called Sal's for cheap root beer and PBJs, and hall monitors keep a sharp eye out for rubber bands and chewing gum. Then as we get deeper into the story, the cynicism and meloncholy feel of noir begin to seep in.

This seepage occurs in large part because Ferraiolo's characters are more fleshed out than Hale's. Matt has history with all the people he's investigating, most notably Kevin Carling, who was Matt's best friend until he accepted Biggs' offer to be a "lieutenent" (read: head bullyboy) in his organization. In addition, Matt's home life is hardly the stuff of Nick at Nite. Since his father's mysterious disappearance, his mom has had to work two jobs, leaving Matt to largely care for himself. His tough-guy demeanor becomes less an assumed persona that he can lay aside and more like a defense mechanism against all the blows life has dealt him.

Also, Vinny Bigg's organization is pretty funny until you realize the implications. The various hits carried out, from Nikki's Super-Soaker antics to a revenge hit on the apparent perpetrator, are downright nasty. What else can you call stripping a kid naked except for a chocolate-smeared diaper? Funny? Yeah. The stuff of years of therapy? Oh, yeah. I wrestled with that, trying to reconcile my adult horror with my memories of middle school. Is it exaggerated? Sure, but not by much, and for kids going through it, maybe not at all. The meloncholy tone may resonate with kids who are starting to deal with changing friendships and difficult choices.

I really hope that Ferraiolo writes more Matt Stevens books. Meloncholia aside, I really enjoyed this one, and I'm deeply curious about the larger mysteries that were set up in this novel.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Book Review: Mudshark by Gary Paulsen

Book: Mudshark
Author: Gary Paulsen
Published: 2009
Source: Local Library

He's like Encyclopedia Brown, but with a cooler nickname. Twelve-year-old Lyle "Mudshark" Williams is a master of observation, noticing what nobody else bothers to see and putting all the pieces together. This has made him the go-to guy for missing items and various conundra in his very crazy school. Missing your homework? Check the bushes by the step where you were sitting this morning. Lost your brain? (Don't worry, it's plastic.) Try the pool where you were swimming yesterday, and where nobody will now go in the deep end. Yep, Mudshark knows all, sees all, and doesn't even charge.

But that's before the librarian gets a Psychic Parrot. All of a sudden, Mudshark is dethroned in favor of a bird that burps before each prediction. He wouldn't be human if he didn't admit he was kind of annoyed by this. But when the principal asks him to solve the mystery of the missing erasers, Mudshark discovers that if the parrot solves it before he does, he's not the only one who could suffer.

I always enjoy Gary Paulsen, but I'm used to him as an adventure writer. Mudshark reminds me that the guy can be very, very funny. This book captures and exaggerates the life of a school, from the terrifying science lab to the equally terrifying lunches, from the mysterious custodian to the "wonderfully unhinged" librarian (hee!). Besides all that, there's the general level of kookiness you get when you confine three hundred under-twelves in one building for nine months. My favorite sections were the principal's announcements that served as hilarious chapter headers, keeping us up-to-date on the missing gerbil from room 206, the rapidly deteriorating state of the faculty restroom, and various other seeming one-off jokes that play into the story at a later date. This slim, fast-moving story is a sure thing for fans of Encyclopedia Brown, Wayside School, and Paulsen's other work.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Book Review: The Secret Life of Prince Charming by Deb Caletti

Book: The Secret Life of Prince Charming
Author: Deb Caletti
Published: 2009
Source: Local Library

Raised in a houseful of women with thoroughly stomped-on hearts, Quinn has grown up with the warnings about men ringing in her ears. Watch out for the red flags. Bad boys are not wounded, misunderstood, or secretly sweet--they're usually just jerks. If a guy wants to kiss your corpse back to life, he has some issues of his own. There is no such thing as Prince Charming.

She's heeded the warnings when it comes to her own romantic life, but she can't quite apply them all to her charming father, who dotes on herself and her sister Sprout in their regular visits. Then, just after getting dumped by her safe and boring boyfriend, Quinn discovers that her father has stolen treasured items from every woman who's ever passed through his life. Smarting from this double betrayal, she becomes determined to return them all.

She and Sprout meet up with their older half-sister, Frances Lee, and together they set off on a journey through the Pacific Northwest and the wreckage of their father's romantic past. Also riding along is Jake, Frances Lee's boyfriend's brother. Quinn fights her attraction to him, but can't deny that there's an irresistible pull. But on a road trip that's all about romantic disasters, does she dare get involved?

It would have been pretty easy for this whole book to be nothing more than "men bad." Baaaaad men. Ought to castrate the lot of 'em. And sometimes it does cross over into that territory. But Caletti saves it from this in two ways. First she shows some very good men. These include Andy, the devoted husband of their father's first ex, and Jake, whose bad-boy exterior (tattoos and guitars and naked first meetings, oh my!) turns out to be a cover for a warm and level-headed person who's nuts about Quinn exactly as she is.

Second, Caletti intercuts the narrative with testimonials from a variety of female characters on their own romantic mistakes, and shows that while getting involved with a jerk might be the first mistake, the second is to ignore that little voice inside that says, "This isn't right. You don't deserve this kind of treatment." If men were all bad, then women would be merely victims, and that's not the case. As this novel shows, both people in a relationship bring a certain measure of responsibility to the table, and it's when one or both forget that little fact that trouble happens.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Book Review: Exposed by Susan Vaught

Book: Exposed
Author: Susan Vaught
Published: 2008
Source: Local Library

After her first relationship went down in flames last year, Chan Shealy is sooooo over real boys. That's why Paul is so perfect. He's online, hundreds of miles away. Just a long-distance thrill, a cute boy to talk to and flirt with, one she knows will never sleep with a cheerleader or lie about her all over the school. Plus, Paul is perfect in other ways too. He helps her get set up with a strength-training program that helps with her competitive twirling. He loves Emily Dickinson, Chan's favorite poet. He's hot and fun and thinks she's the sexiest thing ever. It doesn't take long before Chan's so wrapped up in Paul that her schoolwork, her relationship with her family and friends is suffering.

Paul is pushing her further than she wants to go, getting her to do things for him, and the camera, that she never would have considered. But Chan talks herself out of her doubts. Paul is perfect, right? Totally perfect. Plus her parents would go crazy if they knew what she was doing. She's not a baby, she knows what she's doing.

Then Paul crosses the line, and Chan has to face the fact that all his perfection might be a bigger lie than anything her ex ever did.

This book will make you incredibly uncomfortable. That's a given, considering the subject matter. But seriously, I was deeply uncomfortable as Paul coaxed, sweet-talked, and even lightly blackmailed Chan into creating sexy videos, and even managed to justify charging others for them so Chan always felt as if she were in control, even while it was obvious to me that she wasn't.

I grew up on the cusp of the Internet revolution. When I first got online, at about Chan's age, video chat was still confined to Star Trek. Recently, I was talking to older co-workers about Facebook and how even though I know, intellectually, that anybody can get on there and say anything, it still feels like a fun clubhouse where you can try things out in safety and privacy. If I have a hard time remembering this, how much easier is it for a sixteen-year-old to gloss over all the little things that are not quite right.

I had some nitpicks. Vaught has a trick of making up fake names for services we're all very familiar with. For instance, BlahFest is the MySpace/Facebook clone that Paul first uses to connect with Chan, and PortalPay is the secure payment website that funnels Chan's cut to her. We all know what they are, why not just call it that? There was a very slight subplot about her father's weight issues, which felt out of place in the midst of the rest of the novel. If it was a larger plot that was cut down, it probably should have been cut down completely. It didn't do much to support or feed into the main plot, except to provide an excuse for their mother to get uptight about Chan's changing diet.

But overall, this is a creepy and thought-provoking book, well worth the read.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Reading Roundup June 2010

By the Numbers
Teen: 25
Tween: 18
Children: 17

Review Copies: 10
Swapped: 1
Purchased: 2
Library: 37

Teen: Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver
Just like its heroine, this book is so much more than it seems. Review someday soon.
Tween: Twelve Impossible Things Before Breakfast by Jane Yolen
Brave kids, creepy scary stuff, and oh yeah, talking bridges. There's a reason the woman's worshipped.
Children: My Rotten Life by David Lubar
I don't think there's many writers who could acknowledge that boys have fairly tender feelings, and then have a scene where a thumb gets glued back on. You might be able to drive a truck through the plot holes, but it's so much fun to read, who cares?

Because I Want To Awards
Longest Awaited: A Wizard of Mars by Diane Duane (We are talking YEARS here, people.)
Shoo-in For Standout Until the End: Hate List by Jennifer Brown (Not sure what it was. Something about the very, very end felt a little skewed, like it went a couple of degrees the wrong direction. Anybody else?)
The Closest You'll Ever Get to Virgin Noir: The Big Splash by Jack Ferraiolo (Virgin as in without the alcohol. Sickos. Review soon)
For Your Favorite Monty Python Fan: The Brain Finds a Leg by Martin Chatterton
Encyclopedia Brown, Eat Your Heart Out: Mudshark by Gary Paulsen
Don't Just Save This for Halloween-Time: Are You Afraid Yet? The science behind scary stuff by Stephen James O'Meara
For Your Readers in Snicket-Withdrawal: The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood