Tag Archives: contemporary

July books

I’ve been having trouble keeping up with this blog since getting hooked on GoodReads. If you particularly care to subscribe, you can read my GoodReads RSS feed; for now, here’s what I read in July!

Sabriel (The Abhorsen Trilogy, #1)

Thursday, July 31, 2008, 1:17:36 PMGo to full article
Sabriel (The Abhorsen Trilogy, #1)
author: Garth Nix
name: Emily
average rating: 4.28
book published: 2003
rating: 4
read at: 07/08
date added: 07/31/08
A delicate, magical book; a book that manages to truly evoke a sense of the numinous while being grounded in the earthy details of life, with beautiful writing.

Ink and Steel: A Novel of the Promethean Age

Thursday, July 31, 2008, 11:47:46 AMGo to full article
A Novel of the Promethean Age
author: Elizabeth Bear
name: Emily
average rating: 4.17
book published: 2008
rating: 4
read at: 07/08
date added: 07/31/08
Elizabeth Bear’s Promethean Age books have this much in common: heartbreaking, intense, complicated personal relationships, and politics that go way over my head. My solution is to read for the personal relationships and shrug off the politics, though that won’t work for everybody.

This book focuses on Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare, and on the Elizabethan reign, which is being subtly supported both by the magic in plays and verse and by the faerie realm. Marlowe is killed early in the book – or thought killed, anyway, and taken to faerie, where he is drawn into a tangle of politics and relationships; Shakespeare, meanwhile, is called upon to support Elizabeth’s reign with his plays and in other ways.

The book’s great strength is in how Marlowe and Shakespeare feel completely like real people, complex and multi-dimensional and sympathetic but flawed. I have the urge to give Marlowe a hug and some hot chocolate, not that it would help! Bear also knows how to write sex scenes that are intimate and revealing but not mechanical, perhaps better in this book than in any other of hers – which always comes as a pleasant surprise when I read so much YA…

Rogelia’s House of Magic

Thursday, July 31, 2008, 11:36:13 AMGo to full article
Rogelia's House of Magic
author: Jamie Martinez Wood
name: Emily
average rating: 3.67
book published: 2008
rating: 2
read at: 07/08
date added: 07/31/08
I loved the premise of three Latina girls from wildly different backgrounds coming together, becoming friends, studying magic and conquering their own personal challenges. There’s hippie girl Fern, who has her first serious crush on a boy but is nervous about pursuing him; rich Marina, who has a complicated relationship with her mother and her heritage; and Xochitl, a recent immigrant from Mexico still reeling from the death of her twin sister.

The book ended up not working for me, though, because the prose is just too clunky. Emotions are a little too bluntly stated, lumps of background information stick out, and a lot of the plot and characterization sticks closely to predictable templates.

Also, it may just be my own personal issue with things that are new-agey, but it’s a book that may induce eye-rolling in people who are skeptical regarding new-agey things.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Tuesday, July 22, 2008, 3:42:48 PMGo to full article
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
author: Ken Kesey
name: Emily
average rating: 4.24
book published: 1960
rating: 0
read at:
date added: 07/22/08
It’s hard to dislike a book that has a lot of lovely writing, a clear sense of structure and story, and quite a few good bits in it.

It’s hard to like a book that expects me to seriously believe that the world is ruled by an evil matriarchy.

At that point it’s hard for me to have any response other than “Aaaaaaaargh.”

The Skin I’m in

Thursday, July 03, 2008, 3:57:54 PMGo to full article
The Skin I'm in
author: Sharon G. Flake
name: Emily
average rating: 3.99
book published: 2000
rating: 3
read at: 07/08
date added: 07/03/08
Maleeka is dealing with poverty, peer pressure, teasing, and the hideous clothes her mother sews – which also provide the only relief her mother finds after the death of Maleeka’s father.

Sharon Flake is super popular among the preteen/young teen girls I see at the library, and I can see why. It’s all too easy to be sensationalistic or condescending or didactic when writing about inner-city children, and this book is none of those; it feels honest and real in a rather low-key kind of way.

While I didn’t feel like it was quite polished enough or crafted enough that I really loved it, it’s definitely a good solid book.


Whale Talk, by Chris Crutcher

Whale Talk T.J. is 1/4 black and 1/4 Japanese in a town of racist rednecks in inland Washington; his single mother, addicted to drugs, abandoned him at two years old. Luckily, she abandoned him to a very nice normal family and he grows up to be probably the happiest character in the book. Take that as a warning sign. He ends up gathering a motley cast of losers and misfits for the swim team, in a quest to get a letter jacket for Chris, the brain-damaged kid who’s been bullied out of wearing his dead brother’s letter jacket.

What’s interesting about this book is that if my suspension of disbelief had snapped for even a second, I would have sighed and rolled my eyes and put the book down, because you could play Problem Novel Bingo with it, and it has an improbable density of awful things that happen, and it’s just too clinical, too therapeutic. And depressing. Did I mention depressing?

But Crutcher has such a firm handle on T.J’s voice – it’s not all snappy and hip in the way of some YA novels, it’s just solid and convincing all the way through. I end up believing all of it. I end up getting sucked into it. I end up getting my heart broken by it even as I get annoyed by the way the plots for coming-of-age novels always seem to need to sacrifice some important character at the end.

T.J. is very believable as a character who feels an idealistic need to rebel against the system and change things, but who also has a chip on his shoulder, and who can’t always neatly draw the line between those two things. This is a guy I knew in high school, definitely. Perhaps no other character in the book is quite as well drawn – I don’t think I really believe in the villainy of the villains – but T.J. manages to hold the whole book together.

The Queen of Cool, by Cecil Castellucci

Queen of CoolLibby is one of the popular kids at school, but she’s dissatisfied, bored of everything including her popular friends and her own popularity. On a whim, she signs up for an internship at the zoo, where she is mortified to be working with an astronomy nerd (who wants to be an exobiologist) and a little person, Tina (“Tiny”), who her group has always mocked.

This book has what I love from Cecil Castellucci: the conviction that teenagers can be awesome people when they have goals and useful things to do, the conviction that creativity and art and science and craftsmanship and hard work are at least as important and interesting as who is kissing who, the sharp observation of human nature and social situations. Libby’s makeover isn’t too fast or too dramatic; she wanders around for much of the book bored and restless and sick of herself, as annoyed with the cool people as the uncool people and with no idea what to do about it. But in comparison with Castellucci’s other books, I thought this one was a little thin and shallow.

A weak(er) Castellucci book is still nothing to sneeze at. Absorbing and enjoyable.

Freewill, by Chris Lynch

FreewillIt’s taken me a very long time to write up this book because it’s a bit hard to get my head around it. I wasn’t a huge fan of the other Lynch I’ve read, Inexcusable, because it tried hard to leave a lot of blank spots–but they were obvious blank spots, that drew a great deal of attention to themselves, and it ended up being obvious in all the wrong ways. At the same time, I do appreciate what Lynch was trying to do and I admire the book for its ambition.

Freewill is way more obscure. Even the most straightforward aspects of the plot unfold very slowly, reluctantly: Will is in a woodworking class at a vocational high school. It’s not where he’s supposed to be; it’s not what he’s supposed to be doing. A student commits suicide by drowning. Other students build a memorial, with one of Will’s structures as the centerpiece…

It’s told in second person, and is probably the only YA novel I’ve ever read in second person (I could be wrong on that count). The second person perspective feels very natural as the voice of someone mired in grief and depression, though – a voice that is often self-accusatory, always second-guessing. Alternately trying to do the right thing, or at least find a right thing, and not caring.

I admire all of that, and yet, I admire it more than I like it. It seems like too much work to get through a novel that still remains cryptic, impenetrable.

Absolute Brightness, by James Lecesne

Absolute BrightnessLeonard Pelkey is almost fourteen years old, an orphan, and flamboyantly effete in a way that suggests he will grow up to be gay, if he isn’t there yet. He comes to live with his cousins, Deirdre and Phoebe, and to work in their mother’s beauty parlor. He loves the work, the customers love him; his cousins and classmates feel differently.

And then he disappears.

This book reads like a first novel – it’s so uneven. It’s the martyry adolescent fantasy of “People dislike me because I’m different, but I’m just special and unique, and they’ll all miss me when I’m gone!” — and Leonard is also a complicated and interesting character. It’s too long, and too diffuse, but also beautifully written and a pleasure to read. It has moments of moralizing and Social Messages, and also moments of great subtlety and complexity.

I didn’t exactly like it, but it’s far too good a book to dismiss.

Good enough, by Paula Yoo

Good EnoughPatti Yoon is wilting under the pressure of overachievement; she is Assistant Concertmaster of the all-state high school orchestra, after three years of being Concertmaster, and she got 2010 on her SATs instead of the 2300 she needs to get into HarvardYalePrinceton. She is thinking about applying to Juilliard and pursuing her love of the violin, but her parents think a career in music is too risky.

Enter Ben Wheeler, who plays trumpet in the same all-state orchestra and guitar in his spare time. He listens to punk music and is very, very cute. Patti’s growing friendship with Ben leads her to sneak over to his house to play music – and to reconsider the direction of her life.

It’s an all-around competent book. It doesn’t cut through to the heart of overachievement in the way that An Abundance of Katherines does, but Katherines is one of my favorite books ever so I may be setting the bar a little high. I started the book concerned about how it shows a rather stereotypical side of Asian-American culture (academic excellence, strict parenting, and playing the violin) and in some ways that’s true, but I think the cultural details (like all the food – spam sushi!) give it the weight of truth and authenticity, not “Hey, here’s a stereotypical Asian-American family!”

It’s a book that does some very nice unexpected things, and I especially like the way the ending shows the vastness of possibilities for life after high school, no matter what your SAT score.

Tiny spoilery quibble after the break:

Continue reading

Wicked Lovely, by Melissa Marr

Wicked LovelyAislinn – it’s pronounced Ashlyn – has always seen faeries, like her mother and grandmother; she has always known the rules for dealing with faeries. Don’t. Don’t let them know that you notice them. Don’t have anything to do with them. She lives in an industrial city full of cold iron and has a best-friend-guy who lives in two abandoned train cars. However, when the Summer King starts stalking her, thinking that she could be the Summer Queen who’ll break the bindings on his power, following those rules suddenly gets a lot more complicated.

Gosh, I liked this one. It’s the kind of urban fantasy that’s fluffy comfort reading, and maybe doesn’t work at a level above fluffy comfort reading, but it does what it does really well and doesn’t make me want to hit the author over the head with some Betty Friedan. (The author has taught gender studies at the university level, so that’s not so surprising!) It manages to be awesomely romantic while sidestepping all of the dumb cliches, and Aislinn is bold and smart and self-sufficient, and she’s able to take on all the frightening things she has to take on with –not recklessness, but hard-nosed common sense. And I really enjoyed the politics of the faerie court – they were interesting without being tangled and complicated. (Tangled and complicated is good, but simple done well is good too.)

The ending was perfect; I wonder if it wasn’t maybe a bit TOO perfect, but still. It’s a really fast-paced book, almost all plot, and I sort of wish that it had taken more time to explore Aislinn’s life in non-faery-related aspects… basically, though, this is the kind of book that I wish Twilight had been.