Saturday, September 22, 2012

YA Fiction: "Lovely, Dark and Deep" by Amy McNamara

Looking to steer a teenage female toward falling in love with a character who's neither vampiric, nor lupine? "Lovely, Dark and Deep" by Amy McNamara will do the trick, serving up enough romantic angst in this YA novel to satisfy even the moodiest of adolescent women.

To be fair, McNamara starts out with good intentions in this three-hundred-page dramafest. Her focus is on one of the hardest things that a young person can face at the critical point just after high school: the death of a loved one. Mixed up with that is the overwhelming question of "What are you going to do with your life?" which can make anyone, not just a traumatized teen, cringe. Sent into a tailspin by Life's cruel twists, main character Wren escapes to her father's art studio deep in the Maine wilderness. There, she tries to make sense of what happened to her and, more importantly, where she goes from there. Despite her endeavors to remain isolated from humanity, she soon finds herself in the company of Cal, another "runaway" with life-changing issues of his own. With their complementary strengths, it seems that they could have the power to help one another if they can get close enough.

McNamara's setup is promising, hinting toward a story of loss, recovery, and rebirth. Ah, if only. Alas, I feel that the author became a little too exuberant in her intention to make Wren overcome dramatic tragedies. Instead of completing her story arc, McNamara got to the center of the book and added another skeleton in Wren's closet. And then another. And then another. Instead of a good, solid story about the strength of a young person to overcome the untimely death of a loved one, "Lovely, Dark and Deep" also became about teen pregnancy. And divorce. And life-threatening chronic diseases. And parental pressures. And suicide. And depression. I could probably add some more subcategories to the list but I'll stop there. And yes, there really is a lot to feel and think about and avoid and cherish as a teenager, when your hormones have your emotions amped up to an eleven. But trying to tackle those things in all their varying forms in a single book was a mistake.

That being said, I was impressed with the writing style of the novel. It was innovative, written from Wren's perspective, in the clipped tones of someone who has just stopped caring about the world around her. She's snippy, sardonic, and wryly humorous in a way of which she as a character does not seem to be aware. This makes it just a little bit endearing, and when she finally does start to open up to people again (as we all know she must), Wren expresses honest amazement at the unbidden changes in herself. Her thoughts and feelings are communicated openly and without apology, in a very pleasing character voice.

The dramatic overdrive in this book was a bit much for someone who has moved past the teenage OMG WHY IS EVERYTHING SO HARD AND LIFE ISN'T FAIR AND NOBODY UNDERSTANDS ME phase. But in honesty, it's what some readers (read: teenage girls) need in order to feel like they're not alone, like someone understands how they're feeling, like life goes on and there is a way through. If there's someone like that on your holiday shopping list, consider this book a sort of potential release valve. Hey, at least Cal's not a romanticized vampire. Look for "Lovely, Dark and Deep" at your local bookstore starting October 16th. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Self-Help: "8 Habits of Love" by Ed Bacon

There is a growing genre of self-help and spirituality books out there that blend different aspects of Eastern and Western thinking in order to help people find balance and meaning in their lives. "8 Habits of Love" is another book in that lucrative vein, written by Rector Ed Bacon of the famous All Saints Episcopal Church, which has a congregation of over four thousand people. Rector Bacon is also a frequent guest on the Oprah's Soul Series radio program and, to my dismay, decided to add "writer" to his resume with this book.
                While there are many, many good self-help books out there for all types of people, this is not one of them. From the very beginning (and I mean the beginning, like half way down the first page of the introduction) his writing made me feel like he was trying to sell something. Most of it started with testaments from People You Don't Know (as stated by Rector Bacon, not even in their own words) about how much Bacon's Habits of Love helped them, without smooth transitions between them so that they read almost as a list. I felt like I was reading a script for a 2 am. infomercial. You know, the kind where the actors are reading the teleprompter for the first time themselves?
                Also reminiscent of underfunded commercials was the way in which he kept hammering home each of his Habits. And I don't mean why they were important; I just mean repetition that "____ ('Generosity' for example) is important! Whee!" Half of what he spoke about in each chapter didn't even seem to be related to the Habit itself except in the most convoluted of ways, most of his stories centering around how enlightened he is and how he helped other poor, lost souls to really discover what it's like to be happy. There were some pearls in the book, I'll grant. But they didn't necessarily come from knowing and following his Habits (like the philosophy that "the universe is kind") and frankly, it's not worth wading through the muck of his book to find them. A Zen devotional would do a better job of it.
                Frankly, I felt like Rector Bacon, aside from his poor writing style, nonexistent transitions, and self-righteousness, was just trying to hop on the East-West Spirituality Wagon that's become so popular. I felt like "8 Habits of Love" was little more than a piggyback onto Buddhism's Eight-Fold Path. And while it is very true that Rector Bacon and his 8 Habits may have helped many people, his book at least does a god-awful job of communicating the lifestyle's potential. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Historical YA Fiction: "A Thunderous Whisper" by Christina Diaz Gonzales

Around the time that the Nazis gained power in Germany, Spain was engaged in a brutal civil war that pitted traditionalists against progressives in a bloody conflict over the future of their country. "A Thunderous Whisper" is told by Anetxu, or Ani, a 12-year-old girl from the northern Basque region of Spain. The reader follows her and her new friend Mathias, a Jew, as they navigate life in the town of Guernica during some of its most significant days during the Spanish Civil War, and even become spies in an effort to support the progressives'  side of the war.

In this heartwrenching story of finding your identity when the world keeps shifting around you, Gonzales does an excellent job of integrating the important question of Basque culture and language into the novel. Words, phrases, and names appear in Euskera in a manner that allows the reader to understand what's being said while still observing the unique language of the Basque region. Ani struggles to define herself in context of the war, of her relationship with her sardine-selling mother and soldier father, and of her friendship with Mathias. In the midst of all this is the looming question of whether or not Ani really wants to be a part of history, or if she'd rather just remain quiet and unnoticed in the corners of life.

Reading level in this compelling story is relatively low, suitable for beginning YA readers, but this leaves the complexity of Ani's situation and the observations that she makes undiminished. Throughout the book she compares her life to a film (cinema was very new at the time). This adolescent fascination with the movies combined with the numb, third-person perspective of watching your life play out on a screen is a perfect way to capture how Ani seems to feel, living where and when she does. Gonzales did an amazing job capturing the entirely believable thoughts and emotions of a young girl forced to grow up too soon by an absent father and a mother as bitter as only a single wartime provider can be.

You don't have to be a Spanish history buff to read this book. I highly recommend it to anyone who fell in love with the film "Pan's Labyrinth" as I did, or enjoys reading the too-old-for-his-age narrative of Oskar in Jonathan Safran's novel "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." Look for it this October at your bookseller of choice. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Suspense/Supernatural Fiction: "Hidden Things" by Doyce Testerman

Any modern fantasy novel that features a creepy clown (an intentionally creepy clown, not a normal clown who just comes off as creepy) as one of its protagonists is worth at least a second look to me. And while I still can't decide if the creep clown thing is brilliantly off-the-wall or just too unsettling, that second look really pays off with "Hidden Things."

Calliope, the main character, is an extraordinarily empathetic character, even if she's a bit difficult to get a read on in the beginning. Her growth as a round, as opposed to flat, character as the story progresses is brilliantly written, subtle but clear changes in her demeanor conveying the nature of those changes. Especially poignant were the moments of unrequited feelings and unfinished between Calliope and her partner, Joshua. Some of these are represented by sections of text in italics, but it's unclear if these sections are dreams, memories, or something different. Another extremely human moment for Calliope was the experience of that moment where you realize that your parents have become your friends, sometimes against all odds. Although the true significance of her singing remained rather fuzzy around the edges, by the end of the book I was quite attached to Calliope.

As Calliope and her creepy clown counterpart investigate the strange disappearance of her business partner/ex boyfriend Joshua, she finds herself dealing with fantastic creatures that should only exist in fairytales, and some that don't even belong there. The reader learns about these magical creatures, their relationship to the mundane world of humans, along with Calliope. Some details about the Hidden Lands, as they're called, are never revealed, with the simple and sometimes unsatisfying excuse that something "just can't be explained." While this sometimes felt like the author was cheating in a way, it was forgivable in the broader context of the complete story. 

I was mildly annoyed by a quirk of writing that demanded that every measure of time be recorded exactly, from what the digital clock said to how many seconds someone held their breath tensely to the length of someone's nap. It was all spelled out in hours, minutes, and seconds. A technique like that is okay to put in once and a while, but becomes tedious when it's featured throughout an entire book. Luckily, this trend tapered off as the story progressed, with only the occasional throwback phrase.

I would recommend "Hidden Things" to the modern fantasy reader who's grown tired of the classic Tolkien cast of fantasy races and fairy-type beings. They're in for a twisted fairytale treat with this novel. Look for "Hidden Things" online and in your local bookstore this month.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

YA Sci-Fi: "Orleans" by Sherri L. Smith

            I have to admit that I rolled my eyes when I saw that this was yet another postapocalyptic young adult novel. I mean, how many truly different variations on this tired old trope can you get? More than I thought, it turns out. And Smith has yet another one, admittedly more creative than some, in her upcoming novel Orleans.
            The book starts out with a back story presentation that's enticingly unusual: instead of just having a narrator tell you what's going on, or finding out alongside a character who's just as in the dark as you are, Smith uses a combination of a timeline and excerpts from (fake) government documents to set the scene for her readers. It's a creative way to go about presenting a dramatic opening scene.
            The story centers around a young woman from Orleans, Fen de la Guerre, and Daniel, a young scientist from the Outer States of America. Southern states have been isolated from and abandoned by the rest of the country after hurricane after hurricane turned the region into a ruined swampland full of Delta Fever. Most of the narrative is written in Fen's Orleans vernacular as she narrates, but switches out to more normative grammar and speech patterns when a chapter is written from Daniel's perspective. While I found this an effective way to communicate perspective and give the reader insight into the mind of each character, it felt like Smith sometimes had a hard time separating the two voices. For example, Fen would occasionally use words that felt too big and educated for her simplistic vernacular, words that felt much more suited to Daniel's speech pattern. Reading level was fairly low, as one might expect from your average YA (young adult) novel.
            Two main points of conflict arose in the course of the story, one of which centered on Daniel and the other on Fen. The two of them seem to be working their way toward mutual help in solving both problems, but I was shocked when at the end of the book one of the conflicts was resolved and the other was just left hanging in midair, like someone forgot to turn the gravity on and bring it back down to earth somehow. That was a big disappointment in my book, seeing the complex situation that Smith had carefully woven around the conflict just abandoned. It gave the impression that the author either got tired of the whole issue or somehow managed to entirely forget about half of it.
            Overall, while the reading level and writing were nothing impressive, the story line in Orleans was imaginative and had some innovative ideas in it as far as back story presentation goes. Fans of Katniss from the Hunger Games books will enjoy Fen's spunky, necessity-wrought knowhow as well as her commitment to her loved ones. Look for Orleans in stores in March 2013, or pre-order online from your favorite bookseller. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Let's Begin Again

This blog started out a couple of months ago as my first foray into the world of online writing. There were scattered posts about this and that, from books to beers and the odd requisite social commentary. Now, however, with a recent employment shift that has planted me squarely in the world of bookselling and upcoming publications, I have finally found a personally inspirational something to write about here: new book reviews.

My reviews of recent and/or soon-to-be-released books will be selected from a variety of genres and some of them will appear in Whatcom County's Chuckanut Reader, a publication of Bellingham's Village Books. However, you'll be able to find more in-depth and frequent postings here, on the blog. My goal is to post about a new book approximately once a week. I look forward to writing for you about exciting new offerings from the literary world, both here and in print.