Monday, February 18, 2013

Reviewing books for teens

I am in a quandary here. We want to review teen books so that you will find reading you will enjoy. So do we publish negative reviews? In the past, we have decided not to--absence from the blog speaks for itself. (Although since Anarda and I don't have time to read each and every YA book that is published, that doesn't really hold true! There are many books, good and bad, being neglected by our blog--and ourselves.)

But what about lukewarm reviews? Books that are merely okay, that maybe had a great premise but didn't quite live up to it, books with main characters who leave you cold, books whose author you admire for previous works but whose current one makes you say "meh"? I really don't know whether those authors would prefer no review to a tepid one. And of course I also worry about future programming at the library--what if one of these authors comes to town, we invite him or her to appear at our library, and we get turned down because we said less than laudatory things about their writing on our blog? Hmmm.

The thing is, though, that there are so many YA books competing for your attention that we don't want you making false starts by starting and stopping, or (worse) have a book be the first one you tried, only to get discouraged and decide you don't like reading. This may sound a little melodramatic, but I can't count the number of times I have had a teenager say to me, "That's the first book I ever read all the way through." What satisfaction it gives when it's a book you recommended and they liked it--and how terrible it would be if they lost their trust in your judgment!

Just to play devil's advocate, however--there are YA books that I read and absolutely loathed that some of the teens I know think is the best book EVER, and vice versa (Ursula K. LeGuin comes to mind)! So...what to do?

I guess we can only share our opinions honestly, with a disclaimer that says "this is my opinion, it may not be yours," and let you all decide for yourselves.

All this was brought on by two books I recently read, expecting to be as happy with them as I was with their predecessors by the same authors, only to be disappointed.

The first was Jay Asher's book The Future of Us. I read and really appreciated Thirteen Reasons Why, and while I wasn't expecting this book to be anything like that one (in 13RW the girl commits suicide and then tells 13 people what part they played in her decision to do so--pretty heavy--while The Future of Us is about two teens who, in the early '90s, get an unexpected look at their Facebook pages 15 years in the future), I was expecting to enjoy it. Sadly, I didn't, much. I thought the premise (discovering your future entries on Facebook before they happened, and then discovering you could affect them with your current actions) was brilliant--a great "lite" sci fi theme. But I didn't feel that the authors (Asher co-wrote this with Carolyn Mackler, author of The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things and other really fun books) ever found a rhythm. I actively disliked the main protagonist: She was superficial, and kind of mean, and I didn't understand why anyone would want to be around her. The action is all over the place, and the story line seemed forced in some places and too vague in others. It took me awhile to finish the book, and although the ending is satisfying, I didn't believe, based on everything that had happened, that what happened would really be the end result. I feel particularly bad about not liking this one, because I liked the author so much--he recently appeared at Burbank High School's library to do an hour-long talk about his writing process, and he was so funny and self-deprecating and NICE...sorry, Mr. Asher.

The second book about which I had high hopes was The Edge of Nowhere (Saratoga Woods #1), by Elizabeth George. I'm so sad to rate this book "I liked it" instead of "it was amazing." I have read and loved all of Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley mysteries, and thought this would be a teen equivalent. Instead, she went with (mildly) paranormal and (mildly) suspenseful, and for me the book fell a bit flat, not to mention being surprisingly implausible in some places. I loved the setting (Whidbey Island), I liked some of the characters, but...I just didn't believe a lot of it. Although it's unkind of readers to insist that an author keep doing what they're doing instead of trying something new, I think this particular "something new" doesn't quite work.

On the other hand (here's the disclaimer), the book has been nominated for the prestigious Agatha Award for Best Children's/Young Adult Mystery, so what do I know?

This book is the beginning of a series and, in my experience, series authors can fall into one of two categories:

1. They write the first book as if it's a stand-alone, and it's so fabulous you can't wait for book 2. Then book 2 disappoints you because it's kind of a bridge to book 3, and you're not sure you want to continue with the series;

2. They write the book while being way too conscious of the fact that there are many books to come after it, and the first book ends up being glutted with set-up material at the expense of story.

For me, this book is in category #2.

George has a whole series planned around this character, this town, and these circumstances, and I will read book #2, just because it's ELIZABETH GEORGE, who deserves the benefit of the doubt...but if it is equally diffuse, that's where I stop.

I will put in a plug here for another of George's books. This would be for mature teens only, since it's a difficult topic and is dealt with in an adult way, but I have frequently recommended this book to teen readers at juvenile hall, and have heard positive reviews. It's called What Came Before He Shot Her, and it's about a disadvantaged young man from a broken home, who ends up shooting the wife of a police detective--and this is the story of what led up to it. It's fascinating, heartbreaking, and beautifully written. I couldn't put it down--I read it in one weekend, despite the fact that it's 548 pages!

Regarding my "meh" reviews, I will repeat: These are only MY opinions--if you are intrigued by these synopses, read for yourself and then, please, tell us what YOU think!

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