Saturday, October 17, 2015

What we're reading: Realistic fiction / romance

I finally read Emmy and Oliver, by Robin Benway. I thought I was reading it about six weeks ago, but I had actually picked up Althea and Oliver, by Cristina Moracho, which I reviewed here. While the two books have certain surface similarities--both are about childhood friends, both take place in the past (the '80s for one and the '90s for the other), and both have one protagonist named Oliver--the Moracho book is definitely edgy fiction, while I would characterize Benway's as more mainstream romance-with-an-issue fare.

The basic story is this: Emmy and Oliver are childhood friends. Then, at age six, after his parents have divorced and are doing the usual thing of the kid living with the mom and seeing the dad on weekends, Oliver's dad picks him up for a three-day weekend and never brings him back. Instead, he disappears with Oliver, and all the efforts of Oliver's mother, the police, and the FBI are unable to locate him. This is all in the past, though. When the story opens, it's 10 years later, Emmy is 16 and still living next door to Oliver's mother, who has remarried and had twin girls, and then one day, Oliver returns. He was doing a class project that required the students to be fingerprinted, and when he was, the fingerprint popped up in the missing children database, and the police and Oliver's mom retrieved him and brought him home.

Now Oliver has to adjust to being with his mom instead of his dad (who is on the lam to avoid arrest), and try to fit back into his old life, with his old friends (who are happy to see him but don't know how to treat him), and to reconnect with Emmy, his best friend from birth to six years old.

Emmy has had her own issues since Oliver disappeared, the most obvious one that it made her parents (also best friends with Oliver's mom) absolutely paranoid about letting her out of their sight. This wasn't so bad when she was 10, but now that she's 16, she is chafing under the curfews, the prohibitions, and the constant surveillance. So she welcomes Oliver back and takes particular enjoyment in (mildly) breaking some rules. As you probably figured, at some point romance ensues. And in fact, whoever designed the cover chose to focus only on the romance, when really, the heart of the novel, based on its description, was the miraculous return of Oliver to his family.

So: The romance was sweet, and everybody in this book was so likable that it's hard to dislike the story; but much of it seemed a little superficial to me. I would have liked to have been in on some more of the inner thoughts of the characters earlier on. The parts I liked best were the few dark moments, including when Oliver reveals to Emmy that coming home to his mother after 10 years of living with his father felt like he was being kidnapped all over again. It put everything in perspective for the characters and for the reader, to realize that although his father did a bad thing taking Oliver away, once they were away, they had a fairly normal life together, and it's a relationship that Oliver will naturally miss, now that he's been uprooted yet again and plunked back down in his old life. There's also a moving scene when Oliver (finally) expresses his bitterness that his mother was supposedly all broken up about losing him but somehow had the time and attention to get remarried and have two more kids. I would have loved more details like these, and more confrontation over those events.

I am a bit puzzled that Benway didn't choose to let Oliver narrate part of this story, since the story revolves around him--his disappearance, his return--and shows the consequences on a family and on a community of having one of their own disappear. For instance, Emmy's overprotective parents who don't see her and won't let her have a life of her own. I liked that she managed to take something for herself anyway, but all the waffling regarding her secret plans was slightly manufactured drama that took too long to resolve.

I was pleased that Benway included a gay character--and one who was completely comfortable with himself--but I kind of agreed with Emmy's friends, Caro and Drew, when they started feeling neglected by Emmy while she focused on Oliver, because I felt more could have been made of their characters by Benway to make the story even stronger! Maybe she will do a sequel about Drew and Kevin and Caro?

Overall, though, I enjoyed this book. Lovers of the books of Stephanie Perkins or Abby McDonald will like this, too. Take note!

Friday, October 16, 2015

Book Club Report

Sixteen out of the 20 members of the 6+7 Book Club met Tuesday to discuss The Last Dragonslayer, the first book in the Chronicles of Kazam series by Jasper Fforde, better known for his adult series about literary detective Thursday Next. We had some surprising reactions to this book, which were reflected by the ratings: There were two votes for every number from a perfect 10 down to a so-so six, plus two ratings of one, which resulted in an average overall rating of 6.85. Those who were not the two who hated the book felt that the book's worth was unfairly skewed downward, and demanded that we average the vote without those two, which would have given it an 8, but...we're a democracy when it comes to ratings. Most enjoyed specific events and characters in the book but found the lack of exposition slightly confusing. Nobody really connected with the tongue-in-cheek satirical elements that make this series so much fun for adults--we're not sure that Fforde has correctly gauged his audience!

Next month, we will discuss The Apothecary, by Maile Meloy, and the book we selected for December discussion is Stormbreaker (Alex Rider #1), by Anthony Horowitz, as a nice break from all the fantasy.

Other books we considered (alphabetical by author):

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, by John Boyne
The Princess Diaries, by Meg Cabot
I'd Tell You I Love You But Then
     I'd Have to Kill You, by Ally Carter
Heist Society, also by Ally Carter
Deep Blue, by Jennifer Donnelly
Towering, and Bewitching, both by Alex Flinn
I Am Number Four, by Pittacus Lore
Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment, by James Patterson
The Rithmatist, by Brandon Sanderson
Counting by Sevens, by Holly Goldberg Sloan

The next book club meeting is on November 10, and there are copies of The Apothecary at both branches for pick-up.

Members of the 8+9 Book Club were nearly all in attendance Wednesday night (17 out of 19) to talk about Noggin, by John Corey Whaley. We had a spirited discussion about whether you could like a book but hate the protagonist; what a whiny guy that Travis is, considering he's getting a chance at a whole new life; whether the five-year difference in ages between he and his former girlfriend would have mattered if the genders were reversed or it were five years later (i.e., he was 21 and she was 26); whether his new best friend is a caricature or a real boy; whether Travis should have bugged Kyle about coming out of the closet; and more! We ended up rating the book 7.35.

Next month, we will read (or reread) Reckless, by Cornelia Funke, in preparation for her visit on November 19. And for December, we chose Variant, by Robison Wells, a creepy science fiction tale featuring a strange boarding school.

Other books we considered (it's a long list!):

Famous Last Words, by Katie Alender
Don't Look Back, by Jennifer Armentrout
Heist Society, by Ally Carter
Clockwork Angel, by Cassandra Clare
The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle
Beautiful Creatures, by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl
October Sky, by Homer Hickam
Far, Far Away, by Tom McNeal
Every Soul A Star, by Wendy Mass
The Rithmatist, by Brandon Sanderson
Unwind, by Neal Shusterman
The 5th Wave, by Rick Yancey

The next club meeting is on November 4, and there are copies of Reckless at both libraries for pickup.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

What we're reading: The Truth Commission

I just finished reading The Truth Commission, by Susan Juby, and I loved it! First of all, I loved the convoluted layered messiness of the concept. It's a book about three students at a high school for artists in a small town in Canada, but the book is supposedly narrative nonfiction (i.e., a true story), written by Normandy for her junior year "special project." So it's first person narrative with footnotes, many of them addressed to her English teacher, who is also (fortunately, as it turns out!) the school counselor.

Dusk (real name Dawn, but she thinks Dusk suits her better), Neil, and Normandy go to the Green Pastures School of Art and Applied Design. Each is artistic in a different way, as are all their quirky classmates, but Normandy has always felt overshadowed by her older sister, Keira, who preceded her at the school and went on to become a famous graphic artist.

Normandy is also discomfited by the fact that her family members serve as the characters in Keira's graphic novels, and her sister has drawn them in a particularly unflattering (verging on vicious) way. For instance, Normandy's fictional name--a commentary on their parents' naming her after a French territory--is Flanders, but the character's nickname is Flounder. A flounder is a round, pale, puffy, spotted fish with its mouth constantly hanging open and a vacant look in its eye. Lovely, thanks, sis!

Anyway, the three best friends conceive of a joint project they call The Truth Commission, in which they approach people and ask them bald-faced questions about things that are "known" about them without ever really being revealed or acknowledged by that person or by all those who gossip about them. The project is an initial (though risky) success, but when Normandy starts applying the truth-telling to her own family situation, things quickly get out of hand.

The characterizations are fantastic. I wanted to be 16 again, and be enrolled in this school and hang out with these people. And even though this was a perfectly satisfying stand-alone book, I'd love a chance to go back there!

There are some fairly mature themes, so I would probably recommend this for ninth grade and up.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

More teen poetry

Raja, Rani*

by Harika Kottakota

Mother once read amid inkblots and smoke, 
“While the rajas reigned, 
they sold diamonds in the streets.”
I’d enter her pupil and traverse
Labyrinths of baked clay--
Satin-wrapped women grinding dry chilies
Sandalwood, talcum, ginger gusts
Of children scurrying along elephant parades
Splotched in Holi colors

I envision a rani, lithe and fair, declare
“Our realm has nothing to fear.”
And ten thousand hurrahs rattle her glass bangles
Her eyes spill moonlight behind the spyglass
As jade green creeps upon the dunes
Archers poised, mares saddled
Praying for Lord Shiva’s spirit in battle
The stars beget caution, sacrifice,
Answers storming the world on
The copper bell’s last toll.

*”Raja” translates into “king or emperor” while “rani” means “queen or empress.” In the times of ancient kingdoms of the Indian subcontinent, the rajas and ranis were the most respected and powerful persons in regards to religion, trade, military, and infrastructure. Fidelity to the raja and rani was the key to empire-building and culminated in the creation of vast, rich, prospering Hindu kingdoms throughout India.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Today the countdown begins!

Today is the first official day of our Teen Read Week writing contest! We hope that some of you found out about it earlier and have been working on writing your retold fairy tale, but if this is the first you've heard of the contest, you still have a month to get 'er done: The final due date is Thursday, November 12, at 5:00 p.m.

The details are: Write four to six pages (double-spaced, typed, 12 point), and turn in your story by emailing it to, or printing it out and turning in a hard copy at any reference desk (attention Melissa or Anarda).

Your story can be dark and dramatic, or light and quirky. It can be humorous or deadly serious. Think of some recent retold fairy tales: Cinder, by Marissa Meyer, a sci fi mash-up in which Cinderella is a cyborg and her main rival for the prince is the Queen of Luna; Red Rider's Hood, by Neal Shusterman, in which Red, a boy famous for cruising around in a blood-colored Mustang, takes on a gang called the Wolves after they rob his grandmother; or Enchanted, by Alethea Kontis, in which Sunday, the youngest of the Woodcutter siblings, is supposed to be blithe and bonny but instead suffers from writer's block and can't find anyone but a frog who will listen to her stories!

We have heard some rumblings (among the book club guys) that a retold fairy tale is too "girly" a subject for boys to be interested in writing. Really, guys? Who are the most famous writers of fairy tales you know? Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (otherwise known as the Brothers Grimm). Charles Perrault. Hans Christian Andersen. What do all these people have in common? Gender...and fairy tales.

Also...have you ever read any fairy tales? Despite their later dumbing down and prettying up, many of them aren't exactly bed-time tales for tots! Think about it: Hansel and Gretel? Their parents take them out and dump them in the forest, the witch tries to bake them, they end up killing her? And some of the original details of other stories--like the stepsisters cutting off their toes and heels with a sharp knife to try to fit into the glass slipper in Cinderella? or all those inconvenient dead wives of Bluebeard? So let's quit the stereotyping and get with the writing! We look forward to reading your stories!