Sunday, February 24, 2013

More Whitney books (Mostly General)

Theresa Sneed, No Angel. (Speculative) This novel--the prequel to Sneed's previous novel, No Angel--has an interesting premise (pre-earth life) and dramatic subject matter.  The topic seems particularly apt for a Whitney candidate, since it deals with a peculiarly Mormon perspective on Heaven. The novel moved along at a reasonably fast pace (appropriate, since it also deals with the cataclysmic battle in Heaven that led to the expulsion of Lucifer and 1/3 of the hosts of Heaven). However, the novel didn't entirely work for me. One of the main issues, for me, is that this topic calls for an epic voice or approach (think Milton's Paradise Lost). And while Sophie, as narrator, is relatable, the tone of the novel didn't feel epic enough for me--it was much closer to a contemporary YA novel. While that works on one level (presumably most of those in Heaven would be like us, right?), it doesn't help give the novel the epic heft it needs. It also made it harder for me to see Sophie as the heroine that she was meant to be. It was also a little strange to me that Heaven looked so much like 21st century white/western culture (the characters communicate through text-speak; they care a lot about their clothes, and the general aesthetic seems very modern-day). I appreciated Sneed's attempt to understand why people would choose something other than God's plan (her view: they didn't like that some people would fail), but I would have liked to see Sophie more conflicted about her choices. She does have some questions, but they always seemed to get resolved within a few pages or so. I think more conflict for Sophie would have resulted in more tension and a stronger book.

Annette Lyon, Paige. (General) Cute story. I like the idea of four interlocking stories; I'd previously read Olivia (Livvy's story), so it was interesting to me to see how the glimpses I had of Paige were fleshed out in this story. The writing wasn't particularly beautiful, but it was clean (it didn't tend to distract me from the story), and I liked that Paige seemed very real and human to me, and that the ending wasn't necessarily what readers might expect.

Tanya Parker Mills, A Night on Moon Hill. Daphne Lessing, a reclusive professor and writer, has lived more-or-less satisfied with her life until the night she comes home and finds a favorite student drowned in her pool. The discovery of his identity--and connection to her past--shocks Daphne, but not as much as the discovery that this boy expects her to take on the care of a highly unusual child, Eric, who has Asperger's syndrome. Not surprisingly, this child comes to utterly disrupt and remake her life. The opening of this story was incredibly lovely--the writing was lyrical and the imagery very vivid. I loved the description of Daphne's teen relationship (I don't want to spoil the story by sharing anything too detailed), and I liked Daphne herself a lot, despite the fact that she was reserved and sometimes found emotions hard to manage. (I feel like that sometimes too, although not to that extent). The only downside I had to this story was that I didn't feel like the last third or so of the book matched the lyrical quality of the opening. The genre shifts a little, too, into a sort of suspense novel near the end that didn't quite seem to fit the tone of the earlier part of the novel. Still, the novel is worth reading--lovely, flawed characters and a moving storyline.

Camron Wright, The Rent Collector. This story is told in first person by Sang Ly, a young Cambodian woman who lives with her husband, Ki Lim, on the outskirts of Stung Meanchey, the largest municipal waste dump in Cambodia. She, her husband, and their young son eke out a living by "picking"--collecting recyclable garbage and selling it for money. Despite the grim surroundings, they are reasonably happy, surrounded with family and friends. Sang Ly's only real unhappiness is the poor health of her son. One day, however, as things seem to crumble around them, Sang Ly discovers something remarkable: the grumpy old woman who collects their rent (and is called "Cow" behind her back) knows how to read. Sang Ly begs the Rent Collector to teach her to read--this experience will ultimately transform her life. I enjoyed the story--the writing was clear and not too gimicky (a temptation in a story like this). Sang Ly had a clear voice throughout. I liked, too, how the author interwove a variety of different kinds of literature into Sang Ly's life and showed how those things changed her life. As other reviewers have mentioned, this is a story of hope. One of the most interesting things to me was the portrayal of life living near the dump--like Katharine Boo's Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, this book portrays the rather grim life of garbage pickers. Unlike Boo's book (and despite that book's subtitle), this book really did feel hopeful. I'm still not entirely sure whether that is a good thing or not--the literacy that Ly used to transform her life may not realistically succeed in this environment (as it did not always succeed for the real-life characters in Boo's book). Literacy is certainly unlikely to succeed as dramatically as Sang Ly succeeds in the novel (if success is marked by ownership of material goods). Ultimately, though, I think the reader in me would rather have a happy ending at the expense of some realism.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Whitney reading, week one (mostly YA)

I've officially finished reading the YA category for the Whitneys! One down, only . . . seven to go (by Aprilish) if I want to read them all before the winners are announced. Can I do it? Maybe.

It helped that I'd already read two of the nominees, Lisa Mangum's After Hello (I met her at LTUE this weekend and she was charming) and Sariah Wilson's The Ugly Step-Sister Strikes Back, both of which I enjoyed. The remaining three I read in the last week or so.

19. Shannen Crane Camp's Finding June. The basic story here reads sort of like an adolescent fantasy: sixteen year old June, an aspiring actress living in L.A., gets cast for a visiting role on the top-rated crime procedural on television. On set, she meets the dreamy Lukas Leighton. June is thrilled when Lukas seems interested in her, but her best friend Joseph isn't so sure this is a good thing. The plot was sort of predictable beyond this point (it was clear from early on that Joseph likes her--why June never really gets this, even when essentially told this by others, is sort of a mystery to me). The writing was decent, so the novel made for a quick, light read. But days after reading it, I'm still mystified as to why a crime drama would hire a teenager for a big role (that wasn't a high school student), and similarly mystified as to why Lukas Leighton would come on to her so strongly--hasn't he heard of statutory rape? His pursuit of June was pretty open on set; surely the producers or someone would have been worried about the legal ramifications?

20. V is for Virgin, by Kelly Oram. Don't be put off by the title here--this book was actually smart, funny, and cleverly written. Because her biological mother was a teen mom, Val Jensen has decided to remain a virgin until marriage. But when her boyfriend breaks up with her over this decision, Val takes him down in public (in the cafeteria), Val becomes publicly known as "Virgin Val" when the video goes viral. Rather than fight the new label, Val decides to embrace it and launches a line of jewelry ("V" for virgin and "A" for abstinence) to help take the pressure off of girls (and guys) who aren't ready to have sex. At the same time, however, Val meets the hot lead singer of the band Tralse, Kyle Hamilton (a former alum of her high school). Kyle sees her label as a personal challenge. While Val waffles between her attraction to kindness and her fondness of the popular Mormon boy at her high school, she also tries to juggle her increasingly complicated national image. I thought the book did a great job tackling the issue of virginity without making it religious (Val herself isn't Mormon, although some of the kids in the book are), and the interchanges between Val and Kyle had great tension. Some of the discussions were more frank than I think young teens would be comfortable with, and I also wish the ending had left me with just a little more resolution than it did, but overall I enjoyed the book--much more than I expected.

21. Jessica Martinez, the Space Between Us. Of all the YA finalists this year, I think this is the most literary of the bunch--and it definitely deals with some of the darkest issues (drugs, gang rape, teen pregnancy . . .). It wasn't my favorite, though. The main character, Amelia, had an interesting, smart voice. After the death of her mother, Amelia and her sister Charly have lived with their father and grandmother. Since their father, a preacher, lives mostly in his head, Amelia and Charly have been unusually close. That starts to change when Amelia's boyfriend shows an interest in Charly and Amelia dumps him. Then Charly starts keeping secrets, asking Amelia to lie for her and attending questionable parties . . . Amelia's sure Charly's headed for trouble, and, in fact, Charly drops a bombshell: she's pregnant. Rather than create scandal for their father in their small Florida town, the two sisters are shipped off to Canada, to live with their mother's half sister. In addition to dealing with the freakishly cold weather, Amelia has to deal with resentment of her sister, who she thinks has ruined her life. But it turns out there's more to Charly's story than Amelia thinks, and the story supposedly traces their growth back together. And this is where I see the problem. I get that YA doesn't want to overexplain things to readers (that's a sign of more MG novels), but I could have used a little more explanation at the end. I'd also like to see more of the upbeat Amelia--for so much of the novel she's grim, which makes the novel rather grim to read. Also, Amelia comes across as a little passive: toward the end, her sister makes many of the big decisions, rather than Amelia. I'd liked to have seen a little more pro-activity on her part.

22. Shannon Hale, Princess Academy. (Middle Grade) I started reading this months ago and got distracted; the Whitneys gave me an excuse to finish it. And, not surprisingly (since I like most of Hale's books), I really liked it. I love that it looks at multiple sides in a revolution through Miri's point of view, allowing us to sympathize with different people for different reasons. I also love how Miri learns about Rhetoric, since as a rhetoric/composition PhD, this is an area close to my heart. Plus, it's lovely to see Miri finally get the happiness she deserves.

23. C. David Belt, Penitent. (Adult Speculative) This is the second in the series, and I haven't read the first, so I might be doing it a disservice . . . There were some positive points to the novel: the plotting and pacing was quick, so it swept the reader along at a brisk pace. And people who like vampire novels with lots of physical fighting and swords, won't be disappointed. However, I'm not one of those people. I will admit that after reading Belt's afterward, about how he was more interested in questions of agency (in his world, vampires must *choose* to become vampires--all save one, the main character's husband Carl, who's the Unwilling and an object of prophesy). The main characters are Mormon vampires, which does give the author some interesting play with LDS theology, like ideas of redemption (can vampires embrace God and give up their blood-lust? Answer: Yes. They can't survive without human blood, but they can refrain from killing). Other doctrinal questions the author doesn't really answer (like why would God allow creatures so powerful to interact with humans?). However, there were a couple of issues I couldn't get over. One was the narrator's heavy Scottish brogue. For the first couple of pages, I thought the narrator was an old man; when I realized she was a woman, I thought she must be an old woman. When I finally realized she was a two-hundred year vampire who lived in a 17-year-old body, I was just confused. Surely after living in America for so long, that heavy brogue would wear off? (For a good contrast, think of Matthew in Deborah Harkness' books; he's French, but there's no reason you'd initially know that about him, because his accents are all impeccable). Or at least, just surface only in times of stress? Does the author have to use "nae" and "dinnae" and "ken" on every page? Apparently so. I also had a hard time keeping the many different characters separate. The author gave elaborate backstories for most of the characters when we first meet them--I found this habit a little distracting (I'd rather learn the pieces a bit at a time). But it didn't really individualize people for me, except as caricatures (she's the woman who hates men; he's the Navajo Indian who used to hate whites, etc.) I would have liked perhaps fewer characters and more personality to help distinguish the characters.

24. Sian Bessey, Within the Dark Hills. (Historical). This story follows Annie, a serving made who leaves her position when the son of the house makes a move on her, and Evan, a widower with a young daughter to care for. After an accident at the mine where Evan works leaves his brother-in-law unable to work (and Evan's sister thus unable to care for Evan's daughter), Evan turns to the local minister for help. The minister, who's been sheltering Annie, offers a solution: a marriage of convenience. A safe haven for Annie, and someone to watch after Evan's daughter. While much of the novel was pretty predictable, it did have some interesting and sweet moments. The historical detail about the mines was the most interesting part of the story, in my opinion. The developing romance between Annie and Evan could have been fleshed out, as could their eventual conversion by Mormon missionaries. (While the story is generally told in close third person, shifting between Annie and Evan, the account of the baptism just glosses over *both* of them to say that those attending were baptized.)

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Gearing Up for the Whitneys

I'm fairly new to the world of the Whitney Awards (I think I heard of them for the first time three years ago), but I'm rapidly becoming a fan--and only partly because we review some of the Whitney finalists over at Segullah, where I'm a staff editor and blog contributor. It's interesting to me to see who gets nominated and who doesn't (I'm sad to see no Ally Condie on this year's list). I also enjoy reading (most) of the finalists--it gives me a better feel for a writing community that I hope to someday enter.

So, fair warning. In the next couple of months you're going to be hearing about several of the Whitney finalists as I try to read my way through the list.

In the meantime, here's what I read this week.

17. Deborah Harkness, Shadow of Night. This book has taken me nearly three weeks to get through (and yes, I was two days late getting it back to the library because I didn't want to get on the wait list again . . .). Not because it isn't good--it is--but because it's so jam packed with stuff: historical details, characters, etc. Also, I read other books as I was going through it. I thought this continuation of Matthew and Diana's story was fascinating at parts--I loved meeting Mary Sidney, whose poetry I studied in college--and their sojourn in Prague and Elizabethan England were interesting. But it felt too long in parts, and I'm not entirely sure how the overall plot of the trilogy was advanced, other than some interesting discoveries about the Ashmole document. Still, I'm sure I'll be reading the conclusion at some point.

18. Jason Wright, 13th Day of Christmas (Whitney finalist, General). This is the kind of book I think most readers think of when they think of LDS fiction (certainly I do). It's not my cup of tea, though I know lots of readers probably love the "heart-warming" story line, about a young girl who befriends an 80 something year-old widow, and how their friendship sustains them both through hard times, including life-threatening illness. And I'm sure the expressions of faith in the book are sincere--and the sentiments expressed are good ones--but I don't like feeling like I'm being manipulated, which is how I felt reading this. Also, the plot was pretty predictable.

It Never Rains but it Pours

Some weeks, I go to the library and lament the lack of interesting offerings. Some weeks, I'm literally overwhelmed by them. (This week was one of those bountiful weeks--and I read some great stuff).

12. Running Barefoot, Amy Harmon. This book started slowly and felt like it could benefit from some pruning; despite that, there was a lot that I loved about the book. I loved the setting in rural Levan, Utah. Harmon's descriptions were so vivid that I could easily imagine myself there. I loved her honest portrayal of the predominantly Mormon society that lived there; she was neither condescending nor preachy. I also loved the complex relationship between Josie Jensen, who's trying to keep her family intact after her mother's death, and Samuel, the half-Navajo grandson of Josie's neighbors. At thirteen, Josie forms an unlikely bond with Samuel (he's eighteen, a senior looking to enter the Marine Corps) through classical music. When Samuel leaves for the military, Josie is lonely but continues to write him. It's not until years later, and following a personal tragedy in Josie's life, that Samuel returns to Levan and the two reconnect. Although what follows isn't necessarily surprising, Harmon kept things interesting by layering their relationship with depth. And her prose was generally simple and lovely.

13. Reasons I Fell For the Ugly Fat Friend, by Rebecca Ann. I wanted to like this book more than I actually did--I'd heard great things about it and I respect what I know of the author. The author does a nice job with a realistic boy voice (I never once felt like I was listening to a girl), and the book had a lot of humor. I also definitely related to the love interest, an interesting teenage girl with a less than perfect figure. There were two things that I didn't love about the book: 1) it was a little steamier than I like with YA (I realize not everyone has this objection!). 2) It felt just a little shallow--so much of the novel was just about the boy getting the girl to believe that he really cared about her; I felt like the book could have used the added depth of some additional sub-plots.

14. The Ugly Stepsister Strikes Back, by Sariah Wilson. This story follows quirky Mattie Lowe, a girl in love with her step-sister's boyfriend, Jake Harmon. Unfortunately for her, her step-sister is too nice for her to hate, or to try to steal her boyfriend (even if she thought she could). However, when she and Jake get assigned to the same English project, they start to form an actual friendship--one that's tested when Mattie decides to run against Jake for student body president to bolster her college applications. There's plenty of subplots here (Mattie's relationship with her sister and her absentee mom; her fear that her artistic parents will reject her interest in drawing manga; her step-sister's romance), but they all add to the main plot. I thought this was really cute--despite the plot hole in Mattie's run for student government--most schools hold elections for senior officers during the junior year, not during the fall of senior year.

15. The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater. I've been looking for this at my library forever and was so excited to finally see it in stock! I enjoyed this book. While it didn't have the breathtaking beauty of Scorpio Races, it did have her trademark lovely writing. The premise itself is awesome: Blue Sargent has been raised in a house full of women, all of whom have varying psychic powers. Blue's only power is as an amplifier of their powers. However, on St. Mark's Eve, while helping her aunt record the spirits of the dead (those who will die in the next twelve months), Blue actually sees one of the spirits--a Raven boy, one of the kids who attends the posh boy's school in town. Her aunt tells her there's only two reasons why she would see him: either he's her true love, or she killed him. (Or perhaps both, as Blue has known for years that if she kissed her true love, he would die). It's not surprising, then, that within a couple of weeks Blue has actually met this boy, Gansey, who's obsessed with finding the ley lines in the valley, as he thinks they will lead him to the spirit of a long-vanished Welsh King (akin to Arthur). Faster than she could have expected, Blue finds herself enmeshed in Gansey's life, and befriending his quirky circle of friends: Adam, with his strange fragility, Noah, who sometimes hardly seems there, and Ronan, who hates almost everyone. The characters were fascinating to me, and I can't wait to see what happens next in the series.

16. Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman. Two days after finishing this book, I still feel like I'm half inhabiting Hartman's world, which is a clear sign of a successful novel for me. Seraphina has a secret, one that may make her an outcast among her people if it gets out. The secret means that she protects her privacy, though she desperately wants to make friends at the palace where she works (assistant music master). Seraphina's world is a tense one, on the eve of the arrival of the Ardmagar, the old dragon who helped negotiate a truce between humans and dragons with the old queen. Too many humans think the treaty was a mistake; the older generation of dragons believes this as well. Seraphina's unique gifts may enable her to save her world by preserving this fragile peace, but only at great personal cost.