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.)

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