Sunday, January 15, 2012

First Date, by Krista McGee

First DateFirst Date by Krista McGee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First Date is a fun, engaging and sweet read with some thoughtful moments focusing on MC Addy's strongly held Christian faith. 17 yo Addy, a junior at her Christian high school, has her plate pretty full with her studies, golf, and hanging with her characterific bff Lexi. Addy doesn't focus on, or have much respect for, teen idols, reality tv, power shopping or other trendy stuff that would distract her from her goals - getting good grades and getting into an Ivy League college. So she is mystified when her principal informs her that he's selected her to represent their school on the hot new reality show, Book of Love, "a cross between America's New Star, Survivor, and The Bachelor, with a little Miss America thrown in," where 100 girls will be competing to be the prom date of the President's swoon-worthy son, Jonathan Jackson. She's even more nonplussed when her Uncle Mike, who stepped in to raise her when her missionary parents were killed, thinks it's a good idea (honestly, this isn't a spoiler, it's on like page 11!). Addy's reluctance stems not only from the show's general lack of appeal to her likes and preferences. She also feels pretty inadequate and scared. Both the principal and her uncle pitch this as an opportunity to not only represent the school, but to represent her faith as well - "to give Jesus some good press for a change." This scares Addy even more, since she's always perceived the pressure to live up to her parents' rather heroic example, but felt utterly inadequate to do so. Well, fortunately for us readers, she steps up her game, and takes on the challenge of participating on the show. Hilarity, some tears and changes for Addy ensue. Addy is not your typical reality show contestant, as you might guess, and her unorthodox approach turns out to not only appeal to Jonathan, but to the show's millions of viewers as well. Her biggest challenges, however, focus not on negotiating the twists and turns of the rather cutthroat competition (100 teenage girls out for blood - yikes!), but on her growing realization that the opportunity to share her faith and beliefs is, in fact, why God has called her to be on the show, and that her fears are letting it slip away.

Sometimes it's hard to create characters with a strong sense of faith and purpose without making them seem cardboardy or cheesy. That is so not the case with Addy, who comes across as real and dimensional. This isn't a book about angst acted out with drugs, sex and rebellion. Addy is a "nice girl," but she doesn't come across as naive or without her own struggles and issues, and it's clear that she lives in the real world teens inhabit. Her friends Lexi and Kara also come across as charming supporting characters who add to the fun and the sense of reality. Most of the male characters are a bit on the "meh" side, to me at least, and seem there mostly to move things along (on more than one occasion I really had to ask, "Uncle Mike, what were you thinking!"), but they do that pretty effectively. Jonathan is a pretty cool guy, and also comes across as real and relatable. The story takes a few twists and turns, and keeps you reading, even as you come to realize that Addy is pretty much up to anything reality tv and a few unexpected developments can throw at her. I really hadn't realized until I read the study questions at the end (nice idea, btw, even if you're reading them all by yourself), that this is loosely based on the book of Esther (kind of like Troy High is loosely based on The Iliad). To me, that added some fun, and shed some more light on where the author was coming from, but it doesn't need that to be a cute book with a thoughtful theme about being a Christian in a world that is far from that belief system.

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Saturday, January 7, 2012

Bittersweet, Sarah Ockler

BittersweetBittersweet by Sarah Ockler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"When it's like this, I don't notice the cold. I don't hear the wind howling through the empty spaces. I don't feel like a small, broken-winged bird trapped in a rusty cage." Unfortunately for MC Hudson, it doesn't get "like this" very often, and it does, in fact, mostly feel like she's small, broken and trapped. The rusty cage is the upstate New York town of Watonka, where the abandoned steel mills and frozen lake might well represent what happened to Hudson's dreams and plans for the future the day her discovery of a cheetah print bra (or is that a "cheater" print!) broke her family apart and put her promising figure skating career on ice (sorry, couldn't resist - and don't be mad, this isn't a spoiler, it happens on like page 2 or something!). When dad disappears to pursue his dreams (which seem to mostly take the shape of a series of inappropriate younger women) all Hudson, her mom and her charmingly precocious younger brother Bug have left is the diner it's always been her mom's dream to own and operate. But the fulfillment of mom's dream seems to require Hudson's full time participation and efforts, and even with the whole family pushing, it's an uphill sled, which leaves little time for Hudson to continue skating or doing much else besides babysitting and baking. Oh yeah, baking. It turns out that Hudson has another gift besides her skating prowess - baking cupcakes. Her clever concoctions (mouth-watering descriptions caption every chapter)are not only a creative lifeline for her during the dark days following dear old dad's departure, their nosh-worthy notoriety brings in enough business to sustain the diner as well, leading her mom to depend on her even more. So now, in her junior year, just as Hudson is feeling utterly hemmed in by her obligations, a potential way out appears. A chance at a figure skating competition with a hefty scholarship becomes available, but to take it, Hudson needs to barter for ice time by coaching the dismally inept Watonka Wolves, her school's hockey team (haven't won a game in ten years? no problem!). The resuscitation of her old dreams, and her plans to escape Watonka, require keeping more secrets and telling more lies than she anticipated. And when two handsome and hot hockey boys draw her into their own secrets and rivalries, things get more complicated and confusing than she counted on.

This is a beautiful book - the language is lyrical, with rich and poetic descriptions of the gritty and sometimes surprising loveliness of its setting. The characters are real feeling and sounding and are appropriately charming and infuriating as the case may be. Hudson is heartachingly lonely and loveable. To me, she seemed to have a lot more bitter than sweet to deal with, and I especially was infuriated with her frustratingly foolish and clueless father, whose abandonment resonates so powerfully with everyone but him. The story unfolds at a pace that draws you in, keeps you reading and guessing at the twists that I for one, never saw coming. Hudson's not without her flaws, including her unwillingness to open up to others, which leads to no end of trouble with her mom, her best friend Dani (who I thought could have been a bit more supportive, but let's be real, everybody's got their issues, so it's understandable). But this is a story of how Hudson finds out what her dreams really are, and how to realize them in the world she's living in now. One great element that I always love in a book (and love to comment on!), is the use of a literary work to drive the story forward and shed light on the characters' thoughts and feelings. In this case, it's the good old Scarlet Letter! Hudson identifies with Hester (go H team!), in her feelings of isolation, ostracism and, to some extent, empowerment. As she reflects on the themes of the novel, and explains them to one of the hockey hotties, she illuminates her own struggles for acceptance of her real self, and her dealings with her own and others' secrets. It's fun, thoughtful and not in the least heavy handed - it adds charm and even more clever interest to an already well crafted novel. Twenty Boy Summer was a tough act to follow, and I remember using the word bittersweet in my review of it. This one lives up to its predecessor, and confirms Sarah Ockler's place in the pantheon of great contemporary YA inhabited by Sarah Dessen, Elizabeth Scott and Jennifer Barnholdt (Hey, it's my pantheon, feel free to choose your own exemplars!).

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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Why We Broke Up, by Daniel Handler

Why We Broke UpWhy We Broke Up by Daniel Handler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a book where describing what happened kind of misses the point, because it's not really about that. But, I've gotta start somewhere, so ... it's written as an angry, passionate, heart-broken and heart-breaking letter, from Minerva Green, a quirky off-beat cinephile and high school junior, to her former boyfriend, king jock and jerk, senior Ed Slaterton. The letter accompanies a box, filled with "the prizes and debris of this relationship, like the glitter in the gutter when the parade has passed, all the everything and whatnot kicked to the curb." The first items are two bottlecaps from the Scarpia's Bitter Ale they shared at Min's friend Al's bitter sixteen birthday party (that's the kind of quirksters they are). A relationship that begins with a beverage named after one of the all-time creepiest opera villains might portend problems, but Min and Ed's relationship ignites with improbable incandesence. Until suddenly, one day, it dramatically doesn't any more, and Min is left sorting through the souvenirs, trying to make sense out of what happened. There are many wonderful things about this book ... it captures and conveys so lyrically and intensely the thoughts and feelings of falling crazily and inappropriately and overwhelmingly in love with a completely unsuitable partner. But two things really stood out for me: the beautiful and dizzying language with which Min tells their story; and the world that the author creates, one that is so close to ours, but just slightly askew. There are no Starbucks - there are coffee shops like Leopardi's, In the Cups and Federico's. There are revival movie houses like the Carnelian, which show a series of fascinating, if fictitious, films of mystery, poetry and wonder. There's a Boris Vian Park (is there a less likely candidate for civic recognition than the author of I Spit on Your Grave?), where it really does seem possible that a unicorn might materialize at twilight or dawn, or the hazy boundary between them. There's no facebook, video games or cell phones to distract our characters from engaging directly with each other. Sometimes, there's an almost hallucinatory, surreal quality to the prose - the scenes of Ed's bonfire and the Halloween party are really extraordinary and almost disturbing. And at other times, the luminous and lyrical descriptions of Ed and Min's times together are so tenderly and emotionally conveyed and impactful that it's easy to get caught up in their improbable experience. This really seems more like an extended poem than prose, and it's a beautiful reading experience. Min is a special girl, to the point where the final few pages (especially her self-scathing soliloquy) are particularly painful. Her story will stay with you long after you close the covers of this lovely and beautifully illustrated book. And speaking of the "story," this is not just an extended improvisation of linguistic loveliness, it's a compelling story that draws you in and unfolds with twists, suprises, and all the narrative goodness and power that a major book provides. So, it's got fantastic magical language, awesome characters (even Ed, as flawed and frustrating as he is, is fully realized and not without his appeal) and a gripping story. Definitely worth investing your precious reading time!

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