Just Listen: addendum

True confessions: I wrote the last post before I was finished with Just Listen. And while my overall opinion hasn't changed - it's a good read, typical Dessen - I did find myself thinking many times in the last quarter of the novel, "Um, Annabel? Could you maybe, um, SAC UP or something? It's not that hard to say hello to someone."

That is all.


Long weekend

We'll try the Kirkus style of reviewing for this batch, read over Memorial Day weekend.

Pieces of Georgia by Jennifer Bryant (Knopf, 2006, 176 pages).
A decent, if unremarkable, middle-grade novel.

Georgia McCoy is an artist. Her mother, recently deceased, was also an artist, so to spare her father's feelings, Georgia keeps her talents hidden. When an anonymous donor sends Georgia a gift membership to the Brandywine museum for her birthday, Georgia is flabbergasted -- and delighted. She sneaks away to the nearby museum after school and finds inspiration in the works of the Wyeth family.

Georgia's a likable character, and this novel-in-verse is perfectly fine. It's nothing spectacular, though, and I felt in many places that I was reading something I'd read many times before. I'd give it to an artsy girl looking for something quick.

Digging to America by Anne Tyler (Knopf, 2006, 288 pages).
You know, it's Anne Tyler. So of course it's good.

Digging to America is the story of two familes, each of whom adopts a baby girl from Korea. Bitsy and Brad Dickinson-Donaldson are the quintessential overachieving Americans, with a big house in the Baltimore suburbs and definite ideas (Bitsy has, anyway) about childrearing and maintaining cultural traditions. Ziba and Sami Yazdan, an Iranian-born couple, are more reserved, less secure (Ziba, anyway), and more sympathetic at the outset. But because this is a Tyler novel, the characterizations are never as easy as one might think. Bitsy is overbearing and rather ridiculous in many ways (her insistence on commemorating Arrival Day for the girls is both endearing and pathetic), but even she has a depth and substance that a lesser novelist would miss. Ultimately, though, this is Maryam's story: Ziba's mother-in-law provides both the moral conscience and the driving force for the novel, as her seeming implacability and judgmental tendencies are challenged by her not-exactly-romance with Bitsy's widowed father.

A quibble, however: who proofread this book? Too many small, noticeable errors for a writer of Tyler's stature. For shame.

Just Listen by Sarah Dessen (Viking, 2006, 384 pages).
Another satisfying pick for bookish teenage girls.

Sarah Dessen is the high priestess of pensive, thought-provoking YA: the kind of writer whose books you give your favorite moody cousin or that smart, quiet girl in your humanities class. Annabel Greene is a model - not a high-class, New York model, but a fairly normal, pretty girl whose face regularly appears in print and TV ads for local stores. This might be glamorous, were it not for three things: 1) Annabel's total social ostracization at the hands of her former best friend, after an incident at a party over the summer involving said friend's skeevy boyfriend; 2) Annabel's sister Whitney, whose own modeling career derailed after she developed a severe eating disorder; and 3) Annabel's own disenchantment with modeling, which she can't bring herself to tell her mother.

Enter Owen, a misfit with a bad reputation whose brutal honesty and apostolic devotion to underground music help crack Annabel's too-nice exterior and force her to confront the issues and people she's been trying to leave behind. Annabel avoids conflict at all costs, including the cost of honesty with herself; it's only after another girl confronts the same situation, with a bravery that Annabel lacks, that Annabel finds the strength to put herself first. Compulsively readable, with only a few bumps.

Happy summer.


Jumping the Scratch

I liked So B. It, the author's most recent middle-grade novel, very much, so I had high hopes for Jumping the Scratch. It's a quick read and a mostly enjoyable one, though I found myself closing the book with a decidedly lackluster "huh."

Jamie has had a rough life: his father skipped town, his cat died, and his mother uprooted him to live with their amnesia-stricken aunt in a trailer park. And there's one more thing -- a secret so shameful to Jamie that he can't even think about it.

Jumping the Scratch tackles a slew of heavy themes: sexual abuse, memory, loss, friendship, and self-esteem. For the most part, it's accessible and carefully paced, never heavy-handed. But I couldn't help feeling that the hard issues were all on the surface, that a certain breeziness permeated the novel and kept me from feeling the weight of Jamie's abuse fully. Jamie is a likable kid, but the secondary characters seemed a bit stock: his horrid, cruel teacher; his overworked, unsympathetic mother; the precocious kid Audrey, whose claims of ESP eventually help Jamie unlock the memories that make him ashamed. Only Sapphy, Jamie's once-vibrant, now brain-damaged aunt, is more richly drawn, and even her eventual recovery felt a bit convenient.

Don't get me wrong: I liked the novel as I was reading it, and I would recommend it to good intermediate readers. But I couldn't help feeling like the author could've done more with the story.

Jumping the Scratch by Sarah Weeks. Geringer/HarperCollins, 2006. 176 pages.


Party Princess

I like Meg Cabot's Princess Diaries books: they're fun and fluffy and don't pretend to be anything more than that, really. Cabot's characters have good moral centers (gaak, cannot believe just wrote that) -- but really, they do. These books are a decent antidote to the soulless Gossip Girls and Clique series: it's the same kind of name-dropping, trend-heavy contemporary setting, but focuses on the dorks and misfits of the high school social scene.

That's not to say the formula can't get a little tired, though, and this (the seventh in the series) is showing some signs of age. Now that Mia has her perfect boyfriend, the tension of feeling like a romantic loser has abated somewhat; now she frets about taking her relationship with Michael to the next level (S-E-X). I did enjoy the intriguing little J.P. subplot in Party Princess: Mia doesn't quite realize she's flirting with (and enjoying being flirted with in return) another great guy, but the reader (and Lilly) sure does. I'll be interested to see if the Michael/Mia pairing survives another book.

A good choice for summer or when you've got two or three hours to kill.

Party Princess by Meg Cabot (The Princess Diaries, Volume VII). Harper, 2006, 304 pages.


May Day

This book was recommended by various book-y blogs, and I'm delighted I picked it up. A breezy, fun mystery set in rural Minnesota, May Day is the first in a planned series of (presumably) twelve "Murder by Month Mysteries."

Twenty-nine-year-old Mira is an assistant librarian at the Battle Lake Library, having fled Minneapolis after an unfortunate breakup. Mira's a rural girl herself, though her childhood in nearby Paynesville was forever marred by her alcoholic father, whose death in a car accident that also killed a mother and baby earned Mira the nickname "Manslaughter Mark's daughter." She's isolated and a bit lonely in Battle Creek, so when dashing Jeff Wilson comes to town to survey some land for possible development, Mira is smitten. When that same Jeff shows up dead in her library just a few days later, the mystery is on. Who killed Jeff, and why? And what does it have to do with the Battle Creek High School Class of 1982, whose members include the highly-lacquered former beauty queen mayor, the pencil-thin-mustache-sporting chief of police, and Mira's absent boss, who may or may not be a cross-dresser?

This is a quick, fun read, a good choice for the beach or a rainy night. My quibbles are minor: the usual "are you KIDDING me, you IDIOT?!" moments in many mysteries, wherein the heroine embarks on some incredibly stupid and risky adventure instead of, oh I don't know, CALLING THE POLICE; and the strange hours and policies of the Battle Creek Library, which seems to have only one staff member present at any one time, and which can apparently close at the drop of a hat or the whim of a would-be crimefighter.

Nonetheless, a satisfying little treat. Can't wait for June Bug, the next in the series.

May Day by Jess Lourey. Midnight Ink, 2006, 209 pages.



Loved it. I have never read Allegra Goodman before, though I've been tempted to many times. I think I feared she was too highbrow, too smart, and the times I thought about picking up Kaaterskill Falls or The Family Markowitz were times when I really needed a quick YA fix or collection of humor columns instead.

But Intuition is a wonderful read: a careful, nuanced portrayal of life and politics in the world of high-stakes scientific laboratories. Cliff, once a golden boy researcher who's since failed to live up to his potential, is on thin ice at the Philpott Institute, a small cancer research lab located near and loosely affiliated with Harvard. He's been experimenting on mice with R-7, a cancer vaccine, for years with no results. Finally, suddenly, a handful of mice in his experimental group show signs of remission. Is R-7 a wonder drug? Is Cliff the new face of hope for cancer patients? Or are his results too good to be true?

Rounding out the characters are Robin, Cliff's quickly-former girlfriend, whose suspicions about the validity of Cliff's data lead to a potentially disastrous NIH inquiry; Sandy and Marion, the lab's directors, whose working relationship threatens to sour under the pressure of the investigation; and Feng, another postdoc whose notions of integrity and diligence provide perhaps the strongest moral compass in the lab. Minor characters such as Sandy's daughter, Robin's neighbors, and Marion's husband give context to the players outside the lab. Sandy's relationships with his three girls, in particular, provide some of the best and most cringe-worthy moments, as his heavy-handed, charisma-laden parenting style keeps him blind to his family's needs.

Goodman is a master of internal monologue, and imbues each character with enough depth that it's impossible to categorize any of them as wholly good or wholly bad. The novel doesn't wrap up neatly, but instead presents a conclusion that feels real: not without consequences for any of the characters, but not without a glimmer of redemption either.

(I particularly enjoyed the shout-out Goodman gives to my college choir and conductor. Not surprising, since her husband is a fellow alum, but delightful nonetheless.)

Intuition by Allegra Goodman. Dial, 2006, 352 pages.


Books read on or near a plane

Long travel weekend recently. Here are the book parts of my reading material (not included: three manuscripts and seven magazines, five of which were trashy).

Startled by his Furry Shorts by Louise Rennison (Harper, 2006, 278 pages). Could it be that Georgia Nicolson has become--quel horreur!--boring? It could. Also? HAAAAAAAATE the new cover treatments.

Freshman by Michael Gerber (Hyperion, 2006, 340 pages). Funny in an insane way, with a wholly improbable plot (that "fake Ivy League" problem again), but one that trips along nicely, and the secondary characters were terrific. I am not usually a fan of nebulously-unreal stories (case in point here: the protag's girlfriend is a vampire and he and his buddy are sort of able to raise a mummy from the dead, but everything else is strictly Normal Universe), but this one managed to keep me laughing.

Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church by Becky Garrison (Jossey-Bass, 2006, 176 pages). The author is a senior contributing editor at The Wittenburg Door, a satirical religious magazine that I want to be funnier than it is. I felt the same about this book. Some funny parts, some thought-provoking parts, but a whole lot of 9/11 references/nostalgia (if I can use the word "nostalgia" without sounding like a heartless creep, as that's not what I mean) and a whole lot of whiny, nonpartisan unfunny. Still might recommend it for my church's library.

Next up: Here Lies the Librarian by Richard Peck (still; I know) and Intuition by Allegra Goodman.

Note to self: Someday I will fix the links on the right and make them no longer placeholders. Really, I will.


Poison Ivy

Amy Goldman Koss has a keen ear for the subtle manipulations and horrors of high school and middle school (The Girls, Gossip Times Three). Her latest concerns Ivy, a social outcast who has borne unceasing misery at the hands of the Anns, a trio of Mean Girls (only one of whom, the Queen Bee, is actually named Ann).

Ivy's well-meaning but socially tone-deaf teacher, Ms. Gold, tries to teach her students the ins and outs of the American justice system by staging an in-class civil trial, with Ivy as the plaintiff and the Anns as defendents. The attorneys and judge are chosen randomly; the jury pool is assembled through a few choice lies and manipulations. Other minor characters fill the roles of court reporter and process server.

The story unfolds through multiple narrators, a device that can be tiresome but here mostly works. I was struck by the casual inattention of some characters: Cameron the process server, who has a wonderful, dopey voice, has no idea who many of his classmates are, and his clumsy not-quite-romance with painfully shy plaintiff's counsel Daria was the best part of the novel, for me.

The ending is, as Lear would say, nasty, brutish, and short. There is no redemption here; no comeuppance, and one only hopes that the throwaway comment about suicide is just another bit of cruel gossip. Despite the unbelievability of the premise (I've taught high school kids, and that kind of roleplay is just asking for trouble), I did find this compelling.

Poison Ivy by Amy Goldman Koss. Roaring Brook, 2006, 176 pages.


Long time, no nothing

I've been flitting about the country for various book- and writing-related conferences and thus have had no time to post. I am also still stuck in a bit of a reading rut, preferring the easily-digestable magazine (not just trash, really) to the more permanent book.

Behold, a shortlist.

Books finished:
Blue Shoes and Happiness by Alexander McCall Smith (Pantheon, 2006, 240 pages). The latest in the #1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, this lives up to expectations: slow, comfortable, delightful.

How to Be Popular by Meg Cabot (Harper, 2006, 200-ish pages). The Princess Diaries' author's latest stand-alone. Fun and fluffy, goes down easy but not likely to stay with you. I did like the very last twist, which put this a cut above other Mean Girls-inspired YAs.

Book returned to the library unread:
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (Knopf, 2006, 512 pages). I know, I know, it's supposed to be fabulous. But when time is short and my shelves are overstuffed, a 500-pager about the Holocaust is just not the most appealing choice.

Book currently reading:
Born to Rock by Gordon Korman (Hyperion, 2006, 272 pages). I like his stuff; this should be good.

Books I can't wait to start:
Here Lies the Librarian by Richard Peck (Dial, 2006, 145 pages). A not-exactly-sequel to The Teacher's Funeral.

You Can Never Find A Rickshaw When It Monsoons by Mo Willems (Hyperion, 2006, 396 pages). A compendium of cartoons from Mo's round-the-world journey when he was in his 20s. Complete with really unflattering passport photo.

That's it for now . . . looking forward to having my head above water again soon.