Tag Archive: fiction

Sep 01 2015

Review: Books centering around LGBTQ teens

With the recent Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage and the renewed surge in movements such as the It Gets Better Project and the No H8 campaign, I wanted to focus on Young Adult books centering around LGBTQ teens.

Cut Both Ways by Carrie Mesrobian asks the reader “What would happen if you found yourself falling in love with your best friend of the same gender?”

Will Caynes is 17 and has never even been kissed.  His best friend Angus lives down the block and has been publicly out since junior high.  Will divides his time between his divorced parents who treat him as a weapon to use against each other.  Will wears glasses that are slightly out of fashion because his father pays for those, but clothes that are clearly more expensive because his mother provides those.  Angus, with his good looks and quiet confidence, strikes Will as everything he himself is not.

One night as Angus and Will are getting high and drunk in the park, Angus leans over and kisses Will.  The make out session that ensues leaves Will feeling confused and intrigued.  On the one hand, he knows he’s not gay, on the other, he enjoyed kissing Angus.  A few days later, Will meets Brandy, a girl from his school and quickly begins a relationship with her, complicating the situation even further.

As Will struggles to maintain both relationships, he is also beset with worry over his father who has recently started drinking again and with anger towards his mother whose new family has little room for him.  It becomes clear that Will has fallen in love with Angus despite not thinking of himself as gay, but he also has a strong physical attraction to Brandy.

Cut Both Ways is a darkly honest novel which confronts the issues of emotional attraction and teen sexuality without flinching.  Mesrobian writes with a blunt and forthright style.  Will’s characterization and manner of speaking reads so true to that of a teenage boy that I was genuinely surprised to learn the author is female.

Cut Both Ways contains characters which are believably flawed and complex.  Brandy proves that she is more than a bubbly cheerleader type and her insecurities and attitudes ring true to the fact that she is barely fifteen to Will’s nearly eighteen.

Angus demonstrates that, despite his quiet and disaffected attitude, he too is plagued by insecurities and uncertainties in his relationship with Will and in his own sexual experiences.

Finally, Mesrobian leaves certain elements of the story unresolved, which felt very true to life.

Readers who enjoyed The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban will likely enjoy Cut Both Ways.  Although vastly different stories, both novels present complex and imperfect characters that one would expect to find in everyday life.  In addition, both novels acknowledge that, unlike fiction, life does not always come with neat endings.


Simon vs. the Homosapiens Agenda by Becky Abertalli is, in contrast to Cut Both Ways, a lighter and more simplistic novel.

The titular character, Simon, is 16 and gay but has not yet come out to his friends and family.  The only one who is aware of Simon’s secret is a boy at Simon’s school known simply by the pen name “Blue”.  The two struck up an anonymous correspondence earlier in the year, and recently their emails have taken on a more flirtatious tone.

One day Simon is approached by an acquaintance, Martin who has a bit of a bully reputation.  Martin has stumbled on Simon and Blue’s correspondence and threatens to reveal it publicly if Simon doesn’t help him pursue Abby, one of Simon’s closest friends.

Suddenly Simon is faced with a choice: out himself before he’s ready, be outed by Martin and risk revealing Blue’s secret in the process, or help someone he despises hook up with his best friend.

Albertalli writes with a fun and conversational style.  Simon is easily imaginable as a self described Harry Potter look alike, and his friends are equally easily pictured.  Leah, the quiet bookish one, who harbors a not so secret crush on Nick the philosophical musician with surfer looks, and Abby, the perky and skinny cheerleader whom Nick has a crush on.

I was, however, left with the sense that Albertalli is writing to a younger audience than expected given the ages of the characters within the novel or that she is perhaps not completely familiar with teenage vernacular.

For example, the social networking site Tumblr features heavily in the plot and yet each time it is referenced in either description or dialogue, Albertalli refers to it as “the Tumblr” when the most used terminology is simply “Tumblr.”  As a reader, I found this jarring and distracting from the overall plot.

In addition, sections of character dialogue read as if Simon and his friends are within the young teens range instead of their actual ages of seventeen and eighteen.

Martin, Simon’s blackmailer, commits an act that is reprehensible and without redemption, yet is almost immediately apologetic and suffers little to no consequence.  This felt out of character for him given his actions and words earlier in the novel.

In fact, it is Blue who is the best developed character and the one who rang truest to his written age.  Even though his identity is not revealed until the final pages, Albertalli creates a character who is far more rich and complex than the characters whom we know more intimately.  Through his and Simon’s correspondence we come to understand Blue’s own issues with his sexual identity.  He reveals his struggles with his strict parents and his internal conflict regarding their divorce.  He also reveals to Simon his deep feelings of inadequacy around his father and his fear that his mother may be unable to accept him as he is due to her religious beliefs.

Readers who enjoyed Fangirl or Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell will likely enjoy Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.  Albertalli and Park write with similar styles and like Park, Albertalli creates characters the reader would likely enjoy getting to know better.

 

May 19 2015

Review: The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw

The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw follows the life and career of Charlie Garrett, a Southern transplant to the North.  The book opens with Charlie Garret’s first day in a new job.  The son of a younger widow, Charlie’s mother re-married into an elite family and she and now has young son Nick, whom Charlie dubs “The Golden Boy.”

Feeling as if he doesn’t belong within his mother’s new family, Charlie attends Harvard and is then hired at The Abbot, a prestigious Massachusetts prep school.  Even though he continues to feel out of place among his high society colleagues, Charlie finds true contentment in the classroom.

There he meets May, the headmasters young daughter, who feels as much out of place in her own family as Charlie does in his.  As May comes into her own as a woman the attraction between them grows, culminating in a romance that comes to life just as May’s father begins the end of his.

In the midst of all this, Charlie’s mother Anita hovers in the background like a specter.  At first she is the driving force that pushes him to Harvard and eventually to Abbot.  Then, she becomes the constant reminder that it is his brother, and not he, Charlie, who is the beloved son.  Her continual worry over her younger son as he begins his own teaching career first in Haiti and then in Afghanistan, drives an even further wedge between her and her older son.

Meanwhile May finds her first source of true happiness in her relationship with Charlie.  Happiness, which comes to a sudden halt when he ends their relationship almost immediately after her father’s funeral and heads west for several months.

Told entirely from the perspective of Charlie, The Half Brother is an enjoyable but not fully developed story.  The book shows initial promise, but relies too much on the prep school environment and quickly falls into predictability.

As the story progresses, we learn that each character holds secrets that all intertwine with each other’s lives.  For Charlie it is at first the feelings he harbors towards May, his student.  It then expands into his buried resentment of his younger brother who instantly charms everyone he meets.  For Nick it is the realization that despite his brilliant mind and his ability to draw people in, he can only feel alive within the chaos of a third world country.  For Anita it is the truth of her first marriage and how it has impacted her relationship with Charlie.  Finally, for May it is the longing she feels to be loved by her own mother while simultaneously pushing her away in an effort to guard herself from rejection.

Each of the character’s secrets has a ripple effect changing not only their own relationships but also the relationships of those around them in severe and life altering ways.  In the midst of this, LeCraw creates a tragic sub-plot surrounding one of the students at the school.

Lecraw’s writing style is engaging enough to keep the reader interested, but the storyline never completely finds its stride.  The primary plot twist while dramatic, comes off as somewhat contrived and unsurprising.  As a reader, I found the storyline mostly interesting, but I did find myself struggling at times to remain engaged.  The story starts out at a brisk pace and quickly draws the reader into the plot and the ending pulls the reader back into the story with a bittersweet twist and well timed pacing.  The middle section drags however, and readers may find themselves in a position where they are ready to give up.  I would encourage readers to stick it out, though admittedly skipping a few small sections in the middle have no impact on understanding the book as a whole.

The Half Brother’s characters show great potential to be interesting people.  The potential however is never quite reached as LeCraw fails to develop them to full understanding.  Charlie’s loneliness and sense of abandonment which stems from the death of the father he never knew, dances on the edge of whininess at times.

Nick, Charlie’s brother has no complexity at all.  Like Charlie he shows signs of struggling with feelings of abandonment as his own father (Charlie’s step-father) drinks himself together while he is still young.  These feelings however are expressed as one who is an egotistical and self-centered brat who never matured emotionally beyond the age of three.

Anita, Charlie and Nick’s mother hovers in the background where Charlie is concerned and is over-bearing where Nick is concerned.  Neither son has any sort of healthy relationship with her, and her presence becomes necessary only when used for a not entirely shocking plot-twist.

May is the most complex character of them all and I found myself wishing LeCraw would explore her more.  After her break up with Charlie, May travels through France and other parts of Europe.  Her strength is a testament to the fact that she can function perfectly well without either Charlie or Nick, and yet she continually pushes herself towards both.

Finally, the sub-plot becomes a driving force for the primary plot, but leaves the reader wanting something more.  The impact that it has on each of the main characters leads to a too neat resolution as if LeCraw got to the end of writing and realized she had forgotten to resolve that aspect of the book.

Fans of The Secrets of Midwives will likely enjoy The Half Brother.  Though The Secrets of Midwives centers on the lives of the three women, The Half Brother is similar in its theme of secrets and feelings of displacement within one’s own family.  Unlike The Secrets of Midwives which allows the reader to see events from each of the characters points of view, The Half Brother is told entirely from the perspective of Charlie who comes off as an unreliable narrator at best.

Readers looking for a strong book about family and the impact of long kept secrets would do better to turn to The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy or Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler.  Each handles intense and controversial topics with a deftness that LeCraw tries for but never actually reaches.

Apr 28 2015

Review: Trigger Warning and Hansel and Gretel by Neil Gaiman

As I was planning this column, I began thinking about the concept of fairy tales – not fairy tales in the Hollywood Disney sense, but rather fairy tales as a learning tool, an instruction that the good guys do not always win.  With that in mind, I chose two recent books by Neil Gaiman, whom I consider a master at telling modern fairy tales.

Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman is the third collection of the author’s short fiction.

The titular concept stems from the phrase which is often used to warn readers or viewers of potentially disturbing or graphic material.  Gaiman developed the idea after seeing numerous uses of the phrase online.  He wondered if at some point it would be applied to his own works and whether or not it should be.  Finally, he decided he should be the one to do it first.

Each story has appeared previously in various anthologies or collected works.  Trigger Warning, however, collects them all together for the first time into a single cohesive theme.

From the lightest to the most terrifying, Gaiman creates a world of unconventional and sometimes whimsical fairy tales for adults.  In keeping with his own theme, Gaiman cautions readers in the forward:  “Many of these stories end badly for at least one of the people in them.  Consider yourself warned.”

Gaiman’s collection starts out simply enough in “Making a Chair”.  In the simple prose about struggling through a creative block, Gaiman muses as to whether or not building a book should come with the same sort of warnings a chair does.  “Do not use as a stool or stepladder.  Failure to follow these warnings can result in serious injury.”

In many ways, the story comes across as a mockery of the idea of trigger warnings.  Gaiman subscribes to the Aristotle way of thinking.  Aristotle believed that seeing horrors committed on stage would allow people to experience those horrors and the feelings they evoke in a safe environment and would keep them from acting out their urges on society.  Gaiman takes a similar approach.  He purports that the things which shock or disturb, are the things which most make us think and grow.  With that in mind, it does appear at times that Gaiman is making a particular effort to disturb the reader.  Such is the case in “Down to a Sunless Sea” in which an old woman wears a bone from her dead son as a necklace and in the end reveals a terrible secret.

“Orange”, written completely in questionnaire form, is a brilliant cautionary tale about becoming addicted to tanning lotion.  While many of the answers will illicit a chuckle, there is an underlying sinisterness to the tone, and readers will be longing for Gaiman to fill in the gaps.

“Click-Clack the Rattlebag” begins innocuously enough with a young man meeting his girlfriend’s little brother for the first time.  The little boy takes an immediate liking to the boyfriend and asks to be told a story.  Specifically, a click-clack the rattlebag story.  As the story unfolds the boyfriend learns all about the click-clack rattle bag and the reader is left with an ending that will leave even the adults checking under the bed at night.

Gaiman also lets loose his fanboy side.  “The Case of Death and Honey” follows Sherlock Holmes into retirement and reveals the true reason Holmes took up bee-keeping in his retirement.  “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury” was written as a present for Bradbury’s 90th birthday.  It is a poignant tale of loss, and Gaiman writes it with such sadness and eloquence that one can’t help but mourn the loss of things forgotten.  Finally, “Nothing O’Clock” delves into the world of Doctor Who.  Gaiman is well known for having written two episodes of Doctor Who and one can see hints of those stories in “Nothing O’Clock.”

 

Rating: 


Hansel and Gretel, Gaiman’s most recent book for children, makes a fine companion piece to Trigger Warning.  A re-telling of the classic Grimm’s fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel takes a similar approach to Trigger Warning in that Gaiman thinks children should be exposed to dark things, stating “…if you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up.”  He then adds “…it is really important to show dark things to kids—and in the showing, to also show that dark things can be beaten, that you have power. Tell them you can fight back. Tell them you can win. Because you can, but you have to know that.”

One notable change in Gaiman’s version from the more recent editions is that Gaiman takes care to preserve one of the more controversial elements of the Grimm Brother’s version:  the mother.  At some point in the mid 19th century, the female antagonist transitioned from biological mother to step-mother.  Gaiman restores the original version, allowing the story to take on a macabre overtone.

Gaiman’s witch is also a more sinister character than later tellings.  In the modern tellings the witch comes across as a deranged caricature – a demented hag who perhaps is not fully cognizant of the fact that she is eating children.  In Gaiman’s version, the witch is instead simply a bitter, dragged down old woman who happens to have a taste for human flesh.

Illustrations by Lorenzo Mattoti enhance the creep factor of the fairy tale. Initially the black and white ink sketches appear haphazard and non-cohesive.  Upon further inspection, however, the reader sees the subtle features of the main characters as they are lost in the forest or as Hansel sits in jail waiting his execution.  Rather than detract, these illustrations evoke a sense of heaviness and even dread in the reader.  Patches of white are used sparsely until the final Happily Ever After where the white fills nearly the entire page, deftly filling the reader with a sense of joy and victory.

Though perhaps not recommended bedtime reading, at least not for the easily frightened, Trigger Warning and Hansel and Gretel will easily become new favorites for fans, young and old, of Gaiman’s work.

 

Rating: 

Jun 17 2014

Review: The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope

The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope by Rhonda Riley opens in 1944 when Evelyn Roe is seventeen.  The U.S. involvement in World War II is at its peak, and Evelyn has recently graduated from high school when Evelyn’s great aunt Eva dies suddenly.  As all of Eva’s sons are off fighting, and Evelyn’s only brother is a bit too young, Evelyn is tasked with taking over the family farm.

One night during a bad rain storm, Evelyn discovers a figure buried in the mud.  Assuming that a wounded soldier has stumbled back from the war, Evelyn brings the figure into the house where she discovers that it is not exactly human but not entirely alien either.  Within a few days, Evelyn’s charge has transformed into a tall, red-headed woman: the near identical twin of Evelyn.  When a local boy is injured on Evelyn’s farm, she is forced to quickly invent a backstory for her new companion’s sudden appearance.  The unnamed figure suddenly becomes Addie, Evelyn’s long lost cousin and the daughter of her father’s estranged half-sister.

Addie’s strange vocalizations and shape-shifting elements draw Evelyn in, and they become sexually involved almost instantly.  After a couple of years, however, Evelyn finds herself longing for a husband and children.  Sensing this, Addie seduces a passing stranger and takes on his likeness.  Thus Adam Hope is born.  Adam’s vocalizations have a calm, soothing effect, and he is quickly accepted by Evelyn’s family and small town.  Several years go by and tragedy strikes, resulting not only in the emotional estrangement of Evelyn and Adam but also in the risk of Adam’s secret being revealed.  What follows is the tale of how they attempt to make their way back to Adam being perceived as human and to the former closeness in their relationship.

Most critics have compared The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope to The Time Travelers Wife due to the common element of an intense romance filled with unexplainable events and secrets kept from everyone else.  I found however, that it reminded me far more of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane.  Though Gaiman’s book does not posess the romantic storyline that The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope does, it does have the otherworldly aspect.  As with Gaiman’s novel, ordinary life is punctuated by elements that can not be easily explained.  In addition, both books are told from the perspective of a person who finds themselves in the minority by being a normal human.

Readers of The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope may also be reminded of the 1984 film Starman.  While Riley’s book and the film both involve shape-shifting aliens, I found the differences from Riley’s novel to outweigh the similarities.  In Starman, it is made clear from the start that the storyline centers around an alien being, and he is in fact concious of his extra-terrestrial origins.  In The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope, Addie/Adam have no knowledge of their origins, and the alien aspect becomes secondary to the main plot.

The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope is an adult novel.  The descriptions of alien/human sex, while not as strange as the reader might imagine, are detailed.  In addition, the novel does not shy away from loss, and character death is dealt with in a very frank and realistic manner.

The opening historical setting of the book was in my mind an excellent choice by Riley.  Too much earlier in history, and the appearance of a shape shifter would have fallen prey to superstition and hostility.  Too much later in history, and the author would have been forced to deal with the complications of a society that is dependent on a paper or electronic trail.  In choosing a mid-World War II setting, Riley has picked just the right middle ground.  Developments of the bomb and the rumors of German and Japanese advanced technology create a bit of believable leeway for an alien visitor.  In addition, the element of the war created an environment where one could easily pass off the sudden appearance of new person as a returning soldier or a long lost relative.

Riley has created relatable characters that the reader will be able to easily recognize.  The depictions of a small town in which the residents are suspect of everyone outside – and are not completely sure of those inside – are spot on.  The reactions of the residents when confronted with evidence that Adam is different are precisely the attitudes one would expect to find in a small town.  The polite but obvious distancing, the thinly veiled derision, and the secret gossiping are all written in such a way that it is clear Riley has drawn from personal experience.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope and found that the book was not at all what I expected.  At first glance, I was uncertain and admittedly skeptical.  A historical, science-fiction romance sounded far too absurd for the author to pull of in a believable manner; however, Riley manages to achieve exactly that.  My primary criticism of the book is that the plot was a little slow in developing.  It is clear once the book is finished that the early plot development is necessary to establish the foundation, but I did find myself wishing the pace would pick up a little.  On the other hand, I did read this book in nearly one setting.  I would encourage the reader to stick with the first several chapters as I found that, just as I was at the point where I was ready to give up, the pace picked up dramatically and from that point was a quick read.

The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope seems an unlikely candidate for a book that will stick with you long after the cover is closed, but I found myself repeatedly thinking about the characters and their choices.  The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope is Rhonda Riley’s first novel, and I look forward to reading more of her works in the future.

 

 

 

 

Mar 25 2014

Review: Books for Beginning Readers

Children’s books are an often overlooked genre.  There are so many on the market that it can be a struggle to know where to begin with your beginning reader.  With that in mind, here are six new children’s books geared towards pre-schoolers or other young children.

Love Monster is a clever little tale written by Rachel Bright about a “slightly hairy and a bit googly eyed” monster who lives in a town called Cutesville.  Cutesville is, as the name suggests, a town populated by cute and fluffy residents such as kittens, puppies and bunnies.  Unfortunately, there’s no one in Cutesville to love the monster, so he decides to go out into the “big wide world” in search of love.  The book follows his adventures as he looks all around for someone to love him just as he is.

Love Monster is a great way to teach kids that it’s okay to be different and that we shouldn’t judge based on looks because even a “slightly hairy and a bit googly eyed” monster deserves love.  Although written to be silly, Love Monster manages to find a nice balance of conveying a strong moral message while not falling into the ridiculous.  In addition, the storyline is interesting enough that parents will not mind reading it over and over.  – 


How to Babysit A Grandpa by Jean Reagan is a fun story about a little boy who babysits his grandfather one day while his parents are out.  Written in a how-to style, the book lists a variety of things kids can do with their grandparents while babysitting them for a day.  Some of these activities include giving him snacks such as ice cream topped with cookies, or cookies topped with ice cream (depending on your preference).  Other suggestions consist of taking him for a walk to look for lizards or to teach him the importance of jumping into puddles.

How to Babysit A Grandpa provides an excellent jumping off point for parents whose kids might be apprehensive about having a babysitter.  Told from the perspective of the child, the book immediately reassures the reader that “Mom and Dad always come back.” In addition, it gives many ideas for the child to use to have fun with their babysitter or grandparent.

How to Babysit a Grandpa goes a little overboard on the cute and might be a little juvenile for the 5 – 8 year old age range to which it is marketed, but might also be on the lengthy side for kids younger than 5 years old.    – 


Zombie In Love by Kelly DiPucchio tells about a zombie named Mortimer who is looking for a girlfriend.  Mortimer tries a number of different tactics to find love but is overwhelmingly unsuccessful.  He simply cannot find “the ghoul of his dreams.”  Mortimer tries several different tactics in his quest for love.  He tries giving one girl a diamond ring.  The next, he gives a heart.  He even tries to go to the gym, but unfortunately his arm keeps falling off.  Eventually, Mortimer decides to place an ad in the paper in the hopes that someone will meet him at the Sweethearts ball.

Targeted toward children aged 4 – 8, Zombie In Love is an entertaining read that will quickly become a regular in the bedtime reading rotation.  Kids who are in that “love of all things gross” stage will enjoy the zombie aspect, and the subtle visuals such as the diamond still being attached to a finger or an actual beating heart being given as a gift will keep parents entertained as they read this story to their child repeatedly.  


Dinosaurs Love Underpants by Claire Freedman sets out to tell the true story of how dinosaurs became extinct.  It turns out that cavemen realized they needed clothing and discovered the wonders of underpants.  The fiercest of all dinosaurs, the Tyrannosaurus Rex, sees the new underpants and immediately wants them.  What follows is both a literal and metaphorical tug of war between dinosaurs and cavemen over underwear.  Soon the Triceratops is wearing them on every horn, and the Stegosaurus discovers he is allergic to wooly mammoth underpants.  In addition, TRex keeps tripping on them, and Diploducus’ pinch uncomfortably.

Written entirely in rhyme, Dinosaurs Love Underpants is written for children ages 4 – 7.  Though not intended as such, Dinosaurs Love Underpants could be used as a tool for parents in toilet training.  Younger children who see how much the dinosaurs love underpants might be inspired to want to wear them as well.  Older kids will enjoy the brilliant and amusing illustrations but may otherwise find the storyline on the ridiculous side.  While a cute read, the ending was too sudden, and the rhyming theme lost it’s flow midway through the story.  –


Mousetronaut and Mousetronaut Goes to Mars are two educational books by Mark Kelly.  Based partially on a true story, these books tell about a mouse named Meteor who travels on the Space Shuttle and participates in events such as the Mars Rover landing.  Meteor is thought too small by the other mice to be picked for the Space Shuttle mission.  Determined to prove them wrong, Meteor works hard to prove that size isn’t always what’s important.

Written for children aged 4 – 8, both books present an opportunity for parents to teach their kids about NASA, the space program, and what it’s like to travel on the Space Shuttle.  Young children who are at the stage of dreaming of being an astronaut will enjoy following Meteor’s adventures.  Slightly older children may be bored and find the story over-simplified.  Parents will enjoy the teaching opportunities presented, but it is unlikely either book will become part of the nightly bedtime routine.