Thursday, December 31, 2009

In Which Trai Shows Her Work

Since it's New Year's Eve and all, I figured I'd post the list of books I read in the past year. I keep track of the numbers for no reason at all, mostly just out of sheer curiosity. I topped the previous year's number of 37 (small number as I was busy with school and such) by 19 books; I'm happy! My goal is to get more time to read each ensuing year, so let's see what 2010 will bring! :)

(I haven't reviewed some of the books on this list after Guernsey, my first review, either because I read it for college or because I didn't wish to review it due to uncertain feelings.)

The List:

1) Revolutionary Road- Richard Yates
2) Kitty and the Dead Man’s Hand- Carrie Vaughn
3) God-Shaped Hole- Tiffanie DeBartolo
4) The Notebook- Nicholas Sparks
5) Watchmen- Alan Moore
6) The Truth About Forever- Sarah Dessen
7) The Joy Luck Club- Amy Tan
8) March- Geraldine Brooks
9) Dedication- Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus
10) Year of Wonders- Geraldine Brooks
11) Love is a Mix Tape- Rob Sheffield
12) A Streetcar Named Desire- Tennessee Williams
13) Jane Austen in Scarsdale- Paula Marantz Cohen
14) The English Patient- Michael Ondaatje
15) Gone With the Wind- Margaret Mitchell
16) Dead Until Dark- Charlaine Harris
17) Living Dead in Dallas- Charlaine Harris
18) Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict- Laurie Viera Rigler
19) The Time Traveler’s Wife- Audrey Niffenegger
20) Kitty Raises Hell- Carrie Vaughn
21) Audrey, Wait!- Robin Benway
22) Holly Would Dream- Karen Quinn
23) Two Guys Read Jane Austen- Steve Chandler and Terrence Hill
24) Pride and Prejudice and Zombies- Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith
25) Colonel Brandon’s Diary- Amanda Grange
26) Breakfast at Tiffany’s- Truman Capote
27) Old School- Tobias Wolff
28) Head Games- Christopher Golden
29) Club Dead- Charlaine Harris
30) No Humans Involved- Kelley Armstrong
31) The Summoning- Kelley Armstrong
32) The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society- Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows
33) Agnes Grey- Anne Bronte
34) The Awakening- Kelley Armstrong
35) Joy in the Morning- Betty Smith
36) The Erasers- Alain Robbe-Grillet
37) On the Origin of PCs- Rich Burlew
38) Proof- David Auburn
39) One Tree Hill: The Beginning- Jenny Markas
40) The Book of Job- Stephen Mitchell
41) Aura- Carlos Fuentes
42) Bright Star: Love Letters and Poems of John Keats to Fanny Brawne- John Keats
43) Pedro Paramo- Juan Rulfo
44) Darkly Dreaming Dexter- Jeff Lindsay
45) Dear John- Nicholas Sparks
46) City of Glass- Paul Auster, Paul Karasik, and David Mazzucchelli
47) Dearly Devoted Dexter- Jeff Lindsay
48) Push- Sapphire
49) The Road- Cormac McCarthy
50) Dexter in the Dark- Jeff Lindsay
51) Reasons to Be Pretty- Neil LaBute
52) Testimony- Anita Shreve
53) The Pregnancy Test- Susan Gable
54) A Kid to the Rescue- Susan Gable
55) Kitty’s House of Horrors- Carrie Vaughn
56) The Last Song- Nicholas Sparks

Have a happy New Year, all! See you in 2010!

- Trai

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Last Song'

The Book: The Last Song

The Author: Nicholas Sparks

How I Found It: I was intrigued by the plot when I read the blurb upon its publication, and the trailer for the movie looked interesting.

The Review: Things I Should Never Think: "Surely, one of Nicholas Sparks' books won't make me cry like Dear John did again!"

Yep, I was wrong.

This book was written with the upcoming Miley Cyrus movie in mind-- Sparks wrote the screenplay and then the novel to go along with it. I beg anyone who is turned off by the Miley Cyrus aspect to give it a chance-- I didn't like the idea, either, but I'm really glad I gave the book a shot.

The Last Song is a story about Veronica "Ronnie" Miller, a seventeen-year-old New York girl with a lot of anger at the book's start. Her mother is driving her and her brother, Jonah, to their father's for the summer. For the past three years, since her parents' divorce, Ronnie has refused to speak to her father, Steve, believing he is responsible for everything that happened between her parents.

Kim, Ronnie's mother, explains to Steve that there was trouble back in New York-- Ronnie was caught shoplifting, and she worries for Ronnie's future as well as the trouble she might cause Steve. Steve assuages her fears and, once she leaves, begins to bond again with Jonah while Ronnie attempts to ignore them both.

While she stays away, she goes to a beach volleyball game and has soda spilled onto her (by accident) by a guy she will later know as Will. Another soda-soaking leads to her meeting Blaze, a girl her own age, and Blaze's controlling boyfriend Marcus.

The summer passes as Ronnie begins to learn about herself and others. She gets to know Will better as they bond over a nest of loggerhead turtles, and even finds herself falling in love. As things become clearer about Will, his family, and even Blaze and Marcus, Ronnie has to contend with disapproval, heartbreak, and her growing connection to her previously estranged father.

I really did enjoy the book, though it was a little difficult for me to believe Sparks' voice as a teenage girl sometimes. The dialogue often sounded just a little too polished, and I couldn't picture some of it coming from a teenager's mouth. I've been told many times that one of the most authentic parts of my own writing is the dialogue, so I'm usually sensitive to when it seems off. I think here was one of those cases-- Sparks was a little too far removed from being a teenager to write the dialogue convincingly, but he got the mindset down pretty well.

Besides that small criticism, the book was very emotional and I cared about the characters. I ended up keeping the box of tissues by me towards the end. I find myself wondering how, exactly, this might turn out as a Disney movie-- there is very serious stuff in here, including near-fatal burns and terminal illness, and a lot of the passages surrounding the illness were difficult to read (hence all the crying). I hope the movie does the subjects justice; it could be a great drama if it turns out well on screen.

I recommend the book to fans of Sparks' previous stories or to people who are looking for a place to start with his works. I think other teenagers could enjoy it as well, if only for the love story that seems to fit a lot of teenage relationships, especially summer romances. But hang onto the tissues; you'll need them.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

In Which Trai Reviews 'Kitty's House of Horrors'

Big warning: this is the seventh book in a series, and my review will spoil (some major) things from the earlier six. If you have any plans to read the series, start with Kitty and the Midnight Hour and do not read this review any further.

The Book: Kitty's House of Horrors (seventh in the Kitty Norville series)

The Author: Carrie Vaughn

How I Found It: I've been a dedicated, adoring fan of the series since the very first book debuted in November 2005.

The Review: My rule: when a new Kitty book comes out, I inhale it. There have been times when I've gotten distracted and have had to set aside the book for a month or two, but inevitably, when I come back to it, I inhale it. Kitty books have traveled with me through freshman Italian class, a road trip to Virginia and Rhode Island, a trip to London, college orientation, and now winter break of my freshman year at college. They've been there for me since my freshman year of high school, and for that reason I love them dearly.

To say a bit about the series: Kitty Norville is a young, twentysomething (I did the math once-- I think by now she's about twenty-six to twenty-nine?) werewolf radio DJ who inadvertently starts the first call-in advice show for supernatural creatures. This show brings her in contact with two of the major characters in the series: Cormac Bennet, a bounty hunter, and Ben O'Farrell, Cormac's lawyer and an eventual werewolf who becomes romantically involved with Kitty, and later becomes her husband.

From the beginning of the series to now, Kitty has evolved from a submissive wolf to a dominant alpha female with her own pack and a husband who serves alongside her as alpha male. The vampires of the series have slowly came into focus as figures who exist to perform powerplays, locked in something called "The Long Game" that appears to be about consolidating political power. All Kitty knows is to stay the hell away.

At the beginning of the novel, Kitty is drawn into a contract with a reality TV show based around keeping supernaturals in a house for two weeks, with the promise that it will bring good publicity to her show. Kitty reluctantly agrees, suspicious, but comforted once she learns that some of her friends from previous adventures will be there.

Vaughn does indeed bring out the cavalry for this one: readers of the series will recognize Jeffrey Miles (Washington), Ariel (Takes a Holiday), Tina, and Odysseus (both from Raises Hell, with Odysseus also from the previous book, Dead Man's Hand), among some new characters. This, along with Vaughn finally expounding on the homo sapiens pinipedia mention at the end of Midnight Hour, made me adore the sheer amount of world-building Vaughn has done over the years.

Once Kitty has settled into the house and gotten familiar with her housemates, she and the others begin to sense that not all is right. Their suspicions are confirmed as an unexplained death occurs, followed by another, more clearly deliberate one. As those still alive are left without power and without any means of contact to the outside world, Kitty and the rest are left to wonder who is causing these deaths-- and what they can do to stop it.

Out of all the seven Kitty books, I have to say that this is the scariest and most emotional one of them all. At first, the deaths were sad, but I could mostly see that Vaughn was killing off red-shirts who had only been introduced to the book for this reason. Vaughn, surprisingly, simply didn't stick to the pattern of killing off only those the readers wouldn't miss. Familiar characters are just as likely to die as the new ones, and even when the new ones died, I was still hit emotionally. I found myself tearing up three times-- I cared about these characters. I've said it before, I'll say it again-- if Kitty were real, she'd be my best friend; I can relate to her easily, and it's partly because of this that I felt so strongly for the characters. Kitty cared and so did I.

As the series has evolved, the books have gotten better and better-- my previous favorite was Silver Bullet, but I think this one has topped them all. I loved the further exploration of Odysseus Grant's character, and I especially liked the new addition, the vampire Anastasia. Carrie Vaughn is doing a good job at building up alliances for Kitty, and part of the reason I enjoyed this book so much was seeing just how Kitty managed away from her normal support system, when she has no clear idea of who she can trust.

I highly recommend this book and the entire series to anyone who wants a strong heroine who can manage well on her own, and whose narrative voice is easy to relate to. The books in the series are: Kitty and the Midnight Hour, Kitty Goes to Washington, Kitty Takes a Holiday, Kitty and the Silver Bullet, Kitty and the Dead Man's Hand, and Kitty Raises Hell.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

In Which Trai Wonders About a Cover Art Coup

On Sunday, I was wandering through Barnes & Noble, having gone to pick up the newest Kitty Norville book by the wonderful Carrie Vaughn (review up soon, hopefully). As I was walking past the new paperbacks rack, I was stunned to see a reprint of a Jane Austen-related book that's gotten dreadful reviews. The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet, written by Coleen McCullough of The Thornbirds fame, has been slammed by Janeites on all quarters since its release earlier this year.

As I looked at the book, I noticed to my shock how similar it was to the poster art for the 2005 Pride and Prejudice movie (the one with Keira Knightley). I went home and made a comparison image, sending it to the wonderful website Austenblog, which I've been reading for about two or three years now. Mags, the Editrix, very kindly posted the image with my story.

I was surprised to see the similarities between the cover art and the poster, and I'd noticed this before as well-- on two different romance novels I found while browsing the Internet, except in that case, the exact same stock photo was used! I'll give links to my comparison images.

The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet as compared to the Pride & Prejudice movie poster: here.

Expecting the Doctor's Baby as compared to Father by Choice: here.

I feel as though the only thing I can say is, what's up with that? I guess I understand the reasoning: for the romance novels, it could be because Harlequin had the stock photo/drawing and just used it for books with a similar theme. For the P&P sequel, they might have wanted to draw in readers like me who would recognize the image as similar to the P&P poster and therefore take it as authentic.

Both instances smack slightly as lazy to me, but far be it from me to tick off the publishing companies who are nice enough to provide me with reading material. Either way, I'm steering clear of Mary Bennet, but I thought I'd throw the issue out there. The cover artists aren't pulling a fast one on me!

- Trai

Thursday, December 24, 2009

In Which Trai Wishes Everyone Happy Holidays!

Another heads up-- it's Christmas Eve and I wanted to honor that! I celebrate Hanukkah, too, but I figured it'd be a catch-all holiday announcement and no one could fault me for not being in the holiday spirit!

So I did my Christmas Eve tradition of watching Love Actually and I'm off to a family celebration. Happy holidays from Tutor Girl!

- Trai

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

In Which Trai Reviews 'A Kid to the Rescue'

Hello, all! I had to take a reading break from Up in the Air (reading it over such scattered periods of time is confusing!), but I'll get back to it as soon as I can. In the meantime, some light reading was done to destress from finals.

The Book: A Kid to the Rescue

The Author: Susan Gable

How I Found It: Read one of Gable's earlier books and was sent a copy by Susan Gable herself, who was very nice!

The Review: Wow, did I really like this book a lot! I think I'm a sucker for any story with a cute kid (honestly, I think I suck, period, with kids in real life, but I will "aww" at any cute representation of them. Go figure). Anyway, I like stories with young kids, especially quiet ones-- I've written one of these kids myself and his character is really close to my heart, so I think that might explain why.

Shannon Vanderhoff has taken in her traumatized nephew, Ryan, after he has witnessed his mother's murder at the hands of his father. It is suggested that she bring her nephew to an art therapist, Greg Hawkins, who does good work empowering children who need it. Ryan has stopped speaking and Shannon wishes to help him, but is wary that letting a comic-book artist heal her son might lead to violence.

She finally allows Greg to help Ryan, and starts to see some changes as Ryan becomes happier and Greg gives her tips on how to connect to him. Shannon won't do this easily, as events in her past have led her to believe that letting go is best and personal attachments are fleeting. But she might be starting to fall for Greg.

As the trial for Ryan's father looms and a custody battle comes into play, one of Greg's many siblings, a lawyer, advises him to stay away from Shannon until the court cases are over. But it is increasingly difficult for Greg to stay away from the people he's grown so attached to, and he finds himself falling in love with both Shannon and Ryan.

I really enjoyed the emotional range of this book-- I laughed aloud a couple times, I cried, and I even found myself saying, "But that's not FAIR!" at a few points as I became outraged on behalf of the characters. The chemistry between Greg and Shannon was well-done and I could see where their attraction came from.

I also felt that Ryan was really well-written. I always find kids are difficult to write, particularly how they talk and behave, and this must've been no exception. I felt that Ryan being traumatized was handled very well and depicted accurately, and gave a lot of credit to real-life professionals like Greg that have to work with sad stories like this every day.

The secondary characters, consisting mostly of Greg's large family, gave me a good laugh, too. Greg's rapport with his brothers Finn and Hayden was very believable, and Hayden's lines gave me the most laughs. That family dynamic was realistic and really gave a sense of the big family and the love they had for each other.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book a lot, and I'm looking forward to other stories about this family and the other men within. Highly recommended to fans of romance or family dramas-- this one's got both in spades.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

In Which Trai Issues A Heads-Up

Hey, all! Just wanted to post a brief heads-up-- I'm a college student who's in the middle of finals right now, so my reviewing will probably be on a break until the middle of next week. After that, though, my reviewing may well go into overdrive as I'm expecting plenty of time to read and to finish my still-cooking NaNoWriMo novel!

Currently, I'm reading Up in the Air by Walter Kirn in anticipation of the upcoming movie (it's supposedly a loose adaptation, but I like to be prepared!), so expect that to be the next review once I have time to finish. I'm also dying to see the movie of The Lovely Bones, which I reread this summer, so expect a possible movie review when I get the chance to trek out there and see it!

I'll be taking a whole lot of books home from college with me-- not sure if I'll get around to all of them, but I'll try to get through as many as I can. I'll have three by the very nice Susan Gable, who kindly responded to my review of The Pregnancy Test by addressing my concerns and critiques, and sending me a signed copy of her book A Kid to the Rescue, so a big thanks to Susan! I also have two of her previous books, The Baby Plan and The Mommy Plan, on the way. I think I'll start reading more romance-- a whole lot of them look like fun, and I love family stories (wasn't able to find very many until I started looking at romances, either!).

Other books I'll be bringing home that I've been meaning to get around to: Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty, Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause, the next few Otherworld books by Kelley Armstrong, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, and a variety of other books from a mix of other genres I want to dig into.

So until my next review, have a happy Hanukkah if you celebrate, and good luck with the weather wherever you may be!

- Trai

Saturday, December 5, 2009

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Pregnancy Test'

The Book: The Pregnancy Test

The Author: Susan Gable

How I Found It: Kay Hooper had an essay on her website a while back by Susan Gable and the title of the book sounded interesting.

The Review: All right, all right, so I tend to be of the "don't knock it 'til you've tried it" variety and I'm 18 and by this age, a girl should probably read at least one trashy romance. I assumed most Harlequins were trashy.

That being said, while this book wasn't nearly as trashy as I thought one of these things would be, I do have a lot of criticism, mainly with characterization and length. I also haven't read the prequel to this, The Mommy Plan, although I probably will in the near future.

The plot: Sloan Thompson has just moved to Pennsylvania with his two daughters, Brook, fifteen, and Ashley, who's probably around eight-ish. The move is mostly for Brook's benefit, as she'd been hanging out with a bad crowd back home and Sloan wants to set her straight.

He is a single dad whose wife died when the girls were young, and his next-door neighbor is Jenna Quinn, a single, free-spirited woman who refuses to date men with children. She feels that she doesn't have enough responsibility in her to be a parent, so kids are a deal-breaker.

However, Jenna starts to bond with Brook when she offers her a job at her jewelry store, and Sloan starts getting closer to Jenna as well. Before they know it, they're in a "dessert first" (friends with benefits) relationship, while Brook dates a senior at the high school.

Things become complicated when both Brook and Jenna become pregnant, leading to a spate of tough decisions for the two of them and Sloan. For Sloan, it's facing being a father again and a grandfather at the same time. For Brook, it's wondering if she, at fifteen, can give her baby the life she wants her to have. And for Jenna, it's wondering if she even wants to have kids at all.

My criticisms will be a bit spoiler-y, so if you don't want the book spoiled, I'd probably steer clear, but honestly, you can probably guess what'll happen anyway.

First off: the length. I know that romance manuscripts are barely longer than the current state of my NaNo novel (with about a third to go, the word count stands at 52,878, and romance novels are usually around 55,000, according to Wikipedia). I know that a certain amount of that time has to go to building the characters and such. But when a book is called The Pregnancy Test, I'd expect the pregnancy part to come in sooner than halfway through the book?

Secondly, it felt kind of uneven-- for a man dealing with his girlfriend's pregnancy and his daughter's, Brook's was pretty brushed over, as was her relationship with her boyfriend before and after. I know the main story was Sloan and Jenna's, but it really would have been nice to see more details of how her pregnancy affected her emotionally as a teenager.

Third, characterization. Um. Sloan just started to bug me at some points; his "do the right thing" motto just led to so many inconsistencies. Brook asks him if he would make her have an abortion or marry the father, and he says no. However, when it comes to Jenna, he all but wants to force her to carry the pregnancy to term, and wants to marry her. It just bugged me so much that he literally was trying to cajole and coerce her into keeping the baby. I mean, her body, her choice, Mister?

Also, I know people had problems with Brook's decision in the end as to giving her baby up for adoption. I actually didn't-- maybe it's because I'm a teenager, too, but I didn't think it was selfish of her. I felt she did the right thing by her baby.

There was also remarkably little about the pregnancies in the actual book. Beyond Jenna's issues with hyperemesis gravidarum, the symptoms, appointments, etc. are really skimmed in order to cram everything into the page limit, I thought. Huge chunks of time are skipped over in order to get to the deliveries. I also would have liked to see more of the adoption process that Brook went through.

It was a good way to pass the time, but the book could have benefited greatly from being longer, and for a slight reworking of Sloan's character, I felt. It was weaker than I expected it to be, but the author's other books look pretty interesting, and I might give some of them a shot.

Recommended to romance fans or people who enjoy family dramas.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

In Which Trai Reviews 'Testimony: A Novel'

The Book: Testimony: A Novel

The Author: Anita Shreve

How I Found It: The concepts of some of Shreve's other books have really intrigued me and I have a few more, but this is the first one I've actually read.

The Review: "A single action can cause a life to veer off into a direction it was never meant to go."

This statement, thought by one of the characters towards the end of Testimony, encapsulates the idea at the heart of the novel-- the effect of a single reckless action on a group of people. The first paragraph of the novel alludes to this action tarnishing the academic reputation of a private school, destroying two marriages, ruining the futures of three students involved, and finally resulting in a death.

The action is question is a sex tape involving three basketball players at the school and a freshman girl. Since the boys are all eighteen or older, the sexual acts are considered assault. The novel follows the slow unfolding of what led to the creation of the tape, and the events before or after the headmaster views it and the news begins to spread.

Because of this, Testimony is not quite plot-driven. It is more of a character study than a story with a plot, exploring the effect of the tape on the people involved and the bystanders. I think I remember reading that there's something like twenty different perspectives involved, as the story switches narrators every few pages, and I won't disagree. Since I like working with switching narrators myself, I liked the technique, though I didn't like the use of the second-person in some of the chapters.

I liked the technique more once I read that Shreve was inspired to use it after seeing The Laramie Project, one of my all-time favorite plays (read it for English last year and acted in it earlier this year). That play is a beautiful, entirely true, and heartbreaking examination of a town's grief after the brutal death of Matthew Shepard in 1999, and it is easy to see where Shreve got the idea for this book from that play. Shreve also examines the town of Avery after the scandal-- how reporters invade, how people profit, how marriages fall apart, how townspeople move away.

It also brings up the questions of teen drinking and the double standard against the privileged. Mike, the headmaster, thinks early in the book of how the sex tape would never have made the news if it was found at a public school rather than a private one, and this is probably true. The same with the drinking-- as a public high school graduate, I can confirm that there is most definitely drinking going on, and it is not treated nearly as seriously by parents and administration as it should be.

Though I really enjoyed how Shreve told the story, I have to admit that it wasn't all that original. I guessed early on who the death would be, and I was right. The revelation of the person who taped the incident wasn't all that revealing, either-- the discussion questions treat this as a big twist, when really the character is such a minor figure that I found myself asking, "... who?"

Though it wasn't original, I could forgive the flaws, as it was a compelling story. I'd actually like to see a movie of this one, as the movie for The Laramie Project was beautifully done by HBO and I feel that this one could be done in a similar manner.

One warning-- the opening of the book is fairly graphic in its depiction of what is on the tape. After that, it isn't much, but it should be mentioned. Also, the depictions of the women in the story aren't really the kindest, and it's implied that the girl in the sex tape was not a victim at all but just a girl seeking attention after having neglectful parents.

Overall, recommended highly to people who are interested in reading a story from shifting viewpoints, to parents of teens who want a better look at what their children could be facing, or teens like myself who want a compelling story.