Saturday, July 30, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'So Much Closer'

** This review will contain minor spoilers. **

The Book:
So Much Closer

The Author:
Susane Colasanti

How I Found It: I read another of Colasanti's novels last year. When I heard about this one coming out, the premise sounded interesting enough that I put it on my list. Thanks to my local library!

The Review: Brooke Greene knows that Scott Abrams is the love of her life. She has what she calls the Knowing, absolute convictions about her future liable to come over her on the cusp of life-changing moments. At the end of their junior year of high school, she's finally worked up the courage to tell him she thinks they're meant to be together... only for him to tell her he's moving to New York City before she can say much of anything.

Brooke has been slacking academically for quite some time, not feeling challenged enough by her high school's curriculum. So when she lies to her mother and says she wants to move to New York for a better education, she's telling the truth. Partly. Following Scott and spending her senior year in NYC might be her last chance to be with him, and she'll go even if it means having to live with her estranged father.

Brooke soon realizes that New York might not be everything she thought it was. Her classes are more challenging, which may or may not be a good thing. Her friends at home aren't as supportive of her decision as she thought. Her father isn't around like he said he'd be. Worst of all, it looks like Scott is taken. Brooke might have changed her entire life around because of a boy, but as she struggles to make Scott realize that they're meant to be together, she realizes that the person who really matters is herself.

I was in the middle of the road on Something Like Fate, the other novel of Colasanti's I read, and when I decide to give a middling author another try, I usually hope for something better. I'm sad to say that I felt pretty much the same about So Much Closer--that there were some things I really liked and some things I really didn't. The more I think about it, I think the bad outweighed the good for me. I might give Colasanti one more shot--some of her premises sound interesting, I have to say--but I'm not sure if she's the author for me. I might just end up sticking with Sarah Dessen.

To start with, Colasanti improved on something I wasn't too keen on when I read Something Like Fate. She still used teenage colloquialisms in the characters' speech, which is great, but cut down on them in the narration. There's still the occasional "and she was like," "and he goes," etc., instead of "and he said" or similar conventions, but it's not nearly as grating as it was in Fate. One professional review I saw of a Colasanti novel said that usages like the above mark the demise of modern literature, but I disagree. As an English major, I'm highly critical of the use of colloquialisms, but Colasanti has no great pretensions towards literature here; she's merely trying to speak to teens today. I'm barely out of my teens and, yes, in informal settings, among my friends, I'm liable to speak in just the way the story is narrated. If I'm remembering right, Colasanti was once a high school teacher, and it does show--she captures current teenage speech patterns perfectly.

I think, however, that Colasanti being a teacher ended up doing this novel a disservice. I was more than a bit blindsided by what seemed like public education reform politics that snuck in halfway through the book. The reason for Brooke's lack of motivation is revealed to be the result of her beyond genius IQ, which makes it hard for her to feel challenged in school, and which has resulted in her less-than-stellar grades. When a teacher confronts her about the problem, Brooke gives this speech: "Schools teach to the test and then they make these sweeping judgments about students based on their answers to a few pointless questions... They're doing it wrong. How is force-feeding us stuff we don't care about making us smarter? And why should I be forced to become part of something I don't believe in?" (112)

There's more to the speech, but when I read that, it was a ... what? moment for me. To be quite honest, I picked a YA book to read because it was something fluffy, not to suddenly be confronted with a vaguely political rant. And even if Brooke is a genius, I wasn't quite sure the speech rang true to the concerns of today's teens. I saw some truth in it, but I don't know if the younger readers Colasanti is presumably courting are going to care. Brooke was so arrogant about her superiority to the system that I really didn't, to be honest. I agreed more with the speech her friend made a few pages later: "You want to hear something simple? You could have had straight As with like no effort. You could have been valedictorian. But you threw it all away, and for what? To make some kind of political statement no one's listening to? To prove some point no one's benefiting from? Wake up, Brooke. No one cares." (117)

It's definitely harsh, but in the end, no one really does seem to care. Brooke's thinking outside the box helps when she peer tutors a fellow student, John, who's dysgraphic, but it doesn't seem to figure much else in the long run. Even the passion she ultimately decides on pursuing has nothing to do with educational reform. That speech seemed incredibly jarring and too close to a soapbox moment for me to feel comfortable with it, and it definitely threw me out of the book.

The teen characters were believable, even if I did have difficulty sympathizing with Brooke, who just came off like she was throwing her life away. I could believe that a teenager would be impulsive enough to, given the opportunity, move to another state just for a boy (hey, if it worked on Felicity, why not here?). Scott, though, didn't have much depth besides one solitary family issue, which did seem to be the point in the end. I was much more intrigued by Brooke's new friends, Sadie and John. Sadie was funny and sweet, a good counterpoint to Brooke's friends back home. John in particular was well-done, I felt, because he reminded me very much of one of my guy friends in high school. If I can look at a character and pinpoint someone like that I've seen in real life, I count them as a success.

The pacing felt off towards the end; I think certain conclusions were rushed for the sake of the word count Colasanti probably had to work within. I kept looking at the book going, "... but there are only thirty pages left? There's so much to resolve still!" And therein lies the rub. You see, Brooke says at one point that she doesn't like novels where all the loose ends are tied up with a bow. And... they were here, sorry to say. The easiest possible resolution seems tacked on just to wrap up the storyline. Brooke's mom apologizes for making her feel devalued. Brooke's dad lays down the ground rules they'd been lacking. The romantic relationships work out as well as they could have given the revelations in the text. Brooke's old friends drift away (and that's it) and her new ones will presumably be in her life for as long as she's in New York. Really? It's all just a bit too perfect, especially for the life of a high school senior. I was only there two years ago--I know.

The novel's drawbacks (a strong anti-public education bent, a verging-on-unlikable protagonist) outweighed the novel's strengths (believable diction and some interesting characters) by a fair amount. I might recommend it to teens who, like Brooke, feel directionless, but even that's with reservations. If you're a die-hard fan of Colasanti's, or want something featuring characters a bit older than her other novels, go for it. If not, I think this one's a skip.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'Heist Society'

The Book: Heist Society (Heist Society, Book 1)

The Author:
Ally Carter

How I Found It: This post piqued my interest.

The Review: Katarina 'Kat' Bishop has walked away from the life she had as a child and straight into Colgan School, a prestigious boarding school. Kat is a skilled con artist and art thief, thanks to her father and makeshift family's teachings, but now she just wants to be normal. When she gets framed and expelled for an elaborate prank involving the headmaster's Porsche, her chances at a normal life abruptly slip away.

As she packs her bags and leaves Colgan, she's met by a fellow member of the con artist clan: Hale, a boy her age who she might have feelings for. Hale has a message for her: her father might have stolen a few priceless paintings from mobster Arturo Taccone, and Taccone is demanding that he give them back. Bobby Bishop swears he didn't take them, but that makes no difference to Taccone. He gives Kat two weeks to find and retrieve the stolen paintings, and it's up to Kat to assemble a team of teen con artists like her to steal the paintings back from one of the most secure museums in the world, a place that's never before been robbed.

This book is paced like a speeding freight train, let me start by saying that. Carter certainly has skill. I started reading the book shortly before a car trip that lasted maybe three hours, and the only time my eReader left my hand was when we stopped at a convenience store for food. I was immediately drawn into Kat's plans to assemble the team and to figure out just why the paintings were so valuable to Taccone. Maybe a team of teenage con artists breaking into the most secure museum in the world is unbelievable, but damn if it's not compelling to read about. Sure, it's a bit standard at times--the constant focus on Kat and how she walked away from "the life" has been done in almost every con artist story--but I didn't feel bored even by the cliched parts.

Oddly, I felt the book started to drag as the gang got closer to pulling off the con. I started to lose interest in the group's dynamic and in what they had to do. I got interested again once the heist hit (and the heist itself was brilliantly done), but I think the preparations section could have been trimmed down. That was the only part of the book that I felt was too slow; the other sections were right on.

One element of the book I questioned was the inclusion of a love triangle between Kat, Hale, and a new team member named Nick. Love triangles are a staple of young adult literature these days (Twilight, The Hunger Games, The Vampire Diaries, etc.) and I'd like to see a YA novel without one, to be honest! I know it's an essential ingredient of a romantic plot, but it's usually painfully obvious how the resolution will shake out, and that was what I felt here. I would have been more intrigued by Kat, say, having walked away from an established relationship and having to build back the trust of her former boyfriend, instead of a love triangle. I hold out hope for the brave YA author who would choose not to include a love triangle, although I doubt it would happen any time soon.

I liked that Carter included names of common cons, often in dialogue, without stopping to explain at length what each one was. Usually the names ("Smokey the Bear", "Mary Poppins", etc.) made it obvious what the method would be, but Carter still could have underestimated her readers and explained each and every reference. She doesn't, instead letting the references fly fast and free in snappy, fun dialogue. I ended up looking up some of the cons myself when I was done to see if they were real (and yep, "dog in a bar," one of the many mentioned, is apparently a common street con). It's rare that a YA book has me looking something up, given that I'm past the age range and hopefully know a bit more than the average YA reader, so I considered this one a success when it came to getting me thinking!

I felt some things should have been tightened up or expanded upon, but since this is the first novel in a series, I gave most things a pass, since future books can improve on a first novel's faults (and, looking at reviews for the second book, I see that Carter made the effort to). There were a few too many times where Carter ended a scene on a cliffhanger involving a person walking into a room and saying either Kat's name or the "last thing a person expected them to say"--things of that nature. I wished for a bit more variety in the scene breaks and chapter closings because of that. And I never really got all that emotionally invested in the characters themselves--I found their methods fascinating, but didn't know a lot about them as people. Even Taccone was a bit of a stock villain. Apparently, the sequel improves upon this, and I look forward to seeing what comes next for Kat and her merry band of thieves.

I'd definitely recommend this one to teen and adult fans of heist movies like Ocean's Eleven or TV shows like USA Network's White Collar (indeed, my love for the latter is what made me pay attention when I heard about a YA novel involving an art heist). These teen thieves will have you on the edge of your seat!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Lover's Dictionary'

The Book: The Lover's Dictionary

The Author: David Levithan

How I Found It: This review by Jamie highly recommended it. Thanks, Jamie! And as ever this summer, big thanks to my local library.

The Review: I've only ever been disappointed by one of David Levithan's books (Boy Meets Boy, which was too utopian for me and skirted around what I felt were some very important issues), but have sincerely enjoyed others I've read: Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, Realm of Possibility, and now this one. Nick and Norah was a really fun exploration of one wild night for a couple thrown into knowing each other, and Realm of Possibility was a funny and varied look at the love lives of a whole bunch of teenagers. The Lover's Dictionary is Mr. Levithan's first foray into adult fiction, and older readers of his great YA offerings can rest assured knowing that this book is just as good, if not better, as those.

When I first heard about this book, the concept really intrigued me. It's a portrait of a relationship told in a nonlinear fashion, and a particularly interesting one at that: it's a series of words chosen by the narrator, arranged alphabetically into a dictionary that defines their relationship in all its beauty and messiness. Some definitions are less than a sentence; others are whole paragraphs. It's the story of a man loving a woman who might not love him as much, who drinks more than she should, who had an unhappy family as a child. Through the narrator's loving and sometimes not-so-loving definitions, we learn how their relationship came to be, how it stayed there, and maybe even how it fell apart. We see him struggling to cope both with this newfound love and with how to piece together this girl he doesn't quite understand at times.

Some passages were just beautiful evocations of what it feels like to accept someone, flaws and all. Some were funny slices of life that anyone could identify with. Others were heartwrenching snippets of a couple trying to make something work that might be best not working after all. No matter what emotion Levithan was writing, he captured it well, and I just kept marveling at his prose. I couldn't decide which passages were my favorites, because they all made me feel something. Some of the ones that most struck me:

beguile, v. - It's when you walk around the apartment in my boxers when you don't know I'm awake. And then that grin, when you do know I'm awake. You spend so much time in the morning making sure every hair is in place. But I have to tell you: I like it most like this, haphazard, sleep-strewn, disarrayed. (29)

buffonery, n. - You were drunk, and I made the mistake of mentioning Showgirls in a near-empty subway car. The pole had no idea what it was about to endure. (42)

flagrant, adj. - I would be standing right there, and you would walk out of the bathroom without putting the cap back on the toothpaste. (95)

only, adj. - That's the dilemma, isn't it? When you're single, there's the sadness and joy of only me. And when you're paired, there's the sadness and joy of only you. (154)

It's a short read, but the minimal word count doesn't reduce the book's power. Levithan has done an admirable job of capturing the intricacies of a relationship, and even if it's about a heterosexual couple, it could just as easily be applied to any same-sex couple, or just any couple, period. The nonlinear storytelling gave it an extra punch (one entry would be exuberant and happy; the next would be dwelling on a regret or a fight), and I tore through it so fast that I want to reread it just to savor anything I might have missed the first time around.

I'd recommend this one to fans of other nonlinear love stories, such as the musical The Last 5 Years or the movie (500) Days of Summer. Any adult looking for a nontraditional romantic read would probably love it, too, and I imagine it would be entertaining for a couple to share with each other. Highly recommended!

In Which Trai Reviews 'My Name Is Memory'

The Book: My Name Is Memory

The Author: Ann Brashares

How I Found It: I saw a passing mention of it somewhere and looked up a synopsis. Thanks to my local library, I soon had it on TARDIS, ready to be read.

The Review: "I’ve never had a child, and I’ve never gotten old. I don’t know why. I have seen beauty in countless things. I have fallen in love, and she is the one who endures. I killed her once and died for her many times and I still have nothing to show for it. I always search for her; I always remember her. I carry the hope that someday she will remember me." (11)

These are the words of Daniel Gray, who is blessed--or cursed--with "the memory," the ability to recall his past lives. His first life was in 541, where he was a warrior in North Africa. He is ordered to burn what he thinks is an enemy camp, but turns out to be a village full of civilians. A young girl dies in a fire Daniel, then called something else, started. He's ashamed and saddened to have killed someone so young, so beautiful, and his view of the world is altered forever.

When Daniel realizes he can recognize other souls from his past lives in his current one, he is stunned to see the girl from North Africa once more. Sophia, as she is now called, is married to his abusive brother. Daniel and Sophia might be meant for each other, but circumstances will always conspire to keep them apart: "From that moment, as I look back, I can trace the beginning of a few unlucky themes that would carry on for centuries. Our lives being mismatched in time. Her being someone else's wife. Her forgetting me." (54)

In the present day, Daniel has found Sophia: they are both students at a Virginia high school, and Sophia is now known as Lucy. When he approaches her the night of a school dance and tries to tell her they once knew each other, Lucy is unnerved and leaves. Over the next few years, however, she begins to realize that what Daniel said might be true after all--that their love has endured through many lives and many losses, and that she must find him in this life, despite another force that threatens to keep them apart.

This book wasn't perfect, but Ann Brashares wrote a compelling love story that had me tearing through the pages. The idea of a love that endures through the ages was gorgeous, although I actually laughed at times due to some striking similarities to Doctor Who (purely coincidental, I'm more than certain, but Daniel had so much in common with Rory that I couldn't help picturing Arthur Darvill as I read). Daniel's love for Sophia is palpable, everlasting, and the real force behind the story. His recollections of his past lives with Sophia were the most fascinating segments.

That was both a strength and a problem, though. Daniel's segments were interesting; the variations in his lives were fun to pick up on, and even if Brashares didn't seem to put much research into the historical periods (up until the WWI segments, she seemed to pick periods and places that are much lesser known), the bits and pieces of history were intriguing. Lucy's segments, however, were considerably less interesting at times. She spends a good chunk of the book wondering how to feel about Daniel and then trying to find him again, and it just wasn't interesting to read about. Some things never really came together: she sleeps with her roommate's brother a few times, seemingly just to feel something for someone, but it's never mentioned more than three times, and doesn't have any meaning in the end. Compared to Daniel, with the richness of his many lives, she just didn't have enough of a personality outside of her confused feelings for him, and I wish Brashares had done more to develop her character.

Other things about the book felt a bit questionable. For example, Daniel and Lucy's first meeting in the present day. It's at a school-thrown party; Lucy finds him in a back room after having watched him for years. They drink some bourbon and kiss, and when Daniel tries to tell Lucy who he is, she pulls away, which leads to her dress ripping. Prior to this, they were sitting so close that her knee was between his legs, and vice versa. There were a lot of really sketchy things about the encounter (the insta-sexual attraction, the drinking, him ripping her dress ripping even if it was unintentional) that it turned me off at first, and it took me a week or two to get back to the book. In the end, though, no matter how suspicious Daniel's actions come off at times, he's ultimately trying to protect Lucy from harm (and not in a creepy, Edward Cullen sort of way), so it was easier for me to overlook those odd occurrences.

I also wished that Brashares had explored the implications of her system of reincarnation. Daniel's friend Ben, a man when Daniel first meets him, is shown to reincarnate into female forms as well as male ones. Yet this never happens to Daniel and Sophia; they stay the same over generations. For Daniel, it's probably the sheer force of his will that keeps him male, but why not have Sophia be a man in an incarnation or two, just to shake things up? How would that change their dynamic? What would be different; what would be the same? I felt at times like Brashares was too hesitant to explore her system, and I would have liked her to be a bit more daring.

The book really picked up speed for me during the World War I segment, where Daniel is a dying soldier and Sophia is a nurse named Constance who is charged with taking care of him. This section was one that made me cry, as Daniel tells Constance their story and tries desperately to get her to remember him in their next lives. (I do wish Brashares hadn't gone the direction of having Constance be nigh-suicidal after his death, because that's a romance stereotype that needs to go, but it was for plot purposes, so it was hard to discount it.) Even if their romance is only given seventeen days, a trope I normally hate, it's easy to see how Constance and Daniel build such an intense emotional connection, why Constance believes him, and why she's so determined to remember him in her next lives.

I wasn't expecting the book to have a real message, but it did, and it was carried off well. Brashares makes a point of showing the flaws in the way Daniel chooses to live his life, dwelling obsessively in the past and not making emotional connections in each life, instead focusing his energy on finding Sophia. It's an exhortation to her readers to slow down and consider the relationships in their own lives, to love not just one person but many. It also encouraged Daniel to not be so singleminded, and it was nice to see some character growth there. Even if Daniel was 1500 or so years old, he still had things to learn.

A common complaint about the book is the loose ends it leaves dangling, particularly the open ending. Brashares is apparently still up in the air about writing a sequel, but if she does, it will apparently be a trilogy. There's a lot she still needs to explore--how their enemy does what he does, for one, and I'd personally love to learn more about Daniel's friend Ben--and I hope she does decide to write another book, because I'd be curious to read more about Daniel and Lucy's tragic but ultimately beautiful story. Recommended to fans of The Time Traveler's Wife, with a caveat about the open ending!