Monthly Archives: October 2008

“All We Know of Heaven” by Jacquelyn Mitchard


Does anyone remember hearing that story a few years back about the two similar looking best friends whom authorities misidentified after one died in a traffic accident? For over a month, everyone — including family members and doctors — thought Whitney Cerak had died and Laura Van Ryn was badly injured and lying in a comatose state. In an absolutely mind-bending case of mistaken identity, Laura's shocked family was told that their daughter had actually died and been buried as Whitney, while Whitney's family learned their seemingly dead daughter was, in fact, alive. Wow, right?

Jacquelyn Mitchard's "All We Know of Heaven" riffs on this true life tale, taking the same concept and applying it, fictionally, to 16 year-old pixie-like best friends Maureen O'Malley and Bridget Flannery. These slight, blonde cheerleaders are gravely injured in a traffic accident on a snowy Minnesota road shortly before Christmas. Since both girls are so horribly battered, doctors and officials wrongly assume that the dead driver of Maureen's car is Maureen while the girl who survived from the passenger seat is Bridget.

The beginning of the novel is stunning. We're listening to the surviving girl's anguished, painfully slow and confused thoughts as she struggles even to find the words to determine whether she is dead or alive. Meanwhile, we experience the O'Malleys' devastation at losing their sweet songbird of a daughter and the Flannerys' cautious hope that their girl will be able to reclaim a life shattered by severe brain trauma. Bridget's mom Kitt, in particular, is a flawlessly rendered depiction of the competing emotions of grief, fear, hope, dread, and anxiety. When Kitt sees just how developmentally challenged the young residents of a rehab facility are, she cannot help but wish that her daughter had died rather than face life as something less than the vibrant, intelligent person she was. Of course, Kitt soon learns that Bridget's death is exactly what has happened. While she is literally lost to guilt and depression, the O'Malleys are reborn with unimaginable and unexpected joy. I cannot remember reading a more compelling first third of a novel. It really is that good.

Unfortunately, the wheels come off rather quickly after this point. Once the girls' true identities are revealed (the living girl's dental records don't match Bridget's), the novel abruptly devolves into an eminently strange combination of campy soap opera, star-crossed teen romance, and earnest after school special-like story of survival. Don't believe me? On your melodrama scorecard, check off Kitt becoming a raging alcoholic and a bit of a lunatic as she destroys a recovered Maureen's shiny new car and attacks Maureen at Bridget's grave site. Also be sure to add in the town's backlash against Maureen when, instead of marveling at her amazing recovery, they inexplicably brand her a heartless slut. (Really.) The ill-fated love occurs between Maureen and Danny, Bridget's boyfriend. The pair are continually challenged, first by their strong feelings toward each other and, later, by parental restrictions — remember, Maureen is now the town pariah! — and distance. Eh. Finally, and perhaps most unbelievably, despite repeated warnings that Maureen will never fully recover, she so does. Right, there's the limp and the occasional reach for an elusive word, but that's about it. Through sheer guts and determination, Maureen astounds everyone by becoming strong, capable, and independent … plus, now she's a musical prodigy! (Again, really.)

I genuinely have a hard time understanding why this book received rave reviews from critics (a 5Q from VOYA?). The strong start cannot possibly forgive the melodramatic nonsense that follows. Still, I'm sure there's an audience of teen girls for this novel, one that will suspend disbelief and buy into the romance and the plot twists and Maureen's remarkable transformation. That's fine. This book just clearly was not for me. If you give "All We Know of a Heaven" a try, I'll point out that it's more of a high school age book. There are references to sex, drugs, and drinking, although none are presented in any great detail. I'd also say it's one geared almost exclusively toward girls, despite Danny playing a central role in the second half of the book. The sweeping romance, and all the anguish and heartache that goes along with it, will turn most boys off.


Posted by on October 24, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“Paper Towns” by John Green


Oh, man, I was so excited to finally read John Green's "Paper Towns." For YA literature fans out there, you know John Green is the author of "Looking for Alaska" and "An Abundance of Katherines," two novels that were rightly praised for their winning combination of sharp humor and believable drama. I had heard there were some early mixed reviews on "Paper Towns," but I sort of covered my ears and closed my eyes to them, because John Green is awesome and can do no wrong. Except, well, maybe in this case. And, believe me, that's a tough thing for me to admit.

In "Paper Towns," our self-deprecating anti-hero is Quentin ("Q") Jacobsen, your typical nerdy, sorta sweet, sensitive, wicked smart, possibly even cute senior guy. We've all seen this character before in teen literature. Q has two clever, loyal, insanely funny best friends. There's the manic Ben, who relentlessly, rather grossly talks about pleasing the "honeybunnys" (note: actual honeybunnys avoid Ben like the plague), and Radar, the Omnictionary addict (think wikipedia) whose parents own an impressive collection of black Santas.

The novel here is divided into three parts. In the first section, Q and his next door neighbor, the enigmatic and popular Margo Roth Spiegelman, spend one school night committing a cool series of revenge pranks. Although Q and Margo were best friends as children, they've barely spoken in years, making Margo's selection of Q as her partner in crime quite intriguing. Then Margo disappears / runs away, which is apparently something she's prone to doing, and Q and his buds spend the second section of the novel piecing together some bread crumb-like clues she's left behind. Much of this involves Walt Whitman's epic poem "Song of Myself" and an abandoned strip mall that stands like a time capsule of the 1980s. In the final section, Q and the gang — with a surprising addition — take a frenzied, often hilarious road trip to find Margo before it's too late.

The elements that work here are those that work in all of John Green's novels, namely, the ample helpings of crackling wit and humor and the wonderful, believable friendships between the characters. The banter between Q and his pals sparkles with the kind of intelligent ribbing that real (well, real smart) friends regularly engage in. I don't see how someone could read the passage where the gang attacks a gas station convenience store like a race car pit crew and not burst out laughing. And that's just wonderful. Unfortunately, what isn't so great is the crushing weight of ideas that bog the story down, particularly at the end. I'm all for the discussion of philosophical ideas and looking at the world with introspection and depth, but, good lord, for page after page after page? Too many times, it felt like the novel ground to an abrupt, jarring halt to wedge in these discussions on the meaning of life.

I had other issues, especially with Margo. Although she was regularly described as this kind of once in a lifetime, spectacular creature, she never seemed all that special to me. Yes, she executed some clever pranks and had a nice record collection, but beyond that? Eh. I'd rather be shown how unique Margo is than have it force-fed to me through other characters' constant affirmations. Although, to be fair, this is the same problem I had with the title character in "Looking for Alaska," so maybe it's just me. It's possible. I also had some trouble with the shifts in tone. The many swings from lighthearted fun times to gravely serious moments struck me as rough and awkward. Several times, I felt like I was reading two different novels at once.

Listen, I think smart high school age teens, YA lit lovers, and librarians will probably find a lot to like here. And John Green certainly has a large fan base ready to devour his latest book, meaning that my lone criticism may not even stand for much. But I expected so much more, and, to be honest, I left this one feeling rather disappointed. See what you think. Hopefully, you'll like it more than I did.


Posted by on October 13, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“Savvy” by Ingrid Law


I have started so many books recently only to set them aside through a toxic combination of restlessness and boredom. We're talking dozens here. What a relief it was, then, to pick up Ingrid Law's delightful, quirky novel "Savvy" and roll straight through it, laughing often along the way. This is a sweet, offbeat, wholesome novel about what happens when Mississippi ("Mibs") Beaumont turns thirteen. The Beaumont family are very different from other folks. On a Beaumont's thirteenth birthday, he or she discovers their "savvy," which is basically an exceptional talent or ability unique to the family. Mibs' grandpa can literally move mountains, her brother Rocket conducts electricity, and her brother Fish can summon powerful storms. A savvy takes some "scumbling" to keep in line, so until a Beaumont learns to control this innate power, strange occurrences — like rogue hurricanes and power outages — have been known to occur.

Mibs is a smart, sensitive girl who has been looking forward to finding her savvy for as long as she can remember. As the pivotal birthday approaches, Mibs' regular-guy dad, Poppa, is critically injured in a car accident. While her Momma and Rocket wait at Poppa's bedside miles away, Mibs' birthday party is hijacked by the overbearing wife of a local preacher. Fearing what might happen when her savvy emerges at a public event, and desperately hoping to save her father, Mibs impulsively flees her church party and hops on a bible seller's pink school bus. As it turns out, Mibs isn't the only one on the run. Fish and silent, shadowy little brother Samson have followed her onto the bus, as has the preacher's bratty teenage daughter Bobbi and his solemn, kind son Will Junior. What follows is an odd road trip in which Will Junior and Mibs become closer, Bobbi turns out to be less tough than she appears, and bus driver Lester's two tattoos start talking to Mibs. Yes, you read that one correctly. Despite wishing otherwise, Mibs' savvy involves being able to read people's thoughts through the ink on their skin. You'd be surprised how that comes in handy in the end.

"Savvy" is a lovely hybrid of the coming of age and road trip novel. There are genuine moments of true emotion here between so many of the characters that I literally stopped several times and thought, "Aw, that's awesome!" Mibs is feisty and spunky, but she's also young in an authentic, non-cloying way. Following Mibs and her gang on this journey is one of the better reading experiences I've had in a long time. I can't imagine that there's a middle school girl around who wouldn't get a kick out of this story on so many levels. Enjoy!


Posted by on October 10, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“Eragon” and “Eldest” by Christopher Paolini


As a casual glance through my blog entries will reveal, I am no fan of fantasy. I know, I'm sorry! But something about all those convoluted names, flitting fairies, and fire-breathing dragons gets under my skin. Given that statement, then, you might imagine that reading Christopher Paolini's "Eragon" and "Eldest" would've been a struggle for me. You'd only be partly right; while the beginning of "Eragon" felt like a painful slog through a muddy river, the story — mercifully! — picks up considerably afterward.

Let me provide a quick plot synopsis, in which I will due my level best to avoid anything spoiler-ish. Eragon is a farm boy, and, to be frank, a petulant, whiny teen. While out hunting in a mountain range, he discovers a blue stone which reveals itself to be a dragon egg. Neat. The tiny blue dragon, later named Saphira, quickly grows beyond Eragon's ability to keep her hidden. Unfortunately, that issue is the least of Eragon's problems, since two lethal, cloaked, beaked (!) figures, the Ra'zac, are hunting the egg and, by extension, Eragon and his Uncle Garrow for the evil King Galbatorix. Eragon eventually ends up on the run with Saphira, who communicates mentally with Eragon and has a nice snarky streak; Brom, a local storyteller who seems to know an awful lot about Dragon Riders; Murtagh, a capable fighter with plenty of secrets of his own; and Arya, a beautiful elf with extraordinary powers.

Like I said, "Eragon" started off at an absolutely crippling pace. The plot was clunky, the pacing awkward, and the writing style just plain tedious. At about the midway point, as the plot elements became more interesting, the story as a whole seemed to move more swiftly and surely. Suddenly, there was a sense of urgency and vitality that had been missing before. I even reached a place where I was eager to experience the climactic showdown in the dwarf city of Tronjheim. Considering I was ready to pack it in completely at one point, that's a remarkable turnaround.

While "Eragon" had some rough patches, I found "Eldest" to be a much stronger and far more enjoyable book. I loved how half the book focuses on Eragon's cousin, Roran, and his bloody, heroic quest to save his village from the Ra'zac and the grotesque Urgals. Unlike Eragon, Roran has no magical powers, so his battles are waged through sheer guts, strength, and determination. He is a compelling, flawed character — his moments of bleakly tallying the deaths he has caused are striking — and I found myself rushing through the sometimes draggy scenes of Eragon's magical instruction in the elf world just to get back to Roran's story. (See my review of Stephenie Meyer's "Breaking Dawn" for another instance where a secondary character's point of view spices up a novel.)

In the end, despite some misgivings about "Eragon," I have no problem recommending both books to fantasy fans in middle school and up. Although the complicated mythology and detailed scenes make these novels quite lengthy, there is a nice payoff in seeing how all the disparate plot threads and seemingly inconsequential characters come together in the end. This makes for a rich, rewarding experience for the reader. So, while "Eragon" and "Eldest" probably won't bring outsiders into the genre, fantasy fans will find lots to like here.

And, yes, I realize this means I will have to read "Brisingr," too!

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Posted by on October 1, 2008 in Uncategorized


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