Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, now there’s a mouthful. I predict that this book title will be the most butchered title of the summer. It just might be up there with the like of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. That being said, this book has already been named a most anticipated book for Summer 2013 by The Wall Street Journal and Publishers Weekly, and it’s only fair to say that booksellers should get used to the different interpretations of this title that will be bandied about as the word spreads and book clubs tromp through the doors to get their hands on the new hot read.

Here’s the plot in brief:
It’s 1930; America is in the midst of the Great Depression, families are losing money, homes, and their lives. In the midst of the country’s turmoil sits 15-year-old Thea Atwell, the only daughter of a Florida doctor and his beautiful wife. Thea’s family is wealthy thanks to her mother’s citrus groves, and has led a sheltered, unstructured life, roaming her family’s fields on the back of her pony Sasi with her twin brother Sam at her side. When we meet Thea she is in the midst of familial banishment, shunted out to the mountains of North Carolina, so far and so drastically different than Florida, to The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, an elite boarding school for the daughters of the upper echelons. It is here, that Thea, banished from her family due to mysterious circumstances, must fit into the complicated social order that is an all-girls school, while dealing with her own issues of guilt, resentment, and abandonment toward her family.

I’ll start by saying that I was immediately immersed in this book. Told from an adult Thea’s perspective as she looks back at her life, is it easy to empathize with her teenage self; separated from her idyllic home and thrust into the competitive environment of other teen girls, mourning the lost connection with her twin with whom she has been inseparable, and suffering the shunning from her mother. As the story progresses and the reader learns more about Thea’s life and the probable reasons of her banishment that involve the only other teen she had contact with—her cousin George, the sympathy remains, along with a twinge of contempt for the naivety of her mother, and the willful blindness she displayed to the goings on. Author Anton DiSclafani know just how to pull the heart strings, with the right amount of angst and resentment and that cleverness perfectly sucks the reader into the story and firmly implants Thea as a solid, yet tragic hero. The brilliance of this writer is truly displayed in how she slowly and subtlety adds more to Thea’s character and backstory, throwing in little tastes of Thea’s less than perfect traits, stacking them up slowly, so that when the reasons behind the banishment are learned, the reader is so enmeshed in the world through seen through Thea’s eyes, that it becomes nearly impossible to condemn her actions. I say brilliance because the actions of Thea are really reprehensible when removed from the context of the narrative (actually, in my mind they are reprehensible period), and when the shameful reason behind her exile comes to the forefront the reader is still on her side. It’s like being caught up in the gaze of a hypnotist, difficult to breakaway, and in the case of Thea, even harder to condemn.

Having finished, and been given time to digest the plot and motives of its main character, I have come to a far different conclusion; Thea is not a victim—she made her choices willfully and defiantly, but she can be sympathized with to some extent as being a product of her time. Instead of being villains, the Atwell parents bring on their own destruction, both because of the era and the hardships of the Depression, but also because in separating their family from the world at large, they in a sense engineer their own demise. Yet, in the end, when looking back at all that Thea has wrought by her actions, it is clear how much of a path of destruction she left behind her. She is a product of the time—a girl, naïve in her approach to worldly things like sex, politics, money, and society in general, yet because of her isolated upbringing both she and her twin Sam were unable to blossom into fully formed moral human beings capable of becoming healthy members of the world. I’m philosophizing here, but Thea is an almost sociopathic blend of naivety and selfishness, it is her actions that set the ball rolling in a downward spiral, she needs to be punished, and yet in reality it is not Thea who is ultimately punished, it is the family that turned her away, incapable of moving on. Thea is hero and villain, her family the tragic remnants of a battle they didn’t even know had started, and it is they, not Thea who suffer the price. Thea is the champion in this narrative, winning the reader to her side, but upon further contemplation, she is a harbinger of destruction, both contemptible in her actions, but oddly amazing in her resilience, something her parents lack.

I’m torn. This book was phenomenally good. I really felt for Thea, I hoped her parents suffered for their abandonment, for choosing Sam over her. Ultimately, their eventual suffering, even though it stemmed from their own blindness and bad judgment, was so shattering that I can’t help but be frustrated. You love a character, skim over her sins, but when everything else is destroyed by her choices how can you enjoy the aftermath? I was enthralled by the first three quarters of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, and irritated by the last quarter because of Thea’s blasé attitude and seeming lack of awareness that she was the catalyst of all the misery. Maybe these feelings speak to the talent of the author and her compelling narrative. Perhaps they are a more accurate depiction of what happens when a child is denied socialization and accountability. Maybe if Thea’s parents dealt with the issue instead of just removing the elephant in the room, the outcome would have been different. Life is a series of what ifs; postulating on the parents mistakes, the role of society in that era, and Thea’s choices isn’t going to give me anything, but a headache, and it is this that speaks to Anton DiSclafani’s talent as a storyteller, she is making me think, there might even be a catharsis somewhere in there. A good storyteller charms you with the lore, a great one makes you deconstruct it and feel emotion, positive and negative, question it, revel in it. I might be ethically frustrated by the outcomes of this novel, but while reading it I was invested, and it is that investment, created by the mesmeric narrative, which makes it a book worth reading and discussing.

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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Reading Beth Hoffman

It is great fun to find fantastic debut novelists. It’s something that every bookseller gets to enjoy, and do quite frequently, but I have to admit to a bit of nerves when it comes to sophomore efforts. There’s nothing worse than falling in love with a debut author, only to have those feelings thrown in your face with the production of a lackluster second novel. It happens more often than not, and as a reader it is always a bit crushing. So, it was with some trepidation that I picked up Beth Hoffman’s new book Looking for Me. I absolutely loved her debut Saving CeeCee Honeycutt and was a little afraid that I would be disappointed by this second novel. Well, let me tell you how foolish those worries were.

Looking for Me is a fantastic second novel. It possesses the same charm as its predecessor, drawing readers in with its southern warmth and anecdotal tone, while also maintaining the remarkable insight and depth that I believe readers will begin to associate with Hoffman’s writing. Beth Hoffman has that rare quality as an author to present a seemingly light and easy read, only to have a fully-fledged novel that is not only engrossing, but also intelligent, and brilliantly written. Her use of language is beyond simple charm, her sentences flow like warm honey to be savored and reread, and her characters are fully functioning, living and breathing people—ones you wish with all your heart you could get to know.

Told in first-person, and bouncing back and forth through time, Looking for Me tells the story of Teddi Overman, a talented furniture restorer and owner of an antique shop in South Carolina. Born on a farm in Kentucky, readers are introduced to the Overman family; Teddi, a girl who’s love from antique furniture leads her on a road of self-discovery, Teddi’s silent and wonderful father Henry, her perpetually disappointed mother Franny, and her brother Josh whose affinity with nature, in particular rare birds of prey, provides readers with a heartbreaking mystery. As Teddi’s life unfurls, bouncing between her present and memories of her childhood, I was delighted to only be captivated be her life, but to also be engrossed by her love of antiques—learning more about restoration and estate shopping in a way that was both entertaining and emotional, than I ever could have thought. These instances are so well-written in fact, that I, who have never had an interest in these things, found myself wanting to look up terms on Google and pop out to the next big estate sale in my neighborhood. To get non-crafty me interested in furniture restoration is a fete in itself! Hoffman also manages to effectively and lastingly tug on the proverbial heartstring as she addresses Teddi’s strained relationship with her mother, and her brother’s mysterious disappearance, in a way that manages to forgo the mawkish sentiment or cheesiness that so often finds its way into novels.

This is a deceptively complex story that is beyond readable, it’s enchanting, lovable  beautiful, and full of depths that one would not expect from a novel that might appear lighter in content than some. Looking for Me is one of those books you pick-up and literally do not put down, not because of suspense or turmoil, but because it is so well-written, and the characters so believable and rich, that it mesmerizes with the first paragraph. Beth Hoffman is just that good and I will never again feel trepidation that her next novel won’t be good enough—she’s secured my fandom for life.

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Friday, May 17, 2013

What I’m Reading, May 17, 2013

This week I read a selection of books covering readers of all ages. So, I’ll start with the youngest and work my way up.

Sleeping Beauty’s Daughters by Diane Zahler (releases August 27th)
I’ll kick-off the list with a good juvenile read, suitable for ages 8 and up. The book is a twist on the Sleeping Beauty story, this time following the narcoleptic beauty’s young daughters Aurora and Luna as they go on a great sea adventure, seeking to reverse the sleeping curse that threatens to overcome young Princess Aurora (after their mother was saved from the curse it reverted to her eldest daughter). The concept is a fun twist on a well-known plot. It’s pretty easy reading and simple enough for younger readers, but if forced to read aloud, the tale won’t bore parents. Because of the adventure, and a rather brave young boy who aids the sisters on their quest, the book will also appeal to boys, so don’t let the more feminine cover fool you. Overall, a fun read for young kids.

Far Far Away by Tom McNeal (releases June 11th)
This is a difficult one to review. It has many elements that I enjoy: fairy tale theme, paranormal aspect, coming of age, danger; but it just doesn’t come together in an appealing manner. Let’s get the plot out of the way and then I’ll explain the ways the book lost me.

The basic plot is that Jeremy Johnson Johnson (yes, two Johnsons) of the small village Never Better has two problems, he and his recluse father are about to lose their home, and he can speak to ghosts. Jeremy’s ghost just happens to be the late great Jacob Grimm (who is also the tale’s narrator), a spirit trapped in the space between life and death, wandering the Earth in hopes of either finding his brother or finally passing into the afterlife. When the aptly called “Finder of Occasions” finds Jeremy and friend Ginger in the midst of their own trials, he finds a way to exploit them, endangering their lives unless the ghostly Jacob can do something to stop him.

The story is ridiculous, but not in the appealing manner of fairy tales (which it tries to emulate), rather it bounces all over the place, letting the characters dangle over several problems and dangers, but pulling them back on the brink, so when the actual danger appears you end up breathing a sigh that it’s done. This is not the sigh of an enchanted reader mind you, but one of an irritated reader waiting for the story to end. Another issue is the dialogue—it is very stylized, which can work when applied in the right way, but since there is no sense of time period it is difficult to accept such odd discourse. At times it seems as though the story is taking place in the 1950’s, at others current time, and then there’s the notion that the characters are merely stuck in the back of the Mystery Machine, copying the lingo of the Scooby Gang. No matter how interesting the plot, poor dialogue will destroy a novel, and McNeal just doesn’t write decent dialogue.

I wanted to like this one, wouldn’t dissuade anyone, particularly those between 9 and 12, from reading it, but in all this just wasn’t a great book. Nice concept, poorly executed, a middling novel.

Descendant: A Starling Novel by Lesley Livingstone (releases August 27th)
Descendant is the sequel to Livingstone’s Starling, and also a part of the universe she created in her Wondrous Strange series. This YA series is fun, bringing in an entertaining mix of Norse, Greek, and Egyptian mythologies, as well as the Fae world created in the Wondrous Strange books. In Descendant, there is a nice touch of romance, fierce battles, and familial upheaval. It is an entertaining, if not completely solid tale, but do beware of the cliffhanger ending, as it is a typical middle book where nothing is resolved. An acceptable read for genre devotees or fans of Livingston’s other works.

It Happens in the Dark by Carol O’Connell (releases August 20th)
As a big fan of the series, I have to mention the 13th Mallory novel It Happens in the Dark. This time O’Connell pits the sociopathic Mallory against a ghostwriter who is killing off members of the cast and crew of a Broadway play and then sets his sights on Mallory. This is a typical suspense for the series, nothing too exciting happens, and it has none of the brilliance of Find Me (#11), but as a fan, I’m always eager to spend some time with Mallory, Riker, Charles Butler, and the crew of the NYPD Special Crimes Division. One note though, in both this installment and the previous, The Chalk Girl, O’Connell gives us an epilogue from the point-of-view of an elderly Charles Butler, in each it has Mallory long dead and Butler searching his memories for moments of her humanity. Does this mean that O’Connell is preparing us for an eventual kill-off of Mallory and the series? I hope not, but after the revealing Find Me, and then these two epilogues, I just can’t rule it out.

Circle of Shadows by Imogen Robertson (Releases June 13th)

Another series I thoroughly enjoy, Circle of Shadows is the 4th chapter in the Harriet Westerman/Gabriel Crowther mysteries that take place in 18th Century England. In this book Harriet and Crowther travel to Germany in an attempt to save Harriet’s brother-in-law, Daniel Clode from wrongful execution. What they find is a court built on lies, splendor, mysticism, and intrigue; and a murderer eager to make a very significant and creative statement. Crowther’s forensics, and Harriet’s intuition are always a fine match, throw in a rather complex conspiracy involving the Freemasons and you have an entertaining Georgian suspense. Robertson’s writing gets better with each novel, but her structure is still a bit odd, with the narrative bouncing between locations and individuals a little too haphazardly for a reader’s comfort. Still, fans of the light suspense series will enjoy the banter and intrigue, making it a worthwhile read.

Right now I’m reading The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani. Thus far it is fantastic. One of those great fiction reads that is smooth and enchanting from page one. I can only hope that it continues to be as engrossing to the end. Definitely worthy of its own review, so keep your eyes open.

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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

What I’m Reading, April 26, 2013

I’ve been a bit of a whirlwind reader this week, plowing through a myriad of YA and adults reads with an incessant need to find something really great. Instead, I found myself faced with a mixture of sequels, odd and slightly disturbing new titles, and disappointing series finales. So, in the order I read them, here’s what’s been in my hands this week.

Black City by Elizabeth Richards (out now)
Okay, this is a bit of a cheat, because I actually read it last Friday, but I thought I would mention it anyway. Black City is another one of those dystopian young adult novels that deals with a corrupt totalitarian government ruling with an iron grip. It differs in that author Elizabeth Richards introduces a bit of a paranormal concept, where Darklings, mutated humanoid-vampire creatures, are the “villainous” others struggling against serious segregation propaganda from the anti-Christ type leader of the humans. Here, the daughter of a corrupt government official/scientist falls for a twin-blood (the product of a human and a Darkling) without a heart. Between extreme religious parallels and violence (really horrific crucifixions of traitors to the government’s cause), and obvious comments on bigotry, segregation, and totalitarianism; the underlying themes are definitely unsubtle—more like a sledge hammer, and the plot suffers for it. Still, the world was interesting enough to keep me reading and the writing was not horrible. I have the sequel, Phoenix, but am still unsure if it deserves my time. I have to say, this book is not for the weak of stomach, or heart, and although it is geared toward those ages 14 and up, I would be hesitant to recommend it to anyone under the age of 17. In all, Black City was not a complete waste of time—it did mash-up genres in an interesting way, but in all, the extremes that it uses to push political, social, and religious tones onto a teen reader takes away from its likability.

Emerald Green by Kerstin Gier (releases 10/8/13)
The final book of the Ruby Red series was a bit of a disappointment. Ruby Red had a lot of promise, an interesting storyline, a likeable heroine, and an interesting twist (see my review Ruby Red: An International Bestseller Making its Way to the U.S.). I found the sequel, Sapphire Blue to be lacking a bit, but let’s face it, most of the middle books within a trilogy do, and still I had hope for a good strong finish. Unfortunately, Emerald Green just didn’t have it. While the primary plot threads were closed, there were still many holes left untouched, and there was a rather unsatisfying handling of what should have been a rather pivotal and emotional reveal for the main character. Basically, I experienced a general feeling of let-down. I don’t know if the better part of the series plot and character development was lost in translation (translated from German by well-known translator Anthea Bell), or if in stretching it to three books, as opposed the one single novel—after all the entire series only takes place over a few weeks—took the spark away, but whatever it was, the finished product was sadly lacking in oomph and pay-off.

The Elite by Kiera Cass (out now)
Yes, I did hit the YA hard this week, and the third book I read is the sequel to last year’s The Selection (for review see "The Selection"—read it before you see it). The Elite continues to follow the story of America Singer, a poor musician living in yet another dystopian setting, who has been recruited to compete in a very public Bachelor-esque competition for the hand of the kingdom’s prince in marriage. In book two we find America, now one of six remaining girls, torn between her confusing feelings for Prince Maxon and her childhood love Aspen, now in the Royal Guard. The machinations of the other girls are fascinating to read about as they continuously vie for attention and the crown, and the underlying political happenings start to take on for meaning—making it a little difficult to figure out exactly how this series will end. Despite its middle book-syndrome premise (nothing ever comes to resolution in the second books), The Elite is still engaging, though often maddening (just choose a guy!), and worth a read if you enjoyed The Selection. I can’t help, but anticipate the yet to be named conclusion to this trilogy, I truly have no idea how it will end.

The Last Word by Lisa Lutz (releases 7/9/13)
I always enjoy the wit of a Spellman book and The Last Word, which is the 6th “document”, continues the story of Isabel Spellman and her wayward family of Private Investigators. This time the perpetually sarcastic Izzy is losing control of her recently conquered company (she sprung a takeover of the family’s business in Document #5, Trail of the Spellmans)—her parents refuse to behave themselves in any sort of professional manner, her top client and backer makes her jog three times a week, and she’s under investigation by the FBI for embezzlement. Lutz’s characters are sarcastic, sneaky, and downright scary in their ingeniousness. While not my favorite of the series—that’s a tie between The Spellman Files and The Spellmans Strike Again—the characters are still endearing and entertaining, making it of course, a must read for fans of the series.

The Fairest of Them All by Carolyn Turgeon (releases 8/16/13)
This reimaging of the Rapunzel and Snow White stories is a dark and twisted piece of fiction. Ostensibly telling the story of Rapunzel, The Fairest of Them All features the long haired beauty as an amalgamation of the innocent young maiden from the tower and the misunderstood, possibly wicked, Evil Queen from the Snow White tale. This Rapunzel, raised by a witch, enchants the less than perfect prince, only to be ditched by him when he marries the mother of the yet to be born Snow White. What ensues is heartbreak, mischief, love, and revenge as the amazingly naïve young lady with the magic hair evolves into an entirely new and unique version of Snow White’s stepmother. An interesting and definitely adult fairytale remake, I can’t quite say I liked it—these characters were almost too human in their flaws, too dark in their thoughts and deeds, heroes and villains alike, but it might be worth a read if you’re in the mood for a skewed trip into the “happily ever after” zone.

I also read The Never List by Koethi Zan (releases 7/16/13), but will be discussing it later in a full review.

I’m currently reading Rick Yancey’s The Fifth Wave, a post-apocalyptic YA that is looking to be very promising. More on that later.

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