Friday, August 30, 2013

What I’ve (been) Reading: August 30, 2013

I’ve continued my slow reading slump this week, with a couple of okay teen reads and an almost promising start to a new novel from a popular author.

Tumble & Fall by Alexandra Coutts (Releases September 17th)
An asteroid is heading to Earth in one week, there is no stopping it.
Sounds like every other science fiction/dystopian/apocalyptic teen novel out on today’s book shelves, right? Like a breath of fresh air, Alexandra Coutts Tumble & Fall veers away from the doomed world, survival theme that is so prevalent in teen fiction, and uses the premise to instead set-up a character study and coming-of-age story that has less to do with survival and everything to do with finding a place. The story follows three teens on Martha’s Vineyard, all facing vastly different issues; a missing sister and dead boyfriend, a drunk mother and absent father, and a stint in a psychiatric ward after a suicide attempt; as they stumble through their last week (presumably) on Earth. The teens are very loosely connected so the narrative moves smoothly between their stories, alternating between each character on every day of the “last week”. Taking such an overworked genre, and turning it on its head was a smart move by author Coutts. Instead of the tired old “sky is falling” story, Coutts manages to turn it into a sincere look at a week in the life of a teenager, or in this case three teens, as they try to figure out just how they fit in this world and in their families. While the ultimate result was a bit stale, and slightly boring, I still need to applaud the attempt, as this book easily could have fallen into the pile of novels with very similar premises collecting dust on the floor; instead, I’m sure it will get picked out of the slush and given a chance. It might not be a great read—the storylines are a little clichéd, and the plot is a bit plodding—but I think it will get a little bit of action, if only for its stalwart attempt to be different.

The Sweet Dead Life by Joy Preble (available now)
"I found out two things today: One, I think I'm dying. And two, my brother is a perv." The Sweet Dead Life is a fun, wise-cracking book aimed at the 12 thru 15 year old bracket. The book follows Jenna Samuels, 8th grader with a wicked tongue, a vivid imagination, a love of boots, and who is quite possibly dying. The book, while witty and definitely laugh worthy—it’s told as entries in Jenna’s highly amusing journal—also deals with some deeper issues. Jenna’s father left them mysteriously years before, her mother had fallen into a dark depression that has taken her out of this world, and her brother Casey, once a promising football player, has turned into a stoner, who spends his days stoned, and his nights working multiple jobs trying to keep his family fed. While these issues definitely are at the root of the story, they get pushed back a little in favor of Jenna’s biting sarcasm, and the bigger plot point of the story which is Casey’s death, and immediate return as Jenna’s guardian angel. Convoluted, yes. Ridiculous, absolutely. Oddly humorous and decidedly not cheesy, indubitably. Yes, Casey becomes an angel rather quickly in this book. Granted he still has a craving for pot and he lusts after his ex-girlfriend, but he’s still an angel, if a slightly misguided one. This plot point might drive people away, but I hope it doesn’t. It is not nearly as silly as it sounds, in fact it does a great job of emphasizing the deep connection between the two siblings in the face of their world literally falling apart around them. Instead of a paranormal book, The Sweet Dead Life is more of a fun mystery and a sibling adventure that brushes the edges of serious. I like this book for younger teens, although I do warn that Jenna has a bit of a mouth on her, so if language is an issue take a pass, but overall it is a pretty tame, and often funny little mystery. The sequel, The A-Word comes out in May of 2014, and I hope it’s as engaging as its predecessor.

Stella Bain by Anita Shreve (Releases November 12th)
I’m not a huge fan of bestselling author Anita Shreve, but I did think her novel Strange Fits of Passion was haunting and very well-written, and should be discussed more by book groups, but sadly it is bypassed by her more famous novels The Pilot’s Wife and The Weight of Water. I’ve only just begun to read her latest, Stella Bain (I’m about 100 pages in), and I’m not quite sure yet how I feel. It started off strong, sucking me into the life of Stella, an amnesiac nurse’s aid in World War I France, sifting through the horrors around her as she struggles to recover her own identity, but it started to lose me as Stella travels to England and is taken in by a cranial doctor and his wife. From there, chapters of Freudian psychobabble, and awkward encounters between the doctor and Stella really began to deter me. I’m not reading the flashback portion, where the reader discovers what brought Stella to the front in the first place, but thus far it has drifted into a very clichéd narrative, lacking the oomph and charisma of the first chapters. I’ll add a note with my final thoughts after I’ve finished. I certainly hope Stella Bain is able to dig itself out of its middle page lull and into the promise that I first glimpsed.

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