The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR Review #36: Eleanor and Park

 

I’m the guy who hated Romeo and Juliet (spare me captain boner and lady dumbass). I’m the guy who hated Wuthering Heights (go jump off a moor Heathcliff, I like the cat better anyway). I’m the guy who shakes his head at every protestation of love I ever hear from students, every hand-holding, sweetly embracing pair of fools who will end up in tears in just a few weeks.

I’m also the guy who nearly broke down crying at this book. Rainbow Rowell doesn’t try to oversell the seriousness of the relationship, it’s not life or death–but it may feel that way. She doesn’t try to make her characters more mature than their years (they seem downright childish at times), nor does she make it infantile crushing. You have to root for a pair of kids who seem so familiar to us all and so eager to live for the sake of living.

It’s a supremely sweet story, honest and exhilirating and a little bit brutal…just like teenage romance is.

 

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #35 Winger

As I return to my victory lap worth of extra book reviews, I’m going to work in a few reviews of selections from the Children Literature Network’s suggestions of potential Printz Award Honorees. (You can read the full review and see my ballot at my other website: The Scruffy Rube)

Another realistic and truly genuine teenager…the only problem is that in creating him Andrew Smith created a genuine teenage voice: one that is by turns immature and absurdly irritating. While the book jacket is laden with praise for how marvelous the main character/narrator, Ryan Dean West is, I couldn’t help but think he was the most egotistical whiner since Harry Potter in book 5 (without an ounce of Harry’s heroism), and the most gratingly obnoxious snot since Holden Caufield (though at least Holden owned his profanity).

Smith’s reliance on giving his narrator a limited vocabulary is primarily responsible for this. Sure, most teenage boys have a limited vocabulary and turn almost any situation into a homophobic slur, but doing it again and again despite the West’s repeated claims that he’s not homophobic (and that he’s the smartest kid in the whole school) just seems hypocritcal. Sure, teenagers struggle to change, but when West spends almost 400 pages turning every image of a woman into an instant sexual fantasy, the final 50 pages of maturity is a little underwhelming. And the less said about the Ryan-Dean-Hyper-Hyphenated-Scales-of-Irritatingly-Punctuated-Asshattery the better.

I will admit, Smith is spot on in his portrayal of boarding school culture, so much so that I found myself missing my old stomping grounds in India, despite the irritatingly pompous protagonist. And one of the final lines contains a kernel of truth that almost redeems the rest of the reading experience: “almost nothing at all is ever about sex, unless you never grow up, that is. It’s about love, and maybe, not having it.” But ultimately, no matter how brave it is to write a brutally honest teenage character, if you fail to balance a teen’s maturity with his immaturity, you will alienate the reader as much as an average teenager alienates their neighborhood.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #34 Out of the Easy

As I return to my victory lap worth of extra book reviews, I’m going to work in a few reviews of selections from the Children Literature Network’s suggestions of potential Printz Award Honorees. (You can read the full review and see my ballot at my other website: The Scruffy Rube)

Ruta Sepetys’ protagonist is less easy to relate to. Sure, Jo Moraine has some of the same problems and dramas that plague every girl on the cusp of 18: boys to choose from, applying to college, dealing with an absentee father, finding friends, balancing academics and work, avoiding the same mistakes her mother made, growing into her womanhood.

Of course, she’s also the daughter of a prostitute who is also caught up in a murder investigation set in 1950’s era New Orleans, so it’s not exactly a perfect match.

Still, It’s a credit to Sepetys that her characters are believable and the setting feels fresh rather than mothballed or stuffed with overwrought sentiment. The 50s and its segregated past are there, so is the setting of New Orleans, dank and musty. And still we can connect to the drama surrounding Jo, wondering whether or not she can break the cycle of dependency and degradation of life in the French Quarter and find a better place somewhere else.

It’s a further credit to Sepetys that she makes us care whilst juggling plotlines like a stilted mardi-gras parader juggles flaming torches. At times it feels a little ungainly (again, like the juggler on stilts), lunging for a plot point that you might have forgotten about, but she keeps them all in the air, and builds her world with a number of valuable, believable characters (even amongst those who only appear for a page or two).

In the end, Out of the Easy beautifully pairs a rich setting with a believable (if not entirely relatable) character. As Jo gradually ticks off each of her dramas, she becomes a powerful and winning character whose setting enriches her, even as she seeks to escape it.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #33 Al Capone Does My Homework

As I return to my victory lap worth of extra book reviews, I’m going to work in a few reviews of selections from the Children Literature Network’s suggestions of potential Newberry Award Honorees. (You can read the full review and see my ballot at my other website: The Scruffy Rube)

Al Capone Does my Homework

The central conceit of Gennifer Choldenko’s “Tale From Alcatraz” series, is that a group of youngsters who live on the island prison must navigate a dangerous neighborhood. Naturally, when surrounded by crooks and criminals there is a mystery cropping up on an almost daily basis. Who better to solve those crimes than the plucky group of youngsters?

Choldenko’s been successful with this structure before, her first novel–Al Capone Does My Shirts–won the Newberry in 2004. She goes above and beyond the boilerplate “kid detective” story line by having her protagonist (the thoroughly 30’s named, Moose Flanagan) also spend much of his time protecting his developmentally challenged older sister. Set at a time when children were supposed to be seen, not heard, and when mental challenges were something close to unspeakable, Chodlenko makes sure that the historical nature of her novel enriches the story as much as possible.

That said, there’s still a large degree of “mystery-by-the-numbers” plotting at play here. Awkward teenage love triangles, and sudden startling revelations feel like beats that must be hit rather than genuine slice-of-life moments. A small drama around Moose’s father near the end of the book gets the heart racing a little faster. But by and large Al Capone Does My Homework is an agreeable, if not riveting, youthful mystery.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #32: The Illuminated Adventures of Flora & Ulysses

As I return to my victory lap worth of extra book reviews, I’m going to work in a few reviews of selections from the Children Literature Network’s suggestions of potential Newberry Award Honorees. (You can read the full review and see my ballot at my other website: The Scruffy Rube)

Flora and Ulysses

By Contrast, this is a book, with a plot and everything! [Okay, Ben, let’s ease up on the snark a little bitTale of Desperaux author Kate DiCamillo captures the imaginative adventure of a child with a lot of summer downtime on their hands while infusing it with a dollop of good old fashioned magic/superhero origin story.

By making the superhero a squirrel and leaving our human protagonist as his enfeebled sidekick, DiCamillo makes sure that we appreciate the magic around us rather than fret over our own safety and security. Ulysses is in trouble as often as Flora is, and as he learns to exercise his powers he seems increasingly human.

It’s a little startling to see a biological mother (rather than a step mother) cast as a heavy (or as the book claims an “arch-nemesis”), but it makes sense, particuarly when the central conflict (in her eyes) is to make her daughter more normal, to add a degree of normalcy of every-day life into her weird world. She wants safety, security and familiarity. I can understand that, even if I (and most other readers) will side with our heroes.

KG Campbell’s drawings are good, and they serve a point in the story (unlike many overwrought pseudo-graphic-novels), but the trope seems so overused at this point that you almost wonder if DiCamillo could have made it work on her own, and how it would be just as a novel itself.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Reviews #28-30: Song of Ice And Fire Books 3-5

I’m officially on my victory laps after completing my annual half-cannonball. Now it’s just about setting a new personal best. You can keep up with these and all my reviews of other things at my personal blog

The last time I tried to review a book from George RR Martin I was pilloried as a twit who didn’t/couldn’t understand his genius. I freely admitted I didn’t, that I could be wrong and that I apologized for any offense, but all the tumult made me felt excluded, as if only those who adore Martin can review him.

Still, my wife, devoted both to nerdery and (against all odds) to me, encouraged me to pick the books up again. And after the season finale this spring, I did. Rather than write long reviews I’m boiling my thoughts down to one sentence each…may god/Martin-Uber-fans have mercy on my soul.

For those who enjoy saying “What-the-what?!??!?”: Storm of Swords

A dry first half lays the ground work for as thrilling a set of three hundred pages as the series has ever had, with monumental swings in momentum that turns the heretofore expected plot on its ear.

For those who wonder about the role of religion in politics and war: Feast for Crows

A less dramatic but totally riveting look at the depth and complexity of a few key characters (particularly the ladies), including  an incisive look at the faith & belief systems that have rationalized their desires. (These two books get three stars)

For those who are pot committed: A Dance With Dragons

By this point you need to know what happens next–even if several stories are numbingly repetitive, others are aborted mid-book and more seem utterly inconsequential–this book quenches that thirst. (This one gets the two)

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #27: Zorro

I’m officially on my victory laps after completing my annual half-cannonball. Now it’s just about setting a new personal best. You can keep up with these and all my reviews of other things at my personal blog

For those who prefer authorial style to iconic characters: Zorro

I’ve been listening to Blair Brown slowly, almost lovingly, read Isabelle Allende’s take on the famous caballero and off for the past year. Finally reaching a stage where I turned it on double speed just to get through it all.

It’s not dull exactly, there are plenty of humorous adventures and acts of daring-do to keep fans of the masked swashbuckler happy. But it’s much more of an origin story than an epic adventure. Diego De La Vega (the man who will be Zorro) isn’t around for the first quarter of the book–only his parents are–and he doesn’t become Zorro until the final third kicks off. The last disc (which I would guess is about a fifth of the book) is where the action really picks up and all of Allende’s other work pays off.

That’s the thing, with an author like Isabelle Allende behind it, you have to expect that the immensely gifted author is going to make it her own. But with a character as well known as Zorro, you come into the book with a host of preconceptions and expectations. In an ideal world, Allende would use her talents to enhance and illuminate an already beloved character. In the real world, Allende used the character to showcase her talents.

Again, that’s not a bad thing, it’s a pleasure to hear a gifted author’s words brought to life (it certainly seems like Brown favors the description to the action, enhancing this feeling even more). But it’s a trifle disappointing to expect a heroic character’s greatest adventures only to find a beautifully described portrait of life in Post-Napoleonic Spain and her colonies.