The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler

Turtleback Books, 2003, 244 pages

Turtleback Books, 2003, 244 pages

After many, many weeks hiatus, another girly review to show the world I’m still alive and kicking (though unfortunately not reading all that much). I read this book a while ago, wrote a review, then promptly forgot to post it. Oh well, that goes to show how important it is for you dear readers to subscribe, doesn’t it?

It should surprise no one that I chose this book solely on the title. Still, it’s worth noting that this hilarious novel is also a Printz Award winner. Thankfully it lived up to my high expectations! It was every bit the girly, smart, and funny book I wanted it to be.

Virginia Shreves is our fifteen-year-old narrator, sadly characterized mostly by her weight. Virginia lives by her own “Fat Girl Code of Conduct”, which basically dictates how she interacts with the opposite sex (i.e. poorly). I felt sorry for Virginia in the first half of the book. It seems like everything in her life is working against her self-esteem: her best friend has moved away, her exercise-obsessed mom is unsupportive and undercutting, and her siblings are absent. Self-hatred saturates the first part of this book, and in such a real, believable way. The fact that it is the true inner voice of so many girls out there today is what made parts of this book really quite disturbing. There’s my warning.

The flip side of that, however, was Mackler’s ability to add wit and irreverent humour to every aspect of the story. While it touches on really serious subjects, it does so in the best way possible. It’s truthful, but it isn’t brutal.

Virginia’s real coming of age takes place through a shocking family event that rocks her world. Rather than watching it ruin her, the reader gets to see a journey toward self-actualization that is truly beautiful. I can’t say I was on the same page as Virginia the whole time – along with finding her voice and being able to stand up for herself she adopts somewhat of a silver tongue, for example – but I think that contributes to the realness of the novel. Teenagers are like that, and even the “nice girl” can’t always be super gracious.  The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things is a genuine portrait of teenaged girl-dom, and I really really liked it.

Not Suitable for Family Viewing, Vicki Grant

HarperTrophyCanada, 2009, 289 pages (soft cover)

I’d never heard of this book or its author, but it’s one of those random library picks that turned out to be an entertaining surprise. Not to mention it’s Canadian, and it made me LOL. I really love books that  literally make me laugh out loud.

Before I get to the meat and potatoes here, can we pause for a moment to communally groan at this cover? As a result I was forced to find creative ways to hold my book while reading on the bus….

That’s not really where the groans stopped for this book, either. The first-person present-tense story is told from the perspective of Robin, the oft-forgotten daughter of Oprah-like TV mega-personality, Mimi Schwartz. (Want to know the name of Mimi’s show? You, You, and Mimi. Groan.) In the shadow of her famous mother, Robin feels like a neglected, fat slob with no motivation to do anything. Then one day she finds a little clue to her mother’s pre-fame days, which is just intriguing enough for Robin to take off for a tiny po-dunk village to do some detective work. This is both where the real eye-rolling as well as nail biting started for me. Along her way Robin meets a guy, who slowly but surely (somehow) becomes a love interest [spoiler alert! highlight to read!] even after she punches him in the face upon their first meeting, and later proceeds to scream – yes, literally scream – every time she sees him thereafter. Obviously this leads to his finding her very quirky, funny, and sexy- sexy. Teeny-bopper romance aside – and I had to gag my way through plenty of that – there’s actually a pretty twisty mystery hidden in these pages. I didn’t realize how much red herring is strategically placed throughout the book, until I’d finished it and had it on my mind the next couple days. Coming off of Paper Townsthis one had a lot more to offer in terms of difficulty actually cracking the case.

I’m glad I was compelled enough to keep on through the first half of this book, because the second half proved well worth it. In the first half I wondered why it was an award winner; now I see why. Layered beneath the typical teen beach romance is actually a strong commentary about how appearances aren’t what they seem.

Paper Towns by John Green

Speak, 2009, 305 pages (hardcover)

Speak, 2009, 305 pages (hardcover)

In the John Green hierarchy of book awesomeness, it is with a heavy heart that I’m actually able to call Paper Towns my least favourite. I still give it a 3 out of 5, but I was expecting something between a 4 or a 5. Maybe my expectations were too high, as it took me a good two years to get my hands on a copy. Maybe it’s because I’ve read literally all of John Green’s books and this felt like (don’t shoot me) more of the same.

This time around, Margo Roth Spiegelman is the unattainable girl that our first-person-narrated hero loves from afar. And when she disappears (not unlike Alaska in Looking for Alaska) the hero spends two hundred pages learning she’s not this carefree manic pixie dreamgirl (not unlike Looking for Alaska). Turns out Margo is a real girl with real problems. Nearing the end of the book comes the philosophical discussion that indefinitely confronts our protagonists’ deep-seated need to make a lasting difference in the universe (not unlike any of Green’s novels).

Okay, so I’m really poking fun here. Every author has a niche, and all I’m saying is I’m on to Green. I still think he’s the greatest living young adult author out there, because his writing is that good, and his humour is without fail. Sometimes I feel like his characters’ horniness-to-intelligence ratio is whack (in that they always seem to score pretty high on both) – but then I really know nothing about what it’s like to be a teenage boy. Paper Towns lost me in its last few pages, when [spoiler alert! highlight to read!] the romantic end felt more obligatory than necessary.

Still, for a light-hearted mystery, this fit the bill for a summer read.

AND NOW…

The John Green Hierarchy of Book Awesomeness (In My Humble Opinion)*:

1. The Fault in Our Stars (6 out of 5 stars and I can never read it again or the lack of newness will drop this score to a mere 5)

2. An Abundance of Katherines (4 out of 5 stars)

3. Looking for Alaska (4 out of 5 stars)

4. Will Greyson, Will Greyson (4 out of 5 stars)

5. Paper Towns (3 out of 5 stars, which is still a pass)

*I haven’t read Let it Snow or Zombicorns, neither of which I’d count as a true novel anyway….

Any thoughts? Agree, disagree? What does your list look like? Sound off below!

Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter

Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter

Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter

Don’t judge a book by it’s cover? For this novel I certainly did.

The gorgeous photo of  Manarola, a city belonging to the infamous and spellbinding Cinque Terre, is what did me in. I was lucky enough to travel to the Cinque Terre last summer and so seeing such a beautiful image made me want to read the book.

In reality this book had nothing to do with the Cinque Terre. Talk about misleading!

The novel jumps from time period to time period (I’m really getting tired of this style) and is basically about a young man from Italy who lives in a small town close to the Cinque Terre (but never actually goes there) and his love for a mysterious American movie star who has arrived in his town to die of cancer. Back in America an old washed-up producer is trying to find his next big hit. Somehow the Italian man and the American man are acquainted and bond. And that’s about it.

Throughout the novel I felt as if it was leading up to an unwinding mystery. But no, there was no mystery and the book really didn’t build up to anything. The characters did not develop because each new chapter took place in a different decade. The characters were difficult to relate to. Nobody fell in love. And in the end, the resolution was neither interesting nor satisfying.

As I write this review I get more and more frustrated that I allowed myself to struggle through the novel for over 2 months. I should have quit the first time I put it down, just after a few pages, not to pick it up for another few weeks! Sometimes it is a sign that a book isn’t worth it if it isn’t devoured within the first or second week!

Moral of the story – don’t judge a book by it’s cover! I did and guess what? I now have 2 months of reading time that I can never have back!

Question: What’s one book that you wish you never read?

– Natasha

And now for a shameless plug: read about my time in the Cinque Terre (where I was in reality, not just in imagination) on my travel blog: www.arestlessnomad.wordpress.com!

If I Stay, Gayle Forman

Dutton Juvenile, 2009, 201 pages (hardcover)

It’s a regular Monday night and I’m just wising up to the fact that I still run a blog. Sorry if it hasn’t felt that way – life can sometimes change in an instant, for better or for worse. Priorities tend to shift in those moments. Which is a good lead-in for this latest review!

If I Stay follows an intriguing premise. A shy, cello-playing seventeen-year-old named Mia has just barely survived a car crash. One second she’s riding along with her family, and the next, she’s watching the wreckage from across the street. What follows are her lengthy out-of-body observations en route to and inside the hospital, while her body remains in its coma.

While I like the concept and appreciated a truly unique first-person perspective, I’ve concluded that this novel is overrated. Hand it to an eleven-year-old girl with a romantic streak and she’ll probably say it’s the saddest book ever. Truth is, while it’s got its definitive sad moments (those come with the territory), the plot for me actually wore a little thin. The bulk of the novel is shaped from flashbacks to happier times. Sure, this is about the only way to lengthen any book with a comatose protagonist, but I actually thought a lot of the dialogue and exchanges between Mia and her boyfriend Adam, and Mia and her parents felt unrealistic. I also felt the author overselling the irony of it all. The foreshadowing was too obvious and as a result took on this “see how profound this is?” quality that I didn’t love.

All this said, I think Forman has a talent for keeping her readers turning pages, and I’d happily read the follow-up novel (Where She Went) if it were to fall in my hands. I’m also pretty excited to see the movie, which is supposedly slated for this December. I have a feeling a lot of what this book is will work better on screen.

Top Ten Tuesday: Best Young Adult Series

As hosted by the Broke and the Bookish, this week allowed me to choose any genre I wanted. I read all genres and found it tough to narrow it down, however I have a lot of YA books in my repertoire, and thought to keep it to YA series, since I just finished Cress, the third book of Marissa Meyers’ Lunar Chronicles series. Even this is a little tough! I don’t include Harry Potter or Anne of Green Gables books, which usually fall under Juvenile fiction. I figured I’d give some other books a shot at being on the list.

Graceling#1 Graceling Realm Series, Kristin Cashore

These are some of my all-time favourite books, which I’ll read over and over again.

Cinder#2 The Lunar Chronicles, Marissa Meyer

I’m loving these fractured fairy tales! Retelling the Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Snow White stories, they focus on a future time when Lunars, colonists from the Moon, threaten to take over Earth. Cinder is a main character throughout the novels, and the supporting cast are great entertainment.

Hunger Games Trilogy#3 The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

Even though the last two books are not that great, there’s still a lot to salvage; evidenced by the great movie adaptations.

The One#4 The Selection Novels, Keira Cass

Again, not the greatest writing, however I love the story that Cass tells here. I’m also looking forward to the conclusion to the trilogy, The One, which comes out in May!

Angus, thongs and full-frontal snogging#5 Confessions of Georgia Nicolson Series, Louise Rennison

I’ve only read the first of the ten books in this series, but plan on pulling the other ones out on the beach this summer!

Heist Society Series#6 Heist Society Series, Ally Carter

This is a fun little series of wealthy teens with abnormal abilities to steal high-security items from museums and other collectors. The relationship between Kat and Hale makes this series a page-turner.

Ender's Game#7 The Ender Quintet, Orson Scott Card

This one’s a little different. I loved Ender’s Game, merely enjoyed Speaker for the Dead, and don’t have any plans to continue in the series. However, I really loved Ender’s Game. So, yeah.

Vampire Academy#8 Vampire Academy Series, Richelle Mead

I expected very little from this series, which I judged both by its awful cover, and by the word ‘Vampire’ in the title. It ended up being very enjoyable, and main character Rose kept my attention with her spunk and tenacity. Her relationship with Dmitri didn’t hurt, either.

His Dark Materials#9 His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman

Now 15 years old, this series was greatly enjoyed by me in the past, and is due for a re-read (which it hopefully lives up to!).

Wicked Lovely Series#10 Wicked Lovely Series, Melissa Marr

I only read the first in the series a few weeks ago. Marr creates a detailed world where Fairy royalty and other mythical creatures walk among us. I love the covers, and will definitely get around to the second one eventually.

Bonus! Least Favourite YA Series (From Best to Worst)

#1 The Divergent Trilogy, Veronica Roth

I don’t hate it, in fact I loved it the first time. Unfortunately the re-read didn’t live up to expectations. Looking forward to the movie though!

Uglies#2 The Uglies Series, Scott Westerfeld

Not enough interest there for me. But kudos for being one of the ground breakers in the genre!

#3 Chemical Garden (Wither), by Lauren DeStefano

Started with an interesting idea, then went a little crazy with it.

#4 The Matched Trilogy by Ally Condie

Again, started with a really cool concept, and made it weird and ugh.

City of Bones#5 The Mortal Instruments (City of Bones), Cassandra Clare

Though I never really enjoyed this series, it sucked me in to read all the books. There were a few too many things going on in this series, though.

#6 The Caster Chronicles (Beautiful Creatures), Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

Not sure if having a male main character was weird, or not, but this book is just a little bit better than the movie.

Legend#7 The Legend Series, Marie Lu

It looked like it would be so good, and it just…. wasn’t.

#8 The Gemma Doyle Trilogy ( A Great and Terrible Beauty), Libba Bray

See previous entry on said awful book.

#9 House of Night Series (Marked), P.C Cast and Kristin Cast

I haven’t read this one! But I’ve read the back cover, and a few reviews and that was enough to turn me off forever!

#10 The Wolves of Mercy Falls (Shiver), Maggie Stiefvater

Shiver is one of the worst books I have ever read. Like in the top two.

The Spectacular Now, Tim Tharp

Directed by James Ponsoldt.

This book has got a lot of hype thanks to the movie version, which came out on DVD last week. Before saying anything about the film, however, I’m going to first tackle the novel.

I enjoyed reading The Spectacular Now. Party boy Sutter Keely offers some of the most interesting and believable narration I’ve read from a first-person teen novel in a while. The book starts with Sutter’s girlfriend, Cassidy, breaking up with him, to which his response is a new goal to win her back. Somewhere along the way, however, he crosses paths with Aimee, a sweet but naive and (let’s admit it) somewhat dorky classmate. Pretty soon it’s as if they’re dating, and after a while it’s official. 

Before I go further into plot, I need to explain a thing or two about Sutter. He drinks – a lot. And then he goes driving. Often he drinks while driving. He’s also clearly hung up on Cassidy for a good half of the book, a crush that overlaps well into his relationship with Aimee. While it can’t be said that Sutter treats her badly, his opinion of Aimee is rarely romantic. He leads her on quite a bit, and for a time it seems as though he’s only dating her out of pity.

Yet here’s the thing: on top of all this, Sutter comes out likeable. I would never want my [nonexistent] daughter to hang out with him, but yeah, the boy’s got charisma. That said, a lot of people will disagree with me. My friend Annie wrote the following:

This is like the modern Catcher in the Rye, which, from me, is not a compliment. Sutter and Holden share the same unlikeableness, arrogance, and ultimate stagnancy that was pretty horrifying to read.

The arc of this book was frustrating. For a book of this caliber (not top) and because of the hype and the forthcoming movie adaptation, I was assuming…that there would be closure of some sort at the end. There wasn’t. I was frustrated. I only kept reading because I thought some comeuppance was coming to Sutter, but it didn’t (not really, not satisfactorily).

Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2008, 294 (hardcover)

Strangely, it seems the very things some people don’t like about The Spectacular Now are what I loved about it.  While it’s easy to think him an idiot for driving drunk most of the book, it’s also easy to feel worried for him. Sutter is neither hero nor villain, because he rides the line between them. The end of the book is frustrating, but I thought it ended the most likely way it could have. And realism is what the movie is currently being praised for. Everything from the script, to the actors’ performances, to the quality of their adolescent skin is beautifully and shockingly real. Slight changes were made to the end of the story, which might placate those who were angered by the book. Not only does the movie allude to a more satisfying end, it also shows the definite beginning of Sutter’s self-improvement.

While this novel lots of mature content, it’s a great exploration of an everyday, middle-class, non-future-dystopian-society teen, with problems that are relevant to every teen of that description. I recognized every character as someone I myself went to high school with, and I think there’s something special about that. Like The Catcher in the Rye, I believe The Spectacular Now has the sort of timeless quality of a novel that will still be pertinent fifty years from now.

Where Things Come Back, John Corey Whaley

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2012, 228 (paperback)

Randomly drawn to this book by some awards stickers and a cover reminiscent of The Fault in Our Stars, I was not let down. While I can say I REALLY enjoyed this book, I’ll admit I was thoroughly confused by the first fifty to one-hundred pages. After that things didn’t get much better, but at least by that time I was accustomed to the unique way Whaley chose to write this. Where Things Come Back is a complex series of plots and points of view which, at first, have nothing to do with each other. The magic is how they all become interwoven at the end.

At the middle of this story we have the very interesting (and oddly named) Cullen Witter. Cullen is seventeen, lives in a small Arkansas town, and is best friends with his high school’s Mr. Popular, Lucas Cader. This is a bit funny, because Cullen is in no way popular himself, coming across as sort of impassive about the world around him. There are flashbacks to times when he was appropriately engaged with the world, but those were mostly before his cousin OD’d, and his kind and intelligent brother, Gabriel, went missing.

Laid within Cullen’s story are tidbits from others: a misguided missionary; the beautiful town legend who’s returned after a failed shot-gun marriage; a washed-up bird watcher who thinks he’s spotted an extinct woodpecker, alive and well and out of hiding. To Cullen’s great dismay, everyone in town goes nuts about the bird, while the whereabouts of his brother gets swept aside. New relationships and old friendships are tested, some with good outcomes, others not so much. Religious themes reign, as each of the characters struggles with some question regarding what to believe. The book ends on a simultaneously sad and hopeful note.

Things I Liked: Each small-town character was so fleshed-out and real, there for a purpose even if they were only present for one page of the book. While Gabriel was painted as this perfect teenager with no discernible flaws, it seemed to fit with how the remaining family would view the lost member. This book was also funny! Where Things Come Back is so layered and rich with detail, it hit me right in the gooey centre of my book-lovin’ heart: it made me laugh, think, and sigh deeply. I don’t think I’ll ever quite fit all the threads of this book together unless I read it a second time. (We’ll see.)

Why I Was Confused: Especially having gone into this novel with no recommendations, never having heard about it, and judging it by the awards it’s won, I can definitively say I had waffling expectations. This book still surprised me. During those first fifty pages I was tempted to quit. After finishing the book, I was tempted to go right back to the front cover and start over. Things I didn’t like – for example, the characters’ so-weird-they-must-be-cool names and Cullen’s propensity as a first-person narrator to jump into third and then back again – took some getting used to. In the end, however, I found the writing and the story itself compelling and beautifully quirky. See? Even my complaints can’t stay negative.

The verdict? This is a very good, very weird book. If you like good, weird YA books, I recommend you give it a try.

Eragon, Christopher Paolini

Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2005, 503 pages

Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2005, 503 pages

It was several weeks ago now that I finished boy-genius Christopher Paolini’s first novel, Eragon. Written when the author was fifteen, the book is an impressive feat of its own. This is strong, young adult high fantasy. It’s also extremely polarizing, one of those books that people either seem to love or hate (at least if we’re going by the reviews on Goodreads). Personally, I’m somewhere in the middle, though I lean slightly more toward the positive end of the spectrum. I quite enjoyed this book. I also can see where a lot of the complaints are coming from. Before I address both sides of the argument and set up my who-should-read-this guide, however, I need to set up the plot.

Eragon is a hapless 15-year-old boy when he one day finds a mysterious blue stone in the forest. Its bright colour and smoothness immediately tell him it’s rare and worth holding on to. Right he was: the “stone” soon hatches a dragon, and with it a new path and legacy for Eragon to follow. Several generations have been ruled by an evil king with extraordinary talent for dark magic, and the rise of a new Dragon Rider could mean the beginning of a new era. The story quickly turns into a series of quests, as Eragon is pushed to find certain individuals, acquiring both allies and enemies along the way. As one question gets answered, another is posed, and so the story moves along at a measured and exciting clip.

So Why Do People Hate It?

Frodo and Gandalf

Hark! There are no wizards or short Hobbit-like creatures in Eragon.

Initially, I was surprised. Being outside the target demographic myself, I didn’t know much about it and was thus a bit shocked to read so many scathing reader-reviews when I looked it up. People were tearing apart what I thought was an innocently fun story with solid writing and editing. Yet there was a common thread: all these people were ardent Lord of the Rings fans. Yes, it’s true: Eragon has a distinctly Tolkiensian feel. Yes, I’ll admit that some elements of the book feel a little ripped off. For example? There were several similarities in character names and circumstances: Paolini’s hero Eragon vs. Tolkein’s hero Aragorn; the Elven love-interests for both of them (Arya & Arwen, respectively); the use of old-sounding author-invented languages. Indeed, even the creatures chasing after Eragon were creepily similar to Tolkien’s villains. (The “Ra’zac” were similar to Tolkein’s Nazgul; his description of the Orc race was similar to Paolini’s Urgals, etc.) So what can we make of this? Did the young, new, author steal from an established literary great? To begin with, I’m not the biggest LOTR fan out there (I loves me the movie trilogy, but have yet to finish the bookses). That said, as someone with a great respect for LOTR, I still have to disagree. Eragon (and, I presume, the rest of the Inheritance Cycle series) isn’t the most original of stories, but it’s not a copy. At most, I venture to say Paolini was heavily influenced by Tolkien. So what?

A Word, Then, About Who Will Like It.

For anyone who isn’t attached to LOTR in a deeply spiritual way – you know, those of you who like it rather than love it, Eragon may be of interest. It’s also worth noting that this is suited for a younger set. Not to say that LOTR is inappropriate for teens – it simply requires a more advanced (patient?) reading level. So, I actually think this would be a great foray into, you know, good fantasy (as opposed to the Twilight/Beautiful Creatures side of the genre). I know I’ll be recommending it to the nearest tween in my life!

Have Your Say in the comments section! If you’ve read Eragon, please tell us which side of the love-hate spectrum you land on.
 

Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom, Susin Nielson

Tundra Books, 2010, 229 pages

Twelve-year-old Violet is one of the funniest, frank, most passive-aggressive characters I’ve read all year. I can’t remember liking a kid protagonist this much since Flavia DeLuce.

Violet’s story starts off sad. Her Vancouver family has all but fallen apart after her TV-producer father leaves for a blonde LA actress named Jennica. Now Violet has to deal with a little sister who wets the bed and a mom who’s quickly turned into a serial dater with bad taste. What’s more, her father constantly wants her to visit in LA, where her evil stepmom and new twin sisters live. How does she cope? The novel starts with her tricking the twins into eating cat poo, and, well, it doesn’t get much better from there. Once her mom starts dating a guy named Dudley Wiener, Violet realizes it’s time to take matters into her own hands. She quickly devises a plan to set her mom up with a better man…a man who could get rid of Dudley and show her dad a thing or two. Enter George Clooney!

Total Mom material!

Despite her oftentimes bad attitude, and even the occasional urge to insult five-year-olds, I think Violet’s pretty charming. And not everyone would agree with me on this, which is why she’s that much more interesting to me. Here is a fictional girl who’s every bit as confused and complex as a living, breathing tween. Her problems are not insurmountable, but she’s written in such a way, and surrounded by such a colourful cast of characters, that she becomes special in her ordinariness. If all the surly teens of the world could vocalize what was going on in their heads, we’d get narratives like this one – and I think we’d respect them a bit more. After a few chapters it was easy to see that underneath her scales, all Violet really needs is a hug.

Dear George Clooney is funny, sweet, touching, well-written and funny. Yes, I know I said that twice. But when you stay up half the night to finish this book only to wake up the rest of the house with your laughter, I think you’ll find it double-funny, too!