Reviews, rants, and tidbits from an overpassionate novelist

Archive for January, 2012

THE NAME OF THE STAR by MAUREEN JOHNSON: REVIEW

I’ve been noticing Maureen Johnson’s name on anthologies and twitter feeds, always listed near authors I love. This was my first impression of her writing. I found it promising, yet somehow unremarkable. Let me try to break down why.¬†Perhaps thriller/fantasy isn’t Maureen’s thing.

Good points:
The main character is most interesting when she acts particularly southern – to wonderful comic effect. Whenever someone walks up to her without a greeting and launches into a rant, she replies, very simply, “Hi.” How much more charmingly Southern can you get?

And her sidekicks are often more interesting than she is! I want to be Jazza, despite her flaws. “Aside from being the kind of person who used ‘whom’ correctly while gossiping, Jazza was also the kind of person who seemed pained about speaking badly about another person. She squeezed up her fists a few times, as if the gossip required physical pressure to leave her body.” Boo is equally three-dimensional, with flaws, careless moments, and courage beyond the ordinary capacity of the adolescent.

The atmosphere is excellent. You don’t forget you’re in London for a second. Often, you forget that it’s the present day and start thinking it’s either ghostbuster 80’s or 1888. Other times you think Maureen Johnson must have spent a semester abroad in London in college and badly needed the excuse to get all the details she garnered out of her notebook somehow.

Flaws:

Slight spoiler, but one you probably want to know: ¬†She isn’t the hero of the story. If she had succeeded in dying to protect her friends, perhaps she could have been. But in the end, she is robbed of this honor by a minor, one-dimensionally didactic character, and is more of a pathetic punching bag than anything else.

Outdated references/technology: Okay, I’M in college now, and I missed the Spice Girls fad. A present-day high schooler clearly would have missed it too. The phones with pressable number keys are acknowledged as outdated, but it sure seems like there could have been a stronger technology pick. No references to texting/computer use whatsoever. Oh, and a girl who’s been displaced in London for eight temporary months makes no effort to contact any friends back home.

Romance: One-dimensional, uninteresting classmate love interest, who can be proud of “floppy curls and his goofy Ripper obsession” (along with everyone else in London) at best. There’s a cute library haunter who’s way more appealing, but she doesn’t even think about it.

Thematic flaws were the most uncomfortable.

At its thematic best, this novel is a bit of a meditation on the fandom surrounding Jack the Ripper: Why is he such a big deal? The character Jerome says it’s because Jack killed without rhyme or reason, for what seems to be a purely psychological purpose, and in this way, he’s known as “the first modern killer.” Well, if that’s why we like Jack, this book is a ripoff! (No pun intended.) Maureen’s ripper is not a psychological modern killer, but someone with an agenda.

Its conclusion to this meditation is further jarring. The characters all agree that the truth behind Jack the Ripper is bound to be disappointing, and the hype surrounding it is fallacious. The people who want to hear about him? What stupid losers.

Why are we reading this book? Why is the author exploring this premise?

Hello???

I almost feel that this book REQUIRES a sequel to fill in the thematic gaps and to turn the main character into an actual hero. And maybe to make Jazza a more relevant part of the story.

But how can that happen? The Ripper is gone.

 

YOU by CHARLES BENOIT: An Original Format is Nothing Without Original Content.

I took a look at this book because it’s told in SECOND PERSON OMG. I think this experimentation is a truly great thing in the world of YA lit.

But I regret to say that if it hadn’t been told in SECOND PERSON OMG, I would not have read beyond the cover. I read thirty five pages of it, then skipped to the end. Here’s why.

The prologue involves some kind of accident involving blood, and the main character trying to figure out where things went wrong. There are hints that he’s on a track toward death. Yet, all of the content you get to fill in these spaces does not involve A) Deep, involving emotion, B) extraordinary, interesting circumstances, or even C) eloquent angst. It’s mostly cliched whining about authority and academic boredom.

The love interest is flat and cliched in every way. The friends are flat and cliched in every way. After thirty five pages, the only glimmer of redeeming character depth is a one-sentence panic attack that culminates in a didactic break of POV in its rush to be quickly dismissed.

This is not how teenagers work. Sure, we can all dismiss and hide from guilty feelings. But if it’s THAT easy, it’s boring.

What gets me is how overwhelmingly didactic the story is; kid hangs out with rough crowd, angst a bit, one things leads to another, then blood. We’ve all seen this horror story. We’ve been forced to endure it in Drivers Ed classes, Don’t Drink Seminars, etc.

Who thought that telling it in second person was a good idea?? It reads like a sermon from the bored; every other sentence could begin with “Of course.”

At least for the first thirty-five pages, it’s downright condescending.

THE UNBECOMING OF MARA DYER: THOUGHTS & REVIEW

I’ll admit it. I read this book for the cover:

Come on. It’s gorgeous. Emotional. Thought-provoking. I wanted to know what it was about.

I’m going to give you an important piece of information up front: It’s a cliffhanger in the worst way. Very little is resolved at the end. It is not a self-contained story.

Buuuut I am looking forward to reading the rest.

Strengths:

The story blurs genres and borders on literary. Are we reading about the supernatural or simply post-traumatic stress disorder? Young adults who have been diagnosed with anxiety/depression/bipolar are common and this book exaggerates and begs the questions the many of them are asking: How crazy is crazy?

The love interest is a fantastic character. A modern Mr. Darcy with plenty of style, flirtation, flaw, and appeal. Reading this as purely a love story is very reductive compared to what it tries to be, with the many other elements it explores – but it’s probably the most effective and appealing way to read it.

The letter at the very beginning is pretty cool. You find out that Mara Dyer isn’t Mara Dyer’s real name, but simply the name she’s chosen to work with while she writes out this story. She’s telling this story for a reason – this appeals to me immensely.

Flaws:

Of course, its failure to be a self-contained story is a flaw.

I don’t think Michelle Hodkin really meant to portray anything like PTSD, and the way the story is set up is somewhat misleading about it. PTSD is a disorder which involves a person who is unable to stop thinking about a traumatic event. Mara finds it pretty darn easy to move on. After the first seventy pages or so, it’s easy to forget that this girl’s best childhood friend and boyfriend just died. I understand the author probably felt pressure to avoid angsting but… a girl in that situation would probably, in fact, angst a bit. She has every license to angst a bit. And she doesn’t. She just moves along, pursues new relationships, and comes off as a bit of a sociopath. I was truly hoping that the novel would climax in her realizing all of the emotion she’s been repressing – no such luck.

The quotations on the back are misleading. This book is not that scary! Mara, whose head we are always within, operates under the assumption that the scary things that happen to her are not real, but hallucinations and delusions. They don’t fail to operate in that way.

Hope this is helpful.

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