Thursday, February 21, 2013

FLASH REVIEWS: YALSA's 2013 Hub Reading Challenge, Check-In #1

I keep getting distracted by other books (and work, and school, and life in general), but I have managed to make a little headway into those 25 books I pledged to read for the Hub Reading Challenge. So far, I've discovered some great YA books—and I finally got around to reading Code Name Verity, one of last year's most buzzed about books.

So anyway, here's a quick look at my progress so far:

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5 Stars

Greg's strategy for surviving high school is to stay under the radar. He doesn't want true friends but maintains a superficial sort-of-friendship with every group in the school, from the jocks to the Goth kids. Of course, none of the other groups is meant to know that he is "friends" with the others. In a school full of cliques, Greg is Switzerland. But when his mom pushes him to befriend (or refriend) a classmate recently diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia, his plan goes to hell. Suddenly, Greg is facing uncomfortable, emotionally charged situations and he has no idea how to react. Even worse, people find out about his secret filmmaking hobby. This book is far from the sad, angsty teen "cancer book" you probably expect from the description. Biting, frequently crude humor and a strong narrative voice make Jesse Andrews's debut novel a truly compelling read. Greg's lack of self-awareness and total cluelessness about the male/female dynamic reminded me of Brent Crawford's Carter Finally Gets It. While the characters of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl aren't exactly endearing, they are nuanced, believable, and incredibly well-grounded in the novel's Pittsburgh setting.

Boy21 by Matthew Quick
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Rating: 4/5 Stars
Finley is used to being an outsider. He's the only white guy on his high school basketball team and he doesn't have much to say, even to his longtime girlfriend. But in a town ruled by gangs and the Irish mob, that may not be such a bad thing. Then his basketball coach encourages him to befriend a new student. Russell is really a basketball phenom from an elite private school in California, but he claims to be an alien called Boy21. This is a unique story, subtly told. The writing is clear and simple, perfect for reluctant readers, and the characters and relationships are well-drawn and compelling.

Cool fact: Quick is also the author of the adult novel The Silver Linings Playbook, the film adaptation of which is nominated for several Academy Awards this year (including Best Picture and a Best Actress nom for Jennifer Lawrence, otherwise known as Katniss Everdeen). The Awards will air this coming Sunday.

Enchanted by Alethea Kontis
Genre: Fantasy/Fairy Tale
Rating: 3/5 Stars
When Sunday Woodcutter befriends an enchanted frog, she has no idea that her new friend is really Prince Rumbold of Arilland, the man her family blames for the death of her brother Jack. This reinvention of the "Frog Prince" fairy tale is full of twists and frequently intertwines with other fairy tales, yet it is a wholly original story that stands on its own. Personally, I felt that Sunday and Rumbold's relationship need more development. Also, although some of the fairy tale tie-ins were amazingly clever, sometimes the multitude of fairy-tale references became overkill, stealing focus from the main story. Still, I am eager to learn more about some of Sunday and Rumbold's relatives in the next installment of the Woodcutter saga.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
Genre: Historical Fiction/Suspense
Rating: 4/5 Stars
Probably the least said about this book plot wise, the better. Suffice it to say, it is about friendship, espionage, and courage. When a teenaged spy is captured by the Nazis, she agrees to confess everything. It is then up to the reader to read between the lines of that confession and discover the truth of who "Verity" really is. Incredibly compelling and carefully plotted, with convincing historical detail, this is a multi-layered tale well worth reading.

Next up: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, which my blogging partner Lucinda has already read any enjoyed. (So you know a Dual Review will be coming soon!)

For those of you participating, how many titles have you checked off your list so far? Which is your favorite book so far?

Monday, February 11, 2013

REVIEW: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Rating: 4.5/5 Stars
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Audience: Teen/Young Adult

Summary: In the summer of 1987, two 15-year-old loners meet and forge a powerful friendship. Ari is a brooding "tough guy" who obsessively questions his place and purpose in the world; Dante is his complete opposite, relentlessly positive, self-assured, and emotionally open. Over the course of a year and through his friendship with Dante and Dante's parents, Ari  finally comes to terms with himself and the unspoken secrets that haunt his family.

First Line: "One summer night I fell asleep, hoping the world would be different when I woke."

Tracy's Thoughts:
This book blew me away. The writing is deceptively simple, poetic, and quietly powerful. It's easy to slip right into Ari's mind, to feel every nuance he is feeling, from confusion to impulsive anger. Despite this, Ari remains a bit of a mystery—he refers to himself as "inscrutable"—as even he does not understand himself. I love that Ari is more than a little angsty as a character, but it's not a dark and overblown angst. Yeah, he's confused and often feels quite lost and even angry, but the book never once feels depressing. Not that certain issues addressed in the book aren't emotional and potentially upsetting. Yet Sáenz handles it all gracefully without being heavy-handed in the slightest; in his capable hands, Aristotle and Dante's story is far more sweet than bitter, but it never minimizes those ever-present "issues."

Family drama, issues of sexual and ethnic identity, and even PSTD play a part in this stunning novel, and yet none of these elements overwhelms the story. Ari's coming of age plays out slowly and patiently, and the novel unfolds in a realistic manner. Although one particular family revelation feels a bit coincidental, I bought it. And although it may seem a bit unlikely, I loved that the parents were so accepting of Ari, Dante, and their possible more-than-friends feelings for one another. Perhaps this wouldn't have been the norm in 1980s Texas, but I appreciated that Sáenz didn't need to go there. There is a lot going on in this book, but it all works together seamlessly, without any wasted subplots or characters. At its core it is less a book about sexual identity than about family, friendship, and having the courage to speak honestly and freely to the people who matter.

Monday, February 4, 2013

2013 Hub Reading Challenge: Are You In?

So the HUB Reading Challenge began yesterday, and I didn't even know it. For years, I've been seeing blog posts about reading challenges and I've always wondered... Am I up to it? This year, I've decided to find out!

So now I have to vowed read (or listen to) at least 25 of the 83 challenge-eligible titles before 11:59 pm on Saturday, June 22. Eligible titles include 2013 winners and honor books of the six YALSA awards, Top Ten titles from YALSA’s 2013 selected lists, 2013 Schneider Family Book Award honorees, and 2013 Stonewall Book Award honorees. A complete list of eligible titles can be found here.

The bad news is that I've already read several of these books, so they don't count (unless I read them again). The good news is that I've already gotten started without even knowing it: I read Me and Earl and the Dying Girl—a YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults Top Ten selection—on Sunday, the first official day of the challenge :) Now only 24 more to go!

So... Is anyone crazy enough to join the challenge with me?

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