Thursday, July 30, 2009

Darkwood, by M.E. Breen

A few posts back, Kelly mentioned that she wondered whether book bloggers just love all books that they read, because she rarely comes across a negative review. Normally, I choose to spotlight the books I think are particularly well-done and would recommend to others, but I think it's also important to discuss books that others have liked, but that I didn't find especially engaging. M.E. Breen's Darkwood is one of those books.

Annie lives in Howland with her aunt and uncle, who aren't particularly nice people. Both her parents are dead, as well as her older sister. When she overhears her aunt and uncle planning something very unpleasant for her, she decides to flee into the forest, despite the fact that she is sure to come across dark creatures called Kinderstalk who are notorious for gobbling up children.

I was initially excited about Darkwood. It garnered a starred review from Kirkus and a favorable review from Booklist. I also love the cover - the illustration of the protagonist, Annie, reminds me a little bit of the covers of Garth Nix's Abhorsen trilogy, which I love. The book also seemed to have the dark fairy-tale feeling that permeated Nix's excellent books. When I read the first chapter of Darkwood, my excitement grew. Annie's horrid aunt and uncle were immediately fleshed out, and I loved the creepy sense of foreboding I got from the setting, a world where night falls immediately on the heels of day with no evening in between. Breen also set up some nice mysteries that I looked forward to solving.

Unfortunately, my excitement didn't last. Annie's travels into the forest are derailed by a trip to the Drop, where children are kept as slaves to mine precious ringstone, and then a trek to see the King of the land where various events occur without any apparent connection to other side plots. Even after I had finished the book, I had a hard time understanding how all the pieces fit together, or if they were meant to at all. Moreover, I felt no real connection to the characters, and Breen's writing didn't strike me as particularly beautiful or deep. (A good counter-example, in my opinion, is Shannon Hale, who could write about paint drying and still impress you with the beauty and depth of her words.)

Middle grade and young adult literature can and should be deep. Just because the book is written for young people does not mean it can sacrifice good characterization and eloquent writing for a fast-paced plot. In Darkwood, there's too much going on and not enough development to make it engaging. It feels like Breen tried to force a half dozen different ideas into one novel without sufficient development of any of these ideas. Because of this, the novel feels jumpy and disjointed. Additionally, it seems that Annie was meant to be a strong, smarter-than-she-appears female protagonist, but she seems to mostly react to events that happen to her instead of choose to be proactive. When she does make a decision, it's inexplicable. For example, Annie chooses to leave her traveling companion who has taken her on a much-needed visit to the King - why? Annie's reasons are inscrutable, and my cynical answer is "plot development." Annie's leave-taking places her once again in danger, and danger seems to be Breen's currency. The hallmark of a good adventure tale is that the adventure happens for a reason.

That being said, I can see middle-graders enjoying Darkwood due to its exciting plot. It is filled with action: chases and wolf attacks and daring escapes. It's got a fair number of twists and some parts certainly are exhilarating. At some points Breen is able to bring back that ominous mood I felt at the beginning. Then again, I can also see readers being confused about the jumpy nature of the story and the inability to really identify with Annie, who seems to not have much personality. I think Breen's ideas are more intriguing than a lot of what I've read in middle grade fantasy lately, which is why I felt so disappointed that the book fell short of its potential.

Continue reading...

Monday, July 27, 2009

Aftershock by Kelly Easton

This title appears on this year's Abe Lincoln awards list, which is compiled by librarians who seek to help high school students read for enjoyment and become familiar with a variety of authors. Ultimately, high schoolers choose one book from the list as the winner. I picked up Easton's Aftershock because I hope to get through all 22 Lincoln award nominees this year.

Aftershock follows 17-year-old Adam in his cross-country trek from Idaho to Rhode Island in the wake of a horrific car accident that has killed both of his parents. With obvious shock, he is silent through much of his travels, which include hitchhiking with a cast of colorful characters who take him through Colorado, Texas, and Washington D.C., on his way back to Rhode Island. While on the road, the story travels back and forth between what Adam is doing now and his past. He reminisces a bit about his parents, but much of his memory seems to revolve around a past romantic relationship.

Easton's book is short and quick -- about 175 pages -- and while the concept sounds like it would be action packed, I found there were many lacking elements in the story. While Adam is in a state of shock, so much of what happened seemed a bit anachronistic to the setting.

Aftershock is set in the modern moment, as seen through Adam's discussion about how the Harry Potter books sold in his parent's bookstore are so popular and are always best sellers. As such, I found it incredibly unrealistic that Adam would never encounter a cell phone. He mentions his aunt a few times in his trip home but never reaches out for her. Likewise, I find the concept that he'd just leave his dead parents to begin walking home a little frustrating, and it's not that he just left, but that he did it immediately with the plan in mind to go home and not to the police or any authority that would so willingly help him. Perhaps the real issue comes down to this: we never learn much about Adam before the incident, so we're forced to believe he is able to walk away from such tragedy without a second thought. Moreover, Adam is all-too-willing to hop into a car with a stranger, even going entirely out of his way, to get home. A simple call to the police would have solved this story well before he got home.

I found the ancillary characters boring. I think there were many opportunities here for expansion and development, both for those characters and for Adam. All we ever learn about him is through his memories with a girl who he was interested in, as well as memories of his aunt and cousin. Again, I think so much of this goes back to setting the story in a modern era and then leaving out far too many details for the reader.

On more superficial levels, I had two other problems with Aftershock. First, on page 14 (and by now, keep in mind, his parents had been killed), Adam describes his mother as "the type of person who would tell anyone anything," and then he goes on to elaborate how his mother was the sharing type. However, on page 15 (yes, the opposite page), he goes on to say that "my mom was soft spoken," and he says it in comparison to his aunt who would tell anyone anything. So within a page, we have a contradiction about who his mom was that doesn't fit with what we know about Adam's reliability and with what we learn about his mom throughout his flashbacks. Indeed, his mom was not soft spoken. Had this sort of detail error been made in opposite ends of the book, I would have glossed over it, but because this was central character development time and within a one page area, I caught it and it stuck with me throughout the story.

The other detail that fits with my earlier comments about time/setting issues is this: Adam's parents insisted on driving from Rhode Island to Seattle to attend a peace rally conference for vacation. We never learn why, but it seemed a very delicate concept to just throw into the story when so much hinges on that detail -- as readers, we have to just accept that Adam never explains that decision to drive rather than fly all the way across the country. Since Adam makes a point to say that his father thought the state of Idaho was boring and useless, it seemed like the cross country drive was not necessarily a decision for the sight seeing. For me, this needed way more explanation and expansion in order for the whole story to coalesce better.

Although Aftershock left so much to be desired for me, I do think this would be a great pick for a reluctant reader. Because there aren't a lot of details and because the story begins quickly and moves without many bumps, those who ordinarily aren't readers would find this a good pick. More advanced readers or those who read a lot may, however, be disappointed for many of the reasons I was: there just is not enough to develop the story in as satisfying a way as it could have been. Other similar adventure stories or stories of loss are more strongly fleshed out, but Aftershock surely has appeal if not only for the reluctant readers, but also because it features a strong boy character -- and as much as we think there are a lot of books with boy appeal, there is always a need for more.

Continue reading...

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are - Adaptation Discussions Continued

I was reading through my favorite blogs this past week, and I noticed a particularly interesting entry on Pitchfork about the upcoming movie version of Where the Wild Things Are. Of course, seeing the Pitchfork is music-centric, the entry was talking about the music in a "Behind the Scenes" montage. Being a book nerd, though, I was even more interested in the actual content of the video, especially because it features Maurice Sendak, the author of the book.

Sendak reveals his criteria for adapting his book. Evidently he was involved with Spike Jonze's production from the very beginning, but the movie was definitely the director's very different vision.

The video addresses all sorts of interesting issues - how do you make a full length feature from a small children's book? What kind of inspiration can people draw from a work of art? What makes a book a classic in the first place? And I love how Maurice Sendak gives a shout-out to the librarians who became "pushers" of his critically maligned work.

Finally, I just had to quote Maurice Sendak's final statement about the movie. This is a perfect way to adapt another work - allowing it to take on a different identity without losing the soul of the original work.
There will be controversy about this. But the film has an entire emotional, spiritual, visual life which is as valid as the book. He [Spike Jonze]'s done it like me whether he's known it or not, in a more brilliant, modern, fantastical way, which takes nothing from my book, but enhances, enriches my book.

I thought Stacked readers might find this video relevant, especially after our last post inspired some discussion about the nature of adaptations. We'll see if this movie lives up to the high praise of Sendak - I look forward to it.

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Monday, July 20, 2009

The Play's the Thing...

The three books above all have something in common, aside from being some of the strongest books published in the last year. All three have seen an adaptation or will be seeing an adaptation in the near future.

If you have been living under a rock, you likely already know that The Hunger Games will be made into a movie. Although the book garnered huge success, there's been quite a bit of buzz abut whether a movie could ever stack up. From comparisons to other dystopian films like Japan's Battle Royale to discussions of how it forever impacts how readers envision this very descriptive setting and story.

Perhaps the most interesting and compelling discussion I've run across about the adaptation has come from here. If you don't click, it boils down to this: how could a film ever capture Katniss's internal struggles, which lie at the very heart of why this is such a strong book and strong character.

While thinking about that book, I ran across news that Gayle Foreman's fantastic book If I Stay may also be made into a movie. Although many are excited, I'm very worried about it for the same reasons I'm a bit worried about the film adaption of The Hunger Games. So much of the story is cerebral and almost all of it takes place within Mia's mind. Sure, much of the action happens outside it, but that's because it's happening inside of her via flashback. I'm just unsure how this can be captured well on film and, to be entirely frank, I don't want it to be done that way. I had a powerful reaction to the book, and a film of the same storyline I doubt would have the same impact. The punch, for me, cannot be done the same way.

But let me propose another solution: the stage adaptation.

As you may or may not have heard, The Griffin Theater group in Chicago put on Cory Doctorow's techno-thriller Little Brother for a short run. Like If I Stay and The Hunger Games, Little Brother is told through first person and much of the action takes place in the minds of the characters. While it is not to the extent of the other titles, Doctorow's book has a lot of description and explanation that is hard to translate outside the written word.

I had the opportunity to go see it this weekend, and I was blown away. The minimal staging and the strong actors were able to translate a book that I'd never imagine in another medium to the stage. The live action of it allowed Marcus -- the main character for those of you who haven't read it yet -- to narrate his thoughts and to take time to perform asides that built the back stories or explanations perfectly. The true test, though, was that I brought along 3 friends who had not read the book beforehand nor had any idea of the plot or story: they enjoyed it and understood it, AND they were compelled to pick up the book afterward.

Although I haven't yet seen If I Stay or The Hunger Games, I wonder how much better they could translate in another medium. Both are strong stories, but because so much "happens" internally, it'll be a challenge to capture the sentiments on the big screen. Were either adapted to stage, I wonder how much stronger it could be. Can you imagine a full-out battle on the big stage and the asides of Katniss? Epic. If I Stay, though, might face the same challenge on the big stage just because of the story itself. But you know what could be good? Reader's theatre.

That also goes the other way. I just can't foresee Little Brother packing quite the punch on the big screen. It's a powerful story but how can it be if flattened or if over dependent on inter-character dialog, versus internal thoughts of Marcus?

Part of me thinks about this from a pessimistic viewpoint, of course -- do these best sellers become movies because the film industry simply bets they'll have a large audience? Obviously. Do best sellers become that way because they're good stories? More often than not. It makes sense, then, but I also think there's a quick leap to one medium over another, when with a little more time and audience input, the punches could be wider and deeper. Sure, we can always have a later remake, but we can never have the opportunity to have a first chance again. I think in Doctorow's case, Little Brother was able to have a fantastic, memorable, enjoyable, and unique debut outside its print form.

What do you think of book adaptions? Do you have a favorite? Do you have one you dislike most? What expressions do you find make better fits? I'm a proponent of the fact that everyone takes their literacy in different ways, and I'm always thinking about or asking about how one can best delivery the message, the story, or the entertainment. We aren't all born readers, but we can all be born learners in one form or another.

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Friday, July 10, 2009

Double Take, Part VII

Here's another double take! No comments on either one, since the similarities should be fairly obvious.

Published first:

Deb Caletti's The Secret Life of Prince Charming was published April 7, 2009 by Simon Pulse.

And a mere three weeks later?

HarperTeen published Hailey Abbott's Flirting with Boys on April 28, 2009.

Same couple, same pants, same posture. The only difference is the yellow topper that is the style of all of Caletti's books. I'm not a huge fan of either cover, but I also have an issue with the butt shot (and have you noticed the billions of books that have this style?).

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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The fast and furious

I have read quite a few books in the last couple of weeks, but I have had a hard time sitting down to write a full out review of anything just yet. But here's a treat: Twitter-style book reviews. A quick selection of recent reads reviewed in 140 characters or less.

Rumors by Anna Godbersen

Book two of "Luxe" series reunites us with a character we grew to love in book 1, introduces new romances, and ends with an unexpected twist.

The Other Side of the Island
by Allegra Goodman

Disappointingly underdeveloped dystopian novel reminiscent of 1984. Themes of freewill and government power but plot/character holes abound.

The Glass Castle
by Jeannette Walls

Memoir gracefully and tactfully depicts a dysfunctional family life of children living with an emotionally-absent mom and alcoholic dad.

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