Friday, April 25, 2008

When Jeff Comes Home, by Catherine Atkins

Atkins, Catherine (1999). When Jeff Comes Home. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons.

Summary and Evaluation: Two and a half years after Jeff is kidnapped, Ray, the kidnapper, returns him to his family. Embarrassed, scared, and unable to cope, Jeff refuses to tell his family, friends, or investigators what really happened to him. As time goes on, Jeff's father tries to help him reenter normal teenage life, but Jeff's secrets and public speculation keep him from being able to adjust to his new life.

I put off reading this book for a long time knowing that it was a difficult topic; now I can't stop thinking about it. The choppiness of the paragraphs and the unrealistic dialog made the writing unremarkable, but the handling of a subject most people prefer not to think about made it disturbing and memorable. Jeff, the narrator, gave enough details so the reader could understand, but was careful to reveal himself. Especially profound was Jeff's relationship with Ray - fear, disgust, and some acceptance all blended together. Until the end he only, admits that to the reader. But even at the end, Jeff has barely begun to heal. Rarely does a book leave me wondering about what I would do in a similar situation. What kind of assumptions would I make? How would I act around him? Would I ask the same insolent questions? Would I be relieved when he lied to me? This is not one of those books that I would say I enjoyed. Indeed, I would much rather read Gossip Girl. Although I have not yet read any commentary on the novel, my guess is that Atkins did not intend this book to be entertainment.

Booktalk Hook: If I were to booktalk this, I would read from the prologue of the book telling of how Ray took Jeff until Jeff realized that he had blood on his throat. After that i would tell a little about Jeff's return and his struggle to come to terms with what happened.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A Novel Idea, by Aimee Friedman

Friedman, Aimee (2006). A Novel Idea. New York: Simon Pulse, 234 pages.

Summary and Evaluation: Sixteen year old Norah is anxious to experience her first kiss, but she has bigger things to worry about when she finds out that unless she picks up some extracurriculars she can kiss her college goals good-bye. With the help of her friends, Norah starts a book group at an indie bookstore and, low and behold, James walks in. He's attractive and friendly, and they even have the same taste in books - except maybe the romance novels that Norah secretly loves. She follows the schemes of her favorite heroine, but finds that romance on the page is much different than romance in real life.

I don't need deep meaning in everything I read, but I do tend to choose books that have more than an escapist appeal. I never knew mind candy could be so sweet. This is just downright fun for book lovers. It is no magical literary masterpiece, but it does have a lot of stereotypical, lovable characters. Norah has a best friend who is trying to convince her family she doesn't need to go to college and a busy-body gay friend who both help her out of some tough spots. Then, there's the awkward romantic moments like Norah's almost first kiss. Norah's over the top application of her favorite romance novel spins her into lies about her many imaginary admirers. It follows the romance formula perfectly seeing as Norah is basing her plan on it. But a comical twist at the end makes it slightly unusual. The best part of the book is that it constantly pokes fun at chick lit and romance. The author even references her book, South Beach, when Francesca, a preppy member of the book group, starts naming off all of her "shallow" book preferences. I appreciated that the author did not take herself or this book too seriously.

My concern with this book is readership. The simple prose and fast-paced narrative tempt me to offer this to reluctant readers. But allusions to Weetzie Bat, Speak, and even The Devil Wears Prada may alienate a reader who is not familiar with these books. Someone more involved with literature may be turned off by the trite prose. But on the other hand maybe they, like Ime, will enjoy a lighter read.

Booktalk Hook: Here's my script for a short booktalk. "Everything that Norah knows about love comes from her contraband collection of romance novels. Desperate to beef up her college applications, Norah starts a book club and suddenly romance becomes a reality. James saunters into her club and she is smitten; they even have the same taste in books. Eager to win his affections, Norah turns to lessons from her secret stash of romance novels. Unfortunately, in her life things just don't work out the same way. Can Norah find a way to win James over?"

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff

Rosoff, Meg (2004). How I Live Now. New York: Wendy Lamb, 194 pages.

Summary and Evaluation:
In order to escape her father and stepmother, Daisy leaves New York City for England where her aunt and four cousins live on a farm. War breaks out and Daisy and her cousins create a peaceful world on their farm until the war finally reaches them. Separated from Edmond, her new found love, and the happiness that surrounds her, Daisy must survive the war and find her way back to that happiness.

This story is surreal and subversive, disturbing yet magical. It engenders all of those things that in real life I would reject, but somehow in this idyllic farm life that Daisy has discovered, it seems only to make sense. All of the major characters defy what I think of as "normal" in everyday life. Daisy, an anorexic American, starves for her younger cousin Edmond, a freethinker, smoker, and underage driver. When the war separates them, Piper, who is innocence embodied, becomes Daisy's support. Piper understands all that is good in nature. Her revulsion to death and killing set her up as the opposite to the war. Piper isn't even able to kill fish for food.

Rosoff's writing contributes to the dreaminess of the story. Until the end there is a complete lack of quotation marks. I had to get a feel for when someone's speech ended and Daisy's narration resumed. She capitalized letters as she felt necessary, but sometimes left them out where they are traditionally used. It always brought my attention back to what she wanted to emphasize. Daisy exaggerates a lot. I imagine she didn't eat one thousand hazelnuts and she certainly wasn't away from the farm house as long as she said. This made it all feel more like a dream. At times the narration was just short and shocking. Daisy and Piper find their long, lost goat dying of starvation. After a moment of mourning, suddenly and without warning, Daisy shoots it in the head. It caught me so off guard that it is one of the most memorable scenes in the novel.

Booktalk Hook: I would do a booktalk pretending to be Piper, the innocent observer. I would explain that a newcomer, Daisy, has come to the farm, share Piper's feelings about her, and tell about Daisy's relationship with Edmond from Piper's point of view.