Archive for the ‘ 2010 Challenge ’ Category

REVIEW: “A Kiss in Time” by Alex Finn

A Kiss in Time

Alex Finn
HarperTeen, 2009

CHALLENGE(S): 2010 Challenge

Finished 12 May 2010

I seem to be getting a bit behind in my reviews, so I thought I really ought to write this one up today while I had the time. A Kiss in Time is essentially a retelling of Sleeping Beauty in a modern setting. The story follows Princess Talia of Euphrasia, a forgotten kingdom in long-ago Belgium, who pricks her finger on a spindle and falls into an enchanted sleep for three hundred years. She is finally awoken by Jack, a bratty American teenager who has wandered off from his tour group, and must learn to cope not only with the modern world but with the evil witch who is still stalking her every move.

Kiss alternates between Talia and Jack’s points of view, which can at times be a little annoying. So, too, are the characters themselves: Talia is very convincing as a spoiled, if well-intentioned princess, and Jack, as I said, is the quintessential brat-with-a-heart-of-gold. In spite of this, however, the story manages to be fresh and endearing. It is, of course, a love story, and in that sense is a little trite, but Flinn allows this to develop on its own time while focusing largely on the characters’ personal development, something I greatly appreciated. The supporting cast is also fantastically drawn, and I cheered along with them as they fought their way to the climax of the novel.

I will say that there were some things which felt a little artificial – Jack’s dad’s sudden change of heart at the end, for one thing – but this could perhaps be explained as Jack imputing more evil to his father’s motives than actually existed, and in spite of my reservations about the writing style I found myself quite charmed. Kiss is nothing if not sweet (the exact word I used was “cute”) and surprisingly uplifting in spite of tackling some weighty topics; the sort of book that warms the heart. I will look forward to reading more work from this author.



REVIEW: “Every Boy’s Got One” by Meg Cabot

Every Boy’s Got One

Meg Cabot
Pan, 2005

CHALLENGE(S): 2010 Challenge

Finished 14 Mar 2010

You know those authors that you loved once upon a time, only to come back to them later and find yourself feeling a little ashamed of your previous devotion? Meg Cabot is one of those authors for me.

I got into her novels as a young adult, before the Princess Diaries movie came out, and in my own defense at that point they were actually not so bad. My favourites were the Mediator series and 1-800-Where-R-U, which featured supernatural themes combined with a light romantic undertone that completely hooked me for several years. I still own almost all the Mediator audiobooks.

However, as I got older, I began to notice things about Cabot’s novels – particularly those that were primarily romance – that bothered me, and the more I read the more convinced I was that the books I’d loved as a teenager were flukes. Eventually, I swore off her novels (uh, repeatedly…guilty pleasures are hard to break, apparently) but when I picked this one up in a library book sale, I just couldn’t resist.

The premise of the story is simple. Boy meets Girl. Boy thinks Girl is an idiot. Girl thinks Boy is an ass who doesn’t believe in love. Cue external crisis that forces them to work together. Hate turns into searing passion, they elope, end of story.

Look. I’m the first to admit that Meg Cabot has her genre down pat. That right there is a classic example of a romantic plot arc that I’ve used myself from time to time. Unfortunately, her books are thoroughly transparent and seem to just repeat the same elements in different order. Even were this the only book of hers I had read, however, I would still have taken issue with her characters. For one thing, Jane Harris is…well, kind of an airhead. She’s set up to be a successful career woman with an internationally-famous comic strip (WonderCat), but she doesn’t act like it. She’s ditzy, obsessed with romance, makes stupid assumptions about people and is – in my opinion, at least – generally a nice but unsympathetic character. Maybe I wouldn’t be so hard on her if it wasn’t for the fact that I am getting so sick of women in mainstream fiction (and I include films in this as well) being touted as “independent, feminist characters” when they are in reality simply the same old stereotypes repackaged for a new audience. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a person (or character) being interested in shoes/shopping, a fan of Britney Spears, or prone to romanticism, but with Cabot it’s clear that this is not just a character who happens to be this way – the same tropes are repeated throughout her novels. It seems that this is what Cabot thinks all women are, and it comes across as gimicky, trite and, frankly, insulting. I simply could not connect with this woman at all.

Fortunately, Cabot is an equal-opportunity stereotyper. The Love Interest, Cal Langdon, is gorgeous, erudite, intelligent, rich and damaged. His divorce left him heartbroken and unable to trust anyone of the female persuasion, so to satisfy his, ahem, manly urges he dates models. Models.

In short, Langdon is the man every girl like Jane Harris dreams about, and you just know that, after our lovely heroine sinks her claws into him, he becomes putty in her hands. I will be frank and say that I can never really understand those plots which require two people to fall in love instantaneously and permanently; it seems rather far-fetched and, if not impossible, at the very least pretty unlikely. Perhaps I simply haven’t been meeting the right kind of men…

As far as the plot goes, well, many if not all of my favourite books in the world (to name the top three in no particular order: The Vintner’s Luck, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and Possession) tend to feature romance as part of, if not the entire plotline. What makes these books stand out from more commonplace works like Cabot’s novels is, in my opinion, they create people. They don’t rely on bad sexist jokes and generalizations to appeal to a wide audience, because the thing that is of central importance to them is the characters and their lives. They also set them against a larger context: Sobran and Xas against the vineyards and 19th century France; Pelagia and Corelli amidst the horrors of the massacres in Cephalonia during WWII; Maud and Roland against a thrilling literary detective story and the lives of two fictional authors in Victorian England. What this does is gives the characters a world to inhabit, a reality outside of themselves which allows them to gain a greater depth in comparison. Cabot does not seem to have mastered a means of doing this, and in fact goes out of her way to strip the world down to just the main cast of characters and their love-lives, in this case by using first person diary and email-log entries to tell the story. I am not a fan of the epistolary novel at the best of times, but even I admit she pulls this off fairly well, if somewhat implausibly. The trouble is, it just doesn’t give that richness of backdrop that I enjoy.

Of course, it is somewhat unfair to compare Every Boy’s Got One with literary fiction since it is not a literary novel, nor is it pretending to be. I will reiterate what I said before about Cabot knowing her genre (“chick-lit” – oh how I despise that term) very well and providing me with hours of reading enjoyment in the past, even against my will. However, I also think it’s rather ridiculous to suppose that there can’t be such thing as a well-written romance novel. Saying a book is a “romance” shouldn’t require that little cringe, or a disclaimer (“It’s not like that! It’s just about these two people…and they fall in love…and…”), and my point in comparing Cabot with other books I have a deep respect for is to demonstrate what, in my view, such a thing might look like. Unfortunately, fun as they undoubtedly are, fluffy books like this one perpetuate unnecessary stereotypes both about the sexes and the genre itself, and as such I find it difficult to read them anymore without both my feminist and writerly sensibilities squirming with embarrassed distaste. Perhaps this says more about me than it does about the novel itself.


REVIEW: “Beating Heart” by A. M. Jenkins

Beating Heart

A. M. Jenkins
HarperTeen 2005

CHALLENGE(S): 2010 Challenge

Finished 28 Feb 2010

I picked up this book from a library display because it looked deliciously creepy. I love that cover, and I love ghost stories, particularly romantic ones.  From the blurb, it looked like this would be right up my alley:

She is a ghost: a figure glimpsed from the corner of your eye, a momentary chill, and a memory of secret kisses and hidden passion. He is 17 years old: Evan Calhoun, warm and alive, and ever since moving to this big abandoned house, he has dreamt of her. Ghost and boy fascinate each other–until her memories and his desire collide in a moment that changes them both.

Combining verse fragments with chiseled prose, A. M. Jenkins captures the compelling voice of a long–dead ghost and the perspective of a modern teen, twining mystery and romance in this evocative, sensual, and unrelentingly engrossing novel.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

In the first place, this is not about a ghost-human romance. He doesn’t even realize there is a ghost, he’s just fascinated by (a) the hot dreams he’s been having about her and (b) old news stories/photographs about her death. There’s pretty much no interaction beyond that.

Secondly, the poetry was, um…unique, and it did to some extent give the sense of a disconnected, ethereal narrator, but to be honest it came across as rather pretentious as well. I don’t mind small verses at the beginning of chapters and such, but in general I find verse to be rather off-putting in novels. It also made it feel rather insubstantial – I read the whole thing in an hour or two because there was a lot of wasted space so that the verses could be “formatted” in bizarre ways, so that sometimes there were only two to three words to a page. Minus points for wasting precious resources.

And finally, I was left feeling a little confused about the message of the book. Other reviewers seem to have felt bludgeoned by the anti-teen-sex message, while I felt the complete opposite; it seemed to me that the book treated sex and teenage relationships with respect and honesty. There never seemed to be any judgement about whether or not they should be physically intimate at that age (I think the protagonist was about seventeen). However, I can see how you might come to the opposite conclusion; the ghost girl dies because her illicit boyfriend smothers her accidentally while trying to keep her quiet and avoid discovery. A similar scenario is almost enacted by the modern protagonist and his girlfriend as well.

In all honesty, this seems very implausible to me and smacks of being contrived to fit the author’s agenda. I can only wonder why I didn’t spot it when I was reading the book. I guess I was simply not looking for it (and I got distracted by the irritating poetry). However, I’m not entirely sure whether I’m meant to get the idea that “all premarital sex is bad!” or “relationships based solely on sex end badly.” Hence the confusion.

It wasn’t altogether bad; the characters felt authentic, if unsympathetic, and as I said, I felt the treatment of teenage sexuality was refreshingly direct. A quick read, but an intellectual lightweight. Two stars from me.


Last-Minute Challenge Additions

This is the last post of these, I swear.

  1. Banned Books Challenge
    Read and review as many books on the list as possible by September.
  2. World Religion Challenge
    This is perfect for my research projects this year. I’m going to choose the Unshepherded Path, because it’s likely I’ll be focusing on two different aspects of either two different religions, or the same religion, rather than five or more.
  3. Award Challenge
    10 books from different award categories by November. I don’t have a list as yet – I think I’ll pick them as I go.
  4. Read the Book, See the Movie
    Festival Jury Member level. Read 10 books that have been turned into movies, then watch the movie, and review both. This is going to be fun!
  5. 2010 Challenge
    2 books from each category, 20 in total. For my open category I’m going to choose…hmm. I think Graphic Novels. I don’t read many of them as a rule, but I got into the genre a bit last year after reading Watchmen (I still haven’t seen the movie) and I’d like to explore a bit more.

I think that’s about 20 challenges in total. Wow. This is going to be one busy year!