Friday, September 27, 2013

Young Adult Fiction: The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell

For this week I decided to tackle a young adult novel by Scotland native Lisa O'Donnell. Just from the description on the book jacket, I knew The Death of Bees would be slightly different from the young adult novels I am used to reading. And as usual, finding it at Half Price Books pushed it up my reading list and onto this blog.

The Situation: On the very first page the reader is told that it is Marnie's 15th birthday, and she has just buried her parents, Izzy and Gene, in the backyard of their house. And she isn't exactly heartbroken about it. Neither is her little sister, Nelly. Izzy and Gene weren't the world's best parents by any stretch of the imagination. If they hadn't abandoned their children by going off on one of their drug fueled adventures, then they're at home completely wasted and absolutely no good for caring for their daughters. Also, there are hints that Gene may have sexually molested both girls, but that isn't stated explicitly. And now, after Gene has been found smothered by a pillow in the master bedroom, Izzy hangs herself in the tool shed, and the girls are more alone than they have ever been. Marnie is more or less used to taking care of herself, but Nelly has always been socially awkward, and this situation isn't making things any better.

The Problem: Not surprisingly, having dead parents buried in the backyard is only going to lead to more problems for Marnie and Nelly. With Izzy and Gene dead, and Marnie not being considered an adult for another year or so, this leaves both girls under the threat of being put into foster care. In fact, there may be an even worse fate than foster care, and that is being taken in by their seemingly repentant grandfather who may be the reason their mother was so messed up in the first place. Fortunately, for the time being, their next door neighbor Lennie has taken them on without an explanation, and without wanting or needing anything in return. He is just happy to have someone to cook for and take care of. But with his own spotty past, if anyone were to report that he has been caring for two young girls while their parents are unaccounted for, he would receive even more unwanted attention than he already gets. With Marnie constantly getting in trouble in school and hanging out with drug dealers and their suppliers, and Nelly's inability to act normal, hiding two dead bodies in the backyard is going to a be even more difficult than the girls initially thought. They just need to make it until Marnie is considered an adult, but that may be too much to ask for.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel that follows the Disney method of storytelling in that the parents are immediately killed off very early in the story. But the similarities with heartwarming Disney stories ends there. This story is about two kids who are put in an awful situation that someone else created, and now they are trying to work their way out of it as best they can. But they're kids, so they are really bad at really bad. Both Marnie and Nelly think they know everything and know what is best, but of course they don't. And being sisters, they often don't see eye to eye on anything, but arguing with each other certainly isn't going to solve things. It's a story that explores what happens when seriously messed up kids are forced to act like the adults their parents weren't. Also, Marnie and Nelly's relatives are proof that sometimes kids aren't better off with blood relatives, and Lennie is able to provide them with stability they had never known. The narration also switches between Marnie, Nellie, and Lennie, so sometimes the reader will get the same story from all three, but none of them agree on exactly what happened and what the result will be. Oftentimes Nelly believes everything will be just fine, while Marnie is convinced everything is about to come crashing down. Ah, sisters.

My Verdict: I wish I could have liked this book more. It is an excellent premise that starts off with parents being buried in the backyard, and the reader isn't even quite sure yet what killed one of them. But maybe it was the incredibly bleak outlook of the whole story, or the constant state of hopelessness that everyone seemed to be in, but I just found myself kind of wanting it to all end. Also, it felt like O'Donnell wrote herself into a corner with all of the craziness that was going on and had a hard time wrapping it all up for the ending. It felt rushed as everything was cleaned up just a little too easily, leaving some loose ends that never get resolved. And the whole making the hypocritical Christian the bad guy has been done before, and done better. It isn't a terrible book, and I am glad to have read it, but I don't see myself rushing to read anything else of O'Donnell's either.

Favorite Moment: When Lennie punishes Marnie for hurting Nelly and he actually follows through on it, even though he isn't their father, or even their legal guardian.

Favorite Character: This is one of those books where no one is all that great and everyone has issues. Even so, I think my favorite is Vlado, the drug supplier that ends up taking care of the girls in his own way. 

Recommended Reading: If you enjoy reading about teenagers put into impossible situations with terrible parents, then Ruta Sepetys' Out of the Easy may be the book for you. Sepetys writes about the daughter of a prostitute who wants nothing more than to escape New Orleans and start a new life in a college up north. It is another story of a teenager caught in an awful situation that someone else created. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Contemporary Fiction: The Supremes at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat by Edward Kelsey Moore

Edward Kelsey Moore's The Supremes at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat was one of those books I found in the new releases section of Half Price Books and decided to take a chance on. There is always a risk in picking a book that way, but it has been proven fairly fruitful for me in the past, and thankfully, this time wasn't any different.

The Situation: Odette, Clarice, and Barbara Jean were nicknamed "The Supremes" one night in the summer before their senior year of high school when they showed up together at Big Earl's All-You-Can-Eat. Round and resolved Odette is always a little more willing to speak her mind than she should be - a trait that her best friend Clarice will not grow to appreciate until later in life. The beautiful but tragic Barbara Jean is doing everything she can not to end up like her mother, who died when she was a young girl due to her alcoholism. And uppity Clarice just wants to live her life and marry the local football star, but can only go out on a date with him if she takes Odette with her. The three of them agree on the All-You-Can-Eat as their regular hang out place, and Big Earl even gives them a regular table. Over the next 40 years it would be the place they would meet up at after church on Sunday for good food and the latest gossip. 

The Problem: The next 40 years would come with plenty of trials and hardships for all three of the Supremes. While Odette has been blessed with a wonderful husband who loves her and three children who have grown up and moved off into lives of their own, she is about to enter into the hardest battle of her life when she is diagnosed with cancer. Also, it appears she has inherited more from her mother than her solid frame, and not all inheritances are welcome. Clarice, once praised across the city of Plainview, and beyond, for her piano playing has long given up her musical dreams only to tolerate being married to a washed-up football star who is also a serial cheater, and everyone knows it. And it seems Barbara Jean is destined to be the local expert on grief as she must now deal with the passing of her husband, even though she still has not gotten over losing her young son over two decades ago. As much as the Supremes have already been through, it's clear that there is still much more to come. And even with the new challenges presenting themselves, it doesn't seem like the issues of the past are done creating their own havoc either. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that centers around the lives of three black women in that small city of Plainview. While most of the action takes place in 2005, there are many stories and flashbacks that go back as far as the 1960s, when the Supremes first got together. While the story deals with issues such as love, loss, grief, and pain, Moore also throws in the issue of generational sin, and how the desire to not end up like your parents can sometimes lead to exactly that, and the Supremes never see it coming. But even though they often feel like their lives are out of control and that they have no one to watch out for them, throughout all of their years together they not only have each other, but Big Earl always managed to keep an out of for them and anyone else who ever came through the doors of his All-You-Can-Eat. 

Also, the narrative voice of the story shifts between Odette and an omniscient narrator. It is Odette who starts the story off, maybe because she has the ability to see things that no one else can, but most of the chapters actually belong to a third person. It was a little confusing in the beginning but after the first 50 pages or so I was able to get the hang of it.

My Verdict: Anyone who has grown up having strong female figures in their life will appreciate this book. It reminds me of sitting at the grown-up table during holidays or family dinners and being able to hear the stories told about growing up during the 60s and 70s, as well as the gossip about what those childhood friends are doing now. Moore portrays three black woman who are strong, but also incredibly vulnerable and susceptible to being hurt. The book is both funny and sad as Moore portrays a truth and honesty about these women that still shows them to be the heroes that they are. 

Favorite Moment: When Odette takes on a man twice, maybe three times, her size in an attempt to save a friend, and wins.

Favorite Character: I will definitely pick Odette as she is completely unashamed to be who she is. She is the definition of fat and happy, and makes very little effort to change that. She also knows she can be a pain in the butt to be around, but she uses her abrasiveness not only to serve her own purpose of keeping nonsense away from her, but also to helps her friends and keep them out of trouble, whether they want that help or not. She's the friend you want around at those moments when you aren't strong enough to protect yourself.

Recommended Reading: As a follow-up to this book, I will recommend Baratunde Thurston's nonfiction humor book How to Be Black. Also told with brutal honesty and fantastic wit, Thurston provides a look into being black in America, using his own experience as a young black man who grew up Washington, DC during the 1980s. I think the two books read together would provide an interesting insight into the lives of black Americans. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Horror Fiction: Joyland by Stephen King

I'm not exactly a huge Stephen King fan. When I was much younger I had attempted to read both The Dead Zone and Pet Cemetery and wasn't able to finish either one. I was drawn to Joyland because it is short, has a great cover, and is about a haunted amusement park. I love amusement parks and I love roller coasters. I'll even go into the haunted house ride if there happens to be one, so Joyland seemed like a safe bet for me.

The Situation: Devin Jones has taken a job at Joyland the summer after his freshmen year at college. Eventually, he'll learn almost everything he needs to know in order to keep the small local amusement park running. Placed on a team with Erin and Tom, two people who will eventually become his best friends, Devin learns how to run every ride, sell every concession, and even becomes a master at wearing the "fur," which is a dog costume that every little kid wants hug, but almost none of the employees want to wear because of how intensely hot it gets. At first Devin holds onto the girlfriend he has back at college, Wendy, who is off having a summer adventure of her own. But when he receives a letter from her explaining that she has met someone else, Devin diverts his attention to the amusement park and playing sad records in his rented room while he struggles to sleep.

The Problem: Devin's broken heart eventually becomes the least of his concerns, especially after Rozzie, the Joyland fortune teller, happens to tell Devin a few things that turn out to be true. Also, there is the legend of Horror House and how it is supposed to be haunted by the ghost of a young woman who was murdered there a few years ago. Devin and his friends don't think too much about the stories and legends, until one of them is certain he has seen the ghost himself. The more Devin digs into the mysterious circumstances surrounding the girl's murder, and the ones that happened before hers, the more sure he is the the truth isn't too far away, whether he wants it to be or not. He also finds himself getting attached to a terminally ill boy and his distant mother. Devin knows such an attachment could lead to more heartache, even tragedy, but he continues to grow more attached, even with Rozzie's warnings that he can't save everyone. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a horror novel that, unlike many books that are being published these days, doesn't center around zombies or vampires. King goes back to the good old fashioned ghost in the haunted house of an amusement park. There isn't much blood and gore, and no possession of any sort, just the spirit of a life that ended way too young hanging out in the place where that life ended. Also, aside from Devin's broken heart, there isn't much angst in this story. King returns to a classic theme that, despite the creepy factor, is oddly comforting. Themes include the afterlife, ghosts and spirits, visions of the future, unsolved murder, and the amusement parks' ability to maintain the dual nature of being both exciting and terrifying. Some of what King included in what he calls "the Talk," the language that amusement park and carnival workers use around the park and around each other, is real, but a lot of it he also made up. But having played some of the games you find at carnivals myself, I am sure a lot of what he included about about how some of the guns don't exactly shoot straight or how some of the targets are almost impossible to knock over, is pretty spot on. 

My Verdict: After my disappointing attempts at two of King's most well-known works when I was much younger, I was pleasantly surprised that not only did I make it through this book, but I genuinely enjoyed it. As I mentioned before, the return to the ghost story was sort of comforting after having been inundated with vampires and zombies over recent years. And again, I couldn't be more pleased with the setting of the old school amusement park. Something about abandoned or empty amusement parks absolutely creeps me out. But when they are full and thriving with all of the rides going, they are exactly where I want to be. I think King perfectly captured an amusement park's ability to get you so excited to ride or see something that was designed to "thrill" or just plain scare you. I guess the same can be said for how audiences keep coming back for King's books whenever he writes a new one. Some people just enjoy being scared, as strange as that sounds. And that is the point (one of many) this book makes. 

Favorite Moment: When Devin manages to save a little girl's life who got so excited to see the park's mascot, Howie the Happy Hound, that she choked on her hot dog. 

Favorite Character: Fred Dean is the man who hired Devin for the summer job. He's old school, a little ornery, but ultimately he knows the amusement park industry and wouldn't steer Devin wrong. He even goes out of his way to make sure one of Devin's guest has the time of his life the day he visits Joyland. 

Recommended Reading: Well, if I had ever finished any other Stephen King books I would undoubtedly recommend one. So instead I think I'll go with Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus. It has the similar feel of the eerie but incredibly mysterious and inviting, and also with a little murder mystery thrown in there as well. 

Friday, September 6, 2013

Contemporary Fiction: Someday, Someday, Maybe by Lauren Graham

I never watched Gilmore Girls and I have never seen Parenthood, but even so, I decided to pick up Lauren Graham's debut novel Someday, Someday, Maybe, which follows a young struggling actress in New York City as she attempts to make it big in show business before she runs out of time on her self-imposed deadline.

The Situation: It's 1995 and Franny Banks gave herself three years in New York City to become a serious actress, and she only has six months left. All she has to show for the last two and a half years of her life are a couple of commercials, a waitressing job at a comedy club, and a spot in one of the best acting classes around. And fortunately, due to her performance in the latest class showcase, and despite of a major mistake in it, she is able to sign up with a well-known agent. Money may be tight, but things are starting to look up. And with her best friend and roommate Jane by her side, as well as her other roommate, Dan, both of which are also trying to make it in the business in their own way, Franny isn't alone and has plenty of support.

The Problem: No matter how much support she has, Franny can't seem to make it very far, even with one of the best agents. And it doesn't help that she is in a constant battle with her unmanageable curly hair, something that only adds to her already ever-present insecurity about her own looks. Then there are her acting classmates, some of which are supportive and friendly, others that only add to Franny's insecurity. Maybe if she didn't have a hopeless crush on the one successful actor in the class, James Franklin, she wouldn't let the amazingly good looks of his girlfriend get to her. Soon, after a season of ups and downs, things seem to go permanently down, and Franny's deadline continues to approach, even as her back-up plan seemingly disappears. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that reads like a romantic comedy, which is something that actually comes up in the course of the novel. While Franny criticizes the typical romantic comedies that make it to the big screen, the plot she describes looks almost exactly like what is happening in her own life, something that her roommate Dan points out to her. The book explores the idea of success, and how the definition for it can be a little different for everyone, as well as what it takes to make it in show business and how far some people are willing to go. Often Franny has to ask herself what she is willing to do in order to obtain a part as her main fear is that if she turns one part down, any part, it could mean never getting another offer again. I find it interesting that Graham chose to set the book in the year 1995. This could easily be because this is around the time when Graham was trying to make a name for herself. But it is interesting reading about Franny receiving her lines via fax and using pay phones to check her answering machine. But the commonly used New York City backdrop makes things feel familiar again.

My Verdict: While I like the premise of a struggling young actress in New York City with an approaching deadline only landing parts in commercials and waitressing on the side, most of the major plot points were incredibly predictable. I do appreciate that Graham is able to sort of poke fun at this though when she has Franny lament this same predictability that often occurs in romantic comedies on the big screen. Even so, it can make for a boring story when you know exactly where it is heading. Also, the ending leaves a lot to be desired as it leaves the reader in a sort of limbo state and offers no real finality concerning Franny's future.

Favorite Moment: When Franny shows up to a movie premiere wearing the same dress as a former classmate who now has her own part on a famous soap opera.

Favorite Character: My favorite character is probably Franny's dad. He doesn't own a TV (doesn't seem to really understand the concept of it) but supports his daughter fully in her pursuit of an acting career. He also keeps his daughter up to date on which books he is covering in his classes, and never stops calling to check up on her despite her less than stellar ability to always call him back.

Recommended Reading: I think for this week I will recommend Tina Fey's Bossypants as it is the actual true account of what one of today's most famous comediennes had to endure in order to make it big in show business. It's funny, it's honest, and its absolutely fascinating.