Review: The Meaning of Maggie

Review: The Meaning of Maggie

Sep 12

The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern
Chronicle 2014
It’s easy to fall into a reading rut, which isn’t so bad when unread novels by your longtime favorites are stacked next to your bed in teetering piles, small monuments to the nights of your childhood when you were first introduced to the characters by the glow of a flashlight beneath the blankets. At this moment, recently published books by Lynne Rae Perkins, Cynthia Kadohata, and Rebecca Stead lie within armsreach of my pillow, but as eagerly as I anticipate diving into their pages, I felt the desire several weeks ago to bring home from the bookstore something I was unfamiliar with, by a writer I’d never heard of, as kind of an injection of newness into my reading life. This is why I picked up The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern.

I carried it around for three weeks before getting through chapter two, seriously regretting my moment of spontaneity. Its setup was interesting enough: a fifth-grade girl sits at her ailing father’s bedside in a hospital room, explaining in her tween voice how they both got there. She quickly introduces us to her older, hotter sisters (“So I called Tiffany and Layla and they opened their doors at the same time because they’re pretty much the same person. With the same brain. And the same bra size”), her classic-rock-loving, wheelchair-bound father, and her no-nonsense, ex-hippie mother, and leads us through a recollection of her tenth birthday exactly a year ago.

Maggie’s voice is instantly recognizable as that of a smart, inquisitive, overachieving pre-adolescent girl, eager to satisfy her own lofty ambitions despite very little urging by her parents or teachers, one of those self-driven, self-centered young people who hasn’t yet discovered her own limitations, except those limitations imposed on her by the grownups (and sisters) in her life. My problem with getting from chapter one to chapter two had everything to do with that voice. So well does it represent the mannerisms of typical (smart) fifth-grade girlspeak that it was just about unbearable in large doses, at least near the beginning of the book. I love listening to children tell me their stories, but not for four hours, which is what I predicted would be necessary to read this to the end.

When I finally got tired of carrying the book around, and when the call of those other unread books shifted into urgency, I made up my mind to power through, and before I reached the midpoint, I discovered that I had not only gotten used to Maggie’s voice, but I had grown fond of it. I was amused by the (certainly intentional) anachronisms, Maggie’s keen (yet naive) attention to detail, and her ability to let us see situations from other character’s points of view even while she, as narrator, is completely oblivious to them herself. I stopped noticing how many of Maggie’s sentences begin with conjunctions, and I started noticing how skillful the author is in painting one picture for young readers and a different picture for older readers.

Maggie’s father is seriously unwell in a way that makes this story an easy tear-jerker of sorts, but Sovern doesn’t earn sentiment with greeting-card syrupiness. Instead, she gives us flashes of revelation as we see how his condition affects each member of his family. Maggie is being kept largely in the dark when it comes to details of his illness, but when Maggie describes for us how her sister, not her mother, comes to an awards breakfast at school, we see a bigger picture that Maggie herself hasn’t opened her eyes to.

The Meaning of Maggie should appeal to a pretty wide range of tweeners, but it will be special to overachieving students who feel alienated because of their love for learning. I was won over by Maggie’s cluelessness with social situations and by the author’s great skill in creating her narrator’s self-centered view while giving her readers a wider angle.

Review: Paper Towns by John Green

Review: Paper Towns by John Green

Aug 04

Paper Towns by John Green (2008)

11807763_10154199056747818_6227625066682676943_oQuentin “Q” Jacobsen is a few weeks from graduating high school, a few weeks from his last summer before heading to Duke, and a few weeks from leaving a pretty good childhood behind. A big part of this childhood, his lifelong crush Margo, can’t wait a few weeks, and after one crazy night involving three catfish, hair-remover, blue spray paint, a large quantity of Vaseline, and a dozen tulips, she disappears, leaving a strange set of clues Q is sure are meant to lead him to her. Margo and Q are connected by a discovery they made at nine years old—a dead man’s body in the local park—and Q can’t say for sure if he is meant to find Margo or just her body.

With the help of his friends Radar and Ben, Q follows one lead after another, exploring a series of “paper towns,” those many residential subdivisions in central Florida that for some reason were never completed, empty lots and empty buildings where there were meant to be families and laughter. Although his friends understand the importance of finding Margo, they are also consumed with band practice, video games, and who’s taking whom to the school prom, leaving Q to do much of the tracking by himself, all alone with his sense of urgency and bafflement.

There is no question that John Green can write. His voice is easy to read and he’s gifted with a sense of timing that catches the reader off guard with its wit. While I think he can be ostentatious in his style, more than just slightly show-offy, he writes with a flourish young readers can recognize and appreciate. His is a flair for situational humor with heavy doses of irony, an enjoyment of the absurd, and a talent for linguistic cleverness. I fully get why he is the darling of smart teens on Tumblr.

I have read two of Green’s other novels, Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars, and I appreciated the author’s wordsmithing but thought his plots were juvenile, as if Green had spent his whole life learning how to write and not enough of it learning how to write a story. Halfway into Paper Towns, I realized I had laughed aloud at least six times, and knew I was going to have to recommend the book just for that, but I dreaded what I knew was coming: a plot point that would disappoint me, a climax suited for a teen movie but not a teen novel, and a resolution that would leave me yearning for less.

Those things never came, although there is a long car ride that will translate wonderfully for the film (which is in theaters now and which I have not yet seen) but doesn’t hold up to the would-this-really-happen standard a good novel should aspire to. Still, I was pleasantly surprised by the novel’s final pages. There are stretches in the middle that get a bit long—Green forces us through too many ruminative passages on Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” for example, but if those sections feel a little bit like exercises at writer’s camp, they can be excused for where they finally take us. This is so far the best thing I’ve read by Green, and it’s the first of his novels I can recommend without reservation.


4 of 5 stars (I really like it)

Review: The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Review: The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Jul 26

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Harcourt Brace & Company, 2014

IMG_1276Josh Bell, the narrator of Kwame Alexander’s Newbery Medal recipient The Crossover, lives to play basketball. He and his twin brother Jordan are a double threat on the court: Josh slam dunks the ball, while Jordan is money from the arc when he gets an open look. They are cheered on by their father Chuck, a former player in the NBA, and their mother, the assistant principal at their school. The brothers’ goal is to lead their middle-school team to a perfect record, but midway through the season, a pretty girl in pink court-shoes arrives at school and Jordan’s attention is suddenly divided. Add a few difficulties in school and some tension between his parents, and Josh has problems with the way things are changing.

Remember the greats,
my dad likes to gloat:
I balled with Magic and the Goat.
But tricks are for kids, I reply.
Don’t need your pets
my game’s so

Mom says,
Your dad’s old school,
like an ol’ Chevette.
You’re fresh and new,
like a red Corvette.
Your game so sweet, it’s a crêpes suzette.
Each time you play

If anyone else called me
fresh and sweet,
I’d burn mad as a flame.
But I know she’s only talking about my game.
See, when I play ball,
I’m on fire. When I shoot, I inspire.
The hoop’s for sale, and I’m the buyer.

The Crossover is a novel written completely in verse. The author’s style moves between freeverse and freestyle, sometimes reading like E.E.. Cummings and other times like A Tribe Called Quest. It’s a good mix, and the poems are well-paced little snapshots of action and exposition, sometimes providing the play-by-play of a basketball game and then recapping or defining the action with an interpretation or explication.

Josh has a lot of things going on, and Alexander does a great job of getting into his head as he processes issues of family, brotherhood, identity, romance, competition, and ambition. I’m not a big fan of using the field of play as metaphor in serious literature, but a pass can be written for books aimed at younger readers who might not find it cliche. The author makes a questionable decision near the end that doesn’t ruin the story, but I can think of better reasons to decide the opposite, which does count (in a small way) negatively against the book.

Still, it’s certainly Newbery worthy, something not every recent winner can claim, and it’s a lot of fun to read aloud. Grown-ups should be cautioned to read the book all the way through before recommending it to younger (below fourth grade) readers.

Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hr Bookstore by Robin Sloane

Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hr Bookstore by Robin Sloane

Jul 25

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hr Bookstore by Robin Sloane
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012

2015-06-13 14.53.25-2Clay Jannon is a mid-twenties victim of downsizing in Silicon Valley.  His competence with digital design proves to be less in-demand than he expected, and he finds himself desperate to take any job that will pay the rent.  At his rock-bottom moment, he walks into the titular Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hr Bookstore, a crazy space with shelves reaching two or three stories high, loaded with books that seem to contain gibberish.  The patrons are few in number but specific in need, entering the store at all hours of the day or night to return one book and ask for another.

It’s not long before Clay is working on the puzzle presented by these books and these borrowers.  With help from a special-effects-artist roommate and a love interest who works at Google, Clay is soon not only moving in on strange discoveries about the bookstore and its mysterious owner, but he becomes personally invested, and he brings his friends along with him.

Author Robin Sloane creates an interesting story that puzzle-lovers will find difficult to put down.  His prose is voicy as heck, something that can teeter between annoying and appealing:

I run my fingers through her hair, which is still damp from the shower.  She smells like citrus.

“I just don’t get it,” she says, twisting back around to look up at me.  “How can you stand it that our lives are so short?  They’re so short, Clay.”

To be honest, my life has exhibited many strange and sometimes troubling characteristics, but shortness is not one of them.  It feels like an eternity since I started school and a techo-social epoch since I moved to San Francisco.  My phone couldn’t even connect to the internet back then.

“Every day you learn something amazing,” Kat says [possible spoiler removed]—she pauses and gapes for effect, and it makes me laugh—“and you realize there’s so much more waiting.  Eighty years isn’t enough.  Or a hundred.  Whatever.  It’s just not.”  Her voice goes a little ragged, and I realize how deep this current runs within Kat Potente.

I lean down, kiss her above the ear, and whisper, “Would you really freeze your head?”

“I would absolutely, positively freeze my head.”  She looks up at me and her face is serious.  “I’d freeze yours, too.  And in a thousand years, you’d thank me.”

But the likability of his characters, especially as they interact with his narrator, tilts the balance in appealing’s favor.  Product-specific references, such as Kindle and Google, set the story solidly in today’s real world, but they make me wonder if this novel will feel dated in a few years.  Yet they also present a few existential questions about how new technology and old technology can complement each other.  Thousands of years after they were written, the words of the Bible and Homer are still with us; will Google still be with us even a hundred years from now?

There is a religious theme that I won’t explore here, and for much of the second half of the novel, the theme has the potential to ruin the mystery-solving aspect of the story.  It manages to find some balance without going too new-agey or feel-goody, so that the end is satisfying at worst, ‘though it lacks a meaningful something deep that’s carryable for much longer after closing the back cover.

It’s an engaging, enjoyable read.  I question its staying power and shelf life, but a questionable durability doesn’t erase the few hours of genuine pleasure this novel gave me.  It’s tough to imagine very many people not at least enjoying swimming through its pages.

Review: The Girl of Fire and Thorns

Review: The Girl of Fire and Thorns

Jan 06

The Girl of Fire and Thorns (Fire and Thorns, #1)The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars (I really liked it!)

It is rare that I find no fault in something I read. I don’t think it’s that I’m overly critical; I just think that writing is really really really hard, and rare is the novel that satisfies in such a way that it’s difficult to find something to take issue with. Yet here is The Girl of Fire and Thorns, a fantasy that does just about everything pretty well, and one particular thing outstandingly. I honestly can’t find something to be displeased with.

Elisa (an abbreviation of a much longer, much more royal-sounding name) is the second-born princess in a remote kingdom, the once-per-century bearer of the Godstone, a gem embedded in her navel that marks her as the Chosen, someone selected by God to perform some act of service. She is sixteen and overweight, smart but not wise, and in most external ways less princess-like than her older, graceful, sage, beautiful sister. She is educated, but she has been shielded by her caretakers not only in the way that all princesses are protected, but in a different way reserved for someone whose very identity as the Bearer is a threat to her safety.

In an arranged marriage that has serious political implications, she is given to the widowed king of a distant ally, but this marriage must be kept secret for a time, and before the king’s courtiers and subjects even know they have a new queen, Elisa is kidnapped and taken to yet another, more distant land, where she will not only not be treated like the queen she is, but she will have to exert herself physically in ways she could never have imagined.

Forced to rely on talents she never knew she had, Elisa can be a victim, or she can attempt to figure her way out of this situation, possibly earning the respect of her captors by merit where her title is of little use.

Author Rae Carson tells a good story here, and while it’s not too removed from the general plot of many fantasy novels before hers, as any fan of the genre knows, the beauty is in the details, the backstory, the explanations of magic, and the believability of the characters. Here, especially in that last aspect, she turns out a heck of a book. Her protagonist is instantly likeable, someone at first to feel sorry for but then to admire. If those around her are quick to judge her by appearances, the reader is convicted with them, something that only a skilled writer can really pull off. The plot is compelling, and the setting, while at first difficult to picture, is so well conceived that by midway through the second book in the trilogy, it stops feeling like a fantasy.

As a worshipping Christian, I’m sensitive to the way religion is portrayed in a lot of fiction, and while the religion practiced by Elisa and her people is not Christianity, it sounds and feels more believably Christian than almost every deliberately Christian portrayal I’ve seen in a fictional work. You know how you can tell when a writer has spent any time in your hometown based on what he or she chooses to say about it? It’s almost impossible to fake a thing like that, and to a practicing Christian, it’s likewise very difficult for a non-believer to be convincing. Yet Carson accomplishes it. I was genuinely surprised to discover that she is not a fellow believer. Every bit of believable religious speech, practice, and thought represented by our characters is permeated with authenticity, yet the author claims it is all research and writing. That’s an enviable skill.

You can put Elisa right up there with Katniss Everdeen and Triss Prior as a great, young protagonist facing ridiculous odds. It’s too early in the series to call it, but I’m thinking you can put Rae Carson ahead of those heroines’ creators as a writer with a clear voice and great story.

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Review: Fangirl

Review: Fangirl

Jan 04

FangirlFangirl by Rainbow Rowell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars (I liked it!)

Twin sisters Cath and Wren are off to college, and they couldn’t be further apart in their approaches. Wren, ever the adventurous one, decides without consulting Cath that she is going to room with someone new in her frosh semester. Cath, far more tentative, isn’t even sure she wants to go anymore, and things aren’t improved when her roommate turns out to be this sulky grouch named Reagan. Cath is so unsure of herself that she doesn’t want to ask anyone where the cafeteria is, and she spends her first several days eating the energy bars she packed far too many of, just in case food in college turned out to be awful. But what happens next is what happens to almost everyone: someone manages to connect with her, and soon Reagan and Cath find shared joy in making snide comments about others in the dorm cafeteria. Reagan’s ex-boyfriend Levi, who hangs out in their room all the time, is an ernest, eager, puppy-dog of a young man, craving attention and affection at almost any cost.

Cath is well-known in the fan-fiction universe, the writer of popular fanfic based on the Simon Snow novels. She and Wren used to collaborate, but in recent years it’s just been Cath, slaving away on her masterwork in a rush to get it complete before the author of the Snow series finally releases the final novel. As Wren pulls further away, spending her weekend nights partying with her new friends, Cath immerses herself more deeply into her writing, which now finds some direction in a creative writing course whose professor takes a liking to her.

What starts out as a pretty interesting adjustment-to-college and finding-my-own-voice story quickly devolves in the second half of the book to little more than a teen romance story, one with extended passages of nearly unbearable miscommunication and lovelorn angst. The only thing that saves it is the continued hope by the reader that Cath and Wren will find some way to regain the closeness they once shared, which Cath’s heart yearns most deeply for, and that they can figure out what to do with a father given to extended periods of serious depression and withdrawal.

Rainbow Rowell has an amazing narrative voice, one that turns plot into an enjoyable ride with sharp wit and cute humor in unexpected places, not to mention well defined characters on every page. One can only assume that she meant for this novel to be exactly what it is, a well-told teen romance. Sadly, it takes more than that to get this reader enthused, and while there are sections of prose that had me insanely jealous about this writer’s confident, playful voice, the plot becomes less interesting the more romantic it becomes.

I hate to do it, but I’m mostly only going to recommend this to young readers who like a good romance, plus any young readers who are producers or consumers of fan fiction, a world which the author obviously researched thoroughly and has great sympathy for. I’ve always been into the concept, if turned off by most of the product, but Rowell brings up some interesting issues about who owns the characters of much-beloved novels, and whether or not fan fiction, however well written, is real writing. Cath’s fanfic world and her collegiate writing world meet head-on in a fascinating sequence that young writers may find extremely provocative.

This is my first Rowell novel, and I look forward to exploring the rest of her work.