January 2012 Recommended Reads, Listens and Looks
Sometimes I think I should stop reading. When I’m in the throes of outlining and beginning a new novel–or deep INTO a novel–I can be the most unforgiving of readers because I’m so darned critical of my own stuff. Finding joy in someone else’s work is guaranteed to both delight and piss me off: like, shoot, what’s wrong with me?
This past month, I managed to stave off my inner snark for the most part. I was in grazing mode, looking for stuff to really engage my fancy. So, a lot of books passed before my eyes. Some were forgettable; a couple I never made it past the first chapter, despite all the rapturous reviews. Others had gotten tons of press, and one was especially well-written–really, really good–but I found the story almost too preciously unbelievable AND predictable. So, despite all that gorgeous writing–and I read that baby through to the end–I just couldn’t bring myself to recommend it. What I found most interesting was my return to a couple things–a listen, a movie–which I’d enjoyed before and thoroughly enjoyed upon my return visit. Maybe I thought of them as the mental equivalent of comfort food or something.
Asher, Jay and Mackler, Carolyn; The Future of Us (Razorbill, 2011). I’m sure everyone wondered how Asher was going to follow up the success of Th1rteen R3asons Why, me included, and now we’ve got our answer. Is this story of two teens, circa 1996, who glimpse their futures on Facebook and then have to deal with all the ramifications of this as fantastic a book? No, but then I don’t think that either Asher or Mackler were after a wash-rinse-repeat. The premise is pretty interesting: if you had a chance to glimpse your future, do you embrace or change it? Do you even believe you will ever become the people you’ll morph into? (If you told me I’d be a writer by now, I’d have asked what illegal vegetable matter you were smoking.) So I liked this book because it was an interesting concept; the voices feel authentic and the writing is very good. After reading this, I think this is really a book geared for much younger teens (twelve, thirteen sounds about right). For kids in that age range, this is a very good relationship story without too much over-the-top drama.
Blake, Kendare; Anna, Dressed in Blood (Tor Teen, 2011). Let me say right off the bat that this isn’t my typical read. I picked this up only because I read the first chapter, enjoyed the style and voice and figured, you know, why not? Well, what an enjoyable ride. This is a classic boy-meet-girl, star-crossed lovers story, with a novel twist. Cassius Lowood is a ghost-killer with vengeance on his mind; Anna is the ghost he’s determined to put to rest. That they turn out to become unlikely allies and then, well, a kind of couple is something you see coming, know can’t work out, but you root for the crazy kids anyway. If there is any complaints I have with this book at all, they are few. The setting is almost incidental; this could take place in California just as easily as Thunder Bay. Likewise, it’s a little tough to believe that the disappearance of a teen would produce only a kind of collective shrug, especially in a day and age where kids’ faces are splashed over continuous news cycles. Cops just don’t give up that easily. But if you’re into witchcraft, ghosts, and some nice splashes of gore–as I clearly was the day I picked this up–you’ll glide right past that and find yourself wondering where Blake takes her characters next.
Omololu, C.J.; Dirty Little Secrets (Walker Childrens, 2011). Lucy’s got a secret, a big one. Her mom’s a hoarder and no one knows. Her mother’s disorder imprisons them both and Lucy’s just biding her time until she can get out of the pig sty she’s forced to call home. But when her mother unexpectedly dies, Lucy’s got a dilemma: immediately call the police and see her life splashed all over the evening news, or try to clean up the mess and then call. She picks the latter and that fuels the rest of the plot which is essentially an excavation of the past. As she digs deeper into the rubbish, she rediscovers essential truths about herself and her mom (and one very upsetting moment with a beloved pet). The book ends as it has to–although a little too tidily–and the premise reminds me a lot of Buried, Robin Marrow MacCready’s spectacular 2006 Edgar Award winner. Nevertheless, this is a very intense, close psychological study of a kid trying to cope with the mess parents have made of her life, and well worth the time.
Anderson, Laurie Halse; Speak (Mandy Siegfried, narrator; Listening Library, 2006). This was my comfort food listen. Does anyone on the planet not know this 1999 gem of a novel? If you’ve been in hibernation the last decade+, let’s just say that this is the story of Melinda, a ninth-grader with an unbearable secret who eventually finds her way to speak the truth. Mandy Siegfried is pitch-perfect as the narrator, and I have to admit that I prefer the audio version to the actual novel which I found a bit too episodic (and those double spaces between paragraphs drive me nuts). Of Anderson’s many novels, this remains my favorite and, despite being somewhat stylized, feels the truest.
American Meltdown (Jeremiah S. Chelchik, director; Morningstar: 2004). You won’t find this little gem of a movie (and a TV movie, at that) on Netflix. If you’re as intrigued as I was about this very intense, highly believable movie about terrorists seizing a California nuclear plant–and the actual mechanics of how unprepared we might be, the choices government officials might be forced to make, and the blurring of good guys vs. bad–then you’ll spring for the DVD. I did, and was glad of it. Bruce Greenwood, one of my favorite actors, is fabulous in the lead role of an FBI agent stymied in his attempts to find a way out of a potential disaster. An altogether too-believable what-if story.
Sense and Sensibility, (Ang Lee, director; Sony Pictures, 1995). This is a movie I hadn’t seen for quite awhile but revisited on a whim. I’d forgotten just how good this story of a widowed mom and her three daughters really is. Austen was a master of revealing the foibles and failings of her society; women were subject to the whims of men, but they were also then–and now–victims of the heart. For a woman who never married, Austen seems to have seen marriage for what it was and could be: a prison, perhaps, but also an enlightened partnership. Or maybe she was just a romantic in tune with her times. All the principals are very good, and Emma Thompson, a fabulous actress, wrote the screenplay. But my hands down favorite is Alan Rickman in a spectacularly romantic turn as the stalwart and loyal Colonel Brandon.