Saturday, February 7, 2009

Review: Boost by Kathy Mackel

I hate it when books hit you over the head with an Important Message. And I kind of hate how annoyed I get. I was going to start this post off being really snarky about the message of this book, but really I can't get too snarky about it. Because the message is an important one, but dang does this book get really heavy handed about delivering the message.

After her parents declare bankruptcy, Savvy and her family move from their huge home in New Mexico to live with Savvy's aunt on her farm in Rhode Island just before Savvy starts 8th grade. Savvy lives for basketball - to her it is the one thing that makes life worth living - and she and her new friend Gonzo decide to take a risk and try out for the 18 and under basketball league, rather than sticking with the 16 and under league that they were shoo-ins for.

Savvy was a bit of a basketball superstar back in New Mexico. She's 6'3" at 13 and still growing and was used to carrying the team by herself. Here she has a coach that is determined to make sure she learns how to use her natural talent, while also balancing a team that suddenly has two eighth graders on it, when previously it had all been high school girls.

Complicating Savvy's life are her aunt and her sister. Shortly after the move her aunt breaks her ankle and is in the hospital for months. The same evening, the sheep dog dies, leaving the flock of sheep unprotected. Because her mother is working long hours, her father is injured and slaving away over going back to college, and Callie, Savvy's sister, isn't good for much of anything, Savvy takes over caring for the sheep until a new guard dog can be trained.

Callie seems to be your typical spoiled-brat sister - only this time instead of being a spoiled younger sister, she's actually several years older than Savvy. Keep reminding yourself of that, because here Savvy acts much older than your average eighth grader, while it's very hard to believe that Callie is the oldest child, yet alone the oldest and in high school. Callie can't handle anything difficult it seems; she freezes up when their aunt is injured, and spends her summer laying in her room eating junk food, even though she's normally a star cheerleader.

As competition in both of their sports start to heat up, both Savvy and Callie feel the pressure to somehow "boost" their games. While Savvy has a lot of raw talent, she isn't always the best team player and often relies on staying in her comfort zone, rather than focusing on making herself the best player she can be. Callie, meanwhile, is determined to stay on the top of the cheerleading pyramid (figuratively and literally) and, after falling off the healthy wagon over the summer, seems willing to go to any extreme necessary to get back in the game.

The sports scenes in this book seem to be excellently done. This book really seems like it was written for athletes, because no attempt is made to explain the basketball jargon (despite the move being used by someone in almost every game, I have no idea what the hell a "full court press" is). For sports aficionados, that's probably a plus - for the rest of us, the game details don't matter too much.

Lots of other parts of the book came off as extremely awkward and forced, right from the beginning. Did Savvy's aunt really need to be so completely incapacitated and relegated to a tiny, tiny supporting role? Savvy often tells us that her aunt would do something cool, but we never see even a glimmer of that sort of spunk in the woman. Please see Last Exit to Nowhere for an awesome example of not only a tough old woman (who can't do as much around her property as she used to), but plausible ways to get teenagers to take on responsibilities.

And Callie was just a spoiled brat throughout the entire book, leaving it up to Savvy to act as the parent, even telling her parents how they should be treating Callie. Callie actually reminded me a lot of Marlene in Suite Scarlett - except that Callie is 16, not six, and not a cancer survivor. So in Suite Scarlett it made sense that Marlene's parents would let her walk all over them in some ways, but there really doesn't seem to be a reason for Callie's brattiness.

And then there's the Drugs sub-plot that is treated with all the subtlety of an after-school special (which is now officially a category on this blog - one that a book should not strive to be in). The worst was probably when a doctor actually gave Savvy a lecture on what steroids do to the person who uses them. And then Savvy goes and Googles for more information. This is probably the first book I've read that deals explicitly with steroid use among young women, but did it need to be so heavy handed about it?

And even the heavy-handedness could have been balanced out if more of the characters and plot had been fleshed out. We never really get to know anyone in the book other than Savvy, and the main focus of the book is definitely the basketball games, with short detours for Savvy's reflection while she's helping with the sheep, or another blowup with Callie. When everything is fairly one-dimensional, it really makes the worst parts stand out because there's nothing of nuance to distract you.

Review: My Most Excellent Year: A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins and Fenway Park by Steve Kluger

It was definitely the subtitle that got me to read this book. Love, Mary Poppins and baseball (and not just baseball, but the poor Red Sox)? I had to know what it was about.

The story of TC's, Augie's and Ale's freshman year of high school is told mainly through diary entries, but also IMs, private chatrooms, text messages and e-mails. It's a sprawling story, chronicling more than a year in their lives, which makes summarizing this hard, but let's give it a shot.

TC and Augie have been best friends and brothers since elementary school when, shortly after TC's mother died, Augie was the only kid willing to talk to him. Since then they've done everything together, from sleepovers to family vacations. Augie puts up with TC's obsession with baseball, while TC tries to follow Augie's passion for musicals (turns out that Augie is gay and everyone but him knows it).

Ale, meanwhile, is the daughter of US diplomats - though she's more likely to start an international incident than follow in the family business. After her father retires from his position as ambassador, the family moves to Brookline, Massachusetts at the beginning of Ale's freshman year. TC is immediately smitten with Ale - who initially is determined to discourage TC's attention. She does, however, strike up a friendship with Augie when it comes time to produce the freshman talent show (Augie is director, Ale is producer). And of course where Augie goes, TC follows.

While TC is trying to woo Ale, he is also finishing up his baseball season where he has picked up a six-year-old deaf fan who tells TC when to swing at pitches. The boy, Hucky, is an orphan who has been bounced from foster home to foster home and has trust issues, but TC is as determined to bring this kid out of his shell as he is to get a date with Ale.

As Augie directs the freshman talent show, he not only befriends and mentors Ale, but also Andy - soccer player, swimmer, football fan and totally cute. Augie finds himself falling head over heels for the boy before he even realizes that it is a boy he is lusting after. Luckily, Andy feels the same way about Augie.

Ale takes dancing and singing classes, trying to keep her parents in the dark about her new-found hobbies. When not practicing or driving TC crazy, she pursues various social justice issues, from getting some of the more execrable songs cut from Kiss Me, Kate to building a baseball field at a memorial for the US Japanese internment camps of WWII (TC is helping with that one).

Yeah, like I said, there's a lot going on here, but most of it really works out. Sometimes I wondered about the convention of including e-mails and letters sent by parents and teachers - would the kids really have access to these to include them in a school paper? But other items, like Augie's mother's play reviews (a woman after my own heart - we're in agreement that Henry Higgins may be the worst character written for the stage EVER) add another fun level to the story. Also, sometimes it seems that Kluger got his electronic formats mixed up - when the kids were sending e-mails back and forth they would cut each other off. Which you definitely can't do in e-mail, and can't even do in most IM programs now (back in the day when I used ICQ there was a chat version that let you see what the other person was saying as they typed it, so theoretically you could cut someone off in that)

I do have to say I caught the book in a (relatively) big continuity problem. The book explicitly states that their freshman year was 2003. Yet Ale implies that Augie only discovered the musical Chicago in December of that year. Trust me, any musical fan worth his or her salt saw the movie version of Chicago back in 2001.

The relationship between Hucky and TC feels perhaps the most authentic in the book, followed closely by Ale and TC. The lengths TC goes to to make Hucky's life better are heartwarming. And the development of Ale's and TC's relationship definitely feels real.

And now, because this is a running theme for me, commentary on the gay characters: on the one hand, Augie and Andy are treated like any other couple. Augie's parents don't care (I don't believe we ever heard what Andy's parents thought), TC says "Duh" when Augie comes out over IM, and in their private e-mails Augie's dad wonders if "this generation" has made coming out superfluous. On the other hand, Augie is one big stereotype. He addresses a "Diva of the Week" in his diary, writing to Liza Minelli or Judy Garland (TC addresses his mom in his diary, and Ale spends most of her time writing to Jackie Kennedy, when really Eleanor Roosevelt seems like a first lady after Ale's own heart). Yes, he can also kick a soccer ball around, but after he starts going out with Andy it seems most of the sports drop out of his life. So points for treating a gay character like everyone else, but I would love to see a gay boy who is, I don't know, a big academic geek or something. They all seem to be either queens who love mince around singing show tunes or, in an effort to buck that stereotype, athletes. Here, Augie tries to be both of those (with more emphasis on the show tunes), but still comes off as a stereotype.

And yet, while Augie is quite stereotypical in some regards, I did appreciate the glimpses at his and Andy's relationship. In some ways it's not as well-rounded as TC's and Ale's, but that's partly because with Augie and Andy we only get Augie's diary on the relationship, while both TC and Ale contribute their own halves to the story.

So while on one level I can find lots of things to nitpick about this story, overall it comes across very well and was extremely enjoyable.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Review: Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin

I have a weakness for re-tellings of famous stories from the points of view of different characters. Wicked remains one of my perpetual favorite books in part for that reason. While I'm not familiar (at all) with The Aeneid, I hoped that this re-telling, from the point of view of a woman who is mentioned in the epic, but never speaks, would capture my imagination.

Short version of this review: it didn't.

Longer version: Lavinia has grown up as the daughter of a peaceful king. She takes pleasure in the simple tasks of her home, including helping her father with religious rituals and visiting the sacred oracle at Albunea. But as Lavinia grows into a woman, her beauty, and the power a man would gain by marrying the daughter of a great king, begin to attract attention from a wide variety of suitors. While her mother pushes her to marry Turnus, Lavinia - ever pious - insists she follow the words of a prophecy she and her father learned at Albunea: Lavinia must marry a foreigner.

That foreigner is Aeneus, a Trojan hero who has a prophecy of his own to fulfill. The jealousies of men to lead to war, as they so often do. While Aeneus is successful in fulfilling his end in the prophecy, Lavinia watches in fear as he inches ever closer to fulfilling the tragic end of her own prophecy - and after it is complete, learns how to continue living in contentious times.

Overall, I was just bored with this book. Perhaps that had something to do with the last book I read (Graceling) being such an awesome adventure. Maybe if I knew The Aeneid I would have been entertained by catching references to the original work. But while I'm always interested in women's stories and women's histories, I was just bored throughout this one as Lavinia was so often a passive presence in her own life. Her entire life was ruled by men or prophecy - honestly, she only began to feel engaging in the last twenty or so pages (I just checked and I can't believe it was only that long - not only was I bored, but this book dragged). Since it's totally possible to have a story starring a character who never does anything for her- or himself (Hamlet springs to mind, though that may be just because my fiance has spent the last two days memorizing the 'To be or not to be' soliloquy and Hamlet is kind of taking over the apartment), I guess I'm sort of at a loss as to why LeGuin felt this book had to be written. Since so much of Lavinia's life is spent not doing anything on her own, what does this really add to The Aeneid? If this is what Lavinia's life was like, perhaps there's a reason she had nothing to say in the original poem...
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