I don’t get it: Books that baffled

I can’t bring myself to post a negative book review. I also have a cooking blog, and when I try a recipe and it comes out terribly, there are so many factors at play – it could have been my own carelessness, some fault in the quality of my equipment or ingredients, a matter of differing tastes, or it could truly be a poorly designed recipe, but, as one recipe out of a hundred in a cookbook, I wouldn’t be damning the author by saying, “What a terrible recipe!”

But it’s different with books. Books are someone’s baby, a year (or much more) of someone’s life. Books are dreams made reality. I’m not going to spend my time tearing down someone else’s dream, no matter how much it left me cold.

That said, I’ve spent a fair amount of my time trying to read books that just didn’t click for me. At least I don’t buy books – it’s not a great loss to send something back to the library half-read. But it is a strange experience to be out of sync with so many others in the YA community. Since I started reading YA blogs, much of my reading list comes from their recommendations. And it’s just odd sometimes to hear so much hype about a book and then try myself and all I can say is, “I don’t get it!”

Here are a few of the books I’ve read (or tried to read) since starting this blog that just didn’t click for me. I’ve linked each title to a glowing review, for alternate perspective. 🙂

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You – Peter Cameron I’m not generally that into: boy protagonists, whiners, sarcasm of the mean variety, people who think they’re smart but are really incredibly deluded/self-involved. This is a book that celebrates all of those things.
Carpe Diem – Patricia Cornwell One review I read said what they liked best about the book was the unlikable narrator. I guess that doesn’t really work for me. I loved the premise of this book (well, the travel/Southeast Asia/hot-mean-cowboy love interest part, not the bizarre, creepy grandmother-blackmails-her-children part) but despite trying over several weeks I simply couldn’t get through it.
The Explosionist – Jenny Davidson This book sounds to me like another Golden Compass (plucky parentless London heroine in an alternate-history version of reality must stop an evil plan to turn young people into mindless drones) which, considering how much I adored that book, could be a good thing or a bad thing. Reviews led me to believe it would be a very, very good thing. Reading it, not so much. It just never grabbed me.
Gingerbread – Rachel Cohn This is the kind of book I read by the truckload – off-beat, bratty-but-self-aware girl stomps through teenhood with combat boots and ink-stained fingertips, learning lessons about love and life. So why couldn’t I get through it?
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing – MT Anderson I was so ready to be blown away by this book. The premise was fascinating, the character intriguing, the format just a little bit experimental. I still think, in my heart of hearts, that someday I will get to read the book I thought this was when I first picked it up. Maybe someday I will be the reader I need to be to get this book.
Ash – Malinda Lo Many of the books in my list here are award-winners or nominees for many different awards, as well as being adored by the book blog community. Ash is among those receiving high praise from all corners. And seriously, queer Cinderella? Could there be anything more awesome? I tried to read this book 5 times before sending it back to the library. I made it at least 2/3 through and I just never, ever started caring what happened in it.
An Abundance of Katherines – John Green Things I love: anagrams, child prodigies, road trips, boy protagonists (I know, I contradict myself, for I am large and contain multitudes), people who worry they aren’t self-aware enough but actually are so sweetly just where they need to be. Despite all these magical elements, I never made it past the first few chapters.
Enna Burning – Shannon Hale Goose Girl may be one of my favorite books of all time (somewhere in the 100s, but still…). This sequel left me entirely cold. If reading Goose Girl was like having a story rush through me, so I thought about it and dreamed about it all the time when I wasn’t reading it, reading Enna Burning was like watching a movie with no sound on someone else’s iPhone screen from halfway across the plane. (Wow, that was pretty harsh. But I want more Shannon Hale that makes me feel ALIVE!)
The Sea of Trolls & The Land of the Silver Apples – Nancy Farmer Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion is in my top 20 for favorite YA/children’s books of all time. After I devoured that one I read and enjoyed her other books set in Africa, and then waited eagerly for two years for a new book from her. What a disappointment. The style just doesn’t connect for me at all. I am comfortable with the fact that, despite my love of children’s lit, there will always be many books that are actually too young for me to enjoy. I just didn’t think Nancy Farmer would be writing them!
Fairy Tale – Cyn Balog The review I link to here praises this book for having a new approach and original elements, which is all true, but then why did I come away feeling like I had just read a totally typical story – typical within both the “high school heartache” genre and the “fairy tale retelling” genre?
Mister Monday – Garth Nix This one wasn’t a question of blog hype so much as author let-down (a bit like the Farmer books). Garth Nix authored the Abhorsen series, which are also on my top fantasy book list, probably in my top 10, even. I know this series, which begins with Mister Monday, is intended for younger readers, but Nix is a seriously talented wordsmith, and I would have expected to wholeheartedly love anything he wrote. The librarian and adult YA blogger community actually seems to be in agreement with me on this disappointment, but kids seem to be enjoying them, so that’s something!

So what about you? Any books that make you feel out of sync with the hype? Are any of the books on my list books you “just didn’t get?” Or maybe one of your favorites is on here and you can explain to me what I was missing!

(Baffled egg courtesy of Nina Matthews under CC license)


Read This: Genesis by Bernard Beckett

Genesis by Bernard Beckett (2005)

One sentence summary: A doctoral candidate undergoes an oral examination during which she recounts and interprets seminal events from the history of her Republic in this spare, electrifying story that is philosophical exploration and science-fiction story wrapped into one.

First off, I am not convinced this is actually a young adult book, rather than just a book featuring a protagonist who is a young adult. I am inclined to lean more towards “Adult book that certain young adults would enjoy,” rather than my usual category of reading, “Young adult book that certain adults would enjoy.” But I suppose it’s all just semantics, yes?

On to the book itself. What I am left with after reading all 150 pages of Genesis is a very particular, and wonderful, set of feelings. Have you read the Foundation books by Isaac Asimov? In those great works of classic science fiction (also fairly short by modern standards) the characters aren’t the important part, and neither, really, is the plot. These elements are in service to something greater, they are pieces in a grand design that aims to expose and examine the underpinnings of human nature itself. I am definitely no philosopher, but I am human. So for me, the best philosophy book doesn’t just try to engage with my mind, making its case in a bald, intellectual fashion that my own intellect will analyze and measure against my own life experiences. Books like Foundation and Genesis use their stories and their characters and their plots to actually evoke the feelings and experiences they wish us to think about. They take us through their case in a way that lets us live it ourselves.

Genesis is an engaging little story, as well. It moves along briskly and compellingly despite the unusual format (the book takes place entirely within the Socratic-style question and answer form of the student’s oral examination). It is very unlike the kind of books I usually read, but at such a brief length it was a pleasure to put aside teen angst and heroic fantasy for a while and let these subtle thoughts and emotions bloom within me through Beckett’s careful cultivation.

Read more about Genesis:
*If you have already decided you’d like to read the book, I think it’s best to jump in with as little information as possible. There are some really great elements to the book that it would be a shame to have spoiled. But if you aren’t convinced and want to know more, or don’t want to read the book at all but would like to know more about it, here are some other good reviews that at least don’t give away anything too big.*

Very interesting, short nearly spoiler-free review on The SF Site. (Spoiler reveals one relatively insignificant plot point.)

Review comparing Beckett to Philip K. Dick, another of the great sci-fi philosophers. Review contains thorough information about the history/backstory that takes a good 30 or 40 pages to be revealed in the book, so I consider this to be a significant spoiler, but it doesn’t give away much about the rest of the book.

Existential questions

I keep coming back to the same question – why do I have a book blog? Who will read it and will it be helpful to them? It’s much less ambiguous with my food blog, In My Box, which is about my CSA box and what I do with the produce I get every week. In My Box serves numerous purposes – as a place for me to keep records of recipes and kitchen adventures that I can look back on (we often cook with a laptop open to my blog on the kitchen table), as a place for people to learn about Bay Area CSAs and to get ideas and inspiration for what to make with their CSA produce, and as a collection of vegan, gluten-free recipes (a style of cooking that can be very intimidating!).

But there are so many amazing YA book blogs out there, written by people with much more time and patience than I have. And I don’t need a record of my books for myself the way I do with food – I have my own, very simple record. It’s a list, and each book gets either an asterisk, a 1/2 asterisk, or no asterisk. That’s my whole system! So why do I have a book blog? I know I have some things to say, maybe even some original thoughts to add to the worldwide YA conversation, it’s just a question of building momentum. I tried with my new format of book reviews, but they started to feel dull and not very juicy to me. So for a while I guess I’ll just be flailing around, trying various things. It might get pretty silly, it might get pretty dull, but hopefully eventually my voice will emerge. (Or I’ll scrap the blog entirely but hopefully it’ll be the former rather than the latter…)

This is perfect. Also depressing. Also hilarious!

Today’s xkcd (the best webcomic ever):

The alt text reads: I was going to be a scientist, but that seems silly now. Magical worlds exist. I’ve learned a huge truth about our place in the universe. I’m supposed to care about college? I mean, FUCK.

Click comic for full-size version.

Review: If the Witness Lied by Caroline B. Cooney

Title (year): If the Witness Lied (2009)

Genre: Thriller/Suspense

Other important themes: Grief, Loss of a parent, Coming of age, Siblings, Mystery

Age (sex) of main character: Told from POV of 3 siblings, all high-school aged, 1 brother and 2 sisters

Estimated age of intended audience: 13 and above

Wholesome/edgy/realistic?: Realistic and a little edgy – think “Party of Five” meets Dean Koontz

Narrative POV: Third person subjective, switching between three narrators

Writing quality: If you’ve read Cooney before, you know what her work is like. It’s more about the plot than the characters, but she develops everything so skillfully that the tension and taut pacing keep you racing through the book to the end.

Formulaic or surprising?: Pretty surprising. Several twists that I didn’t see coming.

Comfort food/challenging?: Definitely comfort food. I was on the edge of my seat with suspense, but the book wasn’t putting me through the wringer as some do.

Dark or Light? Endless struggle?: Somewhat in the middle. It’s a thriller so there is the darkness of death and violence and fear, but the characters are in the “real world” so they continue to have options and resources available to them. Dystopian misery, this is not.

Identify with: (people of color, disabled folks, respected elders, working class) Nothing much here, besides maybe children who have had their lives publicized by the media.

Read this if you liked… Any of Cooney’s earlier stuff. I first read The Face on the Milk Carton about ten years ago, and I go in waves of catching up on her prolific output (I can’t handle too much suspense at one time!). Breathe My Name by RA Nelson. Shattering Glass by Gail Giles. Books by Christopher Pike and Lois Duncan, though Cooney’s books are more “thriller set in everyday life” than “serial killer killing off all my friends one by one on a deserted beach.”

Genre-bender? (recommended to ALL): I don’t normally read thrillers but I enjoy Cooney’s, in part because they arise more out of headlines than nightmares, which keeps them interesting for me. If you enjoy a good, fast-paced YA book, I say give this one a try even if this isn’t your usual genre.

Shelf Discovery

I participated this year in the wonderful Book Blogger Holiday Swap. I had a great time putting together a package for my giftee Cass, of the blog Bonjour, Cass. And, delayed gratification junkie that I am, I put off opening the package I received until it was Chanukah and everyone was opening all their presents. I opened the box eagerly. My face must have split into such a crazy-huge grin, because the next thing I knew my family was shouting, “What is it? What is it? Show us!” And when I finally held it up, everyone agreed it was just about the most perfect present, ever, for me.

It turned out my book swap buddy was Sheila of Journey Through a World of Books, and she had sent me a brand-new copy of Lizzie Skurnick’s new book, Shelf Discovery: The teen classics we never stopped reading. Along with a giant bar of Cadbury’s Milk Chocolate, too. (What better way to spend the holidays than curled up with a good book and a bar of chocolate?)

I usually read books from the library, but owning this book is essential, as it’s the kind of thing I’ll want to dip into every few days, reading an essay here and an essay there. And now I have it to enjoy at my leisure!

Julie of Booking Mama loves Shelf Discovery, too, and she’s hosting a book challenge that sounds like a lot of fun! The Shelf Discovery Challenge is to read six of the books written about in the book before April 30, 2010. I thought I’d read a ton of the books in Shelf Discovery, but there are so many new ones I’m intrigued by!

New to me:
The Grounding of Group 6 by Julian Thompson
To Take a Dare by Paul Zindel and Crescent Dragonwagon
The Westing Game by Ellen Rankin

Ghosts I Have Been by Richard Peck – I remember reading this one several times from the library while going on to devour everything Peck had written
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken – This is one of those books that I read too late for it to become a seminal part of my childhood, so it didn’t really stick with me. I want to give it another try.
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett – I have read this book so many times I’ve long ago lost count. And seen the movie countless times. Which doesn’t do justice to the book at all. What’s up with that ridiculous ending?

Top Children’s Chapter Books of All Time!

Betsy Bird of Fuse#8 is running a poll to assemble our collective top 100 children’s chapter books (books for kids under 13 who can read chapter books on their own). No YA here, strictly children’s books. Her method is to have everyone submit a hierarchical top ten, which she will weight and combine with scores from everyone else to produce the final list. I am very excited to participate, but of course narrowing it down to ten has been really, really tough.

What makes a book a top book? For me, of course, I need to have read it. Anything I’ve read more than once will probably stand out more than the rest, although there are a few exceptions to this. When I finally had created a list of books that are important and well-loved (definitely longer than ten), I created a hypothetical scenario for myself. A friend is having a baby soon, and she asks me to recommend ten books I think her future kid might enjoy and that are “don’t miss” books to make sure she at least has on hand, even if the kid turns out to be a Captain Underpants type rather than a “great junior classics” type of reader. I don’t know yet if the baby is a boy or a girl, if it will love fantasy or historical fiction or “just like me” stories, but I figure this list of ten is at least worth having around to shove under his or her nose every so often because if Junior does pick it up, it’s guaranteed to be a great and worthwhile read. So here’s the list I’m submitting to Betsy as well as my runners-up and a list of the authors whose whole oeuvre I would tell my friend to gravitate towards on library trips.

  1. The Pink Motel by Carol Ryrie Brink
  2. A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle
  3. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by EL Konisburg
  4. Holes by Louis Sachar
  5. The Magician’s Nephew by CS Lewis (obviously you would start the series with Wardrobe, but this is the best of the series)
  6. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
  7. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  8. Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
  9. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
  10. The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron

There are two books on that list you’ve probably never heard of, The Pink Motel and The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet. When I was a kid, I decided I would read my way from start to finish through my small library’s entire children’s chapter book section. But I loved some of the books I read so much I would go back and read them over and over again. That’s why so many of my favorite children’s authors are from the beginning of the alphabet!

So yeah, my pick for the top children’s book ever published is one that very few folks have ever heard of, first printed in 1959 and now out of print. But it isn’t nostalgia that makes it my #1 choice. It really is the best. I’m not even going to try to describe why – just read it. Hopefully your library still has a copy! (And hopefully with the original cover. Check out the hideous reprint from 1993. Interestingly, I guess enough people know about and love this book that even that crappy paperback reprint is selling for over 30 bucks now used. Thank goodness I snagged my own copy – with the original cover – on eBay over a decade ago!)

I feel like the books on this list have a good balance of male and female protagonists, all of them complex and interesting enough that kids of any gender and temperament would find something to identify with or at least to intrigue them. I believe the only one on here from the past 30 years is Holes. Obviously my selection pool is going to be biased because I read a lot more kid’s books published during and before the 1980s, when I was a kid, but I do try to keep up with the latest chapter books. The stuff I read now isn’t going to have that same intense emotional impact it did back then, though. (Which shows how amazing Holes is that it had that kind of impact on me at age 25.) I don’t know if Island of the Blue Dolphins would make the list if I read it now among all the other adventure/survival/dystopia books out there today. But back when I read it (again and again) it positively blew my mind with Karana’s incredible degree of self-reliance. I would always read with awe the little paragraph at the end about how it was  based on a true story.

Okay, without further ado, my runners-up for the top ten and my list of authors who have written many great children’s chapter books (these are not in ranked order):

    Half Magic by Edward Eager
    Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery
    Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
    The Once and Future King by TH White
    The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman
    Cheaper By the Dozen by Frank Gilbreth
    The All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor
    The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
    A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
    The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis
    Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling
    Edward Bloor
    Carol Ryrie Brink
    Frances Hodgson Burnett
    Eleanor Cameron
    Roald Dahl
    Edward Eager
    Nancy Farmer
    Ursula K LeGuin
    CS Lewis
    EL Konisburg
    Robin McKinley
    Farley Mowat
    Richard Peck
    JK Rowling
    EB White

It was something of a relief to put these lists together. It was nice to remember these books I’ve loved so well and read so many times. But even more it was a nice break and palate-cleanser from the generally dark tone YA has taken on these days, whether it’s in the form of grim dystopian worlds, angsty supernatural heartbreak, or no-holds-barred malicious high school gossip.  Hopefully I’ll make friends with some new children’s chapter books when the Top 100 list comes out!