One-Minute Book Reviews

March 2, 2012

Libba Bray’s Comic Novel for Teenagers, ‘Beauty Queens’

Filed under: Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:08 pm
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Miss Teen Dream contestants try to keep their spirits up after their plane goes down in a finalist for a 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prize 

Beauty Queens. By Libba Bray. Scholastic, 396 pp., $18.95. Ages 12 & up.

By Janice Harayda

Thirteen beauty queens stumble into literal and metaphorical quicksand after their plane crashes on a tropical island in this madcap feminist farce with AK-47s and eyelash curlers. With fish and coconuts to sustain them, the Miss Teen Dream contestants don’t waste time weeping for their dead chaperones, who might have enforced the morals-clauses in their contracts. They keep hoping for a rescue and practicing their dance steps for the pageant, led by the crown-obsessed Miss Texas, until they discover that their island holds secret agents with high-tech offices hidden in a volcano who may work for their corporate sponsor.

As they try to outwit the men with walkie-talkies, the contestants have time to explore their varied sexual identities – straight, gay, transgender or uncertain – with the frankness of Miss Illinois, who dislikes having to declare an orientation like a major: “I am straight with a minor in gay.” Their tale sags in its last third under the weight and predictability of the wrap-ups of all the subplots — each involving a character who sees that she must be true herself, no matter what her unenlightened parents or friends think — and a deus ex machina in the form of a ship full of TV-show pirates.

But Libba Bray satirizes worthy targets along the way, including corporate greed, identity politics, and sexual double standards. And the contestants’ stories coalesce into a tidy theme expressed by Miss Nebraska. “Maybe girls’ need an island to find themselves,” she says. “Maybe they need a place where no one’s watching so they can be who they really are.”

Best line: “My platform is Identifying Misogyny in American Culture.” From the “Miss Teen Dream Fun Facts Page” about Adina Greenberg, Miss New Hampshire, a high school journalist who entered the contest hoping to expose how it promotes “the objectification of women.”

Worst line: “Taylor had heard enough. She emerged from the jungle like a Kurtzian goddess.” In these lines, Bray is writing from the point of view of Taylor Hawkins, Miss Texas, a pageant obsessive who shows little evidence of having read anything but I’m Perfect and You Can Be, Too, a self-help manual by a Miss Teen Dream winner who resembles a Southern-fried Sara Palin. It’s hard to believe she would see herself in terms of a character in Heart of Darkness.

Published: May 2011

Furthermore: Beauty Queens is a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the young-adult literature category. Some critics have called Beauty Queens a “satire,” and it does satirize contemporary follies, but its intentionally over-the-top aspects give it more in common with farce. The novel is the fifth by bestselling author Libba Bray, who lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Learn more about Beauty Queens or buy a copy from an independent bookstore in the author’s city.

Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews recently was ranked one of the top 40 book blogs by Technorati and top 40 book-review blogs by Alexa Internet. It was named one of the top blogs in New Jersey by New Jersey Monthly.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar to the right of this review.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
http://www.janiceharayda.com

January 21, 2012

Libba Bray’s Comic Novel for Teenagers, ‘Beauty Queens’

Filed under: Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:21 pm
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Miss Teen Dream contestants try to keep their spirits up after their plane goes down

Beauty Queens. By Libba Bray. Scholastic, 396 pp., $18.95. Ages 12 & up.

By Janice Harayda

Thirteen beauty queens stumble into literal and metaphorical quicksand after their plane crashes on a tropical island in this madcap feminist farce with AK-47s and eyelash curlers. With fish and coconuts to sustain them, the Miss Teen Dream contestants don’t waste time weeping for their dead chaperones, who might have enforced the morals-clauses in their contracts. They keep hoping for a rescue and practicing their dance steps for the pageant, led by the crown-obsessed Miss Texas, until they discover that their island holds secret agents with high-tech offices hidden in a volcano who may work for their corporate sponsor.

As they try to outwit the men with walkie-talkies, the contestants have time to explore their varied sexual identities – straight, gay, transgender or uncertain – with the frankness of Miss Illinois, who dislikes having to declare an orientation like a major: “I am straight with a minor in gay.” Their tale sags in its last third under the weight and predictability of the wrap-ups of all the subplots — each involving a character who sees that she must be true herself, no matter what her unenlightened parents or friends think — and a deus ex machina in the form of a ship full of TV-show pirates.

But Libba Bray satirizes worthy targets along the way, including corporate greed, identity politics, and sexual double standards. And the contestants’ stories coalesce into a tidy theme expressed by Miss Nebraska. “Maybe girls’ need  an island to find themselves,” she says. “Maybe they need a place where no one’s watching so they can be who they really are.”

Best line: “My platform is Identifying Misogyny in American Culture.” From the “Miss Teen Dream Fun Facts Page” about Adina Greenberg, Miss New Hampshire, a high school journalist who entered the contest hoping to expose how it promotes “the objectification of women.”

Worst line: “Taylor had heard enough. She emerged from the jungle like a Kurtzian goddess.” In these lines, Bray is writing from the point of view of Taylor Hawkins, Miss Texas, a pageant obsessive who shows little evidence of having read anything but I’m Perfect and You Can Be, Too, a self-help manual by a Miss Teen Dream winner who resembles a Southern-fried Sara Palin. It’s hard to believe she would see herself in terms of a character in Heart of Darkness.

Published: May 2011

Furthermore: Beauty Queens is a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the young-adult literature category. Some critics have called Beauty Queens a “satire,” and it does satirize contemporary follies, but its intentionally over-the-top aspects give it more in common with farce. The novel is the fifth by bestselling author Libba Bray, who lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews is ranked one of the top 40 book blogs by Technorati and top 40 book-review blogs by Alexa Internet and was recently named one of New Jersey’s best blogs by New Jersey Monthly.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar to the right of this review.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 2, 2011

‘The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton’ – A Biography for Young Readers

Filed under: Children's Books,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:25 pm
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The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton: A Biography. By Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge, Clarion, 184 pp., $20. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

Edith Wharton said that she hoped her biographer would “find the gist of me,” and Connie Wooldridge meets that test in this lively account of the life of one of America’s greatest novelists.

Born Edith Newbold Jones, Wharton came from the elite New York family that inspired the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses.” Her parents and their circle looked on writing anything except poetry as an unworthy profession, especially for women. And Wooldridge rightly credits Wharton with escaping from the social expectations that might have stifled her career while observing those mores closely enough to write The Age of Innocence, the first novel by a woman to win the Pulitzer Prize.

The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton also shows how Wharton defied sexual codes by having an affair with the journalist Morton Fullerton while married to the unstable Teddy Wharton, who was conducting his own adulterous romance. Of Wharton’s marital relations, Wooldridge writes: “The sexual side of her marriage to Teddy was a failure.”  This sentence will shock few children at the upper end of the suggested age range for this book. But the line comes across as a gratuitous attempt to justify or at least explain Wharton’s adultery, though Wooldridge doesn’t link her subject’s poor sex life to her infidelity. And young readers who are ready for such material could have handled more information on the great themes of Wharton’s fiction (especially that of the conflict between individual yearnings and the imperatives of a rigid social order), which get less attention than their creator’s fascinating life.

This biography has more than 80 black-and-white photos and illustrations of every stage of Wharton’s life from early childhood through old age, including pictures of her glorious homes in Newport, New York, Paris and Lenox, Massachusetts. And all of these help to make up for the few questionable judgments in the text. One page reproduces mock reviews that young Edith wrote of a novel called Fast and Loose that she began just before her 15th birthday. “A chaos of names apparently all seeking their owners,” Wharton-the-satirist said. She called “the sentiments weak, & the whole thing a fiasco.” Wooldridge need not fear that she will face similar assaults for The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton.

Best line: One of many good quotes from Wharton, in this case about her girlhood: “No children of my own age, and none even among the nearest of my grown-ups, were as close to me as the great voices that spoke to me from books.” The “great voices” included those of Plutarch, Homer and Milton.

Worst line: A caption on page 21 says: “One of Edith’s mock reviews of her first novel.” The book makes clear that Wharton started a novel at the age of 11 and that the mock reviews describe “another novel,” her second, that she began at the age of 15.

Ages: Clarion bills The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton as a book for ages 12 and up, and its mature content justifies the recommendation. But many preteens and teens reject books with the format of this one, which is that of a modified picture book: They want biographies that look like books for adults. So The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton, good as it is, may be a tough sell to strong readers over the age of 9 or so.

Published: August 2010

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

July 2, 2010

Dana Reinhardt’s Young Adult Novel, ‘The Things a Brother Knows’ – Mature Subjects, Third-Grade Reading Level

Filed under: Children's Books,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:53 pm
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A 17-year-old wonders why his older brother acts strangely after serving with the Marines in a combat zone

The Things a Brother Knows. By Dana Reinhardt. Wendy Lamb/Random House Children’s Books, 256 pp., $16.99. Publisher’s suggested ages: 14 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Not long ago, the Canadian novelist Joan Clark argued that North American publishers should drop the “young adult” label and replace it, as their British counterparts have, with two new categories: “under 12” (to be shelved in the children’s section of bookstores) and “over 12” (to shelved in the adult section). Clark makes a strong case that the confusing YA classification can keep both adults and children away from books they might like.

You could hardly find a better example of the problems with the genre than The Things a Brother Knows. This novel deals with a complex topic: A 17-year-old named Levi struggles to make sense of the troubling behavior a brother who, after serving with the Marines, shows PTSD-like symptoms that threaten to estrange the siblings. Dana Reinhardt gives this subject a relatively mature treatment that involves jokes about porn and masturbation, occasional strong language, and serious moral and psychological questions: What do we owe veterans? What price do families pay for their members’ military service? And is it OK to do bad things such as hacking into a brother’s computer because you want to help him?

For all this, Reinhardt writes at a third-grade reading level, according the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that come with the Microsoft Word spell-checker. And her earnest prose, if smooth as the surface of an iPod, is too dumbed-down for many of the age-14-and-up readers to whom its publisher recommends it, who may have read the stylistically more challenging Harry Potter and J.R.R. Tolkien tales years ago. The book might have more appeal for 11- and 12-year-olds, but its drab cover won’t help its cause with preteens who have sped through adventure stories like those in Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series.

Like no small number of young adult novels, The Things a Brother Knows makes you wonder: Who is this book for? Reinhardt says in a letter to readers that Levi, on his quest to understand his brother, “goes in a boy and comes out a man.” If that’s true of her main character, it’s not true her novel as a whole, which is suspended between boyhood and manhood, a case of arrested literary development.

Best line: “We’d been to Israel twice already, in the psychotic heat of summer.”

Worst line: No. 1: “He doesn’t leave his fucking room, Mr. Hopper.” No. 2: “I’m pretty sure there’s nothing in the world uglier than the sight of your own father’s pubic hair.” No. 3: “I meant that ‘little private Levi time’ thing as a euphemism. Masturbating. Get it?”

Published: September 2010

Editor: Wendy Lamb, who edited the 2010 Newbery Medal winner, Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me.

Caveat lector: This book was based on an advance reader’s copy. Some material in the finished book, including the cover, may differ.

Furthermore: Jacqueline Woodson’s Peace, Locomotion also deals with the effect on a family of a son who returns from a war with symptoms resembling those of PTSD.

You may also want to read: Joan Clark’s essay on the problems with the young-adult label.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 30, 2010

A Review of Dana Reinhardt’s Young-Adult Novel, ‘The Things a Brother Knows,’ From the Editor of the 2010 Newbery Medalist — Coming Soon

Filed under: Children's Books,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:07 pm
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Rebecca Stead won the 2010 Newbery Medal for When You Reach Me, edited by Wendy Lamb, who has her own imprint at Random House. In September Lamb will publish Dana Reinhardt’s The Things a Brother Knows, a young-adult novel about a 17-year-old boy whose older brother acts oddly after returning from deployment with the Marines in a combat zone. Reinhardt says he wrote the book after hearing mothers talk about sons who “came home different” from war. That made him think about the son who didn’t go: “the one who maybe thought that what his brother had chosen to do was a big mistake.” A review of The Things A Brother Knows will appear soon on this site, which reviews children’s books on Saturdays. Jacqueline Woodson dealt with a similar topic in her novel for preteens, Peace, Locomotion, the story of a boy whose foster brother returns from war missing a leg.

November 18, 2009

‘Even the National Book Awards Can Generate a Judging Scandal’

Filed under: News,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:48 pm
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Interesting reactions to my post yesterday on an apparent conflict of interest on the judging panel for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature. An article by Motoko Rich for the New York Times ArtsBeat blog, in which I am quoted, begins: “It’s not Olympic figure skating, but even the National Book Awards can generate a judging scandal.” And Elizabeth Bird weighs in on the School Library Journal blog, where she wonders: “What should technically be considered a conflict of interest?” The winners of the awards will be announced tonight beginning at about 8 p.m. EST, and the results should appear almost instantaneously on Twitter (@nationalbook) at www.twitter.com/nationalbook. I may have comments about them after 10 p.m. on “Late Night With Jan Harayda.”

November 15, 2009

‘Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith’ – Quotes of the Day From a 2009 Finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

“A novel … does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if it be a pretty woman, all the better.”
— Charles Darwin, as quoted in Charles and Emma

The winners of the 2009 National Book Awards will be announced Wednesday, and the finalists in the category of young people’s literature include Deborah Heiligman’s captivating Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Holt, 268 pp., $18.95). This dual biography is a portrait of the loving marriage of the author of The Origin of Species and his spirited and intelligent wife, who held religious views he did not share.

This excerpt describes how Charles and Emma Darwin spent their first days in their new home in London after their wedding at a Staffordshire church on January 29, 1839:

“In their first few days together, they mostly stayed in – it was snowing. But they also did some shopping for furniture, dishes, and clothes, including a morning gown for Emma. It was ‘a sort of clarety-brown satin,’ she wrote to [her sister] Elizabeth, and she felt it was ‘very unobjectionable.’ They borrowed some novels from the library, starting a lifelong tradition of reading together – usually Emma read to Charles while he rested from his work. Charles liked novels with happy endings, and he once wrote, ‘I often bless all novelists. A surprising number have been read aloud to me … and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily – against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if it be a pretty woman all the better.”

An earlier post on Charles and Emma has links to more information about the book.

The publisher recommends Charles and Emma for ages 13 and up — perhaps because of occasional mature content, such as the passing use of the word “erection” — but it may also appeal to younger children who are strong readers.

October 31, 2009

Deborah Heiligman’s ‘Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith’ — A Finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

Deborah Heiligman’s captivating dual biography of the Darwins, Charles and Emma (Holt, 268 pp., $18.95), is one of the best young-adult books I’ve read since launching this site. This finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature lacks the problems of last year’s winner, What I Saw and How I Lied, among them a clash between its third-grade reading level and its sophisticated content. Good as it is, Charles and Emma isn’t a shoo-in: It’s up against books that include Phillip Hoose’s Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 144 pp., $19.95), the true story of a 15-year-old whose refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger helped to integrate the buses in Montgomery, Alabama.  I haven’t been able to put my hands on a copy, but I admired Hoose’s Perfect, Once Removed (Walker, 2007), a memoir of the October when his cousin Don Larsen pitched a perfect World Series game, and I hope to say more about both National Book Award finalists soon.

October 15, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda – The World’s Best Acknowledgments in a Book

Yesterday Deborah Heiligman made the shortlist for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature for her captivating dual biography, Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Holt, 268 pp., $18.95, ages 9 and up). And she might win in a walk if the judges gave the prize for the acknowledgments section of a book alone. Heiligman amusingly tweaks the clichés of the genre in her thanks to her husband, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jonathan Weiner:

“You put up with a lot as I wrote this book. You owed me, sure, but you have paid me back in spades. I’m ready for your next one. Jon read the book front to back in many drafts, and if there are any mistakes, blame him.”

Wouldn’t acknowledgements be more fun if everybody wrote like this?

October 14, 2009

David Small’s Graphic Memoir of Throat Cancer, ‘Stitches,’ Makes Shortlist for National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

David Small has made the shortlist for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature for Stitches (Norton, 336 pp., $24.95), his graphic memoir of getting throat cancer after receiving high doses of radiation for a sinus condition while growing up in Detroit in the baby-boom era. The sponsor of the awards doesn’t give a separate prize for graphic novels or memoirs but considers them along with other submissions in the relevant category, so you could easily miss that this one has a different format from other books on the shortlist. Small talks about Stitches in a YouTube trailer that shows a generous number of pages from the book. He won the American Library Association’s 2001 Caldecott Medal for So You Want to Be President?, and his work has appeared in The New Yorker and other publications.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

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