Category Archives: book reviews

Perfect Chemistry: my first teen romance

Perfect Chemistry
Simone Elkeles, 2009

Synopsis: Senior year has begun. Brittany is a seemingly perfect, white cheerleader from an upper class neighborhood in the North Side of Chicago. Alex Fuentes is a hot, tattooed mexicano gang member from the South Side who is assigned to be Brittany’s partner in chemistry class. Fuentes accepts a bet that he can have sex with Brittany by Thanksgiving, but they end up falling in love. Alex learns that Brittany’s life is not as perfect as it seems, and Brittany tries to get Alex out of the Bloods and into college.

I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, it is full of stereotypes. The main plot arc sees Brittany “saving” Alex–a tired trope that makes me queasy (The white chemistry teacher is also a major inspiration for Alex, as in the movie Dangerous Minds with Michelle Pfeiffer). Also, the white girl’s struggles seem to pale in comparison to the latino boy’s, and aren’t given nearly as much detail as the plot unfolds. Brittany’s secrets have to do with an overly-anxious mother and a sister with cerebral palsy, whereas Alex’s sectrets have to do with keeping up his gang status, keeping his younger brothers from entering the Bloods, and mourning the death of his father. Alex’s family is portrayed in the typical way, particularly during a wedding scene–their poverty can’t stop them from being close-knit and happy. The minor latino/a characters and the Spanish phrases peppered throughout the text seem awkward and unnatural. The epilogue is syrupy sweet and unrealistic. Are stereotypical character portrayals and trite happy endings just par for the course in any romance novel?

Yet, the main characters are also likeable. Elkeles does a nice job of getting underneath the “fronts” each character obsessively presents to the world: Brittany must date the football captain, get all “A”s, and wear just the right designer clothes, and Alex must put on a tough, machismo exterior that keeps people away and makes it appear that he does not care about school. So the stereotypes do begin to dissolve a bit as the plot deepens. And the falling in love of Alex and Brittany is gradual, spirited, playful, and fun to read. The sex scenes are somewhat realistic and tastefully written.

This book enjoys major circulation amongst students of color–including many boys–at Brighton High School. This may have a lot to do with the alternating chapter format–Brittney and Alex each narrate 50% of the book. Since a readable romance novel that appeals to both sexes in an urban school is very rare, I’d give it a thumbs up.

Romance: Kimani and Harlequin Blaze

As any good librarian should, I am attempting to become familiar with the romance genre. The Adams Street BPL branch keeps their romances in upright, spinning wire display racks, and I picked one each from two major publishers: Kimani Romance (African-American, their teen imprint is Kimani Tru, which my female students read like crazy) and Harlequin Blaze (“Blaze” being the more “red hot” imprint). Here go my reviews:

Sizzling Seduction, Gwyneth Bolton (2009), Kimani Romance.

Really just an anodyne, classic fantasy love story with about 6-8 slowly escalating sex scenes thrown in to get the female readers wet. A clean-cut, conservatively dressed kindergarten teacher single mom who has been burned by love meets a muscled, hunky, kind, and too-good-to-be-true firefighter. It is love at first sight, but she pushes away his advances out of fear. He wiggles his way into her life very respectfully, taking it slow and winning the affection of her son with out-of-this-world committed daddy qualities (this has got to be a trope in African-American romance/fantasy). Drama enters the story in the form of their crazy exes and a scheming aunt, but it is all just a tactic to see if the love between the protagonists will remain strong in the face of (mild) adversity.

I am more familiar with urban fiction / street lit books that are way more hardcore, including constant profanity, violence, poverty, and exceedingly grim situations (Sister Souljah, Sapphire). So this, by comparison, felt like middle class Sesame Street. Black English is used very sparingly, except to add “flavor” to one side character, and instead of profanity and violence, angry male characters say things like, “Watch your mouth. . . .You should know that I will press charges.” There are no references to Christianity in this book, but there is a strong moral vibe that makes me feel like I am watching a Tyler Perry movie. Traditional notions of heterosexual courtship, love, and family loyalty are really what this book is about. Is this really comforting to female readers who just want a fantasy man to dote on them, care for their kid(s), be kind, gentle, and safe, and give them great sex? This book holds no appeal to me, but it must appeal very widely to others based on the market strength of this genre.

Intent to Seduce, Cara Summers (2002), Harlequin Blaze.

This book has a totally ludicrous premise: a sexy yet virginal white female doctor believes seduction is a science, so she embarks on complicated “research” scheme in which she will seduce a stranger using the top fantasies that “science” has proven will work with men. After reading all of the world’s treatises on sex, her schemes somehow boil down to a reliance on seductive role playing (meeting your man in public dressed scantily and using a false persona) and the use of a string of pearls during oral sex. This female-initiated seduction is meant to be feminist, I gather, but as in the Kimani book, it is all so vanilla and clean cut (no real risk or danger).

Well, the man falls for her plans when she surprises him by showing up at the tropical resort that he owns (oh yeah, he’s a hunky and wildly successful businessman). They run through a series of crappy role play and sex scenes, including the supposed turn-on of sex underwater in a sort-of public place (a hidden “cave” at the resort). Totally NOT a turn on. There is also an intrigue/spying subplot running throughout the book, which is totally boring. You know everyone is just flipping through to the sex scenes to see if they are any good–why do romance writers use these narrative techniques when they must be aware that their characterization is weak and their plotting is thin?

Really, I should just talk with a bunch of women in a romance book group to get more of a feel for why they spend their time and money on this genre. I just don’t understand.

Contemporary Scandinavian Crime Fiction

Over the past few years, I have read every Wallander mystery by Henning Mankell (my favorite was the one in which he worked alongside his adult daughter for the first time–I hope Mankell will continue this trend). When Steig Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series came out, I read them all too. Wanting to delve deeper into this crime subgenre, I read the following:

MY FAVORITE: Kjell Eriksson
Swedish crime fiction, police procedural

Inspector Ann Lindell: I am immediately drawn to this series because of single-mom Lindell and because the setting is more rural, in small-town Uppsala, Sweden. Very atmospheric, lots of moral ambiguity, large casts of characters. I read these last summer, so details are gone from memory, but what sticks with me was the extent to which I empathized with the criminals, the families in crisis, and the police. Very nicely written. Read more.

The Princess of Burundi (2007)
“Eriksson not only reveals a deep, sympathetic understanding for his large cast of characters but also evokes a pervasive sense of despair” (Publisher’s Weekly). Lindell is just one amongst an ensemble cast of inspectors in this first book. I believe this one was my favorite of the three.

The Cruel Stars of the Night (2008). More focus on Lindell here. “Once again Eriksson displays considerable finesse in portraying the inner lives of his cast and in showing how the various inspectors attempt to cope with the strains of the job” (Booklist).

The Demon of Dakar (2009). Third in series. “With Kjell Eriksson, what we find is an extraordinary depth of feeling for honest people caught up in serious crime” (New York Times Book Review).

MY SECOND FAVORITE: Arnaldur Indridason
Icelandic crime fiction, missing persons cases (gentler than homicides)

Inspector Erlandur notes repeatedly that Icelandic crime is often petty, sloppily done, and easily solved, and that the justice system is often lenient to a fault, an “insult” to the victims of crime. Also, Icelandic diet is shocking–sheep heads, weird meat pates. One reviewer said Indridason is “reminiscent of Simenon.” I LOVE Simenon.

Hypothermia (2007)
Loner Inspector Erlandur with recovering drug addict daughter and ex-wife with whom no reunion is possible, obsessively follows leads on a suicide and 2 missing persons cases long gone cold. No repartee with co-workers, in fact only a few lines in book to show that nobody likes him and he has no relationships at work–this is so refreshing! Thoughtful, haunted by disappearance of own brother when he was a child. This book is not a police procedural. It is a puzzling out of linked cases by a lone inspector. Nice tone, relaxed pacing, introspective, compassionate. All loose ends tied up into a neat, finished ending. Erlandur is quiet and unassuming, but dogged, mulls over his cases nonstop, and is periodically interrupted by his painful broken relationships with his son and daughter. (Icelandic place names are even longer and stranger than Swedish ones.)

The Draining Lake (2004)
Erlandur is again obsessed with a long-cold missing persons case, brought to life again when a skeleton is found in a draining lake. The backstory is of Cold War Stasi espionage amongst Icelandic university students in Communist Leipzig, East Germany–not compelling to me beyond the love story. This book is a police procedural since Erlandur here works alongside two fellow inspectors, one female and one male. Erlandur’s daughter, Eva Lind, is in the throes of drug addiction in this installment; I wish this relationship was given more space in the book, perhaps made integral to the case somehow. Indridason continues his style of writing alternating chapters from the point of view of the killer, allowing the reader to empathize fully with the killer, and taking disparate pieces of a missing persons puzzle and drawing them together until the case is solved in a neat bow at the end. I prefer the cases to stay within the border of one country, and ideally within the borders of a family or small community (like P.D. James stories all do). More domestic. Though I like Erlandur’s character and his family backstory.

LEAST FAVORITE: Ake Edwardson
Swedish police procedurals / crime fiction, homicide cases in Gothenburg

Inspector Erik Winter: “A bit remote and contemplative, a loner, quite a bit of a snob, likes expensive brands and jazz, slightly philosophically oriented” (from fan site: http://akeedwardson.com). Not too fond of Winter’s arrogance and snobbishness, but intrigued by the extremely atmospheric and psychological nature of these books. Frustrated by the VERY loose endings–conclusions only slightly hinted at; much mystery left to reader’s imagination. The sociological aspects, particularly racism / Swedish nativism in a changing country, can be refreshing and annoying simultaneously. Think I will NOT read more of this author.

Death Angels (1997; translated for U.S. in 2009)
Pretty gory, with killings of Swedish tourists in London and London tourists in Sweden. Winter pairs up with a British inspector to solve the crimes. Echoes for me of the Dragon Tattoo series with grit and violence. Not as well written, though.

The Shadow Woman (2010)
I enjoyed this one significantly more–a woman is killed and her young daughter is held hostage. Gritty and atmospheric, but violence is less brutal than in Death Angels. Alternating chapters from the viewpoint of the daughter. Current case links to a cold case from decades before.

NEXT READS:

  • More Kjell Eriksson: The Hand that Trembles (coming summer, 2011)
  • More Arnaldur Indridason: Jar City (2000), Silence of the Grave (2001), Voices (2003), Arctic Chill (2005)
  • Explore Karin Fossum: Norwegian, Oslo, teen characters, Inspector Sejer (male, shy). Start with When the Devil Holds the Candle (2007).

Definitely Dead and All Together Dead: Sookie Stackhouse Novels

Charlaine Harris, 2006, 2007
Books 6 and 7 in a series of 10

Genre: I have seen these books filed under science fiction in bookstores, but they are definitely more a mixture of romance and mystery. And more romance than anything. In terms of romance subgenres—maybe contemporary paranormal romance is best. The major plot elements center around whichever macho hunk Sookie is dating or fantasizing about, whether it is vampire Bill, vampire Eric, werewolf Alcide, or weretiger Quinn. Sexual chemistry blossoms, traditional dating rituals begin (dinner, dancing), passionate kissing ensues, and one traditional sex scene is the eventual reward. In the meantime, Sookie becomes more enmeshed in the culture and politics of the supernatural world and generally her spunk and telepathic insights save the day for humans and supes alike.

Historical events: These two books were written pre-Katrina and post-Katrina, respectively, and the hurricane figures its way into both, since Sophie Ann, the teen vamp queen of Louisiana, has her headquarters in New Orleans. I like to see what writers choose to do when a historical event occurs while their series is in full swing. Here, Harris simply folds it into her plot—an evacuee witch lives with Sookie for a while, Sophie Ann gets a lot of sympathy for the damage to her mansion, and Alabama’s vampires are all but decimated by the storm.

Text to TV: I keep thinking about the decisions Alan Ball had to make when adapting this series for television. For an HBO show with an ensemble cast, he had to beef up a bunch of the characters that are flat in the books and give them backstories and pieces of the plot. Though Sookie’s brother Jason, the local cops, Sophie-Ann, and Russell stay pretty much the same from page to screen, Sam, Tara, and Lafayette are fully developed. On the supernatural side, Lorena and Jessica hold our attention and gain our sympathy. Even Arlene and Terry feel fully formed, whereas they are just blips in the books. I love that these folks get more play on TV; I am often tuning in just to see what’s happening with Lafayette (my favorite), Sam, and the Jessica/Hoyt love story. And I adore Terry’s vulnerability as a shell shocked Vietnam vet. A strong ensemble of characters makes the show feel more like a community coming to terms with its supernatural citizens, which I much prefer to the Sookie-centeredness of the books.

I can’t believe it, but: this series is growing on me. I keep going back to the library for more, and I even read these two in Large Print because it was the only format available. The books are entertaining, and I am even beginning to like  Sookie’s mainstream, working class flavor. In the books, this comes out more clearly than on television–she buys her clothes and lingerie at Walmart, religiously uses a Word-A-Day calendar, and goes on a date to see The Producers. Her lack of sophistication is actually kind of endearing, though I tend to prefer the sleek, hard-assed Sookie of the HBO show. (Pam, vampire Eric’s “child,” also prefers pastel twin sets in the series). I also appreciate that there are lots of LGBT (well, LGB) minor characters in the book, since vampires aren’t so picky about the gender of their sexual partners. Harris has created an appealing southern supernatural world.

The Hunger Games Trilogy

Suzanne Collins, 2008-2010,

(1) Hunger Games, (2) Catching Fire, (3) Mockingjay

YA science fiction

Note to filmmakers: Please use the tagline “the revolution will be televised” and make these movies sleek, dark, gritty, and grimy—the cinematography and overall tone should be Blade Runner, not Tim Burton. In other words, notch up the realism and naturalism and tone down the surrealism and camp.

Note to talk show hosts: Please interview Suzanne Collins alongside former contestants of competition reality shows like Survivor or Biggest Loser. Ask them what it really feels like to be on camera all the time, how the camera (and the expectations of the viewers and show creators) shape how they present themselves, what kinds of personas they feel pigeon-holed into, and whether they have felt used or exploited. Then have Collins talk about Katniss’s behavior during the televised parts of the Hunger Games and, later, the Districts’ uprisings.

Note to teachers: Put the first book on a summer reading list and/or ask your librarian to facilitate a book group. But please do not teach it in the classroom; instead, teach about actual oppressive governments and real-life uprisings and revolutions. Keep teaching Fahrenheit 451 and Lord of the Flies. And keep teaching critical thinking and analytical skills related to media literacy and gender roles.

Note to YA authors: In our post-Harry Potter world, the doors are wide open—young readers will read longer books and producers and moviegoers are ready to spend. In our Twilight and True Blood cultural moment, it is smart for female protagonists to have two handsome love interests (are you on “Team Peeta” or “Team Gale”?). And it always helps to think ahead of time about the kids who will dress up as your characters for Halloween. Make sure you describe their costumes in great detail so the marketers can have them on the shelves in time.

OK, 24 hours later, I am thinking–dang, why am I so cynical? Clearly I have been engaged enough in this series to read the whole thing, and I have enjoyed these books. I like Katniss, and I also like Gale and Peeta. It’s just that the whole thing seems a little too movie and merchandising-ready. And for teachers, I think there are better books out there. Maybe that’s me being a literary snob rather than a YA enthusiast, but I’m still learning how to read YA. So there you have it.

Going Bovine

by Libba Bray, 2010

I do not do zany, madcap, sprawling road trip/philosophy novels with science fiction bents and trippy endings that make you question whether any of the events of the book actually happened. This book may be perfect for teens who will later fall in love with Hunter S. Thompson and the Beats, but it sure isn’t for me.

The protagonist is a white disaffected teenage boy who learns he has Mad Cow Disease, and then, in the hospital, learns from his hot-teen-girl guardian angel that he must save himself and the world by escaping from the hospital with a hypochondriac dwarf and hopping on a bus to New Orleans. Later, they pick up a garden gnome that is actually a trapped Norse God, and these dumbass fire-being things keep popping up out of the roads and threatening to kill the ragtag crew. There is a good deal of looping language–like an obscure band name that shows up in each chapter–and Bray’s writing style is perky, snarky, and loony–everything I hate in a writer.

The message of the book seems to be “seize the day” and don’t let a terminal medical diagnosis stop you from running away from the hospital on some kind of insane mission to save the world, befriend little people, and make love to a hot angel before you die. The ending does hint at deeper, more sane meaning, which may be partly why this book has won the 2010 Printz Award, whose committee chair called it a “wildly imaginative modern day take on Don Quixote [which] is complex, hilarious, and stunning.” I have never read Don Quixote, but I bet I would like it a ton better than this.

Frankenstein: The Graphic Novel

Mary Shelley; Script Adaptation: Jason Cobley, 2008

This is my first foray into a graphic version of a classic text, and I like it! I was a bit leery when I flipped through and saw the modern, stylized way the monster is drawn–the art is in classic comic book style, and this just did not match my imagination of what this monster, or his female version, should look like (rotting, mismatched body parts). But I pushed on, and I really enjoyed the reading experience. For me, this was a quick and satisfying way to encounter Shelley’s entire original plot, which I had forgotten major chunks of, along with key excerpts of her wonderful language.

The original Frankenstein story is so rich and fascinating, especially in the ways in which the monster haunts Dr. Frankenstein for months and years during his lonely existence in forests and caves. It is powerful to see the monster begin as a kind and gentle being who transforms over time into a brutally marginalized creature whose deep pain eventually becomes anger, resentment, and murderous violence. Personally, I will always prefer the full original text of this work, but I am also DYING to teach this story to high school students (along with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), and this would be a great way to do it. A medical ethics unit has been on my mind all summer. . .

Classical Comics is a UK-based publisher that creates texts in three versions: Original text, which uses the author’s original language in excerpts on the page; Plain text, which converts each bubble of text into modern English and cuts down on the number of words; and Quick Text, which just puts the essential meaning of each text bubble into modern English–usually in one quick sentence. The artwork and pagination remain the same across all three versions, which makes these great teaching resources for classes in which students are reading at different levels, or just for examining two versions with the same students, akin to using No Fear Shakespeare.