Like all short story collections this is a mixed bag. The best stories were not a surprise--Laura Lippman's, Neil Gaiman's, and Alan Bradley's. Lippma...moreLike all short story collections this is a mixed bag. The best stories were not a surprise--Laura Lippman's, Neil Gaiman's, and Alan Bradley's. Lippman's was my personal favorite, one of the only stories that emotionally resonates, and one that ends in a completely different place than it starts. Gaiman's was as well-written, and a nice blend of fantasy and mystery. Bradley's begins the collection and is nice combination of Hitchcock and Holmes, even if the solution is telegraphed from the beginning.
The reason I'm going with 3 stars instead of 2, though, is because of the two surprises in the collection: Thomas Perry and Dana Stabenow. I haven't read anything by either, and now am looking forward to checking out both. Both stories relocate Holmes--Perry drops him in a presidential assassination plot; Stabenow situates him in Alaska to investigate the disappearance of a Native American elder--and both craft imaginative, adventurous tales. Perry's is the most action-filled of the bunch--something that is so much a part of the Holmes stories, and something that the less-successful stories in the collection ignore in their attempt at recreation (Charles Todd and Phillip and Jerry Margolin, for example end up with the Agatha Christie drawing room, let's-gather-the-suspects-and-explain trope). Stabenow nicely plays with the narration, creating a teenage Watson who blogs about his mom as they solve a case. It shouldn't work, but it does, with Stabenow capturing the adolescent voice and keeping the mystery moving along.
Less successful at recreating an adolescent voice is Jacqueline Winspear, whose story moves too fast and ends with a "Really?" moment. I was ready to give Winspear another shot after disliking the first Maisie Dobbs mystery, but this story just confirmed my impressions--the dialogue is leaden, the situation unbelievable, and the solution is one step above "and it was all a dream." Still, the nice twist about the identity of the protagonist puts it in the middle of the pack in the collection, along with Lee Child's (nicely done but spare); Tony Broadbent's and S.J. Rozan's (interesting premises, well-written, but neither really goes anywhere); Colin Cotterill's (a short graphic novel that's amusing but slight); Margaret Maron's (a clever mystery told from Mrs. Hudson's point of view); Jan Burke's (an interesting premise with detectives as scarred WW1 vets, but with too many characters and plotlines for its length); and Lionel Chetwynd's (which does a great job of recreating the characters and set-up of the mystery, but has a confusing, ho-hum conclusion).
And, at the bottom are all the co-authored tales: stories by Phillip and Jerry Margolin, Gayle Lynds and John Sheldon, and Charles Todd (a mother and son team). I'm not sure how this happened--collaboration should bring out more ideas, more cleverness--but instead has resulted in terrible writing and pacing. It's as if the authors came up with a clever premise and simply stopped there, paying little attention to the actual writing of the stories. And this is where the bigger problem comes in--the actual editing of the collection, or lack thereof. I'm left wondering not only about the inclusion of stories that don't work, but also the order of the tales--the stories seem to be placed at random (with, perhaps the possible exception of Bradley's that starts off the collection on a high note). I also can't help but wonder what other authors--Walter Mosley, Carl Hiaasen, Ian Rankin, Louise Penny, to name four amazing writers--would have done. If everything had been at the level of Lippman's, Gaiman's, and Bradley's work, this collection could have been truly amazing.(less)
A compulsively readable mess--and I mean that in the best way possible. The big success of the novel is that Schmidt has a knack for narrative voice....moreA compulsively readable mess--and I mean that in the best way possible. The big success of the novel is that Schmidt has a knack for narrative voice. Protagonist Doug is a strong, sympathetic underdog whose narration is pitch perfect. His toughness is refreshing, but it's Doug's honest emotional reactions and underlying issues (unspoiled by me) that ally the reader with him and almost make one forget the unbelievability of the plot. And therein lies the big problem of the novel--there's just too much to the plot and too much that strains credulity. The novel falls into the slice-of-life trap of not having enough structure; instead of really building, the novel climaxes several times, only to move on to a new, even more unbelievable conflict each time. By the time the novel gets to Broadway, I had completely given up on thinking of the world of the novel as real.
Because of the ever-twisting plot, the characters are also jerked around and seem to come and go at the author's whim. It feels like a juggling act that Schmidt almost has down--just as I was wondering where a character had disappeared off to, he or she would coincidentally reappear. But the real problem with the characters is not their number (there are at least 10 major characters fighting for page space) nor their random entrances and exits, but that everyone in Schmidt's world turns out to be a nice guy at heart. No matter how terrible he is in the moment, or how many terrible acts he commits. While the reader wants several characters to get their comeuppance, instead Schmidt goes for forgiveness. A nice sentiment, but it robs the novel of a true villain, and unlike, say, Catcher in the Rye, the protagonist in Okay for Now is truly noble, and almost saintly by the end. Without a villain, the situations in the novel lack weight, and turn awkwardly sentimental.
That's a lot of criticism for a 4-star rated novel. But, Okay for Now is a page-turner, with a perfectly-conceived narrator. The emotional punches delivered by the narrator almost made me forget that I wasn't really believing a word. In the end, it's like Stieg Larrson's Millennium trilogy--great protagonist, page-turning writing, and a plot you really want to believe, even though at heart you know it's false--and sometimes that's enough. For the record, I'd put my money on it to win the National Book award, and I'd recommend it to anyone looking for some pleasant escapism. (less)
While the "who" & "why" were a little too easy, everything else about this book was intriguing--the unusual "how"; the original detective and the...moreWhile the "who" & "why" were a little too easy, everything else about this book was intriguing--the unusual "how"; the original detective and the issues of race that Upfield broaches; the detailed prose, especially when the setting is described in beautiful and minute detail; and the plotting. Oh, the plotting!--the novel is fast-paced while the detective also manages to take his time (and emphasizes this to the other characters). When the recon missions are underway to the suspects' house, the taut suspense make it impossible to put the book down. Best of all, though, is how Upfield creates a double mystery, and ends both with exceptionally fitting symmetry in the last lines. With the final paragraph, the reader leaves the book on both a satisfied and exhilarated note.(less)
'13' has a great premise--13 stories about being 13 years old--and a strong lineup of authors--Bruce Coville, Meg Cabot, James Howe, to name a few--bu...more'13' has a great premise--13 stories about being 13 years old--and a strong lineup of authors--Bruce Coville, Meg Cabot, James Howe, to name a few--but just doesn't deliver. While there are a few strong entries, the collection as a whole doesn't capture the age, or provide teens with any real new insight. The biggest problem is that the stories feel oddly dated--in style, in topic, in voice, in plot construction. To be fair, the collection was published in 2003; but, what a difference between this collection and Guys Read, Up All Night, and Zombies vs. Unicorns!
The best story in the collection, by a mile, is Ron Koertge's "Angel & Aly." Koertge's one of my favorite modern writers--his poems are fantastic, especially the collection Geography of the Forehead--and he creates both a unique, and universal situation, in his story of two sisters with workaholic parents. He blends fantasy and reality in a way the other stories do not attempt, as the main character's sister develops a strange affinity for an alligator hand puppet. Above all, the voice of Koertge's protagonist Mona is authentic--Mona's a tough caretaker, and her dinner table explosion is a perfectly earned climax.
The stories before and after Koertge's--"Squid Girl" by Todd Strasser and "Nobody Stole Jason Grayson" by Carolyn Mackler are diverting tales of love, also with strong, interesting female protagonists. In the former, a bratty teen endures her naturalist parents; in the latter, a quiet, unnoticed girl steals a photograph from a locker, setting off an unexpected (and somewhat unrealistic) chain of events. Both stories are fluffy, fun, and disposable.
Also strong is Meg Cabot's entry "Kate the Great," about a teen whose first babysitting assignment is interrupted by an older student. Cabot doesn't try to take on too much, which allows her to honestly examine a typical teenage situation. Editor James Howe and Ellen Wittlinger both have good entries with minor flaws. Howe's is interesting for its multi-narrator approach to recounting a boy's bar mitzvah. Wittlinger has a good setup about changing friendships and a school newspaper column; her writing has flashes of humor, and her narrator is a character to root for. In both stories, the climaxes don't really deliver anything the reader doesn't see coming, however, and neither story is as touching or humorous as the authors are aiming to be. In all three authors' stories--Cabot, Howe, and Wittlinger--the characters, too, are stock characters, and don't jump off the page to become real people in the way they should.
Of course, those six stories are light years better than the rest of the collection, which ranges from the boring--Rachel Vail's "Thirteen and a Half," involving a sleepover and a dead bird--to the didactic--"If You Kiss a Boy" by Alex Sanchez--to the condescending "Tina the Teen Fairy"--to the insipid--poem, "Such Foolishness." (Coville's story is fine, but really young--it feels like it belongs in the Guys Read collection.)
At the bottom of the barrel is the stereotypical "Black Holes and Basketball Sneakers," yet another story about a kid who wants new shoes. This story feels particularly old-fashioned, especially in the slang used. More problematic is the ending--the lack of resolution is a cop-out, and it's still unclear if the main character has fallen in with a gang or an empowered community center group, or a gang masquerading as a community center group. Whatever the truth of the matter, the events of the story don't exactly make community centers come off very well. (Also worth mentioning--this story is the longest in the collection at almost 50 pages--the author's lack of construction is really highlighted by the length. It is also in the middle of the collection, and easy for one to get stalled on.)
Also at the bottom, "Picky Eater" by Stephen Roos, that proves, once again, there is one subject that is especially difficult to write a short story about. The entire story, from plot to characterization, feels phony and the story goes nowhere.
Overall, there are some good entries to pick out of 13, but the heavy-handedness of half the collection really weighs the book down. (less)
As the collection picks up steam, there are some well written stories, but overall too few for me to recommend this book. While I liked the mix of Spa...moreAs the collection picks up steam, there are some well written stories, but overall too few for me to recommend this book. While I liked the mix of Spanish and English (without the awkward translation--figure it out reader!); the strong narrative voice throughout; and the move towards more introspective, open-ended stories ("Manny Calls" and "The Dive" are the best), overall the collection strained credulity, while also curiously falling flat.
The biggest problem is not that the conflict in each story is unbelievable, but that the events around the conflict are not realistic. For example, in the first story, a smooth-talking politician employs the narrator to fix up his property, and, rather than paying, makes empty promises of party, court, and pool invitations. The politician gets his comeuppance, however, when he gets a flat tire and has to rely on the narrator for help. The setup is realistic and thought-provoking, and I kept thinking of certain people in my community who ask for similar favors. But...a flat tire that he can't fix? Really? He really can't pull off the lug nuts? Personally, that's never happened to me, and I don't consider myself exceptionally strong. Oh, and I've changed five flat tires over the course of my life (four in Louisiana--so I know all about changing the tire in the heat). But, for the sake of argument, let's assume that the lug nuts were really on there tight--could the man not have called roadside assistance? Did he not have a cell phone to call a friend? Did really no one else stop? Was he really that far away from civilization that he couldn't have walked somewhere? I'm not saying that some of these questions couldn't be answered as 'no's'...but all of them? And that problem comes up in story after story, in which the author takes the easy way out--highlighting the events around the conflict over realism. The two stories that come off the best--"Manny Calls" and "The Dive"--work best because the conflict remains internal, and there is not a phoniness in the climax.
As for falling flat, the problem with the stories overall is that the endings are a collection of minor epiphanies. Stripped of realism, however, the realizations don't really resonate. Beyond realism, a few other things would help--more description (in the last story, the setting is a ditch, and even that isn't described); and more believable secondary characters. While the internal voices of the narrators are strong, the minor characters' actions are inconsistent and their personalities undeveloped. In particular, the teacher characters are awful! (Maybe that's why I had such a negative reaction.) In several stories, there are one-dimensional teacher characters who serve to create the conflict--all are rage-filled, most are largely negative, and it quickly becomes depressing stuff. I'm not looking for Pollyanna, but from the number of yelling teachers one gets the impression that the author really despises educators. If doctors were substituted, we'd have a collection of malpractice stories. And, that's the problem--not all teachers are enraged jerks ready to explode at any moment; the author is working with a stereotype, hindering his attempt at realism.
There are some real strengths in the collection--in the interesting story set-ups, the emotions of the narrators, and the unique perspective the main characters bring. With a stronger focus on plot, description, and characterization overall, these stories would resonate much more. (less)
As much as I loved "The Eternal Smile," this is Gene Luen Yang's best book since "American Born Chinese." In fact, it might even be better. While I lo...moreAs much as I loved "The Eternal Smile," this is Gene Luen Yang's best book since "American Born Chinese." In fact, it might even be better. While I loved the first book's artwork, multiple storylines, and large scale, there is something to this book's more focused approach. The artwork is simpler, more humble--it's blocky, it doesn't play with video games in form (beyond the clever cover and section headings), but in its simplicity there is a home-made (for lack of a better word) quality that helps bring the reader closer to the protagonist. The protagonist himself is a great everyman, someone who the reader is able to relate to, while he thankfully lacks the whiny-ness and victimization this type of character could easily have been reduced to. Dennis is about to drop out of college, when he is driven back by four greeting-card angels, who propel him forward on the path he thinks his father has chosen for him: to be a gastroenterologist. In the hands of another writer, this character could be a litany of complaints, but in Yang's novel Dennis makes clear, deliberate choices and never asks for more than the reader's observation as he goes through the journey of growing up. Dennis is not angry, but resigned, at the way life is going for him, while also realizing that he is really the only one to blame for his predicament.
On the surface, Dennis appears to be a simple character with an obvious choice, but the novel is simple in form and content while never being simplistic--the novel walks that line nicely, as it does with the other characters--Dennis' three friends in med school; his mother; his gamer friend--all feel like specific, real people, while dealing with issues of love and friendship that are universal. While "American Born Chinese" had the reader working much harder to figure things out and was a graphic novel on a grander scale, this novel's strength is complexity in the guise of simplicity: the characters, their problems, the choice between being a doctor or a gamer, the artwork. As the novel reaches its conclusion, I felt more emotionally connected to this character than I have to a character in a long while. Without giving anything away, I was impressed with how Yang resolves the 'doctor vs. gamer' dilemma, without reducing it to simple choices. Yang's conclusion is much more nuanced than 'don't listen to your parents,' or 'do what you want to do,' or any other obvious morals one could come up with from this scenario. In the final section, the novel goes in a different direction to look at the 'doctor vs. gamer' issue that has been unaddressed but under the surface the entire time. It is this final section that made the book a five star read for me--just when you think the novel is over with a simple conclusion, it's not (just like lives in a video game!). In the last few pages, the author subtly leads his protagonist to finally deal with the emotional crux of the issue, and both Dennis and the reader arrive at a deep understanding of what's most important in life. (less)
This retelling of Cinderella is distinguished by Napoli's lyrical prose--her style is both descriptive and spare and the book almost feels like an ext...moreThis retelling of Cinderella is distinguished by Napoli's lyrical prose--her style is both descriptive and spare and the book almost feels like an extended poem. It's a joy to read, and easy to accomplish without stopping. At the same time, she doesn't sacrifice characterization--what's great about Bound is not only how developed the characters are, but also how complex their personalities and motivations are. For example, the stepmother is not completely evil; she is trapped in a difficult situation, and while she makes selfish, often cruel choices, the reader can still understand her motivation as beyond that of a simple sadist. As with most retellings of Cinderella, the heroine, Xing Xing, is also more developed than the typical damsel in distress. She protects the reincarnated spirit of her mother; she goes on a journey to fetch a healer; and she even becomes the parental figure when the stepmother and daughter are too weak to take care of themselves. The ending with the prince is also nicely handled, as Xing Xing both is able to maintain her strong personality, but the tale and the genre are not completely subverted. It's a satisfying conclusion to a well-written book.
One thing I was left wondering--the author's choice to make the sister's feet bound, not Xing Xing's. It's an interesting choice, and makes sense in how the stepmother is grooming her daughter to be married, but I was left wondering about it nonetheless. It seems to carry added significance with the title, but it is not about the heroine, making one wonder about the author's take on foot-binding. (Of course the title has multiple meanings, too--also nicely done!) I guess I was expecting more of a critique of the tradition of foot-binding, but it's not a bad thing that my expectations were subverted. Not a criticism, for it doesn't distract during the reading of the book, just a reflection upon finishing. Overall, this was a great read!
I was really surprised when I started to read "Reaching Out" and couldn't put it down. On the surface, there doesn't seem to be anything especially co...moreI was really surprised when I started to read "Reaching Out" and couldn't put it down. On the surface, there doesn't seem to be anything especially compelling--the author's style is simple and spare, he doesn't gush emotion or fully talk about family problems, the plot events are never truly dire (the reader is never worried, for example, about him flunking out of college) or enraging (unlike what one might expect, racial conflicts are not the book's focus--in fact, they're curiously absent). Underneath, however, the author's direct prose and conversational tone--which never plays with the reader's emotions--brought me closer to his situation.
The memoir begins with the author facing the difficult dilemma of leaving his hard-working and financially struggling family to attend college. Although he makes the choice to go to further his education, he deals with feelings of guilt and inferiority. At school he has to deal with long-distance family problems (his dad suffers from depression), challenging coursework (Jimenez comes across as a work-a-holic who truly wants to excel, and builds this conflict up nicely without going overboard), and coming up with money to pay for his education (he works as a custodian in his hometown, types papers for other students in school, and still sends money to aid his family).
What's great about this memoir is that it could have easily been a story of difficulties--the author faced many huge hurdles over the course of his college years--but what it really is is a story of empowerment. Jimenez never dwells on the problems in his narrative; instead, he is more focused on highlighting the accomplishments he was able to achieve (first and foremost, graduating college!). At the same time, however, Jimenez himself never comes across as boastful--his humility and reflection convey a sense of wonder, rather than a self-aggrandizing attitude. This is really the novel's greatest strength--the main character who is neither a braggart or a victim--but instead, comes across as a normal, hard-working human being.
My only slight quibble with the book is in an odd place--the dialogue Jimenez has recreated...for himself! While the other characters sound and act like fully-fleshed out characters, Jimenez's personal dialogue sometimes come across as obvious and constructed--like he's focusing on the wisdom of the response another character will say rather than his own words that preceded it. Overall, however, this was an enjoyable read, with a strong, but never overdone, message.(less)
There's a lot to like in Lips Touch--the story format allows for 3 interesting, and unusual, narratives; each story has a strong female protagonist, u...moreThere's a lot to like in Lips Touch--the story format allows for 3 interesting, and unusual, narratives; each story has a strong female protagonist, unlike so much boy-driven fantasy fiction; the illustrated prequels expanded the boundaries of each story, convincing the reader that the author has created a whole universe within each tale...now, if only the writing were stronger.
First, a quick summary of the 3 stories: in the first, "Goblin Fruit," a girl is drawn to a mysterious new boy at school, while her family gives her warnings about the existence of goblins. Although the plot is predictable and not much happens in the story (the two characters go shopping at a thrift store before a climactic picnic), the goblins are a nice change from vampires, and there's a much nastier twist (think season 2 of True Blood). In the second tale (the best of the three), "Spicy Little Curses Such as These," a woman makes a deal with a demon to exchange the lives of several children for one curse on a newborn. The curse is clever, as is the ending in which everything fits nicely into place. In the last story, "Hatchling," mysterious, soulless creatures steal children to keep as pets and then, after the children grow up, inhabit the bodies of their offspring. It's the most like a fantasy novel of the three--the first feels more like a fairy tale, the second a folk tale--as well as the longest. And, that was where the author lost me--the story goes back and forth between past and present, and never really seems to gain the momentum needed in the plot of the present. The back-story is layered and dense, which would be fine if the author had pared down the purple prose.
In the end, the plots are creative, the characters easy to like--it's only the style that's the disappointment. The novel is purple prose to the extreme--there are multiple adjectives when one will do; tons of adverbs and needless phrases (see story title #2--how much stronger it would be with simply "Spicy Little Curses"); even out-of-place commas for pregnant pauses. I love it when authors use strong vocabulary, but in this book it's as if the author raided the thesaurus, and made the writing weaker in the process. I'm not at all advocating for easier words, but there's a line between strong description and over-writing, and the style of this book falls in the latter category. And, here's the danger: I get that it's fantasy lit, but the style was so draining, so 'look-at-how-clever-I-can-be,' that I was not able to really get into the world of the stories. Ultimately, though, I am not the intended audience of this book--I think teens into fantasy will love it; I found the prose distracting, plot-slowing, and wearing as a reader. (less)
Crossing is a twisty thriller in the vein of Shutter Island that never quite comes together. While the melancholy tone set by the narrator's terse sty...moreCrossing is a twisty thriller in the vein of Shutter Island that never quite comes together. While the melancholy tone set by the narrator's terse style feels authentic, the mystery plot does not. There are a lot of interesting elements--a mysterious renter, the main character's tragic past, a shadowy figure in a red coat who may or may not exist--but each one feels half-done. In addition, the ending is a satisfying conclusion to the mystery (really, it's the only satisfying ending), but it makes the author's cultural commentary more problematic.
Without giving too much away, here's a quick run-down of the plot: born in China, moved to America, high school student Xing is troubled by bullies and dealing with changing feelings for his best friend and confidante, Naomi. He's an outsider and a loner who has difficulty expressing his feelings, making for an interesting narrator--the author does a nice job of not making him completely likable, but also worth spending time with. The narrator's voice stays consistent throughout, as the reader is presented with two storylines that run throughout the novel--Xing becomes the understudy for the high school musical, and students begin to mysteriously disappear at his school.
The biggest problem the book has is the intersection of these two plots--it strains credulity that the musical is of paramount importance to the school, let alone allowed to continue while the mystery is going on, but the author needs both storylines to make his point. Similarly, there are poorly written 'New York Times articles' meant to add realism to the events, but the fact that they are clearly meant to give the reader exposition, and not anything like real articles, once again highlights the plot's construction. It's a tricky balance the author is trying to strike--between what's real and what's imagined--but without a world that's completely believable to the reader, the novel cannot fully achieve what it sets out to do. (less)
While there are a lot of things to like about this novel--the beautiful natural description, the climactic scene with the whales, the unusual subject...moreWhile there are a lot of things to like about this novel--the beautiful natural description, the climactic scene with the whales, the unusual subject and setting--something doesn't quite work in this book, but it's hard to put my finger on exactly what. I think the best place to start is with what irked me the most: the To Kill a Mockingbird reference. In the beginning of the novel, protagonist Turner Buckingham is forced to read to dying, racist woman--Mrs. Cobb--for...inadvertently throwing stones at her house (?!?). No, he doesn't break any windows or do any damage, but his father still makes him read to the old woman. Huh? It's a flimsy plot point that immediately calls to mind Jem's relationship with Mrs. Dubose in Harper Lee's novel. Unfortunately, when writers do this (see last year's National Book Award winner, the not-so-subtly named 'Mockingbird'), it only highlights how complex and emotionally honest Lee's book is, and by contrast, how simplistic the modern takes on it are. In Lee's novel, Jem cuts off all of Mrs. Dubose's white camellias after she yells out a racial epithet about his father Atticus. Consequently, Atticus makes Jem read to her every day, and upon her death she sends Jem a single camellia in a wooden box. The entire scene is extremely symbolic and gives a complex portrait of generations of racism in the South. Mrs. Dubose is by no means a good person--she's mean and a racist--but there are still admirable qualities about her--her struggle with morphine and refusal to give in to this addiction shows true courage. It's one of the bravest portraits in all of literature because it is the most contradictory--How should the reader feel about Mrs. Dubose? What about the symbolic act of giving Jem the white flower? And, then the flower itself--a racially-charged symbol, but also one of beauty? This scene is pivotal in the novel because it cements the book's complexity--although there are definite characters of good (Atticus, Ms. Maudie) and evil (the Ewells), most of the characters in Lee's universe are a mixture of both.
In Schmidt's novel, the complexity of this relationship is made too simple, but there are two other problems, too. Having read To Kill a Mockingbird, this watered-down version was not only never really convincing, it also pulled me out of the world of the novel. I kept imagining I was in the South in the 1930s, not in turn-of-the-century Maine. Secondly, the relationship between the protagonist and Mrs. Cobb just doesn't feel as mature, it doesn't carry the gravity of the situation Lee creates. Instead, it feels sanitized, rated PG, not PG-13 or R, perhaps because of the lack of the drug reference. And this is an overall problem with the book--it wants to tackle issues of racism, but without really delving into more mature themes. The love between the two characters, for example, never really goes beyond hand-holding, nor does the author even imply deeper feelings. This makes it hard for the reader to care about the characters because they are simply not as believable. The violence for the majority of the novel, too, is restricted to bloody noses (so much so that it becomes repetitive), making the end of the novel a much bigger leap for the reader. In both cases, the novel wants it both ways--to carry the weight of topical issues, but without making them visceral, and thus potentially disturbing.
Overall, although it might not seem like it from the previous paragraphs, I'm glad I read Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. The writing was strong throughout (if a little overwritten at points), and the historical subject matter interesting. With some reworking, however, the novel could have been so much more. (less)
A consistently entertaining, well-written YA short story collection with a clever premise: the stories alternate between zombie and unicorn fiction. T...moreA consistently entertaining, well-written YA short story collection with a clever premise: the stories alternate between zombie and unicorn fiction. The editors set it up as a sort of competition--which makes things simple for this review. It all boils down to just one question: Zombies or unicorns, who makes for the more interesting story? And, the winner is...
Well, before that, a quick run-down of the stories:
The good: "Bougainvillea" by Carrie Ryan about the governor of Curacao's daughter escaping a zombie attack. Ryan balances description with emotion nicely, keeping things subtle and not going overboard. Other writers take note--restraint, and complicated, not completely likeable characters are the way to go (zombie); "Purity Test" by Naomi Novik--a girl and a unicorn team up to rescue baby unicorns from an evil wizard in a story dripping with amusing sarcasm (unicorn); Garth Nix's "The Highest Justice," a fantasy story in which the king's daughter and a unicorn seek revenge on her philandering father. This is probably the best example of pure fantasy lit in the collection (unicorn); "The Children of the Revolution" by Maureen Johnson, a perfect balance of humor and horror, in which a teen abroad takes care of a wealthy celebrity's zombie children (zombie); "Princess Prettypants" by Meg Cabot, another story that uses humor to good advantage--a girl's 17th birthday present, the unicorn of the title, helps her take revenge and save a friend at the party of her class rival. It's definitely not the most refined story in the collection, but it's the most fun--from the High School Musical-themed party put on by the protagonist's uber-religious parents to the description of an enraged unicorn crushing a cell phone, Cabot's having a blast and so is the reader (unicorn); "Prom Night" by Libba Bray, in which two teens are police on patrol during prom night. It seems that all adults have become zombies, so now it's up to the teens to fend for themselves. Who organized the prom in the midst of this chaos? Aren't there other concerns the teens should be thinking of? Yes, the reader might want these logical questions answered, but it's Bray's well done melancholy tone that pulls off this story despite lingering questions (zombie).
So far, it's 3 to 3! On to the flawed stories: Both Diana Peterfreund's "The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn" and Scott Westerfeld's "Inoculata" have great premises and strong execution. In the former, a girl discovers that she has special powers that allow her to communicate with unicorns--a helpful power as unicorns are killer beasts in this story. After causing the deaths of her cousins, she both tries to atone and makes the situation worse by saving a baby unicorn, which she proceeds to raise in her garage. In the latter story, four teens in a former government marijuana farm learn that they are inoculated against the zombie hordes waiting outside, and they hatch a plan to escape. The problem with both stories--great build-up, great description, but with conclusions that leave the reader hanging. Just when both stories are getting good...they end abruptly with no payoff!
5 to 5! The 'meh' stories. Overdone, with an extra heaping of angst: "Love Will Tear Us Apart" by Alaya Dawn Johnson, a gay love story between a human and a zombie. The pity-me/I-just-want-to-die narrator wears thin really quickly. This is the same problem with "The Third Virgin" by Kathleen Duey, about a suicidal unicorn. I'm sure there might be a way to write about suicidal unicorns and zombies, but these are exactly what you'd expect: two downers that are just not as interesting as the other stories in the collection.
Still a tie! The deciding factor--the bottom of the heap: Margo Lanagan's overwritten "A Thousand Flowers," and Cassandra Clare's underwritten, overly emotional "Cold Hands." In the first tale, a princess almost bears a unicorn child, and...well, nothing really happens. The multiple narrators, interesting setup, and attempt at description, make it more interesting, however, than the second story. In Clare's tale, after an evil ruler kills a boy fated for power, the boy's girlfriend helps his zombie self escape a coffin prison and rise to power anyway. I suppose it could be an interesting allegory, but the Twilight-esque prose sinks the tale. The protagonists suffer from blandness, and plot is oddly paced--it starts off much too quickly, and then lurches along. It's not terrible, though, and thankfully, too, it's one of the shortest in the collection (there was plenty of room for good descriptive writing and maybe that allegory!).
So, it's a tie! If there has to be a winner, however, I'm going with Team Unicorn, by an..um...horn. The angsy-y love stories in the zombie side weigh it down, making them as a collection a little heavier, and a little too close to current vampire fiction. I keep coming back to "Children of the Revolution" as perhaps the best story in the book (somebody goes for satire and does it well--and it's still scary!), but the variety of the unicorn stories, and the strength of Nix, Novik, and Cabot's stories tip the scales for me. Sorry, zombies! (less)