Friday, August 19, 2011

The End of the Summer of YA

Technically, I have one more graphic novel to read before Sunday, but I've read it before and it'll take me maybe half an hour, so I'm going to call this reading challenge over.  I win.

The One Left Behind
by Willo Davis Roberts
139 pages
Atheneum Books for Young Readers

This is a book about an 11-year-old girl who lost her twin sister to a sudden and fatal case of food poisoning about a year ago.  The first third of the book is about Mandy dealing with grief and loneliness over the death of her sister.  Then it suddenly becomes about a boy who she meets who is trying to escape some kidnappers with his two-year-old brother.  Mandy's family is out of town, so it's all up to her to help the boy find help.  (This story, by the way, feels completely separate from the earlier story about the girl whose twin died)  The first story is interesting, but depressing, and it never really goes anywhere.  The second story is a little dumb and repetitive.  (For two and a half pages, the two characters continue the argument, "You should go to the police."  "No!  The police will trust the grown-ups!  I can't go to them."  "Okay, but you should go to the police."  "But they won't trust me!  I can't!"  "Then you should go to the police.")  The novel ends as abruptly as it shifted mid-narrative, then suddenly ties it all together with "Oh, and she realized she would be okay without her sister." (paraphrase) It's all kind of bizarre.  The flap on the back says this would have been the author's one hundredth book for children, so I'm assuming she died while writing it.  (Or he.  I'm not sure whether "Willo" is a male or female name)  That may explain some of the haphazardness.  I don't know.  It was just a little hard for me to get into.

A Wrinkle In Time
by Madeline L'Engle
203 pages
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 1962

The first time I read this book (about 5 years ago) I didn't really like it very much.  I liked the ideas, but I didn't like the book.  Now that I've gone through it again, I can't imagine why I didn't like it the first time through.  This is a wonderful book, and I was a jerk for not liking it.

Actually, I think it was that I didn't like the way character relationships were handled the first time through.  A lot of stuff just sorta happens, and even the characters themselves admit they can't figure out why they feel or react the way they do at times.  It's just a feeling they get.  I think that bugged me quite a bit last time.  This time, I was fine with it.  Go figure.

Anyway, if you haven't read this book you really ought to.  It's kind of a sci fi/fantasy/geometry/spiritual adventure story.  It does a good job of taking fairly difficult concepts and illustrating them in ways younger readers will be able to comprehend.  And it's just really creative.  It may be a little too "out there" or even a bit too philosophical for some, but I think it's a great book and I'd recommend it to anybody in the preteen age group and up.

Way Down Deep 
by Ruth White
197 pages
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 2007

Oh my gosh!  It's the SAME PUBLISHING COMPANY that did the LAST book?  HOW DOES THAT EVEN HAPPEN????


For only a hundred ninety-seven pages, this book had a lot of characters.  And to be honest, I didn't actually keep all of them straight in my mind, because a lot of them show up at the beginning, disappear for most of the rest, and then show up again in the end.  But that's okay.  They really aren't necessary to the story anyway.  Each, however, has their own quirk, and each also has their own flaw.  That's important. 

This here's the story of Ruby June, a girl who suddenly turned up at the age of two on a doorstep in the town of Way Down somewhere in West Virginia in the 1940s...ish.  (Sorry, details a little hazy and mostly irrelevant and I already took this one back to the library)  Ruby grows up in the boarding house, and everybody loves her.  (That's the prologue)  One day, a man tries to rob the bank, but he's very bad at it.  Turns out he's not a bank robber at all, but a poor man whose wife died and so he can't take care of his five (or four? again, details fuzzy and irrelevant anyway) kids.  The good folks of Way Down let the man move his kids from Yonder Mountain, Virginia, and agree to help them out.  Ruby makes friends with the older boy, Peter, and kinda takes, y'know, a liking to him (though that's mostly irrelevant, too), and she makes friends with a couple of the other kids and the eccentric old grandfather as well.  They eventually realize that Ruby looks exactly like a two-year-old girl who disappeared from a family in Yonder Mountain at exactly the same time Ruby arrived in Way Down.  Or rather, what that two-year-old girl would probably look like if she were now twelve.  Which Ruby is.  Ruby's uncle from Yonder Mountain is called down, and it's decided that Ruby needs to go back to her family at once (That's act one).

It turns out, Ruby's parents are dead (because this is a children's book) and her grandmother is a terrible, lonely old taskmaster.  The only reason Ruby's uncle brought Ruby back was so that he wouldn't have to deal with the grandmother anymore.  Ruby is terribly lonely, and the only solace she gets is reading the little scrawlings of writing her mother left on the walls when she was a child.  Also, she tells grandma stories about everyone from back home.  Meanwhile, the entire town of Way Down is sad that Ruby is gone. (Act two)

In the book's third act, the mystery of Ruby's coming to Way Down is finally solved--or rather, confessed--in a rather dramatic fashion.  (Ultimately, this too isn't really all that relevant)  Ruby runs away, and grandma chases her down and declares passionately that she wants to move with Ruby to Way Down and learn to be a better person.  Meanwhile, all the many characters have learned to overcome their initial flaws and insecurities thanks to Ruby's inspiration. 

In all honesty, this was a pretty sweet little book.  It wasn't the greatest story in the world, but it's not really trying to be.  It's kind of a Pollyanna type, only Ruby doesn't have to go around trying as hard to be agreeable.  She's just naturally sweet and smart, and it rubs off.  It's easy to like this girl and to want her to win, even if you can tell where the story's headed at pretty much all times.  (The only twists seem to come out of nowhere and--say it with me--don't really matter in the long run anyway)  It's actually a book I could see getting adapted into a pretty good play due to its great characters and simple story.  It's a book that's not pretentious, not particularly surprising, but it just designed to make the reader feel good.  And I'm all for that.

The Door Within
by Wayne Thomas Batson
Tommy Nelson, Inc., 2005
316 pages

I incorrectly wrote the author's name as "Thomas Wayne Batson" in the last post.  Surely you can understand my error.

I think I'm going to write a post at some point regarding allegorical fiction and why it so often fails as a storytelling device.  This book is at its strongest when it's not trying to be symbolic.  When it is trying to be symbolic...well, it often comes across as silly.  Which is a shame, because the mythology Batson creates in this story is pretty interesting.  I know I would have loved this book when I was ten or twelve, and I also know that this book is targeted at ten or twelve-year-old Christian kids, so I guess it's doing its job.  It just seems it could have more effective if it could have been a bit subtler at times, particularly in the portions of the story that happen in the modern world.  For that reason, I probably liked the two pirate books by this author better (the same kid in my class put all three of these books) even though epic fantasy is more my cup of tea.

The characters are fairly well developed, at least the ones we're supposed to like.  I joked to my wife after reading the last two books that, unlike many Christian kids authors, Batson isn't afraid to kill long as they're not main characters, that is.  If you ever find yourself in a Thomas Wayne Batson Wayne Thomas Batson story, you'd better hope you get a lot of page-time or else you're a goner at the moment the story needs a dramatic twist.  That said, he does buck the trend here, and while the book starts slow and then ambles along fairly predictably for much of the narrative, the final quarter of the book has some legitimately satisfying twists and surprises. And while you have to buy into some "Wait, really?" moments to make it all work out in the end, well, just deal with it.  Writing epic fantasy is hard, okay??

Overall, I enjoyed the book, despite some eye-rolling moments and some awkward narrative.  I believe this was Batson's first published novel, and having read the two Isle stories I can say he has definitely improved. He certainly doesn't fall into the stale mold many place most Christian YA authors into, and that's a great relief.  He writes some great adventures, and while this isn't his strongest work it definitely has the seeds of great adventure throughout its pages.

And now, I am DONE reading YA books for a little while.  What's up next?  Well, here's my short list:
Mistborn: The Final Empire
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Les Miserables
Carter Beats the Devil
The Talisman
The Fires of Heaven

I may switch around the order a bit, but that ought to get me to the Christmas season.  

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