CBR-V Review #30: Confessions of a Teen Sleuth by Chelsea Cain

Why I Read It: Because I was the biggest Nancy Drew fan in the world growing up, and I saw this mentioned on a blog as something adult fans of the series would get a kick out of.

My Rating: 2 stars

Summary: The gorgeous, smart, and capable Nancy Drew is now grown up. Joined by familiar faces (her boyfriend, Ned, her best friends, Bess and George, her housekeeper, Hannah Gruen, etc.) plus characters from some of children’s mysteries’ best-known series (the Hardy Boys, and more), Nancy sets out to solve as many mysteries as she can, even in a modernized world, in this parody of the Carolyn Keene series.

My Review: I really wanted to like this–and I certainly liked parts of it–but overall, the whole thing fell flat for me. Mostly, I didn’t feel like this concept held up for 200 pages.

Certain parts were genuinely funny. I loved the constant references to Nancy’s titian hair and slim figure, which were hallmarks of the original series, for example, and the extensive descriptions of her clothes. I also liked how the book portrays grown up Ned, Bess, and George as caricatures of themselves. Again, these bits and pieces were really entertaining and would have been perfect for a short piece (I’m thinking something like the New Yorker’s Shouts and Murmurs feature, for instance). It just got SO old so fast, and it was a chore to get through once I read the first 10-20 pages. Part of the issue was that I didn’t catch a lot of the references to other books (I looked them up later–a lot of other children’s mystery series are namechecked, but I only knew the Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown) so I might have enjoyed later chapters more if I’d understood the frame of reference. Either way, though, I think this book needed to be cut down considerably to avoid stretching the concept too thin to be successful.

Should You Read It: It’s worth checking out the first chapter, but after that, it’s all pretty much repetition of the first few (admittedly funny) jokes.

 

CBR-V Review #29: Dare Me by Megan Abbott

Why I Read It: This book was getting a lot of buzz for being a mystery crossed with Mean Girls crossed with Bring It On (so clearly my type of book) and I also have read other books by Abbott and enjoyed them.

My Rating: 4 stars

Summary: Addy is the lady-in-waiting to her best friend Beth’s Queen Bee. The two girls rule the cheerleading squad (Beth is the newly appointed captain) until the new coach shows up. Young, exciting, and cool, Coach French draws the majority of the girls on the squad–Addy included–into her circle. Only Beth, angry at her displacement from power, maintains her distance. When a death in the town draws the spotlight to the team, Addy finds her loyalties tested and her life–previously so empty of real concerns–filled with chaos and uncertainty.

My Review: So this book definitely sounds a little cheesy, but in reality, it’s pretty great. In the hands of a lesser author, the concept might have been unsuccessful, and the book might have been little more than chick lit fluff. However, Abbott is a VERY talented writer, and her nuanced characterization of the girls, along with her dreamy, literary prose, makes this a book worth reading.

Abbot captures what it’s like to be a suburban teenage girl–the mundane dramas, the power struggles, the boredom. Addy is a bit of a blank slate, I think both to draw the reader in (it’s told from a first-person perspective, so the reader can really put herself in Addy’s shoes) and to show Addy’s lack of self-awareness and identity. She is a cheerleader, and she’s Beth’s wing-woman, but she’s little else beyond that. That fuzziness of character was distracting at first, but it ends up working really well once I got used to it and understood where Abbot was going. Beth is also a three-dimensional character, not simply a one-not villain, and I appreciated that. Abbot’s characters are all written in shades of grey, and the result is a complex and immensely entertaining narrative.

The mystery portion of the book was a bit weak, and some of the more dramatic plot points were a bit contrived, but I liked it a lot more when I thought of it as more of a backdrop to the real action rather than the main plot. The really interesting parts of this book are the interactions between the characters, which is where Abbot shows a great insight into the human psyche. Her writing, too, is just really enjoyable–as I mentioned above, it’s surprisingly literary and lyrical, given the subject matter. My only frustration was with the sections describing the cheerleading routines, which kind of lost me. I’m not familiar with a lot of the moves she describes and it was very hard for me to visualize the action at times. Still, this was a minor thing, and wasn’t a huge issue.

Should You Read It? Yes! This book isn’t incredibly deep or meaningful, but it’s fun and entertaining and worth a read. It would make a great beach book!

CBR5 Review #28: White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Why I Read It: Because it’s one of those “books everyone needs to read.”

My Rating: 4 stars

My Summary: White Teeth follows the lives of two best friends, Archie (a boring Englishman) and Samad (a Bangladeshi immigrant), their wives (Clara, a beautiful Jamaican, and the feisty Alsana)  and their offspring (a cynical chubby girl, Irie, and twin boys, Magid and Millat–one an uptight science nerd and the other a stoner-slash-militant-Muslim) as they navigate the racially tense, increasingly cross-cultural, and morally degraded world of 1980’s London.

My Review: I really loved this book, overall, and I’m completely jealous of the fact that Zadie Smith was just about the same age as I am when she wrote it. She’s unbelievably talented, with an incredible ear for voice and language and a sharp, cynical view of the world that’s both honest and hilarious.

It’s Smith’s ability to create compelling characters that that really carries the novel. Her cast is large but she handles each individual with care, fleshing them out to make them nuanced and realistic, balancing her natural flair for exaggeration and humor with a true insight into the human mind. Her characters are funny but never cross the line into caricature or satire–they’re just slightly broadly drawn in places, their most absurd traits highlighted and exaggerated just a bit, to provide entertainment but never to distract from the narrative. I loved her use of phonetic writing, essentially transcribing dialogue exactly how it sounds, to capture the diverse accents and speech patterns of her characters and thus deftly portraying the incredible sense of multiculturalism and racial melding that is so central to the novel. This book is both laugh-out-loud funny and completely moving, and manages to explore some very big and heavy themes–race, religion, gender–without ever getting preachy or boring.

My one complaint is that the plot is a bit meandering and not very structured–she relies on her characters, which works most of the time, and uses devices such as flashbacks to enhance the story. I think she loses grasp of her plot about three-quarters of the way through, and the end feels a bit thrown-together and unresolved, as though she had too much going on and too many characters to bring together and wasn’t quite up to the task. In that sense this was very clearly a first novel–it has the spark and the obvious talent that marks a brilliant new writer, but lacks structure and is thus, ultimately, a bit unsatisfying. Even so, I was enthralled by her writing, and totally absorbed in this book.

Should You Read It? Absolutely. This is one of the few books that lives up to the hype, and was one of the best I’ve read this year.