2 great books, 2 duds
It's as though this book opens after all the typical YA romance books end. Lauren has the great football-player boyfriend and the popular best friend, but her life feels hollow. Until Evan comes back to town, Evan who was briefly a trial step-sibling thanks to one of Lauren's father's ill-advised bouts of shacking up with girlfriends. Evan knows her past, and what's more he makes her weak in the knees. Watching her weakness is part of the fun here, including that weakness that keeps her from breaking up with her official boyfriend like she should. It makes her more human that she can't bear to face her own feelings directly, and not until Evan's mother points out that her two-timing behavior is "just like your father" does Lauren realize that she has to make things right. Evan takes her as she is in the end, which makes this a satisfying story of a girl who seeks substance, hesitates when she finds it, but survives despite her own mistakes.
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
This is the most engrossing piece of children's fiction I've read in a long time. Reynie Muldoon is a gifted child and an orphan who opts to take some "special tests" administered by a nameless organization. Of course, they're recruiting a team of 4 brilliant children in order to save the world from a villain who uses the school he calls the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened to do his evil work. The real thrills come not in the derring-do of our child heroes in the last chapters of the story, but along the way. For instance, during the tests, the 4 kids who will become our world-saving team each finds his/her own inimitable way to solve the puzzles set out before them. For example, while Sticky actually knows all the answers to one of the written tests, Raynie figures out that the test is in a kind of code and deciphers it that way. Similarly, there are physical challeges which Kate aces through her acrobatic prowess (she was raised in the circus) and Constance simply refuses to engage in that Raynie and Sticky navigate by finding loopholes in the instructions. It's rare that a book is so good that I refuse to give away the ending on my blog; usually I'm thinking more of my own record keeping than of my blog readers' pleasure. On this one, though, I'm going to be pretty circumspect. If you like puzzle books and mental challenges, this one's a must-read.
The following books were duds for me, this holiday reading spree. This is not to say that they are bad books, and in point of fact I didn't finish either of them, so my opinion probably shouldn't even be counted. However, I do like to keep track of what I read or try to read, so I'm recording my ill-informed reactions here. And now for my personal holiday duds:
Muddle Earth by Stewart and Riddell
I put this one down just now, after 2 days of making myself pick it up. If I were in the mood for a fantasy spoof with Monty Python humor, I'd read it, but I'm not. The one criticism I do have is that there are all these "secrets" that characters are constantly about to blurt out before being interrupted by other characters. And no one ever follows up... But it's clearly got some great humor, and I think if I were 11 I'd be absolutely sold. Still, it's my Thanksgiving and I get to read what I want. :P
Nacky Pratcher... by Jeffrey Kluger
It's possible that I'll want to give this one another shot... the BCCB gave it a star, after all, so it may be a Blue Ribbons contender for next year. For now, though, I'm putting it down. The tone is small-town, twee, and numbingly sincere in its cuteness. Not my style for now at least. Holidays are about escape reading! That book just makes me feel like I'm stuck at a family holiday gathering listening to pointless stories. I know, I know, some of you are thinking "Kate, I'm shocked that a storyteller like yourself doesn't appreciate her own family stories!" Well, all I can say is that narratives don't really make it out alive from a dysfunctional/alcoholic and other drugs/attention deficit disorder family like mine. The shreds of story that survive are typically nonsensical to outsiders and painful to insiders. You'll just have to trust me on this one.