Review: Okay For Now

Okay For Now by Gary D. Schmidt. Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2011. My review of the ARC. Audiobook: Listening Library, an imprint of the Random House Audio Publishing Group. Narrated by Lincoln Hoppe. 2011. Listened from copy from publisher.

The Plot: The late 1960s. Doug Swieteck’s father has moved his family to stupid Marysville in upstate New York. Doug is less than happy about this, and it doesn’t help that the locals see Doug and his older brother as thugs. As his eighth grade year progresses, Doug connects with the community around him: the librarian who shows him the plates of John James Audubon’s Birds of America; Lil Spicer, who offers him a cold coke and friendship; Mr. Spicer, who gives Doug a job delivering groceries that lets more people into Doug’s life.

Marysville may not be so stupid; Doug and his brother may not be thugs; and sometimes it’s enough that things are okay for now. “For now” keeps shifting through the book, through good times and bad: for every teacher who sees an easy target in the kid from the wrong side of the tracks, there is a teacher who sees Doug’s potential. His brother may come home from Vietnam with injuries, true; but he came home. It’s okay for now.

The Good: My review from 2011 says all that is good with Okay for Now. Listening to the audiobook emphasised all the strengths. Doug is a wonderful character, and Lincoln Hoppe perfectly captures his nuances and attitude. Over and over, I wanted to go into the pages of Okay for Now and rescue Doug. Rescue him from bullying teachers and abusive and neglectful family; luckily for Doug, he can take care of himself. It isn’t easy; the book begins with Doug having a huge chip on his shoulder. But, slowly, he lets people in and things change for the better.

I marveled at the wonderful structure of Okay for Now. Doug’s imagination is captured by the Audobon birds; he interprets what he sees based on his own life. Is a mother bird worried for her children? Or happy for them? He learns to draw, using the plates and friendly, knowledgeable librarian as guides. This expands his world, and Doug decides on a mission. Marysville has sold plates from the book; Doug will track them down and recover him. He may not be able to make his family whole, but he’ll make this book whole. Of course, along the way, Doug does make his life, including his family, whole. I just love the craft of this.

How reliable is Doug? That’s something I struggled with both in reading and listening. There are some things that I think he is oversensitive about, and I don’t think people are always as mean or rude or dismissive about him as he thinks. I think he both misinterprets things, but also believes some things are about him when they are not. For example, the teacher may simply not be calling on him. Or someone on his delivery route may be a bit distracted so not as attentive. It’s clear that when things are up for Doug, he’s up and sees the world in a positive light; but when things are down, it’s all dark and gray and rainclouds. Hoppe’s narration emphasizes this. As a matter of fact, this time around I was also more understanding of people like Coach Reed, because I’m not sure if Doug was always accurate about how Reed was treating him.

What didn’t change was my view towards Doug’s parents. Doug sees his mother as a lovely saint; and because Doug’s father’s treatment of his children was clearly not Doug misreading a situation, I just could not accept her passive acceptance of the situation. I kept getting angry as I listened. Clearly, though, that is more about me as a reader than the book itself.

But back to happy thoughts: there is a lot of humor in here! And some of it are in type jokes directed at the modern reader, such as a class discussion that ends with everyone agreeing that an actor could never become president.

Some great discussion about this title from Heavy Medal; reviews from Abby the Librarian; 100 Scope Notes.

Review: Tell Me A Secret

Tell Me A Secret by Holly Cupala. HarperTeen. 2010. Audiobook by Octopuppy. 2010. Narrated by Jenna Lamia. Reviewed from audiobook from author. Available from Audible.

The Plot: Miranda — Rand — is the good daughter. Xanda — dead Xanda, whose name isn’t spoken aloud by her family — was the bad daughter, the daughter of late nights and fast boys and cars, until the accident that took her life five years ago. Xanda had secrets that Rand could only wonder at; Xanda had a life that seemed exotic and wonderful. Who Xanda was, and her death, has shaped Rand and fractured her family. Rand was twelve then; she is now the age Xanda was.

Five years later, Rand has a secret of her own.

She’s pregnant.

This secret will force Rand and her family to finally look at the truth about themselves, about Xanda, and about her death.

The Good: Rand tells the story, and Jenna Lamia, the audiobook narrator, does a terrific job of conveying Rand’s confusion and hopes and fears. The reader does not always get the whole story. For example, in Rand’s eyes, Xanda seems the perfect older sister: perfect in a “she’s too cool to live” way. This, however, is not the whole story, not the whole Xanda, and glimpses of the real sister bleed through Rand’s thoughts and memories.

Rand broke my heart. No, that’s not right. It’s not that Rand broke my heart; honestly, at times I just wanted to give her a shake and say “snap out of it!” (More on that later). What broke my heart was just how many people failed Rand, especially the people that Rand should have been able to rely on. It would have been nice if the people in her life, her parents and friends, had supported her, been there for her, helped her. But, then, this would have been a different book. Instead, it’s a book about secrets and the damage they do, especially the secrets about ourselves that we keep from ourselves. Rand may think her secret is her pregnancy, but the real secret is she’s not being honest with herself about her choices, the choices she made in living up to the image of a dead girl.

Rand keeps much to herself, not in an unfriendly way but in a not sharing what she’s thinking or feeling way. Maybe that is her nature. Maybe it’s because her mother raised her children with a “be careful what the neighbors will think” attitude, so Rand keeps her true self secret so that the neighbors will only see her outer self. Whatever the reason, Rand often stays silent when she could speak up and should speak up. Take, for instance, her boyfriend Kamram and her pregnancy. She loves him; she doesn’t know how to tell him. So she doesn’t. She delays, and delays, and delays. And because of that, she also distances herself from him. On the one hand, she tells the reader about her love for him and their wonderful relationship, and on the other, Rand also says it’s been almost a week since she’s spoken to him. Rand doesn’t seem to be able to put the pieces together, that either she and Kamram are not the couple she thinks they are, or that she is sending him mixed signals about what she thinks and feels. He’s not a mind-reader, I wanted to tell her. Thinking about him, loving him, wanting him, is not enough if you’re not calling him. I understood why she didn’t; I understood why she delayed. Understanding Rand just made it that much worse.

It would have been easy for Tell Me A Secret to be all about how family and friends fail Rand. Tell Me A Secret takes the harder road, the better road, by making the failures mutual. This is not a sob-fest about poor, pregnant Rand (even though I did cry at times because of all that happened to poor, pregnant Rand. Hey, I don’t have a heart of stone!). Rand doesn’t always realize it, and the reader may take some time for recognition to sink in, but Rand isn’t innocent, and not just in getting pregnant or delaying telling anyone. She does a few things that really shifts the perception of what happened, so that some of what her friends did and did not do make more sense. And here is what I liked best about Tell Me A Secret (if one can say “like” about something so sad): people fail Rand, and Rand fails herself, and Rand fails others, and it’s an endless cycle, it seems, of expectations and being let down. It would be nice if people were always kind and compassionate and understanding. It would be nice if people could see beyond their own needs and hurts and wants. But that’s not the world that Rand lives in; and I’m sure that for many readers, it’s not their world, either. By the end, Rand doesn’t let these failings define herself; she doesn’t let it control her future.

Review: Carter’s Big Break

Carter’s Big Break by Brent Crawford. Hyperion. 2010. Brilliance Audiobook. 2011. Narrated by Nick Podehl. Reviewed from audiobook from Brilliance.

The Plot: Will Carter survived his freshman year — he’s got his friends, he’s got his girl, and he even passed all his classes. Sweet! What could be sweeter? How about starring in a movie? You heard me right! In this sequel to Carter Finally Gets It, Carter finds himself starring in in a movie with teen sweetheart, Hilary Idaho.

The Good: Carter, Carter, Carter. As with the first book, I listened to the audiobook narrated by the brilliant Nick Podehl. Podehl does such a terrific job of channeling Carter that I sometimes thought I was carpooling to work as the book played. He captures Carter’s attitude, his bravado, his sweetness, and his general, inevitable tendency to be a total dumbass. Just as important, Podehl had me laughing so hard I was crying. Carter is — well, he’s a teenage boy. He sometimes talks before he thinks. Acts before he thinks. He is often clueless. But, underneath the friendly insults with his friends and his fumbling romance with Abby, he is a good, sweet boy (who would hate me saying so).

I was a little hesitant about the sequel, because it seemed to be a literary equivalent of  The Brady Bunch Hawaiian Bound. Carter’s strength is that he is a typical teenage boy in a typical suburb. Really, I wondered, does it have to have that, well, surrealness added to what is otherwise a very grounded in reality book? Silly me; I  should have paid more attention to the author’s website. See, here’s the thing: Brent Crawford is an actor. Carter’s Big Break is full of details that show Crawford knows the business, and not just from sitting in a movie theatre watching a film. His portrayal of teenage actors and producers and others related to movie making further reflect his insider’s knowledge. At the same time, Crawford doesn’t take the business too seriously; part of the fun is Carter screwing up and the movie director misinterpreting and believing Carter is the next Daniel Day-Lewis or Marlon Brando.

Carter lives in the type of town where a bunch of teenage boys get on their skateboards and bikes and don’t come home until dinner. Despite the Hollywood in this book, the best moments are still ones about friendship, about Carter’s family, about his love for Abby. About Carter’s tendency to do and say the absolute wrong thing. While listening to Podehl, it was easy to picture Carter and his friends — so easy, that I began to wish that these books would be turned into a TV series.

Because sometimes, you just need to laugh so much it hurts. Because Carter is like so many teens, trying to be tough and mature and to know all the answers. Because at the end of the day, there is a bit of dumbass in each of us. This is a Favorite Book  Read in 2011.