4 to 16 Characters by Kelly Hourihan

4 to 16 Characters by Kelly Hourihan

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When 4 to 16 Characters popped up on my reading list, I was really excited to see a book written outside the normal prose form. I think something that breaks the status quo is a huge bonus for young adult books, as students are drawn to the unique and unusual. Lately, I’ve seen several narratives written through a long series of poems, but I like that Hourihan went a different direction- writing the whole book through online interactions and posting. The tale is told through Jane’s private digital journal entries, her posting on fan-fiction web pages, her IMs with friends (and eventually her therapist) and her email exchanges at her high school.

 

Jane’s real life is more than a bit of a mess. Her mother died a year before the book begins and her father has since spiraled into depression and alcoholism, leaving her to fend for herself, a job she isn’t emotionally equipped to undertake. She already attends a special high school, Spectrum, for students with social and learning disabilities, but things quickly degenerate as she feels trapped at school and at home. To relieve the pain of both places, she enters a new world- the digital one. After creating a series of online personalities, Jane retreats to internet forums and fan fiction sites, where she can choose her persona each day. Soon, Jane’s days revolve around these online interactions, her real-world ones breaking down even further.

 

What initially intrigued me about the book, the narrative form, is what eventually lead me to like the book less and less and I continued to read. The online chats and fanfic postings were initially entertaining and a fun change of pace, but they quickly became frustrating to read and a bit tedious. At times, reading 4 to 16 Characters was like trying to read a screenplay.  (At times, I literally *was* reading a screenplay!) I didn’t enjoy following character conversations that interrupted each other, jumped from user to user and were filled with occasionally hard to decipher abbreviations. There is where my age might hamper my love of Hourihan’s tale. The things that bothered me throughout the book may very well not dissuade today’s teenager from reading it. Today’s high school students spend a huge amount of time communicating in these very formats, so what I found a bit bulky and cumbersome may just be second nature to a younger reader.

 

I read this book. I’ve thought about this book. And yet, I still feel like I’m on a seesaw when it comes to how I’m going to rate this book.  There are certain aspects of 4 to 16 Characters that I think are really great for young adult readers, which would promptly be followed up a different piece that I find a bit ridiculous.  In the end, I have to rate it with what *I* thought of the book, even though I think high school students would like it more than I did, so to that end, Kelly Hourihan’s 4 to 16 Characters earn just:

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(With that said, I would definitely buy this book for my classroom!)

Twigs by Alison Ashley Formento

Twigs by Alison Ashley Formento

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With a nickname like Twigs, one can barely expect a book’s protagonist to lead a quiet, unassuming life. And yet, standing less than five feet tall, that is just what Madeline Henry would like as she gets ready to start her freshman year of college. But, it is not to be. With “adulthood” staring her in the face, Twigs would like to transition to the more mature (and given) moniker of Madeline, but even as her life is in shambles around her, she can’t shake her childhood image.

In a single week, Twig’s boyfriend heads off to university, leaving her behind to attend a less-than-stellar community college, her brother goes MIA as a solider in the Middle East, she is finds out that same missing brother is actually a half-brother and she smashes a car into the soon-to-be ex-husband of a woman who assaulted her with hair dye, breaking his elbow and earning a place forever in the heart of his pink-obsessed soon-to-be ex-wife.

Confused yet?

Yes! That is how I also felt as I read Alison Ashely Formento’s new young adult book, set to be released in September.

The premise is a good one: a young girl is facing the next stage of her life as those she is closest to also go through their own personal transitions. But, it is too much of a good thing! There are twists and turns in Twig’s story that I didn’t even begin to elaborate on in the above rundown. There are boyfriends, the willful destruction of a classic car, an alcoholic father, heck, there is even the loss of an eye! The tale quickly becomes overwhelming and unbelievable in its scope.

What this narrative needs is a good editor. I really do like the potential behind this book, but I feel like Formento would benefit from someone looking at her story outline and crossing out at least a third of the drama. (This reminds me of the famous quote by Coco Chanel about always looking in the mirror before you leave the house and taking one thing off. This book could use a little accessory editing.)

Twigs, while a young adult book, definitely skews to the high school side of the genre. With talk of college and more than one delicately veiled reference to Twigs’ sex life, it would be most appropriate for more mature teenagers. Maybe at sixteen I would have appreciated the endless drama of Twigs’ life, feeling like she was a character who could relate to the daily drama of being a sophomore, making the book more appealing to its intended audience.

I didn’t dislike the book, but it was just a bit too much for me. Alison Ashely Formento has something to work with here, but after finishing the book and pondering it for a few days, I still can’t say I have digested all that the book threw my way. For this reason, Twigs earns a middle-of-the-road:

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The Ugly One by Leanne Statland Ellis

The Ugly One by Leanne Statland Ellis

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The young adult book genre has expanded rapidly over the last decade, creating reading niches for a variety of teenage interests, from the currently ubiquitous choices that include vampires and werewolves to the popular dystopian series. But, one of my favorite growing topics in the world of YA literature is cultural/travel fiction. I think it is outstanding when kids sitting in their suburban American homes can open and book and be suddenly transported to Southeast Asia, South Africa or South America. Leanne Statland Ellis’ soon-to-be-released book does just that- taking readers on a journey to Peru and the thriving Incan civilization.

Names are an important part of this tale, with the narrator going by several different ones, depending on who is addressing her. (Tale is a fitting label for this book, as it reads like a mystical tale from the ancient oral traditions, tying the reader up in the story as pages fly by.) She is called by her given name, Micay, by her loving older sister, but mocked as The Ugly One by a young bully in her village. As her story progresses, she gains other monikers, more fitting to her changing situation, but at heart, she remains the same strong young woman.

Micay’s name isn’t the only morphing element of the book, as her role within her small mountainous village is challenged and set on a new path by a stranger from the jungles below. While she initially doesn’t believe she is destined for great things, those around her see a potential that, with the right help, she is capable of achieving.

A great middle-level book is one that not only entertains, but draws on universal themes that open larger dialogs, which is an area this book excels. From the tale of the bully and his painful words to the difficult decision of when it is right to put one’s personal desires before those of the community, The Ugly One provides a great deal of fodder for thought and discussion.

The reading level of The Ugly One is not particularly difficult, making the book easily accessible to a wide range of middle school readers, although some might struggle with the occasional unfamiliar Incan word. Luckily, there is a great glossary at the back of the book, which not only helps the reader follow the narrative, but as a teacher, I love having yet another chance to introduce students to references sections in different types of literature.

The one place I felt letdown by this book was at the very ending. As the narrative is wrapping up and the reader gets a glimpse into what the future holds for the main characters, I felt that one young man who played a critical role in the story is left out of the story. I was really hoping to get at least a hint as to whether sharing a moment of understanding with Micay is enough to change this boy’s outlook or if his attitude is too deeply engrained to transform into something more positive.

Overall, Leanne Statland Ellis’  The Ugly One is a great read for students, drawing them out of themselves and into another time and another culture, earning the book:

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Silver Orphan: A Social Novel by Martine Lacombe

Silver Orphan: A Social Novel by Martine Lacombe

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With our population of Baby Boomers growing ever-older and the social norms of the following generations creating a society with less room for these aging Americans, many communities in the US face a looming crisis of how to adequately care for the shifting demographics of their populations. This trend of seeing elderly folks without next of kin willing/able to provide such support has created an ever-enlarging segment of our population, dubbed “silver orphans” by sociologists. This emerging predicament forms the basis for Martine Lacombe’s first novel, Silver Orphan: A Social Novel.

While I’m not sure why Lacombe chose to include “A Social Novel” as a part of her title, as there are currently many authors attempting to address social issues through their fiction, I do appreciate her tackling a problem that is just emerging within our society. Recently, many authors have undertaken writing about tough issues such as bullying and school violence, but Lacombe comes out ahead of the crowd, bringing to light a problem that isn’t making the bold-faced headlines yet, but will be soon.

Brooke Blake is immediately introduced to the reader as the lead character (I hesitate to call her protagonist, as her personality is off-putting enough to not want to use “pro” anywhere near her name), whose life quickly becomes interwoven with Frank, an octogenarian who needs some support. This is the first place that I struggled a bit with the story-telling, as after a rather lengthy introduction to Brooke as a high-paid pharmaceutical rep with shoes that cost more than I make in a day and a cold demeanor meant to put all in their place, I had a hard time suspending believe enough to imagine that she would actually pull over for a random hitchhiker, then not only take him home, but become a part of his life. The idea of someone coming into Frank’s life to be a support and then push his story beyond his death is a great outline for a story, but I just don’t find Brooke believable in this role. The jump from her character in the first ten pages to her character just thirty pages later is too far for me.

Beyond the far-fetched connection of these two characters, the other aspect of Silver Orphan that I struggled with was the sometimes halting dialog. When Lacombe is telling the story from the narrator’s point of view, the writing is smooth and, at times, even poetic, but once she is forced to put words into the mouths of characters, something in the flow is lost.

The multi-layered settings of the book create one of the high points of the novel, as Lacombe braids together stories from the current time, the recent past, the WWII era and the height of the Italian immigration. History that is often glossed over by textbooks is uncovered throughout the book, making the novel a mini-social studies class, thanks to Frank’s genealogy. There are times that the historical references seem a bit forced (I have to admit to still being confused about why the tale of Orson Well’s War of the Worlds is included), but this novel could find a place as a companion novel in a high school history classroom.

Without giving the ending away, I did feel like it came a bit out of left-field and has me closing the book with some lingering questions, not about the main plot line of the book, but about new twists that were introduced on the final page.  I am finding it hard to assign a final score to this book, as the novel was given to me for free in return for a book review, but there are revisions I think the story needs to go through before it is great. (My hesitation comes from the fact that I would love to be more active in the review of book galley copies, but my first one is not overflowing with praise, which may turn off other authors.) Martine Lacombe’s soon-to-be-published first novel is just that- a first novel. It is a great start for a young author and I am excited to see what social issues she will tackle in her next book. This book isn’t going to fall into my top 10 of 2013 list, but I like where Lacombe is headed with her writing and will definitely be watching and waiting for her sophomore publication! Silver Orphan: A Social Novel by Martine Lacombe earns:

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