ABNA 2012 Young Adult Fiction Reviews

Below are my reviews of the three novels chosen in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award – Young Adult Fiction. This category isn’t too easy for me to review, since many times the stories are quite far out of my realm of reason, as in, who does this appeal to anyway? The answer is clear. Young Adults, those who embraced the thousands of vampire, zombie, and werewolf books, not to mention fairies and angels for those young people who will mature into adults who read inspirational novels.

This year I rather liked two of the three. That would probably be for a couple of reasons including (but not limited to): there were no vampires, there were no zombies, and there were no werewolves. Are they going away finally?

I was majorly intrigued by one, less-majorly but still intrigued by another, and the third was not interesting to me at all, but that’s my genre bigrotry again, as I find it impossible not to be influenced by genre.

The judges have read the entire manuscripts and they usually post a review which tells what the book is about. Then they say what they believe is right or wrong with it, and then (and I wish they wouldn’t do this) they will say if it is their pick for the winner. The winners are chosen by the voters, but still, I wonder how much the votes will be influenced by what the reviewers have said.

Out of Nowhere by Rebecca Phillips. The first line:

I wasn’t sure what would kill me first—the nagging pain in my head or Dr. Kapur.

It’s a first line that is okay, but after further reading, it seems contrived. The narrator borders on hypochondria so in hindsight, the sentence is an exaggeration and is probably meant to be a good hook. I felt marginally cheated. Riley’s father died unexpectedly while microwaving a plate of lasagna a few years back, and she is not dealing with it well, and can’t walk on the spot in the  kitchen where he had fallen. It is also apparent that she is a loving sister to her seventeen-month old half-brother, by a man who is in and out, but mostly out, of her mother’s life. She disapproves of him thoroughly. It is well-written and I did like the author’s voice. But based on this excerpt, which is all I have, I would have to say it was only marginally interesting to me. It could get better but then the job of the author is to hook me immediately.

On Little Wings by Regina Sirois. The first line:

The DNA of mice and humans is 98% identical.

I like it. I liked the whole first paragraph. I found the first paragraph to be funny and witty, and even though it didn’t really tell me about the story to come, I was very much hooked and wanted to read on. 

Jennifer finds an old photo of a woman who looks uncannily like herself, tucked into the back of an old paperback from her mother’s bookshelf. She instinctively knows this woman is someone important to her, but her parents had said they were both only children. I would have liked it better if the revelation hadn’t been quite so dramatic, but turns out, this woman is her mother’s estranged sister, who her mother insists is a terrible person and who killed their mother. Jennifer then goes to see her best friend, to tell her about it. End of excerpt. The backstory of the best friend is well done, unique, an exaggerated ugly duckling scenario which was very entertaining. I liked this, loved the author’s voice. It promises to be a very satisfying story.

Dreamcatchers by Cassandra Griffin. The first line:

Two things occur to me at the same time.

As a first line, it is fine. This wouldn’t be a case of the standard first-sentence hooker because it doesn’t say too much but still, it’s fine. The first paragraph goes on to reveal the two things, an earthquake has happened, and our narrator appears to have amnesia. Uh oh. Not uh oh about these two things, but uh oh that amnesia is so lame. How many books have been written using that sorry clichéd storyline?

The earthquake unlocked the doors to some sort of hospital/mental institution (we aren’t quite sure) so the person with the amnesia was able to excape (though barely) into the night, clad in a hospital gown. She manages to score a blanket and escapes into a very bad neighborhood where she is threatened by a Very Nasty Person. She manages to get away from him by clocking him on the head. It is written in present tense, which I have come to like very much, and flows well. But it reads too much like a teen action flick for me to be able to connect with it too much. This is certainly my particular limitation, but then, I get to do that here.

My pick? Definitely On Little Wings. One out of three reviewers agreed with me. Not a good sign, but I’m sticking with my pick.

ABNA 2012 General Fiction Reviews

The six finalists for the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award have been chosen. Interesting. There are only two categories, general fiction and young adult fiction. The general fiction finalists are all men, and the young adult fiction finalists are all women.

What does that say? Probably nothing.

I read the excerpts of the general fiction entries and they were all good, and all had a hook and all made me wonder what would happen next. But since I don’t have access to the entire manuscripts, I am basing my reviews on the first few chapters of each one.

Then I’m going to predict the winner, based on which I liked best, which is going to be difficult because I liked all three, but didn’t love any of them.

The Beautiful Land by Alan Averill. This starts out with a great first line hook.

Tak can’t answer the phone because the noose is too tight.

Great, I like that. The deal is, Tak has decided to do himself in and has set up this elaborate suicide event, but the ringing phone distracts him. It turns out to be a strange call, but so interesting that Tak decides to put his suicide plans on hold. Next chapter we meet, Samira who is suffering from PTSD and tells her therapist that Tak was her friend from high school, but that he killed himself four years earlier. But wait, he didn’t kill himself, so what’s going on? That’s another hook. That, of course, is the end of the excerpt. It’s interesting that many authors are using present tense, which never used to be done much. I like it. I believe this book is going to veer off into a nearly sci-fi genre, including time travel and alternate realities so I don’t think it will be something I would ultimately be too interested in. And I found a really bad metaphor.

A clock ticks softly from Carrington’s desk, muffled under a pile of paperwork like the beating heart of a boarder in a Poe story.

Do you hate that as much as I do? Classic case of TTH. (Trying Too Hard).

Grace Humiston and the Vanishing by Charles Kelly. This one is a historical mystery which takes place in 1917. It is fiction, but based on the true story of Mary Grace Winterton Humiston.

I like the voice of this author, told in the first person (but not present tense this time) by the sidekick of Grace, who idolizes her investigative methods (not to mention her physical attributes and accoutrements) from afar – he being a bit of an unseemly sort which he readily admits – and Grace being a very much the lady, well-educated, and married. It promises to be a good story, the case of a missing girl known as the White Slave Case. The excerpt ended with Grace being asked by the narrator if she will find the missing girl, to which she replies “Yes. But, I fear, not alive.”

I am curious to know why she felt that way. I believe I would enjoy this book, and I found no distasteful metaphors in the excerpt.

A Chant of Love and Lamentation by Brian Reeves. This had a good opening line too, similar to the first entry.

These are the last minutes of Charlie Kalenhano’s life.

Charlie is on some terrorist mission, perhaps suicide bomber in Hawaii, as part of a plot to regain Hawaiian independence. The excerpt doesn’t explain it. That must come later. It’s well written and I was mildly curious to know if the bomb went off or not, since Charlie had a few problems on his way to detonate the device, which is in the trunk of his cab. Bad weather, a fender bender accident, locking himself out of the car, late to arrive, etc. The excerpt, while good enough, didn’t grab me sufficiently to get me excited about reading the book when it is finally published.

Actually I liked the entries last year better than these, but my pick is Grace Humiston. We’ll see.

ABNA – Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (Young Adult Reviews)

Well. Things have changed since Anne of Green Gables. Remember that series? And the Cherry Ames, Nurse series? And Nancy Drew and The Bobsey Twins?

There are three finalists in the Young Adult Fiction category. I thought the first two had clichéd back stories. The third, I plain didn’t get.

The first, Spookygirl (by Jill Baguchinsky). Young girl’s Mom dies, father can’t take care of girl, girl goes to live with Bad Aunt, girl comes back to live with father. This has been done before, many times. The only difference is that this father runs a funeral home, and the girl helps the father with makeup on the faces of the corpses and also paints portraits of them when they are dead, but before the funerals. And oh yeah, there’s this ghost named Buster who lives with them and he has to be caged up sometimes, but if you leave him in the cage too long, he gets really pissed and makes a mess of things. Really? Is this what the younger set likes these days? Oh wait, yes it is. Vampires, werewolves, zombies, and, I guess, ghosts. The writing seemed to be fine, and strives to be humorous but to me it sounded like an older person trying to appeal to a younger person. I could be wrong, I’m not sure of the age of this author. I was moderately hooked though, on one aspect of the story. Seems Mom died under suspicious circumstances, and it appears some believe it was Dad who did it. That’s interesting, and would be enough to keep me reading.

The second, Lost in Thought (by Cara Bertrand). Here BOTH of girl’s parents die in a car crash. Now I suppose this does, in fact, happen to a few people, but I have read a lot of books with this back story. I am not sure why an interesting book can’t be written where the heroine’s Mom and Dad remain intact, not dead, and not divorced either. Add to this, neither of our heroine’s parents had any family but, luckily, Dad was very successful in his short life (I put him in his twenties when he died) and made a lot of money, such that our heroine is endowed with trusts and millions of dollars. It is a little vague how he accumulated this vast amount of wealth, lucky stock buying maybe, which I guess if you are a teenager, isn’t really important, but to us older, cynical individuals, we want to know. So, how did that happen exactly that he made so much money at such an early age? Heroine lives with an “Aunt” (a Nice Aunt) who is really Mom’s college friend. Hmm. Okay, this could also happen. Oh, one more thing. Our heroine sees dead people. Remember the movie, Sixth Sense, “I see dead people”. Word for word. Good writing, and a pretty good hook though. Our heroine, who is subject to fainting spells and migraine headaches due to the fact that she sees dead people, sees the same car which was responsible for her parents going off the road into a roll, which ultimately killed them.

The third, Devolution (by Richard Larson). This one did not have a clichéd back story at all. But that’s because I couldn’t understand a word of it. I couldn’t figure out where we were, or why we were there, or what we were doing there. An example from the third paragraph:

Virus outbreaks were handled meticulously. The self-replicating programs never made it very far into the system before security software found them and walled them in: once that happened, a quarantine zone was established.

Are we inside a computer? Not sure. There are some references made to electronic nodes in the backs of skulls, so maybe not really. At any rate, I was clueless as to what was going on. This is really not my genre, maybe there are people out there who actually get this, but do not count me among them.

And one more thing. I was taught that dialog attributions should always be “said” or “says”. Don’t use cried, exclaimed, repeated, yelled, or whispered. Just “said”. He said, she said. It is only to let the reader know who is talking, it should never try to describe how the person is talking, that should be done through other means. This author violates those rules. “I was there before the sirens,” Dimas grinned. No. Dimas said those words, and may have been grinning while he said them, but nobody ever grinned a sentence, to my knowledge. Here’s another one. “… the shop-keeper lowed”. Lowed? Later his characters, continue, and point out, snort, rumble, demand, lie and protest. And there is a generous use of adverbs, which should be used, if not never, rarely. As in “Dimas said dryly”.

I’m trying hard to read other genres, but in the case of YA, it’s difficult. I’d have to give Lost in Thought my vote here. I like the title, and I was moderately hooked, and the writing is good.

The results will be in tomorrow, and I’m going to be logging on early to see how well I did with my reviews. Did I like what the general population liked? Or not?

ABNA – Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (More Reviews)

This week I read the remaining two excerpts in the General Fiction category.

The first is Dog Christ by Lucian Morgan. I don’t believe the judges for the award care too much about formatting issues and other general editing malfeasance. It’s a good thing because this one needs some work in that regard. But other than that, this was the maybe the most compelling of the three, one of the best hooks I’ve ever encountered.

I loved it. As it begins, I thought it was going to be a story about some sort of ancient structure, the way it was worded.

The Man and the Woman live on the side of a mountain in a house built entirely of stones brought by ships from Italy. There are no stones left in Italy because of their house. Silkworms have perished from the earth making curtains for their windows.

The author continues to describe the construction of the stone house and it becomes apparent it is no ancient structure, (and I wasn’t too sure when there were first “curtains”) but a modern house built by a couple, Lillian and Otto, on the side of a mountain. The house and view is described in such a humorous way, that I was hooked, despite the lack of whitespace (i.e. the second paragraph of the first chapter is quite long). Lengthy paragraphs are usually not encouraged, especially on the beginning page of a novel, but the editing issues and non-whitespace issues can’t undermine this author’s very funny, and fresh voice.

What Jonathon Franken does to the middle class, this author does for the nouveau riche. I am particularly fond of this – poking fun at individuals who feel they must conform in some way to ever-changing values.

It’s clear Otto has made a lot of money and he’s the kind of character we love to hate, and his wife Lillian, a fool we can hardly suffer. What isn’t clear is the narrator, who is he, and how does he fit into the household? At first, I wondered if it could be a dog (because of the title) but no, it seems he is a disabled individual, in a chair, though he can walk a bit. It isn’t spelled out and I want to know.

It was a great excerpt, I read it twice, thinking I might pick up some additional clues about the narrator. But it still isn’t clear to me. It seems he is the son of Otto and Lillian, but then why does he live in the garden shack? I can’t wait to find out.

The last excerpt of the three finalists is I am Livia by Phyllis T. Smith. The editing and formatting in this sample was very precise, but that’s where it ended for me. It is historical fiction and begins around the time the Senators plotted the demise of Caesar.

It seemed contrived to me. It didn’t seem believable. Normally I’m not a fan of historical fiction anyway, but occasionally I have tried it and liked it. The writing didn’t grab me as much, although it’s good. Likely other readers who like this genre will appreciate it more than I did.

When I read East of Denver, I was sure it would be the one I would vote for. But I ended up voting for Dog Christ, by a tiny margin. I think this book is a winner.

We’ll see. The winner will be announced on Monday, June 13th.