Book reviews & writing tips from a wannabe YA writer
For the second year, I signed up to help judge the Nerds Heart YA tournament because:
The books I had to decide between were worlds apart this year—one historical fiction and the other a fantasy. I’ll start with reviews of each one, but if you can’t bear the suspense any longer feel free to skip to the end of this post for the decision…
Can you trust me? Compare our taste!
Author: Donna Jo Napoli
Summary: 14-year-old Calogero is a Sicilian boy who’s lost his mother, so he’s sent to work with other Sicilians in a small Louisiana town during the late 1890s. At that time, Italians weren’t accepted as equals by whites, and being friends with blacks was frowned upon. But that doesn’t stop Calogero from having a crush on a beautiful girl who happens to be black.
What I Loved: This would be an excellent choice for kids who are studying this time period in their history class. Early on, a feeling of what life was like in that world settles into your bones. Kids would learn way more from one good piece of fiction like this than from memorizing important dates and names for weeks on end.
So what I loved most about this book is that it takes an obscure slice of America’s history—how five Italian immigrants were brutally murdered—and serves it up for us to mull over.
The language was spare throughout—not too flowery or overly descriptive, but just enough to get a vivid image across. Here’s a snippet for you, from a scene with Calogero and the girl he has a crush on:
She sets down the lantern glass and puts her hands lightly on my cheeks.
I touch the center of her back at the waist. Just a hint. She moves to me, natural as water running downhill.
What I Didn’t Love: The story gets off to a slow start, or at least slower than I prefer. I didn’t really get a sense that the true stakes were life and death until about halfway through the book. More hinting in the beginning about those high stakes would have helped pique my interest.
But I’m glad I stuck with it and finished.
One more minor issue that tripped up my reading was the way that background information was sometimes delivered through dialogue. In some places, that dialogue came off a little too speech-y for my taste. As in: “Ahem. Now listen to me, while I will tell you everything I know about that topic.”
Author: Timothy Carter
Summary: Stu is a gay teen living in a devoutly religious small town. He also summons a demon on occasion to chat. But none of that is why everyone in town hates him. The trouble all started after Stu’s little brother caught Stu in the act of pleasuring himself and announced it at church.
What I Loved: I wish there were more YA books that explore the nature of religion, so I was glad to read such a playful attempt at doing that.
I also loved that what gets Stu in trouble had nothing to do with him being gay. The townspeople were actually surprisingly okay with his orientation—that is, surprising for a small religious town.
But the fantastical twists and turns in this book did not make a believer out of me.
The humor didn’t exactly convert me to fandom, either. Instead of laughing or even smiling at the jokes, I groaned. Like with this one:
I did think I was better than most people in this town. When you’re a gay teenager with a brain among a community that expects God to “Rapture” them at any given moment, you can’t help but feel that way. If that makes me a snob, then say hello to my upturned nostrils!
I like my humor fresh and original. To me, the humor in this book was not either of those things.
The book that will continue to the next round is…
If you’re a numbers sort of person, here’s the ratings breakdown:
Alligator Bayou: 3/5
To see how Alligator Bayou fares in the next round of the tournament, keep an eye on There’s a Book for Danielle’s decision.