ARC Review: Trash Can Days by Teddy Steinkellner

tcd coverTrash Can Days: A Middle School Saga by Teddy Steinkellner
Published August, 20th, 2013
| GoodreadsB&NThe Book Depository |
My rating: ★★★☆☆

How many times have I heard someone say high school is the best years of everyone’s lives? Too many times. For me, high school did not make up the *best years of my life, but they weren’t the worst. The worst is reserved for middle school. I never think back and feel a warm, bubbly wave of heated affection for middle school, because those years mark the cruelest three years of my… my what, exactly? Childhood? Adolescence? No. Middle schoolers are at that awkward in-between age, stuck leaving their childhoods behind as they move on to becoming full-fledged teenagers. It’s the pre-teen years, and for many students, this not only means fluctuating hormones, but changes in social hierarchy. I will shoot the most incredulous look I can muster if anyone claims these years bring back fond memories. Because they don’t. And no child can escape the terrors of †tweenhood. And Teddy Steinkellner? I think he understands this.

Pre-adolescence is a confusing period to navigate, and Steinkellner’s debut novel, Trash Can Days, captures just how uncomfortable it can be. The book surprised me by how realistically the author portrays junior high (or in my case: middle school) life—this is no Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Alvin Ho, or even Lizzy McGuire or Breakfast Club. Characters are betrayed by their friends and family, several are bullied, others desperately wish to fit in while one wants to dominate the top of the social ladder, and a more serious matter of gangs and gang violence threaten to permeate one character’s life. Despite all this, Steinkellner writes with laugh-out-loud humor that balances the novel’s drama.

In first-person narrative, Trash Can Days follows the lives of four characters voyaging through junior high. Jake and Hannah Schwartz—siblings, separated in age by one year—couldn’t be any more different from each other. Jake—with his bushy hair, questionable fashion taste, and endless love for “childish things”—becomes not so much of a nerd but a scapegoat. He’s an easy target for bullies, even for his sister and (former?) best friend. Hannah, however, is the Queen Bee we all know and hate—but Steinkellner humanizes her character, however self-absorbed and irritating she remains. Next is Danny Uribe, a boy whose body is growing faster than his brain, which reels in all sorts of drama that rivals Hannah—and that’s a lot of drama. That leaves Dorothy Wu, the loveable weird girl who feels perfectly undisturbed about her friendless state or low social rank.

It’s on rare occasions that I’m not completely turned off by alternating perspectives in a book, and Teddy Steinkellner’s Trash Can Days is part of the exception. Often, I find that I become attached to one character and will skim-through other passages to read more from that person’s perspective. I can’t say this didn’t happen with Trash Can Days, as I instantly fell for Dorothy. What’s not to love about “weird” characters? They’re exceptionally different from the herd, and that is what makes them interesting. The diversity Steinkellner provides—and not just ethnically, but in depictions and personalities—makes a curious hook for all characters, so as much as I adore Dorothy, I find Danny’s, Hannah’s, and Jake’s storylines equally engaging.

I felt so engaged, in fact, that it maddened me. Why couldn’t these characters have been a part of my childhood or pre-adolescence? I wish they had been, because no matter how devoted I am to Lizzy McGuire, Trash Can Days is an accurate snapshot of school-life. I wasn’t one of the popular elite, but I wasn’t sitting with the “geeks and freaks” at lunch, either. I related to Lizzy because we were alike in this way, but I didn’t always have a loyal twosome who had my back at all costs. Middle school is a vicious place sometimes, and the lives of many middle schoolers aren’t PG-rated—sorry, Lizzy. This is what attracts me to Trash Can Days, and the well-blended humor makes for an added bonus.

Realistic portrayal aside, I found I relate to Steinkellner’s book because I see parts of myself in many of these characters, and I think others will, too. Where Jake and I are alike rests in his habit to brood and wallow. Ugh! (In self-defense, I look back on this period of my life in shame. “It was hormonal,” I say. “What almost-teen/actual-teen isn’t moody?” I don’t puke rainbows and sunshine for anyone.) As frustrating as he is at times, I extend my sympathy toward Jake because I understand him. And Dorothy? I saw my old thirst to write reflected in her, but her character brings so much more than passion to the story.

Dorothy feels no fear in doing what she wants to do. Unlike many teenagers, what people think doesn’t worry her. She’s bold enough to attend dances solo and scare people in the hallways with feral animal noises. She loves to write and writes about anything, reflecting reality in her fantasies. Her favorite activities include manga-reading, Internetting, video-gaming, and following her morning ritual of brushing her hair 151 times (one stroke for each original Pokémon). She’s strange but quirky. Dorothy is simply Dorothy, and it’s this unique quality that makes her a courageous, beautiful character.

Hannah and Danny are the two I had the most difficulty connecting to. It’s not that I didn’t see aspects of myself in Hannah, because I do, but in a much less diva-like way. In Hannah’s mind, her school is “Hollywood” and she is “US Weekly.” She can write a book with the amount of gossip she files away, which—yes!—she does, but in blog-form. A couple cruel and undeserving incidents happen to Hannah, and although these experiences allow her to change, it’s a turtle-slow process.

But Danny? I have never felt so frustrated by a fictional thirteen year old before. Danny enters junior high a changed boy, and not just physically. Athletic and attractive, he’s much more well-liked than Jake. He’s the guy girls begin to notice, Hannah included, but he also attracts attention from the local gang. From the start, I rooted for him. I wanted him to do well, and then… Danny makes one wrong choice after another. He questions where he belongs: with Jake’s ritzy folk, or with his Hispanic family from the gang-run east end?

I am white, middle-class America living in a less-than-diverse town. Of course I don’t relate to Danny on personal levels, but I feel Steinkellner articulates Danny’s struggle in comprehensive detail. Why Danny upsets me, however, is not about him questioning his place in the community. It’s about him behaving like a terrible friend and not acknowledging it. It’s about his lack of apologies, and how he dares to intentionally lead a friend into a life-threatening situation. Danny makes me angry because he steps up a little too late.

So yeah. Danny pisses me off!

But the book? The book is fresh air. It’s what realistic fiction needs to be: realistic without the cheese-lathered side-dish of hunky-dory.

(*If high school is as good as life gets, then I am a rolling wrecking ball crumpled in eternal regret.

I know, “tweenhood” is an abomination of a word. I did wrong. I am sorry.)

 

Thank you to NetGalley and Disney Book Group for providing a free copy of Trash Can Days: A Middle School Saga in exchange for my honest review.

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Book Review: Nicking Time by T. Traynor

Nicking TimeNicking Time by T. Traynor
Published June 1st, 2013
| GoodreadsB&NThe Book Depository |
My rating: ★★★☆☆

At first glance, Nicking Time appears to be a novel about friendship and growing up—an overdone theme, some might say, yet T. Traynor instills a vitality and refreshing youthfulness through her set of characters. Told by Midge, the story does not unfold through events, but sprawls out before the reader as the young narrator reflects on one particular summer from his childhood. What marks this summer as significant for Midge’s gang—Skooshie, Lemur, Bru, and Hector—is what comes at the end of it: change.

We know that it’s more than just an ordinary summer and that we’re expecting great things to happen. It has to be the best summer we’ve ever had because we’re all scared it’s going to be the last one. That at the end of it secondary school will swallow us up and make us different and everything might change between us.

It’s one thing to experience change the moment it hits, standing in the wake of sudden shock—life altered for better or worse. It’s a different experience to see that change coming ahead of time, and anxiety and excitement or fear fluster in a fit of stomach butterflies. Regardless of what lies ahead, so long as it’s seen beforehand, the remaining time between now and the future becomes precious. The boys sense a shift on the horizon coming to greet them, and they have every intention of making the most out of their summer vacation. With a list full of fun and adventure, their summer seems set, but is there enough time to do it all?

“So do we put ‘Invent Time Bank’ on the list of things we want to do this summer?” asks Skooshie.

“Might as well,” I say.

“OK,” says Hector, scribbling. “That’s number 7.”

“Read them out, Hector,” says Lemur.

“In no particular order—apart from the first one: Cathkin.”

“Even if we doing nothing else,” says Skooshie, “we do that. I would underline it, Hector, just so that’s clear.”

Hiding out in the cool shadow of their secret den, re-enacting battles, rolling in the grass, watching favorite TV shows, and playing the silly, normal games boys play make up the majority of Nicking Time. It largely consists of Midge and his friends adventuring, hopping from one activity to the next, and their plot to break into an rickety-old abandoned stadium. For most of the novel, little else happens, almost to the point where some might question a missing plot. For Traynor’s story to effectively work, to successfully convey Nicking Time’s theme, a defining moment needed to occur. Such a moment does occur, yet not in the way I first suspected, and it crosses the pages late into the story.

Nicking Time, as I said, appears to be a coming-of-age-like novel about childhood friendships. The keyword here is “appears.” Traynor’s novel remains, in certain ways, a story about five boys at the cusp of innocence, ready to enter their adolescent years. What I expected to sprout from this idea shares nothing in common with what the story does offer. As Midges says, “Some disappointment you just have to accept.”

Whether it involves fantasy elements, stays realistic, or even if it’s non-fiction, stories about childhood have always been one of my favorite type of stories to read. Many defining moments mark a person’s life, but more often than not, I find that childhood and leaving it behind can remain one of the more bittersweet tales to tell. Using Midge as her narrator, Traynor has written her book with the simplicity and naiveté of childhood ignorance. Nicking Time is cute, humorous, and most of all, I enjoyed it. However, by writing through Midge’s musings, there are instances of warning that foretell a possibly dark turn.

Perhaps I’ve seen and read too many similar stories that end tragically, or are characterized by uneasy tension. It’s possible, and it’s possible that I let these stories get the best of my expectations, because by the time Nicking Time makes that turn for change, I felt incredibly disappointed. Through all of Traynor’s hints, I suspected something terrible—that death, even—might strike down one of the boys. What better misery to crush one of their most memorable summers? But death awaits none of these boys, nor does anything equally or less tragic. Instead, the story takes on a surprising twist of paranormal nature.

For a mostly realistic but fictional novel, this paranormal twist felt as unsuspected as it is disjointing. At the same time, this aspect proves predictable. Once Traynor introduces this bizarre trait into the story, it’s difficult not to notice hints that the author has planted. By no means did I think Traynor would go do down this route at the beginning of story, but as the story progresses, it becomes clear. Compared to the places my imagination took me, the way in which Traynor concludes Nicking Time lacks spunk and the pulling of emotional heartstrings. Even if I hadn’t misinterpreted the author’s early tip-offs of what was to come, I greeted the paranormal development with an unwelcoming attitude. Rather than one, complete novel, Nicking Time feels like two different stories that collide. The result is not a smooth blending, but an awkward and brashly-concluded story.

Does this take away from the overall enjoyment of Traynor’s writing? In some ways, yes, but Nicking Time remains a likeable story. The narrator, Midge, is smart and funny—as are his friends and younger sister, Kit—and I cherish the moments they made me laugh.

We want to risk the gloom of the stand, lying back and staring up at the rusting roof. We want to walk over every bit of broken concrete, challenging each other to find and leap the most dangerous gaps. We want to be players, managers, spectators, villains, heroes. It’s the stage for so many possible adventures. It’s calling out and we’re the boys to answer it.

Thank you to NetGalley and Floris Books for providing a free copy of Nicking Time in exchange for my honest review.

ARC Book Review: Peregrine Harker & the Black Death by Luke Hollands

Peregrine Harker and the Black DeathPeregrine Harker & The Black Death by Luke Hollands
Release date: June 3rd, 2013
e-book ISBN: 9781907230493
My rating: ★★☆☆☆

*This is a review of an uncorrected proof, and quotes/excerpts may therefore differ from the final copy.

One glance at the ratings I have given books since January tells you that I’m either a stingy reader or 2013 is not my year for good books. I don’t seek out books I know I won’t enjoy, because reading a book I dislike is anything but pleasant. It’s frustrating, and it robs me the experience of getting lost in the wonder of someone’s fantastical creation. I don’t find myself absorbed into a character’s life, devouring pages at rapid pace and oblivious to the world around me. No, I find that I’m painfully aware of my surroundings, and even more aware of the book in front me. I’m aware of the regret I feel and the restlessness nearly bursting out, wanting to finish this story as soon as possible and move on. Preferably, I will go on to meet a better book. A book that I’ll adore. I want to read a book that will have me so entrenched that I won’t realize how swiftly I’m plowing through it.

It had been my hope that Peregrine Harker & the Black Death would be that book: a beacon of dazzling promise over an ocean full of disappointment and flimsy plotlines. Instead, Peregrine Harker is another character I’m happy to forget and have since shoved overboard into murky water. It’s not that Luke Hollands’ story is an especially terrible catastrophe, but it is nothing near what I had hoped it would be. At a surface glance, Peregrine Harker & the Black Death promises nothing short of a light-hearted, adventurous novel where danger threatens to jump out at every turn. When I first discovered Hollands’ book, I swore it to be a likable escapade pinched in good fun. For all I know, that might have been Hollands’ intent when he set out to write Peregrine’s adventure, because it sounds exciting:

It’s the year 1908, and expert tall-tale journalist, Peregrine Harker, finds himself in a squeeze: get to the bottom of the spike in tea prices and report the truth or wave his job goodbye. What ensues, however, is a tall tale of its own, beginning as a simple job that soon takes a risky turn into investigative journalism. It’s a story filled with murder, explosions, hot pursuits, spies, and most of all: betrayal and revenge. When Peregrine is sent to meet with tea trader Sir Magnus Clayton, he instantly—and by accident—becomes mixed up in a mystery that goes beyond the cost of tea. After discovering two dead bodies, it becomes apparent that The Black Death has Peregrine Harker pinned as their new target. Rescued by Clayton’s butler, Mr. Woolf, Peregrine swears to help Clayton demystify the perplexing tea issue. Warned not to trust Clayton, however, the tea trader may not appear to be who he says he is. When Clayton’s leads direct Harker straight into unfriendly territory, who is left to trust when punches and lies creep out from all corners?

The exaggeration over the rising price of tea, I must admit, bothers me. This isn’t any Boston Tea Party, so how ridiculous is it to assume immediate uproar?

“If you were to deny the humble British labourer his morning cup there would be riots on the streets of every major city from here to Rangoon; and, in a few months, I believe that very tragedy is about to happen. There’s trouble brewing and no mistake.”

I chuckled at what I thought was a joke, but Challock’s face remained serious.

“This is no laughing matter, Harker. You see, during the past few weeks, the keen-eyed of us, have been noticing tea prices shooting sky-high. If they continue to rise at this rate it won’t be long before the tea pots of the British Empire are dry.”

I couldn’t help but feel that this is tapping into a British stereotype, inflating the idea that everyone lives for their daily tea. I could equate this to asking, “What will the Americans do now that their beloved Hostess has fallen?!” Oh my Ho-Hos! I am willing to accept that I might be overly critical, but this is merely one of several aspects that I find unbelievable. 1908 or not, how likely is it for a newspaper to hire a fifteen year old journalist—a fibbing one at that—and maintain credibility? Forgive me, because I can’t say I’m familiar with the workforce and cultural norms of London’s early 1900s. For the time being, however, I don’t accept Peregrine’s way of living as realistic.

Because Peregrine Harker & the Black Death is a middle-grade novel, I sense that the author is not just aiming for an action-packed adventure story. This is a book whose roots grow from unlimited imagination that is somewhat based in reality. For all intents and purposes, a silly little novel is perfectly right by me. As a kid who started out reading Amelia Bedelia, Junie B. Jones, and Encyclopedia Brown, and then later on to Harry Potter and Anne of Green Gables, I was a reader who reveled in imagination. I still am, in fact. My childhood was spent getting lost in books and creating stories, sometimes pretending I was a journalist—like Harker—who wrote passionate “Dolphins are friends; not food!” articles. Granted, my feet are now planted in reality, but that doesn’t mean I have forgotten what it’s like to be a ten year old with boundless imagination. I remember how exciting it felt to read books that were just as wild, if not crazier, than my own fancies.

So if you read this review and shake your head at what a pernickety killjoy I am, the lack of plausibility in Peregrine Harker is only part of my problem. (You might groan or roll your eyes at this point, but that’s okay. I can take it.)

Any reader will notice the short chapter lengths instantly. If the writing proves strong and has quality, the length of a chapter—let alone an entire book—doesn’t trouble me. It’s when the writing suffers, and notably so, that I feel frustrated or let down by an author. In particular, Peregrine Harker & the Black Death doesn’t allow readers to experience the story first-hand. Rather than feeling like a participant, Hollands pulls a chair aside and tells you to sit and listen. The reader becomes the listener, not even an observer, of Peregrine’s account.

“So there you go,” said Louisa. “It’s all quite simple really, and if you think about it rationally, it’s very lucky for you I was there.” She was sitting by a roaring fire in my rooms at Broad Street, a steaming mug of cocoa in her hand. We had both thawed a bit, in temperature and emotion. My admiration for her had not just been increased by a change in lighting but rather by the brave tale she had just told me. It went something like this.

I note that the reader is not a witness to anything because the novel consists of Peregrine’s recitation in summarized description. This habit of briefly over-viewing events became a huge problem as I read, because I’m a reader who thrives on falling into details and playing the novel out in my mind. Everything from dialogue to events is largely skimmed over by the main character, which is unfortunate. Most imagery is lost and character conversations turn dull in consequence, and what should be a thrilling story is no more than a lifeless read. I feel that readers are not only deprived of the experience, but that it is difficult make a connection and escape into the story.

The characters present a different problem, bundling my issues of believability and an inability to enjoy the plot. In some way, each character feels solid and present, yet in a limited condition. This has much to do with the writing technique and manner of speech shown in dialogue. While everyone is exhibited with their own individual personalities, I believe Hollands’ mistake is allowing his characters to sound alike in their speech. Smashing pip pip cheerio and a right ho! language bruise the text. I have a difficult time differentiating if this is intended to poke good fun at British prose and lighten the mood or not. Either way, I can’t say I enjoy it, as I find it much too excessive. Even so, I speculate that the target audience might take greater satisfaction out of this than me.

“Well, if it isn’t my dear old pal, Peregrine Harker. How the devil are you, old love?”

I took his hand as briefly as possible, but only for appearances. If Clayton hadn’t been there I probably would have punched the fiend.

“When Clayton told me he was meeting you for a toot, I just couldn’t resist a reunion. I do, however, have to dash, my dear old thing; but it was most pleasant to meet you again, if only briefly.”

My little boat sails onward, still in search of that one story to break this glum reading spell. I realize that Peregrine Harker & the Black Death could not have been that special book for me, which is a shame, but you can’t blame a hopeful reader for trying.

Thank you to Netgalley and Sparkling Books for providing a free copy of Peregrine Harker & the Black Death in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone (Harry Potter #1) by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter & The Sorcerer's StoneHarry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

My rating: ★★★★☆

I remember the first time I picked up a Harry Potter book, and how quickly it sucked me into Harry’s world. I recall the late nights I spent reading about The Boy Who Lived and traveling on all of his escapades, how fun and exciting I found it. The text on each page enchanted me, as I vividly envisioned everything — from the pig’s tail sprouting out of Dudley’s backside to Fred and George pummeling Voldemort in the face with snowballs, and—of course—Dumbledore and his wisdom, the lurking danger of Death Eaters, and friendships that last lifetimes.

The one word that best describes this experience is magical, because if it were not for J.K. Rowling, I shudder to think how long it would have taken me—if at all—to become the book-obsessed nerd I am today. It was J.K. Rowling who first showed me that incredible window of escape and gently nudged my arm as if to say, “All you need to get lost are the pages of a good book.” I imagine she added a wink, too.

Life can be great sometimes, it really can, but how marvelous it is to discover the wonders in a million lives that, if you dared not to read them, would otherwise never experience. The instant I opened the pages to that first Harry Potter book—which, believe it or not, was not Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone—marked the beginnings of a new relationship.

Unbeknownst to ten-year-old me, the Harry Potter franchise would consume the next ten to eleven years of my life. Everything from my pre-awkward pre-teen years through my high school experience, Harry Potter remained a significant part of my world. Harry Potter was my childhood, and I couldn’t have felt more crushed when I realized the adventure was finally over.

“This is the end. This story is kaput. Goodbye,” it said.

My theatrical self equated this as “what was one a perfect marriage just erupted into a one-sided divorce.” Mentally I shouted at Rowling, and at Harry. “I picked you up. I chose you, and now you are dumping me?” Life was never going to be the same, I could tell.

To this day, I still obsess over Rowling’s creation, for the Harry Potter universe populated my childhood with enough fond memories to last a hundred lifetimes. Harry and I were the same age when the first film was released, and from thereon it was like growing up with a best friend. The hours I spent daydreaming that somewhere on this planet was a gateway into a magical realm seems endless. How many of us have sat back after reading a Harry Potter book and inserted ourselves into Harry’s world? I have walked the grounds of Hogwarts, drank tea with Hagrid, jinxed Crabbe and Goyle (I like Draco too much to cause him any harm), and chased Ron around with a love potion. I’ll be one of the first to admit to how occupied I can become with these books, and if you tell me you’ve done no such a thing, you’re a filthy liar.

After all I have said, however, comes the part where I drop a bomb and everything erupts into chaos. I have a secret to tell you. It’s not a dark secret full of juicy detail you can spend hours gossiping about, however. All the same, I feel downright ashamed, because—and here it is—I don’t like the Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone!

Okay, no, that came out wrong. I like year one, I do, but not nearly as much as I wish I did. Why is that?

To start, I admit to harboring a greater love for the film adaption. It is my honest, desperate wish that Chris Columbus had directed all eight Harry Potter films. I feel that Columbus’ movies stayed the truest to the books out of all the films in the series. His adaptions catch a beautiful sense of excitement and adventure that feels just as magical as they are cinematically engaging. I can speak every character line before the characters say the lines themselves. Like a memorized play, I have committed the movie to heart from beginning to end. But can I say the same is true for this book? I can’t, as much as I hate to admit it. In a way, the film does for what the book doesn’t: it breathes life into the story, and in vivid, sparkling detail.

This doesn’t mean I find the book dull in comparison, but there are contributing factors that feed my dissatisfaction. As I said, Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone is not the first book I read. In fact, it was closer to one of the last books I covered in the series, and you can bet I watched the movie before exploring year one in text. Back then in 2001, finally reading the first book post-film, I didn’t have any quarrels. I sped through it more quickly than I had with any other Potter book, and by the time I finished I was a ball of tears and frustration because who wants to wait on the next installment of your favorite series?! No one, that’s who.

Now that the series is officially done, here I am once again—more than ten years later—re-visiting a childhood favorite. Unlike my younger self, I didn’t read through Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone with instant love. I had to work through the first several chapters, because not only did I bump into a slow start, it felt less than exciting. I felt… bored! I want to clarify here and now that J.K. Rowling spends time familiarizing her magical world to the reader. Year one in the Harry Potter series is an introduction for most of what will occur in this book as well as the others, and this was my problem.

By nature and to a point of fault, I am an impatient person. When I read books, especially series, there is nothing I skim faster than recaps. Although Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone is the first book, and therefore doesn’t recap anything, I am already familiar with the setting. What I felt most anxious to read pertained to adventure, and danger loiters and waits to show up. By the time readers approach the halfway mark, Harry is merely getting settled into Hogwarts. Well, it’s about time! Now can we please find the creepy Unicorn blood-sucker in the Forbidden Forest? Please?

You see, I told you I’m impatient.

The “slow start,” as I call it, serves its job well: acquainting readers with these strange wizards and witches, with Harry, and more importantly, Harry’s past. I fell in love with these characters—and loathed a few—all over again, which is a thrilling event of its own. If I had to choose, I might say one of the main reasons I adore the film adaption is because I get to see Harry find his place. The same holds true for the book as well. From the Little Boy Who Lives Under the Cupboard to Wizard-In-Training, I couldn’t ask for a better hero. Although we see his prejudices form in later books, Harry is a kind, loyal friend and brave to a point of detriment.

In the end, impatience and all, I must correct my theatric self, because that girl equated wrong. Harry didn’t toss her to the curb; she abandoned him. Back then it felt like the end-all of everything, but just because the story ends doesn’t mean I can’t revisit it. And so that is what I’ll do, again and again and again, no matter how many pages I must read through before I end up in the Forbidden Forest.