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Friday, October 23, 2015

Little White Lies Brings Engaging Characters, Trending Topic

Little White Lies, Brianna Baker & F. Bowman Hastie III (Soho Teen)

Addendum:  This was one of my earliest posts and I was trying hard to be very positive in everything I wrote at that time.  I still think it's important to be positive (as opposed to pointlessly negative and picky), but there were always a few additional things that bothered me about this post and this book.  In rolling past it again today, I just had to add them in.  

First and foremost, I would emphasize that the best part of this book to me is still that it starts so strongly with Karl and Coretta as key characters and especially their interaction.  I enjoyed that, even when it consisted of avoidance rather than actual contact. BUT 1) the over-the-top villains -- although well-described -- were pretty hard to take seriously.  And 2) when I said "compelling to the end," I was conveniently ignoring the epilogue.  That section was mysteriously pat and didactic and delivered by ... whom?  Not the character I was expecting to hear from, and it felt awkward.  That's it.  I'm done now.

Little White Lies is a trip into the thrills and hazards of the blogosphere with high school honor student Coretta and ghost-blogger Karl, as her blog takes off and he is paid to help her star rise.  But when the comet that is Little White Lies attracts the attention of media moguls, and Coretta struggles to cope with the pressure, the entire fragile framework of this new world begins to fall apart.  Watching Coretta and Karl, as well as their friends and family, respond to this threat is entertaining, but you might just prefer to hang out with Coretta and Karl and chat a while.


As Little White Lies opens, the Real Money Phone (R$$P) is ringing and our ghost-writing, super-blogging, web-jumping, information-dealing, self-proclaimed Dark Lord of the Twittersphere Karl is up and displaying his ego and his cherished phobias all at once as he juggles the opportunity to assist another overwhelmed web creature in bringing his or her message to the world.  Karl is in a position to ask for, and get, plenty of payment for his services, and he is not really challenged by the usual job these days, having farmed out most of his excess blogging/tweeting work to his own minions, but the possibility of working for the blogger he describes as Noprah (sadly, not Oprah) is too fascinating to turn down.  If he could work for this new, up-and-coming princess of the blogosphere, someone who has already caught his attention, well then ….  He is more than intrigued.

From our first view of sweet smart Coretta at the breakfast table, multi-tasking her way through her high school days, I was fascinated, too.  Despite the fact that she is living a dream life – rich, lovely to look at, “black Ken” boyfriend (she said it first!), smart, successful and loving parents -- I found her to be a very sympathetic character.  She takes a dim view of the self-satisfaction and injustice she sees around her and wants to speak out, and she has the smarts to do it.  Her posts are sharp, funny and off-the-cuff, but there is a lot of humility to Coretta, too.  Going on this crazy ride with her is exhilarating, even though it feels increasingly impossible to keep up.  I mean, how could it not be?  I just wanted to hang out with her and see what she would do and say next.

When Karl and Coretta get together, that’s sharp, too.  Their strange mix-of-worlds relationship is well-played, and the voices feel separate but true.  The first phone call between 40-something white/Caucasian Karl and 17-year-old African-American Coretta is really great as the two circle carefully.  Karl speaks the language of white sensitivity and tries some humor, while Coretta remains cautiously straightforward (Okayy? Wait, really?).  Perfect.  Also the great texting passage between Karl and Coretta where Karl is trying to make a point sarcastically and Coretta just doesn’t bite?  Funny!  Sometimes teens can be so busy refusing to crack a smile with adults.  It’s all … #nofoolin from Coretta when they chat at first, and that feels right.

I also liked the relationship between Rachel and Coretta.  Not because I was just so snowed by its adorable “from birth” quality or the fact that they are another oddball touch of diversity in this book.  No.  All that was fine, albeit having a bit of a been-there-done-that quality.  My favorite thing about the girls is that, although some wrinkles do develop in the relationship -- pretty natural when a serious bond meets the wall of irresistible fame – we don’t have to go through yet another breakdown of a central friendship, just to pull it back together at the end.  There is a different quality to this relationship that feels (again!) more true, snotty noses and all.  It’s not perfect, but it doesn’t end on a whim or a misspoken word just to isolate the heroine.  Thank you, Baker and Hastie for saving me one more pointless friend break-up!

Elements I didn’t love about the book were mostly not really bad so much as they were just not as good as the standard set by the rest of the book.  For instance, the parents at first seemed just sweet and lovely, but then their continuing perfection began to wear on me, or maybe it was as the perfect parents piled on, one after the other, that the annoyance started.  Barbies and Clair Huxtable, indeed!  They flick an eyebrow here and there, but except for Coretta’s father making one lone (and humorous) comment questioning Karl’s moral fiber, no real unpleasantness is allowed to be on offer.  None!  Then again, they aren’t entirely perfect; all those attorneys and no one stopped Coretta from signing the contract that let her lose control of her own web identity?  Thanks, Dad!

And the villains were excessively villain-y, but then … who doesn’t love to have a great target to aim at, especially one that is culled from the ranks of actual history.  [Yes, you can google it.]

One thing I did take issue with was Karl’s ridiculous and self-destructive behavior – when he knows he's being filmed.  This felt like it was just a plot device to make him as personally involved as Coretta in the outcome.  Without ringing too many spoiler bells here, let’s just say that this was a very silly episode in many ways.  I kept re-reading parts of it looking for an explanation.  Hmm ... nope ... nope.

Little White Lies is best and most engaging when we are up close and personal with Coretta and Karl, as they are each clearly defined and make for great entertainment.  It suffers very little from the blips of unreality mainly because Coretta and Karl feel so real.  Their oddball pairing and interactions are at the heart of Little White Lies and make this a story a compelling read to the end.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Gretel of Gesternstadt (Yes, that Gretel) in the Brothers Grimm Mysteries, P.J. Brackston

Once Upon a Crime: A Brothers Grimm Mystery            

Once upon a Crime and The Case of the Fickle Mermaid,
Brothers Grimm Mysteries, P.J. Brackston

Ever wonder what happened to Hansel and Gretel after they escaped the witch?  Well, actually me neither.  But if I had known she was going to become this delightfully witty maven of mysteries, I would have paid more attention.

I know there is a veritable glut of fairy tale fiction out there – retold, re-imagined, revamped and "de-sanitized" – but I can never resist giving the next one a look.  So when I saw an ARC on offer I had to jump.  Not only jump, but I also grabbed one at the library while I was waiting for the ARC request to be approved.  [Yeah, like that!]  Turns out the author, one P. J. (Paula) Brackston, also writes a more serious fantasy line of stand-alone novels involving
witches.  These look gorgeous, but I can’t say what they are like on the inside.  I did not even peek.  Nope.  I'm all about self-control.

As for the fairy tale revamp at hand, I grabbed the first (second?) book, Once upon a Crime: A Brothers Grimm Mystery, and I loved it from first glance.  I know we're not supposed to do it, but I started right off judging the book by its mysterious yet simple and humorous cover.  I haven’t read the second (or is it the first? the timing seems confused), but I did read the ARC of the third, The Case of the Fickle Mermaid, and I can’t believe I wouldn’t want to read any others Ms. Brackston decided to write. 

In briefGretel is …  no longer a child (alright, she's 35!), zaftig, a word I think she would approve, and she loves her comforts, working always to keep herself in the newest beauty treatments and best foods that can be shipped into her very provincial 18th-Century Bavarian home town of Gesternstadt.  Hans(el) is … much to Gretel’s dismay – except when he is cooking delicious meals for her – still living with Gretel and spending his time (and her money) on cards and ale.  As much as she despairs of the very “twee-ness” of Gesternstadt, Hans fits it like he fits his holiday lederhosen:  tight!

Gretel is the star of the show – natch! – and her salty attitude keeps it rolling.  From the opening of Once upon a Crime when she despairs of the very quaintness of her village, I knew she had the kind of crankiness I could really bond with.  The writing is definitely quick and lively, too, and there are numerous examples.  One that comes readily to mind is when Gretel and Hansel are faced with three villains.  After noting each of their defining and repulsive characteristics, Gretel begins to think of them as Pustule, Mold and Cat’s Tongue, in turn, and, altogether, as The Brothers Grime.  

The last [man] was short and wide, and seemed to wobble as he walked, as if it was only his filthy clothing that held him together, while he himself was made up of a material altogether unwholesome and decidedly unattractive.  Aged milk curds, perhaps. Or semolina.  With a thick crust of thick furry, green-blue mold. (p130)
“Did Hoffman send you?” Pustule demanded, pushing his sibling out of the way so that he might thrust his unlovely visage at Gretel. This was, she decided, an unfortunate technique for conducting a conversation, for close up his appearance was so distracting, it was difficult to remain engrossed in the subject being discussed. (p132-33)

After the witty language, I think what I like best about these books is that, despite the main character being a most famous fairy tale personage and involving a succession of fantastical creatures – troll, giant, mermaid, etc. – Ms. Brackston does not attempt to push the stories into some tortured form that involves every character you ever heard of in a fairy tale.  Ugh. Enough of that.

What makes it fun is that she allows her very strong-minded Gretel the run of the stage.  We know Gretel and we can identify with her:  She wants her comforts and she likes to keep fashionable, but she’s also getting the job done in the face of a lot of large and small obstacles – a bumbling brother, wigs overboard, random dead bodies – and she also struggles with the fact that the man she wouldn’t mind impressing (ahem!) always seems to see her at her worst.  I mean, who among us hasn’t shown up somewhere important with mismatched shoes or a soggy mer-hund at her heels?  Right?

I think these books can be properly termed “romps.”  They are a little rowdy, involve some solid mystery action, and I have laughed out loud more than a little.  Life with Gretel (yes, that Gretel) is no average fairy tale (thank goodness!), and it’s a great break from the ordinary to tear around Bavaria with her and have some fun.  

An excellent Feet-Up-I-Don't-Want-To-Work-Too-Hard-Amuse-Me evening read.  That's a thing, right?

Buy "Once Upon a Crime"

                          Buy "The Case of the Fickle Mermaid"