Book Review: Alex Approximately, by Jenn Bennett

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_alex_approximatelyAlex, Approximately is sort of a modern-day novelised equivalent of the movie, You’ve Got Mail, aimed at a new generation.

Our protagonist, Bailey, loves classic movies and follows a strict habit of avoiding things that take her out of her comfort zone. So, when things become too uncomfortable at home with her mother’s new boyfriend, she moves to a small Californian coastal city, to live with her father. The fact that her online friend, fellow film-buff Alex, also lives there is just an added garnish.

However, not one to rush into things, Bailey determines to track down this mysterious “Alex” and suss him out before even tell him that they’re in the same city. The city, resting on the Californian Coast, somewhere near Monteray Bay and with the redwood forests as a backdrop, is a surfer’s paradise. It’s also home to a bizarre museum known as “The Cave” (which I feel was loosely based on The House On the Rock in Wisconsin). Here she picks up a summer job, and also catches the attentions of sexy, if infuriating, surfer boy, Parker. Their initial meetings are typical to the genre: he gently mocks her, and ultimately seems to be intent on trying to embarrass her. She bites back. They grow closer, become friends, and eventually Bailey decides she should stop trying to lightly stalk “Alex” in favour of her new relationship, and their already fairly infrequent online conversations cease.

If you’re reading this book for discussions about classic movies, I’m afraid you’re likely be disappointed. What you do receive, instead, is the awkward world of teenage dating and a frustrating case of hidden identity, interspersed with an intriguing array of background characters (Parker’s mother is most excellent!), and a somewhat-antagonist, Parker’s ex-friend, Davey. Davey is all kinds of messed up: he injured his knee a few years ago, became addicted to painkillers, and switched from there to harder drugs. He exhibits a variety of antisocial mannerisms, including a deep resentment of Parker, and Bailey has also caught his eye…

On the surface, Alex Approximately feels like a fairly light, superficial read. The twist, Alex’s identity, is easily figured out (and is pretty much spoiled on some of the promotional material, although not, fortunately, the blurb). It does contain frequent mentions of recreational drug use (although the main characters remain drug-free), violence, and some fairly descriptive sexual content. Thus I would not recommend it for the younger or more innocent reader (I would suggest, ages 14+).

It also fails to deal with some of the harder issues, such as Davey’s drug addiction, and he is cast more as the villain in need of taking out than the teenager in need of serious help that he clearly is. Bailey, for all that her father calls her “a good detective” at one point, is possibly the worst detective I’ve seen in a young adult novel, and completely fails to figure out who Alex is, despite the fact that even her father has guessed (but refuses to tell her or even drop substantial hints, presumably because the situation amuses him).

Whilst I would describe it as extremely readable, and quite entertaining, it could have been so much more.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Alex Approximately
by Jenn Bennett
Published by Simon & Schuster
ISBN  9781471161049

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Book Review: Olivia and the Fairy Princesses by Ian Falconer

This book is in bookshops now

Anyone who’s stepped foot inside the children’s section of a bookshop, or into a primary school classroom over the last decade would be hard pressed to have missed the delights of Olivia the Pig. This outspoken, irrepressible piglet first marched onto the literary scene in 2000 when Falconer, also a theatre set and costumer designer, as well as a New Yorker cover artist, was inspired to create a literary homage to his niece. The world is fortunate that he did –Olivia and the Fairy Princesses is the seventh book in the series, and it’s as plucky, original and visually sumptuous as the rest.

Olivia is trying to figure out what she wants to be when she grows up, (‘I think I’m having an identity crisis’) and is finding it tricky to avoid a model dominated by princesses. The story deals with Olivia’s attempts to differentiate herself from the pack, and while serious questions about identity and societal expectations underpin the narrative, they’re dealt to in unusual and often hilarious ways.

For instance, Olivia asks why princess are always pink, and proceeds to model a series of international princess outfits noting, ‘There are alternatives’. It’s this thoughtful treatment of issues that makes for a provoking read. Witty dialogue ‘I could be a reporter and expose corporate malfeasance’ and the interplay between Olivia and her exasperated mother will have readers of all ages giggling.

The illustrations are equally enthralling and utterly beautiful. Falconer’s spare colour palette helps us to focus on the detail of facial expressions and the outline of the pig family’s ears and noses. A favourite drawing is of Olivia ranting during her bedtime routine while donning a towel head turban and clasping her toothbrush. Dance aficionados will love the double page spread in which Olivia pulls a series of Martha Graham poses –the book is dedicated with ‘deepest apologies’ to the choreographer.

The use of the animals as metaphors for people is a formula long cherished in children’s literature and here, Falconer uses the pigs to great comic effect. Scenes are so much funnier when a ballet class is full of pigs in tutus, or when Halloween involves a pig dressed as a warthog. It’s a combination of absorbing imagery, contemporary narrative style and a gregarious heroine that sets this series apart and lends a sense of optimism to the future of children’s books.

Reviewed by Caitlin Sinclair

Olivia and the Fairy Princesses
Written and illustrated by Ian Falconer
A Simon & Schuster imprint from Penguin Group (NZ), September 2012
ISBN 9780857078872

Book review: The Next Best Thing by Jennifer Weiner

This book is in bookstores now.

The Next Best Thing by best-selling author Jennifer Weiner is set in Los Angeles and is about Ruth Saunders, a young woman who breaks into the world of TV sitcoms with her show The Next Best Thing. I’m interested in LA and screenwriting, and I think they’re great subjects for a novel, so I was looking forward to reading and reviewing this book. But it didn’t go quite the way I’d expected.

Fifty pages in I knew there was something not quite right about this novel, and so I did a little investigating. I wouldn’t normally search the internet or look at other reviews before I write my own, but on this occasion I’m glad I did.

It turns out that Jennifer Weiner co-created and wrote the short-lived sitcom ‘State of Georgia’ in 2011. To be fair she acknowledges this at the back of The Next Best Thing. But there’s a reminder that should be pinned to every writer’s wall: just because it happened in real life doesn’t mean it should be in your story. When I found out about Weiner’s cancelled sitcom, and had a look around, all the problems I had with The Next Best Thing started to make sense.

As the story slowly unfolds, we see Ruth’s ideas being taken away from her, changed piece by piece until her show is no longer the one she dreamed up. If only, I realised Weiner is telling us, if only I – sorry, I mean Ruth – could have made ‘State of Georgia’ – sorry, I mean The Next Best Thing – the way I’d wanted to it would have all been OK, and it would have been a hit.

Weiner tells us in great detail how it all happened. Dozens of pages go by while we hear about how the show was picked up, the rewriting of scenes and introduction of new characters, the studio executives getting their way with casting, and the lowly status of the writer when it comes to decisions. And what happened with audience testing. And how difficult the actors were. And so on and so on.

There’s no problem with writers basing parts of their stories on reality. Everyone does it. But Weiner’s inability to resist including endless scenes just because they happened in real life weighs the book down heavily.

Weiner doesn’t help herself by choosing to write in the first person. Everything is related to the reader by Ruth at a slow, unvarying pace. I turned the pages quickly, but not because I wanted to find out what happens. I just wanted to get it over with. There is a remarkable lack of dramatic tension. Although Weiner tries to get us engaged with her characters, there’s no depth, no emotion. There’s nothing really at stake. There should be – all the ingredients are present – but somehow it fails to ignite.

Mark Twain said he didn’t have time to write a short letter, so he wrote a long one instead. I’m quite sure Weiner didn’t give herself enough time to write The Next Best Thing. She couldn’t wait to tell the world what she thought about her ‘State of Georgia’ experience. ‘State of Georgia’ was cancelled in September 2011 and The Next Best Thing hit the bookstands on 1 August 2012. Hardly enough time to write it, let alone tighten it up. Definitely not enough time to pick up what would be called, in TV or the movies, glaring continuity errors. Not enough time to pick up the typos. Not enough time to do a quick web search to confirm that if you wanted a ‘Maori tribesman’ to give you a tattoo, you probably wouldn’t go to Australia.

And then, the ending. It’s not as if any more evidence was needed to to prove that this book was produced too quickly, but the ending provided it anyway. In contrast to the slow-moving first 350 pages, the ending is hurried, muddled and indulgent. There are premiere parties and pilot re-shoots, actors on the payroll and holidays being taken, people appearing in a scene to say one thing and then disappearing again. All very confusing. And then – well, I won’t spoil it for you.

Suffice to say some of it is based on real life events and some of it is made up. Just like all fiction, really, and that’s the thing. Transforming life into fiction is what writers do but it takes time, and I don’t think Weiner spent enough time on The Next Best Thing.

I was disappointed by Weiner’s effort. She’s a best selling author, and The Next Best Thing should have been a better, and shorter, book. I’m quite sure there’s an interesting, exciting and emotionally compelling novel hiding inside The Next Best Thing. I just wish Weiner had taken the time to write it.

Reviewed by C P Howe

The Next Best Thing
by Jennifer Weiner
Published by Simon & Schuster, 2012
ISBN 9780857208163
RRP $37