Tag Archives: sports fiction

Book Review: Out of My Mind Flies But Falls at the End

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Some spoilers.

The first book on our reading list for ENG 561: Giving Voice to the Voiceless is Sharon M. Draper’s Out of My Mind, one of the nominees for the 2014 Nutmeg Book Award and high on my mental shortlist for the award.  Out of My Mind is the story of a middle-school girl with cerebral palsy, extremely intelligent but unable to speak without the aid of a machine (which she obtains only midway through the story) and unable to complete basic tasks like dressing or feeding herself.  Out of My Mind chronicles Melody’s struggle to fit in and to express herself to a world that largely sees only her disability.  Extremely intelligent with a photographic memory and synesthesia besides, Melody enters a quiz bowl competition, surpassing her classmates in trials, providing her with the opportunity to show the world her intelligence or at least her ability to comprehend, compete, and retain information.  But because her disability makes her classmates uncomfortable, her chance is stolen, and her inability to communicate effectively, swiftly, and without aid leads to further tragedy, which ultimately is resolved happily enough, but was quite a gut punch from Draper to her readers.

Out of My Mind is written in a simple past first person.  The book reveals itself at the end to be the work of Melody, written as an autobiography for class.

Out of My Mind falls for me into one of the pitfalls of sports fiction (though I had to laugh a little when I looked over what sports fiction I’ve read): dull and plot-miring over-explanation of a sport that is a catalyst but the understanding of which is not really crucial to the plot.  Meg Wolitzer in The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman hangs by her fingertips from this cliff’s edge, but Draper teeters by that same precipice when she lists questions and answers for the quiz bowl in her fiction.  Luckily, a quiz bowl question is briefer than a list of 101 two-letter words, and I was more forgiving of Draper, who also seemed to recognize this problem and, as quickly as she could, moved Melody past inserting the questions into the text.

Otherwise, Out of My Mind is a well-written text, employing many tricks of the trade and leaning towards poetic prose without frequently tumbling into a brier of flowery language.

As a story about voice and voicelessness, Out of My Mind is fascinating, with voice and voicelessness oscillating between being voluntary and involuntary, frustrating and a defense mechanism, even for Melody, for whom for all her life prior voicelessness has been the only option.

Melody is prone to bouts of teenage-ness and this helps to make her real.  In Melody’s struggle to fit in and be understood by her peers, Melody’s cerebral palsy and voicelessness become another hurdle, but the struggle itself is a standard middle-grade trial, one to which I think we can all, at almost any age, relate, and this too helps to make Melody a relatable and real character.

[SPOILERS] Ultimately, Out of My Mind did not have the ending that I wanted for it.  I would have appreciated if it had ended when Melody and her quiz bowl team won the state competition, but Draper saw fit to increase the angst for Melody.  Left behind by her quiz bowl team, Melody feels betrayed, and her disability again becomes stark for her just when she had seemed to surmount it, but she refuses to be defeated by her teammates’ perceived cruelty (I genuinely feel that the team while they can be faulted for excluding her from their shared breakfast cannot have hoped to leave Melody behind).  She demands to go to school despite poor weather and the fraying health and energy of her parents.  In the rain and her distraction, Melody’s mother does not see Melody’s younger sister, and Penny is struck by the car.  Though Penny emerges from the accident with a few broken bones but no lasting damage, I felt that Draper’s point about Melody’s difficulties to communicate had already been conveyed, and while this was (almost) the most dramatic of ways in which her inability could be conveyed, it may not have been necessary to the plot, and really only seemed to fill the space (unnecessarily) between Melody’s disappointment and her moment to confront her class while giving Melody a second time to worry that Penny might be “damaged” mentally as Melody is.  Angst. [END SPOILER]

***1/2

Draper, Sharon M.  Out of My Mind.  New York: Atheneum-Simon & Schuster, 2010.

This review is not endorsed by Sharon M. Draper, Atheneum Books for Young Readers or Simon & Schuster, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: The Worm Whisperer Should Climb to Great Heights

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Click to visit the publisher's website for links to purchase, summary, author bio, excerpt, and reviews.

The Worm Whisperer by Betty Hicks, of which I won an ARC through Goodreads, is a solid piece of middle-grade realistic fiction.  Stylistically, I have very little to say against it.  Its language uses the proper tone for its audience.  The details are all clear as a video.  It avoids clichés.  It captures the rural feel of Appalachian Banner Elk, NC.

A few words of caution before you take my word for it:

1) Betty Hicks is a sister from my alma mater; I’m biased, but I do think that she learned her lessons well (not all of us have).

2) My sister is currently attending Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk.  I’ve visited the town and had a good long talk with a man who owns a store that sells woolly worm themed tourist goods, but I have never attended the Woolly Worm Festival.

MAJOR spoilers ahead!

Hicks had the gall to seem to kill the woolly worm, Tink, to which she had been making her reader and main character attached.  I was impressed that she would do such a thing in a middle-grade book.  Tink is essentially Ellis’ best friend and the only creature (apart from the duck, Puddles, and her ducklings, six of which Hicks does kill) with whom Ellis can be honest.  Things seem to be tumbling apart and Hicks wisely has made victory at the Woolly Worm Festival important in so many ways for the charming Ellis that the reader is compelled to wonder how this can possibly end well.  But end well it does—though not in the way that Ellis expects.  Ellis’ loss at the Woolly Worm Festival is yet another bold decision by Hicks.

If there is one stylistic flaw it is that Hicks tries to include too much and impose too much significance upon details—like Puddles the duck and her dead ducklings.  Ellis is dealing with so much in the story—his father’s injury, new responsibilities at home, an altered family dynamic, poverty, a boyhood crush, not being taken seriously by his peers, finding true friends, competition, a bully—that I’m not sure that his gripe with his mother, forced because of his father’s injury to work several jobs and become and absent parent, is given the attention necessary for me to feel that Puddle’s dead ducklings were more than a tangent.  But I find this stylistic flaw a reasonably forgivable one—at least since it was not very strongly felt.  It is more impressive to me that The Worm Whisperer can cradle as much as it does.

If I can say anything else against the story its that I’d have liked to spend a little more time in the happily ever after, to be reassured that the family dynamic returns to something more palatable to Ellis, that he can maybe hold hands with Alice, that he enjoy his friends’ company rather than feeling that he needs to perform his “class clown” role with them….  The ending is not abrupt, but it is brief, and focuses primarily on the rediscovery and coming resurrection of Tink, almost ignoring the plethora of other troubles with which Hicks has burdened Ellis.

The only reason for me to give The Worm Whisperer less than five stars is my proclivity to save-the-world fantasies over personal dramas.

*****

Hicks, Betty.  The Worm Whisperer.  New York: Roaring Brook-Holtzbrinck, 2013.

This review is not endorsed by Roaring Brook Press, Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership, or Betty Hicks.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.  The review is of an uncorrected proof won through the site, Goodreads.

Book Review: The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman Wins No Tournament

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Click for links to order, excerpts, and the official summary.

First, I should say that my relationship with Scrabble is like Nate’s with the game—or really April’s in reverse, and so I was probably never fated to like this book however well it was written.

I wish that I could say that I agreed with Sharon Creech (author of Walk Two Moons), who praises the “polished prose” of The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman.

Perhaps this novel is outside of bestselling author Meg Wolitzer’s usual style. Or perhaps I really should find my middle grade plot quickly. Hopefully The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman underwent fierce editing before being published.

The novel follows a number of young Scrabble players (Duncan Dorfman being only one) as they prepare for and compete in the annual national Youth Scrabble Tournament.

The characters are a collection of—well, every character that a sports story, from The Mighty Ducks to Yu-gi-oh needs, as one friend to whom I was complaining commented. There’s poor, new in town Duncan, who wants the prize money and popularity; and his partner, Carl, the bully. There’s Nate, pushed into the sport by his father, who seeks to use his son to reclaim his missed chance at glory; and his friend, soon to be love interest, a rather flat character whose name I can’t even remember. Then there’s April, who goes to the tournament to prove to her sports-obsessed family that Scrabble is a sport and that she, April, does belong in the family. April also hopes to find some boy that she met three years ago whose name she doesn’t even know, an obsession so strange that I have difficulty taking April seriously as a character representing any possibly real person. Her friend and partner, Lucy, is just another sidekick.

I think that Wolitzer intends to interest her readers in tournament Scrabble, but the only character that I truly sympathize with is Nate, who is the only one to give up the sport entirely. Again, that may be my relationship with the game interfering.

So, what can I critique without bias? Style.

Particularly early in the book, Wolitzer forgets her purpose—storytelling—in favor of explaining the rules of Scrabble and makes several stylistic mistakes in so doing, most notably including four full pages of two-letter words in list form (an appendix would make for far more natural prose). She also over-explains minor details of the game that matter little to the story and holds the readers’ hands through the characters’ thoughts to make sure they don’t lose a single step that could be assumed.

Wolitzer has made me question the use of the omniscient voice. At first, I thought I just disliked omniscient, but Tolkien uses omniscient. Wolitzer’s problem is that she uses the omniscient to enter everyone’s minds whenever the fancy strikes her with often no transition between character’s points of view. It’s confusing at times. Multiple limited points of view would have served her far better, I think.

All of the characters are marred by awkward, unnatural dialogue. It is not constant, but frequent enough to make me frown.

If you’re looking for a middle grade boys’ book lauding the mind over brawn, about trying to fit in, about strained family relations come to reconciliation, I suggest you go read How To Train Your Dragon instead.

*

Wolitzer, Meg. The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman. New York: Dutton-Penguin, 2011.

This review is written from an advanced reading copy of The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman, which I got from a family friend, Mrs. Guest, who is thanked in the acknowledgements for her support and wisdom. It has not been corrected by the author, publisher, or printer, meaning that there might still be hope. Anyone who has read a copy of the final print, please do tell me what was edited. (I intend to find this book on a self and flip through, but I won’t buy it.)

This review is not endorsed by Mrs. Guest, Meg Wolitzer, Dutton, or Penguin. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.