Sunday, April 30, 2006

What with all the controversy in the news this week, I had to read Sloppy Firsts (again) and How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and got a Life for myself. If you haven't heard about it, the short version of the story is that Kaavya Viswanathan, Harvard sophomore and the author of Opal Mehta, has been accused of plagiarizing Megan McCafferty's novels Sloppy Firsts & Second Helpings. For details, see the original article in the Harvard Crimson and this clip from Viswanathan's Wednesday morning appearance on the Today Show: Teen author denies intentional copying.
Both books are considered "crossover" books; although Jessica Darling, McCafferty's heroine, is only a sophomore at the beginning of Sloppy Firsts, the language & themes make it a good book for an audience of 15 - 25 year olds. By the time she hits Charmed Thirds, the recently released third Jessica Darling novel, Jessica's in college.
Jessica is one of those cynical, intelligent teens with a type A personality who doesn't fit in anywhere because she's years beyond her classmates in so many ways. The one person she connected with, her best friend Hope, has moved away, and Jessica is lost without her. Things get complicated when Jess gets involved with Marcus Flutie a delinquent drug user whom Hope blames for her brother's death. Suddenly Jessica is keeping secrets from the one person she could always talk to.
Opal Mehta is a completely different story, athought Opal is also a type-A, super smart teen. Indian American, Opal and her parents have spent the last seventeen years following HOWGIH - How Opal Will Get Into Harvard - their plan for reaching Ivy League success. Strait A's, multiple science awards & several months worth of welding classes later, on paper Opal is the most qualified applicant Harvard could ask for. But at her early admissions interview, the Dean of Admissions throws Opal a question she isn't ready for - what does she do for fun? When Opal can't answer, the Dean tells her Harvard wants well rounded students with "life experience," and encourages Opal to get a life & apply again regular admission. So begins HOWGAL - How Opal Will Get A Life - the Mehtas' most comprehensive strategic play yet.
There are some immediate similarities between the books - both characters are from New Jersey, both are super-smart, both lack a large group of friends. In McCafferty's second book, Jessica Darling is trying to get into Columbia, while Opal's entire life centers around getting accepted to Harvard. But less apparent similarities were noticed by one reader, who sent a letter to the Harvard Crimson advising them to compare Opal Mehta to McCafferty's works. Reportedly, somewhere between 29-40 passages of Opal Mehta were nearly identical to passages from McCafferty's first two books.
The similarities are definitely there - not even Viswanathan or her publisher denies it. But Viswanathan claims the plagiarism was unintentional, that she read McCafferty's books repeatedly while in high school (though not while she was writing Opal Mehta) and must have "internalized" McCafferty's language and unintentionally copied it when writing her own book.
This explanation has of course stirred up much discussion in the book world. If what Viswanathan is claiming is true, shouldn't authors be plagiarizing others left and right? Or is this a genuine mistake made by someone with a near photographic memory who, upon finding a voice for her character, didn't realize the voice had come from someone else?
Here's my opinion. I'm not sure if Viswanathan did it on purpose or not. But I think she probably identified strongly with Jessica Darling's quick intelligence and intense loneliness. She probably did internalize much of McCafferty's character, including her voice, because they had much in common. The plagiarized passages are striking, but even more striking to me were the similarities between Jessica & Opal's worlds - it's like Jess Darling & Opal live in the same town. Their dream guy/bad boy love interest are nearly identical, the cliques at their school are nearly identical - etc, etc. It makes me wonder if Viswanathan forgot that Jessica Darling didn't belong to her, but to Megan McCafferty. After all, how many of us who are readers have identified so strongly with a character and become so caught up in a book that we forget that millions of others share that same world through the pages - it seems like it belongs only to us.
None of this excuses Viswanathan's actions, even if she didn't do it on purpose. But I do feel sorry for her. She was only 17 when she was offered a 2 book deal with a $500,000 advance from Little, Brown. Much has been made of Viswanathan finishing her novel while she was taking her Harvard exams last spring - a great story, but the reality is that the girl must have been under an immense amount of pressure. I'm sure this probably contributed to the plagiarism, intentional or unintentional.
Viswanathan's publisher has announced it is recalling all unsold copies of Opal Mehta. Viswanathan is going to rewrite the questionable passages and include an acknowledgment to McCafferty in the new edition (something that probably won't make McCafferty feel much better at this point). There's been some discussion about who will buy the book after it's re-release, but I think we should have learned from the whole James Frey debacle that negative press doesn't always hurt - many will buy the book because the read about the whole thing in the paper.
What's really sad (aside from the fact that this will follow Viswanathan forever) is that Opal Mehta is a great story. Opal herself is a fun character, but the best part of the book is Opal's parents. They are wonderfully over the top in their determination to see their daughter get into Harvard, and Opal's close relationship with them is refreshing in a YA lit world of absent parents.
The good side, however, is that this is also providing some exposure for McCafferty's novels - although I'm sure she would have rather it happened in another way. Still, her newest Jess Darling novel, Charmed Thirds, was released earlier this month, and more people than ever before are going to recognize McCafferty's name. And there is a sort of dubious honor in having your work plagiarized - it means someone admired it that much. McCafferty's books are great - they're laugh-out-loud funny, true to life and full of insight.

My advice? Definitely read the originals. Pass on Opal out of principle.

McCafferty, Megan. Sloppy Firsts. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001.
--. Second Helpings. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003.
--. Charmed Thirds. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006.

Viswanathan, Kaavya. How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life. New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2006.

On My Bookshelf: Marly's Ghost by David Levithan; Second Helpings & Charmed Thirds by Megan McCafferty, King Dork by Frank Portman.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've been anxiously awaiting Sarah Dessen's new book, Just Listen. It's finally out, and I finally got time to read it. And, of course, I read it all in one sitting.
In the commercial for Kopf's Department store, Annabel looks like the girl with the perfect life - cheerleader, homecoming queen, the whole deal. The truth is, new school year is going to be rough for Annabel. She's been ditched by her vicious best friend. Rumors about what happened at the part last spring still abound, and no one wants anything to do with Annabel. She's sick of modeling, but she's afraid to tell her mother she wants to quit. The year looks bleak, until she meets Owen. On the fringes himself, Owen has a bit of a rep as a bad boy, but Annabel discovers under the rough exterior Owen is just trying to make his way, deal with his family & his anger, and listen to his music. Music is Owen's passion, and he slowly draws Annabel out of her protective shell by sharing what he loves most with her. Owen's support might give Annabel the strength she needs to share her real feelings with her mother, but it takes the strength of someone else - a former friend - to inspire Annabel to tell the truth about what really happened last spring.
A little bit reminiscent of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Just Listen probably isn't' Dessen's best book, but it's definitely good. I love Owen - if I were 16, he'd be just my type. Dessen's blog and the playlist she has posted to accompany Just Listen add additional layers to the book and give kids a change to get inside the author's mind.

If you're looking for a sassy, confident & fun female detective, I've got your girl. Lulu Dark, girl sleuth, solves the case in Lulu Dark Can See Through Walls by Bennett Madison. While hanging out at a Halo City club with her friends, Lulu's favorite purse - a hideous Kate Spade knock-off - is stolen. Lulu wants it back, since not only is it her favorite purse, but it contains the phone number of Alfie Romeo, the totally hot lead singer of Many Handsomes.
First, Lulu thinks her arch-nemesis Rachel has taken her purse to get back at her for some not-so-nice remarks Lulu made about her mother. But soon it becomes evident that the theft of Lulu's purse is part of something much bigger - and more mysterious. What happened to Lulu's classmate Berlin Silver after she left the club that night? And who is the mysterious Sally Hansen? And what's up with Lulu's friend Charlie - surely he's not in love with her?
This is one of those mysteries that has hints at the end, and you kind of know what's coming, but you just can't wrap your head around it and put it all together. Once you've met Lulu Dark, you'll want to hang out with her some more - watch for her second adventure, Lulu Dark and the Summer of the Fox, coming in May!

Madison, Bennett. Lulu Dark Can See Through Walls. New York: Sleuth/Razorbill, 2005. ISBN 1595140107 $9.99

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

"Sometimes love can be stranger than fiction."

Having founded a few book clubs myself, I was intrigued enough by A Novel Idea by Aimee Friedman that I picked it up at Barnes & Noble for the library. It's a fun read - a great summer beach read - about a girl, Norah, who starts a book club at a fun local book store to add to her list of extra curriculuar activities for college applications. She's a reader, and a bit of a book snob (or at least perceived as so), but she has a secret weakness for trashy romance novels.
Of course, the book club isnt' going to read any such thing; Norah sells them on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time instead. The club's ecclectic, including a diva, a science nerd, Norah's best friend, a book store employee, and James, whom Norah is interested in right away. Norah's not quite sure how to snag him until her latest trashy romance provides some inspiration - a plan that should be impossible for James to resist.
Since book clubs are popular with teens, this book should be as well. The writing isn't great, and I was a little frustrated with Norah's plan - and I think many teens will be, too. It's pretty sit-commy. Still, this one is a clean romance choice for those who are looking for summer mind candy.

Friedman, Aimme. A Novle Idea. New York: Simon Pulse, 2006. ISBN 9781416907855 $5.99.

Yes, I feel like I'm back from the dead. Neck problems have made reading & typing my un-favorite activites for the last few weeks, so I haven't even finished talking about the other two "pink" books I read a couple of weeks ago. And my aching neck is actually doing well enough that I read a few new ones, so now I have lots to talk about.
First up: Fly on the Wall by E. Lockhart. Much fun for anyone who ever really wanted to be, well, a fly on the wall. That's Gretchen Yee's wish - she wants to be a fly on the wall in the boy's locker room in hopes of unlocking the mysterious secrets of men. Then next morning she wakes up an - poof! - what do you know? She's a fly on the wall of the boys locker room. And she's about to learn more about boys than she ever wanted to know.
Gretchen's always been something of a misfit, and she doesn't have many friends. Attending Manhattan High School for the Arts, you'd think her artistic talent would be appreciated, but, unfortunately for Gretchen, her art teachers don't have much respect for the comic book style art that Gretchen loves. And she feels so normal, in a school of distinct individuals, that she knows she doesn't fit in. Her only friend, Katya, seems to be avoiding her, and they guy she has a crush on, Titus, doesn't know she's alive. And guys are so confusing that Gretchen is sure things won't get any better unless she gets some inside info. Which is what leads to The Wish.
Stuck in the boys' locker room, Gretchen learns a lot - although not exactly what she had in mind. Five days in the boys' locker room is enough to educate any girl - and change her for good.
This is a hilariously fun read - I particularly like Gretchen's grading scale for boy's butts, developed after much study. But aside from the humor, it's also a great book about an awkward girl realizing that boys are people, too, and that they can feel just as insecure as she does.

Lockhart, E. Fly on the Wall. New York: Delecorte Press, 2006. ISBN: 0385732813. $15.95.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

So far, this weekend has been all about procrastinating and recuperating. Usually, I "get stuff done" on Saturday so I can totally relax on Sunday, but this has been such a hectic two weeks that I decided to go on strike yesterday. I should have cleaned, done some shopping, and read Life of Pi for book club & the 75 or so submissions I agreed to read for the school's literary journal. Instead, I read four "pink" books, watched the White Sox, napped, and stayed up until nearly 4am watching the second season of Buffy.
So, today I will write, and read some of the stuff I'm supposed to, and I've already done dishes - and I'll probably watch some more Buffy.
I started out with My Not-So-Terrible-Time at the Hippie Hotel by Rosemary Graham. I'd planned to read Thou shalt Not Dump the Skater Dude and Other Commandments I Have Broken, but I discovered the two are companion novels & decided to read the first one first (first one published, that is - I'm a little uptight about this kind of thing). Turns out it doesn't matter; Hippie Hotel actually takes place right in the middle of Skater Dude, but neither ruins the other story. Let me explain.
Hippie Hotel is Tracy's story; her parents are divorced & her dad drags her on vacation for a Family Time program at a crazy hotel. Tracy's having trouble dealing with her parents' divorce, and she has some problems in the romance department herself - like she has no confidence around boys. But David, a local, seems interested in her, and flirtatious Kelsey and Beka (also at the hotel with their divorced parents) help Tracy find enough confidence to give David a chance.
Skater Dude is Kelsey's story. Just before leaving for Cape Cod & the Hippie Hotel, she dumped CJ, her famous skateboarding boyfriend. Tired of playing second fiddle to a skateboard, Kelsey enjoys a couple of weeks of summer fun & meets some new friends before returning home to discover that CJ, who can't handle the fact that a girl actually dumped him, has totally trashed her reputation. Ousted from her old crowd, Kelsey must figure out who she is not that she's not CJ Logan's girl.
Neither of these books break much new ground, but they're both fun reads that cover some important teen issues - divorce, self-confidence, the price of popularity and judging people when you don't have the whole story. Definitely worth a place on any teen's summer reading list.

Oh, and if you want CJ's side of the story, check out his blog at

Graham, Rosemary. My Not-So-Terrible Time at the Hippie Hotel. New York: Viking, 2003. ISBN 0670036110 $16.99
--- Thou Shalt Not Dump the Skater Dude and Other Commandments I Have Broken. New York: Viking, 2005. 0670060178