Thursday, March 25, 2010

REVIEW: Beginner's Luck by Laura Pedersen

    Synopsis

    “There could be no doubt left in anyone’s mind that my life had all the makings of a country-and-western song.”

    The second of seven children (with another on the way), Hallie Palmer has one dream: to make it to Vegas. Normally blessed with an uncanny gift for winning at games of chance, she’s just hit a losing streak. She’s been kicked out of the casino she frequents during school hours, lost all her money for a car on a bad bet at the track, and has been grounded by her parents. Hallie decides the time as come to cut her losses.

    Answering an ad in the local paper, she lands a job as yard person at the elegant home of the sixty-ish Mrs. Olivia Stockton, a wonderfully eccentric rebel who scribes acclaimed poetry along with the occasional soft-core porn story. Under the same wild roof is Olivia’s son, Bernard, an antiques dealer and gourmet cook who turns out mouthwatering cuisine and scathing witticisms, and Gil, Bernard’s lover, whose down-to-earth sensibilities provide a perfect foil to the Stocktons’ outrageous joie de vivre. Here, in this anything-goes household, Hallie has found a new family. And she’s about to receive the education of her life.

    From a wonderful new voice in fiction comes the freshest and funniest novel to barrel down the pike since Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. In Beginner’s Luck, Laura Pedersen introduces us to the endearing oddballs and eccentrics of Cosgrove County, Ohio, who burst to life and steal our hearts–and none more so than Hallie Palmer, sixteen, savvy, and wise beyond her years, a young woman who knows life is agamble . . . and sometimes you have to bet the house.


    About the Author
    Bio from her website

    Laura Pedersen was born in Buffalo, New York (one of "God's frozen people") in 1965, at the height of The Folk Music Scare. (For details of misspent youth see essay at 'Is there a Nurse in the Church?'). After finishing high school in 1983 she moved to Manhattan and began working on The American Stock Exchange, a time when showing up combined with basic computation skills could be parlayed into a career. She chronicled these years in her first book, Play Money.

    Having vowed to become anything but a journalist and with no conception of what a semicolon does, Laura spent the better part of the 1990s writing for The New York Times.

    In 1994 President Clinton honored her as one of Ten Outstanding Young Americans. She has appeared on TV shows including Oprah, Good Morning America, Primetime Live, and David Letterman.

    In 2001, her first novel, Going Away Party, won the Three Oaks Prize for Fiction and was published by Storyline Press. Beginner's Luck was published by Ballantine Books in 2003 and subsequently chosen for the Barnes & Noble "Discover Great New Writers" program, Borders "Original Voices," and as a featured alternate for The Literary Guild.

    Pedersen's other novels include Last Call, Heart's Desire, and The Big Shuffle.

    Laura lives in New York City, teaches reading and trades Yu-Gi-Oh! cards at the Booker T. Washington Learning Center in East Harlem, and is a member of the national literary association P.E.N. (poets, essayists and novelists).



    My Thoughts

    In the beginning of the story, Hallie remarks how life is like a poker game-- part skill and part luck. I love that, and feel that it's so true.

    Hallie is a sixteen-year-old who marches to the beat of her own drum, and finds herself trapped in a Procrustean world of rules and regulations, school bells and deadlines, and no one to appreciate her for who she is. Then she meets the tenants of Nuthatch Lane, and she has never felt so normal!

    There is the senior Unitarian Ms. Olivia, a pornography-writing smuggler and poet who is fighting for freedom of speech and separation of church and state, and into aromatherapy, vegetarianism and spiritualism. She's a wild bohemian who is always leading the bandwagon for some cause.

    Ms. Olivia states in reference to her Alzheimer-struck husband and her daily care of him though he doesn't even know where he is:
    "It's not as bad as it seems, dear. I have my memories to comfort me. That's the part you can't see. And sometimes the most essential things, the ones that make all the difference, are the ones we can never see." (page 122)
    She then remarks that the author of Peter Pan (J.M. Barrie) once said that God gave us memory so we might have roses in December. What a beautiful thought.

    And I love when Ms. Olivia is sharing a conversation she had with the school principal about his Procrustean approach to school in regards to Hallie:
    "...They don't want a freethinking person in their establishment. No, absolutely not. They want blocks of soft, malleable clay that they can carve and shape into their own images. People have a child and then set about tugging the strings to make that child dance to their own tune-- become what they've envisioned a child of theirs should be. I said to him, 'Mr. Collier, with all due respect, one of your trained seals has risen up from the man-made pool and spat in the eye of the zookeeper.' " (page 124)
    By this point in the book, I think I have fallen in love with Ms. Olivia.

    Mr. Bernard, the gay son of Ms. Olivia, is always at odds with his mother, but in a good-natured sort of way. You can feel the great love between mother and son. A gourmand and antiques collector, he lives with his mother and his lover Gil, who is the most "normal" of the bunch!

    And imagine my surprise when I found myself mentioned in the book! A passage referring to a game of Strip Ping Pong at a teenage party states:
    "One of the competitors, Heather Johnson, is already drunk and has her socks and shoes and sweater off, and it's pretty obvious what the guys are trying to accomplish with that one." (page 234)
    And there was another familial reference earlier in the book, given my maiden name is Hugenot :
    "Mr. Bernard chose a French Huguenot theme and almost everything, including the bean salad, candles, tablecloth, and linen napkins were red. But I don't bother telling the poker club this colorful detail." (page 105)
    I love the quirky characters that drive this book. Free-thinking and supportive, the Stocktons offer a strong foundation for Hallie and give her a leg-up on life. And I love having the opportunity to stand beside Hallie as she navigates her way through new experiences and challenges. This is truly a "coming of age" story, and Hallie is a very likable girl.

    This book is full of hot topic issues, and at times I felt that the author was pushing her own agenda. However I tried to look beyond this. For the most part, I enjoyed Ms. Olivia's passionate spirit, and only a few times did I feel somewhat "manipulated" by a storyline that seemed to be a proponent for certain social-political ideas.

    One thing that really bugged me was the inclusion of the chimp Rocky. I'm not sure what the point was of having him around. I just found him to be a distraction. Perhaps for someone unfamiliar with animals, he might be a realistic character or entertain with his ocassional buffoonery. But being an animal lover that has devoted her life to studying animals (strictly as an amateur) and reading voraciously of them (including books about chimps, both in the wild and in captivity), I have to say that most of the behaviour displayed by Rocky was totally preposterous. I grew to dread any passages containing Rocky, as they were just ridiculous. So I tried to just work my way around Rocky, viewing him as something of an obstacle to the storyline for me, and continued on my merry way once I'd made it past him.

    There is some minor vulgarity-- the kind of expletives you would expect even the best of kids to utter on occasion. Typical teen "situations", but nothing too untoward. I would be more cautious of the political and religious subject matter, and whether or not you are comfortable with your child reading ideas that may not jive with your own. You just have to know your own child, and whether they have a mind of their own or not.

    There were a few sticking points in this story that kept me from thoroughly enjoying it. Looking at a five-star rating system on GoodReads, I debated on how to rate this story. I was leaning towards a 3 1/2 star rating, which is impossible. It's either 3 or 4. Which way to go? But I decided that overall I enjoyed this story, despite the sticking points, and so I went with the four stars. (I know that a lot of people gave this story 5 stars, but I reserve that rating for books that I loved so much I want them in my permanent library to read over and over again, and this one just didn't rate that high-- few books do.)

    This was an enjoyable story with great characters full of interest. There are some sensitive subjects addressed, some minor vulgarity, and that stupid chimp to contend with, but a good story all around. I'd recommend this to anyone who enjoys a light coming-of-age YA story with a whimsical twist.

    Now I'm debating on whether to buy Pedersen's two books following this one in the series, as I have the fourth book in this series to review, and I hate to miss out on all of the story in between! Yet I know I'm a slow reader and worry that to read the other two will slow down my review of the fourth one, which I've committed to. *sigh* Decisions, decisions...



    My Rating: 7.5 out of 10

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REVIEW: Beginner's Luck by Laura Pedersen


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