Monday, April 13, 2009

Alex Awards Read #4:
Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow

As a reviewer, I tend to follow a Booklist-style policy -- only publish reviews of recommended books. If I don't like it, I just don't write about it. But, I promised to read AND briefly review all 10 Alex Award books before the end of the year. Sigh.

So I forced myself to keep picking up Sharp Teeth, a novel-in-blank-verse about packs of wolf- or dog- people living and fighting in Los Angeles. Though they are supposedly "lycanthropes" or werewolves, they spend an awful lot of time masquerading as plain old dogs. A main character, Lark, is the leader of a pack that's just been betrayed and scattered by one of its own. Lark seems to have some big plan (he works as a lawyer, I think, in his human life. Is this allegory?) involving poker and infiltrating rival packs. There's an unnamed female, who leaves the pack for Anthony, a nice guy (100% human, at least for a while) who's just gotten a job as a dogcatcher. And a bunch of other characters, including a brute who heads the rival (and much less refined) pack, several women who either start or end as the lone female that holds an otherwise all-male pack together (through the doling out of sex, I think, which seems to be the way these critters work), and some policeman whose role in the story I never quite got the point of.

If you're getting the impression that I skimmed most of this book, you'd be right. I did try, really I did. I picked it back up three times, hoping I would figure out why it got good reviews and was selected for the Alex Award list. Eventually I gave up, and just started turning pages, looking for clues to what happens.

I will say that I did reflect quite a bit on the whole free-verse novel format, wondering if that's why I didn't like this book. That wasn't it -- I actually respect the format more than before, for its spare language and the way it forces the reader to bring imagination and poetry to the reading experience. Nope, it's just the story. I can't figure out why anybody thought it needed to be written, that's all.

When you don't like a book that has gotten awards and good press, it does make you wonder where the problem lies: am I shallow, dumb, missing something important? Maybe. I will see if any of our good high school "customers" are interested in reading Sharp Teeth and giving me an opinion. For now, I'm moving on to the next 2009 Alex Award book on my list, and hoping it's a "page turner" of a more satisfying sort.

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