Friday, April 28, 2017

THE VILE VILLAGE


Review of THE VILE VILLAGE by LEMONY SNICKET
(seventh in the A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS series)

“It takes a village to raise a child,” which is why the village of V.F.D. decides to accept guardianship of the three Baudelaire orphans. Unfortunately, the people in this village seem to have the saying a bit backwards. They expect the children to do all the chores for the entire village. To make matters worse, this town lives by a long, loooong list of strict rules: everything from what books (not many) are allowed in the library to how many nuts are allowed on a sundae. Punishment for disobeying any of these rules is being burned at the stake.

If you’re a silver lining sort of person, though, let’s focus on the fact that the town handyman takes the children under his wing. (You’ll get the pun when you read the book.) Hector is very much like Jerome from The Ersatz Elevator: nice and well-meaning, but sadly too much of a coward to be that useful as a guardian. Hector might be a reasonable person who knows all the town’s rules are alarming nonsense, but he’s too fearful of those in charge to speak up about anything.

There’s a fun mystery in this novel as the children discover a string of poetic riddles that they’re convinced their friend Isadora is leaving. They suspect their kidnapped triplet friends must be nearby...which means Count Olaf is probably nearby, too, not that his presence would be much of a surprise by now.

This may be one of my favorite books in the series so far. As I mentioned in earlier reviews, some of the books start to feel too repetitive in formula, but this addition had more of a complete plot within the one installment - thanks in great part to the poems mystery.

Friday, April 21, 2017

LUCY AND LINH


Review of LUCY AND LINH by ALICE PUNG
(based on a review copy)

This book took a very long time to pull me in, but I became a devoted fan by the end. On it’s surface, LUCY AND LINH is an almost cliché novel. Lucy comes from a lower class background, but earns a scholarship into a fancy private school where she struggles navigating the subtle teenage girl politics. Several iconic, thematically similar novels pop right to mind as you start reading. However, both Lucy and her story develop into something unique as you keep reading.

Lucy is a very smart girl, but quiet and withdrawn. She plans to coast through her high school experience, attracting as little attention to herself as possible. That idea goes out the window when she catches the eye of “the Cabinet,” the student nickname for a trio of popular girls who pretty much control the school, including the teachers, with petty but effective emotional warfare.

The Cabinet a tiresome trope, but I invested in this book so much because I found myself intensely relating to Lucy. She’s a hard worker who believes in work ethic for the sake of itself rather than for recognition. In fact, it embarrasses her when her work ethic, or anything else, draws to much attention her way. She’s smart, but many around her think having nothing to say is the same as having nothing to think. She wants to avoid drama, but finds sometimes it seeks her out. I connected most strongly, though, to her introverted side. Especially when things become convoluted or overwhelming, Lucy sneaks off to spend time by herself. Her peers find this weird and suspect, and I encountered similar confusion in my teenage years when I had social offers but opted for alone time instead. The book puts it very well: “As a general rule, teenage girls never, ever see solitude as a choice.”

This is a thought-provoking novel with plenty to discuss, especially around themes of class, privilege, and race. Lucy overhears one of her teacher’s friends refer to Lucy as “your little Pygmalion project.” Lucy may not know what that means, but we do. A good portion of this book is about Lucy’s slow revelation that sometimes by standing aside you are part of the problem. She wanted to stay tucked out of the way minding her own business, but as she sees behavior she detests she has to decide what’s worth more: taking a stand or minding her own business.

The whole book is told in first person as though Lucy is addressing an old friend from her previous life, Linh. So there’s some second person as well, directed at Linh. I think I found the format a little confusing and hard to get into, which is why the book grew on me so slowly. We don’t know that much about Linh, and it’s easy to forget she exists, except every now and then Lucy throws her name into the middle of a sentence as a reminder: everything’s being told to Linh. All that said, trust the author. There’s an unexpected twist about why the author chose this format. The twist is exceptionally well done and makes everything clear after the big reveal.

Friday, April 14, 2017

THE ERSATZ ELEVATOR


Review of THE ERSATZ ELEVATOR by LEMONY SNICKET
(sixth in the A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS series)

For their latest guardian, the poor Baudelaires find themselves living with Jerome, an old friend of their parents’, and Jerome’s status and money obsessed wife Esme. The couple lives in an “in” neighborhood filled with rich, bored people who spend all their time gossiping about what’s “in” and “out” and restructuring their entire lives around these arbitrary guidelines. Unfortunately, Esme and Jerome live in the penthouse suite of their building...but elevators are out. Fortunately, though, orphans are in!

Jerome isn’t so bad, but - as is the Baudelaires’ luck - he’s another incompetent adult, concerned more with getting along with everyone than doing what needs to be done. I liked his character and found him more realistic than I care to admit. He’s nice, caring, and articulate, which sadly makes his primary weakness of being a coward all the more disappointing.

However, I will say that this is the first book where we encounter some adults who don’t feel entirely incompetent. Unfortunately, hope is a fickle thing and the hope that someone might be able to help them followed by the realization that, no, they can’t after all might be one of the cruelest twists the orphans have encountered in a while.

I do like that the villains feel a bit more capable and, therefore, dastardly in this installment. So far, Olaf has leaned far more heavily on the assurance that everyone else is an idiot. This is the first book where I feel he really does pull one over on the Baudelaires and becomes a more threatening villain for doing so.

Overall, the entire series is becoming more nuanced than the first few books. The first ones had a repetitive rhythm of: orphans being sent to a new guardian, Olaf shows up in disguise, no one believes them, Olaf ruins what might have been an okay home, his deception is revealed, he escapes, and book ends with the knowledge that the orphans need another new home. Well, okay, these books follow that plot line, too, but the past two have far more layers and plot twists, and they actually start to surprise me a little.

These books are much younger than what I tend to read and I do find the logic too loose for my tastes at times. You need to suspend disbelief a lot to get into this over-the-top story and sometimes I find my capability in that area strained to the breaking point.

As always I love Sunny’s baby talk. I’m a sucker for smart characters being overlooked as dumb, especially because others just can’t understand their type of intelligence.

Friday, April 7, 2017

LEARNING CURVES


Review of LEARNING CURVES by GEMMA TOWNLEY

This is the first book that I’ve re-read that didn’t live up to my memory. I think perhaps I mix up chick lit novels, since they’re very formulaic. Maybe I confused this one for another that I liked more, but the point is that I questioned why I thought it worthy a re-read. I debated whether or not to even review it here since I have so many criticisms, but ultimately decided that I did still enjoy it. Despite a plethora of intellectual complaints, I would still recommend the book to someone looking for some pure fluff reading without much substance.

When Jennifer’s materialistic, corporate father cheated on and abandoned her mother Jennifer took her mother’s side. Her mother, Harriet, raised Jennifer alone and filled her head with environmental ideals, some business savvy, and a lot of badmouthing about her father. Jennifer hasn’t seen her father in fifteen years when Harriet pressures her into going undercover in his company as a business student. Harriet suspects some shady doings and relishes the opportunity to take down her ex. However, as Jennifer finally comes closer to her father, she learns that perhaps her mother wasn’t telling her the whole truth.

My complaints about the book are numerous, but can all be boiled down to superficiality. There’s a lot of stock put into appearance as well as concepts like “re-branding” yourself to win a potential romantic prospect. There’s a sense of the men knowing what’s going on while the women run around messing things up until the men explain everything. There basically wouldn’t be a plot if the characters simply communicated with each other like emotionally healthy, mature adults. Characters who, by the way, feel flat, more like puppets for the plot, a plot that often feels contrived, forced into twists that don’t seem organic. There are lots of info dumps and the sexual scenes read far more awkward than steamy.

Despite all this, though, there’s also a lot of humor. As one example, the business students repeatedly enjoy putting their professors on the spot by suggesting condoms whenever the professor requests a sample product to discuss selling. Cue innuendo.

This is a flawed novel to be sure, but if you’re looking for some light entertainment reading it will certainly do the trick.  

Friday, March 31, 2017

THE AUSTERE ACADEMY


Review of THE AUSTERE ACADEMY by LEMONY SNICKET
(fifth in the A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS series)

It’s off to boarding school for the Baudelaire orphans where the horrid vice principal assures them that having a few descriptive words entered into a school computer will ensure Count Olaf stays away from the premises. By now, though, the children are catching on that all adults are incompetent, so best they be as resourceful as possible.

I found this installment more engaging than earlier ones, because it’s where the three siblings meet triplets Duncan and Isadora. Yes, you read two names. Their third sibling passed away in the same fire that claimed their parents, but Duncan and Isadora insist that doesn’t change the fact that they’re triplets, not twins. (There’s really plenty of wisdom buried in the ridiculousness of these books.) The Baudelaires have had no one but each other for four books now and it’s a refreshing change of pace for them to meet others who are not only kind (for they’ve met other kind people), but actually helpful. For once, it seems the Baudelaires’ lives just got a little bit better rather than worse.

These books are much younger than I normally read, at the low end of middle reader, but I still love them nevertheless, primarily for the witty undertones. There’s an understated kind of intelligence to the absurdity. Take the following excerpt as an example: “Assumptions are dangerous things to make, and like all dangerous things to make - bombs for instance, or strawberry shortcake - ” And it seems baby Sunny’s gibberish often isn’t as nonsensical as you might think. Read closer.

I also like how the narrator keeps warning the reader again and again how horrible everything turns out and begging them to read something else. I, for one, intend to ignore him and keep reading.

Friday, March 24, 2017

JULIA VANISHES


Review of JULIA VANISHES by CATHERINE EGAN
(based on a review copy)

The truth is that I liked this book a lot, but yet still have a hefty handful of criticisms that might make this review look more negative than positive. The good about the book is subtle, not things I consciously noticed and admired, but I’m nevertheless aware that I liked this story despite my complaints. When I push myself to consider why, I realize all the characters feel very believable and I’m above all a character-driven reader. Add to that a sense of mystery that I savor, even if it does make the story feel slow at times. 

Julia lives two lives. In her real one, she lives a cramped existence with a few corrupt if well-meaning thieves who have become her and her brother’s only family after their mother was drowned for being a witch. But she’s taken a job that requires she live another life for now, pretending to be a simple housemaid while spying on the household and reporting back anything unusual. She knows her mysterious employer is obviously looking for something, but she doesn’t know what yet. And, if she didn’t know already, she certainly learns by the end of the book the dangers of accepting an assignment without knowing exactly what that assignment is.

Moving into the book’s drawbacks, though, my primary issue is that I don’t like the protagonist, Julia. Not at all. She’s a despicable person, in my opinion. I believe the author makes a run at balancing Julia’s bad qualities against her troubled past, but personally I feel there are a million excuses for being a bad person. Ultimately, you decide whether to give in to those excuses or fight to be better. Julia is selfish, manipulative, and a coward. And the fact is I’ve read too many characters and known too many people in real life who have pushed past adversity to be a good person to have any sympathy for those like Julia. I did a whole blog post once on whether or not you need to like a character to like a book. I don’t, but in this case I think I was supposed to like Julia at least a little more than I did.

I sometimes enjoy stories with unlikable lead characters, especially when the character grows and changes over time. When well-done, it’s a treat to follow someone’s mindset transformation like that. Julia only becomes more and more appalling until a near irredeemable act initiates, to me, a too little too late change in her attitude. Even when she takes more admirable actions, it feels like she only does so to assuage her own guilt; she has no concept of what genuine kindness looks like.

There’s another side to my issues with the protagonist, too. Despite being our viewpoint character, Julia isn’t really an active player in this story. In fact, the book recognizes this itself, near the end, with the following line: “The great players here are the Xianren, Bianka, even little Theo. This is their story. This guard, and I, we are just caught up in it.” That’s how it feels. Julia is a close proximity witness to an unfolding story of significant magnitude, but her role seems to be mostly observer. Frequently throughout the book I felt myself reading about another character and longing to be in their viewpoint instead. It almost feels, at times, like everyone else’s story is more interesting.

Which is also part of why I kept reading, and enjoying, this book. All of the characters, Julia included, feel like entirely believable people. Though I frequently wanted to be in someone else’s perspective, I still enjoyed experiencing everyone else’s stories through Julia’s eyes and the combined tale is definitely intriguing. The characters include her protective, scarred brother of few but deliberate words; her creative, lost soul lover; her guardian of sorts who both shelters Julia and assigns her crooked, dangerous missions, to name few from a large cast. That’s not to mention all the awful types she encounters in her line of work or those misguided souls lured in by her innocent act.

Despite a good deal of criticism in this review, I liked this book beginning to end. For all my grumbles about Julia, I never found myself bored.

Friday, March 17, 2017

THE MISERABLE MILL


Review of THE MISERABLE MILL by LEMONY SNICKET
(fourth in the A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS series)

After yet another misfortunate befalls the Baudelaire orphans’ latest guardian, the infamously incompetent - if well-meaning - Mr. Poe arranges for the children to stay at a lumbermill. Little does he realize, once there the orphans are expected to work at the lumbermill under horrible conditions and for no pay.

Well, that's not quite true. The lumbermill pays its workers in coupons rather than cash, but without any cash the 2 for 1 and 20% coupons are tragically useless. This is an example of the kind of droll humor that peppers this entire series. You’ll also want to keep an eye out for the dedications at the beginning and letters to the editor at the end of each installment as both these play a role in the story.

At this point, book four in a long series, the plot can start feeling very formulaic, but Snicket manages to tamper with that formula just enough for each book to feel different and interesting. And I have to hand it to any author who can craft unique characters with such a small word count. My favorites in THE MISERABLE MILL include the useless sweetheart Charles and naively optimistic Phil.