Friday, December 25, 2015

AFFINITY


Review of AFFINITY by SARAH WATERS

Lady Margaret Prior doesn’t fit in with respectable Victorian society. She refuses to marry a man (She prefers women.) and her recent suicide attempt is simply intolerable. Of course, her most damning trait is that she speaks her mind.

At the book’s opening, Margaret is transitioning back into society after her breakdown (an emotional collapse initiated, we learn, by her lover leaving Margaret to marry her brother). Margaret starts visiting a nearby prison, specifically the women’s wards. Officially, the visits are for intellectual betterment and research purposes in understanding the psychology behind these women so different from herself. Many even muse that hopefully, as a lady, she will have a positive effect on the poor, piteous women she visits. However, the astute reader will pick up long before Margaret states it explicitly that she’s drawn to where she feels she rightfully belongs. She meets women who are in the prison as punishment for attempting suicide, commoner women. Margaret knows she only avoided the exact same fate because she’s a lady.

I normally don’t value setting as much in a novel as other factors, but the era (time more than location) is essential to this story. Margaret lives in a suffocating, restricting society. I fear if I were only a slightly more empathetic person I could have panic attacks just imagining myself in her life. There’s an undercurrent of danger woven throughout every page, the danger that one wrong step in proper society could cast Margaret out. Not “out” to mean merely shunned and ignored, but “out” to mean locked away in prison where she can’t bother others with her contrary opinions and actions.

At the prison, Margaret meets a woman named Selina, who claims to be a medium. During a séance, an elderly patron was murdered and a young women molested. By a naughty ghost, Selina claims. Of course, that explanation doesn’t convince respectable society and Selina is sent to Millbank prison where she meets Margaret. Lady Margaret doesn’t buy Selina’s story either...at first. Then strange things start happening, things Selina couldn’t possibly do without aide, of spirits she insists. Margaret finds gifts left in her room from Selina, who can’t possibly have sent them from prison, and when she visits Selina knows things she can’t about Margaret’s past. Against all logic, Margaret starts to wonder if Selina is an innocent victim who has been telling the truth all along.

My only complaint with this otherwise wonderful novel is with the final twists near the end. I saw certain revelations coming from maybe a quarter through the novel and felt relieved when I thought the author wasn’t going down that obvious route. That being said, I think the twists might be more obvious as a writer myself. Thematically, the developments are meaningful and very interesting for discussion, not to mention well-handled. However, as a writer it seemed the natural, predictable way to turn the story and I had hoped for something more subversive.  

Like many good ghost stories, AFFINITY haunts, leaving a king of lingering imprinted emotion even after finishing the book.

Friday, December 18, 2015

FOR BIDDLE'S SAKE


Review of FOR BIDDLE’S SAKE by GAIL CARSON LEVINE
(fifth in the PRINCESS TALES series)

Bombina is a mean fairy who turns so many people into toads that the fairy queen restricts her to a yearly toad limit (that Bombina usually hits quite early in the year). Then the mean fairy finds herself adopting/kidnapping a little girl named Parsley. Bombina learns to genuinely love the little girl - enough that she resists turning people to toads, for Parsley’s sake.

Until the unfortunate day when Bombina accidentally turns Parsley into a toad. Now the only way to undo the curse is if a human proposes marriage to Parsley, as a toad.

For years Parsley has watched three young princes from a magic spyglass. She found herself most intrigued by the youngest, Tansy, who is constantly bullied and belittled by his older brothers. They blame him for their mistakes and take credit for his accomplishments and little does Tansy know that Parsley is often the only witness who understands what really happened.

When the king announces a challenge to decide his heir for the throne, Parsley finds ways to help Tansy - even as a toad. I found this tale much less predictable than the others, simply because I’m not familiar with the original story - “Puddocky.”

Another cute fairy tale twist with a straight-forward sensibility and silly sense of humor.

Friday, December 11, 2015

WAYSIDE SCHOOL GETS A LITTLE STRANGER


Review of WAYSIDE SCHOOL GETS A LITTLE STRANGER by LOUIS SACHAR
(third in the WAYSIDE SCHOOL series)

You might have thought the second book concluded the wayside school series - what with the school being taken over by cows at the end - but never fear; the strangest, silliest fictional school is back for an actual final installment.

This concluding volume has more of a storyline than the previous books. Where earlier ones featured disparate chapters connected by a bizarre setting and goofy characters, this felt more like a story than the others. Each chapter still tells its own very brief tale, but with this installment the chapters connect from one to the other more - which, perhaps, could be why this one’s definitely my favorite. I like silly and witty, but I still need a little order.

Some of the highlights from this volume include a string of uniquely terrible substitute teachers, a hypnotist school counselor, plenty more ludicrous conversations, an embittered woman with three ears, and useless elevators. These books are nothing if not unique!

While the earlier books felt a little more juvenile re-reading them as an adult, this last one made me sad to see the series end. I love a little social commentary rolled into something cute and comical, and the Wayside School series injects every silly page with serious subtext.

Friday, December 4, 2015

CINDERELLIS AND THE GLASS HILL


Review of CINDERELLIS AND THE GLASS HILL by GAIL CARSON LEVINE
(fourth in THE PRINCESS TALES series)

Most people recognize this as a twist on “Cinderella,” but it’s also a twist on “The Princess on the Glass Hill.” (They’re both right there in the title, but “Cinderella” is a more well-known fairy tale than “The Princess on the Glass Hill.” I think Disney gets credit there.)

In Levine’s version, though, our lead is a boy nicknamed Cinderellis by his annoying brothers. His brothers aren’t cruel, though, merely daft and unappreciative. Cinderellis has a knack for magic and he’s always creating magical inventions to make simple tasks around the farm that much easier and more successful. His brothers, sadly, refuse to ever acknowledge his inventions, always crediting some other force or factor, much to Cinderellis’s disappointment.

Then there’s Princess Marigold, our soon to be princess on a glass hill. Her father has an obsession with quests, always searching for the unlikely or, better yet, impossible. When he finds himself between quests, and bored, he decides it’s time to look for a husband for his daughter, and what better way for weeding out potential suitors than a seemingly impossible task - such as scaling a glass hill to reach her.

I love that Princess Marigold isn’t a helpless victim in this arrangement. She sneaks water and oil onto the top of the hill with her so she can pour down something slippery and sabotage anyone she doesn’t like. She also has a cat named Apricot, who - like a lot of cats in my opinion - is somewhat boring except that Marigold projects a personality onto him.

Another sweet, slim novel with endearing characters and an entertaining wit.

Friday, November 27, 2015

THE BOOK OF TOMORROW


Review of THE BOOK OF TOMORROW by CECELIA AHERN

This book about a magic book hooked me from the first page with a remarkable voice. Tamara Goodwin walked off the paper and introduced herself, and her story tugged at my empathy right away. This is a familiar tale about a spoiled rich girl learning what really matters - the hard way.

The book opens by filling us in on Tamara’s father’s recent suicide. She found his body. Soon after, she and her mother learned of their imminent bankruptcy and realize Tamara’s father likely opted out of life before the ugly turns he saw coming. They lose their mansion, their wealth, their reputation and status, their you-want-it-it’s-yours lifestyle and move out to the country to live with Tamara’s aunt and uncle. Her mother retreats into herself and spends all day a mute lump in her room. Meanwhile Tamara discovers an unusual blank journal. Each day a new entry appears in her handwriting, detailing what we will happen tomorrow. This gives her some unexpected control, but not as much as you might think. For example, you might know that if you take a certain action something bad happens, but that doesn’t mean something worse can’t happen by seeking an alternative route.

That all said, the magical element, the prophesying book, isn’t introduced until well into the story, over 50 pages. Foremost, this a novel about family and, well, tomorrows. The themes in this tale seep to the surface and intermingle nicely with every twist and scene.

I liked Tamara from the start, even if perhaps we’re not supposed to like her that much. Maybe it’s her self-awareness that endeared her to me despite her flaws. She knows full well that she’s been spoiled and that she can be cruel to people when she doesn’t get her way. She calls herself a horrible person. Silly as it sounds, I found her less horrible for saying so herself. And it’s always enjoyable to watch a well-handled character transition. She tells herself that she wishes her dad had talked to her instead of killing himself, but she acknowledges that without being on the other end of his suicide she would have been a brat if he came to her and admitted they were about to lose everything.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t like rating books and one of my reasons is that, for some books, I want to give so many stars before a certain page count and a different number after. This is one of those books. I would happily give the novel 5 stars up until the climax. Then the story, that felt so carefully crafted and nuanced to me, falls into a pit of convoluted melodrama that undermines everything I loved earlier. While I didn’t like all the revelations near the end and how they’re handled (like a “Here’s what was really going on” info dump), I will say that I liked the very end of the novel, the exact scene and note on which the author choose to conclude everything.

What I loved about this book, the strong themes about how much control we really have over our life, remain potent even through the bits I didn’t like. It’s well-titled, too. THE BOOK OF TOMORROW doesn’t merely refer to the magical journal, but to this book itself, a story examining the concept of tomorrow and everything that word means.

Friday, November 20, 2015

PRINCESS SONORA AND THE LONG SLEEP


Review of PRINCESS SONORA AND THE LONG SLEEP by GAIL CARSON LEVINE
(third in the PRINCESS TALES series)

In PRINCESS SONORA, Levine spins a new version of “Sleeping Beauty.” One where her fairy gifts annoy the king and queen more than please them. They want a normal, healthy daughter, one they can watch grow from infant to woman and develop into her own unique individual. Well, the gifts make Sonora magically extraordinary but sometimes the royal couple longs for a more average child. That said, the gift that really drives everyone in the kingdom crazy is the one that makes Sonora ten times smarter than anyone else in the world.

Of course, the gift that worries everyone (even baby Sonora because she’s so smart she understands everything) is when the snubbed fairy Belladonna curses Sonora with inevitable death by finger prick. As the story goes, another fairy intervenes and changes death to 100-year sleep. Everyone thinks Sonora cries at that because she’s a baby, but she’s bawling so much because she doesn’t want the world to change around her while she takes the longest nap ever.

Thanks to Sonora’s incredible smarts, the kingdom develops its own catch phrase: “Princess Sonora knows, but don’t ask her.” Whenever anyone anywhere asks something that no one can answer, that’s the joke. For to ask Sonora a simple question means to invite a lecture expounding on a subject far more than one ever intended.

As Sonora matures, her parents start seeking potential suitors, each with their own list of wonderful fairy gifts crafting their perfect personalities. Sonora detests them all. Perfect on paper, lacking in person. Carson does a stellar job in pinpointing what Sonora needs in a partner. She likes to answer questions...so she needs someone who likes to ask them.

Another cute, witty installment in this middle grade series of fairy tale retellings.

Friday, November 13, 2015

LOVE MEDICINE


Review of LOVE MEDICINE by LOUISE ERDRICH

Like THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB, Erdrich’s first novel LOVE MEDCINE spins a long-spanning story about a family history. However, in this case it’s more like a tribe history - with complicated connections linking disparate characters together. Spreading across 60 years, the book follows Ojibwa characters living in North Dakota. 

The novel switches time and perspective every chapter. Pay close attention to the chapter headers that inform you of who’s speaking and when. Most chapters feature a first person narration, which makes mixing them up easy if you don’t root yourself at the start of the chapter in who’s speaking now. I personally do not like when a book features more than one first person voice. When we follow different characters in third person, it’s simple telling them apart because we’re reading a different name. With multiple first person viewpoints, the voices need to be starkly unique, and more often than not I don’t find the voices distinct enough from each other for me to consistently track who’s speaking when.

I had a similar reaction to LOVE MEDICINE as THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB. Good but not as great. Strong writing, but not notable enough that I fawn over phrases - like I did with THE ROUND HOUSE. A big cast of interesting characters and yet I didn’t invest in them enough to fall in love with the book.

As with THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB, characters lead the novel more than plot so I want to take a moment to describe the key players. The book spends the most time with a love triangle featuring Lulu, Marie, and Nector. Many small communities have that someone about whom everyone gossips, that someone who causes waves whether they meant to or not. Lulu is that someone for this community. She loves easily and briefly and a lot of children by different fathers have come from that carefree love. She’s independent and unpredictable and the kind of person who thrives more than wilts under criticism and judgment. Nector falls for Lulu hard as a young man, but ultimately marries Marie, a safer choice. When Nector and Marie struggle having children of their own, Marie starts taking in orphans whenever she can until they have a house brimming over with kids. Meanwhile, Nector never lets go of his torch for Lulu and it starts burning away at the edges of his marriage. There are plenty more characters, many of whom get their own chapters, but if I had to pinpoint a focal center, it would be Lulu, Marie, and Nector.

I had this strange reaction to LOVE MEDICINE that I’m not sure I ever felt for a book before - where I found the characters more intriguing off the page than on. What I mean is that while I was reading, I didn’t find myself strongly investing in characters’ motivations, goals, experiences, etc. However, whenever I set the book down I continued thinking about them. Any book that can do that has my respect and I would definitely push this for book groups.

Friday, November 6, 2015

THE PRINCESS TEST


Review of THE PRINCESS TEST by GAIL CARSON LEVINE
(second in THE PRINCESS TALES series)

Lorelei would be a helpful person if she could, but she’s tragically too fragile to be much help with anything! Since infancy, injuries and illnesses have plagued her, often brought on by the smallest, most unexpected, variables. Though she’s a kind person at heart, she seems selfish and lazy to some because she spends so much time lying about recovering from her latest ailment. Now what fairy tale would a finicky girl like this find her weakness to be a weird strength? Why, “The Princess and the Pea,” of course!

Levine delivers another short, sweet spin on a familiar story. These fairy tale retellings for young readers stand out from many similar stories by avoiding any didactic tones. Levine isn’t preaching anything here. There’s no moral at the end of the book, or simple structure with good people and bad people, the former rewarded at the end and the latter punished. The tale’s a bit (delightfully) wacky at times, but never didactic.

I read these as a young girl and would highly recommend them for beginner readers, but they’re also one of those pleasant surprises that hold up as an adult. The stories are simple and young, yes, but fun and smart, too.

Friday, October 30, 2015

THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB


Review of THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB by LOUISE ERDRICH

After surviving World War I, German sniper Fidelis Waldvogel seeks out his best friend’s widow. His friend died in the war, leaving Eva pregnant and alone, so Fidelis marries her, and from tragedy and obligation they carve out, over time, a fierce and very genuine love. This quiet, steady conviction in each other serves them well when they leave Germany for America - where Fidelis uses his inherited butchering trade to build a business starting with nothing but some sausages.

I fell in love with Erdrich as a writer after reading one of her more recent novels THE ROUND HOUSE. From the writing to the characters to the plot, I savored nearly every detail of that book with relish. I wrote a blog post once about over-hype, when a book cannot live up to our own expectations (or the expectations others helped craft for us). In this case, THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB, while a good book, couldn’t live up to how much I esteemed THE ROUND HOUSE. In retrospect, I approached Erdrich’s work the wrong way - from most recent to earlier publications. THE ROUND HOUSE is one of her more current successes, a product of decades of honing her craft and writing many stories before. THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB, thought far from Erdrich’s first book, was nevertheless published almost a full decade before THE ROUND HOUSE, doubtless quite the gap of time for sharpening a skill.

With THE ROUND HOUSE, I caught myself appreciating phrases on nearly every page and awing over how not a single word felt out of place. THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB doesn’t have that same tight, polished feel, but I could see glimpses of the writing I admire so much emerging. However, the same keen insight is there even if the turn of phrase didn’t strike me as much. I particularly liked when Delphine confronts her alcoholic father. When she asks him why he drinks and he responds that he does so to fill the emptiness, she explodes that “everyone does everything to fill the emptiness” and therefore that is no excuse for dreadful behavior and poor choices.

I couldn’t invest in this story the way I wanted to primarily because the characters felt more like flat sketches on a page than real, breathing people. I found both the Erdrich books I read driven by character above plot, but when I don’t connect with the characters enough I crave more plot focus. At its heart, THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB is a family saga, not following one event or one person but a particular family over a long period of time. The characters are all interesting and certainly draw the reader in to consider their strengths, weakness, paradoxes, and quirks. Yet they never popped for me the way I like, where I can nearly imagine having a conversation with them myself.

Since this book focuses on the family and characters, I thought it fitting that I describe the cast - since they’re more important really than the plot premise I outlined above. First we have Fidelis, the cliché strong, quiet man who keeps his feelings to himself though he does in fact feel a lot. Then there’s his wife Eva, pregnant with his best friend’s son at the initiation of their marriage. She, too, exhibits a kind of understated determination and work ethic that draws the admiration of Delphine. A former circus performer and forever stubborn, independent woman, Delphine latches on to Eva as the mother she never had. Meanwhile, Delphine takes a fake fiancé Cyprian to stave off small-town rumors on her single life. Cyprian is a veteran and acrobat who, despite his intense feelings for Delphine, cannot love her in the way she wants. Then there’s Delphine’s drunken father Roy who explains her need for some kind of parental role model even as a young woman herself. Eva and Fidelis also have four sons. The oldest Franz has no idea he’s actually fathered by another man and grows up to be Fidelis’s mirror in spirit, though his passion is for planes rather than butchering. Eva and Fidelis first have twin boys, Emil and Erich, and then another son Markus, who becomes Delphine’s favorite and someone she takes great pains to nurture as best she can. There’s also Franz’s girlfriend Mazarine, Fidelis’s busybody sister Tante, the undertaker and Delphine’s best friend Clarisse, and the menacing Sheriff Hock.

In all honesty, I found THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB a good book with ample to discuss regarding characters and relationships not to mention history. I only caution that if you read Erdrich’s later work first, you might be startled at the realization of how much her writing has developed over the past decade.  Oh, and if you’re wondering about the title, Fidelis also possesses a remarkable voice and participated in a singing club with other master butchers in Germany, a tradition he brings with him to America.

Friday, October 23, 2015

EVERY DAY


Review of EVERY DAY by DAVID LEVITHAN

Every day A wakes up in a different person’s body. A took this simple name for themself, because they have no consistent name, physique, friends, family, gender, life. Every day A is someone new. In fact, A (unintentionally) borrows another person’s body for the day. A is considerate about the fact that it’s not their life. Every single day is a day stolen from someone else, so it’s never a day for A to do whatever they want. Then A meets Rhiannon, someone they want to see the next day and the day after that, someone with whom A hopes they could form a long-lasting relationship rather than the millions of single-day parents and best friends A has known.

As a writer myself, I found the premise utterly fascinating. The concept explodes with questions and I recognize what a challenge it would be to write something like this. I already loved Levithan’s work, but I admire him for tackling such a brave notion.

Amazingly, A does have a distinct personality despite no single body. Dry wit. Observant. Unusually mature for their age, but expected for their circumstances. A has mastered the quick assessment of a person. While A can access their current body’s memories, it’s not an easy, immediate task, so A often works from cues. They know how to summarize their temporary family and friends and look for signs that anyone expects something from A (or rather from whomever A’s residing in that day).

As always I found Levithan’s writing beautiful and popping with plenty of sharp insights that resonate with me enough to bookmark. I nodded along with A’s breakdown of kindness vs. niceness. A believes niceness is superficial, an indication more of how you want to be perceived, while kindness is unselfish and sincere, a genuine reflection of your character. I also know I’m not the only one to pull out the following quote as exemplary: “Love can’t conquer anything...It relies on us to do the conquering on its behalf.”

The nature of the magic system raises countless discussion questions about identity. A isn’t tied to specific friends. Even if they like certain kinds of people more than others, they likely won’t see them the next day. A has not had a typical childhood. In fact, A has been molded more by society overall than any one particular household. A doesn’t have hobbies or much opportunity to hone a specific skill. A views gender more fluidly than your average teen since they’re often in a girl’s body one day and a boy’s the next. A views themself in emotional and intellectual terms rather than physical. And identity is only one category of questions. Then consider the ethics. A has no control over this body swapping, but they still feel like an imposter and a life thief. A lives so carefully as not to interrupt a person’s life, but then rarely lives for themself. A constantly considers how actions in a single day could affect the next day, week, month, year, lifetime for the person who will take their life back in 24 hours. A battles with unanswered questions about what they are and whether any amount of deliberate effort can ever outweigh their accidental body snatching.

One of my few criticisms in an otherwise fantastic novel is that I didn’t understand what was so special about A’s love interest Rhiannon. As A mentions repeatedly, they have seen so many people in their lifetime. Rhiannon didn’t strike me as unique enough for me to believe A has never met anyone like her. Her special qualities were usually told and rarely shown. Upon first sight, A thinks she’s different, special enough to jeopardize the whole system A has worked out for laying low, but I never followed the logic or emotional reaction about why A admires Rhiannon so much. Nothing against her. She’s a strong character, but I don’t think she’s one of a kind and I don’t buy that A has never met someone like her before. 

I read this entire book awing at the ambitious scope and wondering how the author would begin to end something this complicated. The good news is that EVERY DAY is a terrific book, but the bad is that its scale makes it difficult to find a satisfying ending. The story feels like it cuts off as it’s only really picking up and one primary resolution felt, for me, sweet but forced.  I finished the book with a combination of lingering respect and unsettled questions.

Friday, October 16, 2015

SPRING FEVER


Review of SPRING FEVER by MARY KAY ANDREWS
(review based on audiobook, read by KATHLEEN MCINERNEY)

SPRING FEVER opens with a wedding. In fact, Annajane Hudgens sits in stunned silence as she watches her ex-husband Mason marrying another woman. Then something stops the wedding and the couple has to postpone it for a while. Annajane has tried and tried to convince herself that she’s over Mason, that she’s fine with his remarriage and blissful in her own recent engagement, but now fate has handed her an opportunity to call her own bluff, if she has the courage.

I found this another simple, enjoyable read from Mary Kay Andrews. The story features engaging characters and the audiobook boasts an excellent narrator. The plot leads you along easily and the writing lends the air of a friend telling you the story.

I liked the, more than usual, complicated relationship dynamics. Mason and Annajane aren’t merely exes, but exes who work closely together. Not so unusual, you might be thinking. Well, let’s add in the fact that shortly, suspiciously shortly, after their divorce, Mason took sole custody of Sophie, his newborn daughter with an unnamed mother. The gossip around town speculates that Sophie’s mother and Mason had a one-night stand while he and Annajane were still married. Annajane knows that the timing is discomfortingly close to their divorce regardless, but to her surprise her bitterness melted away as soon as she met Sophie. She fell hard for the little girl and has played an active role in Sophie’s life ever since. That all said, I will admit that some of the twists at the end took the relationships from intriguingly complex to soap opera melodrama.

In my mind, there’s some hypocrisy going on with Quixie. That’s the soft drink company handed down in Mason’s family, the company where both he and Annajane work. While the book paints (with heavy handed strokes) Quixie as a wholesome family business, it’s ultimately a huge commercial enterprise that keeps their family stinking rich by selling people an unhealthy product. Wait, I’m not actually on a soapbox here. I just found myself rolling my eyes when Annajane goes on about the purity of the Quixie brand time and time again. 

In general, though, this book doesn’t view things in the shades of grey I prefer but more in black and white. Take Mason’s fiancé and almost new wife Celia. As I see happen in many stories, Celia (the other woman figure) starts off as a nice if somewhat shallow person who’s simply not a good fit for Mason. However, her character descends into a mind-bogglingly deceptive and selfish woman. Personally, I enjoy the earlier incarnation of her character better. I think it makes a stronger statement when someone chooses between two people who could be good for him, rather than simply figures out which one is evil and which his soul-mate.

In many ways this sweet, simple story becomes a tale about pride, a tale about two people who could be great together if they can put the past behind them.

Friday, October 9, 2015

A TALE OF HIGHLY UNUSUAL MAGIC


Review of A TALE OF HIGHLY UNUSUAL MAGIC by LISA PAPADEMETRIOU
(review based on an advance reading copy)

Pre-teens Kai and Leila have more in common than you might think at first glance. While Kai spends her summer in Georgia and Leila in Pakistan, they’re both away from their immediate family, visiting other relatives, and feeling more than a little out of their element in the new and different locale.

Kai feels humbled by the independence her great-aunt provides, so much more than her own mother would ever allow. Meanwhile Leila fears any kind of cultural misstep in Pakistan. Both girls discover an unusual book in their temporary home, titled THE EXQUISITE CORPSE and mostly filled with blank pages. In similar aggravated moods, each of the girls writes in the book. Kai’s words appear in Leila’s book and vice versa, while additional words emerge on the pages, telling a mysterious story that connects to the both girls’ lives more than they realize at first.

I liked everything about this book: the writing, the characters, the setting, the relationships, the magic, and, finally, the interwoven detail about lepidoptera. However, my favorite part is the friendship that develops between Kai and her classmate Doodle. Papademetriou describes such fun, joyful curiosity that it made me remember exciting adventures from my own childhood with fond nostalgia. Exploration and imagination - they’re powerful personal development tools.

Silly as this sounds I admire the book for the feeling of “finished.” I read so many books where the editor in me creeps out with constructive critiques I would have made had I been involved in the finalization of the novel, critiques I believe would make it a better book (or, let’s be honest, sometimes more to my personal taste). This novel possesses a satisfying feeling of being exactly what it should be: a completed story ready for exploration by readers.

This book also increased my respect for Papademetriou as a writer with range. I loved her SIREN’S STORM series, especially for its extraordinary sensory detail. A TALE OF HIGHLY UNUSUAL MAGIC feels so different thematically that I might almost question whether it’s by the same author, which only demonstrates how Papademetriou can skillfully adjust every aspect of her story for an entirely different tone.

Friday, October 2, 2015

GOODBYE STRANGER


Review of GOODBYE STRANGER by REBECCA STEAD
(review based on an advance reading copy)

I have yet to read Stead’s now famous middle reader novel WHEN YOU REACH ME (or LIAR & SPY), but I understand from her most recent book GOODBYE STRANGER why she has such a devoted (and expanding) fan-base. She writes my favorite kind of stories, those rooted in character. She doesn’t hook with wild plotlines; the exact same tale would be yawn-worthy without characters who feel so real from the first page.

The book alternates between four perspectives: a trio of close middle school girls and a mysterious, unnamed high school girl. The trio consists of Bridge (short for Brigit), Tab (short for Tabitha), and Em (short for Emily), all starting seventh grade. Bridge survived being hit by a car in third grade, but lately she’s consumed by something a nurse said as she was recovering: “You must have been put on this earth for a reason, little girl, to have survived.” Tab falls in love (intellectually) with her new feminist teacher and all her ideals about civil disobedience. However, Tab’s still learning the line between parroting someone else’s values and defining your own. Em doesn’t look like the other seventh graders. She hit puberty early, in a major way, and even the older boys notice. One goes so far as to request a certain kind of photo. At first she knows better, but as they trade texts and she gets to know him she starts wondering what the big deal is with one little photo. Meanwhile, the high school girl’s story takes place all on one day, where everyone else’s stories eventually end. We don’t know who she is, only that she skipped school because she’s avoiding the consequences of a reckless mistake.

Every single character in this book - middle schooler, teen, parent, and teacher; girls and boys; lead, supporting, or peripheral character - feels tangibly real. The dialogue pops with authenticity, especially the voices of those straddling childhood and adulthood. Stead has a remarkable talent for bringing even the most mundane scenes to life with simple sincerity.

A lot of the insight (and you’ll find plenty) in this book almost feels like an inside joke. Stead sprinkles her story with the strange things we do in real life. Such as when Tab texts Bridge to call her, and Bridge does - but asks, exasperated, why text someone to call you rather than just call that someone? Much of the wisdom is new in phrasing rather than content. Such as Em’s mom’s explanation for how she and Em’s father can love each other for years and then file for divorce. Say people have 9,000 things, Em’s mom says. They meet someone and 1,000 of their things seem to match up, so they think they’re a great fit. Then over time they learn about more of each other’s things and some of them don’t align so well after all. 

I didn’t like the second person viewpoint for the high school character. I think second person is incredibly difficult to pull off and to do so there needs to be a strong case for how it improves a story. Well, the second person choice here mostly hides the identity of the high school student, which I don’t think needed to be a big revelation for later anyway.

The ending satisfies, but frankly doesn’t feel like the highlight of the book. So many books drag in the middle, but this one soars in the middle while the ending feels more like a sad necessity. I do wish, however, that the book ended with the last chapter instead of the epilogue that doesn’t really focus on (at least what I perceived as) the heart of the novel.

After reading GOODBYE STRANGER I know I need to read Stead’s other books as soon as I can. Her character and relationship driven style plays right into my reading taste.

Friday, September 25, 2015

WAYSIDE SCHOOL IS FALLING DOWN


Review of WAYSIDE SCHOOL IS FALLING DOWN by LOUIS SACHAR

The second collection of wacky tales from wayside school made me laugh even more than the first. While the humor in these middle reader books will appeal most to kids, adults will still appreciate the satiric absurdity.

The book opens with one of the stories that stuck with me ever since I first read these books back in elementary school. Chapter 1 follows the yard teacher Louis’ (Did you catch that?) valiant struggle bringing a heavy package to Mrs. Jewls all the way on the thirtieth story and ends with the revelation of the package’s contents as well as Mrs. Jewls’ agenda for said contents. I’m smiling again just thinking about it.

My other favorites include “Homework,” “Kathy and DJ,” “What?,” and “The Substitute.” I feel like I went to school with kids from “Homework” while “Kathy and DJ” provides another sweet if silly moral about a positive attitude. “What?” is actually told backwards, so I suggest flipping to the end of the chapter and starting from there. Last the namesake substitute in “The Substitute” uses the children’s own cleverness against them to trick them into actually studying.

Another fun collection of hilarious stories from wayside school. Perfect bedtime reading for younger readers, since the chapters each tell a short but complete tale.

Friday, September 18, 2015

THE ROUND HOUSE


Review of THE ROUND HOUSE by LOUISE ERDRICH

Shame on me for waiting so long to read a book by Louise Erdrich! I heard her work praised for years, but only recently read this one upon insistence by a fellow reader. Now I already have four more books by Erdrich sitting on my bedside table.

Above anything else, let me say that the writing is exquisite. I’m talking about the kind of stunning ability with words that suggests Erdrich could write about what she ate for breakfast and I would treasure every sentence.

Thankfully, this isn’t a book about what Erdrich eats for breakfast, though. The plot and characters have their fair share of substance as well. I hesitate to describe the plot in too much detail, because Erdrich paces the story so wonderfully I don’t want to ruin anything. I went into the book with close to zero preconceptions regarding its content and wouldn't want to deprive anyone of the same experience I had as I followed the unfolding of a family trauma. Suffice to say that this is a story of a crime committed within an American Indian community. The novel explores both the family impact as well as the tribal politics that can complicate bringing criminals to justice.

At first my only criticism was that the narrator, a thirteen-year-old boy, sounds far too mature for his age. While I “oohed” and “ahhed” over many striking turns of phrase, I didn’t buy them as fitting for a pre-teen’s voice. However, that concern soon proved a moot point, because we learn he’s now a much older man reflecting back on this difficult period of his life when a terrible crime almost crumbled his happy family into debris.

I do have one remaining criticism of the book: the end. The novel finishes with a climatic finale that cuts off without any denouement, clarification, or resolution. That being said, I want to call attention to how rare it is that I read a book where I have only one single negative thing to say.

For the writing alone, this book is a rare find. The characters feel as though they live and breath beside you as they lead the reader into their world: their homes, their families, their problems. An excellent book group selection, a must-read for anyone studying writing as a craft, and a gripping story even for some who might not think it their taste at first description. I have already started another book by Erdrich and have three more lined up after that.

Friday, September 11, 2015

DARK SHIMMER


Review of DARK SHIMMER by DONNA JO NAPOLI
(review based on an advance reading copy)

With DARK SHIMMER, Napoli twists a familiar fairy tale. She introduces depth to usually simplistically motivated characters and presents less fantastical explanations for well-known plot developments. The story follows a young girl in renaissance Venice, a girl ostracized due to her appearance. I’m being vague on purpose, since the blurb on the back of this book deliberately avoids much detail - including which tale this story retells. If you want more detail, see the next paragraph. If you think laying out which story this retells and some of specific twists are spoilers, skip the next paragraph.

Dolce grows up thinking of herself as an ugly monster. She lives on a small, isolated island and she looks so different from everyone there. Deformed, she thinks. She finds solace and purpose learning the trade of mirror making from a local expert. When tragedy strikes, she flees her home and finds herself in what feels like a different world. Everyone looks more like her and most everyone prattles on about her remarkable beauty. At first she thinks they mock her until she learns that her build is average, she grew up among dwarves,  and her loveliness is nothing close to average. If you haven’t caught on, DARK SHIMMER retells “Snow White.” In this version, Dolce has good intentions, but she works with quicksilver when making mirrors and it’s the quicksilver, not anything evil in her nature, that turns her mind paranoid and sinister.

I occasionally wanted a slower development before major transitions, primarily when Dolce abruptly runs away from home and when she first tries to rid herself of her stepdaughter. For the most part, though, I admired the gradual shift in mindset. I enjoyed following Dolce’s decent from affectionate new mother to vain madwoman.

The trouble with fairy tale retellings is always the same: the story can be familiar but it needs to be new, too. It needs to be retold enough. At times the plot didn’t twist as much as I hoped in DARK SHIMMER. The differences mostly revolve around the historical setting and the detailed mirror making addition. That being said, Napoli brings characters that often strike me as flat and boring in “Snow White” to life with very basic, human motivations but complex, layered personalities. I also adored that she made this more a tale about madness than magic.

Friday, September 4, 2015

EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING


Review of EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING by NICOLA YOON
(review based on an advance reading copy)

Eighteen-year-old Madeline has a rare autoimmune disease. As she puts it, “Basically, I’m allergic to the world.” So she stays in her house with only her mother and her nurse (and her books) for company.  She’s an admirably positive girl, though, who finds plenty to love even within her small world. Until it starts feeling too small. Mostly because there isn’t enough room for the boy next door.

EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING is one of those rare treasures of a story that hooked me from the first page, held me riveted for the entire novel, and left an emotional echo in my mind ensuring I never forget this one.

I liked Madeline from the start. She exemplifies a quiet kind of strength, the strength of spirit. She lives such a simple, restricted life and yet she rejoices over everything she can from re-reading a favorite book to movie night with her mom. Both her mother and her nurse talk about their fear that someone with Madeline’s limiting illness might one day succumb to depression. Instead Madeline approaches the world with her frank wit, acknowledging her misfortunes without giving in to tempting self-pity and instead she moves straight on to constantly recognizing the ways she’s blessed.  

This is a very quick read. It looks like a short book: slim, 310 pages. It’s even shorter than it looks, though, due to incredibly short chapters. The long ones are a few pages with the shortest being a few sentences.

The book features unexpected twists here and there, including a big, well-handled one that caught me entirely unawares. Occasionally, some plot developments feel slightly contrived, but it keeps the story moving along at a brisk pace. I did find myself frustrated, though, with mentions of past pain that never earn a full explanation. The mother and nurse reference a summer Madeleine did almost fall prey to despair as well as concern when new neighbors arrive coupled with comments like, “It won’t be like last time.” While I can make guesses based on the information provided, I wish we learned exactly what they’re talking about at some point.

The ending also didn’t entirely satisfy me. Don’t misunderstand me. It is a good ending and I liked it. I’m saying it didn’t entirely satisfy me, not that it didn’t satisfy me at all. My complaint is that the end hints at resolution more than actually letting the reader witness resolution.

I hope to see this one on the bestseller lists soon. The book certainly deserves every bit of praise it receives.

Friday, August 28, 2015

THE GIRL FROM THE WELL


Review of THE GIRL FROM THE WELL by RIN CHUPECO
(review based on an advance reading copy)

From the first sentence, and then the first chapter, I feared I wouldn’t like this book. The opening scene is classic horror, a visceral description of a horrible man suffering a horrible fate. I don’t like horror. Not my taste. Luckily, I kept reading and the second chapter hooked me. 

We read this story through the perspective of the ghost Okiku. She’s a fearsome vigilante who hunts down child murderers and punishes them with brutal deaths. One day she finds herself drawn to a troubled teenage boy covered with tattoos (that have their own disturbing explanation). The boy softens Okiku. She has become accustomed to thinking of herself as a monster, but Tark sees the good she does. In return, Okiku might be the only one who can save Tark from a dreadful destiny of his own.

The story won me over because it remains rooted in character. I even grew to enjoy Okiku’s more horrific scenes the more I understand her motivations. My only complaint regarding character is that Tark’s age often felt like a moving target. He’s fifteen, but sometimes he feels twelve and other times twenty. His maturity and appearance seem to shift depending on whether it suits the scene more for him to be an old kid or a young adult.

Some weird phrasings did throw me out of the story at times. I didn’t note any of them down specifically, but they’re not common mistakes I see all the time. Rather they seem either like things a non-native English speaker might say or like originality attempts that fall short. There’s also some odd formatting choices in the advance copy I read. Though, I believe, designed to emphasize Okiku’s mental instability, the strange formatting merely distracted me. Last a few small plot holes diverted my attention at times. All little things, but certain readers fixate on logic or research lapses as instability in the very foundation of a story.

I should mention that the book’s Japanese-themes definitely elevated the whole story for me. I love everything Japanese: the language, the food, the culture. Someone less interested in Japanese elements will likely enjoy this book a lot less than I did. (I got super excited at the mention of okonomiyaki. Yum!)

This is a short read that only feels a little longer for its heavy themes and dark scenes. Based on word count, I could have read the whole thing in a day, but measuring more by emotional tolerance, well, I needed breaks. At its heart, though, THE GIRL FROM THE WELL tells a familiar story about how the things that haunt us also become an integral part of who we are.

Friday, August 21, 2015

AFTERWORLDS

 
Review of AFTERWORLDS by SCOTT WESTERFELD

I love Westerfeld’s UGLIES series, so when I heard he had a new book coming out I couldn’t wait to read it. I’ll confess from the start that AFTERWORLDS didn’t live up to my, perhaps unrealistically, high expectations, but it’s an enjoyable read nonetheless.

AFTERWORLDS tells two stories, that of a young writer and that of the story she’s writing: about a girl who sees the dead after surviving a terrorist attack. Darcy’s publishing success has left her breathless and out of her element. She wrote her first book in a month, for NaNoWriMo. Then she submitted that, with barely any edits, and the first agent snapped it up and quickly secured her a huge contract with a major publisher. Now fresh from high school, Darcy’s setting aside her parents’ expectations of college to instead move to New York and pursue writing full-time. Meanwhile, we also read Darcy’s story, about a teenager Lizzie who pretends to be dead when terrorists start shooting in an airport. In fact, she pretends so well that she comes too close to death and after that she can see the dead. Darcy’s book follows Lizzie’s journey learning about her new powers, ghosts, and death. Like Darcy, Lizzie’s life suddenly looks completely different. She had simple, standard college plans until fate shook up her life past recognition.

This book features the kind of skilled writing that you don’t even notice, because every word and phrase feels so natural and right. When I look closer I see a lot of passive voice and adverbs. However, everything seems so fitting for Darcy and Lizzie’s perspectives that I never noticed unless I specifically looked.

The plot arch feels so wide that I feared I might reach a frustrating cliffhanger at the end, with hardly anything actually happening in this installment. The pace moves extremely slowly at first, but does pick up. I didn’t find myself investing much until over halfway through, when the pace quickened, but once I did I felt entirely absorbed. I’m also pleased to say the ending is not a frustrating cliffhanger.

I loved and hated Darcy’s plotline. As a writer myself, I connected with all the mundane authentic details about writing and editing and publishing. However, as a writer who pushes myself extremely hard to make enough time for writing and submitting and constantly improving my work, it irritated me reading about an idolized version of publishing where Darcy barely tried at all. She wrote one book where many writers write several before publication. She only wrote said book in a month where it takes some years to finalize one. She hardly edited the book at all while most writers go through a few to countless drafts. Actually I’m not even touching on the idealism of the publishing side yet, only the writing side. I understand that the story needed Darcy’s success to happen suddenly and keep moving along, but the glasses seem too rosy.  

However, I think the book’s biggest weakness is that there are two distinct stories that never intersect. I wondered throughout the novel how Darcy and Lizzie would connect. Would they actually meet? Would we start seeing Darcy’s edits reflected in Lizzie’s life? No, Darcy is a writer and Lizzie her character. As best as I can tell, when we read Lizzie’s story we read the book Darcy wrote. No more to it than that. It sounds silly, because Lizzie is a character, but I wanted her to feel equally real to Darcy. Instead Darcy is a character while Lizzie is a character within a character, another degree removed.

The subtle writing and author commiseration made this book entirely worthwhile for me, but I do suspect it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

Friday, August 14, 2015

THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE


Review of THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE by BRIAN GREENE

I read one other book by Brian Greene recently, THE FABRIC OF THE COSMOS, which took a look at several highlights in physics. THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE focuses specifically on string theory, or M-theory as Greene later clarifies.

For me, reading about M-theory kindles endless curiosity and excitement. The material in this book fascinated and challenged me and really kicks the brain into full alert. I find some of the logical leaps and scientific explorations simply mind-boggling, but I enjoy pondering on them nonetheless.

I definitely would like to understand the math behind this book, and this theory, more. I expect I’m a far ways off from that, but at this point I’m thinking I might benefit from a physics textbook as much as a leisure book like this. I have never been someone who likes being told that, “A is true. Because.” In Greene’s defense, he works hard to explain the why behind what he’s telling the reader, but in an attempt to keep things accessible sometimes there’s a little “Because.” that leaves me wanting more explanation. However, I think the explanation is the actual math and he’s probably entirely accurate that readers such as myself won’t follow the math. Doesn’t mean I’m not going to try!

I also want to read some books or articles on M-theory by scientists who aren’t convinced. Greene acknowledges his bias upfront. String theory is his area of study. Of course, he believes it. Of course, he’s passionate and excited about the latest discoveries. He does attempt to introduce arguments against M-theory, but his enthusiasm often overshadows those. I’m always for a balanced perspective, so the next step for me is likely seeking out some reading material that goes more into depths on M-theory’s drawbacks.

As the previous paragraph implies, I’m not entirely sold on M-theory. However, I don’t feel like I understand it enough to be credible when arguing why! Regardless, it seems to me that there’s very little measurable evidence. Instead the primary reasoning behind M-theory often feels like the fact that it would be so convenient. Don’t get me wrong; I catch Greene’s contagious enthusiasm as I’m reading his words and feel swept away by the exciting possibilities M-theory provides. Then I stop reading, take a step back, and start thinking, “But where’s the proof?”

However, my skepticism only makes me admire string theorists all the more. How brave, I think, to pursue any line of research with no guarantee that your decades of hard work will eventually provide the insights you hope. That being said, I don’t buy that any scientist really wastes their life, even if their research doesn’t lead or contribute to major revelations. Even if string theory is ultimately conclusively disproven, I image there’s still plenty to be learned from the various theories and experiments pursued in its name. 

Thought stuffed to overflowing with information, THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE still feels like it’s scratching the surface. While I teeter back and forth, indecisive, between skepticism and reverence for M-theory, I always love any book that further expands my reading list (and resent at the same time, too; I already have so much read). Next up in this subject: textbooks and string theory criticism.

Friday, August 7, 2015

BIGGER THAN A BREAD BOX


Review of BIGGER THAN A BREAD BOX by LAUREL SNYDER

Though marketed as a fantasy story, this book doesn’t really need the magical element. At its core, this is a story about family dynamics. Yes, preteen Rebecca discovers an enchanted bread box that will grant any wish as long as she wishes for something that can fit inside the bread box. Yet the story fixates on what the bread box can’t grant: Rebecca’s wish for a happy, united family.

Rebecca liked her life. Then one day her mother abruptly packs Rebecca and her little brother in the car and drives them far away from their father and their home to stay with their grandmother. Rebecca misses her house, her school, her friends, and, most of all, her dad. She resents her mother for tearing the family apart and initially wallows in self-pity. Then she starts looking at the world through other people’s perspectives and, by extension, matures quite a bit.

I commend the author for a brilliant example of POV (point of view). This is Rebecca’s story, so we read it in Rebecca’s perspective. Yet the reader will likely pick up on subtle clues that Rebecca, believably, misses. She’s at an age and maturity where she unconsciously makes observations without thinking through what those observations mean. While Rebecca feels her mother has absolutely no reason to leave their father, the reader might tally up the clues. Rebecca’s mother is a nurse and she often comes home late, after work and after running errands, whereupon she promptly sets about preparing dinner and tidying the house. Meanwhile Rebecca’s father can usually be found in front of the TV with a beer. While Rebecca wholeheartedly believes his consistent claim that he’s looking for work, the evidence isn’t convincing. From Rebecca’s standpoint life was good. From the reader’s standpoint, one can see how her mother felt worn to a breaking point.

Rebecca has a nice relationship with her toddler brother Lew. I don’t read very many books where the protagonist has a toddler or infant sibling and even fewer where the relationship feels so moving. Lew makes Rebecca a better person. She’s a little self-centered, though in my opinion absolutely no more so than most kids her age. However, it’s frequently her impulse to care for Lew that tugs her from her egocentric point of view and makes her consider the others around her.

I already know I love Laurel Snyder’s writing, from my earlier review of UP AND DOWN THE SCRATCHY MOUNTAINS. It’s modestly wise, often taking familiar insights and producing a refreshing phrasing. As one example, I really like the line: “sometimes...a person goes so far down a road, they can’t find the energy to walk back the other way.”

I didn’t like how much passive voice I found in this book, though. However, that’s really my only criticism and with a first person narration I consider passive voice more forgivable than with third person.

BIGGER THAN A BREAD BOX provokes some ethical debates, though avoids the didactic pitfalls all too common in books for younger readers. Being primarily concerned with her own wants, Rebecca doesn’t think through her actions at first. She’s quick to stew about anything negative and yet snatches up anything good that comes her way without asking any questions.

Once again Snyder delivers a middle reader book worth reading at any age.