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.

Friday, March 10, 2017

THE STREET OF A THOUSAND BLOSSOMS


Review of THE STREET OF A THOUSAND BLOSSOMS by GAIL TSUKIYAMA

With this novel, Tsukiyama spins a tale of two brothers. Orphaned at a young age, Hiroshi and Kenji go to live with their grandparents. Strong Hiroshi and timid Kenji both discover their passions very early on in life: Hiroshi wants to be a sumotori and Kenji a mask maker. Hiroshi’s dream almost seems possible, while Kenji’s feels too far out of reach. Then both ambitions fade into the background as World War II devastates Japan.

These brothers’ lives are interwoven with that of two sisters, daughters to a famous sumo trainer. Like Hiroshi and Kenji, one has a stronger and another a weaker presence. After their mother’s violent death during the war, the elder sister Haru takes charge, helping her household as well as her father’s sumo pupils. Then she moves on to university where she grows into a strong-willed, smart, modern young woman who pushes against Japan’s traditions. Meanwhile, Aki wilts after their mother’s death, never recovering from the trauma. She’s quiet and withdrawn, unsure of herself and less capable of all chores Haru leaves behind when she goes to university.

These four characters form the heart of a story that spans most of their lifetimes.  I am a very character-centric reader and am happy to report that everyone here feels like a real person, and the intricacies of their relationships when they interact is what held my attention.

My only criticism, and if I recall this is true of the other book I read by this author, is that the storyline feels a little too tragic for my taste. There tends to be a theme in Tsukiyama’s writing of people making the wrong choices. As the reader, these mistakes seem so obvious and you can almost imagine an alternate happily ever after for the characters if they did even one thing differently. But they don’t. The characters can’t see what seems to the reader, or at least me, like the smart choice, and they pay the price for that emotional blindness. My favorite stories usually feature active characters who take control of their lives. Tsukiyama’s characters feel more like they’re surrendering to life, fixated on a certain path to the point that they don’t notice they have other options.  However, she does portray a very realistic phenomenon and the character decisions, if sometimes frustrating, are always believable.

THE STREET OF A THOUSAND BLOSSOMS is about four specific children surviving a changing Japan, but it’s also a beautiful tale about family, emotional bonds, and pursuing our passions.