Friday, April 29, 2016

A Study in Charlotte (Brittany Cavallaro)

Thanks to Edelweiss for the eARC in exchange for my honest, untainted review!

Though I have yet to read an original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story or watch the BBC version, I find myself quite ensnared by the Sherlock Holmes genre. There's something very appealing to me about ludicrously complicated mysteries and the use of really solid, excellent (if improbable) deductive reasoning to solve those mysteries. As always, I'm a sucker for retellings/reworkings, too, so it seemed a logical (wink) choice to read this book.

And I really, really enjoyed it! Long ago did the magic of "I just need to keep reading" wear off for me (which is, in itself, a tragedy), but rarely a book comes along that reignites that feeling, and this was one of them. I found Watson and Holmes to be well-rendered characters, endearing and frustrating in all the right ways: their chemistry was, for me, quite alluring, and every moment they weren't on the page together was a moment I spent clamoring for them to reunite. The pacing is incredibly deliberate--which some people complained about, I noticed--but that's part of why I was drawn back to the book over and over: the mystery is a slow burn, which is pleasurable in its agony. Sometimes it vacates to the fringes of the novel as Cavallaro opts to focus instead on character development and, considering this is the first of three, I found this to be an excellent, well-executed idea.

Something inherent in the YA genre (can I call it a genre? I want to) means we need to see character growth: they're teenagers, after all, and what a volatile group they are--Cavallaro delivers on this front, establishing concrete personality pillars. I'm excited to see how these pillars shift, tilt, and lean in the two sequels. The ending does struggle a bit to tie everything together, and it resorts to an infodumpy strategy, but I thought that it worked because this kind of infodump is so typical of mysteries (and especially the Sherlock stories) and because the author again works in other information for us to sort through about the characters and world of her trilogy.

I'm seeing a fair amount of criticism about the romance element here--part of that seems rooted in purists, who want all versions of Holmes and Watson to be as platonic as Doyle's. That criticism seems boring to me, so I'll ignore it. The other part of the criticism is pointed at the idea that not every book should force its male/female characters to pair off, and that's something I'm more on board with, though am also more willing to forgive in this novel because 1) it's YA, and that sort of relationship wish fulfillment seems part and parcel and 2) there are more than enough suggestions to imply that the relationship isn't magically beautiful and perfect. The Watson character acknowledges more than once that falling in love with the Holmes character isn't the easy choice to make: indeed, it's the far more complicated one, and I enjoyed how realistic Cavallaro's depiction of this awkward friend/more-than-friend duality is, especially in comparison with other novels in this genre/age group.

I would have readily given this book five stars if it weren't for the problematic use of rape as characterization--Game of Thrones, of course, has received a lot of flak for this in recent seasons, and it is something that needs to be addressed. Of course stories about sexual violence are important and necessary--and I think there are a great many novels out there that do a wonderful job exploring the trauma of such a crime--but there is a weird trend in using it as a device to characterize women as survivors--and using it to characterize evil characters as evil--in a way that trivializes it, and I'm afraid that's what happens in this book, too. The book tries to address it toward the end, but it's still not something I was on board with, so I knocked off a star.

I'm anticipating the next volumes in this series eagerly, because I find them to be great fun.


Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Storyteller (Aaron Starmer)

As a child, I really loved book series: at my peak, I think I was following 10 or 11 at once. What I learned is that a series is hard to finish--authors feel the temptation to wrap everything up in a series of gaudy bows that give the fans everything they were hoping for, or they panic under the pressure and do something totally goofy. But I trusted Aaron Starmer--he had amazed and enchanted me with the previous two books, so I had no doubts he would wrap up this trilogy beautifully.

And he did! This book switches perspectives, which might seem like a risky move (and certainly has failed in the hands of other authors, notably Stephenie Meyer and Veronica Roth), but it works (duh). Now, we're reading Stella, the diary that Alistair's older sister Keri keeps. There are two levels to this that make such a narrative switch so engaging--the first is that Keri's voice is spot-on. She's a teenage girl, and she's perceptive and aware. She's not vapid, but is self-interested (I wanted to say self-obsessed, but that word seems too strong and negative): for instance, though there are tons of crazy things happening with Alistair, Keri still finds time to talk about her boyfriend woes and friendship struggles, just like any teenager would. I was incredibly satisfied by this complex, nuanced depiction of a teenage girl. Bravo.

The second reason this narrative switch is so interesting is how it affects our relationship with Alistair. The Riverman was told in first-person; The Whisper was told in third-person, but it was a close third, still focused through Alistair's perspective. The Storyteller is first-person again, but we're in someone else's mind, someone who doesn't and cannot know the intricacies and intimacies of Alistair's thoughts. In essence, as the series goes on, we become more and more removed from Alistair, who changes and separates from the identity we establish in book one. As Alistair loses his identity, we lose touch with Alistair. It's a brilliant device with a wonderful execution.

Speaking of identity, it's one of the things this novel--this series--explores so well. In this final volume, one of the questions at the heart of the identity theme is "who am I when I am special?" Starmer explores this idea in two parallel tales: the Alistair/Keri story, of course, but also through the tale of a magical, glowing wombat. It's like the phrase "it's lonely at the top," except that these aren't stories of success separating people, but inherent being (i.e., who they are) that sets them apart. It was true of Fiona in the first book, who is lonely and called to Aquavania, and it's true of Alistair in subsequent books, first because he is sucked into Aquavania and becomes the Riverman and later because he is the boy involved in a mysterious shooting and disappearance who doesn't behave like he used to. How does being special, set apart in some way, alter the person you are? In Keri's case, the question might even be "how does living adjacent to special change you?"

Starmer also masterfully crafts a razor-sharp balance between melancholy and wonder in this story--for starters, Alistair is transformed into a character entrenched in sadness, and the author smartly employs the use of the startingly-wise-child trope (as we, the readers, know that Alistair is actually many, many years older inside than he is outside) to create this contradictory, uncanny, fascinating character of a young boy who is world-weary. The story never tips into uncomfortably depressing, which is a feat in itself, but Alistair definitely reminds us that the world isn't a bright, shiny, beautiful place, even for children. But there is wonder, too: perhaps it's Keri's unwillingness to accept Alistair's bleak outlook, for perhaps it's the idea that life goes on, or maybe it's that Alistair doesn't give up, even in the face of his despair.

This balancing act happens in Keri's diary, too. Sure, we get entries about the things going on in her life, but it's not all we get out of Stella. There are these weird, interesting short stories, too, magical realism oddities that are at once wondrous--a story about a couple who builds a child out of peppermint, or the aforementioned glowing wombat--and bleak, full of surprising emotional turns (I won't spoil you) that effectively mirror the constant battle the Cleary family faces in trying to adjust to their new normal. In The Whisper, I said that the interwoven stories were reminiscent of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales. If that's true, then the stories in this third volume are like the work of Angela Carter: brutal and sad and true, capable of tearing your heart out and taunting you with the still-beating mass of muscle. I said the one word that described The Riverman was "creepy." For The Whisper, it was "lonely." For The Storyteller, it's "marvelous," in the etymological sense--full of marvels, both joyful and sad.

So what's the final product? A novel that never, even for a second, stops demonstrating its exacting wit, its Technicolor vivacity, and its careful, well-planned narrative structures. A novel that soaks you in its briny lifeblood, then wrings you out delicately but without mercy. A series that is strange, sad, surreal, and satisfying. A must-not-miss. A victory.

My rating: 5/5

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Boo (Neil Smith)

Thanks to NetGalley and Goodreads for the ARC in exchange for my honest review!

Sometimes I encounter books with character voices that are so strong I can't stop hearing them talk afterward. It's not often, which is what makes it a special occurrence. Boo, by Neil Smith, is one such story with a voice that didn't want to dislodge itself. Our voice this time is the same as the book’s title, a boy named Oliver who goes by Boo. He’s dead—recently so—and finds himself in Town, an afterlife that exists exclusively for 13-year-old American children.

Boo has been plagued by a holey heart since birth, which he assumes is what killed him, but after a classmate of his ends up in Town a few weeks later, he discovers the truth: he and the classmate, Johnny, have been victims of open gunfire at their middle school. Johnny is obsessed with discovering the identity of the killer and apprehending him, convinced that the shooter (referred to as Gunboy) also died in the shooting and may very well be in Town with them.

I've seen Boo compared to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and at first I understood and agreed with that comparison--that book, narrated by a boy on the autistic spectrum, features one of the most memorable narrative voices I've ever read. It's so strong, in fact, that even the chapter numbers are not safe: Christopher only numbers his chapters with prime numbers. Boo numbers his chapters sequentially, but he uses the periodic table instead of regular numbers. Characteristically-speaking, there are things about Boo, the main character of our tale, that reminded me of Christopher--his conception of social interaction is not the same as everyone else's; he's a loner; he detests physical encounters with other people.

But I have spoken out before about how unfair comparisons are, how they are intended as flattery but often get in the way of appreciating the book for how it stands on its own. So yes, Boo is removed from the realm of typical social interaction, but it’s more connected to a scientific remove from emotion than a place on the autistic spectrum. Boo wants to study Town, the way everything—even the people—self-repairs its damage, the way Townies never age but after 50 years disappear from Town forever.

Neil Smith really pulls off something marvelous here, because Town is so interesting that the book could spend its entirety exploring the rules of the world and I would have loved it anyway. This could have been a novel in stories the purpose of which was to explore daily life in Town and I would have loved it. Instead, Smith gives a lot of delicate, engaging world-building that does not dominate the novel. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Whisper (Aaron Starmer)

Last year, I raved about The Riverman, the first in a trilogy by Aaron Starmer. Now it's publication day for book two, The Whisper, and I couldn't be more thrilled for everyone (and jealous I can't read it for the first time again).

When we left off book one, Fiona had disappeared into Aquavania, perhaps forever. Alistair realized that Charlie is the Riverman, accidentally shoots Kyle, and then uses the portal in Fiona's basement to chase after her. What he discovers there is a world of ash, with a sparkling rainbow river in it. Left without a choice, he jumps in the river and rides it to another child's realm. There he discovers another "swimmer," a kid who has entered Aquavania through someone else's portal, and, not sure what else to do, follows her lead. So begins book two.

Perhaps my favorite thing about this book is how different it feels from its predecessor, and I mean that in several ways: the narration switches from first- to third-person. It's a strange choice, but one that ultimately suits the style of this book. Riverman was largely about Alistair's pursuit of truth--be it in Fiona's story, his relationship with Fiona, or his own understanding of the world around him--and the first-person narration provides a lot of really crucial moments of introspection.

Whisper feels a lot questier, like The Odyssey, because he hops from world to world and meets one strange set of characters after another: we're less concerned with how Alistair in particular perceives what's happening and more concerned with what's happening to Alistair. We want--need?--the outside perspective on what's going on to map a change in Alistair.

Another of the major differences is that not everything we read is about Alistair. Interwoven with his narrative are several vignettes, stories about other kids who have gone to their own Aquavanias, have built their own worlds and given them up. I can't express how much I adored these--I believe in the author's own words, they are origin stories, and indeed one of them seems to be the origin of the magical otherworld and the Whisper. They read like fairy tales, the real, meaty ones by Andersen. Please don't ask me to explain what exactly I mean by that--these aren't moralistic like Andersen, to be certain, but nonetheless I get the same feeling from these origin stories as I do from, for example, "The Red Shoes" or "The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf."

Starmer wisely plays with the idea of the uncanny for much of the novel: there's something inherently terrifying about reality +/-, and the author exploits it to his benefit often. I don't want to be too spoilery, but let's just say that Alistair spends a fair amount of time in a version of his hometown; I was unnerved as he was by the tiny differences, by the slighty-too-flat population of the town. But all of the children's created worlds are like this, shifted minutely and all the creepier for it.

The thing I loved so much about the first book in this series is how creepy it was--rarely am I made to feel frightened by a book, but there was something about The Riverman that crawled into me and made me shudder. The Whisper exercises this chilly effect less often, but when it does, you really feel it--the uncanny, as I mentioned earlier, has a lot to do with that, but the most chilling moment is without doubt the ending.

However, if "creepy" is the mood-word I use for book one, then "lonely" is the mood-word for book two. Alistair spends a good part of the novel isolated in other people's worlds--even the sentence that I've just typed should clue you in on how lonely it is! Fiona was a lonely character in The Riverman, and Aquavania was a manifestation of that loneliness and an attempt to assuage it; the other children who have escaped to their fantasy lands are no different, and between their narratives interlaced with Alistair's and the wastelands and abandoned creations he explores...this book really punches you in the gut with feelings.

Aaron Starmer, you're great. You have written something delightful and dreary and dazzling and dreamy and destructive. If the rest of you haven't read this book, or what comes before it, stop wasting your time. We're so lucky to be on Starmer's journey. Ugh.

My rating: 5/5

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 in Review

Best Books
1. Grasshopper Jungle, Andrew Smith
This novel was the best thing I read all year--a really touching, precise, painful examination of teenage sexuality and the end times. It put Andrew Smith on my radar, and I'm so glad: I read three of his books this year, and none of them was like the other. I'm eagerly anticipating the two books of his scheduled for 2015, which promise to be equally as wacky and true.

2. The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell
A masterwork from the master. David Mitchell is the king of voice, and he explores six different ones in this book with such dexterity and grace that you'd swear he is actual a cabal of writers using a pseudonym--each character breathes and blinks and batters you with their pure, imperfect humanity. Perhaps it's a little heavy on the sci-fi battle toward the end, but I didn't mind. I'd follow David Mitchell anywhere.

3. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, Leslye Walton
This is the saddest, most beautiful book I read all year, the story of a girl with wings and love and loss. Magical realism at its finest in a delightful showcase. A word that gets tossed around too often when reviewing books is "lush," but it's definitely one of the words I'd choose for this book, along with "delicate," and "glittering." A stunner of a book.

4. The Riverman, Aaron Starmer
Childhood, secrets, love, and fear--Starmer can conquer them all. This is the first in a trilogy (and I've already read the second!), and it's potent book that scared me and made me feel old and young all at once. I can't wait to finish this group of books, which is simultaneously like learning and remembering. This book wins "most likely to crawl up your nose and inside all your organs to haunt you forever."

5. Man V. Nature, Diane Cook
Short stories that thrilled me and chilled me and mined me for all of my deep, personal inside feelings. I have read few short story collections as good as this one, with every story a total knockout victory.

Graphic Novel Super-Review

I have a tumultuous relationship with graphic novels: the first time I picked one up was in 2010, after years of speaking out against them. My first was Watchmen, which I thought was good but not that good. I continued and found some that I really loved, most which weren't serial comics: Habibi, Blankets, Asterios Polyp, Stitches. At the end of the year, I basically threw in the towel, convinced that I had read every good comic that there was to read.

Each year, there would be a graphic novel or two that piqued my interested, and I'd read it: Sailor Twain (Mark Siegel), Daytripper (Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá) and Building Stories (Chris Ware) stand out, but it was much quieter on the visual narrative front for me. 2014, however, saw a redux in graphic novels for me; I became obsessed with reading them again, starting new series and revisiting old ones. Since it's hard for me to muster up more than a paragraph per book, I thought I'd collect some of the highlights of my year here:

Graphic Novels
Ant Colony (Michael DeForge)
This is my favorite graphic novel of 2014. DeForge takes us into an ant colony to share with us the struggles and turmoil of ants. Of course, they're more than ants: they're sentient, aware of the true-life weirdness of what it means to be an ant. They question the authority of their queen, they ponder existential questions, they have hopes and fears and dreams and sex. I have really fallen in love with DeForge's art style, which I imagine is frequently compared to Chris Ware's--that must get tiresome for him. It's lots of solid blocks of color and simple shapes, and I don't know how to properly express that I love how much it adds to the overall book. This is a treasure.
My rating: 5/5

The Southern Reach Trilogy (Jeff VanderMeer)

This book is the first in a trilogy, one that centers on Area X. It's a mysterious, quarantined area that we don't know much about. Every so often, the government sends in an expedition, people of various professional backgrounds to scope out the land to report what's inside the territory. Unfortunately, almost all of the expeditions end badly, with everyone shooting each other or disappearing under unknown circumstances, reappearing in their homes several months later, and dying not long after.

Annihilation takes us on the twelfth expedition to Area X; there are participants this time, all women: a psychologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and our narrator, the biologist. We never learn any of their names, and maybe that's part of the point. The biologist's connection to Area X is particularly interesting: her husband was a member of the previous expedition, the one where they all disappeared and showed up at home without an explanation before dying of a brief illness. She's become obsessed with the world her husband died for, so much that she volunteers to go in, too.

What she finds is in turns horrifying and fascinating. The book gets pretty fantastical pretty quickly, but the images that VanderMeer makes for us are beautiful and frightening all at once. I don't want to go into much detail because everything about this book is atmospheric: it's important to let the unease creep into your bones and fill you with discomfort exactly as the author wants.

My only criticism of the book is that it gets a bit trapped in itself toward the end. It's a short book--only about 175 pages--which is a perfect length to do the kind of narrative exploration that VanderMeer wants to do while his characters are doing a physical exploration of Area X. Nonetheless, the narrator kind of collapses in on herself toward the end and I struggled to follow along, but it's clearly an intentional choice and one that I applaud even if I couldn't understand it fully. I'm very much looking forward to books two and three.

My rating: 4.5/5

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Yes Please (Amy Poehler)

At random intervals, I read a comedy humor memoir thing (Hyperbole and a Half; Let's Pretend This Never Happened; Bossypants) and I feel compelled to make the disclaimer that "this isn't the type of thing I normally read I'm not sure exactly how to review it." I don't think it will ever not be a true statement, and I find myself wanting to say the same thing for this review. Yes Please is Amy Poehler's book. I have been looking forward to it all year. It's another case of high expectations and "meh" results. Blerg.

As I have said before, I have a hard time evaluating humor books. How often should I be laughing? Is the book a failure if I don't laugh "enough?" I didn't laugh out loud very often during this book--I'm not even sure I laughed aloud at all. If that were the only criterion by which I judged, this book would have been a failure. But clearly it wasn't, because I read all the way through relatively quickly.

What I will say I enjoyed about this book is what I enjoy about most memoirs: the gooey insides. There is something attractive to me about books filled with real people's inner lives, and I want to stress here that the "something" has nothing to do with celebrities or tragedy. I don't need convincing that celebrities are "real people just like us," because they are obviously not, so that's not the attraction. I don't want to exploit people's very sad and very real problems (AKA sad porn), either.

I just like reading about people's interior lives. I don't need sordid details or emotional appeals, just odds-and-ends details about what others are doing with their time. In that regard, Yes Please is very good. Poehler does a great job of spreading her net far and wide, gathering lots of stories from her whole life; she doesn't focus too heavily on her comedy roots, on her SNL-and-after stardom, or her list of celebrity friends. I felt like I was reading a diary that was meant for public consumption, and that's the best feeling.

So what didn't I like? For one thing, the book was messy. It's divided into three very loose thematic sections ("Say Whatever You Want," "Do Whatever You Like," and "Be Whoever You Are"), none of which felt very cohesive. That is, the arrangement felt randomized and arbitrary. Chapters within each section were all over the place--more than once did I feel lost while reading. It happened first in the opening chapter: she talks about her earliest encounter with improv, as Dorothy in an elementary school production of The Wizard of Oz.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Man V. Nature (Diane Cook)

I have been reading a lot of short fiction lately. On my Goodreads page, I've been giving all these collections short reviews, mentioning stories that are highlights and perhaps pitfall stories that don't thrill me. I don't do long reviews of short story collections because it's at least four times as hard as reviewing a novel. I just lied to you, because I have written two long reviews of a collection--last year, I reviewed George Saunders' Tenth of December, and a few weeks later, Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber. After I did, I swore never to review another collection at length again.


In the last year-ish, I have read some stunning stuff: the collections of Aimee Bender, my number one short fiction author, Laura van den Berg and Alissa Nutting, Eric Puchner, Daphne du Maurier--I could go on and on here, but I'll stop. I did not feel compelled to give these collections lengthy reviews, even though I found them to be absolutely marvelous. Just yesterday, I finished Man V. Nature, the debut collection of author Diane Cook, and I knew that I needed to tell everyone about every one of her stories. So here we are. Like much of the short (and, let's be honest, long) fiction I read, Cook's narratives are often surreal; they're not strictly fantasy or science fiction, but there's something off about their worlds.

The first story is "Moving On." The day I read it, I had to close the book and walk away because I needed time to process it. It's not often that a piece of writing shuts me down that hard, but the story about widow relocation (that is, if your spouse dies, you are required to marry again) hurt. It's a quiet story, but it ate at me. Ouch.

The next is "The Way the End of Days Should Be," which is a post-apocalyptic piece (but you probably guessed that). Like a lot of this kind of fiction, it doesn't ever really explain what happened to the world, and for a lot of readers, this is frustrating: they want to know the hows and the whys, and, to be frank, I don't care. This is the story of a man at the end of the world, a very selfish man. It's a great character study.

There are several thematic siblings in this vein: "Man V. Nature" is another "we're the last people alive" story that really plays with reader perception and narrative authority and unlikeability (i.e., how far can we go on hating our main character and still invest in him?). "It's Coming" is a Godzilla-esque story, but it focuses less on the destruction of giant buildings and more on the poignant--or grotesque--emotions that come when people are faced with the end.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel)

I have a confession: I hate post-apocalyptic fiction. I've spoken on this before, specifically with regards to zombies, because it's a genre without much room to move--you survive as long as you can, but at the end of the novel you're either going to die or...die. There's no "suddenly everything was fixed" (and if there is, it's dreadful). There's just "everyone dies," which I already knew.

Perhaps my hatred comes from the sheer number of poorly-done books I've read. I still cannot figure out why everyone likes The Road. Anything with zombies is a no-go. Dystopian post-apocalyptics are just as much a drag (here's looking at you, Divergent). In spite of all of this, I can't seem to stay away. Some part of me must see promise in this type of fiction, because I always get sucked back in, and it's always a disappointment.

Until today. I can finally, with confidence and joy, announce that I have found a post-apocalyptic novel that I loved. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, is what I have been waiting for my whole life.

The Georgia Flu is a perfect killer, and it destroys everyone. Billions of people die within days of contracting the disease, and soon almost no one is left. Kirsten survives, and twenty years after the pandemic strikes, she's touring the tiny communities surrounding Lake Michigan as part of a troupe called the Traveling Symphony; they play classical music and perform Shakespeare, trying to keep the old culture alive.

This book is the story of Kirsten, yes, but it's also the story of Arthur Leander, an actor who dies in the first few pages. Kirsten is on stage when a heart attack kills him; the narrative switches between Kirsten of the present and Arthur of the past, though frequently he is focalized through viewpoints of people in his life.