Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Boundless (Kenneth Oppel)

As a child, I loved trains. I had a toy train set and train-themed decorations for my bedroom. I couldn't explain why I liked them so much, and I certainly can't explain it now. I thought maybe I grew out of the phase, but years later, I realized that I love books and video games and movies that are set on trains. There's something thrilling about the tight, inescapable, high-speed quarters and the implications that these constraints have on the narrative that really delights me.

I found The Boundless while browsing through a list of middle-grade books coming out this year; I knew of Kenneth Oppel but had never read him, but was excited to see that he was writing a train mystery thriller. The titular locomotive is the longest in the world, and Will's father is one of its many workers. Will and his dad are going to be taking part in the vehicle's maiden run, though tensions between the two are high: Will wants to be an artist and go to art school, but his father wants him to pursue a "real" career.

And then Will discovers that the last train on the car, carrying the corpse of the financier of the Boundless, is loaded with riches and the target of a conspiracy from a disgruntled former employee of the railway company. Accidentally implicated in the plot, Will must flee from the man after the treasure. He takes up with the circus traveling in the train, disguising himself as an Indian man with an extrasensory ability to draw (a talent relying heavily on circus trickery).

If it sounds like there's a lot going on in this book, you're right. And it's not a very long novel, so it feels like a lot of things got squeezed into too small a space. That's perhaps my biggest issue with the story: there are a lot of fun events happening, but none of them are explored to the depth that they deserve. I loved reading the behind-the-scenes circus stuff, and I loved reading the descriptions of the train and hearing about the differences between coach classes. The Boundless is a portrait of a bygone time, and Oppel's explanations are his strength.

But it's clear that he suffered commitment issues when writing about all of these topics, but none of them really gets the full treatment it deserves. I hate to say that this book could have been longer, because too often do I suffer through books with long sections that could have been safely excised. Honestly, though, I would have enjoyed a longer focus on the atmosphere of the story, which for me was far more interesting than the "confrontation-flee, confrontation-flee" setup the narrative runs through several times before the story's conclusion.

The author even tries to throw in a romance between Will and one of the circus acts, an escape artist and tightrope walker named Maren, but it is severely underdeveloped. The first time Will sees her, he falls in love with her solely because she is so mysterious, and though I waited for the rest of the book to see any kind of expansion on or justification of his feelings, I didn't get one. I of course love a good relationship unfolding, but this one wasn't satisfying at all.

Nonetheless, it's a fun book. Compressed, sure, but still fun. I wanted more circus and train stuff because what I did get was a joy. If you have children that like these topics, full steam ahead (~~PUNS!!~!). The conclusion is satisfying, to be sure (if a bit strange--no spoilers, but shoutout to Dorian Gray), and it's overall a quick, enjoyable read. Thanks to Edelweiss for the ARC.

My rating: 3.5/5
The Boundless on Goodreads
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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Black Swan Green (David Mitchell)

After I finished Cloud Atlas a year-and-a-half ago, I felt exhilarated. I had one of those rare moments where all of expectations for a book had been met and exceeded, when all the hype was really valid. I would have, without hesitation, told anyone listening that David Mitchell is a master, truly one of the greats. I bought all of his other books, anxious to read more of his stunning work.

Then I got scared. What if Cloud Atlas was just this one exuberant flash of brilliance, one that showed us how books can be different and amazing and incredible? So I watched all of my Mitchell books gather dust on my bookshelf, too worried about disappointment that I might face if I opened one. Finally, I decided to stop letting fear rule my book-reading and jumped into Black Swan Green.

The novel is about of Jason Taylor, who is thirteen and totally average. He grows up in the small English village of Black Swan Green in the mid-80s, the core of the Thatcher years. Jason's family consists of an older sister, Julia, who's getting ready to go off to university, his stay-at-home mother and his father, a high-ranking employee of a grocery chain. Jason goes to school, sucked into the world of how to stay cool and liked, despite his reputation-killing stammer.

There isn't much of a plot. That's not an accurate statement. That there is no driving incident is a better way of putting it. This isn't the kind of story that's focused on a conflict and action to resolve the conflict. It's like reading Jason's journal (which, if I'm not mistaken, is what we're doing) over the course of one year, just watching his life unfold at the complicated age he's facing. Rooting for him as he tries to navigate social life despite the utter cruelty of those around him, looking on sadly while he remains oblivious to the slow implosion of his parents' marriage.

Jason is a burdening poet, and his playfulness with language--and stammer-induced thoughts on it in general--are stunning. I am generally not a fan of stylized prose because authors are often too tempted by the chance to get flowery. The end result is often a lot of long sentences and weird metaphors with very little focus on anything else, which is frustrating. Mitchell is such a subtle stylist that his words feel effortless and read just as cleanly. I could spend days drowning in his words, and framing these around his sad narrator make their effect even more potent.

Black Swan Green for me was an unexpected delight. It's perfectly constructed, dazzlingly written, and emotionally loaded. Though I was ready to proclaim David Mitchell to the heights before, now I have a second piece of evidence. He is incredible.

My rating: 5/5
Black Swan Green on Goodreads
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Monday, March 31, 2014

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy (Karen Foxlee)

Despite having seen (and really enjoyed) Frozen last year, I must confess that I haven't read nor am I very familiar with the original Snow Queen story. Despite that, I plowed through and decided to look at another retelling of the tale (I promise I'll read the original soon).

Karen Foxlee's Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy is indeed a retelling of the Andersen fairy tale, but it's more than that. Ophelia's father is a world-renowned expert on swords, and a faraway museum has announced that they're opening an exhibit on that very thing. He takes Ophelia, and her older sister Alice with him. The three of them are still reeling from the death of Ophelia and Alice's mother, and it's clear to Ophelia that her father's burying himself in his work is an attempt to return to normalcy.

So she ends up at the museum, in the land where it never stops snowing. Bored and lonely, she begins to explore when she comes across a locked door. A boy trapped on the other side begins to talk to her through the keyhole, informing her that he has been locked away for three hundred years. If he doesn't get out soon, the Snow Queen will destroy the world. But Ophelia, scientific to the last, is a bit doubtful of all of it. Nonetheless, she gives in (against her better judgment) and decides to help him.

The boy, who is nameless, sends Ophelia all around the museum looking for all the things she'll need to set him free, and in between quests he tells her the story of how he came from a faraway land to defeat the Snow Queen. It's a lot of lovely storytelling, enchanting without being too bogged-down by details. Ophelia's adventures in the museum are dazzling, too, a perfect blend of slightly frightening and full of wonder. That's perhaps my favorite thing about this book: its setting, which feels like being trapped inside of a decadent snowglobe. It's a vividly imagined place, and it's delightful.

Foxlee has written a great book. Her main character is the ideal precocious, troubled heroine who battles with the outside world and her own self-doubt. The novel manages to address a dead mother in a delicate, under the surface way that stops it from feeling tacked-on or glaring. This is always a risk with books for younger readers, but the author avoids getting preachy or obviously didactic.

All in all, Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy is a fun read. It's got adventure, lush storytelling, a delightful atmosphere and heart. There are familiar elements of a lot of stories here, but they're cobbled together in such a way that it feels fresh and new. I had a blast, and I think you will, too.

My rating: 4.5/5
Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy on Goodreads
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Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry (Gabrielle Zevin)

Thanks to Edelweiss for the opportunity to read this book as an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

In my early high school years, I read two of Gabrielle Zevin's books (Elsewhere and Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac) and I really, really loved them. I hear people say "it's all about when you find a book in your life" that helps determine how you feel about it, and I guess that was true of those two books. Perhaps I came across The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry at the wrong time, then, because it certainly is great. I just didn't love it.

The fact that this book was so blatantly a love letter to bookstores and books in general was what beckoned me. How could I resist something like it? A. J. Fikry owns a small bookstore on a small island (think Martha's Vineyard, etc.). His wife has recently passed away and, depressed and lonely, A. J. has taken to alcohol to soothe himself. One night, he drinks himself to sleep and wakes up to find his place cleaned up with his original copy of Tamerlane (Edgar Allan Poe's first published work) missing.

But no one can find the rare, valuable book, and suddenly it becomes the least of Fikry's problems because someone has left a baby in his bookstore. The mother's body turns up a few days later, a clear case of suicide by drowning, and A. J. decides to take on the baby as his own. He relies on the internet and the kindness of the tight-knit community to help him raise the child, Maya, and slowly opens himself up to others.

There's not a lot about the book that's surprising: Fikry is your standard grumpy guy disappointed by life and it's clear that having baby Maya will transform him into a warm, loving person (spoiler: it does). But Zevin does it so well that I wasn't bothered by the obvious character trajectory. There's something very genuine about the way the personalities of the book are written that elevates them.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender (Leslye Walton)

I don't like comparing authors to other authors because comparison is lazy and feels like cheating, but if you like any of the following, do not delay in acquiring a copy of this book: Gabriel García Márquez, Angela Carter, Neil Gaiman, Erin Morgenstern, Aimee Bender. This happens to also be a list of some of my favorite authors, people who dazzle me with their imaginative power and the beauty of their writing and the hopeful sadness they elicit. Add Leslye Walton to this list because The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is spectacular.

This is the story of three generations of Roux women, destined to fall and in love and have each encounter fail miserably. We start with the beautiful Emilienne, one of four siblings that moves from rural New York to a cramped Manhattan apartment at the turn of the century. She watches as each of her siblings is transformed or destroyed and feels herself eroding to the power of heartbreak as time and again her love is corrupted and perverted.

Eventually, she marries Connor Lavender, a polio-crippled baker, and they move all the way to an empty mansion in Seattle that once belonged to a mysterious Portuguese family. They give birth to Viviane, who grows up (and falls in love) with her neighbor Jack. A series of events leads to heartbreak for Viviane and the birth of her twins, Ava, who has wings, and Henry, who is silent. The two grow up sheltered, cut off from the outside world, until Nathaniel Sorrows moves to town. Then everything falls apart.

It's hard for me to explain the story because the first half of the novel unfolds as a chronicle of Ava's family history and I'm trying not to spoil any of those details. Apparently, some people have found this off-putting because Ava is the title character, but I promise that reading about Emilienne and Viviane is delightful. These sections feel like fragments of captured dreams that have blossomed into senses-enthralling flowers: they are beautiful and command every sensory capacity you have. They will, of course, snap your bones into pieces and shatter your existence, but they do it so beautifully.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures (Kate DiCamillo)

Every now and again I decide it's time to get back into the world of children's literature because there's something fun and easy and light about it that recharges me when I'm burned out of annoying adult literature that's trying too hard to be thoughtful and emotional. It's had for me to express my sentiment here without talking down to children's literature, and that's not what I want to do, because I have read a good many children's books that are more thoughtful and emotional than anything written for adults. Perhaps the best way to put it would be to describe children's books as less laden with pretention--can I say that? Whatever it is, it's a joy to return after a long period away from it.

So in I jumped, and where did I end up but at the feet of the Newbery Prize. I recently heard someone raving about Kate DiCamillo's Newbery-winning Flora & Ulysses; I rather enjoyed her previous win for The Tale of Despereaux, and of course I was sucked in by the talk of the comic strips woven into the narrative. So I bought it (I can't resist online impulses).

Flora describes herself as a natural-born cynic. Her parents are divorced, her mother writes tawdry romance novels, and she immerses herself into the world of the comic book about a janitor-turned-superhero named Incandesto. One day, her neighbor accidentally sucks a squirrel into a crazy, high-tech vacuum cleaner, and when Flora rescues him, she discovers that he has been gifted with superpowers: super-strength, the ability to understand human speech, and a knack for composing poetry. She names him Ulysses, after the vacuum that almost destroyed him, and their adventures begin.

Growing up, my mother used to use the word "cute" to describe lots of things I liked: books and movies, mostly, but things that I thought (at the time) were the best. I suppose I am finally distanced enough from the world of children to understand applying that adjective to something. Maybe at one time in my life I would have loved Flora & Ulysses, but now I can definitively say it is "cute".

What's not to like about the concept of the book? Every character is a little oddball in his/her own way and the story manages to meaningful without feeling forceful or obvious with its message (which I hated as a kid and hate as a not-kid). So why didn't I love it? It's hard for me to say, exactly. Perhaps it's because the book felt a little too smug and self-assured. The quirk flavor is obvious and delightful, but it starts to wear on you when DiCamillo unflaggingly reminds you "hey, this book is kinda quirky, right?"

But it's cute. It's fun. It's a great book for kids, and maybe my sense of whimsy is getting a little harder to provoke these days. Read Flora & Ulysses because it will make you smile and giggle. I certainly did.

My rating: 4/5
Flora & Ulysses on Goodreads
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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Winger (Andrew Smith)

About a month ago, I read a novel called Grasshopper Jungle that sort of exploded inside me and left me a pile of embers and ashes. As soon as I finished it, I ordered the author's book from last year, Winger. Of course, I didn't want to overload myself, so I gave the books some space. Fortunately(?), this book also left me feeling like a used stick of dynamite.

Winger is about Ryan Dean West, who is fourteen years old and a junior at a private academy. He plays on the school's rugby team and has been moved to the living hall for delinquent students because he hacked someone's cell phone. The book opens on the beginning of the school year; Ryan Dean (both of which are his first name) has resolved to make this the year his peers finally see him as a person as grown-up as they are. He's in love with his best friend Annie, and is determined to get her to fall in love with him, too.

There are, obviously, obstacles. That hall for delinquents has some serious restrictions about having visitors and bedtimes, and it doesn't help that one of the two guardians of the hall is probably a witch cursing Ryan Dean with bad luck. His senior roommate's wickedly beautiful girlfriend also might have a thing for him. And he's caught in a fight with one of his (former?) best friends. Junior year is not the magic dream he hoped.

Of course, Smith's book is funny. That's one of his talents, to write about things full of really difficult emotion but to make them hilarious. There are charts and comics scattered throughout the book, humorous explanations of Ryan Dean's mental distractions (hint: girls) or illustrated conversations that he hopes would lead to...other things (hint: also involving girls).

Monday, March 10, 2014

Archetype (M. D. Waters)

Thanks to NetGalley for the chance to read this novel in exchange for an honest review!

I am a fan of genre mash-ups. This much is true. I enjoy when authors take different elements and smash them up and then turn the mess into something spectacular. So when I heard about Archetype, I got excited. Sci-fi conspiracy thriller romance? Sure thing.

Emma wakes up in a hospital. She remembers nothing. She is introduced to a man, Declan Burke, who says that he is her husband and that she has suffered from a very serious accident. She is told she will stay in the hospital while she continues to recover. At night, Emma has strange nightmares, but she continues to rehabilitate and progress until she can return home.

We learn with Emma of the world she has woken up in: it's a future in which female fertility is low and being able to produce offspring is a marketable ability. Women are raised in training centers and sold to the highest bidder, marked with a symbol on their hand to show that they are a man's property. Declan promises that he didn't buy Emma, that he fell in love with her naturally; she is missing the hand brand that would mark her as his possession, so she believes him. Slowly, she falls in love with her husband, settling into married life.

But the longer the story goes on, the more memories surface while she sleeps. There's a bossy voice in her head that isn't hers, and she has a hard time reconciling what Declan tells her with her recollections of loving another man whose face she can't remember. So she starts to get suspicious that maybe something is...off.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Enchanted (Rene Denfeld)

Thanks to Edelweiss for the opportunity to read this in exchange for an honest review.

The Enchanted exists in the periphery of my mind, and for that matter on the periphery of reality. It's set inside an old prison, filled with some of the most despicable inmates imaginable, men who have tortured and destroyed other people. Our narrator is nameless, an inmate himself, but he is somehow omniscient to the goings-on both inside and outside the prison (don't question it).

He paints a very bleak picture of a wasteland of a facility, flooded with heroin trafficking and sexual abuse perpetrated by particularly wicked fellow convicts and a corrupt worker looking to move up in the prison hierarchy. The main plot of the novel is that one of the inmates has decided he wants to die rather than fight his place on death row. The prison brings in a woman known only as "the lady", a woman who has the job of finding ways to get men off of death row and into "life in prison," and a lot of the action chronicles her rooting into the convict's past to find substantial evidence to prevent his execution.

Denfeld's fiction debut is a curious one. I was lured into reading it because the description promised beautiful, poetic prose and main character who is drawn into the world that exist in his books to escape his prison. The narrator talks about his love of books at the beginning of the story but it isn't central or even frequently discussed. This struck me as a disappointment, because that synopsis sounds more promising than the actual book was.

There is lovely writing in spades, worry not, and that's one of the book's strengths. In fact, the book is heavy on a gorgeous turns of phrase and satisfying (if despair-inducing) ruminations on life and living. I normally dislike books whose entire run is bloated by philosophical meanderings of narrators, but something about The Enchanted just feels right. It's not too heavy-handed, and the thoughts the narrator has are interesting, but I imagine that has a lot to do with my minimal exposure to prisoners--it's a perspective I don't think about very much.

The plot, to some extent, is a little...much. The narrative takes a turn for the intentionally depressing, featuring backstories for characters including sexual abuse, neglectful parents, and a fallen priest. The sadness really piles itself on, and it's not always engaging, and that's the very real danger of writing a book like this one. There's a point at which filling a book with woe stops being artistically sad and begins to feel a little demanding. "Aha! Now you must feel sad!" says the book, smile wide as it realizes it has presented me with something horrifying, grotesque, and soul-shattering. I generally respond "No thanks" and feel sad that the book would do such a thing when we were on such good terms.

Certainly the priest's story was the good kind of sad, but it's kept a secret until the very end. The backstory reveal on this character (who feels curiously absent from most of the book) is the moment at which Denfeld manages to really solidly assemble a collection of feelings and slowly feed them to the reader in tiny portions. Here's a little teaspoon of love, and another, and one more, followed by a tablespoon of fear and a mug of sadness to wash it all down.

Come for the lovely writing, tough it out through the overwhelming sadness if you can. It's a good book.

My rating: 4/5
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Monday, February 24, 2014

The Moon Sisters (Therese Walsh)

Thanks to NetGalley for this e-ARC in exchange for my honest review.

Make way for a weird, delicious book that is like your dreams but written down by someone else. Therese Walsh has produced a beautiful little novel and it is about a lot of things and it will bleed inside of you.

The Moon Sisters is, most simply, about the Moon sisters: Jazz, the older, is a stubborn, hardened realist, and Olivia, the younger, lives a real-life fairy tale because of her synesthesia, a mental "wiring" condition in which senses overlap and names have flavors, for example. At the beginning of the novel, Jazz and Olivia's mother has died a few months ago, suffocated in the kitchen by the gas stove, which Olivia believes to be an accident and Jazz believes to be suicide.

Their mother suffered from what sounds a lot like depression, having strong, long-lasting mood swings and chronic exhaustion. She spent her entire married life laboring over a novel she never could bring herself to finish, and she believed that seeing the will-o'-the-wisps in a local park would inspire her. After her death, Olivia blinds herself by staring into the sun and Jazz gets hired at the local funeral home, preparing to settle into a boring life in Tramp, the West Virginia town the Moon family has always known.

Olivia impulsively decides that she and Jazz ought to go looking for the will-o'-the-wisps, and Jazz hesitantly agrees. Their car breaks down and Olivia hops onto a train in a desperate attempt to fulfill her mother's dream. There, she meets Hobbs, a guy with face tattoos who is trying to run away from his life, and he agrees to lead her on her quest. Jazz, ever dedicated to rationality and level-headedness, angrily pursues them.