Sunday, December 30, 2012

2012 in Review

I have read a lot of good stuff this year, and some stuff that was less good. Here is a summary:

My Favorite Books of 2012:
1. The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller
2. The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey
3. Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
4. Let's Pretend This Never Happened, Jenny Lawson
5. Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, Matthew Dicks

My 2012 favorites were widely varied, featuring Greek mythology, Russian fairy tales, psychopaths, imaginary friends and social anxiety humor, among other things (barely not on this list are Every Day from David Levithan and Sailor Twain from Mark Siegel, so I suppose body-switching spirits and mermaids can be added to the list). I am pleased with the variety of things that appear on this list. What started out as a year of "yeah, I suppose this is pleasant enough" ended strong with a lot of "wow am I impressed".

Most Disappointing Reads of 2012:
1. Divergent/Insurgent, Veronica Roth
2. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov
3. The Alchemist, Paolo Coelho
4. Where Things Come Back, John Corey Whaley
5. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce

I titled this section "reads" rather than books because not all of these books have been published this year. I felt very let down by Veronica Roth's first two books in her Divergent trilogy. I will read book three because I want to know how it ends, but I am not wowed in the way that evidently everyone else is. The Alchemist was the worst book I read this year (what a load of tripe), but it was not the biggest disappointment because I wasn't expecting it to be great. I heard such great, wonderful things about The Master and Margarita and I was left feeling very bored (which doesn't make any sense because it has a 4.32 average rating on Goodreads with almost 50,000 reviews. What is my life about?).

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend (Matthew Dicks)

Sometimes, I read books that sneak up on me. As I read, I think "yeah, I like this book, it's pretty good" and then at the end, I am blown away and might even possibly cry. This is a good thing, and Matthew Dicks' latest book, Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, is one of them. Our narrator is Budo, the imaginary friend created by Max. Max is in third grade and created Budo five years ago--Budo is old in the world of imaginary friends. It's clear early on that Max has some level of autism or Asperger's, and so Budo is there to help him make it through each day.

We spend quite some time just following Max and Budo, seeing the world from both Max's perspective and from Budo's. Of course, Budo's is more interesting: he knows that he is doomed to die, to be forgotten by Max when (if?) Max outgrows the need for an imaginary friend. These perspectives are part of what make the book so great and at their very best reminded me of Emma Donoghue's Room and Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. I am a sucker for unusual perspective.

Eventually, we get to the driving event of the narrative, that one of Max's teachers steals him from school. This is the point at which the book switches from "pretty good" to "really good": Budo realizes that if Max stays kidnapped forever, Budo will never die; he simultaneously realizes that he is the only one that can save Max from his teacher, at the probable cost of his own existence. Budo doesn't know what to do. This is what makes the book so emotionally resonsant--the character complexity is so believable and real that watching Budo struggle with these decisions is heartbreaking and beautiful.

It feels cheap and punny to use the word "imaginative" to describe a book about imaginary friends, but it is. Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend is one of the best examinations of friendship and love that I have recently read, handled from such an unexpected, wonderfully unique perspective. I will confess that I cried at the end of the book, and I can't decide if these tears were happy or sad. It doesn't matter. Any book that I can invest myself in enough to cry is, in my opinion, an excellent book.

Matthew Dicks' book drew me in and tore me apart; it is not to be missed.

My rating: 5/5
Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend on Goodreads
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The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Rachel Joyce)

I have been trying to cram this last month of 2012 with books published this year, books that I have heard really good things about, that have received a lot of praise, critically and from the "average reader". One of these books is The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce. Published in July, it has a 4.01 average rating on Goodreads at the time of this review, with over 8,500 ratings. It made the longlist for the Man Booker Prize. These all seem to be good qualifications, so I decided to add it to my winter break list of books.

The titular Harold is a recently retired man who receives a letter in the mail from an old co-worker and friend, Queenie Hennessy. She is dying and wants to say goodbye. Harold quickly writes her a response and  walks to the nearest mailbox when he feels the urge to keep walking. He is reluctant to send his response and continues to walk. He stops for a burger and the girl who serves him talks about the importance of faith and belief of recovery in fighting terminal illness (Queenie has cancer). Her story inspires Harold and he decides that he must walk the 500 miles from his home to Queenie's hospice because it will give her something to believe in. Abandoning his house and rather empty marriage, he sets off unprepared (yachting shoes! no cell phone!) to make his pilgrimage.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn)

I have heard so much about this book since its publication. I feel like I've been saying that a lot in my reviews lately (mostly because I have been trying to read a bunch of 2012 books I've heard a lot of good about), but this book has had so much buzz and hype that I initially chose to ignore it. I know, I am the biggest snob in the whole world. "Ew, this book is a popular book regularly categorized as a 'thriller'. I'm too good for that." This is how I genuinely think.

And then, for some reason, I decided not to ignore it. I really wanted to read Gone Girl. And I am so glad that I did. First, I would like to disagree with the classification of this book as a thriller. I have never read a book from the mystery/thriller department (talk to my grandmother, who has read many a James Patterson and Sue Grafton), so I am not sure what exactly qualifies a book as so: a murder mystery? Is that all? I don't know. This book felt a lot more psychological study than it did mystery, which is not a bad thing. Gillian Flynn's book succeeds so marvelously on all fronts.

Nick and Amy have been married for five years; she is a rich Manhattanite, the inspiration for a once-popular series of children's books, Amazing Amy, and he a magazine writer from Missouri. For several reasons, they have to move back to Missouri, where their marriage begins to rapidly dissolve. On the day of their fifth anniversary, Amy disappears. Nick becomes the prime suspect.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Graphic Novel Super-Review

For whatever strange reason, I have accidentally waited until the end of this year to read any graphic novels. Four years ago, I was firmly against reading them. I thought that comics and graphic novels were stupid. I said I hated looking at the pictures and only wanted words. Clearly, I am a giant, snotty snot. Now, I count some graphic novels among my favorites: Craig Thompson's Blankets and Habibi, David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp, the entirety of Neil Gaiman's Sandman series (my favorite is volume nine) and David Small's Stitches are, in my opinion, the art form at its peak. Of course, I am still a snot about it; I refuse to stoop to the level of reading "comic books" with superheroes. Maybe one day I'll read them (I hear so many good things about some of the Batman comics, so I'll probably start there).

Every year, then, I like to sample some of the graphic novels out there, trying to spread myself out over the various options--fantasy, memoir (I am of the opinion that graphic novel memoirs are superior to written-word memoirs), "realistic" graphic fiction (I hate the term "graphic fiction" because it makes it sound sexual and violent...which it frequently is, so I guess it's fair). Here are the results of my experimentation this year:

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Let's Pretend This Never Happened (Jenny Lawson)

I am not particularly a fan of the humor book genre. I am frequently confused by them: are they essays? Are they memoirs? I have a difficult time understanding their purpose and function. I don't know whether to laugh or try to glean a life-lesson or some deep emotion from the book. There is, of course, the chance that the humor book won't be funny, in which case it has failed at its most basic goal (my experience with David Sedaris has left me wanting).

I read Bossypants earlier this year and, though I liked it, I found myself occasionally disappointed. The material wasn't too consistent and at times veered from the completely humorous to the overly sentimental. Jenny Lawson's memoir, fortunately, never once failed to make me laugh aloud (I measure consistency as at least one laugh per chapter/essay/whatever the heck the sections of a nonfiction humor book are called).

Let's Pretend This Never Happened is an exercise in sustaining a zany, breathless deluge of comedy, and it succeeds perfectly. This is no small feat: Lawson commands humor even in the darkest of situations (namely, a chapter devoted to her pregnancy horrors and several instances where her overpowering social anxiety disorder causes a disaster). There are true moments of genuine emotion that the reader feels alongside the author, sadness and happiness and success and failure, feelings that never cover everything in a suffocating blanket of forced importance.

It is, of course, important that these moments of non-humor appear in the book; without some heavy anchors, the book will appear over-the-top; humorous, but not memorable. There is an almost impossible-to-achieve balance between humor and seriousness in writing a book like this, but Jenny Lawson tightrope walks it like she's been doing it her whole life (which, I suspect, she has).

I cannot recommend this book strongly enough. It is so funny in every way that I can imagine: sarcastically, genuinely, darkly, cutely, relatably hilarious.

My rating: 5/5
Let's Pretend This Never Happened on Goodreads
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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Tell the Wolves I'm Home (Carol Rifka Brunt)

I have been subjected to a lot of "diversity fiction" in my lifetime. Middle school literacy programs, it would seem, have become fixated upon books about a few key topics (the Holocaust, slavery and the civil rights movement come to mind immediately) in which there is one group being treated very badly by another group and the narrative is about overcoming this difficulty. Obviously, I don't support the hate groups responsible for these historical periods, but after awhile, all the books sort of blur together and only the awful things stick out in my mind. My point here is that, having read so much of this type of fiction, I can recognize it on sight. Tell the Wolves I'm Home felt like that sometimes, and it upset me.

I was really looking forward to reading this book--it sounded interesting and has been highly rated on Goodreads since its publication (with a current 4.22 average rating; that's insane!). Perhaps that's why I was so let down. Expectations once again ruin the day. Boo.

So here's the premise: June has a gay uncle, Finn, who dies of AIDS-related complications close to the beginning of the book. She is devastated, and not just because she has lost her best friend. June also realizes that she was deeply in love with her uncle and has to come to terms with her inappropriate feelings and with losing him. She finds out after the funeral that Finn had a live-in boyfriend, Toby, and he repeatedly attempts to reach out to her in an attempt to connect to the only person who cared about Finn as much as she did. Meetings ensue. Stuff happens. No spoilers.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Howl's Moving Castle (Diana Wynne Jones)

Howl's Moving Castle is a book that I wish I would have read in my "ages 8-12 fantasy" phase, because I'm pretty sure I would have loved it. In fact, I did try to read it years ago and got bored by the slow opening (one must remember that I was only a wee lad and generally was interested only in attention-grabbing openings).

Our focus in this children's novel is Sophie Hatter, a young girl who works (unsurprisingly) in a hat shop in the magical land of Ingary (this is the slow opening: chapter one is called "In Which Sophie Talks to Hats"). Sophie is cursed by the evil Witch of the Waste, her body rapidly aged to one of a 90-year-old (give or take a few years), and she goes off in search of the fearsome Wizard Howl, who she believes can remove the spell.

Pretending to be a cleaning lady, Sophie takes up residence in the titular moving castle with the wizard (who turns out to be not so much evil as dashingly handsome and something of a heartbreaker), his apprentice Michael and the wizard's fire demon, Calcifer, who is under a contract with Howl and promises to break the Witch's curse on Sophie if she can break his contract. And so begins the rest of the novel.

And what a delightful story it is! I am embarrassed to admit that I have never read a Diana Wynne Jones book before, and what a shame that I haven't. The events transpire in a fascinating, engaging landscape that is described in a perfect balance between "can picture in my mind" and "want to know more about it". The characters are incredibly engaging and well-defined; they never feel stereotypical or dull. Jones sustains the perfect amount of kook and wacky--it's enough to remind us that she had fun writing it and we're having fun reading it without overpowering the book and making it a silly comedy.

I can say nothing bad about the character and world creation, which are very near perfect. My issue is with the plot: everything is excellent up until the last 50 pages or so, when Jones begins to throw everything together in a madcap attempt to resolve everything fairly quickly. Too many things conclude too easily--SPOILER--for example, the contract between Howl and Calcifer appears to be pretty central to the plot. And it goes unbroken until almost the very end of the book when, poof, Sophie suddenly solves the problem. Jones took her time building up the book as a whole, and so it feels disappointing in moments like this one when it feels like she is hurrying us along to the ending (which features some other questionable outcomes regarding the magical nature of a certain character and the evident "true love" between two characters that I didn't feel existed until we were told it did).

But these are just small things. This is a fantastic book, especially for the age group Diana Wynne Jones had in mind when she wrote it. Howl's Moving Castle is a clever novel that will delight and awe whose only setback is an ending that occasionally feels poorly put together. I have no reservations recommending it for the young, eager reader.

My Rating: 4/5
Howl's Moving Castle on Goodreads
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Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Light Between Oceans (M. L. Stedman)

I think that the Goodreads Choice Awards are pretty nifty. I am a big fan of awards, but I think that sometimes (especially for books), the critics can get it wrong (why the heck do people keep giving awards to Dave Eggers?). It's interesting to watch a community of people who really like books come together to vote about the best books. I think they get it right far more often.

That being said, I don't understand why The Casual Vacancy won best fiction this year. Yes, I liked it, but I did not love it. No one did, apparently. There were plenty of other books in the fiction category that could have won (and I am trying to read them all in a mad frenzy over the next fifteen days). One category I normally ignore is historical fiction, because I have in the past been generally uninterested in it. However, the winner this year, The Light Between Oceans, caught my eye when it was published in the summer. Seeing that it took its category (beating out the Booker-Prize-winning Bring Up the Bodies and my beloved The Snow Child) affirmed my need to read the book.

Here is the premise: It is post-World War I. Husband and wife Tom and Isabel live alone on an island off the coast of Australia. Tom tends the lighthouse on the island. Isabel wants to have a family but has several failed pregnancies. One day, a boat washes up to the island. Inside is a dead man and a living baby. Isabel, having just suffered a stillborn birth, convinces Tom to keep the baby, assuming that its family is dead. A few years later, they discover that the mother is still alive.

I found the novel to be quite an engaging one--there were passages of real beauty that were never too flowery nor too sparse; they were quite balanced in their creation. The novel, while historical, never felt overly didactic, which is my real issue with historical fiction: "Look, things are different in this book because it's 1920, not 2012! No cell phones!!" The setting was quite natural and never got in the way of the book. Stedman's book is categorized as historical fiction but could easily also be categorized as a psychological study. The book raises a lot of interesting questions about love, family, secrets and guilt and creates some quite flawed characters to explore these issues: two young ladies dealing with children and birth and loss, a trench veteran and a little girl torn between homes.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Every Day (David Levithan)

How's this for a high concept? A is a spirit sentient of its own existence, and existence in which the spirit must inhabit the body of a new person every day. The only rule governing this body-switching is that the person must be of the same age as A, but everything else is free game. Normally, A drifts from body to body without thinking much, trying its (I keep saying "it" because there really isn't a gender attached to A) best to get the rented body through the day as normally as possible.

One day, A meets Rhiannon while inside Justin's (her boyfriend) body and falls in love with her. A breaks all of its rules to be with her, doing things outside of Justin's normal behavior (which includes things like being nice to Rhiannon, which is very sad), and when A wakes up the next morning, all he can do is think about Rhiannon. A starts hijacking the lives of people it is inhabiting, skipping their classes to drive to Rhiannon's school. There comes a day when A cannot bear it any longer and comes clean to Rhiannon about its existence; so begins their romance.

I was immensely thrilled by this book. Each chapter is one day, which pleasantly reminded me of The Time Traveler's Wife. The love story was engaging because the concept was so intriguing--can love work if one of the people involved is in a different body every day? Can Rhiannon love somebody who can be (and is) everybody else? I get annoyed with positive reviews of books that go on about the book being so compelling that it's hard to put down (especially when the word "unputdownable" comes into the picture--that's not even a word! Fools.) because it's something that I rarely experience. However, Every Day was like that for me. I purposely walked away from the book to do other things (namely, write other book reviews) but found myself drawn back; I had no desire to do anything but read Levithan's book!

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Woman Who Died A Lot (Jasper Fforde)

Jasper Fforde is an absolute genius. I mean that sincerely. I don't know of any author who is able to write books with such complete wackiness that is simultaneously clever and full of emotions. I first discovered his Thursday Next series in 2008 and have been absolutely charmed by them ever since. Here is the basic premise of the series: Thursday Next is a detective (although this does not feel like the right word because she isn't what the word "detective" traditionally describes) who lives in an alternate universe (dodos as pets! George Formby as president-for-life!) where there is a policing service for the bizarre called SpecOps (short for Special Operations, which always leaves me to wonder if the "c" is "SpecOps" is a "k" or a "sh"). She is also able to read herself into books, where she discovers that there is a policing agency called Jurisfiction that makes sure books run as they are intended to. Of course, for someone who loves books, what more could possibly be asked for?

All those things I've mentioned are details from books one and two. The Woman Who Died A Lot is book 7 in this series, and it was an absolute delight. Books 5 and 6 were, in my opinion, the weaker books in the series, and I was afraid that Fforde had hit a slump and would be unable to maintain the zany in tandem with the good. My fears were (thankfully) allayed. TWWDAL is as delightfully crazy as the series at its best (book 4, Something Rotten, is my favorite).

Son (Lois Lowry)

I had no idea that this book was being written until about two months before it was published. As I have mentioned, I love The Giver, so book four the quartet (which, last I knew of it, was only supposed to be a trilogy) was a must read.

I still haven't really decided how I feel about it. That is, I definitely liked it. I'm just not sure if I loved it. The book has three parts, called "Before", "Between" and "Beyond", and without a doubt I loved "Before" because it is set in the Community. Our character this time is Claire, who we learn very early on is the Birthmother of Gabe, the fussy child from book one. It is such a pleasure to return to this absolutely terrifying place and see it from another perspective.

Claire is elected as a Birthmother and is getting ready to deliver her first Product (just another horrific aspect of the community--the fetuses are called Products!), but the process goes wrong and the newchild must be cut out of her. She's "fired" from making babies and must be reassigned to the Fish Hatchery. But Claire misses her baby. Claire wants her baby back.

And so begins the book. Section two, "Between", was perhaps the weakest of the three parts. Claire washes up in a seaside village with no memory and she must rebuild. There's a nice love story, but the section overall feels bloated. The events of the section take a long time (I can't remember an exact number, but 7 years feels right, so we'll say around 7 years), but it's a long time where not much happens event-wise.

Section three, "Beyond", takes us back to the village in Messenger. At this point, we have jumped ahead another seven years. There is some jumping around in point of view, but for the most part we are lodged in Gabe's head. Yes, that Gabe. He's about 16 when we reach him, and he, too, has some sort of magic ability. I wanted to love this part most of all because it is the bringing together of all the parts--Jonas and Kira are here again and their gifts come to the forefront of the story quite engagingly. We even see the Trademaster again in the form of the final conflict (I am trying to to spoil anything here), and it's this conflict that ultimately held me back from loving "Beyond" as much as I loved "Before". The conclusion is a letdown; it feels hurried and things are resolved a little too easily. The poignant ending is, of course, gratifying, but I wish that we didn't have to rush toward it so fast.

Overall, I was very satisfied with Son. Lois Lowry has yet to disappoint me. If you read and loved The Giver and its subsequent sequels, don't delay in reading this book. Despite its flaws, it is enchanting.

My Rating: 4/5
Son on Goodreads
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Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Giver, Gathering Blue, Messenger (Lois Lowry)

I am no fan of rereading. I have a hard time maintaining interest in something I've already read when I know that there are so many other things out there to discover for the first time. That said, there are a few books out there that I love to reread: Harry Potter (two years ago, I reread the series from first book to last and it was such a pleasure to see how carefully and cleverly Rowling laid her clues and built her characters), The Time Traveler's Wife (though I have never read it all the way through it a second time--I enjoy flipping through the book and reading a few random scenes every now and again), The Perks of Being a Wallflower and, perhaps most of all, The Giver.

When I read Lois Lowry's Newbery winner for the first time, I was eight years old and I remember being amazed and a little bit frightened. In the subsequent four or five times that I have read it, I find myself discovering new things to love and be frightened by. That's part of the magic of the book: it can find new ways to make you look at and question your world (which should be the ultimate goal of dystopian fiction).

The book is set in the hypersterilized Community and our protagonist is Jonas, a soon-to-be twelve-year-old. Initially, nothing seems particularly different about this place--people live in houses and go to school and their jobs. Families are happy. The longer we spend inside this place, the more it becomes apparent that it is a very different world. Marriages are things that are applied for--a person is matched to another person by a committee, the same committee who assigns them children. These babies, "newchildren" in the book, are not born to the parents. Instead, there are women whose job it is to deliver them. All professions are assigned to a person, again based on the committee's evaluation of everyone's strengths.

Everything is the same. No colors, no weather, no different hair cuts or skin colors. This is, for me, the most disturbing and frightening aspect of the Community, and what ultimately makes the book so successful. Jonas is elected to be the Receiver of memories from a world in which these differences existed previously--our past world. I cannot think of a way of discussing the rest of the plot without further spoiling the magic of the book, so I will end it there. I recommend this to everyone and I think it is something that should be reread with frequency.

My Rating: 5/5
The Giver on Goodreads

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm (Philip Pullman)

I love fairy tales. I cannot get enough of them no matter what I do--I love the Fables graphic novels and Once Upon a Time (which is a pretty good TV show that I suspect ripped off the basic ideas of Fables). Some of my favorite Disney movies are fairy-tale based (Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty). There is something so wonderful to me about fairy tales.

I also love Philip Pullman. The first time I read The Golden Compass, I was eight. It enchanted and fascinated me and captured my attention in a way that only Harry Potter had been doing at that point in my life. So when I found out that Philip Pullman was putting out a fairy tale collection, I couldn't contain my excitement.

I got the opportunity to read an eARC of the book from NetGalley, so thanks to the publisher and the website for setting me up with the book. I unfortunately took a long time to start the book and then eventually finish it, so I apologize for this not really being pre-book-release. Whoops.


Anyway, I loved the book. Philip Pullman is a great writer and does a great job handling the fairy tales--he doesn't get too modern (except for a few strange instances, like when one character tells another that she is "dressed to kill" or another in which the king orders his men to blow up and bomb a character to prevent him from coming to the castle, which strike me as strange anachronisms that gum up the flow of the stories) and he also doesn't get too antiquated. My favorite part is the short commentary that Pullman gives at the end of each tale--he includes the Aarne-Thompson-Uther number, which is very exciting for me, as well as relevant, comparable versions of tales in collections of other folklores (mostly Russian, British and Italian collections). The commentaries themselves are delightful insights into the author's feelings on the tale (which I always find fascinating) or the process of writing it, whether he left it alone or added something for the sake of the plot or borrowed from a similar tale somewhere else; it's a great behind-the-scenes look at the book.

The collection of 50 stories itself is pretty fantastic. There are some great stories I'd never experienced before ("The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers", "Godfather Death", "The Juniper Tree" and "The Nixie of the Millpond" stick out, but there are many others) as well as all the classic tales you might expect, like "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Rumpelstiltskin" and "Snow White" and an interesting version of "Beauty and the Beast" called "The Singing, Springing Lark"--it's surprising how few of the tales are actually that popular; Pullman includes all the major players, and there aren't that many: less than 10. There are a few of the stories that are fairly short or different versions of the same story (I'm thinking "One Eye, Two Eyes, Three Eyes", which is basically Cinderella with a strange fixation on eyeballs), and I question their inclusion, but I think it's good to see how similar some of the tales are. It's important to take the book in pieces or the similar nature and themes (wrong is done, people end up married) sort of numb your mind. This is, of course, a criticism of the nature of fairy tales and not the book I read; Philip Pullman is no more capable of solving these problems than anyone else.

If you at all interested in fairy tales and would like to read a collection, I have no reservations in recommending this clean, compact version. It was truly a delight.

My Rating: 4.5/5
Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm on Goodreads
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Monday, November 19, 2012

Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell)

I have had several encounters with metafiction this year, a style (genre? form? I'm not sure what it is, exactly) that I find fascinating and so full of promise. I was sometimes disappointed and other times very ambivalent, and so when I decided to read Cloud Atlas (in preparation for the movie), I was not sure how to feel. Excited? Nervous? Bored?

The experimental, metafictional quality of Mitchell's novel is that we get six different stories, which interrupt one another and connect back to each other. This makes more sense with an example: the first story is given the title page "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing", which is the diary of a man sailing from islands in the Pacific to Hawaii. This narrative interrupts itself to start a new one, called "Letters from Zedelghem", the epistles of a musically-inclined young man who starts working as an amanuensis to a dying composer. While living with this musician and his family, the main character (Robert Frobisher) discovers a book in the library called The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.

And so on. This repeats six times, with the final story running without interruption; after its course is run, the other five close themselves up so that the last section of the whole novel is Adam Ewing's journal again. I was afraid that this would be gimmicky, because even trying to describe it makes it sound so. It's easy to think that David Mitchell is going to rely on this technique as a crutch, that it's going to be the only thing interesting about the book, but have no fear!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Milan Kundera)

My Quest for Good Literature continues. How exciting. I was wary about The Unbearable Lightness of Being, because a lot of the positive reviews have said things along the lines of "this book changed my life/my outlook on life/my perspective on the universe" and so on.
I am not a fan of people saying things like this. The concept of art changing someone's life sort of frightens me: why isn't your life more stable? Why are you so easily manipulated? I am all for books providing a new understanding or a different way of looking at something, because good art can sometimes achieve this. Maybe it's just the phrasing of this concept that bothers me. I don't know. Regardless, I was concerned that I would hate this book because it's too "life-changing" for me to appreciate (like The Alchemist).

Milan Kundera's book is about Sabina, an artist/mistress, her lover Franz, another lover Tomas and Tomas' wife, Tereza, before, during and after the Prague Spring. Tomas is a man who loves to sleep around (at one point in the novel, he claims to have slept with over 200 women), and after his disastrous first marriage, he develops a serious fear of commitment, vowing to never sleep in bed with anyone next to him ever again. Unfortunately, one of his "conquests", a waitress named Tereza, feels unwell and ends up staying the night sleeping next to Tomas. When he wakes up, she is still sleeping, his hand firmly enlaced with her own.

And here is where the book, in my opinion, does not work. The reason that this book is so "life-changing" is because of all of the philosophy that Kundera (over)stuffs the book with. Every time something happens, every time a character dreams something, every time something symbolizes something, the author/narrator (it's unclear if the first-person narrator is the author) jumps in to give a few paragraphs (or even pages) of philosophical explanation. In the case of the enlaced hands, we get a musing on how this is symbolic of Tomas' greatest fear, commitment, along with an explanation of why it represents commitment. I found these ramblings (although that isn't the right word, as they're more purposeful than ramblings) occasionally insulting, because I felt like I should have been able to pick up on the secondary meaning on my own (and I almost always did). There is a lot of philosophy about "lightness of being", which is without a doubt an interesting concept. However, I got tired of it by the end of the book because of how often it was explained and represented over and over again in various dreams and symbols and events of the characters' lives.

But back to the plot. Tomas marries Tereza and then continues to see all of his mistresses (including Sabina), and the marriage between the two is generally unhappy (one of the main points of the book focuses on love vs. sex and in Tomas' life we see both). They move away from the Czech Republic, back to the Czech Republic, get in trouble with the government, move to the countryside and eventually die when they are crushed (by something heavy, because heaviness and lightness are important). Sabina, one of Tomas' lovers, eventually meets Franz and leaves him just as he plans to leave his wife for her. She goes to America to paint freely without censorship (which leads to a terribly overwrought discussion about "kitsch"). Franz winds up with a young student and marches in protest in Vietnam and ends up paralyzed and dead in the arms of his original wife.

Kundera does a great job of portraying his characters. They are perfectly flawed, and it can be frustrating to watch them screw up again and again, but in the end it is so satisfying because they are exactly like real people. As a historical novel, too, this is wonderful, because Kundera's overexplanation comes in handy when he's providing background information about life in the Czech Republic during Soviet times, making readers genuinely understand the sort of fear and oppression that a Communist regime imposed upon its people.

The philosophical tangents were for me the only bad part of the book, but did not overpower those things about the novel that made it great: the historical representation and the engaging character development. While I'm not sure if I will ever read another Kundera novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is certainly interesting enough to recommend to anyone brave enough to try it.

My rating: 4/5
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Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Casual Vacancy (J.K. Rowling)

I am a big fan of Harry Potter. I credit J.K. Rowling with cementing my love of reading--I'm not going to say that she created it, because many books were read to me a lot growing up; the love was already there, but Harry Potter made reading more exciting than it ever had been. Of course, when I heard that JKR was going to come out with a new book, I knew that I would read it, no matter what the subject matter. How could I not?

I promised myself before starting, however, that I wouldn't be blinded by my love of Harry Potter. There are two ways to be blinded: the first, that anything Rowling produces is magical, and the second, that nothing can ever rival Harry Potter. Unfortunately, it seems that a lot of the people out there were blinded in the second way, disappointed that the book wasn't as good. This gets into one of my biggest annoyances: the use of comparison as a rating.

I saw many reviews that criticized the book only because it wasn't a new Harry Potter, barely mentioning (if at all) anything about the quality of the novel. This reminds me a lot of when the Pixar movie Brave came out this summer: most of the negative reviews said things about how the film would have been good if it weren't a Pixar film. That burned me up: I have no problem with someone looking at Brave and saying "that's not as good as other Pixar films", but to use that as the only reason the movie wasn't good is ridiculous. The same principle applies here. I agree that The Casual Vacancy wasn't as good as any of the seven Harry Potters. Does that mean it's a bad book? Certainly not.

The plot centers on the small English town of Pagford in the wake of a councilman's death. Barry Fairbrother, the aforementioned man, leaves a vacant seat on the town's parish council, and this is a particularly politically-charged moment. There's some big drama (rather, big drama for a small town) about an unsightly neighborhood and the drug rehabilitation clinic it houses--some of the people in Pagford want to cede the seedy area to a neighboring town and close down the clinic, while others believe it's important to give the less fortunate a chance.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Insurgent (Veronica Roth)

I liked but did not love Divergent, the book to which Veronica Roth's Insurgent is a sequel. I feel exactly the same about book two, which is frustrating. I was hoping that Insurgent would be higher quality, which is not to say that either of the books are low-quality; they aren't. They could just be better.

This book picks up right where Divergent ends: Erudite exerts some mind control technology on Dauntless, and unable to control their actions, Beatrice's new clan wipes out a good many of the Abnegation. Of course, Tris is immune to this simulation because she's Divergent. Her parents both die in the struggle, and when confronted by a mind-controlled Will, Tris kills him.

This is the cliffhanger that becomes the most obnoxious at the beginning of the book. Yes, I've never killed anyone, so it's impossible for me to imagine how I would deal with the information that a person's nonexistence is a consequence of one of my actions. I understand that. But I do not understand why we must rehash over and over that Tris killed her friend in a life-or-death situation. I don't want Tris to be remorseless, but it felt like every action that our heroine performs was prefaced by how killing her friend makes this action more difficult, in a way almost identical to the way she must contemplate how old, Abnegation Beatrice would do things in Divergent.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures (Emma Straub)

I received an e-ARC of Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures from NetGalley. I'm not sure if I have to say that, but I see it in reviews all the time and I figure it wouldn't hurt. As I was saying, I received an ARC of this book and I was pretty excited. I had seen something about this book online and the premise sounded exciting: the rise and fall of a Hollywood actress in the Golden Days.

Straub takes us on a journey through the life of one Elsa Emerson, a small-town Wisconsin girl whose father owns a local theatre in Door County. She grows up around the theatre and is enchanted by acting, eventually marrying one of her fellow players and moving to Hollywood to hit it big. She has two girls, rebrands herself as Laura Lamont, divorces her husband and then marries a studio executive. She's famous, she's beloved, she wins an Academy Award for one of her roles.

Then her life goes downhill. She can't keep being famous forever. Her family is crumbling, she can't find any actress work, she's depressed. It's all very tragic. One of the things I was worried about was the Marilyn Monroe potential--here's a book about a small-town girl who becomes famous in Hollywood. Fortunately, Straub never lets this get out of hand. Unfortunately, there are still some issues I have with the book.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Bossypants (Tina Fey)

This summer, I went on a Tina Fey binge, which means that I watched a few seasons of 30 RockBaby Mama and Date Night. The Fey marathon culminated in my reading of Bossypants, which I have been wanting to read for a long time and finally have. I heard nothing but good stuff about this book, and I was really looking forward to it.

I am always nervous about humorous books because it's very hard to keep up the humor consistently. I once read a humor memoir called Publish This Book that, when I started it, was hilarious. I was laughing at least twice a page, and they were genuine, full laughs. But after the first sixty pages or so, the humor wasn't consistent and I ended up feeling disappointed. There are also my experiences with Dave Eggers and David Sedaris, both of which were major disappointments. I figured, nonetheless, that if anyone could pull off a consistently funny book, it would be Tina Fey.

And for the most part, I was right. The laughs were consistent and chapters that weren't particularly funny were incredibly interesting (i.e., the chapter on 30 Rock and the chapter on being Sarah Palin). The anecdotes from Tina Fey's life are hilarious and she writes engagingly on all sorts of topics, including a honeymoon disaster, working at a YMCA and why she loves Amy Poehler so much.

But it's not constantly funny, and since it's supposed to be a humor book, it was a disappointment that it wasn't full of laugh-inducing moments. Nonetheless, Bossypants is a great read (and I hear it's even better in audiobook form because Ms. Fey herself reads the book) that I have no qualms recommending.

My rating: 4/5
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Monday, September 3, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky)

This is not the first time I read Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It's my third, and I don't think the power of the book has diminished even slightly. It is one of my favorite books, after all.

Our narrator goes under the assumed named Charlie, and the premise is that we are reading these letters that "Charlie" has written us about his life and the goings-on therein. As the novel opens, he's just about to start his freshman year of high school, and he's kind of a loner and a weirdo. One of his friends recently committed suicide and it did not affect him well. Fortunately, Charlie makes friends in older, cooler seniors Sam and Patrick, two stepsiblings who are living the alternative life.

The rest of the book chronicles Charlie's year, and manages to hit on a lot of big issues: smoking, drinking, drugs, homosexuality, suicide, abortion and abuse, mainly. The book received some backlash for being an "issue conglomerate", i.e. a book that fills itself with hot-button issues to make a splash. I never understood that criticism, because the presence of these issues never feels forced or unnatural.

One of the things I like best about the book is the emotions it evokes. Very rarely do books make me feel anything one way or the other, but The Perks of Being a Wallflower is able to put me in a funk for days afterward. It's not a good feeling--it's something akin to the loneliness I feel after watching The Social Network, but the fact that these feelings are so strong means I love the book. It's interesting to watch my understanding of the book change each time I read it, too. It's not like a mystery novel where the second read-through can be appreciated for seeing the way the author set things up, but rather the way I view the book after different times in my life. I know that no two read-throughs will warrant the same thoughts from me and I love that.

It's not a perfect book; sometimes Charlie is really pretentious, saying things like "And in that moment, I swear we were infinite", which is something that a lot of people like to quote from the book. In fact, the book can sometimes just come across as pretentious, but I can never tell if it's intentional. Nonetheless, I am annoyed by it. Charlie can also be really frustrating as a person, and while it gets on my nerves, it's clear that this is intentional because it allows Sam to give Charlie a lecture at the end of the book about how important it is to find a balance between active and passive in your life. Blah.

Annoying portions aside, Chbosky's book is a fine one, one that can be appreciated by anybody for its observations on life and ability to channel raw emotion in the reader.

My rating: 5/5
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Saturday, September 1, 2012

Abarat: Absolute Midnight (Clive Barker)

Back in 2002, I saw the original Abarat on the new releases shelf. I was deeply mired in my fantasy obsession, and immediately loved the book. There was a lot to enjoy. Clive Barker fills the Abarat books with beautiful oil paintings (that he made himself!) of scenes and landscapes and characters. Just looking through the book and absorbing the surrealistic images was a treat.

There's a review excerpt on the back of Absolute Midnight that does a great job summing up the actual books: "vivid." The saga tells the tale of Candy Quackenbush, a normal girl from Chickentown, Minnesota getting transported to the Abarat and its 25 islands (this is the extent to which I will summarize the plot because this is book three of five), one for each hour of the day (and one that is "the 25th Hour" or something like that). This premise is incredibly imaginative and well-executed: each island is unique and is populated by exotic creatures and people.

However, it's this same overflow of creativity that bogs the book down. Absolute Midnight is the longest of the three books so far at 571 pages, and a lot of that length is padded out when Barker drags readers through conversations with new characters who don't seem to be coming back any time soon or spending time describing places we'll likely never see again. Despite all this extra length, there is a surprising absence of retelling of previous books' events.

One of the troubles of series is knowing how much to summarize from the previous books. There's a fine line between not enough and too much, and Absolute Midnight was most certainly on the "what's even going on" side of the scale. It doesn't help that this book was published 7 years after its predecessor. That's a lot of time between books, and so at least a little more recollection would have been helpful.

These books are definitely a unique, fun fantasy series, but I recommend waiting until all five have been published (which could be in 14 more years, who knows) to start. It will be less confusing that way.

My Rating: 3.5/5
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Sunday, August 19, 2012

Pure Sea Glass (Richard LaMotte)

In my spare time, I collect sea glass. I walk along the shoreline of bodies of water (lakes and oceans, mostly) and look for shards of glass that are at least a little bit rounded/worn down. I don't care about color or size (that isn't strictly true--I love finding rare colors and big pieces especially, but there are some people out there who refuse to collect average pieces, which is not the point of looking for glass). It's relaxing just to walk and look and occasionally find an exciting piece.

So someone bought me Pure Sea Glass as a present for Christmas and I figured it was probably time for me to read it. The book was great--it was incredibly informational and beautiful pictures of glass. I learned a lot about not only the best places to look and the rarity of certain colors, but also how those colors were made, when they were made, where they were made and what things those colors were used for (a very obvious example includes brown for beer bottles). Richard LaMotte does a splendid job of looking at the glass from every angle.

But sometimes that's a bad thing. There were parts of the book (especially in the latter half, where there are whole chapters about bottles or decorative glass) where he rapid-fire assaults the reader with lots of information, and it's more overwhelming than interesting. This was a book that would have done a great job of utilizing lists and charts to organize the contents.

And sometimes those beautiful pictures didn't seem necessary. For example, there's a section where the author talks about bottles that were manufactured to hold poisons and explains how these differed from regular bottles. How interesting, how cool! And he includes a picture of an entirely intact bottle, which is cool, but I would have appreciated a picture of some sea-tumbled glass that had been positively identified as a poison bottle, since that's the whole point of the book. LaMotte mentions possible methods and indicators that would tell someone, but doesn't do it himself. Disappointing.

Sometimes the book strayed a little too far from sea glass, which was distracting and a little tiresome. He gives a pretty thorough history of bottle manufacturing and the evolution of the bottle-stopper, and that section drags. The last chapter is all about shoreline erosion and sea level rise, which is an important environmental issue but felt out of place (he brings it up to mention how it makes it harder to find glass as if that's the main concern associated with this problem).

Overall, an interesting (and useful!) book with lots of great information that with some sections that can definitely be skimmed or skipped.

My rating: 4/5
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Monday, August 13, 2012

Starcrossed (Josephine Angelini)

Starcrossed, like Divergent before it, was a book that let me down. I first heard about the book in 2010, and the premise sounded exciting: Helen Hamilton finds out that she is a actually a demigod when the beautiful Delos family moves to her island. She and the new clan at first violently hate each other, but after Helen saves Lucas Delos' life, she falls madly in love with him and finds out that she is fated to play out the role of Helen of Troy who might cause another Trojan War. This concept promises a lot of awesome things: Greek mythology, a complex romance and a motif about fate, choice and destiny (which is one of my favorite devices if done correctly--see One Hundred Years of Solitude for the most perfect example).

The book barely delivered any of these things. What we do get is a book that comes across as a mash-up of a lot of different popular teen books that could have been spectacular had Angelini been more focused. The story drags and sags in places and the characters aren't particularly fun to listen to. Take Helen, for example.

Helen is our protagonist, and at the beginning of the book, her favorite thing to focus on is popularity. She's an incredibly beautiful girl who lives on Nantucket. Despite her beauty, she is not a member of the popular crowd and she spends a lot of time thinking about it. I thought we were moving toward a "strong female heroine" image, so why does Helen care? This was an instance where I feel the book could have been trimmed down and refocused, because the popularity thing never becomes important. Angelini sets it up as though it may become relevant later, but it never does.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy)

As I mentioned in my review of The Alchemist, I have been on a Quest to Read Good Literature. It is a never-ending quest, but I try my best. With the new movie adaptation coming in November, I figured that now would be as good a time as any to crack open my copy of Anna Karenina. I had high expectations for the book: it is considered one of the best books of all time and simultaneously manages to be a soapy drama (which is my secret favorite kind of story). What's not to love?

Oh, right. The extra fluff all over the place. Now, I suppose that this is at least partly my fault for choosing to read the unabridged version, which is (obviously) how I read all of my books. And at times, I actually enjoyed the excess material. My relationship with the book is a little complicated.

The plot: Anna Karenina, a woman of high 1870s Russian society, has an affair. Everything after that point is the aftermath of her infidelity. The book does a masterful job of letting us into the lives of everyone involved: Anna, Count Vronsky (the man for whom she leaves her husband), Anna's husband, Kitty (the girl who was in love with Vronsky before he chose to be with Anna) and Levin (the man who proposes to Kitty and gets turned down). Tolstoy is excellent at splicing a situation into the viewpoints of many characters to allow his readers to examine and contemplate the repercussions of every event and decision.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Song of Achilles (Madeline Miller)

The Song of Achilles was the first book I read this summer, and it was absolutely beautiful. It became kind of a disappointment because I knew that everything I would read after this wouldn't be as good. I should have saved it for the end, and finished summer with a bang. Don't misunderstand me. The book was anything but a disappointment.

This is the story of Patroclus, a Greek myth figure you may not know very well. He is Achilles' best friend (and in some versions, including this one, his lover). Achilles, Aristos Achaion, the best of the Greeks, the mighty warrior of the Trojan War. The Song of Achilles is a retelling (I think "retelling" is an appropriate word choice, but I'm not sure what else to use if it isn't) of The Iliad from the point of view of Patroclus, a disgraced prince who moves to Achilles' kingdom. Our story sends us from this point until the end of the Trojan War, when the novel ends.


Everything in between is a beautiful love story. Miller does an extraordinary job writing: her sentences are gorgeous living beings that enchanted me from the moment I started. Watching the romance between Patroclus and Achilles begin and grow is breathtaking; their tale is insanely gratifying and at times heartbreaking as Patroclus has to face the hardships of a war hero fated to die (I would say "spoilers" but anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Greek mythology knows Achilles dies--though I did learn from reading this that the myth of Achilles' heel was retroactively added to the story hundreds of years after Homer).

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Natural (Bernard Malamud)

The Natural by Bernard Malamud is one of those "literary sports novels". Hooray! I never read sports books (except for this time in my childhood where I read a bunch of Dan Gutman's Baseball Card Adventures), but the promise of this one having literary quality enticed me.

The "natural" of the title is Roy Hobbs, a 34-year-old ballplayer who joins the (fictional) professional team the New York Knights. He's insanely talented, and the novel details his amazing season where he brings the Knights out of last place, along with meditations on love and guilt and "doing the right thing".

The edition that I read had a quotation from Time's review of the book, that being "[a] preposterously readable story about life", and I wholeheartedly agree. I would find myself doing the "just one more page" nonsense over and over and over. One of the reasons I hate sports books is how boring the scenes in which the sport is being played is written (when J.K. Rowling announced that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows would have no Quidditch scenes, I must say I was happy about it). It's way more fun to watch someone hit a ball than it is to read about it, but Malamud did a great job. I found the baseball scenes engaging and interesting.

If the aforementioned literary thinking about our actions and love isn't enough, it might help to do some research on the Fisher King, the knight Perceval and the Holy Grail. There are (intentionally) strong parallels between the stories, but I felt like it didn't do much to alter my perception of the story. One of my complaints about the novel was that Roy Hobbs is a frustrating main character, but his character flaws are important in the understanding of the nature of a tragic hero.

Overall a good book, both literarily and in its sportswriting, with some occasional flab in the form of flashbacks and inner monologues that are perhaps intended to help us understand Roy's personality but often left me confused about their inclusion (including a scene involving his mother, a cat and a bathtub toward the end of the novel).

My rating: 3.5/5
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Monday, July 23, 2012

Aura (Carlos Fuentes)

Aura is the first book I've ever read in its original Spanish, which is very exciting for me but probably less so for everyone else. That being said, I don't want to sound like I understood everything perfectly because about halfway through, I stopped bothering to translate every word I didn't recognize. So if I misunderstood something, sorry.

Anyway, our story is that of a young man, Felipe Montero, who answers an ad in the newspaper looking for someone fluent in French. He answers, and meets an old woman named Consuelo who lives with her young, beautiful niece Aura. Consuelo wants Felipe to translate her dead husband's papers, and Felipe agrees because he is transfixed with Aura.

What follows is a spiral into violence and passion and magical realism (at least I think it's magical realism--I'm not an expert on the subject, having only read One Hundred Years of Solitude). I don't want to spoil it, although I have to admit that I wasn't shocked, but I'm not sure if I was supposed to be. The story is fascinating, and I loved watching Fuentes lock all of the pieces together and then step back to let it unfold.

The language of the story is beautiful and the narrative is unique for using second-person narration to put the reader in the place of Felipe Montero. The action alternates between present tense and future tense, which, when combined with the strange events and the ethereal language, give the entire novella the feel of a twisted fever dream. It's a delicious effect.

Carlos Fuente's Aura is an enchanting tale of the blurred lines between fantasy and reality; it's a great, short read for any fan of contemporary Latin American literature.

My rating: 4/5
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Friday, July 20, 2012

The Shadow Thieves (Anne Ursu)

Anne Ursu's The Shadow Thieves (first in a trilogy called The Cronus Chronicles) was published in 2006. I bought the book when it first came out. I have owned this book for six years and never opened it. I decided that was a little ridiculous, so sat down to read it. I think part of why it took me so long was that in 2005, the first Percy Jackson and the Olympians book was released, and I was busy enjoying those and was perhaps nervous that this book was going to be too similar.

I worried for nothing. Sure, both The Lightning Thief and The Shadow Thieves came out around the same time, both are kid's series with Greek mythology, and both have a variant of the word 'thief' in the title, but the books were different enough that I could enjoy them for different reasons. The characters are charming, the writing is clean and focused and snarkily, sarcastically humorous. I thought I would get tired of Ursu's funny jabs after the first two or three, but they consistently remained entertaining. I appreciated their presence.

Here's the plot: Charlotte Mielswetzski, the grumpy, fire-haired protagonist of our story, finds out that her cousin Zee will be coming to live with her. He's fleeing England after all of the young kids around him mysteriously grow sick, exhausted and unable to move. When he arrives in America, the same thing happens. The two take it upon themselves to solve the problem and discover a plot that involves a shadow army and a coup of the Underworld. The action never comes off as intense or epic (like battle scenes in Percy Jackson), but it suits the book. I would have been put off if we were suddenly put through a huge, violent battle with lots of slaughter. It wouldn't have fit the tone of the book.

Overall, this was an enjoyably light-hearted book with a smattering of Greek mythology to make it interesting. Young fans of Percy Jackson will likely enjoy it.

My Rating: 4/5
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The Enchantress (Michael Scott)

Ugh. In my younger years, I had a real thing for fantasy. It's almost all I would ever read. Which is sad, because there are so many beautiful books out there that contain not a whit of magic or swordplay. The thing about fantasy books is that they often come in series. It's never enough to be one book with a self-contained adventure. It has to be three books, or five, or seven. And sometimes, it's okay. Usually it isn't, because what an author can accomplish in two or three books is bloated and dragged out over twice or three times as many books. And even when the series turns into a trainwreck, I feel obligated to finish what I've started. This is a perfect example.

The Enchantress is book six in Michael Scott's YA fantasy series The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel. It's the final book, and so I don't really want to/am not sure that I can sum up the events of the previous five (here's the Wikipedia article for the first book with a pretty thorough plot summary), but here's my best effort. Imagine the modern world, except now some gods (Elders) and mythological beasts exist and have existed for a very long time. Throw in historical figures (the titular Nicholas Flamel, a famous alchemist you may know from Harry Potter; Joan of Arc; Shakespeare) that are granted immortality or gain it themselves by whatever means. Add a plot by some of these gods (the Dark Elders) to destroy the world we live in and allow their paradise of 10,000 years ago (Danu Talis AKA Atlantis) to continue on. Josh and Sophie, identical twins, discover that they are the "Twins of Legend" in a prophecy that says "one will save the world and one will destroy it".

I picked up the first book because (as I mentioned) I love fantasy, and I really enjoyed the idea of seeing famous people from history and mythological gods and goddesses. The first book was actually enjoyable, too. But as the series progressed, the books got worse and worse. The cast of characters grew unnecessarily large, to the point where I was having a hard time keeping track or empathizing with everyone. The story decided to become unnecessarily laden with plot twists. The writing is bad; this one wasn't a progressive problem, because I noticed all the way in book one how Scott likes to drop the same phrases, like "the angles and planes of [character's] face weren't quite human" or "they were speaking in a dialect that hadn't been heard on Earth for 300 years" over and over. This book in particular grated on me, and there was a laughably bad scene where a bunch of immortal humans (including Shakespeare) take turns reciting their favorite Shakespeare lines or monologues. I guess "yay" for trying to give your book some culture?

The book's climax features a lot of battle (and I hate written fight scenes, hence my distaste for Lord of the Rings), one of which ends in a bunch of deaths that are meaningless, partially because of the huge character cast I mentioned earlier and partially because they are at times illogical, and another that ends in an incredibly confusing manner ("suddenly this, and then this, and then suddenly this other thing SOMETHING IS HAPPENING BUT IT ISN'T EXPLAINED IT JUST HAPPENS and now the end"), but I'm not sure if I missed something or if something was left out (I know, this is the second review where I said that; I promise I'm usually a thorough reader). The only positive thing I have to say about the book is that, despite how annoyingly repetitive some of the phrasing is and despite the occasional lack of explanation, the book is quite the page turner.

If you're a big fan of fantasy and adventure, I think you'll really enjoy the series. Otherwise, this is definitely a safe skip.

My Rating: 1.5/5
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Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms (Lissa Evans)

I saw Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms on the shelf at my library a few weeks ago and each time I returned, I felt myself drawn to it. I couldn't resist the beautiful black-and-white visuals (I can't find the name of an artist anywhere in the book, but shout out to you for your beautiful chapter illustrations and the gorgeous cover) and the blurb sounded promising. The book is small, so I figured it was worth the risk. Even if I didn't like it, it's only 270 pages.

I definitely liked it. Our main character, Stuart (the book was originally published in the U.K. under the title Small Change for Stuart), moves back to his father's hometown and accidentally uncovers a series of clues that will lead him to the workshop his great-uncle (a famous stage illusionist by the name of Teeny-Tiny Tony Horten), which promises to be filled with amazing wonders and illusions of all kinds.

I was really tickled by this book. The blurb promises "the quirkiest of characters", and I certainly wasn't let down in that department: audacious triplets, a bumbling magician-in-training and a man overly preoccupied with factoids and crossword puzzles are just some of our cast, and I enjoyed every moment of dialogue and interaction Stuart had with these characters. 

I had a few issues with the plot, namely that Tony Horten's trail of clues were put down decades ago (I don't know that we're given an exact number of years, but I think it's safe to assume at least thirty). It seems implausible that all of the parameters necessary for Stuart to reach the end of the trail would still exist and function properly. At best, however, it's a minor issue, and I didn't have trouble suspending my disbelief to go along with it. The book is a fun little ride, and I'm looking forward to book two (out in September!).

Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms is a clever novel that will delight young readers, especially fans of The Mysterious Benedict Society and The Invention of Hugo Cabret (I was reminded of both on several occasions, especially TMBS). 

My Rating: 4/5
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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Divergent (Veronica Roth)

I must confess, the first time I heard about Divergent, I may have rolled my eyes. One of the things that really tires me about young adult books is how trendy they are: if a book belonging to one niche becomes popular, suddenly the market is flooded with those kinds of books. Harry Potter saw the rise of books about witches and sorcerers and medieval dragons and such. Twilight birthed loads of vampire/werewolf books (I still get upset every time I see that Barnes & Noble has a "Teen Paranormal Romance" section separate from the other YA books).

Ever since the success of The Hunger Games, I've seen a stream of nonstop dystopian fiction.So when I saw that Roth's Divergent was another futuristic-society-gone-wrong book, I felt like it was safe to pass it up. I read The Hunger Games, I'll pass. Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of dystopias because it can allow for some really unique and enjoyable world-building, but at some point, enough is enough.

And then the book won the Goodreads Choice Award for favorite book of 2011, and I was paying attention. The book has amassed over 100,000 ratings in 14 months, and its average rating is 4.39 (as of my writing this post). Such popularity and positivity is not something to be ignored, so I decided to read the book.

I came away (slightly) disappointed. Set in a Chicago of the future, society has been divided into five factions, each favoring a particular trait: bravery (Dauntless), honesty (Candor), selflessness (Abnegation), intelligence (Erudite) and kindness (Amity). When every child is sixteen, they must take an aptitude test to determine which faction best suits them, and then they are allowed to choose which faction to join. Something that wasn't clear to me while reading was whether the aptitude test results dictated your choice. Does getting a Candor result mean you must join or stay in Candor, or can you switch to Amity despite the fact that you didn't test well for that faction? I'm not sure if I just missed something while reading or if something wasn't explained. Oh well.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho)

I am always on a Quest to Read Great Literature, and back when I first decided to embark on this quest (in 2009), I found a list from The Guardian of books you absolutely must read as compiled by British librarians (article here). One of the books was The Alchemist, by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho. Finally, three years later, I got around to reading it, and I was incredibly disappointed. I confess, part of it was my fault. I didn't know going into it that the book was written as an undercover schmucky self-help book disguised as a fable/parable.

We're introduced to a teenage shepherd who wanders around Spain with his flock of sheep. He has a strange dream about finding treasure at the Pyramids in Egypt and then meets a mysterious man who tells him that the only way to be truly happy in life is to realize his "Personal Legend" (one of the things that irritated me more than it should have was the constant capitalization of "Personal Legend", like it's some big important proper noun), and his legend is to seek this treasure he dreamed about.

What ensues is the said journey, full of discovery and wisdom and knowledge, and the whole thing is just aggravating. Several times on the journey things happen that force the shepherd to stop; he gets robbed, there's a war in the desert, etc. Every time an excuse comes up for him to avoid fulfilling his Personal Legend, he tries to take it. Which is perhaps the point, but most infuriating is that his Personal Legend isn't one that's necessarily difficult to achieve: show up to the Pyramids, get treasure, be rich. I'd understand if he kept quitting because his PL is difficult, like climbing a big mountain or building a home for every homeless person on Earth. But it's not particularly challenging, so our shepherd hero just comes out looking wimpy and whiny.

But he isn't the only annoying character. The girl that the shepherd meets and falls in love with at the oasis camp is agonizing to read. He tries to use their relationship as an excuse not to leave for the Pyramids, but she says something about how she's a "woman of the desert" and women of the desert must wait for their men. Why doesn't this girl (I think her name is Fatimah?) have her own Personal Legend where she breaks the mold of the anti-feminist society she lives in and go with her lover? There's also the Englishman (that's what he's called: "the Englishman"), the Alchemist, and the mysterious man I mentioned earlier who may or may not have been king of the angels or something similarly ludicrous.

The Alchemist fails as an interesting novel and simultaneously doesn't even manage to be a good self-help book. There's a lot of talk about omens and the "language of the universe", and how the universe conspires to allow all of us to reach our Personal Legends if only we pay attention to the signs all around us and learn to speak the unspoken language of the world. It's stupid. The message I took away? You should pursue your dreams and your destiny but should also rely on arbitrarily-determined signs in nature (there's a part where the shepherd sees birds flying above him and mysteriously knows that it's a sign that the oasis camp where he's staying is going to be attacked the next day...yeah right). I thought the point of self-help books was to motivate you to make an effort in your life, but I felt like Coelho wanted us to rely more on chance than ourselves.

This was a very disappointing book, and I rolled my eyes too many times to count.

Rating: 1/5
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The Red House (Mark Haddon)

I read one of Mark Haddon's previous novels (his absolutely wonderful The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time), so I was looking forward to this new book. The Red House tells the story of an English family on vacation in the countryside in the titular red house. The narrative switches between all eight characters, and what ensues is a week of dramatic realizations and revelations as the family struggles to bring itself together.

Richard and Angela are brother and sister, estranged after the death of their mother. Richard, a wealthy, recently-remarried doctor, invites his sister and her family on vacation in an attempt to mend the bond and grow closer. Angela, who took care of her mother as she declined, holds a serious grudge against Richard, almost never visited their mother and was still her favored child. There's a lot of wild drama: an affair, hallucinations, and a conflict between religion and sexuality, to name a few.

A lot of the negative reviews that initially put me off from reading the book focused on how confusing the narrative switches were, but Haddon does a great job plotting out the thoughts and feelings of these characters, and his writing sparkles as he does so. Each switch is presented just by giving a line break, no new heading or boldfaced character name. We're left to figure it out, but I never had much trouble, so I'm not sure what the fuss was about. I didn't find the characters to be unoriginal or overly similar, but dynamic and separate. Each of the family members provides us a different facet of seeing their world, of observing the family. We want the best for this clan, but it's fun to watch them fall apart.

There were some times when it was apparent that Haddon was overreaching, when we're presented with snippets of poetry or stream-of-consciousness prose that is not attached to anyone in particular. Moments like these (brief, and not overly common) frustrated me a little because the book would have been fine without them. One thing I don't like is an author who can create something wonderful and then feels that it must be embellished and prettified to the point that the work is worse off, but fortunately Mark Haddon didn't go to extremes with this abstract approach.

The Red House is slim (~275 pages), and it's fast read. Great for a summer evening, especially if you love family dramas (it's my guilty pleasure).

My rating: 3.5/5
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