Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Silver Linings Playbook (Matthew Quick)

I apologize for this review. I saw the movie version in January, which is obviously a few months ago. I still wanted to read the book, but I'm inevitably going to make comparisons with the movie. Sorry. That's both annoying if you haven't seen the movie and improper for examining a book on its own, but sometimes it happens.

Pat Peoples is in an asylum. He is having legally-enforced apart time from his wife, Nikki, whom he loves more than anything in the world. He is obsessed with her--everything he does he considers in the eyes of Nikki: he's started working out because Nikki likes a well-developed upper body; he acts compassionate toward people because it's one of Nikki's biggest complaints about his behavior.

The book begins with Pat's mother coming to check him out and take him home--for good. Pat has to adjust to being in the real world, something he hasn't done in four years (one of the things that makes the book so sad is that Pat's conception of time has been heavily altered; he believes he's only been locked up for a few months, not four whole years). Everyone uncomfortably attempts to integrate Pat back into their world, despite his obsession with Nikki and his tendency to react violently to negative things. Eventually, he meets Tiffany, a woman whose husband recently died, something with which she hasn't been dealing well. They soon become friends, going on runs together. Pat begins to attend sessions with a local therapist and is sucked up into the world of Philadelphia Eagles football, a fixation that controls Pat's father's unstable emotions.

The Silver Linings Playbook focuses on the reintegration of Pat back into his normal life. In comparison to the movie, the relationship with Tiffany (which I would argue is at the forefront of the film) is minimalized; I'm not saying that it's good or bad. In fact, in terms of representing Pat's ongoing Nikki-centric lifestyle, it is fascinating to examine the way his first-person narrative and how he marginalizes Tiffany because she represents the rival to his affections to his wife.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

More Than This (Patrick Ness)

Thank you, NetGalley, for this eARC.

Seth drowns at the beginning of More Than This. That's not a spoiler. It's the prologue. He's in the Pacific Ocean, he's fighting against the current, and then he cracks his skull on a rock and he's dead. Then he wakes up in his hometown in England, unsure at first where he is. He remembers dying. So why is he alive? He begins to explore the place his family fled years ago (owing to a horrifying, traumatic incident involving Seth's younger brother, Owen) and finds it totally deserted. It is a wasteland, looking like it was abandoned years ago because of...well, who knows what, exactly? Seth begins to feel very lonely and desperate, the same feeling that led him to (spoiler?) kill himself by walking into the ocean at the beginning of the book.

This is part one of the book, and it was incredible. The events leading up to Seth's suicide are heartbreaking and devastating. Each time he falls asleep in this new world, he relives some of his most important past memories, and these are the scenes that I loved. I had moments where all I wanted to was read the book and simultaneously never read it again because of how lonely it made me feel. That's a strange feeling to crave, but I'm wonderstruck by the fact that there are things out there that can make me believe we're all so totally isolated from one another, that can overwhelm me so strongly with despair (see also The Social Network and The Perks of Being a Wallflower). Even the scenes where Seth is walking around his ghost-hometown manage to evoke those same feelings, because here he is so literally alone (versus his feeling alone before he kills himself). It's terrible. It's delicious.

I could rave about part one of More Than This for the rest of the review and slap on a five-star rating and tell everyone I know to read it. But this part is only the first third of the book--there is still the other 67% of the book, the other three parts of the book. And that's where all my problems lie. It's going to be difficult to talk about the rest of the book because it's all spoilery--there's no indication about what happens for the rest of the book in the blurb that comes on the book or in information about it. So I'll try my best.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A Monster Calls (Patrick Ness)

Thanks to NetGalley for this eARC!

Perhaps the problem is that I am a cold-hearted beast who cannot feel sympathy. I suppose that might not be true, because there are plenty of books that have led me to tears. Maybe it's something about cancer narratives. I don't know. They seem a little too emotionally-demanding.

This is one of Patrick Ness' Carnegie-Medal-winning books. A Monster Calls is about Conor, a 13-year-old boy whose mother has been diagnosed with cancer. He is eternally optimistic about her recovery but increasingly annoyed with the way people around him have begun to treat him--with kind distance, or overbearing sympathy, or outright cruelty (obviously this last one is his peers, because children are just cruel).

Every night he has a horrible nightmare, the details of which we are not privvy to. And then one night, at 12:07am, a monster calls. It takes the form of the yew tree in his backyard, and it begins to tell him stories--there are three, and after the monster has concluded its tales, Conor must tell his own, true story. Trapped between the monster, his distant father and his unaffectionate grandmother, Conor begins to lash out.

Now, here's what I can say I liked about the book--the monster itself. Sections featuring the yew-tree creature are these wonderful, dreamlike passages that balance perfectly between fantasy and delusion. The stories it tells are archetypal and evocative. It's a great use of magical realism that serves as a metaphor that isn't too overbearing or heavy-handed. It feels like a fairy tale or a myth in its execution, and the effect is lovely.

But that's all I liked (which, granted, is between 1/3 and 1/2 of the novel). Conor is written very annoyingly--I suppose this ought to be a praise rather than a criticism, because the way Ness writes Conor is exactly the way younger children behave when confronted with big, scary problems. But that doesn't mean I enjoyed reading it. I would quasi-skim sections without the titular monster because of how much Conor irked me. So, I suppose, yay for being so realistic, but boo for making me not want to read it?

And the ending. I won't outright spoil, but the story's a cancer narrative, so you can see where it's going. This book has absolutely glowing reviews, and a good many of them mention how emotional the conclusion of the novel is. I just didn't feel it. I never felt like I was going to tear up or actually cry. And that's a problem, isn't it? When a book wants you to cry and you just don't? It is for me, anyway. I mean, it is sad. Just not that sad.

So I'll go with "meh", because some of it is really good, some of it is irritating, and some of it never manages to command my feelings like it should have.

My rating: 3/5
A Monster Calls on Goodreads
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Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Cuckoo's Calling (Robert Galbraith)

Here it is: my review of J.K. Rowling's pseudonymously-published mystery novel, The Cuckoo's Calling. I remember how excited I was upon discovering the news that this mystery novel, published rather quietly earlier in the year, was actually written by Rowling.

I've never thought of myself as a mystery reader, but for some reason, the idea has begun to grow more and more appealing (especially in the past three or four months, a phenomenon for which I have no explanation). So I was willing to give this a go because Rowling is talented and some of the Potter books read like mystery novels (in particular Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban). It wouldn't exactly be my first go-round under her hand.

Cormoran Strike is our heroic detective, a veteran of Afghanistan who lost one of his legs from the knee down. A few months prior to the novel's opening, the adopted, half-black supermodel Lula Landry falls from the third-floor balcony of her fancy apartment and the world mourns, believing it to have been a suicide due to her bipolarity. However, her adopted brother John Bristow doesn't believe it possible--he doesn't seem to think Lula would have killed herself and he comes to Cormoran Strike asking to reopen the investigation.

At about the same time, Strike gets a new secretary, Robin Ellacott, a woman who secretly wants to be a detective. Eager to work, she begins to help him investigate the circumstances despite his gruff personality (owing, of course, to his recent breakup with his love of many years). So they go about asking all sorts of people to speak again of the murder: the apartment complex's other tenants, the doorman, Lula's model friends and rockstar boyfriend--anyone and everyone is relevant to the investigation.

Unfortunately, I had several problems with the book, the first being the actual mystery--I wasn't compelled to find out who had killed Lula. I was willing to accept that she threw herself off the balcony because there was nothing really intriguing about the murder, no hook that looked really suspicious (I'm thinking of a door locked from the inside, like Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, or anything to give me pause). So it's a bit of a drag for a heavy portion of the book, or was for me at least. I was never gripped the way I think I'm supposed to (is that correct? Like I said, I don't read mysteries).

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Mark of Athena (Rick Riordan)

Okay, round three of Heroes of Olympus. I'm going to burn myself out by the time I read book 4, I think. Since this is the third book I'm reviewing in the series in such a short period of time, it feels silly to repeat a lot of what I've said, so I'll try my best. No promises.

The book starts with a bang as the Greek demigods (that is, Annabeth, Piper, Leo and Jason) sail toward Camp Jupiter in the Argo II, the ship Leo has spent months fixing (with Festus the dragon as the masthead). Of course, it's a trireme, AKA a war ship, so the Romans start panicking. It doesn't help matters that after Annabeth, Piper and Jason leave the boat, it starts attacking the camp from the air. They (along with Percy, Frank and Hazel) hurriedly get back onto the ship and head toward Rome/Greece, where the final showdown is supposed to begin.

But of course there are all sorts of side-quests: someone sees something in a dream that steers them in an unexpectedly helpful direction, and there's a surprise run-in with some minor god or something that points them to their ultimate goal. Not to mention the titular Mark of Athena, which is a special quest given to Annabeth by her mother.
That is the book's annoying secret that we are repeatedly told about but not told of. It seems to be a thing in this series that we must be dragged around knowing about a secret without being told. This time is especially annoying as it's the title of the book.

Perhaps the strangest thing about this book was how annoying it was at times. Of course the book is great when it's full of action and battles, but in the book's downtime, especially in the Annabeth- and Piper-narrated sections of the book, Riordan focuses heavily on romance. And it's not done well at all. I loved Annabeth in the original Percy Jackson series--she was smart and funny and driven. Not an airhead at all. So it was quite a shock to finally read something of Annabeth's perspective that makes her sound so...stupid. She is obsessed with Percy, acting as though he is the only important thing in the world to her, that she is lost without him, that she never wants to let him out of her sight. It's offensive and very out-of-character. Piper is not much better, but it's less of a problem because she has always been this way.

But the action is great, the cliffhanger is quite grabby, and it's nice to see Percy and Annabeth together again (even if Riordan has apparently lost his ability to write his characters behaving intelligently). Whatever. I'm still going to read the final two books.

My rating: 3.5/5
The Mark of Athena on Goodreads
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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The 5th Wave (Rick Yancey)

It occurs to me that the more closely I try to adhere to "what books are going to be big this year", the more unhappy I will be. If I don't like what the book is about, shouldn't I just avoid it? But no. Read The 5th Wave, they all said. It's gonna be big.

I mentioned previously how much I hate zombie apocalypse art. I suppose we can just say all apocalyptic fiction is not for me, because the same helplessness and "realistically, there's not a way out of this but maybe the characters will find a way" applies (but I still really don't like the zombie subgenre). So the fact that this book is an alien apocalypse novel should have been the reason I avoided it. But I didn't.

So. Cassie is one of the few survivors--the aliens have begun to eliminate humans through a series of Waves, premeditated acts of complete destruction. The aliens are very advanced, but aside from their apparent desire to eradicate all humans, not much is known about them. Eventually, Cassie and her father and brother Sam end up at a survivor camp; the military shows up, offering to take Sam to safety with a promise to return for the adult survivors. Sam gets onto a school bus and off he goes; immediately, the "army" shoots everyone else at the camp, except for Cassie, who manages to escape. With Sam's teddy bear in tow, she promises herself that she will find and rescue him.

I feel very torn about this book. The book is about 450 pages, but I read it in two days, so I suppose that says something about the readability? The book opens after four of the Waves have been started, and I have to say I was impressed with how Yancey handles the delivery of backstory--he very mixes it very naturally into the plot and I was interested in what was being said. This is particularly important because I've had some recent bad experiences with not-so-elegant backstory, so it was a relief to read Cassie's flashbacks.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Golem and the Jinni (Helene Wecker)

I think I'm going to struggle with the review for this book because I have spent the past three days wishing I could go swimming in it. The last time I felt this way wasn't too long ago (The Ocean at the End of the Lane), but feelings like this are not very common. So when the wonderful book comes along that makes me hesitate to begin reading something else comes along, I cherish it.

Our scene is 1899, New York City. A Polish man dies during the boat ride to America, leaving behind his recently-awakened golem wife (a golem, if you're unclear, is a giant creature made of clay whose job it is to protect its master and do its master's bidding, a very Jewish-mysticism thing). She jumps off the boat, and swims ashore, overwhelmed by all the wants and fears of people around her--as a masterless creature, she feels compelled to help everyone. A kind rabbi rescues her from a near-problematic incident involving food theft and takes her in, trying to train her to deal with the world around her.

Meanwhile, in Little Syria, a tinsmith accidentally unleashes a trapped jinni (or djinn or genie or djinni depending on how you're feeling, but we've all seen Aladdin I'm betting and therefore have the basic concept, right?) from an heirloom lamp. The man has no memory of the past millenium-and-some, having been trapped since the sixth century. He also cannot remember the time immediately preceding his capture, so he has no idea who captured him or how. But he is talented with metal (owing to his supernaturally warm body because he is a fire spirit) so he stays on as an apprentice, also trying to adjust to human life.

The book unfolds as we observe the two unnatural beings try to adjust to the life of a human. The entire novel is beautiful--the Golem and the Jinni are both flawed and lovable and their supporting casts are almost as luminescent as they are. As just a plain old story, it works great--it is a slow build to a rather actiony climax with an ending that is beyond satisfying. But it's literary, too: in the midst of all this incredible character-building and world-displaying, we are getting all sorts of thought-provoking meditations on things like humanity and free will and even perhaps my favorite motif in the whole world, the cyclical nature of time.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Universe Versus Alex Woods (Gavin Extence)

Thanks to NetGalley for the chance to review this ARC! Per usual, I'm behind, so this book is already out and has been for a few weeks. Oops. I'm a terrible blogger. Do I get a prize?

This book definitely has an attention-grabbing opening--Alex Woods is driving back from Switzerland, trying to re-enter the U.K., but he is detained. In his car: lots of marijuana, the ashes of a dead man and a classical music CD blasted at full volume--when questioned about it, he reveals that he was trying to stave off an epileptic seizure. And then we jump backwards in time to when Alex was hit in the head with a meteor, which is the cause of his epilepsy. I mean, what about this isn't madcap and utterly fascinating?

The problem is that the book becomes progressively less interesting as we approach the point we read in the opening of the novel. It's great fun at the beginning when we're with epileptic Alex and his psychic mother and things are generally cuckoo. But slowly, things become very conventional within the framework of what could have been a delightfully quirky premise--Alex goes to school, Alex is bullied because he likes to be smart, Alex gradually becomes friends with a cranky, lonely old man, Alex learns a lot from the old man and the old man learns a bit from him, too. It's a collection of tropes from the coming-of-age tale, and it all feels disappointingly familiar.

And yet, I couldn't quite bring myself to dislike the book. The Universe Versus Alex Woods is just too goofy not to love--Alex remains funny throughout the book, his mother is delightfully nuts, Mr. Peterson (the aforementioned cantankerous old man) consistently got me to smile because of how accurately Extence wrote him. The quirk just does not stop, either: Alex and Mr. Peterson start a Kurt Vonnegut philosophy book club; there's a hospital breakout and a European road trip; Alex's cat can't stop getting pregnant. I can just feel Wes Anderson's hipsterometer throbbing--should he make this into a movie? Yes. Probably.

And so as entertaining as the thing is, it goes in such an expected direction. I wish it hadn't. Gavin Extence, if you're there: why? The book never gets too entrenched in its emotions, and I can't decide if that's a good thing or a bad thing. Of course, the dead man's ashes are Mr. Peterson's, so you know at the beginning that he dies by the end, but I was never sad. I'm not sure if it's bad that I wasn't made to care or better that the book doesn't take itself too seriously (AKA The Fault in Our Stars); if it's the latter, then what I ended up reading was basically a fluff piece. It doesn't quite go anywhere.

The Universe Versus Alex Woods is a book high on interestingly silly ideas but ultimately low on attention-keeping substance. The mark of the author's ability lies in his characters, who are just as loony as some of the contents of the novel I've already mentioned. But if he doesn't do anything interesting with the characters, and that's sad.

My rating: 3.5/5
The Universe Versus Alex Woods on Goodreads
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