Sunday, August 31, 2014

100 Sideways Miles (Andrew Smith)

Thanks to Edelweiss for the e-ARC of this novel in exchange for my unbiased review!

And thank goodness for Andrew Smith. Seriously. All of us ought to raise him to the heights as a new leader of YA fiction because his books have perpetually stunned me. I'm so lucky to get to read his books, and we're all so lucky to have him around.

100 Sideways Miles is about Finn Easton, who is in high school and on the baseball team and generally cool and normal. Except he has epilepsy. Because a horse fell on him. The same horse that killed his mom and broke his back. His best friend is Cade Hernandez, maybe the only guy who fully understands and accepts Finn, even with his seizures. Cade is known for his charm and constant talk about his own sexual arousal.

When Finn was young, his dad wrote a science fiction novel about human-devouring angels coming to our world, a novel that upset a lot of people, including Finn. Why? Because one of the important characters is named Finn, and he has the same-colored eyes, and the same scar on his back. It makes Finn feel like he's not a real person.

Julia Bishop moves to his school, located in one of the more remote areas of California, and he falls in love with her. She's beautiful and perfect and understanding--one of their first interactions is her taking care of Finn after a seizure strikes, which always leaves Finn embarrassed, angry, and rude. And despite that, she likes Finn, too. So they have a relationship and it's cute and nice but of course something comes up (and I won't tell you what it is, so read the darn book).

Out of the three Smith books I've read (and all in the same year!), this one feels the most like a YA novel. I don't mean that in a bad way, because of course Smith takes the idea of a standard YA novel and injects it with actual, real feelings. Specifically, I was reminded of a John Green book, except it was a good book and not something that felt formulaic and boring and manufactured. Imagine that! A YA novel that deals with love and embarrassment in a straightforward way: no characters spewing pretentious statements at every possible moment, no quirky details that make you want to stab your own eyeballs, and no bossy writer behind the pages cackling and saying "Cry, you ugly fools! Cry!"

The story is realistic, and perhaps that doesn't mean sound like a compliment, but I am amazed by how realistic the relationships are. Finn knows he's not being nice to his parents but it happens anyway. There are no signs of bratty, entitled teen nor controlling parent. It's wonderful! He knows that his relationship with Julia might not work out, and he likes her for real reasons in spite of the challenges a relationship like theirs faces. I hate books that feature characters that fall in love with one another instantly, and though it would never work out in real life, they are happy together forever (at least until the book ends). But Smith is better than that, and it shows.

There's something so uniquely enjoyable about an Andrew Smith novel. The stories he tells are crazy, but they never lose their grasp on the truth inherent in their narratives. That's what amazes me every time I read one of his books: they are drenched in truth but never preach it; the characters never open their mouths and recite aphorisms that make me gag.

My point: Andrew Smith rocks. Stop wasting your life and read his books.

My rating: 5/5
100 Sideways Miles on Goodreads
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Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Night Gardener (Jonathan Auxier)

In my continuing series of "books that people are excited about in 2014," I picked up The Night Gardener a few months ago. I hadn't yet read Auxier's previous novel, Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, but then I did. I enjoyed it very much and looked forward to his second book with a strange amount of glee, especially because it sounded so weird and unsettling. Also, a shiny, silvery cover.

Molly and Kip are two kids from Ireland who are basically orphans--their parents have been indentured into piracy, or at least that's what Molly's saying--leaving Molly in charge of Kip, who has a lame leg. They take a job working as caretakers of an old English estate for the Windsor family, who, because of recent financial difficulties, have re-inhabited the abandoned home. The mansion is rundown, overgrown, and is maybe making the family sick. There's a mysterious figure that appears in the house at night, or so Molly thinks, and she's starting to feel very unsettled, especially because the Windsors are oddly attached to the old tree on the property.

The Night Gardener is a middle-grade fantasy that aims in a lot of directions and successfull hits all its targets. On the one hand, this story succeeds in being a creepy "estate horror" like The Turn of the Screw or (to a lesser extent) Rebecca; there are a few passages that are genuinely perturbing, which is a great demonstration of how in control Auxier is of his mood, atmospherics, and suspense writing. The descriptions of the Windsors growing ever more wan are quietly frightening, and the scenes featuring the titular Night Gardener read almost like the pages of a scary movie script.

In another direction, it's fabulistic--there's magic and wishes and consequences and lessons for everyone. It feels very much like a fairy tale, a gruesome one, one that teaches about being satisfied with what you have. I, of course, love the aesthetic, which Auxier once again nails; there's a story within our story about the tree on the Windsor estate, a pseudo-fable that is very thoughtfully arranged (by which I mean it reads like it's been around for centuries). The message of the story bleeds into the character's lives as they realize maybe they're part of the narrative, another element that adds to the creepy feeling of the book.

A common thread in the author's two books is its inclusion of characters with disability. Here, it's Kip, who has a severely twisted leg. The inner dialogue that Kip has about his own physicality is engaging and painful. This year has been a year where people push for diverse literature, and so it's refreshing to experience a middle-grade novel with a disabled character that isn't necessarily keen to remind us at every turn about his disability, but can have serious, sophisticated monologues about himself. Like every other character in The Night Gardener, Kip is very thoroughly dimensional. All these characters, just like us, are driven by their fears: never being seen as normal, never seeing our parents again, being powerless in the world. He belongs to a cast of characters that is fascinating and breathing.

But that's not all. The meditation that this book offers on stories and storytelling is delightful, too. Molly and Kip meet an old woman who has dedicated her life to collecting and telling stories, and it inspires Molly, a character we are told early on has an almost supernatural ability to persuade people through her fictionalized versions of reality. Auxier wants us to consider how powerful stories really can be, how they can not only represent the world but shape and alter it, depending on how we wield them.

The Night Gardener is a fantastic novel, one that really pushes and presses the reader to think. Auxier's writing always feels like it's expecting--perhaps even demanding--more from its readers than the average middle-grade book. The book feels stunningly adult, whatever that means. He never lets the plot be clouded with puerile ideas or writing, and that was very refreshing for me. It's lovely to see books that work for all ages, instead of working so hard to tailor themselves to one age group. This is is for certain a keeper.

My rating: 5/5
The Night Gardener on Goodreads
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Monday, August 11, 2014

California (Edan Lepucki)

Here's a book that garnered quick buzz and made me angry for staying hidden from my radar. Thanks, Stephen Colbert for messing with my understanding of book buzz, for it's he that pushed this novel into the spotlight and made me run out to the bookstore for it.

Cal and Frida are a couple living in the wilderness in a post-apocalyptic California. Earth has started to fall apart--extreme weather all over the United States, reduced resources, etc. The two options for survival are on your own, like them, or in very exclusive, expensive gated communities. Frida realizes that she's pregnant and, unhappy with the prospect of raising the child in their isolated woodland location, they leave their little house in the hopes of finding other people, perhaps a settlement, that can take them in and help them nurture their new life.

At first, I wasn't interested in reading California, because really how many literary dystopias can I read before I stab myself in the eyes, but I read the first few pages in Barnes & Noble and was drawn in by the Lepucki's gentle, soothing, eye-opening writing. The novel opens with Frida longingly examining artifiacts of life from before the big crisis, like her long-dead cellphone. One item she pays tribute to is an expensive, unused turkey baster: a soliloquy to a kitchen implement isn't by any means a common way to engage a reader, but it certainly was an effective one.

There is a phenomenon involving books that happens to me very rarely--it's the desire for the book to go in a different direction than the one it did. It actually happened earlier this year with The Flight of the Silvers, an action-y novel that decided to move toward one plot when I desperately wanted it to go in another. It's hard for me to talk about Lepucki's narrative choices because it would spoil the whole plot, and I try hard not to be a spoiler. Let's just say that Cal and Frida find a settlement and the book is mostly about their time at the settlement; I would have much more enjoyed a story about them wandering, I think.

The thing is, Lepucki is a great writer. The reason I stuck with her book is because her prose is just so good; most of my reviews don't bother mentioning the actual word stylings, but this author's is good enough to merit a mention. I'm not a big fan of characters spending paragraphs philosophizing, but she does such a great job writing their thoughts on the page that I actually enjoyed it. Her characterization is pretty stellar, too. Cal and Frida are flawed creatures forced into terrible, dire circumstances, but they are never grotesque caricatures. They feel very grounded, and though they did get on my nerves from time to time (Cal, shut up about what might have been!), even that felt authentic.

But it's hard for me to fully enjoy a book that, in terms of its storyline, frustrated and bored me. I wanted to know more about the world Cal and Frida lived in, and less about the one microcosm they encountered; if this had been more of an episodic novel, featuring our main characters moving from settlement to settlement, I would have been more pleased. And I know it's not fair for me to criticize a book for the author's choice in, of all things, plot, but I can't help it. There was a lot of potential here.

California is made up of some really good pieces (the writing oh my goodness), but it doesn't really add up for me.

My rating: 3/5
California on Goodreads
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Saturday, August 9, 2014

Nightingale's Nest (Nikki Loftin)

Little John Fischer's sister Raelynn died in a backyard tree-climbing accident and his family isn't doing well: mom is delusional, talking to and about the deceased member of the family all the time. She can barely leave the house and is almost always hysteric. Dad, who owns a tree and brush removal service, has started spending his meager paychecks on alcohol to drink away his despair; this leaves the Fischers in some dire straits financially speaking, and to compensate, John's dad makes him come to work with him.

The summer agenda: cutting down Azariah King's dying pecan trees. Mr. King is something of a celebrity, the owner of a chain of local dollar stores, and Little John's dad hates him but needs the money so reluctantly agrees to prune his property. Next door is the Cutlin family, notorious abusers of the foster care system; their latest child is Gayle, a very strange girl who watches Little John from the tree in their backyard.

The thing about Gayle is that she seems more bird than girl: she's frighteningly small, she clings to the (rotting) tree like it gives her life, and mostly importantly, she sings. But it's not an amateur, warbly voice. No, Gayle sings an enchanting song that has supernatural powers. It instills joy in nearby listeners and even heals a broken leg on a fawn, and once Little John hears it, he's hooked. So is Mr. King, and John can't help but feel that his desire to record Gayle's voice is somehow sinister.

So what did I think of the book? The reason I picked it up is because I heard it was based on a fairy tale, though I admit that prior to my reading Nightingale's Nest, I'd never come across Hans Christian Andersen's "The Nightingale" (and to be completely honest, I still haven't read the original). But since I was unfamiliar with it, I had to quickly throw any comparisons or expectations out the window, which was I suppose refreshing because for once I could judge the retelling only on its own merits.

In terms of the plot, there's a lot going on--it took me three paragraphs just to give the opening summary--and I'm not sure Loftin was able to keep a grip on all her disparate elements. The thing about the book that's most interesting (that is, the relationship between John and Gayle) is often put aside to pursue plotlines about John abandoning his friend Ernest after his sister's death or about his family's almost-eviction.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Jamaica Inn (Daphne du Maurier)

About one year ago, I became obsessed with Daphne du Maurier. I don't know why--I had owned a copy of Rebecca for a few years and got very excited about the prospect of reading it, so to celebrate how much I wanted to read it, I bought seven or eight of her other novels. It doesn't make sense, and I know that. But it happened. This summer, I decided to read another of her novels, and so into Jamaica Inn I went.

Mary Yellan is a farm girl. As her mother dies, Mary promises to live with her Aunt Patience and, hesitant to deny her mother's last wish, she goes off. She is warned by other travelers to stay way before she even arrives at Jamaica Inn, the establishment owned by Patience's husband, Joss Merlyn, and when she does get there, Mary is surprised to find her once-vibrant aunt more a shadow than a person. There's something going on with Joss, something that only happens at night in a locked room in the inn, and it may involve his equally sinister brother, Jem.

Here's the thing about Jamaica Inn--it's a suspense novel low on suspense. I take issue with that because the story relies on our shock and surprise to build the plot up, but I found myself less-than-engaged in finding out what was going on in the inn. The reveal of "something sinister" wasn't particularly exciting, either, and I'm not sure if that's because, living in 2014, I'm desensitized to the kind horror to be found in du Maurier's 1930s novel which takes place in the 1820s; there's also a "whodunnit" element that isn't surprising because crime and mystery novels have been around for long enough that making the guilty person someone who we'd "never suspect" is a tired, pretty transparent tactic.

But the crazy thing is, I still really liked the book. There's a lot of good going on for it: atmospherically, du Maurier hits it out of the park, just like she did in Rebecca. Things are spooky and weird and unsettling, and you feel that way because she wants you to feel that way. She's totally in control of how foreboding the inn seems, and she exercises her power over the reader frequently and always to good effect. There are scenes where Mary is wandering in the night and it's like every scary movie you can think of. Seriously, I was stunned.

Her characterization is equally potent: Joss truly is a terrifying figure, overpowering and vicious. Every conversation in which he participates feel overwhelming, unjust, and frightening. Mary is perfectly drawn as a resilient but out-of-her-league protagonist, like a determined candle that will not be burnt out. Without getting too comparative to Rebecca (which I just really loved, okay?), Mary Yellan is stronger protagonist than our unnamed narrator--she's more compelling and more forceful. Think a somewhat meeker Jane Eyre, and you've got this girl. And I really liked her; I surprised myself by how much I rooted for her.

It's a curious book. It feels dated but still frightening, boring in plot but still engrossing in all other respects. I found out that the BBC adapted it as a miniseries just this year, and I'm probably gonna check that out because I'm curious to see what sort of spooky they manage to conjure up. I would maybe even read it again! Who knows?

My rating: 4/5
Jamaica Inn on Goodreads
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