Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Serpent King (Jeff Zentner)

Jeff Zentner is dangerous.

If you've already heard about The Serpent King—and I'm sure anyone with even a mild interest in the goings-on in YA has, because this book is everywhere—then you probably think I'm talking about how this book is an emotional rollercoaster, a kiss on the lips from your high school crush and a punch in the stomach from your high school bully. That is, it leaves you warm and gooey—vulnerable—before it smears you all over the place. I saw a review of this novel from Adam Silvera in which he says “This book will punch you in the heart. In a good way. A punch to the heart isn't usually a good idea, but it is here.”

Which is totally true. Our story centers on Dill, Lydia, and Travis, three high school seniors in small-town Tennessee. Dill is the son of disgraced ex-preacher of a cult church; Lydia is a fashion blogger social media maven stifled by the trappings of her decidedly unmetropolitan hometown; Travis is a quiet, nerdy type who likes epic fantasy series and avoiding his abusive dad. We follow them through the journey—as epic as The Odyssey—through their last year together, navigating college applications, family shame, and the release of the final Game of Thrones Bloodfall novel. It's a recipe for tragedy!

And tragic it gets—as well as funny, bitter, frustrating, heartwarming, and just about every other emotion you have probably felt in your entire life. It’s astounding that Zentner encapsulates the idea of being a high school senior in one novel, and he does it so well.

The Serpent King has a lot of depth: depth of feeling and depth of character are two of Zentner's strengths. Something that frustrates me about many books is their reliance on easy tactics to invoke feelings: a teenager has cancer? You'd better cry. A small child loses a parent? If you aren't crying, you're a bad person. The emotions you're being asked to feel in these scenarios are shallow at best--they're the idea of the feeling. Zentner doesn't pull such cheap tricks--the emotions the book provokes are genuine and legitimate, anchored to genuine and legitimate characters.

Rarely do I read a book told in alternating perspectives where that setup feels so compelling. Usually, I lean into one voice over another, favoring one character’s narration, growing impatient with the switches in perspective; however, this novel’s use of the tactic feels justified, because the voices are interesting and varied enough to create a multiplicity. This of course is what helps give the novel its depth—we’re seeing high school not just through one set of outcast eyes, but three. I was amazed by how quickly I sank into the characters of this story, how I craved each of their narrative perspectives even as I read them.

But none of that is why Jeff Zentner is a dangerous author—sure, it’s impressive that all of the aforementioned stuff is true, but it’s not reason to label him a danger. No, the reason I’m so terrified of Zentner—terrified and envious—is his intelligence. He’s a careful writer, one who is very aware, and that awareness sparkles on every page. Lydia, for example, wants nothing more than to leave her small town; she passes judgment on her friends for not wanting the same. The average writer would probably leave it at that, but Zentner knows it’s problematic: he has other characters in the novel tell her how rude she’s being. Yes! Teenage love is the cheesiest, most melodramatic of all love, and rather than bogging himself down in cornstarch, Zentner has the characters acknowledge how goofy they sound when they talk about their feelings.

It’s this sort of self-awareness that really let me fall in love with the book: the author is far too brilliant to let the trappings of his “genre” (or age group or whatever we’re calling YA these days) hinder him from telling a story. Even in the moments when the novel heads for traditional problem territory (i.e., terrible parents, death, heartbreak), Zentner keeps his writing fresh and his characters grounded. Dialogue and monologue never strayed into the maudlin or the meaningless—I held my breath, terrified that this scene or that would be the one where the book crumbled, but he pulled it off again and again.

Everything in the novel works toward this awareness, even the multiple perspectives—because we’re not spending time in just one character’s head, we have opportunities for other characters to see through their bullshit. It was such a gratifying experience to read a story like this one, one which almost seems to slap the characters across the face to remind them that they’re part of the real world, not a story at all. The payoff is immense; this book is more delightful than the word “delightful” can express.

The Serpent King dazzled me with its complexity and nuance, itself almost a serpent writhing and sparkling in the sun, mesmerizing me, rearing back to lunge and sink in its fangs.

My rating: 5/5

Friday, August 26, 2016

Spontaneous (Aaron Starmer)

Every time I read a new Aaron Starmer novel, I feel the need to examine it on many levels, which is a clear testament to the depths of his intelligence--a story is never just a story with Starmer. No, there are layers twisting and folding into each other, begging to be picked apart.

At first glance, it's a novel about spontaneous combustion. This is what everyone's going to say when the book comes up in conversation; a bunch of teenagers in a regular old town called Covington keep exploding. What more do you possibly need, especially if you're one of those people who reads on premise alone? Spontaneous is a thrilling novel about Mara Carlyle trying to navigate a world where her classmates keep exploding, where the world slowly turns away from and then forgets her. It's a novel of intrigue and surprise pushed along page after page by the force of bodies literally exploding.

On second look, it's a hilarious story about (what else?) growing up. Mara is a senior in high school, after all--sure she's navigating an existence as a member of the (potentially cursed) exploding class of Covington High, but she also has to figure out how love and sex and boyfriends and drugs work! Mara is an explosive character if ever there was one: Starmer as always is such a delicate character writer, and nowhere is that more obvious than with his work on Mara Carlyle.

She's so complicated--the trope of "outwardly cynical/inwardly sensitive and profound" has been done many times, but Starmer doesn't settle for just that: she's funny, prone to surprising acts of cruelty and kindness in equal measure, and what I love so much about Mara is that she's aware of the person she is: she reports her flaws honestly and admits they're faults. She's that challenging friend in your life who says "I know I'm wrong but I don't care," and you want to hate her. Sometimes you do. It's quite a feat to create that character on the page--in an age of boring debates about likeability as it relates to female characters, Starmer charges out, middle fingers ablaze, and for that, I'm grateful.

On the triple take, however, we're confronted with a thorny set of questions: what is grief, and how does it operate? How do we handle loss? How much blame must we shoulder merely for existing? How do we move on? There are so many angles from which this question can be approached and Spontaneous isn't shy: it tackles parent-child grief, friendship grief, romance grief, collective grief, young people grief. The list stretches on. Despite the fact that so many characters die--I mean, statistically, we're probably talking a death every 15 pages or so--the story manages to peer inside each of these moments to find the heartache and suffering, to extract the nuances of each loss for us, even as Mara tries to joke her way out of having real feelings. It's exquisite, and just like real grief, it culminates in a lesson that some things must go unsolved; why do some of us survive? Why does anything happen when and how it does? What does it mean for our own agency?

While perhaps the way Starmer ends his newest novel might be frustrating to some readers--I'm looking at you, people who decry ambiguity and fume over premises that aren't explained in textbook specificity--I think it's the perfect (and really, the only) kind of conclusion to a tale like this. We are left unsatisfied because life is unsatisfying; it offers no rewards or explanations. And maybe that's bleak, but we cope, just like Mara--we can spiral downward into the abyss of existentialism, or we can make it work any way we know how.

My rating: 5/5

Friday, April 29, 2016

A Study in Charlotte (Brittany Cavallaro)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Storyteller (Aaron Starmer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 5/5