Friday, October 28, 2011

Review #21: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

This book has been described as Harry Potter for grownups, and I think that's a pretty good descriptor.

The Magicians is about Quentin, an apathetic, lonely teenager growing up in New York City. One day, after finding an unpublished manuscript by his favorite author (who is famous for a Narnia-style series of books) in the home of the man with whom he is supposed to have a college interview, he stumbles through a park and into the world of Brakebills, a school of magic. After several rigorous tests, he is accepted as a student, and the rest of the novel follows his time in the wizarding world.

I liked this book a lot--it's definitely a book for grownups. There is plenty of sex and violence, and Quentin is a sarcastic, often unlikable narrator. Grossman does a good job of setting his world apart from that of Hogwarts, as there are no cutesy owls or house elves in this book. The Magicians is considerably darker, taking the more depressing tone of the later Harry Potter books and magnifying it. Magic is dangerous, often uncontrollable, and decidedly scary in this world, and the potential for evil is much greater.

My biggest criticism of the book is that the Brakebills years, which only take up about half of the novel, feel sort of rushed. We fly through four years that could have easily been expanded into their own novels. I get why Grossman did this, to separate himself from J.K. Rowling, but there were times when it felt like he was merely glossing the surface of a potentially rich narrative. I do like how Grossman takes us outside of Brakebills in the second half, letting Quentin and his friends put their magic to use and understanding the true power of their gifts.

I really recommend this to anyone, whether or not fantasy is your thing. This is pretty far from the tamed-down world of Harry Potter, as good as they may be, and it's cool to see this type of book through the perspective of an adult.

Reviews #18-20: The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

I'm a little late to the party when it comes to The Hunger Games. The first book came out years ago, but I only got around to reading them this year, when I mentioned them to my mother and she was shocked that I hadn't read them.

The Hunger Games trilogy is set in the fictional country of Panem, which is located in the remains of what was once North America. After a huge war, which effectively destroyed the continent, the survivors emerged and created a hierarchical society, the capital of which is, appropriately, called the Capitol. This city is surrounded by twelve districts, each of which is responsible for the production of a different good, and these are all strictly monitored by the Capitol's army. As punishment for the rebellion which incited the war, each year the districts must all send two citizens, one female and one male, under the age of eighteen, to compete in a brutal tournament called the Hunger Games. The goal? Be the last living contestant.

Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12, which is responsible for producing coal. She is the sole provider for her family, as her father was killed in a mining accident. She spends her days hunting in the woods with her best friend, Gale, illegally killing animals to provide food to her mother and sister. When her sister is chosen at random as the District's female tribute, she volunteers to go in her place. And so she and Peeta, the son of a baker and the other tribute, are sent to the Capitol to compete, along with their mentor, the alcoholic Haymitch, who won the Games years ago.

The first book follows Katniss and Peeta's experiences in the Games, half of the book following their preparation for the event and the second portraying the Games themselves. The second book, Catching Fire, picks up where the first leaves off, right after the end of the Games, and is centered around the Quarter Quell, a celebration of the anniversary of the Games and which sends Katniss back to the Capitol to participate in a second round of Games. This book introduces hints of impending rebellion , which leads into the third book, Mockingjay. In the third and final book of the trilogy, Katniss heads the revolution against the Capitol, as Panem breaks out into a full-blown civil war.

I'm being deliberately vague with the plot details, since a huge part of the fun of these books is the anticipation of figuring out what will happen next. Collins has created an incredible world, filled with violence and inequality, that is eerily reminiscent of today's society, and presents a bleak view of the possible future of our world. Collins is a great writer, and creates a tension-filled narrative with unforgettable, realistic characters. It's impossible not to fall in love with Katniss, who is exactly what female YA heroines should be: fierce, tough, and smart.

The one criticism I have of this series is that the quality definitely decreases after the first book. While books 2 and 3 are both wonderful in their own right, it's impossible for them to live up to the perfectly paced, tightly plotted narrative of the original Hunger Games. The third one, especially, leaves a bit to be desired, and it almost feels like Collins ran out of time while writing it.

This is exactly what YA lit needs to be. It doesn't dumb down the heavy themes or the violence for younger readers, and although that could be seen as a bad thing, I think that kids can handle it. The violence is not gratuitous or anything worse than is seen in many TV shows and movies today, and so I would consider it on a case-by-case basis. If your kid is smart and able to discuss serious themes, then I would recommend it to children as young as nine or ten. And, as always, to adults! This is a perfect example of YA lit that's appealing to a wide range of audiences.

Review #17: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

I. Loved. This. Book.

Seriously. This was easily in the top 5 books I've read this year.

Ava Bigtree's family owns Swamplandia, an alligator-themed amusement park in the heart of the Everglades. Her mother, a world-renowned alligator wrestler, has recently passed away of cancer, and so Ava, her father, Chief Bigtree, and her brother and sister, Kiwi and Osceola, must learn to fend for themselves. As their park loses customers and the Bigtrees slowly lose money, their family begins to fall apart. The Chief leaves, Kiwi runs away, Ossie disappears, and Ava, an aspiring gator wrestler herself, must find her sister and restore her family, and Swamplandia, to their former glory.

This is definitely an odd book--it's got some slightly post-modern and dystopian elements to it. The world the Bigtrees inhabit is easily identifiable as contemporary America, and yet Russell uses subtly satirical details to make it unfamiliar and bizarre. However, this just makes this novel all the more fresh and interesting.

This is unlike any other novel I've read. Russell has incredible ideas and is an insanely good writer, and she creates characters that I truly felt for and a world that feels tangible and real. Ava is a kick-ass heroine--smart, funny, and strong, while still maintaining some of her childhood innocence. She's one of the greatest female heroines I've ever encountered.

Although this book has plenty of funny moments, Russell doesn't shy away from poignancy and emotional depth. Ava is, despite her tough exterior, still a little girl, and Russell uses her to convey the intense pain of losing a parent and of one's childhood world changing and collapsing. I cried as much as I laughed, and to me, that's the sign of a great book.

Go out and buy it. You won't regret it.

Review #16: Size 12 Is Not Fat by Meg Cabot

I adore Meg Cabot. The Princess Diaries was my favorite series when I was younger, and I read every single YA book she wrote back in my early teens. I sort of forgot about her, until I was at the library and I noticed a whole bunch of her books in the Adult section of the library. Meg Cabot writes grown-up books?!?! And so I picked one at random and proceeded to read it all in a matter of hours.

Size 12 Is Not Fat is classic Cabot. She's practically trademarked the insecure, quirky, down-to-earth female narrator, and although Heather Wells (the narrator) sounds exactly like Mia Thermopolis, the star of the Princess Diaries, it doesn't get old. I could read Cabot's writing all day--it's easy, funny, and sweet.

This book tells the story of Heather, a Britney-esque former teen-pop sensation who quit show business after her boyfriend (the book's version of a Justin Timberlake) cheats on her. She now works as an RA in a dorm building at a huge university in New York City, trying to blend in. She also lives with her ex's brother, a sexy private detective on whom she has an enormous crush. On top of this, freshman girls are showing up dead in the dorm's elevator shaft. Heather sets out to find out who the culprit is.

Cabot is not a great mystery writer, but she doesn't really pretend to be. The murderer is obvious from really early on (I honestly think I figured it out less than 50 pages in) and so there's not a ton of suspense. But it's such an enjoyable read that it doesn't really matter. Heather is funny and smart and a great character--again, the kind of girl that would make a great best friend.

So this is another of those mindless, fluffy reads that simply makes you happy. Definitely recommended to fans of Cabot, or fans of good chick-lit in general.

Review #15: The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent

I will fully admit that I am a huge history buff. I tend to get obsessed with certain periods of history and read as many books (mostly historical fiction, but some biography/non-fiction stuff as well) as I can find about them. One of these is the Salem Witch Trials. I've read dozens of books about the trials, both children's lit (I cannot recommend The Witch of Blackbird Pond more highly to young readers--and old, too!) and adult books (The Crucible is a favorite). So I was really excited to read The Heretic's Daughter.

Maybe it's just because I've read so many good books about the trials, but this book was a little disappointing. It tells the story of Sarah, a young girl growing up in 17th century Andover, Massachusetts. Rumors begin to fly about supposed supernatural activity occurring in Salem, the neighboring town, and Sarah's mother--a non-conforming, stubborn woman--is eventually accused of being a witch.

One thing I really enjoyed about this book is that it's about real people. Martha Currier, Sarah's mother, was actually one of Kent's ancestors, and so the book has a sense of purpose beyond simply recounting a well-known historical event. 

The book does a wonderful job of portraying the trials through the eyes of a child, capturing the confusion and the terror and the paranoia of the experience. Sarah's innocence highlights the insanity of the actions of those around her, and works very well. Unfortunately, I never seemed to warm up to her, or any of the other characters. I'm not sure what it was, since the book is very well-written, but I felt like the characters were a bit flat and unoriginal.

For that reason, the book is a little forgettable. The writing is beautiful and the attention to detail the author clearly worked hard on is admirable, and so I would still recommend this book for die-hard Puritan history buffs. However, there are definitely better representations of the trials out there.

Review #14: Bridget Jones' Diary by Helen Fielding

I've been wanting to read this book for years, ever since my mother bought a copy way back when it came out and I would skim through it looking for the sexy parts. I later saw the movie, and enjoyed it, so when I was putting together my reading list for the summer, I threw this book on it.

And I wasn't disappointed. Bridget Jones is, as everyone knows, about the titular character, a thirty-something British woman with a weight problem, a cigarette addiction, and a crush on her dashing boss. The book is written, obviously, as her diary.

I won't say too much about the plot since a) everyone is already fairly familiar with it and b) the plot is subordinate to Bridget's character. The biggest draw of this book is her voice--she is hilarious, and I found myself laughing embarrassingly loudly pretty much throughout the entire thing. Bridget is a really relatable narrator and she's the kind of character I wish were real, so that we could be friends.

All in all, a great, funny, quick read. Perfect if you need something light and fluffy to relax with after a long day or on vacation.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Review #13: Spoiled by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

I've been a fan of the Fug Girls since 2004, my freshman year of high school. Their blog ( is one of the few that I read on a daily basis, and have done so for the past seven years. So, when I found out they were coming out with a book, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy. The wait at the library took about two months, but I finally got it yesterday, and I was not disappointed.

Spoiled is the perfect summer read: light, fluffy, funny and smart--and did I mention it's another example of excellent YA lit? It's the story of sixteen-year-old Molly Dix, who, after her mother's death, leaves Indiana to go live in Hollywood with her long-lost movie star father Brick Berlin, and his daughter, Brooke, who is the same age. Unfortunately, Brick is largely absent and Brooke doesn't want any competition for his attention. So while Molly must get used to the luxurious lifestyle of LA's finest, she must also deal with a constant onslaught of attacks from her new sister, who's doing her best to send Molly back to Indiana. She also struggles to maintain her relationship with her long-time boyfriend while fighting feelings for the one normal boy at her new prep school.

The Fug Girls have mastered the art of funny, clever writing on their blog, and Spoiled is an extension of their awesome style. They're good at satirizing celeb culture without being too vicious, and maintain a good level between over-the-top fluff and sweet, real emotions. Molly is a perfect representation of the girl next door caught up in a fantasy land, and she's relatable and real, if a bit too naive. Morgan and Cox create a memorable cast of secondary players as well, including Brick, who has some laugh-out-loud moments, and Molly's crazy classmates, such as a girl named Arugula.

This is a truly entertaining book, although if you're looking for something meaty and deep, this isn't it. It's just pure fun in the form of a very, very quick read (I finished it in about five hours, but I'm a fast reader). It's the perfect summer book--and if you're not already a fan of the Fug Girls, you will be once you've finished it.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Review #12: The Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell

The Fifth Woman is part of a Swedish mystery series by Henning Mankell. My mom recommended it as a good summer beach read, so I decided to give it a try. I love the Millenium series by Stieg Larsson, and was hoping that this book would give me some of that dark Scandinavian thriller I was looking for. Unfortunately, it didn't live up to my expectations.

It starts out strong: an old man is found dead in a pit in the field behind his house, impaled on sharpened bamboo sticks. Detective Kurt Wallander takes the case, which turns out to be the first in a string of mysteriously brutal murders. Obviously, since this is a mystery, that's about all I can reveal of the plot without giving away too much.

I was really disappointed that the scary and intriguing beginning began to falter and ultimately fail towards the middle. The murderer is really obvious--telegraphed very early on, without any red herrings to divert the reader's attention. Also, the narrative really begins to lag halfway through, and by the last 50 pages I was so annoyed by the slow pace and stupidity of the detectives that I almost jumped ahead to the last page to find out if my suspicions (developed within the first 50 pages) were correct. (They were).

There was also a really strong undercurrent of sexism and homophobia that kept appearing throughout the story, which bothered me and distracted me from the story. For example, while examining a picture of three men, the detective states that one of them must be a homosexual because of the way he's leaning against a tree. Later, the same detective determines that a car witnessed speeding away by an onlooker couldn't have been driven by a woman, because women don't rev their engines. Okay...

So, I probably wouldn't recommend this book. The beginning is entertaining but the narrative doesn't keep up its momentum, which makes it difficult to finish. I'm going to look around for other (better) Swedish crime fiction, of which I understand there is a lot, to get my Larsson-style fix.

Reviews #10-11: Charmed Thirds and Fourth Comings by Megan McCafferty

So I decided to review these together since they're part of the same series, and unlike most of the other books in the series, these two occur within the same very short time frame.

I read the first two Jessica Darling novels when I was in high school, before the third was published, and must have gotten discouraged by the long request period at the library for the third or simply forgotten about them by the time the next one came out. I came across the third and fourth books while browsing the library for beach reads, and, remembering how much I had enjoyed the first two, decided to give them a try.

And I am SO disappointed I didn't read them sooner! The series' main character and narrator, Jess Darling, is snarky and smart and funny--basically my ideal protagonist. Charmed Thirds picks up several months after book #2 ends (the first two were about her junior and senior years of high school) as she navigates her freshman year at Columbia. She is struggling to maintain her relationship with her boyfriend, Marcus, who goes to school in California, as well as her friendship with Hope, the best friend whose move to Tennessee sparked the series. This book moves really fast, and covers all four years of college, but it never feels rushed or confusing. I think this is mainly because the book's written in the style of a diary, interspersed with emails and letters between Jess and various friends. Fourth Comings starts immediately after Charmed Thirds ends, and this one spans only a week, during which Jess must choose whether or not to accept Marcus' marriage proposal. This book was much quieter and sweeter than the first three, as the whole thing is written to Marcus.

The plotlines of McCafferty's books aren't terribly innovative, but the world she has created is incredibly rich and three-dimensional. Her characters are so believable, and all of them are nuanced and multi-layered, which is hard to accomplish. The best thing about this series, though, is Jess herself. McCafferty has created a real person, someone that you begin to feel like you know, someone you want to be friends with. I found myself getting sad when I remembered that Jess wasn't real, because I came to love her so much. Jess is flawed and has as many (if not more) bad qualities as good, but this makes her just about the most realistic YA protagonist I've ever come across.

The Jess Darling series is honest and raw and sad while still being laugh-out-loud funny--McCafferty captures the beauty of growing up without delving into cliché or sentimentality. She also crosses the boundary between YA Fiction and "grown up" writing very well--I often found myself forgetting that this was supposed to be a YA book. I would highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Review #9: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Freedom is a book about contemporary America. That's the best way that I can sum it up. It follows the lives of Walter and Patty Berglund, a married Minnesotan couple, and, to a lesser extent, their son Jesse and their long-time family friend, Richard Katz. It's hard to describe the storyline without giving too much away. Basically, the books is divided into three sections: the present, the past and the future. Each one deals with Walter and Patty at a different stage in their lives, and intertwines their individual voices with those of Richard and Jesse.

In reality, the storylines themselves don't matter that much--I found most of them to be a bit predictable. Where Franzen truly excels is in his portrayal of the Berglunds themselves. Each and every character is magnificently flawed, and I don't think there's a truly likable person in the entire book. But that's the beauty of it--Franzen doesn't shy away from making his protagonists terrible people, people you simultaneously root for and revile. I hated every character, to the point where I had to put the book down because what was happening was making me feel sick, but I couldn't stop reading. Despite my dislike for the Berglunds, I was truly invested in their story.

For me, reading Freedom was an experience. It was overwhelming and consuming and I had to struggle to remove myself from the fictional world to take a deep breath of reality. It's a difficult read because it's so true to life--Franzen exposes corruption and dishonesty wherever he sees it, which is almost everywhere. However, he maintains a healthy balance between his cynicism and a sense of humor and an appreciation for beauty, which makes it all a bit more palatable.

One other issue I had with the novel is that I think Franzen took on a bit too much. I wish he had focused only on Walter and Patty, because the moments where he switches to Richard's or Jesse's perspective feel too infrequent for them to have much of an impact. He also dropped some storylines as a result, and so the inclusion of these characters' voices--as interesting as they were--were unsatisfactory.

Overall though, these are minor complaints. Even at his weak moments, Franzen is still better than 90% of working authors today. This book was definitely over-hyped as being "important," but it lives up the expectation. Franzen somehow knows exactly how to capture moments in American consciousness. He created it in The Corrections and he creates it again here--a snapshot of what it's like to be an American today.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Review #8: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich

In this interesting work of nonfiction, Barbara Ehrenreich takes the reader into the invisible world of the lower class: the menial laborers who make life comfortable for the rest of us. In the late 90's, she decided to leave her middle-class life and live as the lower class do, subsisting solely on minimum wage and taking undesirable jobs. She takes a variety of positions in three cities, as a dietary aide at a nursing home, a Walmart salesperson, a waitress, and a maid. Throughout her experience, she uncovers some of the ugly truths of this life--the dark secrets that most of us never see or simply choose to ignore. This is an uncomfortable read, as she spares no criticism of the state of our society and the flaws of the middle and upper classes. She truly exposes the hypocrisy of our system and makes it clear that although we pride ourselves on being a free and equal country, there is an incredible disparity between the lower class and everyone else. She effectively undercuts many of the arguments of those who are anti-welfare: she makes us see that our society is incredibly flawed, in that even working a full-time job at minimum wage, it is near-impossible for a person to survive.

I really enjoyed this book--Ehrenreich has a very relatable voice and balances out the seriousness of her topic with a light-heartedness and humor. It was definitely a jolting read, though, as it made me feel guilty about my comfortably middle-class upbringing. We have a tendency to push our thoughts about the people who take care of us--our housekeepers, our waiters, our salespeople--and what they do out of our minds, but this book forces the reader to think about them as people, and demands our respect for the tremendously hard work that they do.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Review #7: The Blind Kingdom by Véronique Tadjo

Disclaimer: I read this in the original French, so I can't speak to the quality of the translation or any differences found within it. 

The Blind Kingdom is a fairy tale of sorts--a short, beautifully poetic book about a far away land ruled by King Ato IV. He is the leader of the Blind, a group of unseeing people who, many years ago, conquered the indigenous people, now called the Others. Ato and his daughter, Akissi, along with their people, live in luxury, while the Others live in the slums across town. The story follows the love story between Akissi and Karim, the king's secretary, who is working undercover as a spy for the revolutionary movement of the Others.

The plot is fairly simple, but the beauty of Tadjo's writing elevates it beyond a traditional Romeo and Juliet type story. The story is written in a series of vignettes,  all stylistically different--some are almost poems, others are more traditional narratives. Some sites actually classify this as a collection of stories or poems, but I found it to be a fairly cohesive story.

One of the more interesting elements of the story is that it is a clear allegory for the conflict in the Ivory Coast, both past and present. While Tadjo was clearly purposely drawing parallels with the situation in the early 90's, when the novel was written, it is eerie how much those same parallels align with the situation there both around the time of their coup d'état in the early aughts, as well as the current crisis. These connections might not be clear to anyone who hasn't been following the recent news from there, or who doesn't have any pre-existing knowledge of the Ivory Coast's political troubles, but it would definitely be worth it to do some brief research before reading this novel in order to fully appreciate what Tadjo's doing.

I really enjoyed this book--it's a pretty quick read, mostly due to Tadjo's lyrical language. Even though the plotline is very familiar, Tadjo presents it in a very fresh way. The backdrop of violence and cultural conflict make it much more interesting than a typical romance about star-crossed lovers. It's a purposefully simple story, whose main purpose is to convey Tadjo's message about the consequences of discrimination and divisions within a nation.

Monday, April 4, 2011

It's been a while...

So this whole posting-and-school thing finally caught up to me, hence the lack of posts over the past two months (yikes, it felt way shorter than that...). Fortunately, I have been keeping up with my reading, so at least I'm on top of one part of CBRIII. Anyway, expect several posts over the next day or so...and I'll give my word that I will take time out of my busy schedule (basically, decrease my procrastination by 20 minutes) and force myself to write a review when I finish a book.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Review #6: Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century

I read this weeks ago, and I've just been too busy/lazy/indifferent to it to post about it until now. I was really looking forward to this book--I'd wanted to read it since last summer, but I had trouble getting my hands on it until I was home on break. Unfortunately, it didn't live up to my expectations at all. I love reading about old-school Hollywood, and I love Elizabeth Taylor. I thought this book was going to be a juicy and scandalous look into both, but it fell flat for me on both counts.

The title is fairly self-explanatory: the book chronicles the relationship of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the love of her life. They were married and divorced twice, and their relationship is widely considered to be one of the most scandalous the world has ever seen. This book should have been incredibly interesting. It wasn't.

A huge part of this is the writing. I actually googled the authors, Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, to find out who they were and why anyone would let them write. Kashner is apparently a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and Schoenberger is a creative writing professor at William and Mary...which really does not say much about the state of their English department. This was truly horrible writing. Repetitive, awkwardly worded, filled with forced metaphors and unnecessary, unimportant details. I have a very hard time ignoring bad writing, so I really couldn't enjoy any of the (few) merits the rest of the book had.

It does do a good job of overviewing the individual lives and careers of Taylor and Burton, and does reveal some fascinating facts about their relationship. I just feel that the authors had so much to draw from, and really didn't succeed in presenting their material in an appealing and interesting way. I'm so disappointed. In the hands of more talented writers, this could have been exactly what I wanted it to be: a frivolous and fun read. Instead, it was tedious and a chore to get through.

I really wouldn't recommend this book. You can get the same information on Wikipedia, and it's probably better written there.

Review #5: The Book Thief

The Book Thief is another book I'd been meaning to read for months, but only got around to picking up when I was home on break. For some reason, I expected this book to be very different than it actually was--I think I was sort of put off by the cover, which (to me at least) gives off a very different vibe from the novel itself.

The book is set in Nazi-era Germany, just before the onset of World War II. It is the story of Liesel, a young girl who loses her mother and younger brother at an early age, and is sent to live with a foster family in the small town of Molching. This couple, the Hubermanns, are struggling to balance their own values and beliefs with the need to conform to the Nazi party in order to survive. This becomes more difficult when Max, the Jewish son of an old army friend of Hans Hubermann's, shows up at their doorstep, asking for asylum.

It's kind of hard to summarize the rest of the story without giving too much away. The majority of the plot focuses on Liesel's relationships, mostly with the men in her life: Max, her beloved foster father, and her best friend, Rudy. There is also an underlying plot line centered on books. Liesel is an avid reader, and the novel is framed by the books she acquires throughout her childhood--some given, some stolen.

One of the most unique aspects of the story is that it is narrated by Death, who is a character in its own right. It has a very distinct voice, and presents the events of the story from his point of view, interjecting frequently with observations and opinions, and often giving the reader previews of what is to come. It was an interesting choice on the part of Markus Zusak, and might sound odd to someone who hasn't read the book. It works very well though, and given the context of the setting, it's very appropriate.

I'm having a hard time articulating how much I loved this book. It's truly beautiful--that's the only word I can find to describe it. Zusak is an incredible writer, and has a wonderful way of words. On literally every page there was at least one phrase or description that made me wish I had written it. Beyond that though, this book has an unbelievable emotional impact. There are very few books that push me to tears, and this was one of them. The sad moments come like punches in the gut, but they are balanced by moments of humor and hope that are just as poignant. I haven't stopped thinking about it since I finished it--just writing this review is making me teary again. I also think that this has earned a spot among the books that I will revisit again, simply because I loved it so much.

I can't recommend this book highly enough.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Review #4: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party

I just finished this book a few minutes ago, and needed to formulate my thoughts right away. I'm still not sure what to think of this novel. I think I like it, but I definitely need to read it again to fully grasp its complexity and truly appreciate it.

This is the first book in a trilogy by M.T. Anderson. I hadn't heard of it until my mother gave me a copy for my birthday, based on its excellent reviews as well as the fact that the author is from Stow, MA, the town next to mine. It's the story of Octavian, a young black boy who was raised by the Novanglian College of Lucidity, a group of scientists and philosophers. His life is centered around both their experiments, the nature of which are revealed a quarter of the way through the novel, and his education. The story is set in Revolutionary-era Massachusetts, just before the outbreak of the war. The story really focuses on Octavian's discovery of his purpose at the College, and his subsequent search for identity and changing societal roles.

Again, I'm not entirely sure how I feel about it. It's classified as a YA novel but I thought that it was very complex and even challenging to read at times. The whole story is told in a fairly authentic 18th century language, which can be distracting. I also had a hard time identifying with the main character--he seemed very distant and that made it hard to relate to him.

I loved Anderson's style, though. He plays with form and language in such unique and interesting ways, which really appealed to me as a writer. I also really enjoyed the moments of horror and humor he throws in at unexpected moments (the titular "pox party" is an example of both). He also deals with some really interesting and thought-provoking themes about humanity, freedom and thought. These positive aspects are what are convincing me to read the book again, because I think it really does have a lot to offer that I missed the first time.

Overall, I would recommend it. But make sure you have the time and the patience to really spend time with it, because it's surprisingly intricate.

Review #3: House Rules

I have a confession: I really, really like Jodi Picoult's books. I wish I didn't. She's a sub-par writer, prone to melodrama and unrealism, but there's just something about her books that really captivate me. I'll give it to her--for all her weaknesses as an author, she knows how to tell a story. Her earlier works (My Sister's Keeper, The Pact, Nineteen Minutes) were all incredibly gripping. While there were still moments of implausibility and emotional manipulation, the suspense of the storylines made them great reads. Picoult has a formula, and, up until now, it's worked.

House Rules has all the elements of her previous novels. A main character that has a big mental/physical issue? Check. A crime/mystery that frames the story? Check. Lots of court scenes? Check. A "twist" ending? Check. But for some reason, they don't come together as well as they have in Picoult's past books.

This book is about Emma, an advice columnist who is struggling to get by while raising her two sons, one of whom (Jacob) has Asperger's Syndrome. It's a testament to how little impact this book had on me that I had to look up the names of the main characters to write this review, even though I only finished it about a week ago. Jacob is fairly high-functioning, although he is extremely focused on routine and must have all of his life scheduled out to the last minute. He is obsessed with forensics/criminal investigation, and spends hours watching a CSI-like show called Crimebusters, setting up crime scenes for his family to discover and solve, and visiting actual crime scenes that he hears about on his police radio. The story centers around the disappearance of his tutor, Jess, and the subsequent investigation of Jacob and his family.In typical Picoult fashion, the story is told from the perspective of multiple characters, each with their own alternating "chapters." While some of these are logical (Emma, Jacob, the younger brother, and the lawyer) but she also includes the voice of the investigating police officer, which is just distracting and ultimately pointless because his storyline goes nowhere.

And that's about it, honestly. This was one of her worst books, in my opinion (the distinction of worst is reserve for the truly terrible Handle With Care). It was incredibly predictable, and the twist at the end was incredibly lame and anti-climactic. Picoult is publishing about a book a year, and it shows. Her formula has gotten tired and she doesn't seem to be putting any effort into her writing any more. I used to be able to get past her terrible dialogue and laughably bad metaphors because of the plot, but I can't anymore. Her characters are all recycled from other books and are, at this point, stereotypes--she literally always includes a conflicted-yet-strong mother and an unconventional-yet-brilliant lawyer, and they have completely lost any appeal they might have once had. Also, for some reason, her books are apparently no longer edited. There were some seriously mind-boggling typos, spelling mistakes and grammatical errors throughout, and they really took me out of the story.

Overall, I wouldn't recommend it. If you're looking for some mindless fluff, any of Picoult's older books would be a much better choice.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Review #2: An Abundance of Katherines

This book has been on my to-read list for a while now, and I finally got around to reading it after borrowing a copy from my sister. I've heard a lot about John Greene, so my expectations were pretty high. This was another very quick read-- I finished it in about four hours. 

An Abundance of Katherines is the story of Colin Singleton, a recent high school graduate, genius, and lover of anagrams. He defines himself by two things: his above-average intelligence, and his obsession with girls named Katherine. He has only ever dated girls by this name. The story opens shortly after he has been dumped by Katherine #19. Depressed and confused, he embarks on a roadtrip with his best friend Hassan, a fat, Judge Judy-obsessed Muslim. They soon find themselves in Gutshot, Tennessee, where they befriend a girl named Lindsey and her mother, Hollis, who hires them to create an oral history of the town based on interviews with townspeople. As they work and form close friendships with unexpected people, Colin is also working on a theorem to explain his history of Katherine-related heartbreak. 

Although this book is definitely aimed at a teenage audience, it's really enjoyable for non-YA readers as well. I have read my fair share of YA fiction, and this book was incredibly refreshing despite its flaws. Green doesn't talk down to his readers--his writing is intelligent, creative, and genuinely funny. I really enjoyed how imperfect his characters are--although Colin is the narrator, Green characterizes him as slightly obnoxious and self-centered and actually succeeds in making him both unlikeable and relatable at the same time. I loved this, because I find that oftentimes YA writers try to portray their characters as perfect and sacrifice a lot of reality as a result (I'm looking at you, Stephanie Meyer). 

The plot is very predictable and more than a little implausible (Colin has no criteria for dating other than the girl's name be Katherine. Also, how likely is it that he would find that many to date?). However, Green's writing is clever enough that it makes up for it, and the story is really enjoyable as a result. 

The only thing that bugged me was that I felt like Green was trying a little too hard to be quirky at some points (probably a result of our post-Juno culture). Colin and Hassan use the Norman Mailer-inspired word "fugging" and it's derivatives throughout the narrative as their primary swear word, which becomes grating after a while. Colin creates anagrams out of everything. Hollis runs a factory that produces tampon strings. One or two of those details would have been cute, but including so many quirks took me out of the story at times. Green also uses footnotes throughout the novel as little asides to the reader, usually elaborating on some obscure piece of trivia mentioned by Colin. These are humorous and pretty interesting, but Green puts them on literally every other page, which was annoying. 

Overall, it was a good read. I was frustrated by some of the stylistic choices Green made, but I appreciate his efforts to do something new and different in the somewhat tired realm of YA fiction. This book was a refreshing alternative to Twilight and its ilk, and I imagine a teenager would like this book even more than I did. For adult readers, it's a quick and enjoyable read, if you can get past the overly-cute quirkiness. I've heard Green's other novels (Paper Towns and Looking for Alaska) are better than this one, so I'm going to have to borrow those from my sister as well.