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.