capfox: (Sweet God)
The prose was surprisingly unfloral, except when it literally was. And that's the only pun going in here.

Book #34: The Language of Flowers
Author: Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Provenance: Borrowed from Westmount Library

It's nice to think of more ways for people to communicate, different forms of messages they can send. This idea of particular kinds of flowers communicating specific meanings, and that one should consider these meanings when they give them, rather than just picking what's prettiest... I mean, it's not for me, I guess, but I can see the appeal. And on top of this, Diffenbaugh outside the book seems to be a pretty admirable person, helping fundraising for kids getting out of foster care, for reasons that will soon become evident. On top of that, she's a pretty good writer, in a craftswoman sense. For those of you thinking there's a but coming, yeah, here it is: but this book didn't exactly do it for me.

Our protagonist, Victoria, is coming out of foster care as an adult, and she's had a really rough time of it, as one is given to understand is usually the case for those emerging from foster care. She's rather a hard case, very closed off to others, and upon getting out, basically takes up being homeless for a while. But she understands flowers, and the messages they send, and before too long, she gets offered a job at a small flower store run by Renata, a pretty strong-willed woman in her own right. She helps out around the store, making bouquets that match the language of flowers she learns, growing the business... and meeting a guy, Grant, who is a flower wholesaler, and who has a definite link to her past.

So that's the setup for the story; we get Victoria's current story, along with the story of her last and best chance at finding someone to adopt her, a flower-loving woman living alone in a large house in the California countryside named Elizabeth. Clearly, since Victoria ended up in foster care, even though Elizabeth is caring and accommodating, but pushing back against Victoria's acting out, slowly taking her in and building a bond, eventually this must fall apart, so the story has that tension going for it: not knowing how things are going to fall apart, and seeing how this plays out against Victoria's troubles in her more grown-up setting, with her way with flowers and trying to build connections, with people in general and with Grant and Renata in particular. She's quite a broken young woman, Victoria, and there's a lot of work to be done in getting back to a good and sane place.

Let me here give credit to Diffenbaugh as a writer again: the characterization is deftly done (generally), and the construction and pacing of the story, matching the pace of the two time periods well to each other to build connections, lulls and character beats, and different climaxes in the two times working to build the mood in the story. And she commits to the concept with the language of flowers, as well; including that glossary at the back is definitely a wise choice, and I went and looked at it at rather a sizable number of times.

Here's that but again: just... as much as I liked the writing, and I think the characters work, my disbelief just didn't really hold. Victoria is a scarred and hardened individual, certainly, and her behavior's quite erratic. I get that people would make allowances, but they really go too far, overall, and she is just unbelievably, incredibly lucky in the modern story. The backstory stuff is better, and I like the bond building with Elizabeth and everything, but the modern setting... I mean, she does some fairly crazy things that I think we're supposed to sympathize with, but I don't really get to sympathy, and also just lands a lot of luckiness. Just gobs of coincidences and people having nigh-magical powers to divine her life. Either she is the most captivating person that has ever existed, or the contrivances are laid on too thick. Not that everything goes well, but when they go bad, still... the contrivances and the coincidences, oh, the contrivances and the coincidences. I couldn't take it. And Grant, man, I couldn't really take Grant. I liked him overall, but he's really like this side of a fairy-tale super-patient hero who'd never been and would never be interested anyone else but Victoria. He belong in more of a romance novel than here, I think.

I want to accept the story, and I liked the writing and the setting and all, but it's still rather problematic. I want to say, really, this is a book that has some good stuff going for it, and it wasn't a hard read, but I just couldn't take the story. I wouldn't say don't read it, exactly, but I wouldn't go out and jump on it, either, really. The begonia on the cover of the book means caution in the language of flowers presented in the book, and I get why the author chose it, but I'd assign it a second meaning on top of that one, personally.

Next up: Mmm... Tokyo Vice, let's say.
capfox: (Live My Way)
I'm not really sure I want to write this one, to be honest, because I feel like I missed something here.

Book #55: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Author: Sherman Alexie
Provenance: Bought from Chapters online (with a nice slipcase and everything)

Okay. So. Today's review challenge: trying to figure out what I missed. If we were going to put together a list of the most well-received and admired works of young adult literature from the past few years, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian would be somewhere around the top. The edition I have of it is filled with a lot of praise, blurbs saying how wonderful and humorous and insightful and all that stuff it is, from a multitude of newspapers and authors. It had been recommended to me a few times, as well, and so I picked up a nice copy, and decided to give it a try when I wanted something that matched that set of quality descriptors. And... I don't know. It's not like it was bad or anything, but it didn't exactly live up to its advance billing, and not even in that way that happens sometimes when your expectations were too high.

Our hero here is Arnold Spirit, often just referred to as Junior, who lives on an Indian reservation in Washington, and whose existence has been fairly full of problems, what with having born with water on the brain, and is thus fairly susceptible to shocks; he stammers, he has huge thick glasses, he'd seem a bit of a mess if you met him, likely. But he does have a strong spirit, and a love of comics, for getting his drawings out into the world, and you see them over the course of the book, illustrating various points. That strong spirit, though, is what convinces him that he has to get out of the rez school and into the white school nearby; that's going to be the only way to build a good future for himself, even if it doesn't really make his life easy now, what with the troubles getting there, getting accepted, and most of all, explaining to the his friends and the people on the rez what he's doing and why, without looking like a traitor.

Yes, the book has a lot to say about poverty, belonging, race, bullying, friendship and family, substance abuse, and death. There's a lot of well-observed stuff in there, really, and it's written up in an engaging way - it's not too heavy-handed, and a lot of fairly weighty stuff does indeed happen in here, but given Junior's voice and pictures, it doesn't get overwhelming. It can be rather amusing, as well. Really, I do think it was well-written; I've thought often of the phrase Alexie uses about being poor not teaching you about anything except how to be poor. The characters, too, particularly Junior and his best friend and great athletic talent Rowdy, are great to follow.

So I don't know why I just didn't find myself that into the book; I think perhaps I read through it too quickly, or I wasn't in the right mood, or something. It's weird, but I rather feel like the fault should probably lie with me, and not with the book, in this case. When I look back on it, it seems admirable and interesting, with a good style and good art, but I didn't enjoy it that much, and I don't think it's because I really expected to enjoy it a lot. I see where everyone else is coming from, and maybe I'll give it another try, but for now, for all that I can point at good bits, I'll have to chalk this up as the most mysterious read, in a sense, of the year for me. Sometimes, it is in how it hits you; you bring yourself to the experience as much as the writer brings his story. Maybe I'll connect better next time.

Tomorrow: The Language of Flowers, probably. I haven't quite decided, but I think that's where I'll go.
capfox: (Looks Can Deceive)
The word "prime" was used more in this book than some math textbooks, I think.

Book #60: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Author: Muriel Spark
Provenance: Borrowed from Westmount Library

For a book that I really just picked up on a whim, because I'd thought to read it idly at a few points over the past few years, this really paid off. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a modern classic (to the degree that I read the Modern Classics edition), which is usually enough to put me off something, but perhaps I should reconsider that if this delightful, slim little novel is what I'm missing out on. For something that was a scant 123 pages, there's a surprising amount of depth here.

Our Miss Jean Brodie here is a teacher at a fairly good private school in Edinburgh in the mid-1930s, who has different ideas about teaching than her colleagues. Thus, her headmistress at the school would like to find some reason to kick her out, but it's hard to find purchase among her students to find grounds to do so, since just being unorthodox isn't grounds as long as the students are learning. And her students, and particularly her own Brodie Set of six girls that she has decided to devote her prime to, hold her in high esteem, taking in all the lessons she cares to give, and of course much more from her own life, her lost love in WWI, and then her new romantic connections to two different teachers now in her prime. But in the end, one of them comes to betray her, and she is cast out. How and why this comes to pass, and the growth of the girls, that forms the bulk of the story.

Saying that one of her set betrays her isn't really a spoiler, mind - we hear of this quite early, and find out the identity of the betrayer fairly early on as well, even if the betrayal itself only comes at the end. Spark writes her way through with a wide, knowing eye over the sweep of the years, so that we see the roots of the students' connections with her, starting off in junior school, and then on through the rest of their lives, just with making casual references to the future, and back again. This style actually does a great job of building along to the resolution while letting us see the different characters and how their personalities and lives were shaped, by themselves and by Miss Brodie. It allows for a lot of characterization, given the shortness of the book.

As much as I had interest in the story, though, the writing and the characters really did sell it. The book really is quite funny, for Miss Brodie's teachings, all the Primes and the meanings of education and the nature of her classes, how she cuts through life. What the girls take away from it, what they actually do with the teaching and what they think about, is often presented humorously, as well. But there is a great feeling of psychological reality to it all, both for Miss Brodie and her love interests, and also for the different girls. The thematic structure, of connection and trying to find and protect your role, is really well done, and the characters we see a lot of definitely have complex minds. They're real people, and I imagine this is a book that would stand up quite well to re-reading. There're lots of good metaphor and psychology stuff to dig into.

Anyway, for its size - really, you can probably knock this off in an easy few hours - there's a lot of humor and amusement to get out of this, and a lot of meat, as well. The story's got a real spark, and I really enjoyed it. Definitely this is one that's worth a quick try, to enjoy and to admire.

Tomorrow: Uh. I'll try The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian again.
capfox: (Silly)
It's about time a group of Katherines got a collective noun of its very own.

Book #28: An Abundance of Katherines
Author: John Green
Provenance: Borrowed from Westmount Library (but I've since bought my own copy)

After having read and been wowed by the Fault in Our Stars, I went back over to the library and saw what other John Green books they had around at the time, and the answer was this book, so this was the next work of his I tried. As reasons go for reading a book, it's fairly prosaic, but still, I mean, I wanted to try something right away, and the cover was pretty cool, not to be shallow. But this, while being quite a different sort of story from the Fault in Our Stars, was still quite enjoyable, in a madcap comic way.

Our plot: Colin Singleton is a former child prodigy who has dated in his time nineteen girls named Katherine. It is vital, yes, that they be named specifically Katherine, and not with a C, or Kathy, or Kate, or anything else. Katherines. But here is the other thing: all of these Katherines dump him, in the end. And when the last and most important Katherine dumps him in the summer before college, it seems the only way to get him out of his funk, according to his best friend and champion Judge Judy lover Hassan, is a nice, good-old-fashioned American road trip, leaving Chicago and ultimately making their way down into Gutshot, Tennessee for the summer after making friends with a clerk there, Lindsey Lee Wells, and ending up staying around at her mother's incredibly pink mansion.

This sojourn does seem to be good for Colin, who is looking to find a contribution to make to the world that will allow him to jump from prodigy to genius status, and in the process, he does seem to grow into being a real person, more aware of the people around him, more aware of himself in relation to them, etc. It's a nice progression, and though Colin is offputting and awkward towards the beginning of the book, I mean, he does work it out more by the end. And that offputtingness is on purpose for sure, which helps.

Anyway, I did rather like the story and the playfulness of it, and I liked the characters - Hassan and Colin have a believable nerdy friendship, and Hassan reaching out to Colin and taking him on as a friend when Colin doesn't really how to deal with people feels like something I've done with some of my friends before. And I liked the members of the town that they interact with, Lindsey's boyfriend the Other Colin and her mother and Colin's friends and all that. I particularly enjoyed Hassan and Colin's relationship, though, and the way that contrasted with Colin's relationship with Lindsey and such. The characters felt real, and even if there was some comic goings-on, it didn't harm any of that.

I did like the comic stuff, too, and it was a fun novel, on top of the character development stuff. Colin's route to genius, for one, was really quite amusing, and much of the dealings with Lindsey's friends were amusing. I just felt that some of the time, it kind of went a bit too far, and it just moved from comic to wacky or zany, and I didn't quite like that as much. My primary example is from near the end, though, so I won't discuss it just here, but still. There is some wacky stuff.

Still... on the whole, I did really enjoy the book. I liked the conceit, I liked the writing and characters, I liked the Katherines, and I liked the formula. And the footnotes, all that. I think it's a notch below the Fault in Our Stars, but that's not exactly damning with faint praise. It probably wouldn't be where I'd start with John Green, but you'll probably enjoy it. And I mean, you even have the grave site of Franz Ferdinand. Hard to ask for more from a book.

Next up: I am guessing The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, but we'll see.
capfox: (Real hardship)
Time to get back on this horse again, I'd say. I don't need some demon tree to push me into it.

Book #30: A Monster Calls
Author: Patrick Ness; illustrations by Jim Kay
Provenance: Borrowed from Westmount Library

Once again, we have a book here, this time A Monster Calls, where I failed to get into it the first couple of times I took a shot at it, and then finished it on the third try. This is one of the positive times, though, gladly; when I finally got into it, I really fell into the rhythm and feel of the story. After having read Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy, I figured if I gave him a chance, I'd get grabbed, and so it was.

Unlike those books, though, the setting for this story is largely our own world. Conor's having a hard time of it, with his mom suffering from cancer, his dad divorced and abroad in the US, the stress not exactly doing wonders for his social life. And he's been having nightmares, of a sort that he doesn't ever want to talk about. And yet... a different nightmare comes to visit him, a giant monstrous now-mobile yew tree from the graveyard outside his window making its way to his room, and making him a bargain. The monster will tell him three stories, and in exchange, Conor will have to tell a fourth story in return. But that story will have to be the truth.

This story really was superbly crafted, though. I'm a sucker for stories within stories, etc. The stories told by the monster, and the morals he draws from them for Conor, are clever, and advance Conor's own tale towards a real conclusion. But that said, the connections of the characters, specifically Conor and those around him - his parents, his grandmother, his former closest friend, the school bully, etc. - all feel real, well considered and realized. The reality of the monster itself and its actions, what it does itself and what it gets Conor to do, may be more fuzzy, but still, their connection itself is an easy sell.

The reality of the story in general, really, is the main thing. For a story with a monster, complete with striking black and white illustrations of the monster and its scenes, it's hard to expect more in the way of real reactions from Conor and all the people around him, from the frustrations and the furies to the pity and the cancer perks. All of it, totally real, with its humor and sadness, pathos and violence and dark fun.

So I came out of this pretty positively, in the end, clearly, so what was hard to begin with? First, I think it came across a bit younger targeted than what I was used to reading for the first chapter or so, for all that this is supposedly a young adult book. Still, that got by pretty quickly. I think it may have been that it was another teenagers around cancer book, and I may have overloaded on cancer, in which case, it's not the book's problem. But I think it does take a bit to get into the mood of it with Conor and his visitant monster.

That's a journey worth taking, though, and it's a relatively fast read once you're into it, if not always a happy one. Ness knows what he's doing as a writer, and you shouldn't expect an easy trip in his world, but you'll probably get a moving and lasting one. And that's more what we want from monsters, I think.

Next up: I suppose it really should be An Abundance of Katherines, shouldn't it?
capfox: (Justice (negative))
Can't say it was a tremendously successful one.

Book #36: An Experiment in Love
Author: Hilary Mantel
Provenance: Borrowed from Westmount Library

As reasons to try reading a book go, the fact that a quote from it was used as an epigraph in another book you liked (here, A Monster Calls) is a pretty weak one. And yet, it can be enough to set matters rolling, and I had sort of meant to read something by Mantel since she won the Booker Prize for Wolf Hall, and this book was relatively short and easy enough to try, and so here we are. So was it worth it? Well... yes and no.

This is a story of one Carmel McBain, narrated by an older and perhaps wiser version of the character as she gives an account of her school days in London, and her dealings primarily with two women she attended school with in her hometown, the rich and stylish Julianne and the working-class daughter of immigrants Karina. The book functions on two levels, really: the one dealing with the straightforward story of how each of the women adapts to life and the new circumstances and people it brings once they arrive in London, and the other looking at class issues in England in the late 60s, and at culture more generally. Carmel's parents are lower middle class and give her very little to live on at school, meaning she comes to find it hard even to survive on the funds she has; Julianne has enough money to essentially get whatever she wants, and fits into the culture of the dorm more cleanly; Karina has a different mindset from the other girls about money and the face needed to present to the world, what she wants from life, and what is fair play. Etc.

There's much backstory about the three leads' life before coming to London, and wistful or almost sardonic framing from the future, and definitely some glancing but still caustic blows at what is probably a realistic enough depiction of life for women during that period in England - how hard it was to be taken seriously at events and meetings, to lead a life you could carve out and want with the strictures in both place and mores. The class stuff is actually handled fairly deftly as well; it's not waved in your face much or anything, you have to think about it a little, and that's nice.

That said... yeah. The book didn't quite come together for me, perhaps because I found it hard to really get into understanding the character's mindsets, particularly Carmel's, or perhaps because sometimes the plotting really was too low-key for me. The style was generally good, and Carmel did have a clear voice, and yet it meant that the other characters didn't come in sharp enough sometimes. Also, the ending felt far too abrupt; there's a big event and no real denouement, just a sudden turn away from the page, from the feel of it. It doesn't do the story justice.

I don't know that I would judge Mantel on this book only, and if you're looking for somewhere to start with her, this almost certainly isn't it, but it's not a bad book. It just didn't connect with me... it could be I didn't appreciate it because I'm too distanced from or unknowledgable about the setting, but it's still what it is: a slight volume that should probably have been less slight, for the betterment of all involved, including our slight Carmel.

Next up: A Monster Calls. Might as well see how we got here.
capfox: (Cool)
Just... yes. Um. Hard to know how to introduce this nicely.

Book #41: Anna and the French Kiss
Author: Stephanie Perkins
Provenance: Borrowed from Westmount Library

So people often do say, don't judge by the cover. Or the title, sure. And yet, I felt a bit embarrassed carrying this book around, sadly, with its pastelly cover with the Eiffel Tower and the name and everything. Because really, we totally judge, the book along with the person reading it. If I could have gotten away with taking the dust jacket off, I would have, but alas, the library tapes them on.

None of this is the fault of the author, though, and this book came pretty nicely recommended, so I gave it a shot, and I'm rather glad I did. It's a simple enough story: Anna Oliphant, a high school girl from Atlanta, gets sent to a boarding school in Paris for her senior year by her dad, a writer of ridiculously sentimental novels that are huge sellers. At first, she's against it, really disliking having to give up her life and friends in Atlanta, but eventually finds her place in the school and Paris, with friends and a rather ambiguous connection with one boy in particular, Etienne St. Clair.

Easy sketch, right? And it sounds like something you've heard or watched or read before, a paint-by-numbers book. And yet it plays really well and surprisingly complexly, which comes from really treating the characters like real people, fleshing the main ones out nicely, and not Mary-Sueing the situation up. Anna does make some friends, but she's often still the outsider in the school; everyone else knows each other, and she's just stepping in. And Anna's a real character, with real interests, real strengths and flaws, and needing a real amount of time to cope with being somewhere new, not speaking the language, missing home and friends, etc. And her feelings about St. Clair are very nicely conflicted; that all felt really real, as well, and far from any instant love story.

Somehow, Perkins manages to do this all in a way that doesn't make you think "oh god, you're in PARIS! You're living in a cool place on your own in PARIS! Get over it!" No, she keeps you settled in Anna's POV, and everything feels solid. Paris is really solid as a city here, too, with good research into the city and its lore such that you feel like the place is well-inhabited for the book, with movie theaters and different landmarks playing roles. Life in the boarding school feels well-described and thought out, too; lots of people well away from home and given a lot of freedom leads to a wide variety of reactions and tensions, nicely. And St. Clair is a hell of a guy, with a really nice mix of strengths and flaws. It's hard to think of a more well-realized love interest kind of character in a book I've read in a long time.

The thing is, as real as it feels, and as much as it's from Anna's POV (meaning there's a lot of St. Clair focus), the tier of characters beyond her often don't feel as multi-dimensional as one might like... I felt that a number of the other school friends that she hangs out with didn't register that much (even Meredith, her closest non-St. Clair friend, doesn't feel super real), and I particularly wasn't a huge fan of the fact that St. Clair's girlfriend Ellie didn't score much time or presence beyond an obstacle, considering she was everyone's friend the year before.

But you know, this is a minor enough point if the only thing I can ding the story on is that some of the secondary or tertiary characters aren't as good as I might have liked, and even then, they're not exactly just one note beyond the antagonist-y characters (who, well, it's Anna's POV, so it's hard to get them depth). This sort of story is so easy to step wrongly on, to make it treacly or too thin, to pile into the cliches, to not sell the reality of the situation and give it time to grow into itself. Perkins pulled off a hell of balancing act, and made it feel easy and engrossing. It's quite a fun and easy read, pulling you through the story. So if people make fun of you for the cover, well, trot out the cliche. This time, they don't really know what they're missing.

Next up: An Experiment in Love. I mean, since we're in boarding school land, I guess.
capfox: (Come bearing tigers)
Tigers where you don't normally expect to find tigers are the best tigers.

Book #32: The Tiger's Wife
Author: Tea Obreht
Provenance: Borrowed from Westmount Library

Your damning with faint praise section of the review: for a book that I had to take three runs at to actually get through, the Tiger's Wife was actually pretty good.

I'm not really exactly sure what it was about the book that made it hard for me to get into, to be honest. The story setup itself is pretty interesting; set in an unnamed Balkan country after the end of a long period of war, our main character Natalia and her friend Zora are traveling across the new border to make use of their medical skills to give vaccinations to some kids in an orphanage. En route, she finds out that her grandfather, who helped raise her and was a large part of her life growing up, has died, away from home, in a place she's never even really heard of. Over the rest of the book, we find out more about her and her relationship with him, the two odd situations in which he found himself over his life, and more of the nature of the war-torn country.

Okay, so all of this sounds fine, and the storyline is put together nicely, weaving between tales of Natalia's life during the war, her present mission, and the two rather magical tales from her grandfather, of the Tiger's Wife and the Deathless Man, and how they bounded his existence. These are nice - a tiger escaped during some bombing in the capital, and found the village her grandfather grew up in, forming a seemingly mystical connection with a deaf-mute girl there. The Deathless Man is pretty much exactly what you think - a man he came across in a small village who could never die... but could still grow quite thirsty. Both of these stories are fleshed out well, and the connections into Natalia's story, learning of her grandfather's past and how he met his end, are well done, too. I also liked the atmosphere and the telling of the stories - it was never clear exactly whether we were to take this magic at face value or not, which was nice.

And still this sounds fine enough, so what was the problem? I think that while Obreht is clearly a talented writer - she's evocative and urgent, and she can give you characters a new spotlight that really changes your view of them, setting everything you knew of them into relief, no easy skill - she's also still more uneven than one would want. I got into the characters and the stories, but then it drifted away; it was hard to read into it at the beginning as the story set up, and there were points along the way where I got lost as well. This is despite the connections between the stories and the presentation; it just sometimes really felt like a chore to get through the next part, but I still wanted to get further, to find out the web and the end. Maybe if I knew more of the country at hand, I'd have done better; I'm no Balkan expert. I don't think that was it, though.

On the whole, this was still a pretty enjoyable book, a very promising first novel, and something I don't regret trying, or even regret trying thrice. I'll probably check out more of her work in the future, too. I don't know if I'd recommend specifically jumping on this one, but the high points are pretty high, for what that's worth. Not glowing praise is still praise, after all.

Next up: Uh. Thinking Anna and the French Kiss, but we'll see.
capfox: (Live My Way)
(Programming note: I allowed myself a day off for our first anniversary, but yeah. Time to get back on this. I don't want to lose the thread, after all.)

Just look at all the Will Graysons here. It's actually two more than I've ever met.

Book #38: Will Grayson, Will Grayson
Authors: John Green and David Levithan
Provenance: Bought from Argo Bookshop on Ste. Catherine

Here is a message that will likely not come as that much of a surprise to you: books are not real life. The stories can be interesting and illuminating and capture things about the world that are gleaming and true, but they're necessarily abstracting away from certain factors, at least generally speaking. And one of those factors is that you don't have multiple characters in the story with the same name, or even similar names, for fear of confusing the readership. Naturally, then, some people are going to want to play with that idea, and then you end up with books like Will Grayson, Will Grayson, being the tale of two high-school boys living in the Chicago suburbs named Will Grayson.

The book is written in alternating chapters from the points of view of each of the Will Graysons, each by one of our two esteemable young adult authors here, Green and Levithan. Green's WG is a fairly smart guy without too many connections in his school, who's just trying to keep his head down and get through by following his two rules for life: (1) don't care too much, and (2) shut up. Levithan's wg (who writes with no-caps) is in rather a rougher situation, rather depressed and cynical, with primarily one sorta-friend at school, the gothy Maura, and primarily living for dealing with his online significant other of sorts, Isaac. They've never met in person, sure, but they've got a real connection.

Naturally enough, the story has them both growing by finding connections with people, and is set up around the first meeting of the two Wills in Chicago one cold evening; the events from that point play through the rest of the story. And they're both really solid, well-written characters, too. WG slowly gets more involved with the people around him and making more active choices; wg starts to find new pathways for opening up his life. I've gone back and forth on which I like more, but ultimately keep coming back to Levithan's wg, as much as I like John Green and his more restrained, more normal character. wg is biting and wickedly funny, but in many cases deeply feeling. Levithan writes a hell of an amusing bitchy gay kid while still keeping him emotionally real and affecting.

But as much as I like the main characters, and I do, the secondary cast is very strong, and in a way pushes to the front of the book. This is true for, say, Maura and Isaac and Gideon, the other gay kid at wg's school, on the wg side, or for Jane, the girl in the Gay-Straight Alliance at WG's school, all of whom are real and interesting. And I want to put a word in here, too, for the parental characters: it feels rare to see good, well-behaved, well-adjusted parents in YA books, but damn if these aren't some good examples, even if the roles aren't too big.

But the main character in a lot of ways is Tiny Cooper, WG's best friend. Tiny is in some ways really the hero of the piece (Green has said that they sort of wrote a book where the sidekicks are the main characters), a very large, very gay football player that plays matchmaker, dates tons of boys, acts like he knows his place in the world, and is putting together, writing and directing and starring in a musical about his own life. Yes, Tiny is a big character in every sense, and a lot of his actions help drive the story, too.

I think ultimately, whether you find this book to be great or merely good (assuming you're down with the whole YA thing) is really whether you can take all the Tiny, and whether you are on board with the ending, built around Tiny's musical. Personally, I was pretty down with both of them, although the ending wasn't perfect, as it ends in a slightly weird place, to my mind. But I found Tiny a very lively, real and fun character, and I liked what the ending was doing and the energy of it, and how it deals with our eponymous Will Graysons both. So for me... I mean, I loved the book, I have given it to a few people, and it's what got me into John Green to begin with, which was clearly a plus overall. So yeah - maybe this isn't real life. It is a book. But living in Will Grayson Land for a while is no problem; it's a real gripping place to be.

Next up: Uh... uh... let's try the Tiger's Wife for tomorrow, mayhaps.
capfox: (Looks Can Deceive)
Most birthday girls agree that this is a very good piece of advice.

Book #37: Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life
Author: Sandra Beasley
Provenance: Borrowed from Westmount Library

Sometimes you can be won over by a combination of a cover and a thought. In this case, the cover was the little display copy of this book, light pink with a cupcake complete with a little death's-head ornament on it, and the thought was of my friend Kit, who recently moved to town and is allergic to around 3/4 of everything under the sun, it seems. Beasley's book promised tales of life from someone with just about as many allergies as Kit has, along with some scientific discussion of how allergies work, and why they seem to perhaps be increasing.

On the whole, this was indeed a cute and fast read. The little looks in at the science of how allergens work and set off terrible reactions, why some allergens are classed together, and the social and political implications of how people deal with allergies and the rising awareness thereof were interesting, although I could probably have used a bit more detail on some of it. But you do get a good taste for the way it works and how people are trying to deal with it. The amount of legislation in place, and awareness in restaurants and among common folk, has definitely increased.

But that said, if you're as allergic as Beasley, the world still has a ways to go, and the most interesting parts of the book are really the tales of her life and trying to deal with it. For most of her allergies, they're very severe; her dairy and egg allergies, for example, meant that if someone ate cake at a birthday party for her, and kissed her on the cheek after, she'd get hives. A knife being used to cut cheese, and then her salad, is enough to make her curl up and gasp for air. Much of the story tells of how her parents had to deal with her, the choices she makes to avoid using Epi-pens and just suffer through as much as possible, still trying to navigate relationships with friends and her boyfriend where she's careful, but still trying to live life as full as possible. Just all the realms in which her family and then she have to be cautious, because a tiny slip means a whole lot of misery, definitely get described and communicated well.

It's still a light and fast read, though, and you'll come away with a new appreciation of what it means to be highly allergic to food (and other objects), even if it's not directly applicable to you or those close to you. That's not always the point of reading though, is it? I liked the style well enough, and it was enjoyable, if not particularly memorable. If you're interested in the topic, it won't take you long to read through, and you'll probably like it fine. It does have some catchy bits... and it makes you glad that the allergies themselves aren't among them.

Next up: already got half a WGWG one done, so that, probably. Finally.
capfox: (Kyon)
You have to admit, the title does make a good point.

Book #29: Love Is Not Constantly Wondering If You Are Making the Biggest Mistake of Your Life
Author: Anonymous
Provenance: Bought direct from Perfect Day Publishing

You'll find that the first thing that grabs your attention looking at this book, if it's not the very long title, and if you are around my age, is that the cover, font and formatting are all designed to evoke a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. There are little insets telling you at the end of each page or two section to go to a different date in the story, and describing a harrowing adventure on a planet of super-intelligent space ants after your ship was shot down. It's even got little drawings to help flesh out this story... but then, that's not the story you really get at all. It's just the frame.

No, the story you actually get is actually a tumultuous years-long affair with a girl named Anne. From the beginning, the author (and you, since it's written in the second person, like any good CYOA book) knows that it's probably not going to work out - Anne is too cool in some ways, but mostly, it's that she's an alcoholic, and gets the relatively geeky author into any number of bad situations. It's a roller coaster ride of a relationship presented in short vignettes, intense and different from the rest of the author's life, but painful and embarrassing and gross, as well, and just harrowing. The writing has to be terse and effecting for this to work, and wry when it calls for it, and it hits all of these notes. You get a lot of emotion in a slim little tome.

You wonder when you're reading the story whether there's a bit of a message in the date jumping CYOA style presentation - no matter what order you go in, the relationship will end badly. But the author's note up front tells you that you should just read it through straight, and you should listen; it makes the most sense. Perhaps more than that, then you'll get the right tension between the little nostalgic buzz from the format, combined with a soft retelling of a hard relationship. You know what you're getting into from the title, certainly. It's a cute little book, eye-catching with some solid writing. You feel surprisingly cool when you're reading it, somehow. It's a bit hard to find, but you'll probably find it's worth it. Both for the presentation and the writing. But unlike the anonymous author's relationship with Anne, it's quite short; you'll find that it's all over in an hour or so. It's an interesting hour, though.

Next up: Sigh. Will Grayson, Will Grayson for real this time, I think. Unless something else takes me.
capfox: (SOS Dance)
More inventive science-fiction inflected short stories? I'll stick with the thank you.

Book #44: Sorry Please Thank You
Author: Charles Yu
Provenance: Borrowed from Westmount Library

It's rare these days for me to really find a new author pretty much on my own; much of my reading is from recommendations at this point. But I did find Charles Yu's first novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and read it last year. It fell in a gap in reviews, but I felt that it was a very solid book. I mean, it was a well considered plot about time travel that seemed like it was done via linguistics, just about. So I picked up his newest short story collection with some anticipation, and I wasn't at all disappointed.

Yu writes science fiction stories both that are straight-up tales, and ones that take on tropes and notions from more well-known sci-fi areas, playing around with them to fairly good effect. For example, probably my favorite tales from the collection are Yeoman, which is narrated by one of those red-shirts that's always going about dying on missions on Star Trek, and looking at how this could happen or be put up with, and Hero Absorbs Major Damage, a story about an RPG setting where the lead isn't sure he's fit to carry out the destiny that they've signed on for. They're both rather gently humorous setups, with some holding up of conventions for amused examinations. It's pretty fun.

The ones that are more his own, though, are just as insightful little tales. From these, I most enjoyed Standard Loneliness Package, about emotional transference technology, where people outsource their bad days and hard times to India; and Note to Self, which is a nice play with the multiple universe concept. There were more stories that are original takes than take-offs, and they did tend to have these nice perspectives. I never thought about zombies shopping for makeup before, for example.

Yu's writing is usually fairly concise, and the book on the whole is a fairly slim volume, although there are enough stories to make it feel worth it. He does feel quite at home with the short story format; the tales have that crafted care you see in shorter fiction. And his writing tends to be on the sparse side, cool, but you still get a good sense of the scene and the story, the emotions behind it. It's a nifty trick.

On the whole... I mean, I don't know if I'd start with this one, but if you want a feel for what Yu is trying to do as a writer, read the first four stories in this collection, and you'll get a sense. I'm definitely enjoying it, and I'm curious to see where he goes onto from here. Without apologies, I'd like more stories, please.

Next up: Uh. Um. Hard to guess. Maybe Will Grayson, Will Grayson?
capfox: (Wonderboy)
The list of these things for me would be rather long, probably.

Book #31: A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again
Author: David Foster Wallace
Provenance: Borrowed from Westmount Library

Everyone knows that one's reading time is limited, and so if you haven't read any particular book, or even a particular author, it can't really come as too much of a surprise. When you haven't even heard of a prominent author, though, that can be rather embarrassing, and so it is to my discredit that I confess before Wallace's suicide, I'd never heard of him. There were all these outpourings of horror that such a talented figure should off himself, and I was left frantically searching to see who he was, even. So I'd decided that at some point, I should give his stuff a try, and even if it took a few years, I did get there. I'd been told starting with his essay collections first made a better intro to feeling out his style than the fiction, so I started with this, the first one.

I can fairly easily say that you get into the writing fairly quickly, and that the professions of admiration for Wallace's style are not off-base. As with most of these cases, there is of course varying quality within the collection - one feels the short book review might not belong, and while the essay on television is interesting and in some ways prescient, I feel it's also rather dated, as well. Looking at it as an analysis of the state of TV at the time makes it feel more valid; after all, it's nearly 20 years past now, that essay, and it still reads well enough.

I did enjoy the Lost Highway and David Lynch essay, and the playing with structure that involved, but I think my favorite pieces in the book really are the ones that can be described as almost travelogues: the piece from a Montreal tennis tournament on tennis player Michael Joyce and what it means to be very, very good and dedicated, but still never as good as one could be, the sacrifices and the gains; the post from the Illinois State Fair, with the looks at the differences in culture; the essay from the long cruise, and the changes that come over one when everything is taken care of. They're long essays, quite sizable chunks of work, and yet getting through them, footnotes and all, never feels like a chore.

I guess that this is the point of Wallace, from what I know: all the desire to be rigorous, to get across all the information one can precisely, while still looking to entertain. There are some very funny passages, after all, but overall, the pleasure of the reading is from getting a different, curious viewpoint, trying to really grapple with the world around him and figure out how to fit things into coherent themes and views, without trivializing the people and experiences in front of him, even if he didn't personally enjoy them. The style of the essays, with the footnotes and the length of the sentences and the drive to connect with everyone he can wherever he is, is definitely different; it's not quite academic, which I appreciate. I do enough academic reading.

On the whole, then, I did enjoy the collection. I don't think I'm as rapturous about him as many people seem to be, but I do get what the fuss is about, and I'll probably try the other big essay collection before too long. But at least I can say, as an author and a character, he's definitely worth knowing about. I'm glad I gave it a try.

Next up: Um. Well. Let's see what I feel like tomorrow. Discount Armageddon, perhaps.
capfox: (L is for L)
A topic perhaps best addressed concisely, after all.

Book #49: Mortality
Author: Christopher Hitchens
Provenance: Borrowed from Westmount Library

And now, a return to a question I've addressed before: do you give a book more credit for the circumstances in which it was written? Because here again, we have a book written by a well-known and respected author, Hitchens, as he was dying, in this case of esophageal cancer. This is a book that's in part about the processing of dying, and in part about the thoughts that come to one along the road to their final resting place. There are essays on losing one's voice, on how what doesn't kill you certainly doesn't make you stronger in many cases, on the topic of religion and how the whole cancer deal hasn't changed Hitchens's views on the absence of a god, among a few others.

All of the essays are well-written, and a small fragmentary section at the end collects Hitchens's last jottings from the end of his life before he'd been able to turn them into a full piece. Even if Hitchens had lost his physical voice, his writing voice remained intact to the end, it seems. There's a real and honest undertaking of describing what it's like to be dying, and what one might think of. So as a small valedictory piece, this isn't a bad little book to try. Emphasis on little, though. The book is quite short - slightly over a hundred pages with foreword and afterword, and in quite large type to boot. You can knock the thing off in a couple of hours tops; I'm really glad I got it out of the library.

On the whole, if you want to hear the last words of a distinctive writer, and what he wanted us to last take from him on the way out, this is an interesting read, and thought-provoking, but I daresay it's not really worth the hardcover price. If this had been someone besides Hitchens, I very much doubt this would be a book. Now that it's there, though, it's worth the quick read. This time, I think I do give the credit to the book: it's inspiring, knowing how the book was written, and seeing the final output. Not enjoyable, no, but inspiring. And I like that.

Next up: A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, likely. On the dead writer's front.
capfox: (Sleepy (Mononoke Kusuriuri))
Usually, I don't like dogs, but this time I'll make an exception.

Book #39: Terrier
Author: Tamora Pierce
Provenance: Borrowed from Westmount Library

Last year, I ran across a short story collection of Tamora Pierce's in the library, and picked it up, under the idea that I liked her stuff, and particularly the Song of the Lioness quartet, when I was growing up, and I should give it another shot now. I ended up being fairly disappointed in the collection, but I thought some authors find the short story too constraining a format to really shine, so I made a mental note to come back and try something longer, and in particular the Provost's Dog trilogy, of which Terrier is the first, since I remember having seen it get some good press.

It turns out that this hypothesis was largely justified, since Terrier was much more enjoyable of a read. I think a lot of the fun of Pierce's books comes from the world-building aspects, and that's much easier to do with a few hundred pages to play with, building up your city and its cast of characters. Definitely that's the case in this story, set in the capital city of Pierce's oft-visited fantasy kingdom Tortall, Corus. There's a small frame story telling you of the time frame (a healthy number of generations before the Song of the Lioness books) and some of the setup for the main character, her skills and background, by giving you bits and pieces from a number of characters' diaries.

But then it settles into the diary and voice of Beka Cooper, a Puppy or trainee city guard, in the most hardnosed district of Corus. It's not the easiest place to live, but it's somewhere she's very familiar with, even after having spent a number of years with her siblings in the household of the Provost himself after helping crack a case when she was a young girl. She's wanted to be a Dog for a long, long time, and she's determined to find her way, even if it's lonely at first. But she's got some small degree of magic, and she's got the best guardsmen in the precinct as her mentors, so the road isn't too hard to see. Over the course of the story, she gets entangled in two mysteries, dealing with an influx of incredibly precious rare stones and abductions and murders among the poorest parts of the city.

The mysteries are actually pretty well presented and clever, but the prize of the writing is Beka's voice and the world-building. Pierce isn't the world's foremost prose stylist, but you do sink very solidly into Beka's world, between all the local argot that shows up in her speech and her particular view of how the world should be, and how she can best find her place in it. She's a talented young woman with drive and curiosity, but she's also realistically sensitive and real. You get a real sense of her and her life, and of the city she's in. Pierce populates the place with a wide variety of interesting characters, and makes Corus breath to their rhythms, from the Rogue's Court to the Dogs, Beka's friends on both sides of the law, the little shopkeepers and the nobility. Corus feels like a real city, and even if you don't see the nicer parts, you hear of them, alongside the hardships and the people working to keep their lives whole, staying away from slavery and poverty as best they can.

This is a different world from the Tortall of the Alanna series, a rougher and looser society, in need of lots of obvious reminders of how the place should be in order for the people of the capital city to be satisfied in life. Considering how well imagined the later chronological books dealing with Tortall are, this is no small feat, and it's an impressive feat. I'm glad to get back to the world of Pierce's novels, and I'm looking forward to seeing Beka's growth and the widening world in the next books. I'm definitely not going to go as long before I pick up her series again.

Next up: well... thinking Mortality, but we'll see how I feel tomorrow.
capfox: (Real hardship)
(Programming note: So I fell behind pretty significantly on these reviews again, and I'm going to try to catch up at a rate of 1 a day once more, along with some other actual life related posts. I'll feel better when I'm on this more, I think. It's useful. But I'm going to bounce around a bit in the chronology of the reviews, depending on what I feel like writing up. So here's where we're starting today.)

There's a lot to be said for perseverence, but it can go too far sometimes.

Book #40: No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War
Author: Hiroo Onoda
Provenance: Borrowed from Westmount library

Wars are big places, full of people and moving parts, where it's easy for things to fall through the cracks. But when they do, it's not a trivial matter; that little crack can end up being big enough to actually hold the content of someone's life. I think when I was growing up, I heard stories of the Japanese soldiers who didn't know World War II had ended until decades after. A whole life spent in not just a futile cause, but a cause that was already lost years ago. A very interesting concept, if a tragic one.

No Surrender is the biography of Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese officer with spy training who ended up getting posted to the Philippine island of Lubang towards the end of the year in 1944, where the tide of the war had already turned. We do get some description of what his upbringing was like (mostly about some time spent working in China and dealing with his army brother), what training was like towards the end of the war for Japanese offices (much reduced in length, with everyone cramming in as much hectically as possible), and the state of the Japanese war effort when he arrived on Lubang (pretty damn bad, and people were rather ready to give up). But the meat of the story is about the years between his arrival in December 1944, and when he finally was relieved of duty in March 1974.

So this is essentially a survivalist tale of the small band of people Onoda lived with, down to two for a couple of decades, through his last months spent alone. Onoda gives good details about what life on the island was like for them, moving from place to place, storing ammunition away, finding food by taking it from the trees at different points and stealing rice where they could, the maps they had in their minds, the difficulties of maintaining their clothes. And how they still tried to carry out their mission, tracking the people and troop movements for when the Japanese made their counter-attack. They also carried out little operations that would harass the villagers on the island.

To me, beyond the survivalist stuff, the most interesting parts of the story were how Onoda and Kozuka, his last remaining companion for the last couple of decades, came up with ways to distrust the updates they were given trying to get them to surrender. And there were many - newspapers left for them, leaflets dropped, pictures and letters from home placed in the forest where they were likely to find them. But they built up their own whole narrative of how the world had come to function, Japan's new allies and how they'd been holding out, finding a place for their mission and their life until then, even if it meant distrusting pictures from home because someone had been referred to by a different nickname, or because a neighbor was in the picture. There was delusion here, but to the fervent end of keeping their belief alive, that they hadn't wasted their time.

It's really quite an interesting story, and Onoda writes it clearly; the translation carries this pretty smoothly, as well, with a clear voice, simply presented. Onoda wonders at the end what all the time he spent there was for, if the cause had already been lost, and you certainly wouldn't want to trade places with him. It's not too bad to wonder what it'd have been to be there, though, and the book's not too heavy to find out.

Next up: Uh... well, we'll see what I feel like reviewing tomorrow, I suppose?
capfox: (Excited Shingo)
The fault's not necessarily with us, even if we are underlings.

Book #27: The Fault in Our Stars
Author: John Green
Provenance: Borrowed from Westmount Library

Let’s get this out of the way up front: this book’s main characters are teenagers with cancer.

Some of you are probably looking at that sentence and making a little distasteful face. You are curling your lip and thinking, gah, teenagers with cancer, this will be terrible and maudlin. You don’t want to depress yourself with such things. I know this reaction, because half the people I told about this book basically did just that.

Let me tell you what I told those people. Yes, this book can be sad, but it's also very funny. And wry, and uplifting, and thoughtful, and tough. This is a spirited story. In fact, this is the best book I've read this year, and I'd be surprised (and gratified) if anything else topped it. This book is great, and you should read it.

Our main character here is Hazel, a sixteen-year-old with thyroid cancer that long ago metastasized to her lungs. It didn't look like she was going to make it through sixteen, even, but then she got stuck on a new drug, and it stabilized her, even if it didn't come anywhere near curing her. No, she's still probably on her way out. But now, she's in a weird place – got a GED, not a lot of contacts with the world pre-cancer, not particularly great at getting around, and her main social outlet that's not her parents has become her cancer support group, which is, well... not that exciting.

One day, though, a new kid shows up at the support group, Augustus Waters, and they form a new connection, and build a new space for themselves, through little conversations and interactions, gestures like sharing books and games, stories and wit... in short, the mechanics of falling in love. And whether or not both of them want to – and Hazel in particular is unsure of the wisdom of this – relationships with other people change you. However much time you think you have left, you still keep growing. This is even more so when you're a teenager.

I don't want to go into all the twists and turns of the story, because the plot itself, and its treatment of Hazel, Augustus, and the secondary cast, deserve to be taken in without me trampling all over it first. No, what I want to highlight here are two things: first, the realistic way the narrative is presented. There are very happy moments here, where you feel real triumph with the characters... and they're often then undercut with little notes of bittersweetness, with reminders of the situation. And it works the other way, too, the sadness undercut with love. Life is messy, and the signposts work both ways. The characters are complex and layered and really recognizable as people. You have to know that just as the book makes fun of the Cancer Teen that Suffers Nobly For Us All narrative, you're going to get some much better approximation of the whole experience, along with a lot of cutting humor. Nothing cuts the noble suffering like a joke.

The second thing I want to point out is how good and well-observed the writing is. This isn't just in the sense of putting labels on things that are out there and I hadn't thought of, although there is that kind of observation, too; I will admit my life is perhaps unusual, but the concept of Cancer Perks is one that I've made use of several times since then. It's more that Green has done a really good job of finding the realism of the situation, and getting it out on the page. Hazel's narrative voice is amazingly well done, so that you really understand her views and problems, her reservations and thoughts, even when you don't necessarily agree with them. There were things I really did disagree with her on; grenades are a good example. I always saw where she was coming from, though. It's not just that side of writing, either: John Green can turn a phrase, that's for sure. He's got some real nice punches in there, memorable lines that I don't want to ruin by quoting them here. That's without me even getting into the nice math bits – Venn Diagram humor! A quick takedown of Parmenides that made my pre-Socratic philosophy PhD friend laugh! Different types of infinities! It's also got some nice layering in terms of symbolism, in that nice you-can-think-about-it-if-you-want sort of way.

So here's the deal, ultimately: yes. This book is about teenagers with cancer. It's also about love, being alive, and what it means to leave a mark. How a life can be lived, and what meanings are there for us to stumble upon. Don't make faces. Don't think it's not for you. This book is for you. If you read one book I review this year, it should be this one. That is all.

Next up: An Abundance of Katherines. Yeah... I had to do more John Green after that, pretty much.
capfox: (Pervert Thoughts)
Some ideas do get way farther than you expect them to, but...

Book #26: Lightning Rods
Author: Helen Dewitt
Provenance: Bought (with gift card) from Indigo in Eaton Centre, Toronto

Now, for today's question: how much credit do you give a book for being written by an author who you really like? I feel that my reaction to Lightning Rods, Helen Dewitt's long-awaited follow-up of sorts to the classic (to me) The Last Samurai, comes from that. I didn't think that it was as good as that book, certainly, but I ultimately found it a fairly enjoyable, wry satire. That said... I probably wouldn't have given it that chance if I hadn't had so much trust in her from the last thing of hers I'd read.

So here's the story here. Joe was a vacuum cleaner salesman who regularly embarked on fairly involved masturbatory fantasies regarding a woman's lower body coming through a wall, while on the other side, they could be doing something unrelated, not really being perturbed – reading a magazine, appearing on a game show, getting work done, whatever. He's rather a weird guy, but he's nothing if not single-minded... and he works out a way to start getting these installed as business tools. You know, to defuse sexual tension in the office and avoid highly damaging sexual harassment lawsuits.

Here's what I liked about the book. It really feels like Dewitt thought through a fairly ridiculous premise, and worked out how it might actually function. How would recruitment work? Anonymization? Pitching to companies? Equal opportunities? She then pushed the idea straight on to its logical endpoint, in a fairly nice satirical fashion. The repeated business phrases (one of the first things you learn as a salesman is how to turn a good business phrase), the call forwards to the success of the project, the little dumb-but-clever ideas Joe has for fixing things, the flatness of the prose, all contribute to the humorous sense that this might actually be able to happen, if someone pushed the system in the right way at the right time.

That said... the book does rather feel behind the time, in this regard. Although the story itself is careful to avoid giving a specific time in which it's happening, I've heard that Dewitt basically wrote this in the mid-to-late '90s, and it does feel like it might have been more of the moment back then. I don't know that sexual harassment is the hot topic it was back then. And the prose is rather flat and repetitive; even when you know it's on purpose, it can be hard to take. There's also not much in the way of interesting characters or development, but then, that's often the case in satires, anyway.

I guess what it comes down to is that I did enjoy the book all right, but I think if it had been written by an author I didn't know, I wouldn't have been inclined to stick with it as long or to look at it quite as closely. I wonder if someone in a more business-y setting than my work would have found it more wryly amusing from the get-go, but still, the humor's there if you wait for it. I kinda hope for something different next time out, though. But I'll take the Dewitt I can get.

Next up: The Fault in Our Stars. For real this time.
capfox: (Melody)
Actual experience definitely can change your view of something you thought you wanted.

Book #25: Dramarama
Author: E. Lockhart
Provenance: Borrowed from Westmount Library

One of the most important quests in our lives, for just about each and every one of us, is to find a place, a group of people, where we belong. For many of us, this quest is complicated by the fact that whatever groups of people are easy to find nearby, we just don’t click with them. And we latch on to whomever is around us that actually fits the same way. So it can be exciting to get out there and find a whole bunch of new people who actually like the same things you do… but then, things might just not work out the way you expect with them when you get there.

Such is our story here in Dramarama, which tells us of a summer-long trip to a drama camp undertaken by two teenagers, a boy and a girl, from boring Brenton, Ohio. Sadye (because Sarah was too plain) and Demi (because he’s Douglas, Jr, and half of what his father is) go to the same high school, but only really meet up at the auditions for this camp, and then after they get in, bond over their love of musicals and their upcoming escape from normalcy. The two are pretty different superficially – straight white girl with a less-standard voice, gay black boy with a voice that breaks the rules of the audition – and yet, they become great friends, because they’re the only people that understand each other’s love of theater.

It might be predicted, then, that problems might occur once they get to a place where the defining feature of everyone in attendance is that they’re in the same age group and love the same things to the same ends. As you might expect at a drama camp, there is indeed drama, and it comes in the intended and unintended varieties. We do have some romances for both our lead characters, and some budding friendships, and a whole lot of growth as they take classes, prepare for performing in different plays, and try to find new niches for themselves when the previous niches are taken away. Like acting, in some ways, this is a story about trying to find your identity, along your connections.

That said… here’s the SPOILER ZONE. I think what I liked best about this book is the approach to Sadye’s character. A lot of her growth comes from her not really being as good at singing and performance as she thought she was, something that’s hinted from the beginning of the story, and her desire to push back against what she’s being told, which is not exactly standard operating procedure at the camp. It’s shown that she has a lot of talent, though; it’s just not where she thought it was, more in dancing and conceptualization, direction. It also is a lot of the source of her tension with others in the story. She’s so sure she’s right about how to do things, she’s not open to what people are trying to tell her, or different approaches to relationships, which causes strife for her with just about everyone. Hers is a neat arc, well-handled, and rather bold to take with the lead character of the story. END SPOILERS!

On the whole, I did like this book, but it’s rather a step down from Frankie Landau-Banks, in my view. It’s a nice story, and well-handled, although the more tech-y aspect of a drama camp get rather short shrift here. I do like the characters, as well, but something about this left me more cold than the previous one, and I don’t think it’s just that it’s perhaps a less happy or exciting book. I think it’s that the breaks in on Sadye’s narration that are supposed to drive growth don’t feel as fleshed out as perhaps they needed to be, or perhaps that some of the secondary characters, particularly Sadye’s love interest, don’t feel super well fleshed out. Frankie’s story felt rather more assured than this one.

That said, it’s still a pretty enjoyable read, with some nice excited tones and some melancholy. Finding your place is never really quite a smooth road, and when things expand outward into new groups, establishing yourself can be even harder. And when you’re all acting, perhaps it’s even more so. A good read for your theater fans, but it’s probably not where I’d start with Lockhart’s books. It’s not a bad addition to her other ones, though, if you like her.

Next up: The Fault in Our Stars. My vote for best book I’ve read this year so far – just thinking about it is making me smile.
capfox: (Real hardship)
(Programming note: I've fallen a bit behind with reviews, so I'm going to try to do one a day until I get caught up. It's probably good thesis writing warmup, these reviews, anyway. So moving ahead, then...)

New players means new views and new strategies.

Book #24: Monsters of Men
Author: Patrick Ness
Provenance: Borrowed from Westmount Library

Caution: spoilers for The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask and the Answer.

So somehow I managed to hold out on reading this book for a while after reading the Ask and the Answer, with its huge cliffhanger ending of the arrival of the Spackle army in town that leaves so much up in the air, after the big tense showdown with the Mayor at the end of the book.

Actually, that’s not exactly true. I started Monsters of Men right after I read that book, but had to put it down after about fifty pages or so. The structure at the end of the Ask and the Answer, where Todd and Viola start switching viewpoints every couple of pages, is what's used for the entirety of this last book, along with a Spackle viewpoint at the end of each rough section. I thought that this alternating format worked quite well for the thrilling climax of a book, but comes across altogether too breathless when used for the book's entirety. I never felt that I was able to get into Todd or Viola's head the same way, and the voice of the book didn't come together quite as well for me. Some styles really do work better than others.

That said, I did really want to know what happened, and so I did eventually get over my issues with the format, and get into the story. And this concluding book of the trilogy brings us a new set of players: both the indigenous Spackle, returned in full force after the genocide of the remaining prisoners held in Haven after the last war, and the first scout ship of the new colonists, who've come looking for Viola and to see the new planet for themselves. Place alongside these Mayor Prentiss, freed by Todd after the end of the fighting of the previous book to help lead the war effort against the returned Spackle, and Mistress Coyle, still trying to take control of the town, and there's a whole stew of rivalries and shifting, trying to gain the ultimate upper hand, but generally not overtly. Just trying to paint different people in unreasonable lights can carry an argument a long way.

The story that follows, including the shape of the Spackle society and the return of 1017, actually is quite well-constructed, and a worthy end to the trilogy. It's quite thrilling, and I did really settle into the reading rhythm of it. The tension gets ratcheted up and up, if in somewhat similar ways to the previous book. This is perhaps my other problem with the book - the themes from the previous books, and the characterizations, get abbreviated and flattened reprises, alongside the new ones of what it means to be part of a group, how to communicate with others, and what war can do to people. You got the sense in the previous book that the Mayor and Mistress Coyle were more complicated folk than they come across as here, and if you want to argue that's because they're desperate or some such, you can, but I think it still doesn't come off as interesting.

On the whole, though, I did quite enjoy the book - it stays pretty dark, overall, with a relatively ambiguous ending that fits the story, but I really did enjoy it. It's hard to finish off these sorts of trilogies in style, but I think Monsters of Men does quite a good job of it. I'm satisfied with where they ended up... even if I personally wouldn't want to go there. This is a really solid set of books, though; the whole trilogy is worth the time to read, especially since you can snap through them fast once you're in it.

Next up: Dramarama. The travails of a theater camper.
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