Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Secret History

By Donna Tartt
★★★★☆

Four Things I Liked About The Secret History:
1. Secret society
2. College
3. Mystery
4. Suspense

I’ve been intrigued by this book on the Top 100 List for some time now. Maybe it’s the innate fascination with anything “secret,” the compulsion to be included. It’s also set at a college in Vermont, which a) adds to the air of seclusion and mystery and b) have you ever noticed how few novels actually deal with the college years? It’s rather remarkable, considering how romanticized the freedom of those years is. And they’re arguably a period even more fertile for character development than the teenage years. You’d think authors would be all over that! But they’re not.

Anyway. The Secret History opens with the murder of one member of an exclusive group of friends. It then rewinds to the beginning, working its way back to the opening scene, and then spending the rest of the novel detailing the aftermath. The story revolves around an entitled, eccentric, and somewhat depraved group of 5 students who make up one unconventional professor’s elite classics seminar. Richard, the narrator and new arrival to Hampden College, is initially drawn to the group by their heady aura of mystery and sophistication; they were apart from the rest of the student body and also, seemingly, above. He soon learns, however, that they harbor a dark secret, and once he’s involved, there’s no going back…

The Secret History is one of those books that only ever divulge just enough to tantalize you with the promise that the rest is forthcoming, which works well to keep the reader interested, but can also be kind of frustrating. Especially since you never know whose story you can trust or to what extent the narrator is reliable – or mislead himself. This would have been a five star book, but it got a little too wrapped up in itself… like it was so enamored of how interesting it thought itself that it couldn’t tell when it was losing its audience and ought to find a natural way to finish up quickly.

Books Read This Year: 97
Top 100 Progress: 48/100

Looking For Alaska

By John Green
★★★★★

Five Things I Like About Looking for Alaska:
1. Alaska’s “life library”
2. Boarding school
3. Pranking
4. Quotable quotes
5. Realistic romanticism

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of John Green, person and author. I’ve read Looking for Alaska before. But lately my copy has been making the rounds as I’ve been recommending it to uninitiated friends and family, and I started to feel a little sheepish about enthusiastically pressing my copy into other people’s hands while unable to rehash the finer details afterward. So I decided to reread it.

Miles “Pudge” Halter is a bit of a nonentity at his public high school in Florida. With no social life to speak of, the only things he’s got going for him are good grades and a penchant for memorizing the last words of famous people (pretty cool things, true, but not super satisfying to a 16-year-old). In order to seek the “Great Perhaps” that will hopefully add an air of mystery and/or excitement into his mundane existence, Pudge transfers to Culver Creek boarding school for his junior year. There, he meets the manic, alluring, inimitable Alaska Young. Alaska takes Miles by the hand and pulls him into her labyrinth, spins him around until he’s sick from dizziness, then leaves him there to find his way out alone, with nothing but inscrutable riddles of clues – “How will we ever get out of this labyrinth?” “Straight and fast” – to guide him (metaphorically speaking).

A fan of Young Adult literature, I will freely admit that the vast majority of books in the genre pander to the shallow side of young adult taste. Not John Green. John’s books appeal to the adult side of young adults; the side that’s starting to ask existential questions; the side that’s becoming disillusioned in a genuine way (not that angst-ridden “No one understands me” phase that so many teens seem to go through); the side that’s trying to make sense of a world unfiltered by the rosy lenses of childhood as they weather the transition from childlike naiveté to the realities of adulthood without losing hope or becoming wholly disenchanted. John Green introduces teens to the less idealistic adult world without being overly escapist – by introducing fantastical loopholes – or demoralizing – by painting a bleaker picture than necessary.

Conversation Starter: Have you ever had an Alaska in your life? What happened?

Books Read This Year: 94
Top 100 Progress: 48/100

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)

By Mindy Kaling
★★★☆☆

Three Things I Liked About Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns):
1. Girl talk
2. Humor
3. Homebody Hollywood

I haven’t actively followed The Office in two or three years now (though they are all on Netflix instant, and I would love to catch up if I ever find myself with enough spare time to watch 4+ seasons), but when I did, Kelly – played by the funny and talented Mindy Kaling - was one of my favorite characters. I liked her even more when I learned that this lovable ditz was played by someone with Ivy League brains! Smart and funny is always a winning combo in my book. Anyway, so even though I don’t follow The Office anymore, when I learned that Mindy was releasing a book, I knew that I wanted to read it. I wanted to know what this oh-so-likable bundle of contradictions (smart and driven, goofy and fashion-obsessed) had to say. As it turns out: a lot. Mindy is a self-described chatterbox, and somehow, that translates to the page.

Reading Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) is like having one of those long, tangent-ridden gossip sessions with a best friend. It’s fun, witty, a little frivolous – just like a good gossip should be. It was fun to get the scoop on Hollywood from someone who worked her butt off to get there, who is neither jaded nor star struck nor affectedly humble, but simply someone happy and proud to be where she is. She hasn’t lost her excitement over things I’m sure plenty of other stars take for granted (photo-shoots, red carpets, etc.), but she’s also realistic about them, portraying both the glamorous and the not-so-glam. I gave it only three stars, though, because as fun as it was, it felt kind of like it was still in the editing process – late in the editing process, to be sure – but still at that point where the editor might say, “Hey Mindy, this draft is really good. I laughed, I snorted, I sympathized. But I think it needs a little more direction. Let’s see what we can come up with.” And then they would decide that, yeah, maybe there was a little somethin’-somethin’ they could add to make it feel a little more robust, to fill it out around the edges. I’ve got to say, though, that its slimness did suit my purposes perfectly; it was a great book to pick up and set down a little absentmindedly last week. With the impending end of the semester tugging my mind in 5 different directions at once, I had no extra mental faculties to spare for keeping complicated plot lines straight anymore.

Books Read This Year: 98
Top 100 Progress: 48/100

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Inheritance

By Christopher Paolini
★★★★☆

Four Things I Liked About Inheritance:
1. Lord of the Rings-esque war campaign
2. The ancient language/magic
3. Arya
4. Angela the herbalist

And The One Thing I Didn’t:
1. The end

This first part of the review is spoiler free, but for those of you who are planning to read or may conceivably, some time in the future, read Inheritance, I suggest you stop reading after the spoiler alert warning below.

Inheritance is - finally - the final installment of Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle series, which began with Eragon. The series has been rather slow to come to its conclusion. Originally, it was intended to be a trilogy, but in the process of writing the third book, Brisingr, Paolini realized he would not be able to fit everything into just one more installment. Now that the fourth book is out (after a lengthy delay; I had only vague recollections of the previous three books, something that occasionally detracted from my enjoyment of the fourth, and would have liked to re-read the others first but didn’t have time to read three books all in excess of 500 pages on top of my course load), it’s hard to comprehend how he ever thought he could - Inheritance clocks in at 848 pages. Fans of the series are hardly deterred by the book’s girth, however; they probably wish it could have been longer. And while I think that it was best to stop now and avoid drawing it out unnecessarily and risk tarnishing the quality and cohesion of the series as a whole, I do sympathize - Alagaesia is a richly architected and detailed, alluring fantasy setting, and it’s impressive to consider that it was initially imagined by a 15-year-old. Finishing a series that has captured your imagination for the better part of a decade is always bittersweet, and Inheritance was no exception to that rule for me, though it pales in comparison to my reactions to the final Harry Potter release.

For those not familiar, The Inheritance Cycle follows a young man, Eragon, as he stumbles into and then pursues his destiny as a Dragon Rider - one who witnesses the hatching of a dragon, forming a bond between dragon and human (or elf, as the case may be) that grants the rider extraordinary strength and talent, both physical and magical, whom were once responsible for governing the land - the first Alagaesia has seen in almost a century, since the takeover of power-mad former Dragon Rider, Galbatorix. Galbatorix has, over the course of the intervening century, amassed exorbitant personal power and rules as a withdrawn tyrant, enforcing his will with fear and dark, dangerous servants. Eragon and his dragon, Saphira, give the rebel s in Alagaesia the last hope they need to orchestrate an organized force to oppose him, allying all the races of Alagaesia into a single rebel force, known as the Varden: the humans, elves, Urgals, dwarves, dragons, and werecats. Inheritance chronicles the Varden’s final campaign against Galbatorix’s tyrannical reign, culminating in the inevitable face-off between Galbatorix and Eragon, Harry and Voldemort style.

Inheritance reminded me strongly at times of the Lord of the Rings movies. Different races - humans, elves, dwarves, Urgals (like LOTR’s Orks) - from across a fantasy world (Paolini’s Alagaesia, LOTR’s Middle Earth) united to launch an uprising against a single tyrannical power (Galbatorix and Sauron [sp?])… the series do have striking similarities. But I don’t think you can blame modern fantasy writers for being influenced by Tolkien! And Paolini’s Alagaesia is certainly a very distinct, creative, and carefully realized world in its own right. I think it was the focus on the military campaign in Inheritance and the visual of these various magical and non-magical races marching in droves to lay siege on enemy-controlled cities that just struck me as very Lord of the Rings, and that kind of déjà vu made me start noting other similarities. But if anything, I think that just speaks to how vivid Paolini’s narrative really was, that it would conjure up scenes in such clarity that I could associate them with silver screen counterparts.

The conclusion to The Inheritance Cycle was fittingly fraught with danger, excitement, victory and defeat, thrill, surprises and anticipated resolutions. It did not disappoint, except on one account, and that very much a personal sentiment.

**SPOILER ALERT**

I didn’t like the ending, starting with the way Eragon defeated Galbatorix and including his departure from Alagaesia. The whole make-him-understand-the-import-of-everything-he’s-done spell thing just felt way too heavy-handedly noble to me. I wanted there to be some new twist, or for Eragon to tap into some new facet of his power, or even for him not to be primarily responsible - for a while, I wondered whether Elva might not discern Galbatorix’s true name. Instead, in a flurry of chaos and confusion caused by Eragon’s contrived oh-so-noble magically-induced culpability, the inconceivable hulking MASS that is Galbatorix's dragon Shruikan is felled with a single stab administered by Arya without even rising to defend himself, and Galbatorix himself is overpowered. After all the time spent building up how incredibly all-powerful powerful Galbatorix is and how helpless Eragon fares against him even after all he and Saphira’s training, it just seemed much too easy. And then afterwards, when Alagaesia is now ostensibly free for the first time in a century, it’s suddenly much too unsafe for Eragon to settle anywhere within the confines of the land, and incontrovertibly necessary for him to disembark to lands unknown? Why, Paolini, why? I do have to concede, though, that part of my discontent with this particular plot point is my preoccupation with relationships in books. I’ve been rooting for Arya and Eragon since the very beginning, and I hated to see the series end with them being permanently separated just as Arya was finally coming around and softening enough to admit her feelings for Eragon. But it’s not just the romantic relationships - I likewise hated seeing Eragon abandon a happy future surrounded by the friends and family he’d found among the many races across Alagaesia throughout his journey. It was highly dissatisfying to have followed along as these relationships were carefully cultivated throughout the series only for Paolini to have Eragon withdraw, alone, to go settle abroad in the end without the company of any of the people who care about him.

But those are just my personal scruples, forming an easily overlooked blemish on what was otherwise a fitting finale to a wonderful series. And when it comes to disliking the ending, let’s not discount the fact that I was always predisposed to be disgruntled with it, simply for being what it was - the end.

Conversation Starter: If you’ve read any of The Inheritance Cycle, did you follow through to its conclusion? If so, what did you think of the ending?

Books Read This Year: 93
Top 100 Progress: 48/100

The Graveyard Book

By Neil Gaiman
★★☆☆☆

Two Things I Liked About The Graveyard Book:
1. It takes a graveyard to raise a child.
2. The illustrations.

I know I read and review a lot of young adult literature, but this is the real deal - so young adult it’s almost children’s literature, in spite of a title like The Graveyard Book, which sounds much more sinister than you’d expect of your average children’s story. I don’t tend to venture much into the territory of books with ratings of 12+ or lower, as much as my sister may try to persuade me to do so to share her appreciation of series like Percy Jackson. But Neil Gaiman is such a respected figure in the fantasy community - writing for children and adults alike (he’s the author of both Stardust and Coraline) - The Graveyard Book was supposedly a successful crossover story, and I was looking for some lighter reading to do over Thanksgiving break, so I thought I’d give it a try.

One might think, judging this book by its cover - and its title - that a spooky story lies within its pages. One might be right. While his family is murdered by a sinister figure known only as “the man Jack,” a young baby son crawls out of the house before the man Jack reaches his room, then up the hill to a nearby cemetery. There, he is found by a ghost couple who shroud him from the sight of the man Jack, who comes looking for the baby, and then develop such concern and affection for the child that they convince the cemetery ghost community to allow them to adopt him. The Graveyard Book progresses in a series of vignettes characterizing the coming of age of so-dubbed Nobody Owens, human boy raised by ghosts, straddling the physical and spiritual worlds and eventually, allowing his past to catch up with him.

The premise of The Graveyard Book sounds really sinister. And it’s true that the man Jack, with his vendetta against Nobody Owens’s family, is creepy, as are several other scenarios in the book. But somehow, the book manages not to be scary. Obviously, my scare standards are going to be a little bit higher than a child’s - but not by too much, I’d wager! I scare pretty easy. Gaiman softens the spooky factor with a healthy dose of childlike whimsy. The main cause for my low rating is that I just never really got attached to Nobody Owens. Reading The Graveyard Book was kind of like listening to a scary story over a campfire - a little spooky, a little fun, but you’re too distracted by fire and friends and probably s’mores to get too wound up about the actual story. Part of it, too, may have been that it was a little too below my reading level. But that serves to say that perhaps it doesn’t straddle the adult and child audiences as well as it’s said to.

The chapter illustrations were gorgeous, though.

Books Read This Year: 92
Top 100 Progress: 48/101

Monday, November 21, 2011

Life of Pi (Top 100 #48)

By Yann Martel
★★★★★

Five Things I Liked About Life of Pi:
1. Sense of wonder toward universe, in spite of crushing aloneness
2. Richard Parker
3. Truth vs. faith; Truth vs. “the better story”
4. Resiliency of the human body/spirit
5. The writing!

Life of Pi topped the bestseller lists several years ago now. For a long time, I ignored it. I’d heard what the premise was, and it sounded both not my thing and altogether lacking in plot. Last year, though, at one of the sprawling book sale wonderlands I plundered, I wound up buying a copy anyway. At $1, it seemed like a low-risk investment. If I didn’t like it (or never even read it!), well, one dollar wouldn’t exactly empty my pockets. It took me a while to get around to actually reading it, but turns out, that was $1 very well spent.

The premise itself is absurd: a teenage boy, shipwrecked at sea en route from India to Canada, is stranded in the middle of the Pacific sharing his lifeboat with a 450-lb Bengal tiger. Suspend your disbelief long enough to pick up the book and give the first few pages a chance, and I’ll wager you’ll soon get on board (pun intended) with Pi Patel and his unbelievable tale. Pi’s family, who owned a zoo back in India and were transporting several animals - including the great Bengal tiger, Richard Parker - with them on their emigration to Canada, perished in the shipwreck. A zebra, orangutan, and hyena that initially found salvation from the greedy clutches of the sea in the lifeboat with Pi and Richard Parker also perished, at the hands (or rather jaws) of Richard Parker. Much the rest of the novel is devoted to Pi’s survival at sea, the practicalities of his efforts to tame Richard Parker and keep himself and the tiger fed, quenched, and relatively protected from the elements, as well as the more intangible yet equally or even more pressing experiences of unremitting loneliness and loss, and the incredible, improbable wonder that swells in a human heart communing without distraction with the vast and unmitigated power of nature in motion.

The resolution of Life of Pi is beautifully orchestrated, casting into doubt first the veracity of Pi’s narrative and then prodding you to question to what extent it matters. How much do the stories we tell about our experiences reflect truth and to what extent are they woven with fabrication? How much do we script these stories to include the divinity or wonder that cushions us from the harsh realities of the world?  How salient are divinity and wonder in our everyday lives? Is it necessary to suffer in order to remember to recognize and appreciate simple glimpses of universality - in the endless expanse of a starry sky, in the cyclical calm and turmoil of the open sea, in the respectful gaze of a potential predator - that are present in even the most hopeless of moments? These are the kind of questions Life of Pi raises, questions that stop you short and make you attempt to bring ideas too big for one moment into focus in your mind. Working to wrangle those ideas into the forefront of your mind, bit by bit until each piece is clear enough to begin incorporating into the unmanageable whole, is a privileged and ennobling experience.

Conversation Starter: Have you ever experienced a moment in nature, or just life in general, when you were overcome with an absolute, almost tangible awareness of the inherent divine dignity present in the world around you?

Books Read This Year: 91
Top 100 Progress: 48/100

The Da Vinci Code (Top 100 #47)

By Dan Brown
★★★★☆

Four Things I Liked About The Da Vinci Code:
1. Page-turner
2. National Treasure-type intellectual adventure
3. Codes! Spies! Intrigue!
4. History gone wild

I know I’m like really late reading this book; the craze was six or seven years ago. But I was young at the time, too young to read The Da Vinci Code. For a couple years now I’ve been meaning to remedy my lack of Da Vinci Code knowledge, to find out what all the hype is about, and whether the book really lives up to it. The verdict? Yeah, I think it does. The Da Vinci Code’s reputation was for being a fast-paced, enthralling read, for proposing a semi-scandalous alternative church history that made it a blasphemous book in certain circles, though ultimately a harmless hypothetical, FICTIONAL adventure. And that’s exactly what it was.

There’s only so much you can say about the storyline without exposing information that so thrillingly unfolds as you read, so although many of you may already have read this book and are thus immune to spoilers, I will keep my description barebones. The Da Vinci Code is an academic’s adventure through and through. Implicated in the death of Louvre head curator Jacques Sauniere, Harvard scholar and world-renowned symbologist Robert Langdon teams up with cryptologist agent Sophie Arveu to exonerate himself by tracking down the curator’s real killer. Their investigation finds them quickly embroiled in the complicated real-life plot of a fantasy quest -  for the Holy Grail. The Da Vinci Code has everything a good thriller should: a high-stakes scavenger hunt, danger, intrigue, betrayal, romantic tension, scandal… it’s no wonder it was such a runaway bestseller.

You don’t have to believe that The Da Vinci Code’s theories might be true - or even think they could be - for it to be a thought-provoking read on some level. Whatever your reaction to the radical theories proposed in the story, it is interesting to contemplate what would happen if the rediscovery of forgotten, unknown, lost ancient documents were uncovered that caused an upheaval of our current understanding of world history. How would such a fundamental shift in our knowledge of the past change our world in the present? It’s an intriguing thought. Given the right knowledge, that upheaval could be tremendous, to the point of being unsettling to think about. Our history informs who we are today, as individuals and as societies. If that were to change… it would call into question the most fundamental constructs of our identities as human beings, would it not? Another theme that arises in The Da Vinci Code that I think captures people’s fascination is the idea of age-old mystery persisting into our modern era; the romantic notions of scandalous secret societies and dangerous, adventuresome quests that seem confined to the pages of historical fiction - but translated into a modern setting.

The Da Vinci Code isn’t one of the best books I’ve ever read, but it captures the imagination and kept me on the edge of my seat, and I’m a firm believer that those things count for a lot more than certain readers give them credit for.

Conversation Starter: Did you read The Da Vinci Code when it was popular? If so, did it live up to the hype for you? If not, how come?

Books Read This Year: 91
Top 100 Progress: 47/100

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Shine

By Lauren Myracle
★★☆☆☆

Two Things I Liked About Shine:
1. I don’t know I just didn’t…
2. …want to give it only one star.

This book caused a lot of hullaballoo. A few weeks ago, the National Book Award Committee made the 2011 nominee announcements. First Shine was a nominee. Then it wasn’t. Then it was. Then it wasn’t. The explanation? The NBA people messed up. They nominated the wrong book (meaning to nominate a book called Chime instead, which isn’t even that similar), then asked Lauren Myracle to step down and relinquish her nomination - as if it were her fault. Come on, NBA. Get your act together. You’re making the whole industry look bad. And that is not something it needs right now. Anyway, one good thing came out of all the negative coverage - this book is now on everyone’s radar. Well, everyone in the YA community, that is.

The thing is - and I hate to say this, after all the NBA nonsense - I can’t say the NBA made a mistake in not nominating Shine for the National Book Award. They made mistakes and then some in how they handled the situation, sure, but in their essential judgment of the book’s merit? I can’t argue.

With her one-time best friend Patrick comatose as a result of a brutally violent hate crime and not trusting the sleuthing or determination of local law enforcement in her tiny backwoods southern town, Cat takes it upon herself to track down his assailant(s) and bring them to justice.

This book is supposed to be really relevant and controversial for taking on the issue of LGBTQ (did I forget any letters?) discrimination and bullying, but I felt like it really just ended up enforcing the stereotype of bigoted small town minds - especially southern ones - being the intolerant antagonists in the situation. And the proliferation of meth addicts and high school dropouts in the book did nothing to help. I can’t help but feel like it would have been so much more progressive or innovative to have had this story set in a scenario that was more universally real life and less a caricature of itself.

Books Read This Year: 86
Top 100 Progress: 46/100*

*New Goal: Make it to 50 by January 1, 2012!

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Scarlet Letter

By Nathaniel Hawthorne
★★★☆☆

Three Things I Liked About The Scarlet Letter:
1. Characterization
2. Imagery
3. Literary analysis & discussion

Like most people, the first time I read The Scarlet Letter was in high school. Unlike most people, I didn’t hate it. I didn’t like it, but I didn’t hate it. Recently, I re-read it for my American Literature class. I still wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, but I did find more to like. Or perhaps a better word is respect. I can't go as far as to say that reading The Scarlet Letter is an enjoyable experience, but I do enjoy dissecting and discussing its imagery and characterization.

I think just about everyone knows the basic plot-line of The Scarlet Letter, whether they’ve read it or not: Hester Prynne and her daughter Pearl, born out of wedlock, is ostracized by her strict Massachusetts Puritan community and branded with the scarlet ‘A.’ Meanwhile, Hester’s long-absent husband is inopportunely returned just in time to witness her public shame and embark on a vendetta to revenge himself on her concealed partner in adultery.

This isn’t one of those classics that’s secretly a really good read. It’s low on action and rife with long, over-complicated sentences and antiquated formal language. At the end of the day, I would still only recommend it for people who have a critical literary interest in reading it, not the casual reader looking to deepen their acquaintance with the classics.

Conversation Starter: When did you first read The Scarlet Letter? What did you think? Hate? Tolerate?

Books Read This Year: 83
Top 100 Progress: 46/100

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Paradise Lost

By John Milton
★★☆☆☆

Two Things I Liked About Paradise Lost:
1. Finishing it
2. Being able to say I've read it

I have been SO negligent of this blog this year. It's disappointing. I don't like not posting very much. Among other things, I could use the regular writing outlet and practice. But I just... kind of don't have time. Sophomore year has been vastly more time consuming than freshman year. It's all I can do to get my homework done well and in a timely manner, with enough down-time so as not to spiral into a quicksand pit of stress. But I'll do what I can to keep this up! Even though I don't have many readers, this blog is important to me. I like having the record of what I've read and what I've thought about it.

This review is going to be a quickie. I just wanted to get something new up! So. Paradise Lost. Many of you have probably been subjected to this book in either high school or college. That's certainly why I read it, though at times I considered bailing on the effort and succumbing to Sparknotes. (But my academic and bibliophiliac conscience wouldn't let me.) I wanted to give this book one star because it was such a long and unenjoyable slog, but I felt like I shouldn't totally slam it just because it wasn't my taste. I mean, there is some merit to it. Why else would it have withstood the test of time to become one of the most reputable epic poems in the Western canon? Why else indeed.

I feel like I can sum up Paradise Lost in two words: Bible fanfiction. Milton retells the story of Adam and Eve's fall from Eden - starring Satan, and beginning with his fall from Heaven. This poem has everything a good (by which I mean terrible) fanfiction has: sensationalism, revenge, sexual escapades, interpersonal drama not found in the original story... You name it, Paradise Lost has got it. Which is amusing to discuss, but not as amusing as it sounds to read. Milton's language is extravagant and excessively rife with allusions that you may or may not get (in lecture we were told Milton was the most learned man of his time, something which he seems eager to show off), making the poem incredibly dense and arduous to read. His sentences span so many lines that by the end you can't remember what the subject and verb were, and thus have to read the entire thing again.

In short: Not my idea of a good time.

Conversation Starter: Have you ever been subjected to Paradise Lost? If so, what was your experience reading it?

Books Read This Year: 79
Top 100 Progress: 46/100

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Lola and the Boy Next Door

By Stephanie Perkins
★★★☆☆

Three Things I Liked About Lola and the Boy Next Door:
1. Setting – San Francisco!
2. Cameos
3. Friends first

Ugh, again with the ugly cover and the cheesy title. Remember Anna and the French Kiss? Same author. Same packaging problem. If you ask me, Stephanie ought to look into hiring a new designer. (I say this as if the cover is at all within the author’s power, when I’m pretty sure it’s not.) But because I knew what delectable goodness lay within the unappealing exterior of Anna and the French Kiss, I was more than willing to look past the equally off-putting cover of Lola and the Boy Next Door. After all, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. Any kindergartener can tell you that.

Seventeen-year-old Lola lives with her two dads in a lovely old Victorian house in the Castro district of San Francisco. She dresses up head (wigs) to toe in a different costume every day in lieu of “normal” clothes, works in a movie theater, and is pretty sure she’s found The One: a 22-year-old tattooed musician named Max. Her parents disagree. (And who can blame them? Age aside, one mention of Max’s spider web tattoos was enough to make me gag and start the countdown to the inevitable breakup.) Luckily, there wouldn’t be much plot if she were right. Cue Cricket Bell: adorable next door neighbor, childhood best friend, and almost boyfriend until he inexplicably crushed Lola’s feelings and moved away in one fell swoop. Not that she’s harboring a grudge or anything. But two years later when Cricket moves back into the house next door as suddenly as he departed, Lola decides a grudge would be a whole lot easier to handle than the complex poignancy of the rekindled history between them.

Not gonna lie, Lola and the Boy Next Door is exactly what you expect it to be. There are few, if any, surprises. But it is done with more personality and sincerity than many other books of its ilk. It was adorable and satisfying in all the right ways, without losing its dignity or sacrificing depth. Plus it was delightful to see Anna and Etienne again in a new context, and San Francisco was a very fun setting to read about, with the result being that I now really want to go on a trip there. Why aren’t more books set in San Fran?

My qualm: The characters were all more like caricatures than real people. Lola’s costumes, Cricket’s penchant for invention – not to mention being a descendent of Alexander Graham Bell – and his twin sister’s Olympic talent for figure skating, and Max’s semi-successful rock band (of course) all lent a cartoonish air to the story. You would never find all these people together in real life. I think this is the main reason why I wasn't as blown away by Lola and the Boy Next Door as I was by Anna and the French Kiss, though I can't quite put my finger on it. Now that I think about it, though, I guess Anna's characters were somewhat larger-than-life too, but somehow they managed to be so while keeping their authenticity intact; they seemed like real people whereas Lola's characters feel like just that - characters. Nonetheless, the Cricket/Lola development was believable and swoon-worthy, if a tad idyllic. As always, I love how Stephanie’s couples are always first and foremost friends. It’s refreshing. And it makes the eventual relationship ten times more romantic.

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Books Read This Year: 73
Top 100 Progress: 46/100

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Lover's Dictionary

By David Levithan
★★★★☆

Four Things I Liked About The Lover’s Dictionary:
1. Concept
2. Word choice (of the entries)
3. Style
4. Ambiguous narrator

I haven’t loved David Levithan’s books in the past – they’re a bit too over-the-top for my taste – so I tend to shy away from them, but The Lover’s Dictionary caught my attention. First of all, look at that cover. Pretty, right? It’s simple and attractive and well suited to the book. It’s a pity how rare that seems to be these days. But more importantly, I was intrigued by the concept. Levithan’s gender ambiguous narrator tells the story of their relationship in a series of vignettes organized under the headings of various dictionary entries.

I think this is best demonstrated by example, so here’s one of the entries:

basis, n.

There has to be a moment at the beginning when you wonder whether you’re in love with the person or in love with the feeling of love itself. 


If the moment doesn’t pass, that’s it—you’re done. And if the moment does pass, it never goes that far. It stands in the distance, ready for whenever you want it back. Sometimes it’s even there when you thought you were searching for something else, like an escape route, or your lover’s face. 

This is, needless to say, not a typical novel. So don’t pick it up expecting the spoony love story of a deserving heroine and dashing prince charming to play out along a traditional narrative timeline. The vignettes give you a series of glimpses into the details of the narrator’s romance, but the entries are not chronological, and the do not give you a complete picture. But that’s, I would argue, the beauty of The Lover’s Dictionary. The vignettes are steeped in detail, but they are also anonymous. The lovers could be anyone; they could be you. And so it isn’t a story to be read, enjoyed, and re-shelved. Because the story is inherently incomplete, and because the anonymity invites you in to take the narrator’s place, it is more like a field guide on love. The unexpected words Levithan chooses for his entries, and the vignettes that explain them, illuminate facets of relationships in surprising, delightful, and insightful ways.

The Lover’s Dictionary is a quick read. Two hours max, and most likely less. So there’s not much at stake if you give it a chance, which I recommend you do. It’s unique and poetic and relevant. I doubt there’s a person out there over the age of 15 who won’t identify with something in these entries.

Books Read This Year: 72
Top 100 Progress: 46/100

Okay For Now

By Gary D. Schmidt
★★★☆☆

Three Things I Liked About Okay For Now:
1. Jane Eyre, the play
2. Library
3. Voice

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, huh? Oops. Excuse: I’m a month into my sophomore year, and it’s been one hectic month. Settling in, scrambling to polish a couple of essays for contests, catching up on homework, starting a new job… It pains me to admit it, but reading and reviewing kind of fell through the cracks. To ease myself back into it, I’ve been reading “easy” books – young adult, and light adult reads. Which is not to say they haven’t been good reads, too! Easy ≠ not good. Remember that.

Things are a little rough for Doug Swieteck. He’s just moved to a new town, he’s got a chip on his shoulder from his abusive father and it’s giving his teachers and classmates the wrong impression, and his eldest brother is coming home from Vietnam. But there’s also Lil Spicer, the spunky daughter of the grocer who hires Doug to make his deliveries, and the library’s copy of Audubon’s Birds of America paintings, which capture his fascination and make his hand twitch with the movements of a phantom pencil, to make him think that even if things aren’t great, they might be okay. For now.

Doug Swieteck is basically Holden Caulfield as a preteen. He’s got the sarcasm, the disillusionment, the catchphrases – “I’m not lying.” He and the other characters are all richly developed; not even the minor characters are three-dimensional and multi-layered. And Doug’s growth throughout the novel is undeniably heartwarming.

But.

There is just too much in this novel, too many conflicts. Spoiler alert: Doug has an abusive father, a bully-in-training as a brother, his eldest brother lost his legs and his sight in Vietnam, he’s ILLITERATE, and then in the LAST CHAPTER, his best friend/girlfriend Lil Spicer gets some kind of potentially deadly never-specified illness (not to mention all the minor things, like having his prized possession, a baseball cap given to him by a famous player, thrown in a gutter by his brother) Like, seriously? That is too much. I mean, I’m sure there are people out there whose lives suck as much as Doug’s or worse, but the paradox of fiction is that it actually has to be more believable than reality. And I just wasn’t buying the freaking deluge of problems plaguing poor Doug.

Books Read This Year: 70
Top 100 Progress: 46/100

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Summer Vacation Reads

I just got back from this summer’s family trip – to Spain! I’d never been before, and it was remarkable to see how different the culture/architecture/landscape/food is there even from the rest of Europe.  It was an exciting, beautiful, and tasty couple of weeks. But as usual, one of the best things about going on vacation was the time I had to read! On this trip, a lot of it was done in the back of a nine passenger van on winding mountain roads, and I realized for the first time that my ability to read through situations like these is a rarity – one I’m very thankful for! As much as I enjoy listening to my iPod and staring out at the landscape, I really don’t know what I’d do with myself if I couldn’t spend a good chunk of my car time plowing through books.

Anyway, instead of writing a full-length review for each of these four of these books, I thought I’d just write a quick summary and a short blurb about my opinion. Sound good? Excellent.

The Cathedral of the Sea
By Ildefonso Falcones
★★★☆☆

This book was a themed birthday present from my dad. The cathedral of the refers to the Santa Maria del Mar cathedral in Barcelona, and my dad fittingly presented this book to me in a restaurant situated in the shadow of that very cathedral. Cool, no?

The Cathedral of the Sea is basically a novelized history of Barcelona during the time the cathedral was built (in only 60 years, lightning speed by cathedral-building standards). And while learning about the city’s history enriched my visit as I walked the streets and saw the sights discussed in the novel, the attempt to turn a historical account into a novel sometimes felt a little heavy-handed as the main characters – the Estanyol family, primarily Arnau and his adoptive brother Joan – experienced all the horrors medieval Spain had to offer, from the feudal system, food shortages, and slavery to the plague, anti-Semitism, the Inquisition. This book is marketed as a rampant bestseller, and once I’d finished it that kind of perplexed me. The story is interesting and peppered with some moving scenes, the writing is competent, and the pace moves along pretty well, but it isn’t remarkably well written, nor is it some kind of addictive or earth-shattering read. So I’m not sure what exactly caused it to be so supposedly successful.

The Prince of Mist
By Carlos Ruiz Zafón
★★★☆☆

You might recognize the name of this author. He wrote one of my favorite books (and the first book I ever reviewed on this site!), The Shadow of the Wind. My sister actually picked this book up at a bookshop in Barcelona when she ran out of books to read (Rule #1 of traveling: never under pack your reading supply). In The Prince of Mist, Max Carver’s family moves to a small seaside town to escape the dangers of city life during World War II. But instead of finding solace and sanctuary, Max and his sister Alicia learn that fist-sized spiders in the attic aren’t the only sinister secrets their new house holds. The more they uncover about the mysteries surrounding the house’s former occupants and their new friend Roland, the more the chilling figure of the Prince of Mist begins to take shape, and the more they realize they’ve stepped into a waking nightmare – one they can’t escape.

As a story written for pre-teens, The Prince of Mist is nowhere near as sordid, complex, and haunting as The Shadow of the Wind. It’s also a really quick read for anyone who didn’t just hit puberty; I read it in 2 hours. But as you would expect from Zafón, the creepy gets creative, and for a children’s ghost story it’s pretty dang creepy (that being said, it doesn’t take much to give me the heebie-jeebies). Overall, though, I confess myself a little disappointed. Even allowing that it’s written for a younger audience and should therefore be a simpler, less complex story, I finished the book wanting… more.

Daughter of Fortune
By Isabel Allende
★★★★★

Eliza Sommers, adopted Chilean daughter of English siblings Rose and Jeremy, falls in love with a poor clerk with wild dreams. When he catches gold fever and ships off to seek his fortune in California, Eliza, pregnant with his child and tormented by her own fever – the fever of love – follows him. Alone, aside from her friend and savior Tao Chien, in a world of unwashed, uncivilized, and unrelenting men, Eliza adopts the persona of a young man in order to survive and devotes herself to the search for her lost love in a country vast and unexplored, a search that becomes a journey of heart, soul, and identity.

Allende spins a good yarn: richly and vibrantly colored, strong, versatile, and carefully woven with attention to detail. She starts with a series of individual fibers, introduces you to each of them, and then begins winding them together until they make a cohesive whole. Still keeping up with my metaphor? No? Okay. Daughter of Fortune isn’t storytelling like many people are used to – the narrative changes voices and moves through time throughout the story until it slowly catches up to itself in time for the conclusion – but it is storytelling at its finest.

p.s. Is it just me, or does that covergirl look uncannily like Catherine Zeta Jones?

Fishbowl
By Sarah Mylnowski
★☆☆☆☆

I read this book under the impression that it was the novel on which the acclaimed movie Fish Tank (which I haven’t seen, but I thought I might after reading the novel inspiration) was based, by confusing fishbowl with fish tank. Needless to say, it wasn’t. I don’t think any kind of acclaim will ever or should ever come from this book.

Fishbowl is the story of how three 20-something roomies accidentally burn down their kitchen and have to earn $10,000 they don’t have to rebuild it since all of them were too negligent and ignorant to buy insurance, which they do by throwing big boozy parties and holding seminars on getting girls to like you. I’m serious. They’re all incredibly vapid, airheaded, depthless individuals who make poor decisions at every opportunity and have no real interests, talents, or purposes in life. Nor were they particularly entertaining narrators, a la Bridget Jones or Meg Cabot heroines. Just one 300-page waste of time.

Conversation Starter:
What have you been reading this summer? Do you go for the light and fluffy beach reads, or do you use your extra time to tackle the meatier stuff that would be too much to focus on during the year? 

Books Read This Year: 64
Top 100 Progress: 46/100

Forever

By Maggie Stiefvater
★★★★☆

Four Things I Liked About Forever:
1. Lyrical language
2. Red font
3. SamandGrace
4. Minnesota!

I’m not nor ever have been much of one for supernatural fiction, other than a brief Twilight obsession three or four years ago (and what few among us girls of a certain age actually escaped that collective craze?) that pretty much peaked and died with the release of Breaking Dawn. I say this so you know that when I recommend Forever and the entire Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy – about a pack of werewolves living in a forest in Minnesota – you’ll know that it’s actually a deserved recommendation and not the meaningless hype of a girl who spends too much time reading books with moons, fangs, and dark lipstick on the covers.

Forever is the conclusion of a trilogy that began a couple years ago with Shiver, in which Grace, who survived an attack by the local (were)wolf pack in the wooded backyard of her Minnesota home when she was 11 (remember that, it comes back to bite her – heh, heh – in Linger, the second book), had always felt a connection to the wolves in Mercy Falls. But when she meets a boy named Sam with the same ethereal yellow eyes as her favorite wolf, that connection becomes more tangible than she ever expected. Told from the alternating perspectives of Sam and Grace, their romance – with all its implausible canine challenges – is sweet and stirring and poetic, as cozy as a thick sweater on a bitterly cold Minnesotan night. Fast-forward through Sam curing his lycanthropy, Grace succumbing to decade old werewolf venom that was only dormant, never purged, and the addition of several new pack members and narrators in Linger, and you’re pretty much caught up to Forever, minus a couple details here and there.

Forever is not a book you’re going to read if you haven’t read the rest of the trilogy, so I don’t want to go into too much detail. My main purpose in writing this entry is to promote the series as a whole, not one particular book. Forever does what any good trilogy finale should do: it wraps things up, but without doing too neat a job and while still managing to introduce new plot twists, character developments, and conflicts. And it succeeds.

The things I loved about Shiver held true throughout the trilogy, and remain the things I loved about Forever: the lyrical language of Stiefvater’s descriptions, the cozy and heartfelt romance of Sam and Grace, the rich and seamless harmony of setting and story (I loved reading about Minnesota, now being a resident there 9 months a year), the candid – not canned – and characterization, and the anchoring of a decidedly unrealistic story in the unexceptional mundanity of reality. Instead of retreating into some kind of paranormal bubble within reality translucent enough to occasionally glimpse normal life carrying on outside but otherwise mostly impermeable, the characters continue to deal with real-life conflicts even as they’re caught up in their paranormal predicaments. Nor do these books succumb to Disappearing Parent Syndrome, all too common in young adult literature. Stiefvater’s werewolf lore is compellingly realistic, too. Lycanthropy in Stiefvater’s world is a disease – communicable, chronic, and ultimately fatal, but curable, too (by science, not potion-making). And the shifts are triggered by changes in temperature, not the cycle of the moon.

Basically, if you’re a fan of complex characters and realistic conflicts and are turned off by angst and the destructive, all-consuming, inescapable fated love of so many supernatural young adult stories clogging the shelves right now, but value good writing and the occasional creative take on paranormal fantasy, give the Wolves of Mercy Falls a try. If there’s no way you could ever swallow a story about werewolves and humans mingling, steer clear.

Conversation Starter:
Where do you stand on the whole paranormal teen fiction craze? Do you steer clear of it all together, or do you give some of it a chance?

p.s. If you like what you just read, subscribe via email in the bar to the left!

Books Read This Year: 59
Top 100 Progress: 46/100

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

East of Eden

By John Steinbeck
★★★★★

Five Things I Liked About East of Eden:
1. Timshel
2. The slow build
3. Rich and detailed storytelling
4. Evenhanded and thorough characterization
5. Carefully constructed relationships

Steinbeck and I go way back. In 8th grade I read The Pearl and Of Mice and Men, joining my classmates in the thoughtless dismissal of literature a bit beyond our years. When I was a junior in high school, I stayed up later than I ever have before or since to finish a scrapbook-style book report on The Grapes of Wrath (which I managed to like in spite of the indignant loathing inspired by the assignment). East of Eden is the first Steinbeck I’ve read of my own accord which, to be honest, might have as much to do with the fact that this is now my favorite of his works as the novel’s own (prodigious) merit does. Anyone who’s ever been a middle and high school student knows how easy it is to dislike books assigned for class by default, on principle*. Which is a shame, really. Think how many people are wandering around with grudges against perfectly good books simply because they were forced to read them at a formative and obstinate age by teachers who didn’t know how to inspire the right kind of enthusiasm.

But I digress.

If you were to sum up East of Eden in one word, it would be this: Timshel, which means “thou mayest” in Hebrew, and in the novel signifies a man’s freewill to choose between good and evil. East of Eden is laden with biblical imagery (which ought not surprise you, considering the title), but most ubiquitous are the stories of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel, and the question they pose regarding inherited sin – whether it is an inescapable burden or a birthright to either accept or struggle to throw off. Though there are certainly good and evil characters in East of Eden, the categorization is never so simple and definitive. Every character has good in them, and every character has evil. It’s just a question of the resistance (or lack thereof) involved.

More words to describe East of Eden: gripping, powerful, sweeping, moving.

East of Eden follows several generations of two families – the Trask’s and the Hamilton’s – settled in the Salinas Valley in California, as narrated by a member of the (then) modern generation, who I presumed to be John himself. Whether it is or not doesn’t really matter all that much, however, as most of the attention is given to the first three generations: the patriarchs Cyrus Trask and Samuel Hamilton, their children – the two sons of Cyrus (Adam and Charles) and the Hamilton brood – and their children’s children, mostly Adam’s twin sons Aron and Caleb. The story’s heart is Timshel and the age-old conflict between good and evil, and its outward trappings are the conflicts that arise between and within the two families**. Steinbeck’s knack for portraying the minutia of relationships is one of my favorite talents of his. The subtleties of filial, romantic, and platonic love in East of Eden are carefully and poignantly drawn.

I loved just about everything about this story, but a couple more particulars: I loved the way he built the beginning of the story, introducing various seemingly disconnected characters individually before slowly revealing their connections. In a way, you could say that he creates his own particular brand of suspense, furthered by the fact that the story kept me guessing to the very last page, when the full reality and significance of events built throughout the novel slowly but surely sank in. I was also surprised by just how readable East of Eden is for such a dauntingly sizable book. Once you really get going on it, twenty-five pages go by like nothing. It is an easy read both from the standpoint of being much less dense than you might expect, and from being much more engaging than you might expect.

I feel like for all that it is considered a staple Great American Novel, not that many people have actually read East of Eden. I’d guess they take one look at its spine and assume that it is 1) boring and 2) long and boring. And now that I’ve read it, to me that’s a great pity. I think a lot of people would be pleasantly surprised – both by the book and by themselves – if they just gave it a chance.

Books Read This Year: 58
Top 100 Progress***: 46/100

*In fact, I only remember ever really enjoying a handful of books I had to read for school: And Then There Were None, To Kill a Mockingbird, Jane Eyre, Hamlet, The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath.
**I know that’s kind of vague, but with books this big it’s actually quite hard to define a single specific conflict.
***How is this not on the Top 100 list? I think this will be one of the few times I will ever say this, but: Stupid BBC and their blatant anglophilia.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing

By Melissa Bank
★★★☆☆

Three Things I Liked About The Girls’ Guide:
1. The form
2. The story in second person
3. The namesake story

I thought this was a novel. When I picked it up at a recent book sale, I thought it was a novel. 200 pages into it, I thought it was a novel.

It’s not a novel. Not exactly. The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing is actually a collection of short stories – all about the same person, and following a general and traceable timeline true to novel form – but a collection of short stories nonetheless. They each have unique titles and they could each stand alone if need be. One of them is told in second person, while the rest are narrated in detached first person. The timelines, while generally linear, does jump around some. There’s no typical novel story arc (exposition, conflict, climax, conclusion), but a series of rising and falling actions – similar to real life, actually.

The stories in The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing detail the trials and errors of one Jane Rosenal’s forays into adulthood, navigating the familiar maze of working, love, and familial life that only seems to complicate with age. The Guide begins with an episode from Jane’s late teens, observing adulthood from the outside looking in on a visit from her brother Henry and his latest girlfriend, and progress to see her following in the footsteps of him and her Aunt Rita as a publishing assistant while making her first stabs at adult romance. Jane’s narration is pretty detached almost to the point of objective, which is a style of voice that seems particularly common in short stories, but which always has the effect of making me feel apathetic toward the characters. I’m sure Bank intended the detached voice (not to mention the name “Jane”) to imply that the character and her experiences aren’t unique, but are universal to a generation of women, but the way I see it is that if Jane can’t be bothered to care too much about her problems, why should I?

That being said, The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing did have its astute observations and minute characterizations, and some creative moments in the narrative. Like I said, I enjoyed the story narrated in the second person, as well as the namesake story which had Jane meeting a promising new suitor and almost mucking it up by following the advice of a dating self-help book. But somehow Jane’s experiences came off a little too generic, and I just couldn’t get invested. I like to be invested.

Books Read This Year: 57
Top 100 Progress: 46/100

Friday, July 8, 2011

Speaking with the Angel

(Edited) By Nick Hornby
★★☆☆☆

Two Things I Liked About Speaking with the Angels:
1. Colin Firth as a writer
2. Story from Prime Minister’s perspective

Speaking with the Angel is a collection of short stories by prominent modern authors (mostly British, including good old Helen Fielding of Bridget Jones fame) edited by British novelist Nick Hornby. I picked it up at a gigantic book sale held by Half-Price Books for only $1. I consider reading to be one of the best ways to practice writing (the best being, of course, actually writing), so I thought that perhaps reading some short stories would spark some inspiration for writing my own. Whether or not that succeeded remains to be seen…

I have mixed feelings about this book. I started out liking it – there were several nice stories, such as one about a Prime Minister who through a series of small decisions accidentally ends up running away from his security escort and creating a dubious situation – but somewhere around the halfway point they dissolved into everything that so often annoys me about short story writing. Why is it that, when they sit down to write a short story, writers feel the need to resort to filthy language, vulgarity, and shock value in order to produce something “significant” or “powerful” that will leave an impression on the reader? Wouldn’t it be more impressive to accomplish those things without resorting to crudeness? That tendency to be crude in order to be edgy or incisive or whatever just disappoints me and makes me lose all respect for the writer and what they’re trying to accomplish.

It was interesting to read something written by Colin Firth, though.

Books Read This Year: 56
Top 100 Progress: 46/100

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Bridget Jones (Top 100 #46)

By Helen Fielding
★★★☆☆

I just finished reading Bridget Jones’s Diary and The Edge of Reason consecutively, so I thought I’d do a joint review, since they’re kind of a package deal. As sequels generally are.

Three Things I Liked About Bridget Jones:
1. British-ness (slang, behavior, etc.)
2. Diary form
3. Secondary characters

Bridget Jones’s Diary

Believe it or not, this is actually on the Top 100 list, an accolade I don’t exactly agree it deserves and which I can only explain by a) acknowledging that it is a heavily British biased list and b) surmising that they wanted to include something modern and light to contrast the denser, darker material and prove that their literary heyday has not passed but they are, in fact, still producing worthy works of literature. Which I don’t doubt! But I’m not convinced Bridget Jones’s Diary was really the best example they could have chosen. Ah, well.

Bridget is a 30-something Singleton living in London, working in an entry-level publishing job and crushing on her boss. She’s supposed to be the hilarious mouthpiece of The Average Woman, worrying about her weight and how much she drinks (both of which she tracks in daily tallies before each entry) and her parents’ craziness and whether she’ll be single forever and die alone in her flat to be discovered by an Alsatian*, but I didn’t exactly identify with her all that much. Maybe because I’m not a 30-something, but I suspect I am simply just not a Bridget Jones kind of girl. Anyway, her escapades and daily dilemmas range from the frivolous to the completely over-the-tip, as do the appearances of the supporting cast: her mother and her mother’s boy toy Julio, her boss/sometimes boyfriend Daniel Cleaver, her potentially crazy friends, her frenemy Rebecca, and more. Actually, come to think of it, just about everyone in Bridget’s world has a screw or two loose. That’s what makes the whole thing almost campy in its outrageousness.

Also, I have to say it, you know I do: That is the most hideous eyesore of a cover I have ever seen, hands down.
The Edge of Reason

The Edge of Reason picks up four weeks after Bridget Jones’s Diary left off, and in it Bridget’s story becomes, if possible, even more ludicrous and over-the-top. I’m talking mother’s human souvenir from trip to Kenya. I’m talking an interview with Colin Firth**. I’m talking gaping hole in apartment wall covered with plastic for 6 months. I’m talking Thai prison. I’m talking amateur death threat. And I’m totally serious. All in one book.

Basically, The Edge of Reason is more of the same. I mean, I know sequels are by nature a extension of the original story (duh), but in this case the two could literally be combined seamlessly into one volume.

Overall, Bridget’s offbeat personality, over-the-top escapades, and zealous fretting about herself and her relationships based largely on the advice of self-help books makes her enjoyable like that friend you find amusing in small doses but who becomes exasperating and immature with overexposure.

*I am not sure what an Alsatian is. If you know, please fill me in.
**I found it delightfully ironic that Bridget would spend so much of the novel obsessing about Colin Firth as Pride and Prejudice's*** Mr. Darcy, when the Bridget Jones movie adaptation of one Mr. (Mark) Darcy is played by said actor. I hope that was done on purpose.
***Link to famous BBC Pride and Prejudice lake scene, so beloved by Bridget and her gang.

Books Read This Year: 55
Top 100 Progress: 46/100

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Uncommon Criminals

By Ally Carter
★★☆☆☆

Two Things I Liked About Uncommon Criminals:
1. Casing
2. The names of different jobs

I’m going to keep this short, since this is actually a sequel and, well, it doesn’t really merit a lengthy review.

The Heist Society series stars 15-year-old Katarina Bishop: teenage girl, daughter, and international art thief. I like stories about intelligent crime (See: Ocean’s 11, Catch Me If You Can, etc.) and I like fun novels. Ergo, I loved the first installment of the Heist Society series - titled simply enough, Heist Society - which was basically Ocean's 11 turned into chick lit.

Katarina comes from a family of professional thieves and was born and raised with the instinct and know-how to become one of the best thieves in the business by her ripe old age of 15. In Heist Society she uses her ample skill and expertise to pull a job on the most high-security museum in London, along with the help of her equally teenage team of cousins and a naturally crushable best friend, Hale. Since then, she’s been globetrotting on a quest to steal back stolen items and return them to their rightful owners. Uncommon Criminals sees Katarina approached with a near impossible target: the Cleopatra emerald. But when the soaring rush of success stalls into an unplanned free-fall of failure, it seems that stealing the emerald is only the beginning.

As a fun, frivolous read, I loved Heist Society. Uncommon Criminals, however, failed to live up to even its own expectations. Its flaws were many, but my main criticisms were as follows: 1) the plot is chaotic and disjointed and hangs together well only if you are some kind of literary trapeze artist willing to leap from scene to scene with only the trust that Carter will have left something for you to catch on to again as you fly through the air, and 2) in another book, cool things could have been done with Katarina’s character, making her morally ambiguous – is stealing still wrong if it makes other wrongs right (Robin Hood style)? -  but of course under Carter’s direction there was hardly an acknowledgment of right verses wrong, much less the fascinating grey area in between. Also, considering she’s a 15-year-old international thief, Katarina fell kind of flat as the protagonist. I was vaguely irritated with her throughout the book, which detracted from the pleasure of reading – and that’s all I wanted from Uncommon Criminals: pleasure. But I finished unsatisfied on that score.

Conclusion: I'm not sure I would even recommend it to fans of Heist Society.

Books Read This Year: 53
Top 100 Progress: 45/100

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Three Musketeers (Top 100 #45)

By Alexandre Dumas
★★★★☆

Four Things I Liked About The Three Musketeers:
1. D’Artagnan
2. Paris
3. The valets
4. Intrigue! Sword fighting! Plotting!

I generally try to start my reviews with a little bit of backstory, but in this case, there isn’t really any backstory to give. The Three Musketeers was one of those books that ended up on my “Obviously I’m going to read this” list rather by accident. It’s one of the Top 100, I liked Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, and it’s fat – perfect for my summer of brick-thick books (previously: Atlas Shrugged, up next: War & Peace and East of Eden).

Considering what a fixture The Three Musketeers is in our working cultural knowledge, I’d wager that very few people are actually familiar with the story. For example, contrary to what you might assume from the title, The Three Musketeers stars one recklessly brave young man named d’Artagnan, who is in fact not a musketeer at all – at least not at the beginning. D’Artagnan comes to Paris with a letter of introduction from his father to M. de Tréville, captain of King Louis XIII’s musketeers, seeking to make a place for himself in the world. Having lost his letter in an altercation en route to Paris, the interview fails to install him as a musketeer, but does earn him a position as a guard, as well as facilitating his fateful first meeting with the three musketeers who become his most faithful friends: Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. D’Artagnan quickly adapts to city and military life, and in almost one fell swoop manages to fall in love and become embroiled in the rich political turmoil of the time, caught between the king, the queen, the cardinal (Richelieu), and the beautiful but deadly Lady de Winter.

The Three Musketeers is, more than anything else, a tale of adventure. But it is not just a tale of adventure. For us, it serves as authentic historical fiction, though it was not written as such at the time. It’s also part romance, part political portrait, and part 17th century chivalric code. But my favorite aspect, I think, was the characterization. As canned as the expression sounds, d’Artagnan really does jump off the page. He’s impulsive, passionate, loyal, and eager to prove himself. His friends Athos, Porthos, and Aramis are equally well developed; none of them are simply stock soldiers. Athos harbors a dark past, Porthos is a good-hearted hedonist who revels in good wine and good company, and Aramis continually professes that he “is only a musketeer temporarily” until he takes his monastic orders. The four friends also each have a personal valet, none of which fade into the background of the story but have their own distinct personalities and roles to play in the novel. That can be said of just about every character in The Three Musketeers. Even when someone only appears in a few scenes, and with minimal physical description, it is very easy to imagine them as a real character, in the dictionary definition sense of the word: “the combination of traits and qualities distinguishing the individual nature of a person or thing.”

Reading The Three Musketeers, it was easy to picture it as a movie, especially the summer blockbuster/family action flick variety of humor, romance, good-hearted bravado, and lots of sword-fighting fun. Of course, I’m not the first to have this impression – The Three Musketeers has been adapted to the silver screen any number of times, the most recent of which is coming out this fall. I’m not sure how high my hopes are, though, even though I think Logan Lerman – who I cast as Jacky Faber’s beau, Jaimy Fletcher, in an earlier post – makes a perfect d’Artagnan. I mean, there’s a clip of boat flying over the Louvre. How true an adaptation can it really be when there are flying boats involved? Also, it's in 3D. I like 3D about as much as I like Kindles.

Random fact: The novel takes place back when the Louvre was still a palace, and I constantly had to remind myself of that as I read. Nowadays, it’s really weird to think of the Louvre as anything but a museum, and stranger still to think of anyone actually living there.

Books Read This Year: 52
Top 100 Progress: 45/100

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Sisterhood Everlasting

By Ann Brashares
★★★★☆

Four Things I Liked About Sisterhood Everlasting:
1. Reuniting with old fictional friends
2. Location, location, location
3. Getting it right
4. Quick, enjoyable Atlas Shrugged detox

I am kind of perplexed as to why this book exits. Why did Ann Brashares feel the need to forcibly extend a series that had already reached a satisfyingly open-ended conclusion? Especially when this new book doesn’t appear to have been written with a specific audience in mind: It’s not really an appropriate companion novel for the first four, being very much an adult novel, not young adult as they were; nor will it appear to adult readers who haven’t read the original (young adult) series.  And especially when continuing the series meant XXXXXXXXXXXXXX. Well, I can’t tell you what it meant, because that would ruin a crucial plot point and element of surprise in the book. And I hate plot ruiners! (Ruiners can be a word if I say it is.) Suffice to say that something BIG and (in relation to the first four books, and in my opinion) unnecessary goes down in order to pave the way for this fifth installment.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series was a fixture on my teen and preteen bookshelf, right next to The Princess Diaries and Bloody Jack. So despite some exasperation with Ann for continuing the series in an obvious ploy to reach out to her old (and probably somewhat diminished since the series “ended”) readership, I must admit I was pretty pleased by the prospect of reuniting with Lena, Tibby, Carmen, and Bridget. And, in spite of XXXXXXXXXXXXXX, I was not disappointed.

As it says on the cover, Sisterhood Everlasting picks up 10 years after Forever in Blue left off. Not that much has changed. Sure, Carmen is a successful TV actress living in New York and engaged to be married to a TV producer, Bridget is living with Eric in San Francisco, and Tibby moved with Brian to Australia two years ago, while Lena – ever static – hasn’t left Providence or RISD but has taken a professorship there and continues to pine after Kostos, but the problems they’re facing are virtually just slightly grown up versions of what they dealt with before. They’ve also felt steadily more out of sync ever since they all scattered on the winds after losing their lease on the flat they shared in New York after graduation. Good thing Tibby sends them all tickets out of the blue for an impromptu reunion trip to Greece! Or so they think. It turns out XXXXXXXXXXXXXX happens in Greece and turns their already precariously organized lives topsy-turvy. In the aftermath, the girls struggle to come to terms with XXXXXXXXXXXXXX, each other, and themselves.

The danger of writing a book like Sisterhood Everlasting is tying up satisfyingly loose ends into too neat of knots. Fortunately, Sisterhood Everlasting frays enough more ends to require plenty of its own re-tying. (Whether those ends really needed fraying is another discussion.) As I said, one of the best things to recommend this book is the prospect of once again enjoying the company of Lena, Tibby, Carmen, and Bridget. So although the end (predictably) comes together pretty neatly and as a stand alone novel this would only merit about 3 stars, as long you’re a fan of the series, I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy the trip down memory lane.

Comment Questions:
1) If you’ve read the series, which sister was your favorite, or which did you most identify with? Mine was Lena, as much as her inertia frustrated me.
2) Will you read Sisterhood Everlasting, or are you over this series?

Books Read This Year: 51
Top 100 Progress: 44/100

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Atlas Shrugged

By Ayn Rand
★★★★★

Five Things I Liked About Atlas Shrugged:
1. Francisco D’Anconia
2. Brotherhood of Hugh Akston’s 3 favorite pupils
3. “Who is John Galt?”
4. Dagny Taggart
5. Disappearances of the “prime movers”

My copy of Atlas Shrugged clocks in at 1,069 pages. It took me about 10 days to read, at a rate of approximately 100 pages a day. It is not a novel for the faint of heart, that’s for sure. It is a significant undertaking of time and mind, not something to be picked up on a whim. You kind of have to be mentally prepared for the endurance and discipline it will take to push through those thousand pages – and that’s if you like the book. I can’t imagine the willpower it would take to see the story through to the end if you weren’t enjoying it.

Happily, I enjoyed it. But during the first half, this was little consolation, as I had heard several reports of undergoing a change of heart at the halfway point. My uncle, for example, spoke of making it halfway through only to get so aggravated that he threw the book away. One of my friends also made it halfway before turning on the characters and finishing it only out of stubbornness. I didn’t experience this change of heart, however; I liked it all the way through. Well, with the exception of a certain speech made by a certain John Galt that drags on for a certain 60 pages. But other than that.

Atlas Shrugged is actually a mystery novel, you might be surprised to learn. It is a mystery novel that investigates the question “Who is John Galt?” which people have begun using as a “who knows?” substitute, without realizing they are asking a real question. The answer to “Who is John Galt?” however, is much more than one man’s identity. “Who is John Galt?” answers what happens to society when its “prime movers” (the men and women who keep society in motion) withdraw from the world; what happens when one man promises to “stop the motor of the world”; what happens when society’s leaders direct everyone to cease thinking or desiring, to sacrifice self and thought to the “collective good.”

If you read the back cover summary of Atlas Shrugged, it’s incredibly vague, providing no real sense of what the story is about. I think that’s because the novel, at its heart, isn’t about character or plot, but about abstractions – ideas and archetypes and philosophies. But to provide a more concrete conception of what story to expect if you take on the commitment that is Atlas Shrugged, I’ll try to sum up the basic premises of the plot. Bear with me. A thousand pages is a bit unwieldy to condense into a paragraph.

Dagny Taggart decides as a child that she will grow up to run Taggart Transcontinental, the railroad empire her grandfather founded – and she does. Atlas Shrugged is, simply put, an epic devoted to Dagny’s struggle to preserve the integrity of the railroad that, as the single driving purpose in her life, is her life. In her efforts to save Taggart Transcontinental from ruin, Dagny must combat at every turn the directives of an unthinking government leading society into a tailspin of collective and destructive altruism, and take down the one man she holds responsible for the disintegration of industry via the unthinking apathy of society expressed in the phrase “Who is John Galt?” and the steady disappearance of industry’s main players under the influence of the ‘destroyer’: John Galt.

Even among those who enjoyed Atlas Shrugged, general opinion seems to favor The Fountainhead (and not just because it's shorter). Maybe it’s because I’ve read Atlas Shrugged more recently, but I actually liked it better. I think I found the novel’s larger lens and mystery slant more engaging (and engaging is key when you’re looking at a quadruple-digit page count). There also seemed to be some more diversity in the characters, especially among the protagonists. The Fountainhead’s protagonist – Howard Roark – was the apotheosis of Rand’s ideal man, a symbol more than a real person. His equivalent in Atlas Shrugged, however, is not Dagny Taggart, but John Galt, who only appears in the last third or so of the book. As Atlas Shrugged’s protagonist, Dagny is somewhat more nuanced in her personification of Rand’s philosophy. Though the essential attributes are there from the beginning, it takes the entire novel for her to become an epitomized Randian heroine, and the fact that she does not start out a perfect archetype but becomes so on a 1,000-page journey makes her more relatable, as well as making her story more interesting because it involves not just external conflict but personal.

Ayn Rand's novels are meant to establish a society-wide economic philosophy, but you can just as well take away from them an individual philosophy, a philosophy which says: "Do what you want, because you want to; live your life on your own terms, for your own sake." That philosophy really resonates with me, and - much more than the economic theory - is why I like her novels so much.

"If you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down on his shoulders—what would you tell him to do?"

"To Shrug."

Books Read This Year: 49
Top 100 Progress: 44/100

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Help

By Kathryn Stockett
★★★★★

Five Things I Liked About The Help:
1. Camaraderie between the maids. 
2. Characters & characterization.
3. Storytelling, of the story and in the story.
4. Love tangential to hate.
5. The feeling I got while reading it.

I was skeptical of The Help, as I am of any book that makes a run of the soccer-mom-book-club circuit, or makes an appearance on Oprah’s bookshelf. The Help became so trendy so fast, in fact, that although it was only released in 2009, it already has a feature film adaptation coming out this August. Do you know how fast that baby must have gone into production? Super, duper fast. Faster than Twilight fast.

But. BUT. It was actually good. 

The Help is told from the perspective of three different women. Two of them – Aibeleen and Minny – are household maids for white women, polishing their silver, cooking their food, and raising their babies; the other, Miss Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, is a young white aspiring writer. When Skeeter is told by a New York publisher that she needs to come up with something innovative to write about, she toys with the seed of an idea – a dangerous, daunting, and bravely provocative idea. She decides to compile a book of interviews with colored maids about their white employers, some of which are Skeeter’s closest friends. But even if Skeeter can succeed in convincing maids to tell a white woman the truth and manage to get the book both written and published, her problems will only be just beginning. Because in Jackson, Mississippi, a secret like this won’t stay hidden forever, and when the truth comes out, you can be sure it’s going to turn the town upside-down and make its inhabitants as hot as a Mississippi kitchen in August. 

The Help felt really reminiscent to me of The Secret Life of Bees, which I’m sure has a lot to do with the subject matter, but I think also a lot to do with the tone: heartfelt and warm, despite the cold cruelty of segregated southern life. One of the ways The Help achieved this warmth was by suffusing the story with love – love between the maids and their families, love between the maids and the white children they raise, love between the maids and their unlikely ally, Miss Skeeter, and even, sometimes, love between the maids and their employers. Stockett was painstaking in her portrayal of her characters and the varying kinds of relationships that tied them together. The relationships between the maids the white children that adored them until they grew up to become their parents with their parents’ beliefs was heartbreaking, the supportive relationships amongst the colored community were heartwarming, and the relationships between the colored community and the whites that abused them was just plain infuriating. These relationships are all navigated carefully to avoid stereotypes, and no character is either wholly good or bad*. The story also avoids getting overly caught up in the racial conflict, leaving room to explore the flaws in Skeeter’s world, too – her relationship with her mother, her on-and-off first boyfriend, her future, and herself.

One of the striking things about The Help was the time period. Reading about the hostile racism and segregation, my mind subconsciously conjured up an image of pre-1900 America, simply because the social climate felt so different from my experience of today that it felt like it belonged to another century altogether, but then Stockett would throw in some detail – the recent introduction of air conditioning, To Kill a Mockingbird’s release, the Kennedy assassination – that anchored the story where it belongs: in the 1960’s, only 50 years ago.

Another striking thing – an example of the deep-seeded hypocrisy rampant amongst the southern whites that really resonated with me – was when Skeeter points out the hypocrisy of the Junior League raising money for the Poor Starving (black) Children of Africa when they won’t even pay their own black maids, with plenty of little mouths of their own to feed, minimum wage.

The Help was a lovely surprise. A resonant story that manages to be both critical and heartfelt at the same time, it is as much an enjoyable read as it is a candid portrayal of one of the more shameful periods of our country’s history. However, though the portrayal is not a forgiving one, neither does it flatly condemn everything about that time, including as it does many nuanced moments of tenderness between the help and the women they work for. 

*I was going to say that there’s no strict black and white… but then I realized that it would be a not entirely appropriate accidental pun.

Books Read This Year: 48
Top 100 Progress: 44/100