Sunday, February 27, 2011

Before I Fall

By Lauren Oliver

Two Things I Liked About Before I Fall:
1. Thinking about appreciation for the simplest and most important things in your life.
2. Butterfly effect.

I didn’t like this book. I thought it was inexpertly and unsubtly written – the themes and morals were heavy-handed to an extreme, holding up signs that read, “Look at me! I’m important and meaningful!” in sloppy black sharpie – and the characters, oh boy. Talk about unsympathetic.

Samantha Kingston is your average* high-school girl: she skates along in her classes, has 3 best friends and a boyfriend she’s crushed on since middle school, overcame her un-cool former self, and spends her weekends at parties with the high-school upper crust. Everyone envies her, her life is perfect**, yadda yadda … And then in one split-second on the ride home from a typical Friday night, her life as she knows it comes to an end – literally. That is, until she wakes up again in the morning. Now Sam has seven chances to relive her last day, to untangle the knot of actions and inactions that led to that last moment, and make sense of a senseless tragedy.

This is one of those books where you’re supposed to grow with the character as they learn what makes life beautiful and how to be a better person. Okay, fine. I often like those books – even love them. The problem is that the whole book aimed to add substance to a character that was by nature substanceless, a collection of stereotypes more than an actual person.

Perhaps you think I am not being fair. Perhaps you’d like more evidence.

Samantha and her best friends Elody and Ally are basically the minions of their ringleader, Lindsey, and are apparently so grateful to have been chosen into popularity that they’ll follow Lindsey’s every whim, no matter how reckless or shallow or even cruel, no questions asked. Samantha’s transgressions range from the (relatively) minor: isolating herself from her family, ignoring the (wonderful) boy who’s been in love with her since the 3rd grade, dating an (decidedly un-wonderful) idiot just because he’s hot and popular, and belittling underclassmen and peers alike; to the contemptible: frequently skipping class, smoking and drinking, and flirting with her math teacher; to the unforgivable: relentlessly tormenting a girl to the point of suicide because of some vendetta Lindsey has against her, without ever questioning why.

The kicker? Samantha closes the prologue with the line, “Is what I did really so much worse than what anybody else does? Is it really so much worse than what you do?”

Well, yes, actually. Yes it is.

Uggghhh. I know I’m supposed to sympathize with these characters – I mean, Samantha’s dead, after all, and via a means I wouldn’t wish on anyone – but they’re just so inherently clichéd and unlikeable that instead of sympathizing I just thought, “You brought this on yourself.”***

* Read: Generically stereotyped popular girl with "Real Thoughts" and "Substance" buried deep down under her cruel and conformist façade.
** Rule #1 of character development: never, ever tell me your character is perfect. Seriously. It will turn your readers against you and undermine every attempt you make to give the character substance later.
*** And she did; misdeeds aside, Samantha’s fatal mistake was being stupid enough to get in a car with a drunk Lindsey at the wheel, who’s a dangerous driver even when she’s sober. I mean, come on. It’s sad, of course, but it wouldn’t have happened if she’d made better choices. I get so mad when people end up throwing their life away for stupid things like underage drinking.

Same Story, Different Review:

Books Read This Year: 18
Top 100 Progress: 38/100

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

By Alan Bradley

Two Things I Liked About Sweetness:
1. Flavia’s extensive morbid knowledge of poisons.
2. Flavia’s bike named Gladys.

You know those books you pick up every time you’re in a bookstore, read the back blurb, ponder, and then ultimately put back down? Sometimes, when you finally give in and buy it, you kick yourself for not having done so earlier because it so exceeds your expectations. Other times, it falls as flat as you feared it might. This book falls into the latter category for me.

It seemed promising enough: Flavia de Luce is an eleven-year-old mad chemist with a specialty in poisons. She lives in an old English manor house in the 1950’s with her father and her two older sisters, Ophelia and Daphne, and has a penchant for the dramatic. Much to her delight (“I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.”), she finds a man sprawled in the garden and witnesses his last breath as the sun rises the morning after a dead bird showed up on their doorstep, a stamp mysteriously pierced on its beak. Flavia determines the two events must be connected, and she’s not going to relent until she finds out how.

It seemed promising enough, but… I don’t know. There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with it (except for an annoying overuse of nicknaming; case in point: Ophelia became ‘Feely’). It just didn’t excite me. It lacked that essential and difficult to define spark necessary to really kindle my interest. Flavia should have been spunky and fresh and engaging. She didn't quite succeed. The mystery should have been quirky and suspenseful and engrossing. It wasn't. The whole thing was better as an idea, as the possibility contained in the promise of a black cover blurb.

See? I can’t even get worked up enough to carry on about it in an impassioned and detailed bad review. I’m just… eh, apathetic about it.

Books Read This Year: 17
Top 100 Progress: 39/100

Monday, February 7, 2011

Never Let Me Go

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Five Things I Like About Never Let Me Go:
1. The pervasive aura of bittersweet nostalgia.
2. The quiet, melancholic beauty of the prose, reminiscent of English countryside.
3. The dynamics between Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth.
4. The setting.
5. It lingers.

I saw the movie adaptation of this book last fall at the arts cinema close to my house. It was gorgeous, a poignant, somehow bittersweet tragedy. I say tragedy, and I suppose that’s true – it is tragic – but tragedy seems like too… I guess too loud a word to use. Even though the story’s sad, it’s never brazen with its sadness. The sadness creeps up on you, like a high tide coming in, building and building. And then it washes out, leaving behind the empty stretch of sand.

The book is the same way, but better (of course) because it’s more stretched out. Not by there being more to the story, but just by nature of it being a book – it’s unlikely you’ll read it in a single sitting, so the story stretches out over several days, waiting patiently in a pocket of your mind until you pick it up again. And even when you do finish the book, like I said, it lingers.

Never Let Me Go is a story woven of Kathy H.’s memories of growing up at a place called Hailsham in the English countryside with her best friends Ruth and Tommy. It’s like boarding school – the students live in dorms separated by gender and age, they go to lessons, they spend lazy afternoons playing games on the lawn, and they weather the ups and downs of their relationships with their peers. Yet the students are aware, without ever thinking too carefully about it, that they at Hailsham are special. The Hailsham children will grow up to be donors, in an alternate world where cloning is a successful cure to humankind’s incurable killers. Their fate is inevitable, but as they leave Hailsham on the cusp of adulthood (and with it, donations), Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth begin to question things about their time at Hailsham – how they submitted artwork to win a place in a special gallery, how certain topics had an unspoken taboo – and what role they might play in truth of certain rumors circulating amongst Hailsham graduates, rumors of deferral. Never Let Me Go is partly a science-fiction novel, partly a novel about the ties of love and friendship and shared experience, partly a novel about growing older and entering “real life”, and even partly a novel about ethics. But mostly it’s a novel about the human soul.

Though essentially linear and never hard to follow, the narrative moves fluidly backwards and forwards in time throughout the novel, much like the meandering memory process it mimics. I think this tone is one of the things that makes the mournful poignancy of Never Let Me Go so calm and understated without subtracting from its impact – instead of being inundated with the acute flares of emotion aroused by the events as they happened, the reader experiences the contemplative reflection of someone recalling their life knowing their time is soon and realizing that regret will only embitter the memories they have left.

Ah. I can’t go on and do it any justice. Just read it. And then see the movie. Not necessarily in that order – for once I can see a benefit in reversal, in gleaning the visual mood from the movie before reading the book.

Books Read This Year: 12
Top 100 Progress: 39/100

Friday, February 4, 2011

Real Live Boyfriends

By E. Lockhart

Three Things I liked about Real Live Boyfriends:
1. Clever footnotes.
2. Ruby using Tums as pebbles at her boyfriend’s window.
3. Adorable and witty rapport with said boyfriend, including dates planned by the ‘Mutual Admiration Society.’

I have a running list in my head of fictional characters I’d like to befriend* and Ruby Oliver definitely makes the cut.  A vegetarian film buff and perpetual list-maker who lives on a houseboat in Seattle, has a personal dress code of fishnets and vintage dresses, overanalyzes everything, and hums heavy metal to ward off anxiety attacks that flare up when she’s stressed, Ruby is a little too quirky to quite fit in at Tate Prep, the private school she attends on scholarship. To earn spending money, she works in a zoo mucking animal stalls (while discussing life, love, and the pursuit of happiness with her favorite pygmy goat, Robespierre) and in a shoe store where she sells Birkenstocks to hippies with horrid feet. Oh, and she’s on an ongoing mission to consume the ultimate deliciousness in cake form. Don’t you like her already?

This is the fourth installment in Lockhart’s Ruby Oliver quartet. It’s the summer before senior year, and Ruby’s relationship with her new Real Live Boyfriend Noel is perfection… until it’s not. Noel comes back from a trip to visit his brother in New York subdued and uncommunicative, refusing to admit anything’s wrong. The strain causes them to fall out and Ruby must continue her senior year (including making a documentary for her film school applications, dealing with her erratic and eccentric parents, attending her shrink appointments, and repairing an old friendship) alone. Will Ruby survive senior year while sorting out the chaos that is her life? Will she learn to control her panic attacks? Will she work things out with Noel? And most importantly, will she achieve success in her pursuit of deliciousness? Your guess is as good as mine**.

In my opinion, there’s a fine line between amusingly quirky and outright ridiculous, and this Ruby Oliver installment aired on the side of ridiculousness. Exhibit A: Her mother (whose behavior is more childish than her daughter’s, Exhibit B) hatches a plan to start Seattle’s (and the world’s, no doubt) first meatloafery, a Coldstone-esque, make-your-own approach to meatloaf. Fortunately, her family puts the kibosh on her plans before it ever leaves the kitchen. Exhibit C: Her father, morose over the recent loss of his mother, forgets to come home one night due to being cheered up by playing Guitar Hero Metallica with a buddy until 4 a.m. The list goes on. Some of the ridiculousness is amusing, and some of it is simply scoff-worthy (meatloafery, ‘nuff said).

Verdict? As my mother often says, “It is what it is.” Real Live Boyfriends is a quick*** and entertaining read, but don’t expect more than that.

Side Note: Is it just me, or are covers with Real Live People on them irritating?

** Oh, play along. It’s more fun if you pretend like you don’t know what’s coming.
*** I read it in a grand total of about 3 ½ hours.

Same Story, Different Review:
The Crooked Bookshelf

Books Read This Year: 11
Top 100 Progress: 39/100

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Possession (Top 100 #39)

By A.S. Byatt

When my roommate first noticed this book sitting on my desk, waiting to be read, she laughed and thought it to be some kind of mass-market paperback caliber romance novel. With a title like Possession, I don’t blame her! But in fact, Possession resides in a completely different realm of literature. It won Byatt the Booker Prize – England’s highest literary honor – in 1990 and is included in the BBC Top 100 list I’m slowly but surely working my way through*.

I think the fact that the title is so misleading is largely due to the connotations of the word ‘possession,’ which first conjures up notions of obsessive romance. While romance is an integral aspect of Possession, the novel does not limit itself to it but spans the word’s multifaceted connotations.

Possession, n. The act or state of being possessed**; the physical control or occupancy of land, property, etc, whether or not accompanied by ownership; domination, actuation, or obsession by a feeling, idea, etc.

Contemporary scholars of the Victorian poets Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte, Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey are united by academic intrigue when Roland discovers a letter hinting at a hitherto unknown connection between the two poets. The academic investigation that ensues not only overhauls Roland and Maud’s understandings of the poets they’ve devoted their lives to, but overhauls the lives of the academics themselves as the unveiling of the connection between the presumed devoted husband and lifelong spinster becomes increasingly high stakes and personal. As far as that pesky word ‘possession’ and it’s multifaceted connotations, Possession explores the obvious possession rendered by love, as well as the possession of historical documents and artifacts, and even the possession of historical figures by the people who study them – and vice versa.

Depending how you look at it, Possession is either the most theatrical novel about academia you’ve ever read, or the dullest and densest mystery novel you’ve ever read. 

My problem with this book is that Byatt interrupts the narrative to insert excerpts from the poets’ epic poems, drafts of their personal letters, and even blurbs from biographies and analytical essays that often went on a bit too long and were – let’s face it –just plain dry. I get why she did this, I really do. She wanted the reader to feel they were immersed in the investigation too; she wanted us to feel as though we knew the poets as intimately as Roland and Maud. But the end result was disruptive and would disengage me every time I really started to be drawn in to the story – and it was a compelling story. I just thought it went on a bit too long.

Now, metaphors and themes and foreshadowing aside, the point of writing a novel – any novel, chick lit, classic, or otherwise – is to tell a story, is it not? And thus it follows that a successful novel is one whose story draws the reader in, whereas an unsuccessful novel fails to do so, resulting in a novel which is an effort of diligence and toil to read. The question, then, becomes: Is a novel successful if it is literarily admirable without being engaging? Conversely, is it successful if it’s engaging without being particularly literarily admirable? I’ll leave you to ponder. If you come up with anything decisive, let me know.

* There's also a movie based on it, but I watched the trailer and I don't think I'll bother watching it. Partly because Aaron Eckhart bothers me, and partly because it just doesn't look good.
** Illuminating, no? I hate definitions that use a different conjugation of the word to explain the meaning of the form in question.

Books Read This Year: 10
Top 100 Progress: 39/100