Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Marcelo in the Real World

By Francisco X. Stork
 ★ ★ ★ ★

Five Things I Liked About Marcelo in the Real World:
1. Lovely, poetic and profound yet realistic dialogue
2. Finely tuned and unique narrative voice
3. Thoughtful characters (as in both caring and full of thoughts)
4. Non-black and white relationships
5. Vermont

How lovely is this cover?? How pathetic is this intro?? Cut me some slack; this is my fifth review in 24 hours. Okay, jumping right in.

Falling toward the more high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, 17-year-old Marcelo has lived his life in the protective environment created by his family and Patterson, the special school he’s attended since kindergarten. He’s looking forward to spending his summer working at Patterson tending the therapeutic ponies before beginning his senior year at Patterson in the fall. But Marcelo’s protected world is turned upside-down by a last minute change of plans when his father tells him he will be instead working in the mailroom of his father’s legal firm. It is high time, his father believes, that Marcelo assimilates into the “real world.” Navigating the ins-and-outs and ups-and-downs of the often tense social and business nuances of the office proves to be the most overwhelming and challenging experience Marcelo has ever faced, but with thoughtfulness, courage, and simple wisdom, it may also prove to be the most rewarding.

It’s hard to read Marcelo in the Real World without thinking of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. The stripped-down, keen observations and narration of the autistic protagonists are refreshing and eye-opening. Marcelo may not be encountering anything we haven’t seen before in our own lives, in some capacity, but seeing the “real world” through his un-jaded eyes is a novel experience. The confusion he experiences when he tries to apply his previously uncomplicated logic to the blurry issues of injustice and suffering, selfishness and manipulation, love and desire will strike a chord with all readers, sorry to see his innocence stripped away and sorry for ourselves for having to work out these same issues in our own lives. Marcelo in the Real World inspires empathy as much as sympathy, evoking the bittersweet taste adulthood with all its freedoms, sorrows, challenges, and beauty leaves on the tongue.

Marcelo in the Real World came highly critically acclaimed to my attention, and in my opinion more than lived up to its reputation.

Books Read This Year: 51
Top 100 Progress: 48/100

Monday, June 25, 2012

I am the Messenger

By Markus Zusak
 ★ ★ ★ ☆

Four Things I Liked About I Am The Messenger:
1. “I am not the messenger. I am the message.”
2. “Sometimes people are beautiful. Not in looks. Not in what they say. Just in what they are.”
3. How touching ordinary lives can be, and how ordinary people can touch lives
4. Close-knit friends

Markus Zusak is most well known for being the genius behind The Book Thief. Which is why I was curious to read some of his earlier and modern work. I don’t remember The Book Thief terribly well, having read it right after it came out several years ago now, but based on my vague recollections + the out-and-out ardor the literary community harbors for it, I would venture to say that had I read I am the Messenger when it was first released, I would never have expected that the same writer would go on to produce an opus like The Book Thief. That’s not to say that I am the Messenger was bad, just that it doesn’t have that special quality that has made The Book Thief such a well-loved and critically acclaimed work.

Ed Kennedy leads an unambitious, unremarkably ordinary existence. He drives a cab. He lives in a cheap shack with his smelly, old dog the Doorman as his only companion. On his nights off, he plays cards with his friends and wallows in his unrequited love for his best friend, Audrey. But after Ed accidentally without-really-meaning-to thwarts a bank robbery, things change. He receives a playing card inscribed with three addresses. No names, no dates, just locations. And thus begins Ed’s mission: to visit these addresses and deliver messages to them. Ed is no longer Ed the Ordinary. He is the Messenger. But who is behind his mission? And how will it end?

I am the Messenger is divided into five parts. Through the third part, I had decided to give the book only 3 stars. I wasn’t super impressed. The premise behind the playing card missions seemed contrived and thin, and the overall message of the story (which was clear from like chapter five) a bit too heavy-handed. But the culmination first three parts turned out to be more than they seemed at the time, having set the stage for the much more affective final two parts of the novel. And by the time I reached the end, Zusak had built the story's affectivity such that the final two lines were real zingers, and I am the Messenger had earned that extra fourth star. I’m still not convinced by the premise and think maybe another round of editing – such as tweaking the backstory behind where his missions came from – but the last couple parts of the book had real power to them, enough for me to see why it might’ve earned the Printz Award that figures so prominently on this otherwise pretty lame cover. The Book Thief certainly marks significant growth of Zusak as a writer; it will be interesting to see what he comes out with in the future, whether it lives up to The Book Thief or falls more on level with I am the Messenger.

Books Read This Year: 50
Top 100 Progress: 48/100

Across the Universe

By Beth Revis
 ★ ★ ★ ☆

Four Things I Liked About Across the Universe:
1. Vibrant, imaginative future world
2. Future humans: Will time and technological advancement necessarily change us for the better?
3. Characters
4. Stars

Across the Universe is yet another book I’ve been meaning to read for a while but never got around to actually procuring. Thank you public library. One benefit of being home for the summer: easy access to free books. Not that there’s any dearth of books on a college campus; there’s just a significant lack of YA offerings. Unsurprisingly.

In Across the Universe, Revis imagines a not-too-distant present in which we are capable of cryogenically preserving human life and the world 300 years into the future when a spaceship’s cargo hold full of experts who volunteered to settle a new planet deemed habitable by NASA are scheduled to be re-animated. Amy and her family are part of this group. But when Amy is wakened alone and 50 years ahead of schedule, it becomes clear that all has not gone according to plan on the spaceship Godspeed. Together with Elder, rebellious leader-in-training, Amy discovers just how many secrets can be hidden aboard a sealed ship.

Revis’ imagining of a ship 300 years in our future rings surprisingly realistic. I don’t know by what criteria one could judge such things as “realistic” verses “off base” but somehow the world of Across the Universe just felt really…plausible. I had no qualms about buying into her fiction (unlike, for example, the fiction of Maureen Johnson's The Name of the Star); I stepped readily into the world of Godspeed, happy to observe with curiosity and an open mind.

A miniscule pocket of human life in the vast foreignness of outer space, the world aboard Godspeed is a foreign world unto itself. Revis fills it with customs, accents, advancements, and histories detailed enough to be convincing yet exotic enough to be fascinating. It was easy to see how, given the chain events that had unfurled between the ship’s departure from Earth and Amy’s waking, Godspeed’s society and leadership would have evolved the way it did – making humanity’s classic mistakes adapted by a whole new context and under all-new conditions. It was interesting to look at Earth’s history and beliefs through the eyes of humans who considered themselves far removed (in the most literal way, as well as figurative) and advanced from it. I also enjoyed just the act of imagining Revis’ futuristic world in my mind – how the ship would look and how it would contain imitations of cities and farmland – something she made very easy. The world of Across the Universe was also a colorful one, from Amy’s vibrant red hair (I couldn’t help but picture this Youtuber) to Harley’s paintings to the monoethnic skin tone of Godspeed’s people. Revis’ characters were alluring and interesting, likable even when they were flawed, and above all very, very human.

A strange and beautiful novel. I already have the sequel on hold at the library.

Books Read This Year: 49
Top 100 Progress: 48/100

I've Got Your Number

By Sophie Kinsella
 ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Three Things I Liked About I’ve Got Your Number:
1. London (okay…this one’s definitely a default).
2. Wedding planning/drama
3. E-text-olary novel

Sophia Kinsella makes me laugh. Seriously, she is to my (young) adult self what Meg Cabot was to my pre-teen self: always reliable for some good old fashioned funny, frivolous chick-lit with romantic drama tempered by an ample dose of romantic comedy. Not to mention heroines sweet, silly, and serious by turns, all of whom I’d love to be friends with. You might recognize her name from her series Confessions of a Shopaholic, which was actually adapted into a movie.

Poppy Wyatt is just two weeks away from living out every girl’s secret, most idealistic romantic fantasy: meeting a handsome, rich, talented, and loving man at the altar, wearing a gorgeous family heirloom of an engagement ring. Things are going better than she ever could have dreamed…until – oops! – she misplaces her gorgeous family heirloom of an engagement ring. On the very day her intimidating soon-to-be in-laws are arriving from Chicago. As if that wasn’t enough, moments after the ring goes missing, so does her phone. But what at first seems like unmitigated disaster may turn out to be something different entirely, as an abandoned phone Poppy obtains from a trash bin (finder’s keepers) pulls her into the world of one Sam Roxton. As the two begin communicating, it soon becomes clear that neither of their lives will emerge from the experience unchanged.

Implementing a texting take on the epistolary form (i.e. “e-text-olary”) can often be kind of an iffy move on an author’s part. I’ve seen it done badly enough times to be immediately skeptical. But Kinsella got it right in I’ve Got Your Number. The text exchanges between Poppy and Sam were some of the most amusing in the entire novel, and were some of the most significant scenes in terms of character and relationship development. I was also impressed that Kinsella was able to effectively use photo attachment texts in addition to standard text messages, especially since she only narrated what had been sent rather than including actual pictures (smart move; pictures would have been over the top and disruptive).

Whenever I like an unapologetically chick-lit novel, I feel the need to defend it/myself for some reason. Why should a book like I’ve Got Your Number be rated higher than other books that, if not enjoyable or successful reads, at least tried to tackle something a little more ambitious or original? I think the answer to that lies right there in my statement: unapologetic. I will be the first to admit that Sophie Kinsella’s books are formulaic; that her heroines (and leading men) are virtually interchangeable; that her plots are predictable, and if you charged them with being cheesy, too, I would have a hard time arguing with you. But her books never try to pass themselves off as being any more than that. They deliver exactly what they advertise: frivolous, silly fun.

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

The Name of the Star

By Maureen Johnson
 ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Two Things I Liked About The Name of the Star:
1. Everything was anglophilia and nothing hurt.
2. Boarding school (…in London).

The one problem with restarting this blog in the summertime is that it is really hard to keep up with my own pace. I blow through books faster than I can blog about them. As of this post, I am fully four books behind schedule. Whoops. Part of that is laziness about sitting down to put my reactions into words (it takes less effort and is more enjoyable just to move onto the next book!), and part of it is that I’ve been reading at a rate of about 1.5 books every 2 days. So here goes my attempt to catch up. Up first: Maureen Johnson's The Name of the Star.

Louisiana transplant Rory Deveaux moves to England when her professor parents take a year-long sabbatical, enrolling at a London boarding school while her parents settle in Bristol. The very day she arrives, a body is found resembling the crime scene of Jack the Ripper’s first victim. Pretty soon, the city is in uproar as the police are baffled by the lack of any evidence leading to the copycat killer, despite the fact that the murders were committed within full view of one of London’s many infamous CCTV cameras. After witnessing a man’s presence at the second murder site – a presence her roommate is unable to corroborate – Rory realizes a newfound ability may have caused her to inadvertently stumble onto the case’s biggest lead. Too bad she can’t tell anyone.

I’ve been curious about this book ever since its release a few months ago, but until now haven’t taken the time and effort to actually procure and read it. I was drawn to the book for several reasons: a) London boarding school. I mean, seriously; b) I’m morbidly fascinated by serial killing, and became somewhat familiar with Jack the Ripper lore during my time in London this past January; and c) I think Maureen Johnson is one of the most genuinely and unpretentiously amusing people I’m aware of existing in this world. Her Twitter feed is always witty and entertaining. But for some reason, I never end up liking her books as much as I want to like them. And I want to like them a lot, because I like her a lot. But they always seem to be disappointing. Perfectly adequate reads, but nothing particularly special. The Name of the Star followed this trend. Sure I enjoyed it well enough, but overall it fell kind of flat. As a heroine, Rory wasn’t particularly interesting, nor were any of the supporting characters (and their relationships with the heroine) particularly well rounded or fleshed out. I wasn’t invested in the outcome of their conflicts. And the plot itself was pretty thin. Johnson was asking the reader to suspend a certain amount of incredulity in order for us to buy into her supernatural premise, but it just wasn’t convincing enough for me to accept. And for a story promising suspense and intrigue, I just…never felt very suspended or intrigued. If I had to sum up my sentiments throughout reading The Name of the Star in one word it would be: indifferent**.

One thing this book did succeed in is making me incredibly nostalgic for London, with the setting and the constant drinking of tea… In fact, after finishing it, I brewed my own cup of tea and scrounged for something that could pass for a biscuit, then wallowed in memories and anticipation for next spring (when I’ll be studying abroad in London).

**I feel irrationally guilty for saying this, as if I'm slandering a personal acquaintance or something. I think it's because I do like her so well as a person and because - due to her Twitter and blog and so on - I feel like, to some extent, I do actually know her as a person.

Books Read This Year: 47
Top 100 Progress: 48/100

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


By Kristin Cashore
 ★ ★ ★ ☆

Four Things I Liked About Bitterblue:
1. Return to the Graceling world
2. Relationships between characters
3. Charming rogue love interest
4. Coming full circle

I’ve been a fan of Kristin Cashore’s books ever since I first read her debut, Graceling, a few years ago (3 or 4, I think?). Graceling felt really reminiscent of Tamora Pierce’s books, but without being overtly referential; the idea of gracelings is a unique and compelling one. It’s the strength of her female characters and the enjoyable blend of fantasy adventure, intrigue, and romance on the cusp between the early and later young adult demographic that brought Pierce’s works to mind. Having spent a good chunk of my childhood devouring Pierce’s many series, that was a very positive thing. I was excited to have found a new author that fit my somewhat narrow taste profile for fantasy books. And while the companion novel, Fire, didn’t quite live up to the standard set by Graceling (it may simply have lacked the extra dose of specialness that comes of being a new discovery), it certainly didn’t disappoint. And neither did Graceling’s recently released sequel: Bitterblue.

Bitterblue picks up eight years after Graceling left off. Bitterblue is a young woman now, ruling queen of the kingdom her father Leck (a corrupt king capable of controlling people's thoughts vanquished in Graceling, for those of you not familiar) left in shambles before he died. Stuck in her tower office day in and day out completing paper work and concerned by the odd behavior of her staff and the fragmented, conflicted reports she is receiving about her kingdom, Bitterblue starts to sneak out at night in disguise to see the state of the city outside her castle walls for herself. What she finds is that eight years later, Leck’s influence is far from over and her work as queen has only just begun.

I mentioned earlier that the target readership of Cashore’s stories straddles the line between early and late young adulthood, and for none of her books is this more true than Bitterblue. Some of the topics the book discusses, especially concerning the crimes the sociopathic Leck committed during his tyrannical and deranged reign as king, are quite dark for any stage of young adulthood, much less early adolescence. Cashore also kind of insidiously tackled some of our current political/social issues by including analogues in the story, and I’m not quite sure how I feel about that. Of course when you’re creating a fantasy world it’s entirely in your control, and there’s no reason why issues that crop up today shouldn’t crop up in your fantasy world too, but when those issues are so salient to modern political controversy, it feels a little heavy-handed to have them be controversial in a fantasy novel that may take place in a world technologically historical but its being released in a world rooted very much in the present.

Qualms aside, it was a pleasure to return to the cast of characters I grew so fond of in Graceling. And the three-dimensionality with which Cashore crafts her characters makes the story all the more engaging and the relationships all the more heartwarming – or upsetting, as the case may be. The new set of characters introduced for the sake of Bitterblue’s plotline were deftly integrated with the returning cast, and it was lovely to see her reach back to Fire, too, publishing an original novel, it’s prequel/companion, and a sequel all out of chronological order and yet having them all come full circle. Bitterblue also does a good job of tying up loose ends from Graceling, dealing with its own unique and pertinent conflicts, while establishing new subplots that could just as well be left as they are at the end of the book or be picked up and continue in a further installment. All in all, definitely a satisfying read for fans of Graceling and Fire, though perhaps less so for anyone who were to pick it up as a stand-alone.

Books Read This Year: 46
Top 100 Progress: 48/100

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Game of Thrones

By George R.R. Martin
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Four Things I Liked About A Game of Thrones:
1. Richly developed and inventive fantasy world
2. Intrigue
3. Complicated, flawed characters
4. Epicness

So… it’s been a while. Five months, to be exact. The only excuse I can offer for my neglect of this blog is just that – an excuse. But I will offer it to you anyway! Basically, it boils down to falling out of the habit of posting. I spent the month of January in London, doing a Theater in London course for January term at school. I was so utterly busy that I barely had time to read, let alone write down my thoughts about it. And when I got back? Well, some habits are a lot easier to break than to form. Blogging is one of them, I discovered. Busy with schoolwork, book after book went by un-reviewed, despite my best intentions and several underlined and highlighted reminders in my planner to review!!! whatever book I had most recently finished. But now that it’s summer and I have hours upon hours of spare time on my hands, I thought that one of the many ways I can make my free time productive would be to start posting again. So here I am.

I find that after a demanding semester – and more especially, after a demanding end to a semester – all I want to read is something fast-paced, engrossing, and mentally unchallenging. The popularity of the Game of Thrones TV show this year has put these books on my radar (to be read before sampling the televised adaptation, as per unwritten bibliophilic law), and after seeing Snow White and the Huntsman put me in the mood for epic fantasy, A Game of Thrones seemed like the perfect choice for a Get Into Summer Reading! book. Verdict: it was.

Taking place in a land where seasons last for decades and the Long Winter has begun baring its teeth at the cowering summer, A Game of Thrones encompasses a wide host of characters, but primarily concerns power tensions between the Starks of Winterfell, the king’s bloodline, and his conniving family by marriage the Lannisters. The epic spans the southern summer kingdom (home to the king’s seat of power), the Wall protecting the Seven Kingdoms from the ominous northern lands beyond, and the foreign land of the East, home to the Dothraki and the grudge-holding progeny of the overthrown former king of the Seven Kingdoms. In A Game of Thrones, Martin spawns an epic series riddled with plotting and treachery and hidden motives, where the game of thrones is a deadly power play and even as a reader you can never be sure who deserves your trust.

One of the most compelling things about A Game of Thrones is how richly developed it is. Whenever I read fantasy, one of the first ways I judge a book’s merit is how original and how thoroughly and convincingly developed its world is. For example, Eragon’s world bears a few too many striking similarities to Tolkien to be token homage. Martin’s world, however, is creative and convincing; I loved the epic grandeur of the Wall and how he successfully created two wildly distinct cultures between the Seven Kingdoms and the East. His characters were as richly developed as his setting. I was talking with a friend about them, and we discussed how impossible it is to separate out the “good guys” from the “bad guys.” They’re all just so human. There are no heroes in A Game of Thrones. There’s no one who wouldn’t betray their honor for the right incentive. Nor is there anyone without a single shred of honor to their name. The characterization is endlessly complex – and extensive. The narrative switches points of view with each chapter, cycling through about eight different main characters and concerning a cast of dozens that can be hard to keep straight sometimes.  A Game of Thrones is a sprawling epic (and a series bulkier than you could carry all at once in your arms), to be sure, but the prospect of navigating my way through the rest of the series is an exciting one. I can’t wait to devour the remaining books this summer. And to get my hands on the Season 1 of the show, for comparison’s sake.

Conversation Starter: Have you jumped on the Game of Thrones fanwagon yet? If so, are you a fan of the show or the books? If both, which is better?

Books Read This Year: 45
Top 100 Progress: 48/100