Friday, March 24, 2017

JULIA VANISHES


Review of JULIA VANISHES by CATHERINE EGAN
(based on a review copy)

The truth is that I liked this book a lot, but yet still have a hefty handful of criticisms that might make this review look more negative than positive. The good about the book is subtle, not things I consciously noticed and admired, but I’m nevertheless aware that I liked this story despite my complaints. When I push myself to consider why, I realize all the characters feel very believable and I’m above all a character-driven reader. Add to that a sense of mystery that I savor, even if it does make the story feel slow at times. 

Julia lives two lives. In her real one, she lives a cramped existence with a few corrupt if well-meaning thieves who have become her and her brother’s only family after their mother was drowned for being a witch. But she’s taken a job that requires she live another life for now, pretending to be a simple housemaid while spying on the household and reporting back anything unusual. She knows her mysterious employer is obviously looking for something, but she doesn’t know what yet. And, if she didn’t know already, she certainly learns by the end of the book the dangers of accepting an assignment without knowing exactly what that assignment is.

Moving into the book’s drawbacks, though, my primary issue is that I don’t like the protagonist, Julia. Not at all. She’s a despicable person, in my opinion. I believe the author makes a run at balancing Julia’s bad qualities against her troubled past, but personally I feel there are a million excuses for being a bad person. Ultimately, you decide whether to give in to those excuses or fight to be better. Julia is selfish, manipulative, and a coward. And the fact is I’ve read too many characters and known too many people in real life who have pushed past adversity to be a good person to have any sympathy for those like Julia. I did a whole blog post once on whether or not you need to like a character to like a book. I don’t, but in this case I think I was supposed to like Julia at least a little more than I did.

I sometimes enjoy stories with unlikable lead characters, especially when the character grows and changes over time. When well-done, it’s a treat to follow someone’s mindset transformation like that. Julia only becomes more and more appalling until a near irredeemable act initiates, to me, a too little too late change in her attitude. Even when she takes more admirable actions, it feels like she only does so to assuage her own guilt; she has no concept of what genuine kindness looks like.

There’s another side to my issues with the protagonist, too. Despite being our viewpoint character, Julia isn’t really an active player in this story. In fact, the book recognizes this itself, near the end, with the following line: “The great players here are the Xianren, Bianka, even little Theo. This is their story. This guard, and I, we are just caught up in it.” That’s how it feels. Julia is a close proximity witness to an unfolding story of significant magnitude, but her role seems to be mostly observer. Frequently throughout the book I felt myself reading about another character and longing to be in their viewpoint instead. It almost feels, at times, like everyone else’s story is more interesting.

Which is also part of why I kept reading, and enjoying, this book. All of the characters, Julia included, feel like entirely believable people. Though I frequently wanted to be in someone else’s perspective, I still enjoyed experiencing everyone else’s stories through Julia’s eyes and the combined tale is definitely intriguing. The characters include her protective, scarred brother of few but deliberate words; her creative, lost soul lover; her guardian of sorts who both shelters Julia and assigns her crooked, dangerous missions, to name few from a large cast. That’s not to mention all the awful types she encounters in her line of work or those misguided souls lured in by her innocent act.

Despite a good deal of criticism in this review, I liked this book beginning to end. For all my grumbles about Julia, I never found myself bored.

Friday, March 17, 2017

THE MISERABLE MILL


Review of THE MISERABLE MILL by LEMONY SNICKET
(fourth in the A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS series)

After yet another misfortunate befalls the Baudelaire orphans’ latest guardian, the infamously incompetent - if well-meaning - Mr. Poe arranges for the children to stay at a lumbermill. Little does he realize, once there the orphans are expected to work at the lumbermill under horrible conditions and for no pay.

Well, that's not quite true. The lumbermill pays its workers in coupons rather than cash, but without any cash the 2 for 1 and 20% coupons are tragically useless. This is an example of the kind of droll humor that peppers this entire series. You’ll also want to keep an eye out for the dedications at the beginning and letters to the editor at the end of each installment as both these play a role in the story.

At this point, book four in a long series, the plot can start feeling very formulaic, but Snicket manages to tamper with that formula just enough for each book to feel different and interesting. And I have to hand it to any author who can craft unique characters with such a small word count. My favorites in THE MISERABLE MILL include the useless sweetheart Charles and naively optimistic Phil.

Friday, March 10, 2017

THE STREET OF A THOUSAND BLOSSOMS


Review of THE STREET OF A THOUSAND BLOSSOMS by GAIL TSUKIYAMA

With this novel, Tsukiyama spins a tale of two brothers. Orphaned at a young age, Hiroshi and Kenji go to live with their grandparents. Strong Hiroshi and timid Kenji both discover their passions very early on in life: Hiroshi wants to be a sumotori and Kenji a mask maker. Hiroshi’s dream almost seems possible, while Kenji’s feels too far out of reach. Then both ambitions fade into the background as World War II devastates Japan.

These brothers’ lives are interwoven with that of two sisters, daughters to a famous sumo trainer. Like Hiroshi and Kenji, one has a stronger and another a weaker presence. After their mother’s violent death during the war, the elder sister Haru takes charge, helping her household as well as her father’s sumo pupils. Then she moves on to university where she grows into a strong-willed, smart, modern young woman who pushes against Japan’s traditions. Meanwhile, Aki wilts after their mother’s death, never recovering from the trauma. She’s quiet and withdrawn, unsure of herself and less capable of all chores Haru leaves behind when she goes to university.

These four characters form the heart of a story that spans most of their lifetimes.  I am a very character-centric reader and am happy to report that everyone here feels like a real person, and the intricacies of their relationships when they interact is what held my attention.

My only criticism, and if I recall this is true of the other book I read by this author, is that the storyline feels a little too tragic for my taste. There tends to be a theme in Tsukiyama’s writing of people making the wrong choices. As the reader, these mistakes seem so obvious and you can almost imagine an alternate happily ever after for the characters if they did even one thing differently. But they don’t. The characters can’t see what seems to the reader, or at least me, like the smart choice, and they pay the price for that emotional blindness. My favorite stories usually feature active characters who take control of their lives. Tsukiyama’s characters feel more like they’re surrendering to life, fixated on a certain path to the point that they don’t notice they have other options.  However, she does portray a very realistic phenomenon and the character decisions, if sometimes frustrating, are always believable.

THE STREET OF A THOUSAND BLOSSOMS is about four specific children surviving a changing Japan, but it’s also a beautiful tale about family, emotional bonds, and pursuing our passions.

Friday, February 24, 2017

THE WIDE WINDOW


Review of THE WIDE WINDOW by LEMONY SNICKET
(third in the A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS series)

The bad luck streak continues for the poor Baudelaire orphans. After their sweet uncle Monty died in the last book, they’re being shipped off to another even more distant relative. Josephine means well, but she’s no ideal guardian. She’s too timid, fearful, and concerned with her own well being to look after or out for three grieving children being pursued by an evil mastermind.

Many of my comments on this series remain consistent from book to book, my main one being that all the adults are incompetent. The level of hyperbolized incompetency can be frustrating, but ultimately I consider it a therapeutic metaphor for any child who feels adults aren’t taking them seriously. And the fact that no one listens to the Baudelaires forces them to be resourceful.

One criticism that’s a bit new to this specific installment in the series, though, is that there’s some pretty transparent phobia about gender ambiguity. One of Count Olaf’s lackeys is described from book one as a person who can’t beg pegged as either man or woman. That description alone can be interpreted as objective or prejudiced depending on how you read it, but in this book that fact is specifically cited as one of the scarier characteristics of this person.

Each of these books is a fast, simple read that follows a similar formula: Baudelaires go to new home and then it all goes horribly wrong. Along the way, you’ll encounter plenty of witty, subtle jokes that make each story well worth the read.

Friday, February 10, 2017

TEXAS GOTHIC


Review of TEXAS GOTHIC by ROSEMARY CLEMENT-MOORE
(first in the GOODNIGHT FAMILY series)

Amy comes from a family of witches, but doesn’t seem to have any magical gifts of her own. She hopes ranch-sitting for her aunt in Texas will be a nice, normal break from her crazy life. Well, she can forget that dream when she stumbles across a skeleton, starts finding herself haunted by angry ghosts, and can’t help antagonizing the cute - if tightly wound - guy next-door.

I’m not normally one for ghost stories, but I met this author at a conference and wanted to give her book a try. So glad I did. Themes are an easy way to sort what we expect we’ll like, but they’re not everything. And this is so my kind of book!

Above all, I loved the novel for the protagonist and her unique but familiar voice. Amy comes from one of my favorite character molds: a strong-willed girl who hides whatever insecurities she does have beneath a thick layer of humor. Despite being recognizable as a type, though, Amy still feels like a distinct individual with her own quirks and surprises worked into her personality.

Oh, but the humor. The writing here feels one of a kind, filled with unusual phrases that tell us plenty about Amy’s state of mind while earning laughs. In some ways, Amy puts me in mind of Brigit Jones a little, always finding herself in embarrassing situations and unable to filter herself as much as she would like. Let me share the first line, for example: “The goat was in the tree again.”

There’s a strong romance element running through this novel. I’ve mentioned plenty of times that I like romance, but I’m a very critical romance reader. When a romance meets my high standards, it can be my favorite part of a story, but when it doesn’t it’s where I’ll hit the hardest in a review. TEXAS GOTHIC falls in the former category. Neither character is portrayed as “perfect” but nor is the guy an idolized jerk. In other words, the author avoids all the cliché pitfalls of writing romance that can wind me up and instead presents a sweet story about two people who challenge each other and both come out better for it.  

Oh, oh, oh! And as a crazy dog lady, I loved what a big role Amy’s pack of rowdy dogs plays in the story. Easy tip to make me like a book more: add a dog. Even more: add another dog. It’s that simple.

I didn’t realize this is the first in a series. For one thing, the author does an excellent job writing this first book so it can be read as a standalone. No cliffhanger ending here! Nevertheless, I cannot wait to read the second.

Friday, February 3, 2017

ABARAT


Review of ABARAT by CLIVE BARKER
(first in the ABARAT series)

I first read this book back in college, on the recommendation of a friend, and remember being beguiled by the complex, extraordinary world Barker crafted. This one lives up to a second read as well as my flattering memories.

Candy lives a mundane life in a small town with her mother and alcoholic, abusive father. Then one day everything stops making sense, but becomes a magical adventure in the breakdown of logic. A sea sweeps in to the middle of a field - yes, a sea - and pulls Candy from her world into another: the world of Abarat. Here each hour of the day is an island, each one strange and different in its own way. There’s also an island for the 25th hour, the time out of time, but we won’t get into that yet.

In case you haven’t caught on, this book is weird. Writing weird is difficult, because tastes vary so much. Sometimes I find weird stories and I mean the adjective as a confused insult. In this case, when I call ABARAT “weird” I mean wonderfully, beautifully, enchantingly weird. Exactly my kind of weird. From invented creatures to how the magic works to surprising plot twists, here you’ll find page after page of the unexpected...and it feels like that sea swept you out to another world, too.

My only complaint has more to do with the specific edition of the book I read. The author is also an artist who paints dozens of images from his stories. The first time I read this book I borrowed it from the friend who recommended it, and her copy had the author’s paintings sprinkled throughout the story, almost every page. When I decided to re-read this one, I bought my own copy, not even realizing it was a copy without the illustrations. Get the illustrations! Get the illustrations! They add so much to the story...and the weirdness.

This tale transported me to Abarat and has lingered in the back of my mind for years. It’s one of those rare books that feels like its own kind of magic and reminds me why I’m in love with reading.

Friday, January 27, 2017

INKHEART


Review of INKHEART by CORNELIA FUNKE
(first in the INKHEART trilogy, translated by ANTHEA BELL)

I first read this back in college and it has been one of my all-time favorites ever since, so when I started re-reading books for reviewing here this was one of the first ones to come to mind.

Meggie lives with her father and, though they’re both avid readers, he refuses to ever read aloud to her. She doesn’t recall exactly what happened to her mother, only that she went away a long time ago. Then one night a mysterious stranger lurking outside their house brings a warning for Meggie’s father and starts the ball rolling on an adventure Meggie could have never imagined.

Books about books have a special place in my heart for obvious reasons. There are stories within stories here. There’s the story we’re reading. Then there’s the book that all Meggie’s problem revolve around. Then there are all the books she and her fellow readers reference, as well as quotes from other books opening each chapter.

I especially adore magic systems that have to do with reading and books. Minor spoiler coming, so skip the rest of this paragraph if you want to start this book knowing as little as possible. Meggie’s father Mo has the unique power to read characters out of books and into our world when he reads aloud. I love, love, love, most any literary magic system, but this is still my all-time favorite spin on bookish magic.

Naturally, I like a lot of the characters, too, for the simple reason that they’re readers. From curmudgeonly Aunt Elinor to quiet, imaginative Meggie I can relate to each individual. If they’re not exactly me, as someone with a lot of reader friends I at least know someone like each and every one of them.

I mentioned that I only ever re-read books to review ones here that I actually read long before I started blogging. One fun aspect of reviewing something I’m re-reading, though, is noting which books stuck with me and which didn’t as much. INKHEART stands out among all the books I re-read as one I adored the first time, as much the second, and that stayed with me all the years in between.

Lots of glorious bibliophilia here!