Friday, September 18, 2020

THUMPED


Review of THUMPED by MEGAN MCCAFFERTY

(second in the BUMPED series)

 

If you don’t want any spoilers for the first book in this series, BUMPED, don’t read this review.

 


 

The first book in this series ended on a major cliffhanger. Melody, who is supposed to be pregnant, is not, while Harmony, who is not supposed to be pregnant (at least not by someone other than her husband), is. For anyone in need of a refresher, Harmony found an unexpected connection with Jondoe, Melody’s celebrity conception partner. Despite his vain and, um, prolific reputation, Jondoe secretly shares Harmony’s connection with God. Of course, Jondoe thought Harmony was Melody when they slept together, so fulfilling his contract just became a lot more complicated.

 

(As a side note, I find Harmony and Melody’s names too conceptually similar. Throughout reading both books and while writing both reviews, I kept mixing up who is who and needing to double check.)

 

For the time being, Melody is wearing an advanced tech false pregnancy bump in the hopes she can convince her sister to give up the baby in the name of fulfilling Melody’s contract. Her lie is no small fib, though, as “bumping” with a big name star like Jondoe for such a high paying contract, among other factors, has made Melody a constantly scrutinized celebrity herself. For Harmony’s part, she took off back home shortly after her encounter with Jondoe. She wanted a taste of the outside world and, boy, did she get it, but now she’s trying her best to fit back into a community that has never felt fully right for her.  

 

My praise and criticisms for THUMPED remain the same as for the first book. Fascinating world, but somewhat lackluster focus. Harmony and Melody’s stories don’t entirely convince or grip me, but there are all these moving parts and complications in the background that kept me intrigued and reading.

Friday, September 11, 2020

THE DINNER


Review of THE DINNER by HERMAN KOCH

(translated by SAM GARRETT)

 

This is a wonderful book that may have suffered, for me, from some over-hype. It was a bestseller years ago and since then has been enthusiastically recommended to me by literally dozens of avid readers. I honestly enjoyed it, but found the book fell a little short of my expectations after all that build up (and how much I enjoyed another book by this author).

 

The premise doesn’t do the book justice: a family goes out to dinner. I can’t reveal much more than that lukewarm description, because this is a psychological suspense novel. The real magic of this story lies not in an intriguing concept hook, but in how things unfold to reveal something much deeper and darker than our first glance suggests.

 

The book is narrated in first person through Paul’s perspective. Paul and his wife Claire are meeting Paul’s brother Serge and Serge’s wife Babette for dinner. Through veiled hints, the reader understands that the couples have something important to discuss, but Koch takes his suspenseful time revealing what. (And as the what and the slow reveal is the core of the story, I can’t say much more.)

 

The writing is full of meaning and misdirect. An extremely literal person would notice a long, detailed description of a family meal, including the food, waitstaff, and minute expressions of the diners. However, most any reader will catch volumes unsaid within each descriptive sentence. From page 1 – “He’s always the one who arranges it, the reservation.” – to “The first thing that struck you about Claire’s plate was its vast emptiness.” to “We had returned to our earlier seating arrangement.” Even the simplest of sentences carry weight and insight. Oh, don’t misinterpret me: our narrator Paul gives us plenty of more explicit explanation regarding his observations and opinions, but even what he’s not saying feels shouted.

 

I enjoyed this book, but do suspect it was overhyped for me. I liked Koch’s SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL far better, but had been told by many that THE DINNER is the better novel. Matter of opinion, of course. I also think THE DINNER caught me off guard in personal way that made it less enjoyable for me than for most readers. Please forgive the vagueness of that statement, but I want to avoid spoilers.

 

I find myself more interested in the writing and emotional themes of Koch’s work than in his slow reveals. With both books that I read, he takes a privileged, (seemingly) happy family and peels back layers to reveal the unusual and twisted complications beneath. I’m less interested in waiting for the revelation morsels about the real truth than I am in how skillfully Koch can turn a simple phrase to say a lot.

 

THE DINNER has lines that made me laugh – “A fixed appointment for the immediate future is the gates of hell.” – and lines that moved me – “Happiness needs nothing but itself; it doesn’t have to be validated.” Koch is a talented writer with a distinct and addictive style: both insightful and unsettling with a dash of unexpected humor.

Friday, September 4, 2020

ON MONSTERS


Review of ON MONSTERS by STEPHEN T. ASMA

 

I often say that the quality of a nonfiction book comes down to the writing, more so than with fiction. I believe fiction readers have an easier time overlooking weaker prose if they find an intriguing plot and/or compelling characters. But with nonfiction, only those already exceptionally interested in the particular subject are likely to persevere if the prose isn’t engaging.

 

Voice can make or break a nonfiction book. Plenty of people possess great knowledge on a particular subject, but cannot present that knowledge in a universally engaging manner. Asma’s personality shines through here and there in his writing with a touch of cute humor: “When the first two crazy people, I mean scientists, descended a quarter of a mile into the ocean…” Oh, and let me not forget one of my favorite lines: “If one’s penis goes missing, one can feel confident that one deserved it.”

 

Asma opens by admitting his own childhood fear of things lurking in the water: “I’m annoyed by my irrational fear of sea monsters, but I’ve resigned myself to coping with it.” After opening with that personal, relatable anecdote, Asma takes us on a fascinating study of the elusive but patterned concept of “monster.” In themed chapters, he addresses everything from demons to freaks to witches to serial killers to cyborgs, including how our views have changed through the ages. The Latin root of the word “monster” means “to warn.” Warning (associated with danger and fear) proves a strong commonality between the various uses of the word “monster” throughout centuries.

 

Of course, the content itself is even better than the writing. ON MONSTERS would be a great academic course or book club read as each chapter is packed with information and insight worthy of in-depth discussion. To pick out a few examples, I found myself very interested in Asma’s self-admitted speculation that perhaps the very common fear of the sea is a Darwinian evolutionary instinct. We might sometimes feel like top dog on land, in big communities and urban areas especially, but what about alone in the water with a shark? Asma mentions the debate within psychology regarding “preset fears.” Take snakes, for example. A lot of people are scared of snakes and simply explaining that there’s nothing to fear usually doesn’t counterbalance that instinct. Many snakes are poisonous and perhaps there’s an evolutionary basis for such fears. I also particularly liked Asma’s discussion of the relation between attraction and repulsion, especially his humorous examples of how even monkeys who are already aware there’s a snake in a bag will continue taking turns peeking into the bag only to jump (again) in fear and run away shrieking. (These are the same monkeys who would watch horror movies, I’m sure.)

 

My criticisms are few and minor. The prose is very wordy with an impressive vocabulary. I enjoyed that aspect myself as I actually had to look up a few unfamiliar words and I like learning new things; however, I expect it might be too dense and distracting for some readers. Also the author’s subjective opinion sometimes sneaks into the word choice. I most often agree with him, but I prefer objective nonfiction where facts are crisply stated without bias and I’m left to form my own opinion. For example, take the phrase “ridiculous creationist claims.” While I’m inclined to agree that creationist claims are ridiculous, I do think that adjective is too opinionated for fact-based nonfiction.

 

I loved this book. It’s one of the most interesting nonfiction books that I’ve read in a while and utterly packed with fascinating fodder for further thought. Asma examines the concept of monster from many different angles. “Everyone has the potential to become monstrous,” he writes. “An action or person or thing is monstrous when it can’t be processed by our rationality.”

Friday, August 28, 2020

THE PRINCESS AND THE BEAR


Review of THE PRINCESS AND THE BEAR by METTE IVIE HARRISON

(second in THE PRINCESS AND THE HOUND series)

 

 

If you haven’t read the first book in this series – THE PRINCESS AND THE HOUND – you may wish to skip this review due to minor spoilers.

 

Harrison’s incredibly fresh fairy tale continues in this second installment. A new story, but the same fondly familiar sense of nostalgia crossed with compelling unique details and twists. I liked this book even better than the first one, which already numbered among my favorites, and I rarely say that about a series. I tend to find series are more likely to slide downhill by assessment.

 

This novel alternates perspectives between the bear and the hound from the first book. Both have animal forms, but – thanks to some magical interference – neither is entirely animal. I suspect I like this book better than the first, because it’s a close look at a complex, unusual relationship. Harrison uses animal characters to explore what it means to be human.

 

This story pulled me in deep to a magical, nuanced world where striking a balance between connection to nature and connection to your true self can have far reaching outcomes.

Friday, August 21, 2020

ELLA ENCHANTED

 

Review of ELLA ENCHANTED by GAIL CARSON LEVINE



This book was a re-read for me and exceeded my already besotted recollection of the story. For one thing, I have seen the movie adaptation several times since reading the book and had forgotten the ways in which the book differs. For another, I remembered the empowering message but forgot all the humor. ELLA ENCHANTED made me laugh out loud, something I always admire in a novel.

 

For many people, this book is a formative modern classic, but for anyone unfamiliar with it here’s my summary. At birth, a fairy gave Ella a well-meaning but misguided gift: to always be obedient. Ella defies direct commands however she can, but she can’t directly disobey the core command. That’s why when she bumps into a stranger who shouts, “Go bump into someone else, why don’t you?” Ella has to find someone else to bump into it. And it’s why when her cruel new stepsister demands Ella hand over her necklace, a precious gift from Ella’s deceased mother, Ella has no choice but to comply.

 

As any long-term reader of my blog knows, I’m a sucker for strong heroines. That said, I especially admire underdog strong heroines. (NOBODY’S PRINCESS pops to mind.) I read plenty of powerful and capable heroines who win me over, but my favorites are those women who have the capacity to be emotionally, intellectually, and/or physically powerful and capable…but something’s holding them back from their full potential. In my opinion, their true strength shows in how they handle this personal struggle more so than someone whose life has aligned well to only support their strengths. In Ella’s case, while obedience can be interpreted as weakness (an oversimplification, I believe), Ella uses her intellect in deliberately misinterpreting orders and she uses her emotional strength when she feels powerless and hopeless.

 

ELLA ENCHANTED has become a modern classic: a symbol of feminist strength and courage as well as a skilled depiction of universal themes regarding finding your voice in a world that tries to silence you. Many adults assume middle reader books are too young for them, but I believe that the best written ones will appeal to all ages. I know realistically that no single book is everyone’s cup of tea, but I would confidently recommend ELLA ENCHANTED to anyone.

Friday, August 14, 2020

BUMPED

 

Review of BUMPED by MEGAN MCCAFFERTY

(first in the BUMPED series)

 

I usually try to describe a book’s premise in my own words, but for this one I’m finding the blurb on the back does a better job than I could: “When a virus makes everyone over the age of eighteen infertile, would-be parents must pay teenage girls to conceive and give birth to their children, making teens the most prized members of society.”

 

It’s no secret that teenage years often come with a generous helping of vanity and insecurity alongside that plethora of hormones. Now imagine if teenage girls really were the center of attention many imagine themselves to be. There’s criticism in our real modern world that girls are socialized to think of themselves as commodities. In BUMPED, they are commodities. Their appearance doesn’t just matter to them or their peers; it matters immensely to prospective clients. Virginity becomes sacred not on religious grounds but commercial ones.

 

I found the premise intriguing, but couldn’t fully put my skepticism on hold. The concept is a very interesting “what if,” but the world wasn’t quite as fleshed out as I wanted. As a character-centric reader I hardly ever say this, but the story was too zoomed in on individuals for me and didn’t focus enough on the larger dynamics of this unusual alternate world.

 

The book switches chapters between Melody and Harmony, with both perspectives told in first person. They’re twins, now sixteen years old, who were raised apart in very different circumstances and have never met. Melody was adopted by parents determined to give her every advantage. It sounds ideal, but their nurturing seems more businesslike than affectionate, cultivating their daughter for the maximum possible payout. What is that payout? A record contraception contract. Which Melody lands, to the envy of every teenage girl in the world, with the legendary and dreamy Jondoe.

 

Then there’s Harmony, who was raised in a religious sect that considers pregnancy for profit sinful. Of course, her sect still expects young teenage girls to take advantage of their early and short pregnancy window. Only, instead of a profitable contract with strangers, Harmony was married off young, and any children and her husband have will be raised communally. However, Harmony has a mission first: she violates her sect rules by leaving their grounds alone and tracks down her twin, all in the hopes of converting Melody away from her glamorous but sinful contraception contract.

 

This novel makes use of some interesting invented slang, the kind that puts me in mind of FEED by M.T. ANDERSON. Invented slang is always a risk: it needs to be understandable and timeless, both easier said than done. But BUMPED really pulls it off. The slang heavily saturates the prose, making me grateful for the skilled execution.

 

Honestly, I have slightly mixed feelings regarding this book simply because I found the world more interesting than the story. Melody and Harmony never fully engaged my interest, but the commercialization of teenage pregnancy tantalized my imagination. I can easily imagine dozens to hundreds of untold stories set in this world, many much darker given such a premise.

 

BUMPED is an easy, fast read, especially considering the big font, big margins, short chapters, and short sentences. I might even label it a Hi-Lo book, the industry term for books targeting struggling readers (short for High concept and Low reading level).

Friday, August 7, 2020

KORGI: THE PROBLEM WITH POTIONS

 
Review of KORGI: THE PROBLEM WITH POTIONS by CHRISTIAN SLADE
(fourth in the KORGI series)

The saga of Ivy the molly and her beloved companion, the magical Korgi Sprout, continues in another beautifully illustrated graphic novel. The title foreshadows the main conflict: a magical potion gone wrong. But this installment also includes further revelations regarding the mysterious powers of Korgis.

I adore this precious series and expect it will hold a special place in my memory. The illustrations are masterful, brimming with emotional context. Ivy’s personality doesn’t see much distinct development beyond playful young molly, but she’s a perfect heroine for any reader to project themselves onto, and then into this endearing fantasy world. Sprout won my heart at “woof.” Their relationship is a love letter to dog companions everywhere and Sprout’s Korgi ancestry an imaginative celebration of Corgis specifically. (I have a Corgi.)   

An undefeated villain hints at future books, but to the best of my knowledge fans must content themselves with this open-ended quartet for now. I loved every single installment and certainly hope there will be more in the future!