Friday, June 24, 2016

SHARK GIRL


Review of SHARK GIRL by KELLY BINGHAM

Fifteen-year-old Jane loses her arm in a shark attack, but she’s lost more than that: her innocence, her privacy, and most crushing her artistic talent (dependant on her good - now gone - hand). To friends, acquaintances, and strangers alike, she is now known as Shark Girl, as a story rather than a person. SHARK GIRL is simultaneously an affecting tale about healing as well as a convincing portrayal of the intrusive nature of media. 

I loved this book and, to be honest, I wasn’t even sure I would like it. I’ve mentioned before that I have a lower standard for books I listen to on audio rather than read. I also have a lower standard for books I borrow from the library rather than buy. If I pay for it and have a physical copy that I’ll likely keep, I better like it. However, I’m much more willing to take chances on borrowed books. I took a chance on SHARK GIRL and am immensely grateful that I did.

And it wasn’t love at first sentence either. Initially, I balked at the lyrical style of prose. This book is written in verse. Don’t worry; it doesn’t rhyme. However, it does utilize line breaks for adding rhythm to the words that puts one more in mind of poetry than a novel. However, I’m a big believer in the idea that first you need to understand the rules before you can break them. The reason I shy away from novels written in verse is that usually, well, it’s terribly done, something the author thought would be a unique idea but it’s only a poorly executed distraction from the story. I’m relieved to say that SHARK GIRL is one of the exceptions. Once the story hooked me enough, I moved past my prejudices and actually began to admire how deliberately the line breaks add beats between thoughts, pauses within a sentence.

Of course, the writing style also makes this an extremely quick read. If you are remotely interested in this book, you have no excuse not to read it; it will take you hardly any time at all. I finished in three days, and those are days I worked eight hours, wrote, worked out, socialized, and read chunks of other books. My point is that I think had I focused on SHARK GIRL alone, I could read it in maybe 2 hours. 

I also admire the author for how succinctly she crafts her characters. With minimal words, she creates a complex and believable cast, only telling us as much as we need to know and often revealing quite a lot with only a little.

First there’s Jane and how can’t you sympathize with her? She resents all the media attention and the book includes an assortment of letters from strangers that demonstrate the wide range of compassionate to insensitive (not to mention unsolicited) feedback drowning this poor girl. In particular, Jane hates the idea of herself as some kind of showcase for survival. She isn’t ready to be grateful that she’s alive; she wants some time to be bitter. Most of all bitter about the loss of her spectacular artistic talent.

Then there’s all of Jane’s family and friends. I challenge anyone not to fall for the little boy Justin who Jane meets in physical therapy. Then there’s Jane’s mother with her admirable support but also relentless pushing her ideas of how Jane should move on. (Like switching to digital art, which wouldn’t be as hard with her non-dominant hand, but Jane wants a pen and paper.)  Jane’s brother, like many siblings, is at once her hero and arch-nemesis. He saved her life and does his part to shelter or challenge her as needed, but sometimes the challenge part isn’t welcome and his blunt honesty can be merciless. Even Jane’s friends mostly understand, but she still encounters some callous comments and efforts to mold Jane into the post-trauma heroine they want in their lives.

Like all good books, the core of this story is universal. It’s about being yourself. When the whole world is crushing down in an effort to shape you to other people’s image for you, the most heroic thing you can do is shape yourself.

Friday, June 17, 2016

ENDERS


ENDERS by LISSA PRICE
(second in the STARTERS series)

For those of you who need a refresher, in the first book of this series our protagonist Callie agreed to essentially “rent out” her body to rich elderly people eager to experience youth again. I don’t mean rent in a sex trade type of way, but rather in reference to the science fiction technology in this novel that allows someone to experience life through another person’s eyes, even controlling that person’s body. Horrible as it sounds, Callie needed the money to save her sick brother.

Callie may have overthrown one harmful system in the first book, but if she’s trying to make the world a better place her work is far from done. Now that Prime has been disbanded, people are still going around collecting Metals, the new term for anyone who has the chip allowing them to be controlled by another. And it’s not like Callie can just have the chip removed, since it explodes if you try.

This series features that invisible kind of good writing where you don’t even think about the sentences and the words and simply keep reading, reading, reading. Price uses simple, active sentences and avoids much decoration or style in her prose.

In general, this is another fast paced book, chock full of suspense and action, twists and turns. The rapid progression of events combined with easy sentences and short chapters make it a very fast read, too. While plenty of people will love this about the book, I did find the story a little more plot focused than character focused for my taste.

My only other criticism is a bit of spoiler so skip this paragraph if you want. I’ll avoid specifics, but how Callie accomplishes her victory at the end of this novel feels too arbitrary for me. I know this series is much more soft sci fi than hard sci fi, but the technical description of how she does what she does feels closer to fantasy than anything science.  

However, I’m pleased to say that the ending leaves this series open for further novels. And Price does have a real knack for writing satisfying endings that resolve all essential plot threads while leaving a few interesting doors open inviting us in for more story. Fingers crossed!

Friday, June 10, 2016

STAY WITH ME


Review of STAY WITH ME by GARRET FREYMANN-WEYR

Leila has an unusual family. Her father has two other daughters from a previous marriage, both much older than her. Though Leila wants their affection, she’s not convinced they see her as much as a sister as she does them. Leila also had a surprisingly close relationship with her father’s ex-wife, before she died. Unusual or not, this is Leila’s normal...until her half-sister Rebecca commits suicide. Then, due to complicated circumstances, Leila finds herself living with her other half-sister Claire while her parents leave the country. Leila calls all these changes her “new now,” because she knows nothing will ever be the same again.

I adored the voice of this novel. From an objective point of view, I suspect critics would say there’s far too much interior monologue, but it works. This is Leila’s story and her thoughts drive the story as much as her actions, especially when we’re treated to a shift in her outlook.

I also enjoyed reading about Leila’s struggle as an ambitious dyslexic teenager. Though hardly the focal point of the book, the story opens with Leila mentioning her dyslexia as she worries she’s probably not starting this tale at the right place. This shortcoming pops up throughout the novel and what struck me was how much others dismiss Leila as stupid because she struggles with reading. There are plenty of other ways to be smart. I present Leila as evidence, since she’s unusually - but believably - mature for her seventeen years.

Speaking of seventeen, my only real issue with this story is that Leila’s primary love interest is thirty-one. Before you write off this book at that, I will add that the author handles it impressively well. However, stop reading this paragraph right here if you don’t want to read any specifics about the plot that might count as spoilers. Due to height and maturity, people often mistake Leila for older than seventeen. When Eamon first meets her, he thinks her in her twenties and probably too young for him, but when he learns she’s actually seventeen he backs off immediately, telling her they shouldn’t be more than friends and really probably shouldn’t even be that. They do become friends, though, friends with a lingering romantic undertone. It’s obvious they both want more, but know the taboos of their age difference. I commend the author for also working in another important theme here: everyone will judge you and you need to do what’s right for you despite all those voices. Both Eamon and Leila recognize how odd their relationship looks to outsiders and that most people assume he’s the predatory older creep leering after a na├»ve and gullible young body. To the reader it’s clear that Leila is far more than a body to Eamon. He admires and respects her ways of thinking and wants to hear what she has to say. They both bristle at what people imply (and state explicitly) about them, but resign themselves to the fact that they don’t get to control what other people think and should focus more on whether they think there’s any truth to the comments or not.

I rarely re-read books, but I have the sense that STAY WITH ME would be well-worth reading again and again. Especially as someone who primarily loves stories about characters, I cherished this up-close portrayal of a dynamic young woman coping with her new now.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

TALES OF BURNING LOVE


Review of TALES OF BURNING LOVE by LOUISE ERDRICH

This novel dissects into two distinct parts: the first follows the collapse of Jack Mauser’s latest marriage while the second features his five former wives trapped together and trading their stories of him.

I liked the second part much better than the first. Erdrich has a knack for plopping the reader into a convincing world, but sometimes it takes a little time to care; the reader doesn’t yet understand what drives the characters. For me at least, the entire first half of the book feels like set up for the second half.

Once I knew some history on Jack’s string of failed marriages, I loved reading their separate stories. Jack feels like a blank slate. Each woman describes a very different relationship with him. As for Jack, he molds himself to each woman but none of it works. One says, “His smile was a counterfeiter’s press.” I love that line.

I adored the first book I ever read by Erdrich, THE ROUND HOUSE,
but have had less enthusiastic feelings for some of her other novels. With TALES OF BURNING LOVE, I recognized some of the clever and unique writing that so enamored me in THE ROUND HOUSE.

It’s worth noting that many of Erdrich’s novels take place in the same universe, with some overlapping characters between books. This makes reading her entire body of work especially worthwhile as it becomes a multi-generational tale of a wider community.

THE ROUND HOUSE still holds the record for my favorite Erdrich book, but TALES OF BURNING LOVE has to be a close second.

Friday, May 27, 2016

THE GIRL WITH THE MERMAID HAIR


THE GIRL WITH THE MERMAID HAIR by DELIA EPHRON

This book lured me in with young Sukie’s eerie obsession with her new mirror. Well, old mirror. It’s an heirloom from her grandmother, gorgeous, except for the cracks that appear from no known cause and work their way across the surface over the course of the story.

Ephron takes a surreal, magical realism approach to a teenage girl’s emotional struggles. I’ll admit the style of this book is not to my taste. Everything feels too loosely connected for me, like an abstract painting. We have simple characters, a vague setting, and pieces of a plot that link together more by Sukie’s emotional journey than anything else. However, I see the appeal in the story nonetheless and would highly recommend it for fans of Francesca Lia Block.

Sukie’s infatuation with her mirror is probably what I liked most about this story, especially the metaphorical subtext. In truth, I can’t easily tell you what this book is about other than being a teenager and using the mirror as a metaphor for truth. Sukie doesn’t always like what she sees reflected in the mirror, but, she figures, mirrors don’t lie. Except perhaps cracked ones do. I confess as a long-time fantasy reader I immediately spotted the fairy tale twist potential of this theme and hoped for something of that nature, but Ephron takes the story in another direction.

Friday, May 6, 2016

CLEOPATRA


Review of CLEOPATRA: A LIFE by STACY SCHIFF
(review based on an audiobook, read by ROBIN MILES)

Cleopatra is an iconic figure, but most people don’t know the distinction between legend and history. Foremost, we portray Cleopatra as a manipulative seductress. While the facts do suggest Cleopatra had a distinct charm and political prowess, records suggest her mind was a much stronger weapon than her body. In fact, many accounts comment that Cleopatra wasn’t actually that attractive. Her beauty came from her personality and intelligence.

I loved this biography, but can acknowledge that it won’t be for everyone. For one thing, it’s rather dry, focusing on dates and names especially at first. For another, it contains a lot of speculation on various possibilities where we simply don’t know the real truth. Last, this is really geared more towards people who know very little about Cleopatra. While no expert myself, nothing in this book took me by surprise. Perhaps some specifics, but overall it’s all what I have already read or heard about Cleopatra.

A big part of why I nevertheless found the audiobook so engrossing was the voice. Miles has a fantastic reading voice: clear and articulate with the right amount of subtle, well-timed inflection that avoids any monotone-feel. It felt like listening to a good friend go on and on about a passion. I can’t say for certain exactly how to divide the credit between Miles’ voice and Schiff’s words, but regardless the passion is contagious.

While some readers may prefer something a little more revolutionary in content, this is an exceptional, in-depth biography of a remarkable woman.

Friday, April 29, 2016

WATERSMEET


Review of WATERSMEET by ELLEN JENSEN ABBOTT
(first in the WATERSMEET series)

Shunned by her village for her dark skin, Abisina has grown used to her life in the shadows. She lives in an overtly bigoted society that outcasts anyone who strays from a specified physical ideal. She’s not without bitterness, but you could say she’s found peace with her lot in life. Until a tyrannical ruler comes to her village, warning everyone against tolerance, spreading the fear of spiritual repercussions unless they cleanse the village of the toxic outcasts. In the course of one speech, Abisina’s harsh life goes from one filled with bullying and insults to a full-fledged fight for survival. Her mother speaks of an impossibly wonderful place called Watersmeet where they’ll be safe. It sounds too good to be true, but at this point Abisina doesn’t have anything to lose by striking out in search of something better.

Thematically, this is a story about prejudice above all else. War also plays a big role, but that ties in with what happens when people start dividing into groups and facing off against each other. Though a victim of prejudice herself, Abisina doesn’t recognize her own narrow-mindedness as she strays out into the bigger world full of all kinds of people (or creatures, in the case of a fantasy novel).

I stumbled over one major revelation later in the story, because I couldn’t follow the leap of logic that led Abisina to her correct conclusion. It felt too much like the character knows this now, because the author needs her to know this now. How she suddenly knew something with such certainty that struck me as random threw me out of the story.

This is the first in a series and, though I gripe and grumble about last minute realizations that I’m reading a first book rather than a standalone, I admire how WATERSMEET feels like both. There’s a satisfying story arc and as well a fulfilling ending, with only the faintest hint of more story to be told. I suppose it’s really first books with sudden cliffhangers that send me into fits.

Without spoiling too much, Abisina learns by the end that she may have won one battle, but not the war. Especially if we’re talking a war against prejudice. That’s a long, complicated war potentially impossible to ever “win.” But Abisina intends to do her best.