Friday, August 28, 2015

THE GIRL FROM THE WELL


Review of THE GIRL FROM THE WELL by RIN CHUPECO
(review based on an advance reading copy)

From the first sentence, and then the first chapter, I feared I wouldn’t like this book. The opening scene is classic horror, a visceral description of a horrible man suffering a horrible fate. I don’t like horror. Not my taste. Luckily, I kept reading and the second chapter hooked me. 

We read this story through the perspective of the ghost Okiku. She’s a fearsome vigilante who hunts down child murderers and punishes them with brutal deaths. One day she finds herself drawn to a troubled teenage boy covered with tattoos (that have their own disturbing explanation). The boy softens Okiku. She has become accustomed to thinking of herself as a monster, but Tark sees the good she does. In return, Okiku might be the only one who can save Tark from a dreadful destiny of his own.

The story won me over because it remains rooted in character. I even grew to enjoy Okiku’s more horrific scenes the more I understand her motivations. My only complaint regarding character is that Tark’s age often felt like a moving target. He’s fifteen, but sometimes he feels twelve and other times twenty. His maturity and appearance seem to shift depending on whether it suits the scene more for him to be an old kid or a young adult.

Some weird phrasings did throw me out of the story at times. I didn’t note any of them down specifically, but they’re not common mistakes I see all the time. Rather they seem either like things a non-native English speaker might say or like originality attempts that fall short. There’s also some odd formatting choices in the advance copy I read. Though, I believe, designed to emphasize Okiku’s mental instability, the strange formatting merely distracted me. Last a few small plot holes diverted my attention at times. All little things, but certain readers fixate on logic or research lapses as instability in the very foundation of a story.

I should mention that the book’s Japanese-themes definitely elevated the whole story for me. I love everything Japanese: the language, the food, the culture. Someone less interested in Japanese elements will likely enjoy this book a lot less than I did. (I got super excited at the mention of okonomiyaki. Yum!)

This is a short read that only feels a little longer for its heavy themes and dark scenes. Based on word count, I could have read the whole thing in a day, but measuring more by emotional tolerance, well, I needed breaks. At its heart, though, THE GIRL FROM THE WELL tells a familiar story about how the things that haunt us also become an integral part of who we are.

Friday, August 21, 2015

AFTERWORLDS

 
Review of AFTERWORLDS by SCOTT WESTERFELD

I love Westerfeld’s UGLIES series, so when I heard he had a new book coming out I couldn’t wait to read it. I’ll confess from the start that AFTERWORLDS didn’t live up to my, perhaps unrealistically, high expectations, but it’s an enjoyable read nonetheless.

AFTERWORLDS tells two stories, that of a young writer and that of the story she’s writing: about a girl who sees the dead after surviving a terrorist attack. Darcy’s publishing success has left her breathless and out of her element. She wrote her first book in a month, for NaNoWriMo. Then she submitted that, with barely any edits, and the first agent snapped it up and quickly secured her a huge contract with a major publisher. Now fresh from high school, Darcy’s setting aside her parents’ expectations of college to instead move to New York and pursue writing full-time. Meanwhile, we also read Darcy’s story, about a teenager Lizzie who pretends to be dead when terrorists start shooting in an airport. In fact, she pretends so well that she comes too close to death and after that she can see the dead. Darcy’s book follows Lizzie’s journey learning about her new powers, ghosts, and death. Like Darcy, Lizzie’s life suddenly looks completely different. She had simple, standard college plans until fate shook up her life past recognition.

This book features the kind of skilled writing that you don’t even notice, because every word and phrase feels so natural and right. When I look closer I see a lot of passive voice and adverbs. However, everything seems so fitting for Darcy and Lizzie’s perspectives that I never noticed unless I specifically looked.

The plot arch feels so wide that I feared I might reach a frustrating cliffhanger at the end, with hardly anything actually happening in this installment. The pace moves extremely slowly at first, but does pick up. I didn’t find myself investing much until over halfway through, when the pace quickened, but once I did I felt entirely absorbed. I’m also pleased to say the ending is not a frustrating cliffhanger.

I loved and hated Darcy’s plotline. As a writer myself, I connected with all the mundane authentic details about writing and editing and publishing. However, as a writer who pushes myself extremely hard to make enough time for writing and submitting and constantly improving my work, it irritated me reading about an idolized version of publishing where Darcy barely tried at all. She wrote one book where many writers write several before publication. She only wrote said book in a month where it takes some years to finalize one. She hardly edited the book at all while most writers go through a few to countless drafts. Actually I’m not even touching on the idealism of the publishing side yet, only the writing side. I understand that the story needed Darcy’s success to happen suddenly and keep moving along, but the glasses seem too rosy.  

However, I think the book’s biggest weakness is that there are two distinct stories that never intersect. I wondered throughout the novel how Darcy and Lizzie would connect. Would they actually meet? Would we start seeing Darcy’s edits reflected in Lizzie’s life? No, Darcy is a writer and Lizzie her character. As best as I can tell, when we read Lizzie’s story we read the book Darcy wrote. No more to it than that. It sounds silly, because Lizzie is a character, but I wanted her to feel equally real to Darcy. Instead Darcy is a character while Lizzie is a character within a character, another degree removed.

The subtle writing and author commiseration made this book entirely worthwhile for me, but I do suspect it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

Friday, August 14, 2015

THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE


Review of THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE by BRIAN GREENE

I read one other book by Brian Greene recently, THE FABRIC OF THE COSMOS, which took a look at several highlights in physics. THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE focuses specifically on string theory, or M-theory as Greene later clarifies.

For me, reading about M-theory kindles endless curiosity and excitement. The material in this book fascinated and challenged me and really kicks the brain into full alert. I find some of logical leaps and scientific explorations simply mind-boggling, but I enjoy pondering on them nonetheless.

I definitely would like to understand the math behind this book, and this theory, more. I expect I’m a far ways off from that, but at this point I’m thinking I might benefit from a physics textbook as much as a leisure book like this. I have never been someone who likes being told that, “A is true. Because.” In Greene’s defense, he works hard to explain the why behind what he’s telling the reader, but in an attempt to keep things accessible sometimes there’s a little “Because.” that leaves me wanting more explanation. However, I think the explanation is the actual math and he’s probably entirely accurate that readers such as myself won’t follow the math. Doesn’t mean I’m not going to try!

I also want to read some books or articles on M-theory by scientists who aren’t convinced. Greene acknowledges his bias upfront. String theory is his area of study. Of course, he believes it. Of course, he’s passionate and excited about the latest discoveries. He does attempt to introduce arguments against M-theory, but his enthusiasm often overshadows those. I’m always for a balanced perspective, so the next step for me is likely seeking out some reading material that goes more into depths on M-theory’s drawbacks.

As the previous paragraph implies, I’m not entirely sold on M-theory. However, I don’t feel like I understand it enough to be credible when arguing why! Regardless, it seems to me that there’s very little measurable evidence. Instead the primary reasoning behind M-theory often feels like the fact that it would be so convenient. Don’t get me wrong; I catch Greene’s contagious enthusiasm as I’m reading his words and feel swept away by the exciting possibilities M-theory provides. Then I stop reading, take a step back, and start thinking, “But where’s the proof?”

However, my skepticism only makes me admire string theorists all the more. How brave, I think, to pursue any line of research with no guarantee that your decades of hard work will eventually provide the insights you hope. That being said, I don’t buy that any scientist really wastes their life, even if their research doesn’t lead or contribute to major revelations. Even if string theory is ultimately conclusively disproven, I image there’s still plenty to be learned from the various theories and experiments pursued in its name. 

Thought stuffed to overflowing with information, THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE still feels like it’s scratching the surface. While I teeter back and forth, indecisive, between skepticism and reverence for M-theory, I always love any book that further expands my reading list (and resent at the same time, too; I already have so much read). Next up in this subject: textbooks and string theory criticism.

Friday, August 7, 2015

BIGGER THAN A BREAD BOX


Review of BIGGER THAN A BREAD BOX by LAUREL SNYDER

Though marketed as a fantasy story, this book doesn’t really need the magical element. At its core, this is a story about family dynamics. Yes, preteen Rebecca discovers an enchanted bread box that will grant any wish as long as she wishes for something that can fit inside the bread box. Yet the story fixates on what the bread box can’t grant: Rebecca’s wish for a happy, united family.

Rebecca liked her life. Then one day her mother abruptly packs Rebecca and her little brother in the car and drives them far away from their father and their home to stay with their grandmother. Rebecca misses her house, her school, her friends, and, most of all, her dad. She resents her mother for tearing the family apart and initially wallows in self-pity. Then she starts looking at the world through other people’s perspectives and, by extension, matures quite a bit.

I commend the author for a brilliant example of POV (point of view). This is Rebecca’s story, so we read it in Rebecca’s perspective. Yet the reader will likely pick up on subtle clues that Rebecca, believably, misses. She’s at an age and maturity where she unconsciously makes observations without thinking through what those observations mean. While Rebecca feels her mother has absolutely no reason to leave their father, the reader might tally up the clues. Rebecca’s mother is a nurse and she often comes home late, after work and after running errands, whereupon she promptly sets about preparing dinner and tidying the house. Meanwhile Rebecca’s father can usually be found in front of the TV with a beer. While Rebecca wholeheartedly believes his consistent claim that he’s looking for work, the evidence isn’t convincing. From Rebecca’s standpoint life was good. From the reader’s standpoint, one can see how her mother felt worn to a breaking point.

Rebecca has a nice relationship with her toddler brother Lew. I don’t read very many books where the protagonist has a toddler or infant sibling and even fewer where the relationship feels so moving. Lew makes Rebecca a better person. She’s a little self-centered, though in my opinion absolutely no more so than most kids her age. However, it’s frequently her impulse to care for Lew that tugs her from her egocentric point of view and makes her consider the others around her.

I already know I love Laurel Snyder’s writing, from my earlier review of UP AND DOWN THE SCRATCHY MOUNTAINS. It’s modestly wise, often taking familiar insights and producing a refreshing phrasing. As one example, I really like the line: “sometimes...a person goes so far down a road, they can’t find the energy to walk back the other way.”

I didn’t like how much passive voice I found in this book, though. However, that’s really my only criticism and with a first person narration I consider passive voice more forgivable than with third person.

BIGGER THAN A BREAD BOX provokes some ethical debates, though avoids the didactic pitfalls all too common in books for younger readers. Being primarily concerned with her own wants, Rebecca doesn’t think through her actions at first. She’s quick to stew about anything negative and yet snatches up anything good that comes her way without asking any questions.

Once again Snyder delivers a middle reader book worth reading at any age.

Friday, July 31, 2015

THE FAIRY'S MISTAKE


Review of THE FAIRY’S MISTAKE by GAIL CARSON LEVINE
(first in THE PRINCESS TALES series)

I adore Levine’s work. Known most for her first book ELLA ENCHANTED, Levine always hits that perfect balance between sweet and smart in her various fairy tale twists and retellings.

In THE FAIRY’S MISTAKE, a well-intentioned fairy stirs up trouble by not thinking through the consequences of her actions. She rewards a kind-hearted young girl with the gift of jewels tumbling from her mouth whenever she speaks and punishes the girl’s selfish sister with the curse of bugs and snakes emerging in a likewise fashion. Cruel fate, though, twists the reward to a punishment and the punishment to a reward. Rosella, the generous and compassionate jewel vomiter, doesn’t care that much for wealth...but everyone around her does. Not only does she find herself swarmed with false friends constantly urging her to talk on while they catch the precious stones falling from her lips, but this “reward” hurts. Rosella’s throat soon feels scraped raw from the jewels that manifest there every time she speaks and scratch their way up into her mouth to cut her gums and crack a tooth if she isn’t careful. Meanwhile, Rosella’s self-centered sister Myrtle learns to make spiders and vipers slithering from her mouth work to her advantage. No one else likes those things much either, so she holds the threat of speaking over people’s heads until they give her what she wants.

The story’s smart, the writing’s smart, and the characters are smart. Levine twists familiar tales in unexpected ways, fills the pages with amusing and witty quips, and crafts characters who can always think their way out of tough situations.

One can easily read these slim middle grade novels in one sitting. They’re timeless stories, too - great read-a-louds for younger children and still entirely enjoyable as an adult.

Friday, July 24, 2015

I DON'T KNOW


Review of I DON’T KNOW: IN PRAISE OF ADMITTING IGNORANCE (EXCEPT WHEN YOU SHOULDN’T) by LEAH HAGER COHEN

Cohen opens this dissertation on ignorance with a personal story from grad school. In her first week, a professor started a class with instructions that used a word Cohen didn’t know. From looking around she could see everyone else following along without any perceivable difficulty. This discouraged her from raising her hand to ask what that word meant, which then led to her spending most of that class, as well as a few subsequent ones, thoroughly confused. 

Our society discourages honest admission of what we don’t know. It makes us look weak, we’re taught. It makes us look dumb. Cohen lists a few of the many books on faking knowledge, books that usually provide just enough information on common topics of conversation that one can pass as informed and credible. In actuality, we miss out on opportunities when we refuse to say, “I don’t know.” Most obviously, the opportunity to genuinely gain new knowledge - but the message here is that perception of intelligence is valued higher than actual intelligence. A lot of people would rather everyone think them smart than actually be smart. Centuries of experience and evidence have demonstrated that people who recognize how little they know are often wiser than those who think they know everything.

We aren’t born with this fear of admitting ignorance; we’re taught it. Young children usually have no difficulty conceding gaps in knowledge. Then they almost inevitably experience some form of ridicule for not knowing something. In some cases, the teasing is mild or friendly and doesn’t really affect the lucky individual’s confidence. However, for others the experience feels shameful or humiliating and socially trains the child to feign understanding to avoid further embarrassment. To emphasize this point, Cohen shares another personal story, this one of her niece answering a teacher’s question with “I don’t know” only to be called into the hall where the teacher yelled at her for her stupidity. Even classic children’s stories send a clear message that “I don’t know” can be embarrassing or even dangerous. In “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the subtext acknowledges that most people will go foolish lengths to hide what they don’t know. In “Rumpelstiltskin,” the miller boasts to the king that his daughter can spin straw into gold leading the king to demand the daughter perform this feat or else. Admitting “I don’t know” would mean her death.

Cohen quotes a teacher who repeatedly said, “If you don’t know, I’m certainly not going to tell you” and I instantly flashed back to my similar experience in high school with an English teacher. He would grade our papers, but refuse to explain why students received the grades they did. “If you can’t figure out why you got a C on your essay, I can’t help you,” he would say. This infuriated me. What are you doing here then? I wanted to scream at him. What’s the point of a teacher if not to draw attention to the student’s possible gaps in knowledge or technical weaknesses? If I knew all my own shortcomings, I wouldn’t need peers or mentors.

I personally don’t have much trouble admitting ignorance, though I did more so in the past. The shift came about (big surprise coming) because of books. I read a lot, 1-2 books a week, 50-100 books a year. I can’t read everything, though. No matter how much I read, I’m acutely aware of how much I still haven’t read. When people ask if I’ve read a book, I always admit when I haven’t. I understand why some people find admission difficult, though. The truth is that, yes, sometimes people are rude or condescending because I haven’t read such and such classic or bestseller. Over time, though, I decided that’s their problem, not mine. There are tons of books in the world, not to mention tons of other interests, hobbies, and things to know outside of reading. How shortsighted to judge someone for knowing less than you in one small area of all there is to know in the world.

Certain jobs reinforce this discomfort with the phrase “I don’t know” even more. Medical professionals, for example, make diagnoses, recommend courses of action, and estimate probability of success. In many cases, they don’t know things with absolute certainty. Unfortunately, the majority of patients expect utter confidence from their doctors. They want medical advice to feel absolute, like it’s God’s word and not that of a flawed human working within the limits of our (and his or her) medical understanding as well as our technological capabilities. Cohen also discusses how in work environments many employees would rather make a mistake than admit uncertainty from the start by asking a question.

The book skims the topic of death, but raises interesting points. Death is a big “I don’t know.” Some people struggle with that uncertainty more than others. Some look for explanations or ideologies that they can wholeheartedly embrace so they can replace “I don’t know” with confident conviction, a more comfortable emotional state.

As the title implies, the book also touches on when “I don’t know” can be harmful. There’s a chilling example of children feigning ignorance rather than speak up about abuse. Not to mention far too many worldwide examples of countries, groups, and individuals alike using “I don’t know” as an excuse not to take action, the look-the-other-way mentality.

Despite my lengthy review, this is an extremely short book at only 114 pages. I finished it in a single hour-long sitting. While I enjoyed it thoroughly, it does feel like it’s skimming the surface, more a discussion starter than an in-depth exploration.

Occasionally, some of the various points and stories feel a little disjointed. I found this further proof that the book might benefit from being longer. Many short points feel like they could be whole chapters.

If you’re at all interested in this book, you really have no excuse not to read it since it’s such a minimal time investment, especially proportional to the value of the subject matter. I for one hope that to see “I don’t know” more frequently embraced as, rather than a moment of avoidable weakness, an integral stepping-stone to obtaining priceless knowledge.

Friday, July 17, 2015

DREAMS OF GODS AND MONSTERS



Review of DREAMS OF GODS AND MONSTERS by LAINI TAYLOR
(third in the DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE trilogy)

I felt both extremely excited and quite a bit hesitant about this final book in Taylor’s ambitious, addictive trilogy. I adored the first book in this series so much that I went read everything else Taylor had written. However, I liked the second one far less and so worried about whether this third and final novel would redeem the series or resonate even less. While I have some reservations, I found plenty worthy of appreciation, both in the series’ overall arch and this final installment.

DREAMS OF GODS AND MONSTERS opens with a brand new character. She’s an interesting edition (significantly more so as the story progresses), but she’s not the reason I bought the book. The author did this in the second in the series, too - opening with secondary characters and plotlines when I cared more about addressing major cliffhangers right away. We return to everyone and everything eventually, but patience is a must for this one.

I found DAYS OF BLOOD AND STARLIGHT, the second book, a little too dark for my taste and, this latest one, DREAMS OF GODS AND MONSTERS a little too melodramatic. The very first chapter begins with high stakes drama as supernatural creatures bring their war into the human world. From there, these pages overflow with self-pitying “woe is I” sentiment and an everyone’s-hurting-inside theme. (To be fair, the self-pity is entirely justifiable, merely draining when all condensed together.) I even found the writing I adored so much in the first book too indulgently unrestrained now. (A lot of lines would be more affecting if they took the “less is more” adage into account.) Additionally, there’s an abundance of wildly theatrical lines foreshadowing more tragedy in upcoming chapters. I will admit, though, that sometimes the author saved scenes from sensational melodrama with heartfelt sincerity. Some emotional scenes simply struck me as far too viscerally real to belittle them for said emotion.

My main concern for this final book regarded the romance. Taylor handles that far better than I feared, but still didn’t persuade me entirely. In the first book, I felt gloriously floored by this haunting tragedy of lovers ripped apart and one turned numb and cruel by his loss. Spoiler alert if you haven’t read the first book. What Akiva did - blaming an entire race for his love’s death and working towards their complete extinction in revenge - is genocide. I didn’t resent the first book for this violence; I found it painfully heartbreaking but a stronger story for being such. However, to me the second book then elevated Akiva’s actions - as though he wouldn’t have murdered so many hundreds (thousands?) of beings if not for how much he loved Madrigal and how much her death destroyed him. In other words, I felt the series romanticizes genocide. When Akiva discovers Madrigal resurrected as Karou and must come to terms with what he has done, I found it all immensely grim and affecting, but I wasn’t rooting for them to reunite. Honestly, I hoped she would find a new love interest. And book two seemed to set the stage for a reunion in book three. I will say, though, that DREAMS OF GODS AND MONSTERS does a superb job of emphasizing the utterly vital role forgiveness plays in any kind of lasting peace. However, there’s a difference between forgiving (letting go of anger towards) someone who killed countless of your kin...and dating him. Nevertheless, Taylor swayed me far more than I expected, not merely regarding the romance but about the magnitude of forgiveness, and I cherish books that can do that: really challenge your perceptions.

I love Ziri. Speaking of forgiveness, he embodies the concept. Life beats him around with a mind-boggling lack of mercy and yet he never lets this change him. Sure, he despairs, but he doesn’t turn bitter. He self-pities - a little - but he never so much as considers vengeance. I hesitate with this adjective, but he’s the epitome of a pure soul: all self sacrifice for the bigger picture with only brief wistful glances towards what he would have liked for himself.

The humor frustrated me at times. What worked so well for the first book turned forced in the second and flippant in the third. This is a dark book, a dark series. Trying to make such a horrific war funny or even cute only comes across as dismissive.

I have mixed feelings on the ending. Avoiding explicit spoilers,  the book feels like it cuts off before telling the rest of the story. If the author didn’t have a section at the end where she talks about the satisfaction of finishing the series for good, I would suspect it wasn’t actually finished. The end does provide closure for several main plot threads...but unleashes new ones in the last few chapters. I did admire all the extra complexity woven into an already elaborate story, but I didn’t like new conflicts being raised at the last moment, conflicts we’ll never see resolved.

All in all a solid finish to a bold, exceptional series that will stand out in my memory for years. I’m still eagerly watching for whatever Taylor publishes next.