Friday, May 26, 2017

THE CARNIVOROUS CARNIVAL


Review of THE CARNIVOROUS CARNIVAL by LEMONY SNICKET
(ninth in the A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS series)

At the end of the last book, the Baudelaires escape one awful situation (aka unfortunate event) by willingly entering another awful situation: shutting themselves in their nemesis Count Olaf’s car trunk - since his vehicle is the only means of escape. They wind up at a carnival in the middle of nowhere (sidenote: bad for business).

Here the Baudelaires finally learn how Count Olaf so easily tracks them from one new home to another. Apparently, he knows a psychic at this carnival, eager to give him whatever information he wants.

The Baudelaires put their newfound expertise in disguises to work and blend in as carnival freaks. This turns out to be a less than ideal tactic, since Count Olaf has some plans of his own for the freaks...involving very hungry lions.

I think this book is my favorite of the series (with the disclaimer that I haven’t re-read the rest yet, but I remember it as my favorite and so far that’s still the case with re-reading.) I talk about the unique humor in this series a lot and page 100-101 is a perfect example of what I so love about this series. I also found this one a faster read than any of the others, because I’m more into the story.

SPOILER ALERT in this last paragraph. We learned in the last book that one of the Baudelaire parents may have survived the fire. Previous history from this series suggests it’s best to prepare ourselves for tragedy and disappointment, but that possibility still provides a light at the end of the tunnel as well as a little more mystery.

Friday, May 19, 2017

THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN IN FLORENCE


Review of THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN IN FLORENCE: A STORY OF BOTTICELLI by ALYSSA PALOMBO
(review based on an advance reading copy)

Based on real history, this story follows Simonetta Cattaneo, reputed to be the most beautiful woman in Florence as well as the muse for Botticelli’s famous painting The Birth of Venus.

Each character, especially Simonetta, feels remarkably real and complex. Many of the main characters are taken from history, but Palombo does an excellent job filling in the blanks and developing these historical figures into real, believable people. I also admired the relationships. With nuanced characters comes more opportunity for an examination of how so many different personality types interact with each other.

In particular, I liked the relationship between Simonetta and her husband. This book is focused on Simonetta’s relationship with Botticelli, but with Simonetta’s marriage Palombo shows how relationships can morph over time. At the end of the book, I couldn’t help comparing Simonetta’s clean-slate introduction to her future husband at the start of the novel to their more complicated relationship by the end.

Above all, though, I adored Simonetta’s character. I ached for her. She’s a woman born in the wrong time, for certain. She wants to be appreciated for her mind more than her body, but many swoon over her beauty while considering her intellect a bonus novelty in an attractive woman. She’s starved for intellectual conversation because few deem it appropriate for her. She also craves independence in a time when such was scarce for women. While she carves out a place for herself as best she can, there’s a touch of tragedy from the beginning that her life will never be what she really wants.

I loved this novel from the very first page. The beautiful prose pulled me in and the vivid characters and complex relationships held me riveted to the end.

Friday, May 12, 2017

THE HOSTILE HOSPITAL


Review of THE HOSTILE HOSPITAL by LEMONY SNICKET
(eighth in the A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS series)


After fleeing “the vile village” from the last book, the Baudelaire orphans find themselves stranded in the middle of nowhere and falsely accused of murder. They find shelter, if you can call it that, in a strange hospital that looks like the architect/construction workers grew bored halfway through and gave up on building the other half.

In this installment, the Baudelaire siblings finally manage to make the general uselessness of adults work in their favor. For seven novels now, they’ve found themselves frustrated by the fact that their nemesis Count Olaf can slap on a mediocre disguise and all the adults believe he must be someone else. Well, two (er, four if you count all the siblings) can play at that game. The Baudelaires realize if adults are so easily fooled, they can disguise themselves, too.

I love that the series becomes increasingly unpredictable as it moves forward. So many series lag in the middle, but A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS thrives in the middle. The first few books start off with a very formulaic plot. A few key points stay consistent with the later books: a change of setting for each book and Count Olaf’s unavoidable arrival no matter where the orphans go. However, the other similarities start blurring. The earlier books see the orphans placed with a variety of guardians. In the later ones, they’re in more unusual settings, often out on their own. (They have, by now, realized that adults are useless and stopped seeking them out for help.)

I also like that Sunny’s aging becomes apparent in the later books. Her word choice is maturing and she’s transitioning from crawling to walking. Especially in a series that can feel set aside from time, it’s a nice reminder of the passage of time as the children go from one unfortunate event to the next.

Friday, May 5, 2017

THE ORIGINAL GINNY MOON


Review of THE ORIGINAL GINNY MOON by BENJAMIN LUDWIG
(review based on an advance reading copy)

Ginny is a foster teenager lucky enough to have finally found a forever home with wonderful adoptive parents. Of course, it’s no happily ever after. In fact, the novel opens with Ginny stuffing a pretend baby into a suitcase when it won’t stop screaming. Given that they gave her the doll as practice for the real baby they’re about to have, this understandably concerns Ginny’s adoptive parents.

I positively adored this book, more so than I have any book for a while (and by a while I mean a few weeks). I loved the story so much due to Ginny’s remarkable voice. Ginny is autistic with other personality quirks that could be labeled as anxiety, OCD, etc. She requires a daily list and precise routines to keep calm and comfortable. She distinguishes between approximately and exactly seven o’clock, because that’s an important difference for her when someone claims they’ll do something at a certain time. She keeps her mouth firmly shut when she’s worried people can see her thoughts. When someone asks her more than one question, she becomes overwhelmed and doesn’t know which one to answer and usually then says nothing.

One of the most amazing things about Ginny’s voice is that by being in her mind, as the reader, you understand her completely. However, she speaks so little that it’s entirely believable why everyone around her is struggling to understand her at all. She simply doesn’t know how to express what she means in a “normal” way that others can accept.

It’s not only Ginny I liked. Every character in this book feels nuanced and distinct. No one’s perfect. Her adoptive parents do their best, but they both have their breaking points. Her teachers and therapist all mean well, but everyone’s missing things, including one big thing! Her birth mother loves Ginny, but she’s deeply flawed and dangerous. With great characters often come intriguing relationships and this story is no exception. From Ginny’s bond with her adoptive father to her unconditional acceptance from her therapist, each relationship feels complex and interesting.

I really liked how the writing style itself develops Ginny’s character. Many of her thoughts and snippets of her dialogue are italicized, calling attention to words and phrases that she’s basically parroting back from someone else. Probably due to how Ginny struggles with expressing herself, she often takes something someone said and repeats it. This can make her dialogue feel a little stilted, some parts juvenile and others too mature for her character, except for the fact that the words aren’t originally hers. The italics work well in emphasizing Ginny’s adopted (couldn’t help the pun) words as she tries to mimic those around her.

It’s very easy to tear through this whole book in one or a few sittings, because the chapters are so short, many only 2-4 pages. And once you’re invested in Ginny’s well being you have to keep reading about her self-sabotage with your fingers crossed that she learns how to look out for herself and the people who’ve taken care of her before it’s too late.

Friday, April 28, 2017

THE VILE VILLAGE


Review of THE VILE VILLAGE by LEMONY SNICKET
(seventh in the A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS series)

“It takes a village to raise a child,” which is why the village of V.F.D. decides to accept guardianship of the three Baudelaire orphans. Unfortunately, the people in this village seem to have the saying a bit backwards. They expect the children to do all the chores for the entire village. To make matters worse, this town lives by a long, loooong list of strict rules: everything from what books (not many) are allowed in the library to how many nuts are allowed on a sundae. Punishment for disobeying any of these rules is being burned at the stake.

If you’re a silver lining sort of person, though, let’s focus on the fact that the town handyman takes the children under his wing. (You’ll get the pun when you read the book.) Hector is very much like Jerome from The Ersatz Elevator: nice and well-meaning, but sadly too much of a coward to be that useful as a guardian. Hector might be a reasonable person who knows all the town’s rules are alarming nonsense, but he’s too fearful of those in charge to speak up about anything.

There’s a fun mystery in this novel as the children discover a string of poetic riddles that they’re convinced their friend Isadora is leaving. They suspect their kidnapped triplet friends must be nearby...which means Count Olaf is probably nearby, too, not that his presence would be much of a surprise by now.

This may be one of my favorite books in the series so far. As I mentioned in earlier reviews, some of the books start to feel too repetitive in formula, but this addition had more of a complete plot within the one installment - thanks in great part to the poems mystery.

Friday, April 21, 2017

LUCY AND LINH


Review of LUCY AND LINH by ALICE PUNG
(based on a review copy)

This book took a very long time to pull me in, but I became a devoted fan by the end. On it’s surface, LUCY AND LINH is an almost cliché novel. Lucy comes from a lower class background, but earns a scholarship into a fancy private school where she struggles navigating the subtle teenage girl politics. Several iconic, thematically similar novels pop right to mind as you start reading. However, both Lucy and her story develop into something unique as you keep reading.

Lucy is a very smart girl, but quiet and withdrawn. She plans to coast through her high school experience, attracting as little attention to herself as possible. That idea goes out the window when she catches the eye of “the Cabinet,” the student nickname for a trio of popular girls who pretty much control the school, including the teachers, with petty but effective emotional warfare.

The Cabinet a tiresome trope, but I invested in this book so much because I found myself intensely relating to Lucy. She’s a hard worker who believes in work ethic for the sake of itself rather than for recognition. In fact, it embarrasses her when her work ethic, or anything else, draws to much attention her way. She’s smart, but many around her think having nothing to say is the same as having nothing to think. She wants to avoid drama, but finds sometimes it seeks her out. I connected most strongly, though, to her introverted side. Especially when things become convoluted or overwhelming, Lucy sneaks off to spend time by herself. Her peers find this weird and suspect, and I encountered similar confusion in my teenage years when I had social offers but opted for alone time instead. The book puts it very well: “As a general rule, teenage girls never, ever see solitude as a choice.”

This is a thought-provoking novel with plenty to discuss, especially around themes of class, privilege, and race. Lucy overhears one of her teacher’s friends refer to Lucy as “your little Pygmalion project.” Lucy may not know what that means, but we do. A good portion of this book is about Lucy’s slow revelation that sometimes by standing aside you are part of the problem. She wanted to stay tucked out of the way minding her own business, but as she sees behavior she detests she has to decide what’s worth more: taking a stand or minding her own business.

The whole book is told in first person as though Lucy is addressing an old friend from her previous life, Linh. So there’s some second person as well, directed at Linh. I think I found the format a little confusing and hard to get into, which is why the book grew on me so slowly. We don’t know that much about Linh, and it’s easy to forget she exists, except every now and then Lucy throws her name into the middle of a sentence as a reminder: everything’s being told to Linh. All that said, trust the author. There’s an unexpected twist about why the author chose this format. The twist is exceptionally well done and makes everything clear after the big reveal.

Friday, April 14, 2017

THE ERSATZ ELEVATOR


Review of THE ERSATZ ELEVATOR by LEMONY SNICKET
(sixth in the A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS series)

For their latest guardian, the poor Baudelaires find themselves living with Jerome, an old friend of their parents’, and Jerome’s status and money obsessed wife Esme. The couple lives in an “in” neighborhood filled with rich, bored people who spend all their time gossiping about what’s “in” and “out” and restructuring their entire lives around these arbitrary guidelines. Unfortunately, Esme and Jerome live in the penthouse suite of their building...but elevators are out. Fortunately, though, orphans are in!

Jerome isn’t so bad, but - as is the Baudelaires’ luck - he’s another incompetent adult, concerned more with getting along with everyone than doing what needs to be done. I liked his character and found him more realistic than I care to admit. He’s nice, caring, and articulate, which sadly makes his primary weakness of being a coward all the more disappointing.

However, I will say that this is the first book where we encounter some adults who don’t feel entirely incompetent. Unfortunately, hope is a fickle thing and the hope that someone might be able to help them followed by the realization that, no, they can’t after all might be one of the cruelest twists the orphans have encountered in a while.

I do like that the villains feel a bit more capable and, therefore, dastardly in this installment. So far, Olaf has leaned far more heavily on the assurance that everyone else is an idiot. This is the first book where I feel he really does pull one over on the Baudelaires and becomes a more threatening villain for doing so.

Overall, the entire series is becoming more nuanced than the first few books. The first ones had a repetitive rhythm of: orphans being sent to a new guardian, Olaf shows up in disguise, no one believes them, Olaf ruins what might have been an okay home, his deception is revealed, he escapes, and book ends with the knowledge that the orphans need another new home. Well, okay, these books follow that plot line, too, but the past two have far more layers and plot twists, and they actually start to surprise me a little.

These books are much younger than what I tend to read and I do find the logic too loose for my tastes at times. You need to suspend disbelief a lot to get into this over-the-top story and sometimes I find my capability in that area strained to the breaking point.

As always I love Sunny’s baby talk. I’m a sucker for smart characters being overlooked as dumb, especially because others just can’t understand their type of intelligence.