Friday, November 10, 2017

TRULY MADLY GUILTY


Review of TRULY MADLY GUILTY by LIANE MORIARTY

I adore this author and the way she creates such complex, believable, and fascinating characters. In this novel, we follow six viewpoints as the story interweaves between past and present. Something happened at a recent gathering between this crowd, something that changed everyone’s perspective.

However, the reader doesn’t learn what happened until over halfway through the book, page 293 to be exact. This frustrated me immensely. I do not like information being withheld from me - the reader - that the point of view character clearly knows, especially if this technique seems aimed at keeping me reading. Also I believe that the longer an author withholds a mysterious secret from the reader, the better and more interesting that secret better be once it’s finally revealed. I did honestly love this book, but would have much preferred the novel open upfront with what happened.

I nevertheless enjoyed the character studies from beginning to the end, and enjoyed entirely without complaint after turning the corner of the big revelation. The six main characters consist of three couples. Tiffany and Vid hosted the infamous barbeque that caused such fallout. Tiffany is a gorgeous, vibrant woman and her husband Vid has the charisma and charm to hold his own in her company. In contrast, they have a quiet daughter who keeps her nose stubbornly buried in her books. Sam and Clementine have two young girls and a seemingly perfect marriage. Clementine is a musician while Sam’s art may be his admirable optimism. The last couple Erica and Oliver don’t fit in as well. Erica has been best friends with Clementine since childhood, though perhaps due more to Clementine’s mother than Clementine herself. Both Erica and Oliver had hard childhoods that left them with numerous ticks, quirks, and compulsions. They’re well-meaning, lovable people, but they understandably grate on people’s nerves.

Despite my insistence that the big reveal should come much earlier, this book hasn’t in the least undermined my strong respect for this author. On the contrary, I’m even more convinced at her knack for creating characters I won’t soon forget.

Friday, November 3, 2017

UPROOTED


Review of UPROOTED by NOAMI NOVIK

Agnieszka lives in a small valley where every ten years a terrible mage known as the Dragon takes one young girl to serve him. In return he keeps the awful Wood’s dark magic from overrunning the village. This novel feels both fresh and modern as well as a familiar fairy tale classic.

Everyone anticipated that the Dragon would take Agnieszka’s friend, Kasia. She’s the Dragon’s type: gorgeous, intelligent, talented in so many ways. Of course, he doesn’t take Kasia; he takes Agnieszka.

I will confess that I liked a lot of what this story does conceptually with common tropes more than I found myself engrossed in the plot of the book. That disclaimer aside, I loved the friendship dynamic between Kasia and Agnieszka. In almost any other book, they would be frenemies. Or Kasia would have a painful fall from her place of reverence. In UPROOTED, however, Agnieszka does not give in to the temptations of jealousy, nor does Kasia take on an expected holier than thou air. The two girls are loyal, steadfast friends who respect one another and cherish each other’s gifts.

The relationship dynamic between the Dragon and Agnieszka also sidesteps typical roles in a story such as this, though their relationship isn’t explored and unpacked quite as much as I wanted.

I loved the suspenseful Wood plotline, but found myself confused and lost in some of the twists and turns and action scenes. I suspect more is revealed about the inner workings of this mysterious force than I followed.

With fairy tale elements and a feminist heroine, UPROOTED is definitely a modern classic. 

Friday, October 20, 2017

LEMONY SNICKET: THE UNAUTHORIZED AUTOBIOGRAPHY


Review of LEMONY SNICKET: THE UNAUTHORIZED AUTOBIOGRAPHY
(fourteenth in the A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS series)

Oh, did you think the series was done and finished after thirteen books? Well, it’s back with an additional bonus installment, a very tongue in cheek autobiography of the mysterious character behind chronicling the Baudelaires’ unfortunate events.

This is an even quicker read than the already short middle reader books in the original series, as it’s packed with photos and “documents,” meaning fewer actual words on the page.

At times I found the humor a bit young for me, sometimes tedious. Part of the style is Snicket’s propensity for ridiculous rambling tangents. That being said, I expect it’s spot on for the target age and has the fun reward of involving the reader as a co-conspirator in untangling this spy-like puzzle. And the humor still managed to take me by surprise with a good laugh. I particularly encourage reading the Index at the end. My favorite entry is “Poe, Edgar Allan,” which - after listing the relevant pages - says “see also overall feeling of doom.” Look up to the “O” section for “overall feeling of doom” and you find yourself redirected to “see doom, overall feeling of.” Flip back to “D” and the page numbers of relevance are listed as “ix-211.” Yup, that would be the whole book.

It should be no surprise to readers of the series if I add that there isn’t much logical flow to this “autobiography” and that you might find yourselves with more new questions than new answers by the end. Regardless, it’s a playful addition to a popular series that should give younger readers the chance to hunt for clues at coded double meanings.

Friday, October 6, 2017

BEWARE THAT GIRL


Review of BEWARE THAT GIRL by TERESA TOTEN
(based on a review copy)

This story switches in a quick back and forth between two teenage girls: Kate and Olivia. Kate is a hardened manipulator. After a nightmare childhood, she’s learned to take care of herself, a skill that involves no small amount of lying. Currently, she’s conning everyone at her prestigious prep school into believing she lives with her aunt, when in reality she rents out a dump of a room in Chinatown. When Olivia befriends and subsequently invites Kate to move in, it’s the break Kate needs.

Olivia is an idol at their school, due in part to wealth and part to juicy rumors. She disappeared for a whole school year and no one seems sure about why. From some medicine cabinet snooping, Kate knows it must be mental health related but not the details.

Then the young, charming Mark Redkin joins the school administration as a fundraiser. He’s gorgeous with a killer smile and always seems to know exactly what to say to win over whomever he’s addressing. So then why does he make Kate’s skin crawl?

Perhaps her past makes her too cynical, but Kate suspects Mark’s public mask is too good to be true. Her gut tells her he’s bad news, but she can see Olivia being sucked in by the charm. One of the keys to survival is not investing enough in the well being of others to jeopardize your own hard-won safety, but Kate’s finding it harder than she expected watching Olivia drift dangerously closer to Mark.

This is one of those books that exemplify why I dislike rating books with stars. I would give most of the book 5 out of 5 stars. I devoured it. I found the characters disturbingly believable and the suspense had a level of creepiness I usually only experience in speculative fiction. That said, I felt the whole story fell apart at the end. It feels like character development, believability, subtlety, all of that gets sacrificed at the alter of drama and fast pace for an overdone climax that doesn't fit well with the rest of the novel.

While disappointed that the book didn’t hold its own through the end, I still found it a fast, gripping read that I would particularly recommend to anyone interested in psychology. The main characters here are vastly different but each grapples with their own internal battle of survival and what that concept means to them.

Friday, September 29, 2017

NOBODY'S PRIZE


Review of NOBODY’S PRIZE by ESTHER FRIESNER
(second in the NOBODY’S PRINCESS series)

Helen returns for more adventure in this enjoyable sequel. Determined not to let her gender keep her from the action, Helen disguises herself as a boy and sets sail on the Argo. Of course, she can ignore her womanhood all she wants but the world won’t do the same. Her friend Milo and her brothers still want to protect her. There’s also all the romantic attention she receives by anyone who figures out she’s a woman, not to mention Helen’s own unexpected crushes.

These books feature the kind of skilled, unobtrusive writing that fades against the page and lets the reader focus exclusively on the story.

For anyone still not clear, the Helen I mentioned is Helen of Troy. I adore Friesner’s portrayal of this iconic figure. Helen is no damsel in distress. If she cannot escape a bad situation, you can trust that it’s not for lack of trying. She is clever and determined. These books take place before her beauty started a war and it’s clear from comments that she’s still growing into her beauty: a gangly ugly duckling slowly transforming into a swan. She doesn’t yet see herself as beautiful, but what she does know is that when men perceive her as beautiful it seems to be more trouble than it’s worth.

The book ends before the more familiar part of Helen’s story, but I can’t help hoping the author will return to tell more. I’m a sucker for women who refuse to climb into the box society has prepared for them.

Friday, September 15, 2017

BOY MEETS BOY


BOY MEETS BOY by DAVID LEVITHAN

Most of us are familiar with the classic boy meets girl storyline: Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy wins girl back. That’s exactly what the title of BOY MEETS BOY promises...with one obvious distinction.

Paul attends a high school like none I’ve ever known, though I (and probably many others) wish this had been my high school. The campus is populated with dynamic characters. Take Infinite Darlene as one example, previously known as Daryl before she realized she likes strutting around in heels and false eyelashes just as much as she loves playing quarterback on the football team.

For our narrator Paul being gay has never been more than another part of his identity. Not a revelation, not a struggle. Of course, the same can’t be said for everyone. One of his gay friends Tony has religious parents determined to fix him. Then there’s Paul’s ex-boyfriend Kyle who, after what seemed a sincere romance, spread rumors that Paul somehow tricked him into liking guys.

In other complications, Paul feels he’s losing his best friend of forever, Joni, to a new relationship. He watches the person he loved being swallowed by someone else’s wants and feels powerless to stop it.

All that fades away when Paul meets Noah, the boy who seems different from any other boy. Uniquely and perfectly special. As our established storyline warns us, however, Paul’s about to make some dumb mistakes.

I have heard frequent criticism of this book that it isn’t revolutionary enough, that it’s merely the same old formula but with two boys instead of a boy and girl. Exactly! I think. Count up the number of boy meets girl stories for a ratio and you see we still need many, many more boy meets boy stories. Not to mention that it’s counterproductive to hold queer fiction to some higher bar where every book needs to blow your mind in a way not expected from romances between a girl and a boy.

Besides, I do think BOY MEETS BOY has potential for mind-blowing. The characters are so wonderfully quirky and nuanced and yet so believable. The high school seems like a “different” kid’s dream where everyone can “come out” as themselves with all their eccentricities worn on their sleeves. After all, the details make the story and the details here certainly make this book memorable.

Friday, September 8, 2017

THE END


Review of THE END by LEMONY SNICKET
(thirteenth in the A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS series)

In the final book in the lengthy SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS saga, the Baudelaire orphans find themselves shipwrecked on a strange island with their nemesis Count Olaf.

I’ll address the end first, because with the final book in a series this long the end is what affects the reader most. The end of THE END is neither satisfying nor unsatisfying. The author finds a good closure point for a tale that clearly continues. However, as I expected the closer we came to the end, many plot threads remain unresolved. That said, this has always been a strange, mysterious series for which it seems fitting that there remain things we never know.

In some ways the story gets even darker in this last book. However, the author also makes efforts to humanize the villain Olaf in the last few books, humanize without excusing any terrible actions.

This installment also continued the trend I disliked of having some incredibly long paragraphs - as in stretching across pages without a break long paragraphs. While it adds to the sense of a rambling narrator, this formatting takes the joke too far for me and just becomes frustrating for the eyes.

This whole middle reader series is a fun, quirky tale about being a good person even when the world isn’t being good to you.