Friday, November 28, 2014

THE GEOGRAPHY OF YOU AND ME


Review of THE GEOGRAPHY OF YOU AND ME by JENNIFER E. SMITH

GEOGRAPHY OF YOU AND ME is a sweet, smart young adult romance about when the right person is in the wrong place. Teenagers Lucy and Owen meet on a stopped elevator during a citywide blackout. Once free, they spend an unlikely, unexpected, and unforgettable night together. Before they even have a chance to explore the possibility of a relationship, life pulls them in different directions with Lucy moving to Europe and Owen embarking on a road trip with his father. Time ticks by as Lucy and Owen carry on with their separate lives, date other people, and barely keep in touch. Neither forgets about the other, though. Neither stops wondering and imagining.  

I love a good romance...but I’m a very critical romance reader. For starters, I can’t care about a relationship until I care about both characters as individuals. Lucy and Owen are both likable leads, hailing from very different backgrounds and yet finding that common ground. Owen’s mother recently died. Now Owen and his father are barely scraping by, both financially and emotionally. Lucy, on the other hand, has everything she could ever want financially, but her rich life is rather lonely. Her parents travel constantly, never taking her with them. I related to Lucy especially, since she’s a bookworm. I appreciated Smith’s portrayal of an introverted bibliophile. Lucy isn’t a social outcast; she chooses books and quiet over parties and popularity.

Though I found a few metaphors distractingly cheesy, for the most part I loved the writing. Smith crafts distinct, realistic voices for each character. Both dialogue and inner monologue feel natural whether we’re following Lucy or Owen. Also, while they’re mature teenagers, Lucy and Owen definitely feel young: uncertain what they want or what life has in store for them, brimming with emotions, and quick to act or speak on those emotions.

The ending fell a little short of what I wanted, but I think Smith set quite the challenge for herself with this type of story. Young adult romances are particularly difficult, because authors struggle finding balance between that nice happily-ever-after feeling and “settling” their characters too young. Though not quite perfection, I think Smith found a fulfilling spot between frustratingly lacking closure and tying everything up too neatly.

Friday, November 21, 2014

WE WERE LIARS


Review of WE WERE LIARS by E. LOCKHART
(review based on an advance reading copy)

Recently I did a post about rating books and why I’m not particularly fond of simple 1-5 star systems, etc. WE WERE LIARS puts me in mind of yet another reason that I don’t thinks stars adequately summarize your reaction to a book: sometimes your rating fluctuates over the course of reading. How do you average that? After finishing WE WERE LIARS I would give it 5 out of 5 stars, but up until page 150 (out of 225) I would have given it only 2 or maybe 3.

WE WERE LIARS rewards you well if you stick with it, but - for me at least - wasn’t initially engaging. Numerous people raved, fanatically raved, about WE WERE LIARS to me (which might have set me up with overhyped expectations), but I found the book quite unexceptional until around page 150. (That’s two thirds of the way through the 225 page book.)

I went into WE WERE LIARS knowing next to nothing about the premise. Well, the marketing (including the blurb on back) doesn’t tell you much. In truth, this novel is probably a little more suspense orientated than my tastes run. I like to know what happened, because I care more about how the characters react. For the first two thirds, WE WERE LIARS focuses mostly on the mystery of not knowing what happened and it’s no coincidence that I only started investing after the big reveal.

So here’s how I would describe the premise: This story follows the teenager Cady (short for Cadence), and her rich, beautiful fa├žade of a family. Every summer the Sinclairs gather on their private island where Cady soaks up the company of her beloved cousins Mirren and Johnny, and steadily falls in love with their childhood family friend Gat. Except that was the past. Something happened one summer. Something that changed everything. All Cady knows is that something bad happened, she hit her head, and now she remembers very little from that summer at all, especially not whatever she’s sure she needs to remember. The first 150 pages of the book focus on introducing these characters and Cady’s search for answers. Honestly, I felt like most of that could have been cut.

Then Cady remembers, layer by layer, and suddenly I understood why people rave about this book. All that material I thought could have been cut immediately takes on new meaning with each additional memory. (I’m not one for re-reading books, but this is probably a good one to go back and re-read right away after finishing.) Themes that seemed perhaps underdeveloped snap into sharp focus. I connected both emotionally and intellectually and I kept turning over the story in mind after finishing the book.

WE WERE LIARS is incredibly worthy of discussion, so I wish I could say more, but - as the story is so slow to reveal anything - it would be giving away too much to even start talking themes or dropping hints by my choice of adjectives. Instead I’ll repeat that WE WERE LIARS well rewards those who stick with it.

Friday, November 14, 2014

WHAT'S THE NUMBER FOR 911?

Review of WHAT’S THE NUMBER FOR 911?: AMERICA’S WACKIEST 911 CALLS by LELAND GREGORY

Along the same lines as the Darwin awards, this book is perfect for comedy fans who enjoy laughing at the stupidity of others. Like, for example, the fleeing criminal who repeatedly called 911 during his high-speed chase so he could demand the operator have the police stop chasing him.

There’s a lot of overlap when it comes to categorizing these anecdotes. Some quick labels immediately pop to mind: crazy, high, unreasonable, and stupid. Now I don’t find stories about someone who obviously isn’t in their right mind doing something ridiculous particularly funny - too sad if you really think about it. And instances where someone is high are boring in my opinion, because, well, that’s what happens when you’re high - so no surprise. Then there are the unreasonable and or plain stupid 911 calls and, yeah, I find both of those types pretty amusing. Unreasonable like the woman who calls to say a snake bit her and asks the operator if the snake is poisonous; she doesn’t provide any actual description about the snake but grows increasingly frustrated that the operator can’t just tell her if it’s poisonous or not already. And stupid like the woman who calls in a biohazard team when she sets her mail down on her kitchen table and a letter promptly turns from yellow to brown. Turns out that’s what happens when you put a letter in coffee.

There’s also a fair number of people who need to hear the definition of “emergency”. Such as the person who called 911 when someone took a bite out of her sandwich. Or another man whose false teeth don’t quite fit, so he calls 911 for some assistance. Some people clearly think 911 is equivalent to 411, just another information service. Like the woman who calls 911 to ask when the fourth of July parade will start or the man who calls for some advice on navigating around dead stop traffic. More amusing, though, are those who think 911 is some kind of general public service for anyone and anything. One man called when he saw a snow plow in town to ask 911 to send the snow plow over to his house. Another couple called 911 to request fresh towels for their hotel room.

While reading is usually a solitary hobby, these kinds of books are fun to flip through with someone else. In all seriousness, though, I now have the utmost respect for 911 operators.


Friday, November 7, 2014

The Magic Dress Complex

 
Today I want to discuss a personal pet peeve in stories (both literary and on screen): what I’m going to call The Magic Dress Complex. This complex advances the idea that personal growth for a woman comes from the outside. The Magic Dress Complex is when a heroine’s proactive steps for self-improvement consist primarily of finding the perfect dress (or outfit) for a special occasion or perhaps embarking on some grand full body makeover.

If you’ve seen movies, if you read, if you watch television, then I’m certain you’ve encountered The Magic Dress Complex. Think of all the plots that feature a grand makeover montage or pages upon pages of detail about a heroine’s new look. She gets the latest, cutting edge hairstyle. She finally puts on makeup. She has a manicure and a pedicure. If it’s a longer timeframe, maybe she hits the gym or devotedly diets until she slims down and firms up. She buys trendy, flattering new clothes. Oh, and shoes. What is a magic dress without magic shoes?

Now our heroine looks different, which means she is different. Now she can do what she couldn’t before. Now she will get everything she ever wanted.  The Magic Dress Complex implies that if a woman can sculpt herself into physical perfection then the rest of her life will fall into place. The Magic Dress Complex also implies that this change in appearance is the woman’s greatest accomplishment. (Emphasized by how these makeover sequences usually fall extremely close to, if not within, the story’s climax.)

I won’t dismiss the concept that an outward change can promote an internal one. Maybe a woman cuts her hair, because she’s feeling brave enough to take a risk. Her new hairstyle reminds her of her own bravery and bolsters her confidence. If she earns accolades she never did before, let’s say it’s her newfound confidence rather than the hair.

However, then look at the sheer number of these magical makeovers. And, yes, we do see them for men, too, but only a fraction as frequently. My issue isn’t with a physical difference (even one as simple as new clothes) empowering a woman; it’s how prevalent this magical makeover is as a woman’s gateway to discovering herself.  

The simple fact is that I want to see as many stories as possible about women who make a big change in their life...but it’s not their hair.

Monday, October 27, 2014

STABLE STRATEGIES AND OTHERS


Review of STABLE STRATEGIES AND OTHERS by EILEEN GUNN

I went into this collection of short stories with no preconceptions, based on a recommendation alone. Honestly, I prefer that, when my reading experience is tainted with as few expectations as possible.

I have two favorites from the collection (and it didn’t escape my notice that the ones I enjoyed most are the ones staring a child and teenager respectively). In both “Computer Friendly” and “Nirvana High”, Gunn conceives futures that don’t feel so far fetched. “Computer Friendly” gave me chills when a classmate tells young Elizabeth that her parents are sending her to sleep because she’s defective and that way they can try again. The reader will likely be ahead of little Elizabeth in reaching conclusions, but it’s realistically painful watching someone so young look into and figure out her new friend’s unsettling words. “Nirvana High” stars teenage Barbara who has predictive powers but no control over the future she sees. The story opens with her vision that her favorite teacher will die trying to perform an advanced feat and then follows everyone’s reactions to the teacher’s death including the speculation about accident vs. suicide. The story features intriguing worldbuilding that suggests we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.

“Contact” feels both familiar and yet still original. As the title implies, it’s a first contact story where two cultures and, hence, perspectives collide, but each gains a subtle widening of their outlook from their interaction. I also really enjoyed “Spring Conditions”, a super creepy story where unexplainable things start happening on a couple’s ski trip. However, Gunn opens “Spring Conditions” with layered characters and then doesn’t do much to explore those layers, which naturally frustrated me as a character-fixated reader. I couldn’t help reading this story as a metaphor, though from the author’s note I’m not convinced that’s what she intended. Also the ending lacked power, kind of trickling off without feeling like an actual conclusion.

“Friends” is a weird and funny story that trivializes the dramatic and makes the absurdly fantastical mundane. I found “Coming to Terms”, about a dead father who wrote inscrutable notes in the margins of his books, underwhelmingly tantalizing. In other words, thought provoking, but Gunn doesn’t push those thoughts very far. There are also a few short, silly stories including “The Sock Story” and the satiric “Ideologically Labile Fruit Crisp”.  Perhaps merely due to its placement as the first story (not to mention featuring in the title), I had the impression that “Stable Strategies for Middle Management” is Gunn’s most popular work here. However, my reaction to that one was rather “meh”. It has potential, but I felt that potential wasn’t pushed hard enough to garner my interest.

As I’ve grazed against saying outright, I thought Gunn’s endings overall lacked power. I enjoyed most of these stories and especially liked a couple, but for almost all of them I felt some level of dissatisfaction with the end.

I also want to specify that science fiction readers are probably more likely to enjoy this collection than fantasy as Gunn’s stories lean in that direction.

As a side note, I liked William Gibson’s quote in the foreword on writing: “You must learn to overcome your very natural and appropriate revulsion for your own work.”

Friday, October 24, 2014

Rating Books

 
Many reviews include a simplified rating for the book. 3 stars, for example. A summary of how the reviewer perceives the book’s worth. Of course, it doesn’t have to be stars. I follow a book blog that uses teacups instead of stars, a quirk I find endearing.

When I started reviewing books, though, I knew unequivocally that I didn’t want to include ratings. I have two main reasons. First, while I understand how simplifying your assessment can be helpful, I value books and stories too much to do so. All the details are important to me. I don’t want to say, “I liked it.” or “I didn’t like it.” For one thing, I’m an analytical reader and - while I often have an overall opinion of a book - there are usually both aspects I like and aspects I don’t like about a book. Even with books I adore, I might have a small criticism here or there. A huge part of why I’m so addicted to reading is because I love how stories provoke deeper thinking, discussions both between different people and within yourself. I might have far more positive than negative feelings towards a book, but a simple “I enjoyed it.” cuts off potential conversations about what exactly I enjoyed, not to mention what I didn’t. I know a rating can be in addition to a review, but it’s the review - the specifics - that I care about.

Second - and more importantly, in my opinion - everyone rates differently. When I give a book 4 stars, it doesn’t mean the same perception of quality as when someone else does. Some people are generous with stars and others stingy. On a 0-5 stars (teacups, etc.) rating system, here is what my ratings mean:

0 - hated it
1 - didn’t like it
2- it was okay
3- liked it
4- loved it
5 - ADORED IT! AMAZING!

I remember meeting a writer at a conference who told me that whenever she sees a 4-star rating of one of her books she wonders why the reader didn’t like it. But 4 stars is a good rating! I thought. In fact, I think 3 stars is a good rating. Unfortunately, interpretation of rating systems is highly subjective. Further conversation with the author made me realize that she thinks of 5 as the starting point for a book, with stars being subtracted for everything the reader doesn’t like. I think of 3 as the starting point. 3 stars means it’s a good book. My rating lowers the more I find that I don’t like, but I only rate higher if the book particularly impresses me. I can read a book that I enjoy, but it doesn’t in any way push the envelope. Those 4th and 5th stars have to be earned.

I’m not planning on introducing ratings to my reviews, but I think this is an interesting discussion. Are you an easy rater or a hard rater? Do you find ratings helpful?

Monday, October 20, 2014

STARTERS


Review of STARTERS by LISSA PRICE

STARTERS possesses a unique and intriguing premise that pulled me in before I so much as opened the book. The novel delivered!

The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic futuristic world full of fancy technology...but also consequences for such technology. Bio-warfare led to the mass extinction of every human between 20 and 60 years of age, leaving only two groups: the young and the old - or starters and enders. Starters with an ender grandparent still alive to claim them live safe, secure lives, but those teenagers and children who lost their parents and have no living ender relatives are left to fend for themselves. Teenager Callie takes care of her little brother Tyler with her best friend Michael, but they can’t go on much longer squatting in abandoned buildings, running from ender officials, and barely scraping by for food. Tyler’s sick and Callie knows he needs a better life. Which is the only reason she even considers signing a contract to rent her body.

Technology has progressed to the point that scientists can implant a computer chip into two people’s brains, essentially put one to sleep, and let the other experience life from the first person’s perspective. Of course, these kinds of developments are always driven by money so the business model that emerges is one where young teenage starters desperate for money rent out their bodies to rich, bored enders desperate to experience youth again. Callie knows how creepy, suspicious, and dangerous this sounds...but she’s out of options and they’re offering a big payout. Unfortunately, things turn out to be more complicated than going to sleep, waking up a few days or weeks later, and collecting her money. Much more complicated.

I found the characters believable and likable, especially our heroine Callie. She has a good head on her shoulders and I particularly like that in teenage girl characters, who are often portrayed as single mindedly fixated on romance. Of course, Callie has emotions and mood swings and romantic drives, but she always draws herself back to the most important issue at the moment and will mentally kick herself if she realizes she’s sulking, wallowing, etc.

The book is wonderfully written as well. I break down strong writing into two groups: writing that’s good because you keep noticing it and writing that’s good because you don’t notice it at all. This is the latter kind of good writing, the kind that turns invisible and fades away so you completely forget you’re even reading words and only think about the characters and the story.

Occassionally, I wished for certain information sooner than the author provided it. We’re in Callie’s perspective and sometimes I wanted to know more than she did rather than participate in her uncertain search for answers. In general the plot seems to be arching across multiple books more than this one. There was a slow build up to the “real” problem. (Callie has plenty of problems, but any perceptive reader still knows things are about to get even more complicated than she expected.) Then the book really picks up about halfway and doesn't slow very much for the end, which lends to the feeling that the plot is still arching high across the series as a whole.

I would call STARTERS a plot driven novel. That’s not detrimental to the character development in this case, but a fast pace and unexpected twists definitely provide the primary momentum for this story.

I really enjoyed the themes that emerge from this world’s dynamics, mostly class and power. Nothing new, I know, but always worth discussing. Callie learns some perilously important information, but as long as she holds so little power in this world there’s not much she can do. She’s young, she’s poor, and she’s not connected. She might have the answers to save the world, but it won’t do much good if no one will listen to her.