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 the 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.