Friday, November 27, 2015

THE BOOK OF TOMORROW


Review of THE BOOK OF TOMORROW by CECELIA AHERN

This book about a magic book hooked me from the first page with a remarkable voice. Tamara Goodwin walked off the paper and introduced herself, and her story tugged at my empathy right away. This is a familiar tale about a spoiled rich girl learning what really matters - the hard way.

The book opens by filling us in on Tamara’s father’s recent suicide. She found his body. Soon after, she and her mother learned of their imminent bankruptcy and realize Tamara’s father likely opted out of life before the ugly turns he saw coming. They lose their mansion, their wealth, their reputation and status, their you-want-it-it’s-yours lifestyle and move out to the country to live with Tamara’s aunt and uncle. Her mother retreats into herself and spends all day a mute lump in her room. Meanwhile Tamara discovers an unusual blank journal. Each day a new entry appears in her handwriting, detailing what we will happen tomorrow. This gives her some unexpected control, but not as much as you might think. For example, you might know that if you take a certain action something bad happens, but that doesn’t mean something worse can’t happen by seeking an alternative route.

That all said, the magical element, the prophesying book, isn’t introduced until well into the story, over 50 pages. Foremost, this a novel about family and, well, tomorrows. The themes in this tale seep to the surface and intermingle nicely with every twist and scene.

I liked Tamara from the start, even if perhaps we’re not supposed to like her that much. Maybe it’s her self-awareness that endeared her to me despite her flaws. She knows full well that she’s been spoiled and that she can be cruel to people when she doesn’t get her way. She calls herself a horrible person. Silly as it sounds, I found her less horrible for saying so herself. And it’s always enjoyable to watch a well-handled character transition. She tells herself that she wishes her dad had talked to her instead of killing himself, but she acknowledges that without being on the other end of his suicide she would have been a brat if he came to her and admitted they were about to lose everything.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t like rating books and one of my reasons is that, for some books, I want to give so many stars before a certain page count and a different number after. This is one of those books. I would happily give the novel 5 stars up until the climax. Then the story, that felt so carefully crafted and nuanced to me, falls into a pit of convoluted melodrama that undermines everything I loved earlier. While I didn’t like all the revelations near the end and how they’re handled (like a “Here’s what was really going on” info dump), I will say that I liked the very end of the novel, the exact scene and note on which the author choose to conclude everything.

What I loved about this book, the strong themes about how much control we really have over our life, remain potent even through the bits I didn’t like. It’s well-titled, too. THE BOOK OF TOMORROW doesn’t merely refer to the magical journal, but to this book itself, a story examining the concept of tomorrow and everything that word means.

Friday, November 20, 2015

PRINCESS SONORA AND THE LONG SLEEP


Review of PRINCESS SONORA AND THE LONG SLEEP by GAIL CARSON LEVINE
(third in the PRINCESS TALES series)

In PRINCESS SONORA, Levine spins a new version of “Sleeping Beauty.” One where her fairy gifts annoy the king and queen more than please them. They want a normal, healthy daughter, one they can watch grow from infant to woman and develop into her own unique individual. Well, the gifts make Sonora magically extraordinary but sometimes the royal couple longs for a more average child. That said, the gift that really drives everyone in the kingdom crazy is the one that makes Sonora ten times smarter than anyone else in the world.

Of course, the gift that worries everyone (even baby Sonora because she’s so smart she understands everything) is when the snubbed fairy Belladonna curses Sonora with inevitable death by finger prick. As the story goes, another fairy intervenes and changes death to 100-year sleep. Everyone thinks Sonora cries at that because she’s a baby, but she’s bawling so much because she doesn’t want the world to change around her while she takes the longest nap ever.

Thanks to Sonora’s incredible smarts, the kingdom develops its own catch phrase: “Princess Sonora knows, but don’t ask her.” Whenever anyone anywhere asks something that no one can answer, that’s the joke. For to ask Sonora a simple question means to invite a lecture expounding on a subject far more than one ever intended.

As Sonora matures, her parents start seeking potential suitors, each with their own list of wonderful fairy gifts crafting their perfect personalities. Sonora detests them all. Perfect on paper, lacking in person. Carson does a stellar job in pinpointing what Sonora needs in a partner. She likes to answer questions...so she needs someone who likes to ask them.

Another cute, witty installment in this middle grade series of fairy tale retellings.

Friday, November 13, 2015

LOVE MEDICINE


Review of LOVE MEDICINE by LOUISE ERDRICH

Like THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB, Erdrich’s first novel LOVE MEDCINE spins a long-spanning story about a family history. However, in this case it’s more like a tribe history - with complicated connections linking disparate characters together. Spreading across 60 years, the book follows Ojibwa characters living in North Dakota. 

The novel switches time and perspective every chapter. Pay close attention to the chapter headers that inform you of who’s speaking and when. Most chapters feature a first person narration, which makes mixing them up easy if you don’t root yourself at the start of the chapter in who’s speaking now. I personally do not like when a book features more than one first person voice. When we follow different characters in third person, it’s simple telling them apart because we’re reading a different name. With multiple first person viewpoints, the voices need to be starkly unique, and more often than not I don’t find the voices distinct enough from each other for me to consistently track who’s speaking when.

I had a similar reaction to LOVE MEDICINE as THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB. Good but not as great. Strong writing, but not notable enough that I fawn over phrases - like I did with THE ROUND HOUSE. A big cast of interesting characters and yet I didn’t invest in them enough to fall in love with the book.

As with THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB, characters lead the novel more than plot so I want to take a moment to describe the key players. The book spends the most time with a love triangle featuring Lulu, Marie, and Nector. Many small communities have that someone about whom everyone gossips, that someone who causes waves whether they meant to or not. Lulu is that someone for this community. She loves easily and briefly and a lot of children by different fathers have come from that carefree love. She’s independent and unpredictable and the kind of person who thrives more than wilts under criticism and judgment. Nector falls for Lulu hard as a young man, but ultimately marries Marie, a safer choice. When Nector and Marie struggle having children of their own, Marie starts taking in orphans whenever she can until they have a house brimming over with kids. Meanwhile, Nector never lets go of his torch for Lulu and it starts burning away at the edges of his marriage. There are plenty more characters, many of whom get their own chapters, but if I had to pinpoint a focal center, it would be Lulu, Marie, and Nector.

I had this strange reaction to LOVE MEDICINE that I’m not sure I ever felt for a book before - where I found the characters more intriguing off the page than on. What I mean is that while I was reading, I didn’t find myself strongly investing in characters’ motivations, goals, experiences, etc. However, whenever I set the book down I continued thinking about them. Any book that can do that has my respect and I would definitely push this for book groups.

Friday, November 6, 2015

THE PRINCESS TEST


Review of THE PRINCESS TEST by GAIL CARSON LEVINE
(second in THE PRINCESS TALES series)

Lorelei would be a helpful person if she could, but she’s tragically too fragile to be much help with anything! Since infancy, injuries and illnesses have plagued her, often brought on by the smallest, most unexpected, variables. Though she’s a kind person at heart, she seems selfish and lazy to some because she spends so much time lying about recovering from her latest ailment. Now what fairy tale would a finicky girl like this find her weakness to be a weird strength? Why, “The Princess and the Pea,” of course!

Levine delivers another short, sweet spin on a familiar story. These fairy tale retellings for young readers stand out from many similar stories by avoiding any didactic tones. Levine isn’t preaching anything here. There’s no moral at the end of the book, or simple structure with good people and bad people, the former rewarded at the end and the latter punished. The tale’s a bit (delightfully) wacky at times, but never didactic.

I read these as a young girl and would highly recommend them for beginner readers, but they’re also one of those pleasant surprises that hold up as an adult. The stories are simple and young, yes, but fun and smart, too.