Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Tenth of December Review

Tenth of December - George Saunders

2013

 

I read this book ages and ages ago, and never quite got around to reviewing it, and I was going to just toss it into my end-of-the-year un-reviewed list, but this book is way too good for it to not have its own.

So I really, really, really wanted to give this books a 5, but the thing about short story collections is that some are a hit and some are a miss, and unfortunately, there were some stories that I was less enthused about than others. Not that they were necessarily bad, but that they were lacking in that mph that really makes a short story punch. But of course, not every single story you write can be amazing, though when George Saunders is at his peak, damn.

So, Tenth, for those of you who haven't been paying attention (because its had a fair amount of hype) is his latest collection. I'd previously been aware of his work from a class I took waaaay back as a freshman in college and while I really liked his stories, I wasn't a big short fiction reader at that point and so kind of forgot about him for a while, except that I knew his name and I associated it with something good. So his new book came out and I put a hold on it and four months later I finally got it and I just cannot get enough of George Saunders.

I've heard his work compared to Vonnegut, and that's probably the best way to describe his writing--his stories often utilize the tragicomic and the strange. It's funny and clever, but then also really sad and really dark.You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll go home happy. I really don't know what else to say because it's all just going to sound like gushing.

So, my favorites out if this collection:
"Victory Lap", "Home", "Escape from Spiderhead", and especially, "The Semplica Girl Diaries" and the eponymous  "Tenth of December".

While it's not my favorite of his collections--that would probably be CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, considering he's my favorite living short-story writer, it's all good.

4/5 Fancies.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane Review

The Ocean at the End of the Lane - Neil Gaiman

2013

 

To be completely honest, I was rather disappointed with this book. I suppose part of it may be due its hype of being the new Neil Gaiman book, plus, I suppose, the hype of Gaiman himself, because I definitely expected better. Admittedly, the only other book of his I've read was Coraline, and that was years ago and also for children, but I'm aware of him and his works and I guess I just expected better, particularly as this is billed as an adult book, though between the language and content, I'm not really sure why. I could see this better placed as YA--it's not like they'd lose the adult market anyway.

Basically, a middle-aged man, returns to his childhood home and flashesback to his childhood, specifically an incident that occurred when he was seven years old. As child, a man boarding in his family home kills himself which somehow unleashes a terror upon the boy and he must turn to a witchy, tri-generational trinity of women (and girl) who live at the end of the lane.

The story was interesting enough, though, in my humblest of opinions, it felt very similar to Coraline,  particularly with the recurring childhood vs adulthood dichotomy. And while I've got nothing against that theme, by the end of the book, it almost felt as though he were beating us over the head with it. By the time we get to the ending, it's like okay, I get it, adults are lame and boring and don't listen to reason and ruin things and childhood is better because imagination and fun! Which is another reason I think this would appeal better to a YA audience. Also, it's suppose to be "horror", and from an adult perspective it really wasn't that scary. Although to be fair, I had also just read Junji Ito's Uzumaki, and that's about as terrifying as it gets.

The main problem I had with the story was that it just didn't feel fleshed out. The entire book is under 200 pages and while quantity is no guarantee of quality, in this case, there just wasn't enough content. The "Acknowledgements" states that this grew from what was originally a short story, and I think it definitely reflects that. Really, it feels more like an intermediate draft between the short story and a full novel...perhaps Neil was getting a little too close to the deadline? The storyline just didn't come off as terribly creative, though it definitely had the potential to be if there had been a greater level of detail. As it was, I felt very little connection to any of the characters nor did I ever get a really good feel for the world it takes place in. Of course, the writing itself was no help, as it, too, seemed lacking.

His sentence structure was rather stilted which ruined the flow--they were either too long, or too short, or oddly broken up, and repetitious. For instance, there is a paragraph on page 18 in which all five sentences begin with the word "It". And I think he may have chosen this stylistically to emphasis the "It-ness" of the subject, but at the same time, it just doesn't flow well. And then there's this lovely sentence (emphasis mine):
"We pushed our way into a clump of trees, and through the clump of trees into a wood, and squeezed our way through trees too close together, their foliage a thick canopy above our heads."
If this had been a singular example, it would probably have been forgivable, but the thing is, it. kept. happening. Later on there's: 

"Lettie walked and I walked beside her" and also "...its shadow perfectly positioned to cast nightmare shadows on the wall..." just to point out a few.
To be fair, the editors are probably also partially to blame, as the point of having editors is to catch things like this. Though I'm wondering, if perhaps publication was rushed just because they knew it would sell regardless of the editing because it's Neil Gaiman (which might also explain that "intermediary" feel I mentioned above).

 Of course, I'm not necessarily turned off of Gaiman because of this. According to my sister, Stardust is quite good, and she is one who's opinion I can trust. I've also flipped through American Gods, which looks to be much better and is on my To-Read list. Really, what I found the most disappointing was that this book could have been so, so, much better because there were some really interesting quotes and ideas that just needed some more depth (and editing). I'll say it again, this book comes off as a draft, not a finished novel. But, I suppose every author has his hits and misses, and this one happens to be a miss.

As short at it was, still not really worth the time it takes to read it. 2.5/5 Fancies.


Read Instead: The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly
                        A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Blankets Review

Blankets by Craig Thompson

2003


Last year I read Habibi and that was brilliant and then I came across Blankets which was apparently Thompson's first Big Deal.

So, Blankets is basically a memoir of Thompson's religious childhood out in the middle of Nowhere, Michigan. While it does cover some of his childhood and his relationship with his brother, the main focus of the book is a two week "vacation" when he was a teenager, in which he stays with his "more-than-a-friend-but-not-quite-a-girlfriend", Raina. And that's about it for plot because this book isn't about plot, it's about Thompson's growth and development as an adolescent.

As always, he masterfully merges the story with his illustrations, even when he touches on uncomfortable subjects, which are even more gut-wrenching because this is a memoir and therefore things that actually happened to him.

The only drawback, at least for me personally, is the focus of the storyline. To be honest, the whole teen-romantic-angst angle just wasn't particularly interesting to me. I've probably said this before, but I'm not a romantic person, and I find romance (particularly teen romance) and the drama associated with it, to be tedious. Honestly, I thought dynamic between he and his brother more interesting and would have liked to see more of that, although apparently they sort of drifted as they got older so perhaps there isn't too much there. Of course, he was also still pretty young (24) when he started working on this book, so of course his formative teen years are going to be the focus, and Raina appears to have had the biggest influence on him during that time.

There are parts where the drama seems a bit too drawn out, and parts where the glowing perfection that is Raina seems a bit unrealistic, but then you have to remind yourself that this is from his memories and his perspective, so of course things are going to be skewed. Raina appears perfect because that's how he saw her.

Overall though, it is an enjoyable read, and despite the size, rather quick as it is a graphic novel. Thompson certainly captures the growth and development of his person through childhood to adolescence and beyond.It'd be interesting to see him put out another memoir as a much older person with more life experience to reflect on.
3.5/5 Fancies. 


Friday, June 28, 2013

Dreams and Shadows Review

Dreams and Shadows - C. Robert Cargill

2013


First, I just want to say that I think we've reached a saturation point in regards to books about fairy/faerie/faery and whatever other spellings there may be. I mean, the whole seelie/unseelie/Tithe thing has be come a bit, at least in my humblest of opinions, overdone. Particularly as most of these books seem to follow similar plot lines.

However, it's a little hard to describe the plot of this book in particular because I feel like it was never quite fully fleshed out and while there was definitely a lot of sequential action, the exact point of the story isn't immediately apparent. Part of me thinks Cargill was just jamming every supernatural creature he could think of--changelings, djinn, redcaps, Sidhe, nixies, angels, Coyote...--into one story and then come up with something for all of them to do. He even references "the La Llorona", which awkwardly translates to "the the Weeping Woman".

Back to the story: a child named Ewan is stolen from his human parents and replaced by dastardly changeling named Knocks, meanwhile a child named Colby runs into a djinn named Yashar and makes some poor choices in wishes. Eventually they all end up together and become embroiled in a violent revenge plot.

In terms of world building, Cargill does a pretty good job. As I mentioned before, stories about Fairy Land, called the Limestone Kingdom in this book, are nothing new, but Cargill still manages to make the world his own. So kudos to him for that. The problem, is that there isn't quite enough plot to support that world. Knocks, as the villain, was probably to best fleshed out character, who's motivations were the most thorough and believable. However, the other aspects, Ewan and Mallaidh's romance along with Ewan and Colby's bromance, weren't really given enough description and time to grow and felt more like rather than showing us Ewan and Colby's deep-felt, decade-spanning friendships, we're simply told, "oh by the way, they're BFFs now." As for the side characters, their motives and actives are also given poor explanation, and where they are explained, the reasons aren't terribly substantial.

That all said, it was an entertaining read. There's a fair amount of disembowelment, dismemberment, decapitation, so depending on how you generally feel about violent books, may or may not be your thing. Personally, I've read so many violent books at this point I didn't really give it a second thought, but I had read some other reviews where people were complaining, so I figure I ought to give a fair warning.

I suppose it's a good read for those fans of Faerie who haven't quite gotten sick of the genre yet. Otherwise, it's nothing to race off to the library for. 2.5/5 Fancies.   




Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Obsidian Blade Review

The Obsidian Blade - Pete Hautman

2012


This book was thoroughly underwhelming. I’ve already mentioned that I approach YA fiction with a certain level of hesitancy because a lot of the time I’ll start one that has an interesting plot, but then it just disappoints me in the end due to either poor plotting or inadequate prose. Unfortunately, this book was no exception.

I think I originally read about the upcoming sequel to this book and that seemed interesting, but of course I have to read the series in order, so I picked up the first book. 

Basically, Tucker’s dad disappears one day, and then reappears a few hours later wearing strange clothes and with a strange space-girl with a poor grasp of the English language named Leeloo Lahlia. Weird things start happening, such as his father, the town preacher, declaring he no long believes in God, his mother going steadily crazy and dysfunctional with a mounting obsession with Sudoku, and weird shimmery disks and ghosts appearing around roofs, until finally his parents flat out vanish. He then proceeds into a time-warping adventure chased by homicidal future-priests.

I suppose this book isn't necessarily bad, so much as simply not engaging. Certainly Hautman has his world building down, and while there were still a lot of open questions at the end, as I mentioned, this was just the opener to a series (an inevitability, it seems, to YA books these days), so presumably, there will be answers to come. But as the story progressed, I was enjoying it less and less and reading it became almost a chore and I only finished because I'd already invested so much time into it.

The beginning moves slow, I mean, you're practically halfway through the book before it really gets going. But that's almost okay, because the whole time it's building up, you keep reading because you're just waiting for something to happen. The problem is, the prose is very sparse. It's a lot of "He did this. Then this. Then he did that. And that." Which didn't draw me in and didn't make for very interesting reading, regardless of the action going on. Plus, Tucker was rather bland--really just standing in as a blank slate asking questions for the readers, and Lahlia, who was a bit more interesting, remained a vague and mysterious figure throughout, so I didn't really end up caring about any of the characters enough to be invested in the story.

Although the sequel is what initially attracted me to the series, I won't be continuing on. 2/5 Fancies. 


Sunday, June 9, 2013

The War at Ellsmere/Zombies Calling Review

DUO REVIEW! Because both of these are short, graphic novels, written by Faith Erin Hicks, that I read over the course of a half an hour, it seemed better sense to stick them together. This is a little tough because I have met Ms. Hicks and she is super fun and super nice so I don't want it to seem like I'm just gushing (even though I am, a bit, because I just love her art), but I also don't want to say less than positive things because she is super fun and super nice. Luckily, she hasn't given me reason to say too many less-than-positive things.


The War at Ellsmere

2008


Juniper (Jun) is the new scholarship student at prestigious (and expensive) Ellsmere Academy. She befriends her roommate, the weird girl, and goes head to head with the bitchy rich girl who is mean to everyone.

Okay, so maybe that description doesn't quite do the story justice. So, We've all seen this plot before. But then, technically, we've see EVERY plot before. At this point, it's all about execution. I always tend to give graphic novels a bit more leeway in terms of literary ability because I feel like they exist in a space where it's slightly easier for me to suspend my belief because of the pretty, pretty art.

I suppose my main beef is that it's so short! There was good build-up, and while the wrap-up was cohesive and mostly comprehensive, I feel like there could have been more. More build up! More character depth! MORE PRETTY PRETTY ART. It seemed this story really just scratched the surface of the characters and the setting and then it was suddenly over. I think there could have been a lot more to it and the ending does seems a little contrived, though Hicks has admitted this herself. But it's a fun, quick, read.

Read-a-Likes: The Dreaming by Queenie Chan

 

 Zombies Calling 

2007


So we jump forward from high school to college in this one. I'll admit, when I first picked this book up, my initial reaction was "Oh god, another zombie book?" Because lets be honest, I feel like zombies have reached a certain market saturation point. But Zombies Calling is fully aware of this and part of the point is that the characters are aware of and utilize zombie-tropes.

Joss loves zombie movies and has the "rules" of the genre memorized. Which is lucky for her because suddenly there's a zombie outbreak on her college campus and now she and her friends have to try to stay alive, using the "Rules" of zombie movies that Joss knows.

It's a pretty simple story and delivers exactly what it promises.As with The War at Ellsmere, the story has a decent amount of build-up, but then the ending sort of rushes on, right after a great deal of exposition about what it all means. This is her first (formally) published book (Ellsmere was second), and she says her main goal with this book was so that she could have some tangible piece of accomplishment at the time, and so with that in mind she met her goal.

I would definitely say that she has improved as a writer and an artist, and if you're interested in getting in to her work, start with her graphic novel Friends with Boys, which is a later work of hers and reflects how she has stylistically grown.

I'd say 2.5/5 for both, but toss in an extra .5 for the art so 3/5 Fancies.






Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Year of the Beasts Review

The Year of the Beasts - Cecil Castellucci & Nate Powell

2012

 

For those of you who have been sort of reluctant about getting into graphic novels, this may be a good segue. The main story is textual, however the end of each chapter is capped with a couple of comic pages. It's a fairly short book (175 pages) and because of this, the comic parts really help supplement the story and take it to a greater depth than it would have been on its own.

The main story is that of Tessa and her younger sister Lulu. As with most kids, they're eagerly awaiting summer, however what starts off as a trip to the carnival sours the entire summer for Tessa when her sister manages to snag the guy she's had her eye on. Tessa ends up pursuing a secrative relationship with the neighborhood "weird" kid, which is less fun because there's no bragging rights. Meanwhile, the comic pages follow an alternate story where Tessa (presumably) has turned into Medusa, along with a few other oddly-mythological students at the school.

At first I started off wondering exactly where these two threads were going, but they tie together nicely at the end and when the big climactic event occurs, everything falls into place and you see how the graphic novel represents the main story. Admittedly, the connections are fairly obvious once you get to the reveal, but this is a YA novel, and those tend to be lacking on the subtlety aspects.

As I said before, it is a short book, which worked well, however I don't feel like I had enough time to fully get into the characters and it's written in a sort of detached manner that gives the feeling you're viewing the events and characters from a distance, rather than being right in with them. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and as I mentioned, the comic aspect gives the book that extra level and helps to underscore the emotion. Although I didn't find myself fully inhabiting the story, as I tend to with longer books, the ending still hit me hard--be forewarned, it's a sad book.

3.5/5 Fancies.




Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Ender's Game Review

Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card

1985

 

Yeah, so I jumped on this bandwagon pretttttty late.

So I'm flipping through Kirkus...or Library Journal...one of those, and there's this advert for Ender's Game "A NEW MOTION PICTURE COMING NOVEMBER 2013" and I'm like "DAMMIT, I still haven't gotten around to reading it." So I promptly grabbed the library's copy because once the movie gets really hyped up (they've already re-released the books with movie-covers, ugh)  library copies are going to be scarcer and scarce.

Holy crap.

Why did I not read this sooner? Specifically, when I was in high school. Not that I didn't love it, because I absolutely did, but because this is JUST the sort of thing I would have DEVOURED as a teenager and if I could go back in time and give fifteen-year-old me one piece of advice it would be to go and read Ender's Game already.

So, for those who are like me and have somehow managed to bop through life ignorant of the 11-book saga that's been around longer than me, Andrew "Ender" Wiggin is a six-year-old genius who is whisked up to a Battle School in the sky where they train other child-geniuses, though none as genius as Ender, in the ways of strategy and tactics and less-than-friendly competition, via a series of increasingly difficult "games". All this is in an effort to train the next crop of brilliant commanders in hopes of finding one brilliant enough to defeat a dangerous alien race referred to only as "buggers", who nearly wiped out the human race and was only very narrowly defeated. Between this and Heinlein's Starship Troopers, you'd think giant bug aliens had a vendetta against us for some reason.

 I'm not sure if Ender's Game was considered a YA novel when it first came out...I know the YA genre wasn't quite the same as it was in the 80s as it is now, though I think that's when when the genre started to pick up...If anyone who has extensively studied the history of YA cares to comment, please do. Regardless, Card manages to achieve that balance of accessibility to young people with mature writing. Not that I'm bashing all teen novels that have come out recently, but you can definitely tell there's a stylistic gap between books written for teens and books written for adults. With Ender's Game, the tone and the language come off as more adult, while not necessarily being written at exclusively an adult level.

Plot-wise, the book is well-formed. And while it initially seems like your typical "us vs them", by the end, Card really elevated the story beyond the black and white, and introduced a vast gray area that adds greater depth to the idea of warfare. I suppose the only thing is that all the kids seem to talk like adults (or at least much older kids), but I suppose we can give a pass for that, seeing as they're supposed to be geniuses.

Admittedly, there are some things that didn't sit quite so well with me, such as this passing comment on women:
"A few girls. They don't often pass the tests to get in. Too many centuries of evolution are working against them." 
What the hell is that supposed mean? I'd say it's more like too many centuries of discrimination and social repression (Though it looks like they might be changing that in the film?).  But at least Petra and Valentine are pretty awesome characters.

Then there's Card's anti-gay thing, which doesn't reflect on the book so much as my opinion of Card  because as much as I want to respect him as a writer, it's really hard for me to respect bigots (and as a contemporary writer, you can't really use the "product of his times" defense). The important thing, I suppose, is that it doesn't really come out in the book (at least not to me, anyone think otherwise?).

 Overall, a really great read. I'll probably pick up the rest of the series at some point, but for now:
4.5/5 Fancies.



Read-a-Likes: Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

Monday, May 6, 2013

Summer of the Mariposas Review

Summer of the Mariposas - Guadalupe Garcia McCall

2012

 

So I'm taking a Young Adult services class in the fall and figured I might as well start reading some YA books. I know I've previously mentioned my disdain for the genre in general, but I might possibly want to be a YA librarian, which means I'll have to read YA books, so now's the time to decide whether I can stomach it on a regular basis.

Well, mixed things about this book. Odilia is the eldest of the five Garza sisters who live near the Mexican border in Texas. When they discover a corpse in their swimming hole, they decide the logical thing to do is smuggle it into Mexico and return it to the family. Things take a fantastical turn as they encounter a good mix of Mexican folklore in witches, warlocks, el chupacabras, and demon-vampire owls, an Aztec goddess, and La Llorona.

First off, in the Land of Teenage Angst and Heterosexual Love-Triangles, it's nice and refreshing to find a book about five sisters and their interdependence on each other.The focus is very much on female relationships, between the sisters, between them and their grandmother, and between them and their mother. They are also guided by La Llorona and the Aztec goddess Tonantzin, both of which are shown (at least in the book) as maternal figures. So points for that.

Unfortunately, I wasn't terribly impressed. The idea felt a little forced, in that it's hard to believe that 5 teen and preteen girls find a corpse and their immediate thought is "Let's not only touch it, but carry it all the way into Mexico!" I'm pretty sure most people, particularly young people, see a corpse in the pool they've been swimming in, and their first thought is "I need to go take a 5-hour shower." Admittedly, Odilia, the oldest at 15-is, who's point of view it's told from, has her reservations and only agrees to the quest after La Llorona appears to her and explains that this is one of those divine test type things and she'd damn well better go (perhaps not in those words exactly). So, it's billed as a modern Mexican re-telling of the Odyssey, which is a bit of false advertising because it really isn't. At all. There's two fairly blatant references to the Odyssey (a possessive witch named Cecilia, and an androgynous, blind prophet named Teresita), and that's about it. I mean sure, it's a quest, but it's hardly a re-telling.

There was also a  lack of subtlety. They meet this prophet and she's all "These things will happen. Here is what to do about it." And then those exact things happen. And when a whole bunch of other mystical hoo-ha happens, we're given the explicit meaning behind everything. And sisters have this tendency to continually forget that they were told EXACTLY what was going to happen, and then act all surprised when it happened. Odilia appears to have some modicum of logic as she sort of figures things out first, but then her sister completely disregard any warnings she has. And maybe if that happened once, okay, they're all under 14, we can give them a break. But it continually happens. I mean, yeah, they're kids, but I really think that maybe after they've been violently attacked twice by some mythological creature, they might start to err on the side of caution--particularly if they were told about it in the first place.

Plot issues side, McCall does have some excellent, poetic passages. However, it occurs sporadically here while the brunt of the novel is unremarkable description and awkward teenage dialogue like
"'Oh boy, it's getting deep out there!' Velia said. 'What makes you think Mama knows anything about Tonantzin coming to save us? Because, I'll be honest, I didn't know what the heck was going on when the goddess showed up.'
'Whatever,' Juanita retorted..."
It's sort of hard for me to judge YA books because I'm not great at trying to frame it through my teenage-self (actually, I stopped reading YA while I was still a teenager, so I guess, pre-teen self?). I'm sure there are some teens who'll be welcome to the books expository nature. Plus, it's a quick enough read and it's a great introduction to Mexican/Aztec folklore for those who familiar with it. There is a glossary in the back of the Spanish words used throughout. And as I mentioned before, it's certainly a better alternative than the majority of the cookie-cutter paranormal/dystopian romances out there. 

3/5 Fancies.

 

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Laika Review

Laika - Nick Abadzis

2007

 

You ever get that feeling sometimes, where you really just need to cry, but for some reason you can't quite squeeze those tears out? Like, it's just been a real crappy week and you just need something to trigger that cathartic release? WELL, have I got the book for YOU!

So, history lesson! In 1957 the Soviet Union shoots a dog into orbit, thus becoming the first country to launch a living creature into orbit, right after being the first country to launch a non-living thing (Sputnik I) into orbit. Which is just one of the examples of the massive posturing fest that was the Cold War. Anyway, the dog, Laika as she's known in the US, and Kudryavka (Little Curly), as she's known in Russia, died about six-hours in to the launch, though that information wasn't released until around 2002. Sorry if that's a spoiler, but c'mon guys, this is history. I mean, even if you didn't already know the story,  the fact that it's a book about a dog should sort of be a tip off. Because if the dog's name is in the title of a book, it most likely won't be around at the end of the book.

Anyway, Laika is part history, part speculation on the kind of life Laika may have had leading up to her final odyssey. She's caught between the kindness and the cruelty of humans, and despite the abuse and neglect she receives, she never seems to lose her faith and her trust in us, which makes for a truly heart-rending ending.The story is meant to question the ethical quandary of the mission. On the one hand, at that stage in experimentation they really couldn't use people because people tend to rank higher than animals in our collective sense of morality (though, that depends on who you ask). On the other hand, one of the scientists responsible for the project did say,
"We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog." 
Have I mentioned this is a graphic novel? Because makes it about 10x sadder. It is a good choice of medium, as Abadzis is able to put a human, and canine, face on the subject matter, and Laika's death scene is handled with artistic care and sensitivity. Also, according to the Author's Note, the moon phases on specific dates are accurate to the day. Which is some pretty detail-oriented work there.

According to Amazon, this book is intended for ages 10 and up. I would say based on language and subject matter, it's probably more suited towards the older end of the middle-grade group. It's definitely a denser graphic novel, with a lot of text. As I mentioned, it does get pretty depressing, but then again, little kids are all sociopaths anyway. I don't know how else I could've watched The Land Before Time over and over without batting an eye back when I was a wee-one. 

Basically, it's very well done, but also sad, sad, sad, and sad. So, if you're not one for weeping uncontrollably, or if you're a vehement dog lover, you might want to stay away, though I suggest you steel yourself and pick it up anyway, because it's definitely a good read.

4/5 Fancies


Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Best of Youth Review

The Best of Youth - Michael Dahlie

2013

 

The fancy goats alone should sell you on this book.

Henry Lang has the best worst (worst best?) luck in the world. His parents die, which is bad, but they leave him with $15 million, which is good. Actually, the $15 million is the most good that happens, but then it sort of covers all the other bad luck of his (massive goat-icide, antique gun-trafficking, to name a couple). Anyway, Henry is a twenty-something-year-old wanna-be writer living in Brooklyn, but thanks to his not-so-small fortune, he doesn't have to have a day job like the rest of us. So, he dabbles in expensive goat-care, invests in an upstart literary magazine, and writes short stories about old people, while trying to get over his crush on his fourth cousin (because really, does that even count as related?). When a literary agent catches a whiff of him, he offers him an opportunity to ghostwrite a young adult book for a celebrity. As seems to be the theme with Henry's life: things do not go well, but nothing is unresolvable.

The overall tone of this book was very low-key and uncomplicated (although things do get rather complicated) and although it does touch on some heavier subjects, was overall a delight. It was humorous, not like HAW HAW HAW *kneeslap* funny, but more like *chortle snort* funny. I would say it's a good pick for readers and aspiring writings (particularly those in their twenties) looking for something quick and light and also very well written, though I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to non-readers as it is dense in that there's a lot more description than dialogue. Some parts do tend to drag a little, though it's a fairly short book and those parts don't drag on too long.

Though as a side note, I highly doubt a library would get a couple of ex-cons on community service to catalog a collection of old, rare books, when there are oh so many trained library science students desperate for unpaid internships...(guess who gets to spend this summer cataloging DVDs...)

A good, quick, funny read. 

3/5 Fancies. 


City of Dark Magic Review

City of Dark Magic -- Magnus Flyte

2012


Okay, so I am about 7ish books behind right now which is less than ideal because I've already had to return a few of the books I haven't reviewed yet, so forgive me if I'm a little more vague. My classes finally ended this past weekend, and as I'm sure many of you can relate, the last month of classes is always a massive, panicked scramble. Anywho, let's get caught up, shall we?

I wasn't really sure for a while if I wanted to read this book or not because on the one hand, the whole bit about Prague, and Beethoven, and seeeeecrets and mysteriessssss was seemed up my alley, but the other bits about a sexy prince and a sassy dwarf and a devious U.S. Senator felt a bit hokey. But Meg Howrey was one of the co-authors and since I did rather enjoy one of her other books, I figure I ought to give it a shot.

So, first off, Magnus Flyte is actually Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch. And I get the feeling this isn't a great big secret because I found out about this book on Howrey's website. But anyway, it seems like they're trying to amp up the mysteri-ocity with the whole, "Magnus Flyte can be quite elusive and shuns the public eye" thing, except that only really works if you're Lemony Snicket and your main demographic is twelve-year-olds (my childhood ended the day I found out Lemony Snicket isn't real).

But enough about that. Sarah Weston is a musicologist with an oddly acute sense of smell. She is summoned to Prague to replace her professor/mentor after he "falls" out of a window helping the royal family organize their collection of rare sheet music manuscripts, some by Beethoven himself, as they turn the Royal Palace into a museum for the masses.So, she goes to Prague and mysterious things abound...such as bloody corpses appearing over wells and missing crucifixes and other some such that seem to revolve around a drug that causes you to hallucinate history (essentially) and the question of how this, Beethoven, Weston's professor, and some ex-CIA-turned-senator are all related.

So, as I mentioned above, this book had somethings working for it, but also many things working against it. It definitely moved quick, though almost too quick in some parts (see: the end). While it was enjoyable during the reading, it felt more like an action movie that's entertaining to watch, but not terribly cohesive and ultimately unmemorable. Of course, that could have been inferred  by the fact that the front-cover blurb is from Conan O'Brien. I mean, nothing against Conan, he's written some of my favorite Simpsons episodes, but when you're using him to sell a book, I feel like you're not targeting the literary market. My other issue, which isn't a huge deal, but it's billed as a dark and fantastical story, but really it's more reminiscent of a Cold War thriller with alchemical elements and a good dose of Beethoven references. And then the main plot sort of resolved itself and things kept...happening...and I wasn't quite sure why until some new, seemingly random plot point cropped up with not enough time to resolve it which makes me think this is going to be the first in a series. And while the ending wasn't tacked on, and made sense within the frame of the novel (kinda), it felt very rushed.

But, like I said, there were things I liked. As a massive Beethoven fan, it was nice reading a book full of Beethoven references. Sarah herself never seemed all that fleshed out, I mean her sense of smell was a character trait, but liked that she was a sexually independent female character and was a little annoyed by the slut-shaming I saw in a few other reviews. Being a dedicated academic and enjoying casual sex are NOT mutually exclusive, as some people seem to think. So it had that going for it.

Ultimately, it was one of those gripping books that draws you in for the duration, but leaves you wanting something more substantial afterwards.
2.5/5 Fancies




Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Tale for the Time Being Review

A Tale for the Time Being - Ruth Ozeki

2013



I wish I could just say GO READ THIS BOOK RIGHT NOW, but that's not terribly substantive and I suppose I owe you more than that.

 On the cost of a small island somewhere in Western Canada a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, inside a Hello Kitty lunch box washes up.It turns out to be the diary of a Japanese teenager named Nao. Nao has a lot to be depressed about--she's viciously bullied by her classmates, she lives in a small two-room apartment in the seedy part of Tokyo, and her father keeps trying to kill himself. But she finds some solace in her great-grandmother, Jiko, who is a 104(ish) year-old anarchist, feminist, Zen Buddhist nun. The story is told in alternating chapters following Nao and Ruth, the woman who finds the washed-up diary as she tries to find out more about Nao, whether she is real, and where she is now.

As you might've suspected, the Ruth of the book is actually Ruth, the author. Ozeki basically wrote herself and her husband (and perhaps some acquaintances?) into the book. Which I would usually find kind of lazy and self-indulgent like, "Really? You couldn't think of any other character?" BUT, I read an interview with Ozeki and where she mentions that she "auditioned" a number of characters, writing complete drafts with them, before realizing that the character that worked best was herself. So...I guess I'll give her a pass. Especially because the character-Ruth is well done and she doesn't try to hide it by giving her and her husband different names.

Anyway, I was initially way more interested in the Nao parts than the Ruth parts and so at first I was just rushing through Ruth to get back to Nao and I kept wondering why we even needed the Ruth bits in the first place. But as the story progressed, the Ruth parts became more interesting and more integral to Nao's story.

As I said though, I loved this book. Despite any initial complaints, the book really drew me in. Ozeki creates this great contrast between the cruelty and beauty of the world. Nao's story is at the same time charming and heartbreaking. There were times in this book where I was close to tears, which is a big deal because I'm not a cryer The settings are vivid and real--from Tokyo's Akihabara Electric Town to Jiko's mountain, Buddhist retreat, to Ruth's isolated, island home. It explores the meaning of the present by intersecting the past, present, and future, and pulls everything together in an elegant way with a definite, but also slightly ambiguous, ending.

I'd say more but a) It's been a while since I finished the book (school has this nasty habit of getting in the way) and b) I don't want to say too much because it really is a book you should discover on your own. Which brings me to my next point: READ IT. 

I was really on the fence on whether I should give this book a full 5/5, because on the one hand I absolutely loved it, but on the other hand there were a few elements that didn't quite fit as well as the rest...but I figured that since this was the first book I even considered giving a 5 to, I should trust my gut and there we have it, the first 5/5 Fancies.



Read a-likes: After the Quake by Haruki Murakami

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Middlesteins Review

The Middlesteins - Jami Attenberg

2012

 

So, you know how you never actually trust those blubs on the back (and front, and side flap, and first five pages) of a book? Because they're all probably very expensive lies? I mean, does anyone actually, seriously consider them when you pick up a book ? Right, so I always kinda sorta scan over them just because they're there and when you know how to read, it's hard to not-read something that's there (I highly recommend GRRM's blurb on The Magicians, though, because you can tell how obviously bitter he is about that Hugo award in 2001 (jk, ilu George, plz don't ever hate me)). But I have to say, if you believe just one book-blurb in your entire life, believe Jonathan Franzen's blurb on The Middlesteins. It's right there, smack-dab on the cover and basically sums up exactly how I feel about this book.

So. Edie Middlestein is morbidly obese. Very literally. She is obese to a morbid extent. She has diabetes, has already had two surgeries in her legs, her doctor is hinting she may need a bypass, and she's still hitting up MickyD's, Burger King, and a Chinese restaurant all in one afternoon. At sixty-soemthing-ish, she quite frankly, doesn't seem to care. But when her husband of over thirty years leaver her, her children (and children-in-law) rush in to fill the vacuum of caring for her. Or at least, the motions of care. Despite their awkwardness and emotional distance, they all try to come together to help their mother. But the question remains whether you can change someone who doesn't want to change.

This is another one of those books that takes your from point-of-view to point-of-view so that you form a more rounded opinion of each character and are not shaped by the other characters' biases. For instance, when Edie's husband, Richard, first leaves her, naturally I assume he's some kind of terrible person. But then we get Richard's POV and we see that she was constantly criticizing and hounding him and that there hasn't been any love-loss between them for years.

The one thing I didn't like was that sometimes Attenberg jumps around too much without really settling you into it. There are chapters titled like "Edie, 241 pounds (or some other weight)" and that's our only frame of reference for the chapter at least until a page or two in, which made it hard to orient oneself in how old the characters were supposed to be at that time. She also had the tendency to trail off into extended flash-forwards, which sometimes worked, and sometimes didn't. On the one hand, it provided insight in to the characters' futures and how the events of the present (past) affected them in the long run. On the other hand, it sometimes meandered too far from the story going on at the moment and made it hard to jump back into the present and keep track of what was the present and what was the future.

I'm going to quote Franzen's blurb here because he basically said it exactly how I would have: "The Middlesteins had me from its very first pages, but it wasn't until its final pages that I fully appreciated the range of Attenberg's sympathy and the artistry of her storytelling."

This book really did grab me from the very first pages--initially, I wasn't sure if I was interested in checking it out,  but then I skimmed the first couple lines and I absolutely had to read more. And while the whole book was good throughout, it was really elevated by the ending.

4/5 big, fat Fancies.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Kind of Kin Review

 Kind of Kin - Rilla Askew

2013

 

I keep doing this thing where I write up a bunch of stuff and then somehow it all gets deleted on blogger and I have to start over and I know I should just write it all on Word first, but apparently I'm an idiot, and didn't.

Okay, so on to the book. I read this right after I read Into the Beautiful North (which I will review later -- I'm going to an author reading at the end of the month and want to see that first), which was interesting because I was totally not going for an illegal immigrant theme, that's just how my library holds worked out. So, they both take on different points of view and also different tones, on the subject of undocumented immigrants (specifically Mexican) in the United States, which has been one of those ever-present issues for as far back as our election memories go.

Kind of Kin has a whole clusterchuck of plot threads running around, which is all triggered by the passing of a new Oklahoma law that felon-izes the harboring of illegal immigrants. So, Bob Brown, father to Sweet Georgia Brown and sole guardian of ten-year-old Dustin Robert, is arrested for hiding a group of illegals immigrants on his farm. Dustin is sent to live with his Aunt Sweet and her Dudley Dursley-of-a-son, Carl Albert. He runs away to help Luis, the sole escapee of the raid on Bob's farm, get across the state to find his sons. Of course, he doesn't tell anyone and the police and media are thrown into a frenzy about this missing boy who's grandfather was arrested for harboring illegals. Which doesn't bode well for Oklahoma State Rep Monica Moorehouse, a major proponent of the law, who cares more about her D.C. ambitions than her actual constituents. As if that weren't enough, Aunt Sweet's niece, Misty Dawn shows up with her three-year old daughter and undocumented husband seeking refuge in the midst of the media and police circus that has been left in the wake of Dustin's disappearance.

So, I'm pretty sure harboring an illegal immigrant is already a federal crime, or maybe it's not officially been passed yet? I'm not quite so up on my legal jargon as I decided to go to library school instead of law school. If anyone knows more, please share. Regardless, the premise of the story still stands in that it explores the effects of such a law.

Askew appears to take the side of leniency in terms of undocumented immigrants, but the book itself isn't too preachy (well...aside from the parts with the preacher) and the ending isn't all "AND THAT IS WHY X SHOULD BE Y". It's a hypothetical story that explores the human effects such a law would have, which is why it's such a complex issue. And while there is a resolution of the immediate plot threads, the long-term effects and possibilities are left open.

I feel like I should have more to say on literary quality but I don't remember because I finished this book a while back and only now have time to write about it. I should probably start taking notes (also there was a bunch of other stuff I had to say, but then it all got DELETED and I don't remember what it was about).

Overall, the story had a grip on me--there was definitely a point where I simply could not put it down, and the prose was good, but not particularly memorable. Let's say...a nice, slightly above-average 3.5/5 Fancies?


Sunday, February 24, 2013

If You Were Here Review

If You Were Here - Jen Lancaster

2011


So I'm getting behind on reviews and I didn't really like this book, so I'm not going to spend too much time on it.

Jen Mia and her husband buy an expensive money pit in the Chicago burbs because the movie Sixteen Candles was filmed there and also they are idiots. Because they lack common sense, they further exacerbate their living situation in a dilapidated house by doing stupid things like dropping toilets through the floor (not once, but twice) and chopping down a tree because of an annoying woodpecker. Also the neighbors are crazy yuppies who complain about her ugly, expensive mailbox and other stupid things.

Okay, it's supposed to be a comedy--that's why I picked it up. I was hoping for something along the lines of The Cursing Mommy's Book of Days to help me de-stress. I can make allowances for mediocre writing and I can make allowances for ridiculousness, if it makes me laugh. Because at the end of the day, all I want to do is laugh.

This book did not make me laugh.

All right, I may have chuckled here or there, but the laughter-to-terrible-writing ratio was way off. For one thing, Lancaster relies on a lot of pop culture references that I did not understand because I was born in the 90s. Okay, I suppose that's not entirely her fault because there is such a thing as DVDs and at any point in my twenty-some years on this planet I could have rented and watched Sixteen Candles. But I didn't, so it's a moot point. Also, she kept peppering in these footnotes which I guess is a sort of a trademark from her memoir books, but to be honest I found them mostly pointless. Half of them would flow better as parentheticlas or even with commas, and the other half really didn't need to be there.

With comedies we generally tend to suspend our disbelief because we know it's not supposed to be necessarily realistic; it's about exaggerations or being silly.The thing is, I feel like if you're going to go all-out ridiculous, it has to be, well, all-out. Otherwise, it has to remain within some realm of possibility. This book seemed to be stuck in between--it felt too unrealistic to enjoy, but not unrealistic enough to sort of kick back and forget about real life. And even if your story is going to be completely absurd, the pacing still has to follow some sort of consistency. This book proved to be yet another example of the quick-fix-I'm-out-of-time-let's-just-slap-something-stupid-together ending.

From some of the other reviews I've read, apparently Lancaster does a poor job of disguising the main character, Mia, as someone other than herself--the same follows for her husband and friends. Which makes me think that Lancaster isn't capable of creating original characters. To be fair, not having read any of Lancaster's memoirs, I can't say for sure. However, I've skimmed the first couple pages of a few of them and so far it all adds up. Also, I will not be reading any more of her books because she comes off rather very egotistical and kind of bratty. I can tolerate Mia because she's a (supposedly) fictional character, but as a real person...not so much.

1.5/5 Fancies


Saturday, February 23, 2013

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore Review

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - Robin Sloan

2012


Hey, you guys, this book, it totally glows in the dark. Scared the ever-loving crap out of me when I went to bed with it on my nightstand. It's a good thing it's not a scary book, otherwise it would have gone straight out the window and I'd have slept with the lights on for a month. Also, they've really improved on glow-in-the-dark technology since I was a child. Anywho, that's probably one of the most redeeming features of this book, so let's get into it, shall we?

Clay Jannon is an art school grad which means he's underemployed. After the new bagel company he worked for, so aptly named NewBagel, went under, he finds the only job he can as the overnight clerk at a mysterious 24-bookstore. The bookstore's regulars seem to consist of a few strange people who arrive at all hours, urgently demanding volumes from the tall shelves in the back that appear to be written in some kind of code.

Okay, so this book wasn't terrible, but there were definitely a few things that I take issue with. For one thing everything felt just so very, very contrived. Every event that happened is so perfectly convenient and it felt like there were hardly any real problems at all. The plot seemed lacking in that you've got this secret society and an ages-old code...and yet nothing's really at stake. The most intimidating thing the "antagonist" (for lack of a better word) seems capable of is a menacing phone call from three thousand miles away, and the cost of failure is...ennui. And while it doesn't seem possible that this story could get any more set-up, the ending make little sense, happens way too conveniently, isn't really explained, and happens so fast--like Sloan was running out of time and had to slap something really quick together.

The whole book felt like it was trying to be whimsical, and looking at the plot summary definitely seems like it could have been--that's why I picked it up. But the writing is very bare-bones "I did this. Then this happened. We looked over there." There's nothing clever about the prose or the story (because if it ain't got wit, it ain't got whimsy). Everything all just comes down to technology and ooo! This gizmo is capable of this! Problem solved! Hooray!  And the whole thing about a company that specializes in the animation of boobs? I seemed like it was supposed to come off quirky and cute, but really, that's just creepy.

It's supposed to be an adult book, but the writing level and the plot complexity pegs it at a much more juvenile level. Although, to say that would even be an insult to juvenile literature because A Wrinkle in Time is also  juv lit and it's brilliant. 

This was supposed to be my break from all the depressing books I've been reading this year so far, but I'd prefer sad and well-written to this. 

Actually, now that I've written all that out, this book was kind of terrible.

2/5 Fancies.


Read Instead: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Causal Vacancy Review

The Casual Vacancy - J.K. Rowling

2012


So, as with every Harry Potter fan, I approached this book with some hesitancy because it's been made very clear that This Book Is Not Harry Potter and I didn't want to read it for the sole reason that Queen Jo wrote it. But eventually, the story line piqued my interest and so I tacked my name onto the miles-long waiting list at the library. Had this book come out five years ago, I may have skipped it entirely, but my tastes have evolved and I've become more open to a variety of books.

All right, so Barry Fairbrother dies. On page 5. As a member of the Parish Council of the small town of Pagford, this leaves a vacancy, a casual vacancy as the term goes, on the council. While he was still alive, Barry was very much a proponent of the keeping the low-income housing neighborhood, the Fields, a part of Pagford. With his death, his opponents are now swooping in to try to have their wants filled. His death indirectly causes a crucible of latent anger between friends, families, and neighbors, to boil over.

Okay, so it sounds a bit like Harry Potter and a Very Large Book About Muggles in which Harry Potter Does Not Appear or Privet Drive, the 3/4s of the Year Harry Potter is Not There.  But really, this book needs to be viewed apart from Harry Potter because, once again This Book Is Not Harry Potter. So I'm going to stop making Harry Potter references now. Also because this is much more apt analogy:

When you play the game of council chairs, you win...or you go home and make a pot of tea and cry.

Because like Game of Thrones, this book is all about people and power--not just political power, but power over their families, or their friends, or their enemies. And it's about all the backhanded schemes people have to undermine their parents, or their spouses, or their coworkers, or their friends. Rowling also takes us through various points of views so we see the motivations behind each persons actions and how those actions are misinterpreted by others. We also get to see multiple sides of an issues and multiple sides to each character. I often found myself thinking one thing about a character, and then revising that opinion when the POV switched to them or someone else. Despite the constant view-swapping, I didn't find it at all confusing. Though I did, at first, have some trouble remember who was who and was related to whom at the very beginning because she throws so many names at you. And thing is, when you've got characters named Dumbledore, or Hagrid, you tend to remember them (or the gist of them) because they're so unique. But when I'm reading about Howard or Ruth for the first time, I immediately forget those names because they're so...regular (the same thing happens when I meet new people...just in one ear and out the other).

Another thing that Rowling's really good at is planting innocuous little plot seeds throughout the story and then coming back to them much later after you've forgotten all about them because no WAY was that little detail going to actually become something important...until it does. And I will mention Harry here because that's one of the things I really liked about reading Harry Potter more than once--catching all those little hints you missed the first time. She's just brilliant at planning ahead.

She's also just brilliant at writing. While Harry Potter (I know, I know--I swear this is the last time I'll mention it!) is written for younger audiences, it's written at a level that in no way feels dumbed-down or half-assed. As Casual Vacancy is for adults, she's able to go full literary steam ahead.

So, if you're planning on reading it just because Queen Jo wrote it, remember, This Book Is Not Harry Potter. There's drug addicts, domestic violence, child abuse, rape, cursing, cutting, sex, ...pretty much everything except magic. And while it may seem like she's piling this stuff on just to say This Book Is Not Harry Potter, it does all fit within the story. If you've never been a Harry Potter fan, don't shy away from it just because it's Rowling. I know this book's already gotten a fair share of lukewarm reviews, but I absolutely loved it. Perhaps my standards were already lowered because of said reviews, but it's still really, really good. While it started slow, it ended up becoming one of those books where I put it down and two minutes later I'm thinking about it again.

Anyway, the ending is truly one of the bitter sweet variety that is devastatingly sad, but also kind of hopeful, and it just turns you into one big ball of emotions (okay, so the fact that I've been listening to the Les Mis soundtrack in the car may have contributed too). 

4 Fancies plus a half because I'm still so damn emotional about it. 4.5/5


Read A-Likes: Lionel Asbo: State of England by Martin Amis
                         
Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Lace Reader Review

The Lace Reader - Brunonia Barry

2006

 

I started this book because I overheard my boss and another librarian talking about how much they hated it and that it's about crazy people. Now, you know I love books about crazy people. I also tend to love books my boss hates (and vice versa), so it seemed like a good pick.

Towner Whitney is a chronic liar, or so the first line would have us believe (which creates all kinds of conundrums along the lines of "this statement is false"). Anyway, she also comes from a long line of crazy people lace readers--women who have the psychic ability to read the future through pieces of lace. After hearing news that her grandmother is missing, she returns home to Salem (yes, that Salem), only for granny's (dead) body to be discovered the next day. There's a lot of flash backs about her twin sister, who was raised as her cousin because Towner's mother gave Towner's twin to her sister when she couldn't conceive, and also about her (Towner's) twin's eventual suicide. There's also a cult of neo-Puritans that was started by Towner's wife-beating, child-abusing, uncle Cal (don't you love him already?), and a missing pregnant teen, last seen joining said cult. So the story's present Plot is about this missing girl and how they're pretty sure Cal killed her, but have no actual proof. There's also the story's past Plot, which is Towner's history and relationship with her grandmother, mother, and mostly her sister.

In general, it was pretty interesting. I was definitely hooked by at least two things: 1) finding out what happened to the missing prego teen and 2) seeing Cal get his comeuppance because I hated him so much (spoiler: he does). And then came the MASSIVE TWEEST at the end, which I had mixed feelings about. On the one hand, I do love a good psychological twist. The problem is that when you do have a twist that overhauls the entire story, YOU GOT SOME 'SPLAININ' TO DO and I don't think Barry did enough 'splainin'. While the ending did make sense within the realm of the book, there wasn't enough story left after the big reveal to tie up all the pre-twist plot threads with the post-twist plot threads.

But it is a good book--or at least I enjoyed it, but, as I mentioned above, not everyone does. I'd say it's worth a read, at least so I can discuss the ending with you!

 Anyway, enjoyable, but not terribly memorable.  3/5 Fancies.




Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Cranes Dance Review

The Cranes Dance - Meg Howrey

2012

 

Two things you should know about me are 1) I love ballet and 2) I love stories about crazy people. So when I find a book about ballet and crazy people, it's about the biggest jackpot since Black Swan came out.

Because ballet-bird allusions will never grow old, Kate Crane is a soloist at a prestigious unnamed New York City ballet company. Prior to the story, Kate's younger, more talented sister, Gwen, a principal dancer in the same company, goes back home to mom and dad after a nervous breakdown. Kate is wracked with guilt for failing to do more to help her sister earlier on. Because when your sister starts doing things like throwing chairs at mirrors, taping "X"s all over the apartment, having a full-blown panic attack at the sight of a mouse, and claiming her spotless apartment is too dirty for her to physically enter, little reds flags should be popping up signalling something is rotten in the state of Gwen. Kate eventually calls home and has her dad pick her sister up. So the story begins with Kate alone in NYC with nothing but her dancing and her guilty thoughts.

And that's about it really in terms of plot. It's a character-centric story so a majority of the action is very slice-of-life of a dancer in a company. Meanwhile we are also treated to a number of flashbacks of the events leading up to her sister's break. As such, the book moves sort of slow as there is no huge driving force behind it, aside from Kate's now deteriorating mental state (due, in part to a recent addiction to Vicodin). But it's a much more subtle descent than, say, I'M THE SWAN QUEEN! While it's not dark like Black Swan, there is a level of bleakness as Kate also falls into a existential crisis and there's an amount of "WHAT'S THE POINT?"

Aside from the slowness of the story, it's written well enough. The book is narrated by Kate to her "unseen audience" (AKA us), which I at first found kind of meh, because I don't really like it when narrators address the reader. It turns out, however, that Kate often images she is being observed by an unseen audience in order to force herself to retain her poise at all times, so it kind of fits. A lot of personality comes through Kate's narration, which is good in terms of character development, but also not good if you don't like her personality. I, personally, liked her--or rather, I liked reading about her. The book also begins with Kate giving you a snide overview of Swan Lake, which her company is currently performing. At first, I was like "not again", because every ballet story seems to reference Swan Lake and you'd think that's the only thing ballet companies ever did, and besides I know Swan Lake backwards and forwards (though admittedly, not everyone else reading this book does). But I found myself giggling throughout the description anyway because she also talks about the "peasant-dancing hoo-ha" and the awkwardness of ballet-mime to those who don't know ballet-mime. The company thankfully moves on to other productions soon enough, and the main(ish) ballet of the book ends up being A Midsummer Night's Dream.

If you're like me, and you've gone through every ballet documentary on Netflix and watch Dance Academy because you're secretly living vicariously through those crazy Aussie teens, then you will probably enjoy this book--at least on the level that it's a fairly detailed look into company life. I mean, the author herself used to be a professional dancer, so I'm pretty sure she would know.

If you're not so much into ballet, then the book might not grip you enough to keep reading up to the end, where it does pick up quite a bit, but, like I said, that's at the end.

3.5/5 Fancies.




Saturday, January 26, 2013

Maverick Jetpants in the City of Quality Review

Maverick Jetpants in the City of Quality - Bill Peters
2012


So I kind of had to read this book because it takes place in my hometown. Since not that many do, I always get really excited when I find one that does because then the book is all "I drove down X street, past Y street, and that shady gas station", I'm like "I KNOW X STREET AND Y STREET AND THAT IS  A DAMN SHADY GAS STATION" and it's just a really good time. Rest assured, there was a lot of that in this book.

Right. It's 1999 and Nate Gray is the definition of a twenty-something loser-- junior college dropout, unemployed with no immediate plans to become employed, lives with Mom...etc.  He spends most of his time cruising around town, making jokes with his friends...and that's about it really. Suddenly, his best friend, Necro, starts hanging out with some freaky weapons-touting-NeoNazi-types and there's all these explosions and fires around town and Nate starts to suspect that maybe Necro is involved. But really he just wants to know if they're still friends or what.

To be honest, it felt kind of like a really extended short story and was kind of meander-y. There was an actual Plot, but the narrative seemed to drift in and around it. There'd be a chapter speculating on the arson and Necro's possible involvement in said arson, and then in the next chapter, they're driving some random girl to Buffalo.


  And I get it, the Plot's not the point of the story, it's a coming-of-age/slice of life story. But there's a certain level of cohesion I just felt was lacking. Then the Plot ended...and stuff still kept happening, and while none of that is necessarily bad per se, it just felt very...so what?

In fact, I think that's pretty much the main thing  about this book. Peters tries a lot of interesting stuff that isn't bad, so much as...improperly executed? For instance, Nate and his friends use this in-joke slang that Peters melds into the dialogue and narration of the book which reminded me a little of A Clockwork Orange, but it didn't come off as successfully as A Clockwork Orange in that it never really seemed to click. But like I said, it's not terrible. There are some nuggets of really, really, good writing scattered throughout. The problem is that the whole book isn't at that same level. That's not to say that the rest of his writing is bad, it's just...not as good.

This is Peters' first book and it really reads as such, but he's by no means a lost cause--he definitely has potential and, as with everything, I'm sure he'll improve with time and practice. I just don't think Maverick Jetpants was quite as well put-together as it could have been.

 I was sort of wavering between 2.5 and 3, because I kind of liked it, but I was also kind of meh, but it's not really that bad, but also it wasn't that great...........

 3/5 for the sake of hometown pride.


Read A-Likes: Ghosts & Lightning by Trevor Byrne

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Stay Awake Review

Stay Awake - Dan Chaon
2012

 This was sort of my re-bound book from Miss Peregrine because it had gotten me all worked up for something spooky and then didn't fill my spook-quota. I found this title on Goodread's Best Horror of 2012 list and it looked creepy enough and happened to be in the library, so I gave it a shot.

First off, it's not horror as you traditionally think of horror, like spooks and monsters and demon-children. It's a collection of short stories and while some of them  reference or hint at the supernatural, nothing is totally confirmed. Despite this, I still found it rather creepy because it's dismal and bleak, and there were overriding themes of dead babies, birth defects, widowed/ex-spouses, murdered children, etc,...but all very muted and kind of in the background of the story, such as: "The baby dies and there is a little funeral" and then the story is about the parents, which has a sad, haunting quality to it, rather than someone opening a box and finding dead babies, which is more of the shock & horror approach. These were apparently written over a period of time and published individually in journals prior to this collection, so don't be surprised if something oddly specific like...I don't know, losing your finger while falling off a ladder, happens more than once. The funny thing about collections is that you sometimes read stories in conjunction with stories that weren't meant to be together.

As a creative writing major and as an intern at a literary magazine, I've read and analyzed a lot of short fiction and I am of the camp that believes short stories do not necessarily have to have a definite, conclusive, "the butler did it" ending. I think that short stories can get away with vague, open, conclusions (as long as they are well written, of course). This book is full of those kinds of endings, so if you're the kind of person who wants to know exactly what it was all about and you want stories that end (and there's nothing wrong with that, matter of taste), you will not like this book. But I liked it.

Admittedly, I feel like some of the stories may have ended too vaguely--like I was just getting into it, and suddenly it was over. But then there were those that really worked well, such as: "To Psychic Underworld:", "The Bees," and "The Farm. The Gold. The Lily-White Hands." If you think you might pick up this book to try one of the stories, I heartily endorse that last one. It's the final in the collection and a good example why you should always leave the best for last.

 I had initially averaged this book out to 3/5, but then, the final story just blew me away and so I racked it up to 3.5/5.



Monday, January 14, 2013

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children Review

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children - Ransom Riggs

2011


You see this creepy-as-all-hell cover and then you see the book is smattered with these weird and freaky vintage photos and you think “This looks like one spooky book!” And the inside flap continues to lead you along that track—horrific tragedies! Abandoned houses! Dead children! Wales! If that’s what you’re looking for…just flip through the pictures and put together your own story in your head because I guarantee you it will be 10x scarier than this book.

I feel like so much more went into the marketing and package of the book than into the actual content of the story. The cover is nice and eerie, the end paper and title pages are full-color (or rather, black and brown, but that’s more color than most books get), the paper's thick, and of course, there are those creepy photos throughout. It even has a book trailer. But no matter how fancily you wrap up a dead bird, it is still a dead bird.

 So, Jacob's grandfather likes to tell these stories about how when he was a child he was sent away from home to an orphanage on a Welsh island, he was accompanied by other "peculiar" children and supposedly kept safe from "monsters". As Jacob grows from wondrous child to petulant teen he realizes that his grandfather's tales are probably just tall tales. Then his grandfather is horrifically killed in an "accident" and Jacob heads off to Wales to visit his grandfather's old home as a form of closure. But it soon becomes apparent that his grandfather was telling the truth all this time. That's about as far as I can go without spoiling anything and that's about as far as the blurb goes also. But if you think this is going to be some really creepy ghost story, I'll save you some time. It's not.

 When I first saw the book, read the summary, and heard a bunch of reviews talk about how scary it was, I was really hoping for something like The Orphanage. What I got was just another YA supernatural fantasy, complete with tacked-on romance, unsupervised precocious teens, and a sequel in the making.

I'm not angry, I'm just very disappointed. Okay, and a little bit angry.
Admittedly, I don't read all that much YA (and this book is one of the many reasons why), but I can tell when a book is written at a lower level but written well versus when a book is just poorly written. Unfortunately, I have to say this book fits the latter. But the really frustrating thing is that it didn't start off that way. Riggs clearly knows how to write, as least some of the time. And I did actually finish the book, which I guess says something. Even when it became apparent that this book was not what I was looking for, I kept going because I still wanted answers (I won't be reading the sequel, though). However, as the book progressed, the quality of the writing seemed to decline. Maybe Riggs and his editor were getting too close to deadline or something because by the end, his sentences, dialogue, and plot points were just downright sloppy. Also I find it hard to believe that a 16-year-old in "gifted" classes, who uses words like torpor and soporific, has never heard of Ralph Waldo Emerson and lacks the ability to draw basic conclusions from fairly obvious clues. It's like Riggs couldn't decide whether this was an older teen or a middle grade book and then kind of failed at both.

Then there’s the matter of the pictures, which Riggs seems to use as a crutch, except that it’s a broken crutch. Rather than giving us a description of some characters, he would simply say something like “They looked like their picture” INSERT PICTURE. But the problem with this is that he’s not consistent. When he introduces us to one character, he tells us he recognizes her from a picture, and proceeds to show us a rather blurry, unclear photo of what I thought was a ten-year-old girl. And so I assumed this character was a ten-year-old girl, until pages later it became apparent that she was a teenage girl. The same thing happens with another character. We’re given a picture, in lieu of a description, of a little boy. And then later on, we’re given another picture of him only this one shows a much older boy. WHICH IS IT RIGGS? And then there’s the actual incorporation of the photos. Riggs describes the picture “It has this in it and with this and looked like this” and then we’d get to see the picture which just felt very…pointless. What I really didn't like, though, is that he gives an explanation for the oddities in each picture which diminishes their creep-factor. I don’t think Riggs realizes that not-knowing is far scarier than having a detailed explanation for everything, especially when the explanation itself isn’t all that scary.

There's so much more I could say against this book, but that would be spoil it and make this review longer than I'm sure anyone cares to read, suffice to say (hint: mild spoiler coming up), Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is yet another incarnation of X-Men/Harry Potter/Charlie Bone, and a poor one at that. If you're cool with that kind of story, then go ahead and read it because you'll probably enjoy it more than I did.

  Speaking of twins, 2/5 Fancies. 


Read Instead: A Dark Dividing by Sarah Rayne