Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Book review: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

I want everyone to read you, Eleanor & Park!

I have so spoiled myself over the past few weeks, reading brilliant wordsmiths like Rainbow Rowell and Laini Taylor whose emotive descriptions are devastatingly apt. This book is ADORABLE. It seems like almost everyone I knew in high school fell in love exactly like this; teenagers have a way of each feeling uniquely disenfranchised, and meeting someone else who complements your weird and loneliness feels like finally the universe has done you a solid. Eleanor and Park aren’t, though, overwhelmingly privileged teens who create their own angst, as many of my peers were . Park is mixed-race and experiences racism and ignorance from his classmates and neighbors, and even though most of it isn’t violent or explicitly cruel, it leaves him feeling like an outcast. Eleanor is new at Park’s school, and comes from an abusive home, where she, her siblings, and her mother constantly navigate the whims of her alcoholic stepfather. On top of her home being dangerous, her family is also poor, so she doesn’t feel safe at school either, where her worn-out, unstylish, and ill-fitting clothes make her stand out against her classmates.

Their meet-cute isn’t much of one: Eleanor stands awkwardly at the front of the bus looking for a seat; Park, begrudgingly, almost angrily, allows her to take the seat next to him. Soon, though, as they’re sitting together, Park notices Eleanor reading his comics, and he takes to bringing some with him for her to read. Soon after, they’re sharing Walkman headphones. Then, mixtapes. As teens identify themselves so much by the stuff that they like, Eleanor and Park’s mutual interest in these things and the seeming intuition about what the other will like (because they, themselves like it) eventually grows into affection and then breathless, all-consuming young love.

Their love is an escape from a world that doesn’t understand them into one that does, but it also in small ways gives them more strength to survive the parts of their lives without each other. As much as they hate being apart, they take courage away from being together. Park, for instance, feels more comfortable expressing himself and starts wearing eyeliner simply because he likes it. Eleanor’s situation is different — she can’t undergo any kind of obvious transformation without rocking the boat with her stepfather, but the knowledge that she finally has a real support system in Park (and a growing one in his family) subconsciously empowers her to believe that she is loveable. It’s a more subtle transformation, but as she loves Park more, she needs him less.

I’m, again, so grateful to the Cannonball for introducing me to Rainbow Rowell. After two books, she’s immediately on the list of authors I will read, regardless of the description, because I now trust her to write a great book even if it’s not a plot that appears to immediately grab me. Attachments is now on my library list and I can’t wait for her next to be published later this year!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Book review: Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor

Though not really reflected in my earlier (rather superficial, in retrospect) review, I have had a whirlwind of emotions with this series. I wrote said prior review as one piece for both of the preceding novels, Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Days of Blood and Starlight probably to avoid spoilers but also because I read them literally back-to-back: I finished Smoke and Bone and began Blood and Starlight with the same breath. As such, it became difficult to separate them for the purposes of thematic or ‘first impression’ review — which, it seems, is what I did, reading it over — but as time had gone by, I began to remember S&B more favorably, overall, than B&S. I have no desire to review those two over again, but for the sake of recapping how I felt when I began Dreams of Gods and Monsters, I’ll just mention that while I was excited to be reintroduced to Taylor’s worlds and characters via her stunning prose, I remembered feeling fatigued by the number of words and pages it took in B&S for Taylor to state, more or less, that supernatural wars are scary and dangerous and they tear lovers apart. I was concerned, therefore, about how long G&M would take to get to where it was going, and whether that narrative would be gripping along the way, or if it would lazily meander around several tangents before getting to the point. It sounds harsh to say it that way, because Taylor’s writing is so uniquely lovely and the tangents are so artfully drawn, so scenes that beautiful shouldn’t feel extraneous, but they just sometimes do.

So, with all of that said, how did G&M do? Well, I liked it better than B&S but not as much, still, as S&B. Which is to say, in some aspects, my concerns were justified. A new main character was introduced in G&M that, within the context of G&M, created an interesting secondary plotline; however, it seemed to me that her part in the conclusion could have been fulfilled using existing characters and mythology that was established in the first two books. Instead, this new character is given an arch that, in and of itself, could have been an interesting standalone novel, but in this context it comes across as an overly convoluted backstory that’s hastily introduced into what otherwise is the climax and resolution of the primary narrative. Her arch does tie into the overall conclusion, but as I said, the purpose she served could have probably been achieved through means that didn’t distract from the main story and take time away from other characters whose stories were never fully resolved. There was also a little bit of an infodump at the end that was full of really epic consequences, and it was played as utterly devastating, but the way that the information was delivered took a bit of punch out of the reveal. This, again, was something that, had it unraveled more slowly over the course of the novel, might have built up mystery and stakes, but instead passages featuring the key players were shuffled in and out sporadically and with a very tenuous connection to the main stage that remained tenuous up until said infodump.

Despite the inconsistent pace and loose threads, though, I was pretty satisfied with G&M. The prose was as beautiful as ever, and she continued to respect the journeys of each of her main characters, giving them each something to contribute and underlining the necessary support system that they are for each other. I also never felt at any point like the end was being broadcast, or like the the story was taking predictable turns. I also, overall, appreciated the way that Taylor chose to end the book. It wasn’t all rainbows and roses, but things were generally looking up. Additionally, despite outing myself as someone who doesn’t really buy into the ‘star-crossed lovers’ narrative a lot of the time, the way that Karou and Akiva’s story played out had me on board by the end and even had me wanting much more for them in a potentially un-YA way. (It doesn’t hurt that the way that Laini Taylor writes love and longing reads like it’s the most important and essential thing in the history of the universe, and I’m not poking fun by putting it that way: THE FEELS ARE REAL, is what I’m saying.)

Dreams of Gods and Monsters was, for me, a solid 4.5 stars. Based on some of the “technical” complaints, I’d give it four, but it’s such a satisfying end to a well-written, unique, and quality series that I concede the extra nudge. For bringing me back around after the dull Blood and Starlight alone, G&M gets a merit award. Overall, I highly recommend the series and look forward to more from Laini Taylor. In particular, I’m curious of what a more straightforward PNR would look like from her, since she’s so talented and writes longing, desire, and UST so well.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Book review: This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don't Touch It (John Dies at the End #2) by David Wong

Goodreads has this PSA for you: “WARNING: You may have a huge, invisible spider living in your skull. THIS IS NOT A METAPHOR.

You will dismiss this as ridiculous fearmongering. Dismissing things as ridiculous fearmongering is, in fact, the first symptom of parasitic spider infection-the creature secretes a chemical into the brain to stimulate skepticism, in order to prevent you from seeking a cure. That’s just as well, since the “cure” involves learning what a chain saw tastes like.

You can’t feel the spider, because it controls your nerve endings. You can’t see it, because it decides what you see. You won’t even feel it when it breeds. And it will breed. So what happens when your family, friends, and neighbors get mind-controlling skull spiders? We’re all about to find out.”

Much like with John Dies at the End, the first book in this series, I was only about 85-90% sure of what was going on at any given point in time while reading this book. The prose here is lightning fast and wickedly quippy, and David Wong’s gift of gruesome detail — both metaphorical and not — cannot be understated. I liked this book a lot, with its hapless wannabe action hero protagonists who are only ever involved in these supernatural/alien doomsday scenarios because they have the misfortune of living in a town that’s basically Sunnydale and because they took a psychedelic drug called Soy Sauce one time that elevates the consciousness and perception to be able to see all of the creepy crawlies that regular humans can’t. As a twosome, John and Dave are sarcastic, horrible at planning, short-sighted, and immature, but they’re also weirdly experienced, very loyal, and above all, incredibly lucky. That Dave has a very smart girlfriend in Amy (and a dog named Molly with great timing) also doesn’t hurt.

Prior reviews have all mentioned that this book seamlessly blends horror, gore, and suspense with comedy, and I agree completely. Wong has also been described as a spiritual successor to Douglas Adams, and I agree with that as well. Certainly all fans of Hitchhiker’s Guide should read this series, as should anyone who just likes comedic books in general. I docked a star because I am being persnickety and I liked the overarching plot better in John Dies at the End than I did in Spiders, but this really was very good.

Book review: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Quickie summary: “In this classic story that inspired the hit movie by the same name, Charlie Gordon, a mentally disabled adult who cleans floors and toilets, becomes a genius through an experimental operation.”

I never read this in school, as I believe many did, so though I came to understand popular references to the book or film, I still felt like I was lacking in some collective education. One thought that continually ran through my mind as I was reading the story was the question I posed above: could this story be published today and achieve the same critical and cultural success? Keyes aptly (I believe) addresses the treatment of mentally challenged adults by critiquing through Charlie’s eyes both the overt maliciousness and teasing he experienced as well as the more subtle prejudice of the psychologists conducting the experiment, who often treated him more as a lab subject than a full human being, with or without his new “genuis.” Despite that sensitive and thought-provoking content, the beginning and (spoiler?) end of this book are written in the author’s idea of mentally disabled pidgin, and it’s uncomfortable to read, to say the least. Where in overall content and intent, Keyes seems to have hit the right notes, the “retarded” affect seems a bit like crip drag to me, though as I’m not mentally disabled it’s probably not my place to pretend to be an expert here.

The other element that dated the story actually came from Charlie’s “genius” end of the spectrum. Put bluntly, the ruminating he does on psychology and sexuality with his new-found intelligence absolutely SCREAMS 1960′s. In fact, many of these passages reminded me of the pompous blustering performed by Jubal Harshaw in Stranger in a Strange Land, another book where each woman is a different cardboard archetype and sex is a mystical and significant but also, like, totally normal thing, man. As interesting as it was to read along with Charlie as he reaches epiphanies about himself, his relation to others close and distant, and draw hypotheses about humanity as a whole, much of the discussion that didn’t cover Charlie’s direct progress and emotions felt like thinly veiled podiums for the author’s own pedantry.

I can see why this is read in many schools. There is a good message about treating others as you would like to be treated, and a nice cautionary tale about the importance of making sure science has rigorous checks and balances before human experimentation commences (seriously, a sample size of one successful rat does not a completed experiment make.) For me, it wasn’t the top-tier science fiction classic its often made out to be, but you know what they say about mileages varying and all that.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Book review: Ruins (The Partials Sequence #3) by Dan Wells

The first thing I will say is this: Ruins, despite its bleak title, had possibly the happiest ending in a YA dystopian trilogy that I remember reading in quite some time, and, admittedly, I was kind of relieved.

I was getting the sense that many YA authors have been under pressure from publishers — and their own ambition — to write ‘shocking’ or ‘original’ endings, so they’ve been steered away from neat resolution and feel-goods. But an ending can be positive without being trite, you know? And my feels can only take a beating for so long. So while I won’t get into specifics here, I’ll just re-iterate that it was bizarrely refreshing for Dan Wells to give us a hopeful ending in this trilogy; the main conflict seemed to be headed in a productive direction, and the love triangle (yes, of course) was resolved in as mature of a fashion as I’ve ever read.

I’ve always felt that “The Partials Sequence” has been an underrated YA trilogy. The world-building is solid and sits right in that neat pocket of believable near-future sci-fi that personally grabs me, and the characterization remained consistent across the trilogy — in a good way — these people weren’t static; their actions seemed in line with their motivations, personalities, and goals. The action and tension slowly and consistently ramped up but never became wildly unrealistic, and while Kira, as a heroine, suffers a little bit from a Messiah complex, the supporting characters are diverse enough to keep the story grounded.

While I liked the trilogy overall a lot and was satisfied with the final conclusion, I did have some issues with this particular book. It’s hard to discuss some of them without getting a bit specific, so if you’re wary of spoiling yourself avoid the rest of this paragraph. I briefly mentioned my first issue above, which is that Kira kind of consistently performs above her grade-level, so to speak? I have tried to pledge myself to never use the term Mary Sue (and there I’ve just invoked it, so ugh) because I think it’s so overused that it doesn’t mean anything at this point (see also: “hipster”), but it’s difficult to justify a teenager of above-average but not exceptional intelligence being able to solve two world-changing medical problems that have had preeminent experts scratching their heads for decades. Which isn’t to say that the problems were real stumpers, since as a reader I figured out at least the second one — the one that is solved in Ruins – ages before everyone else did, but still. One of the many geniuses in the book should have caught on before Kira did. Even that would have been easier to accept if she weren’t always on all of these “I’m the only one who can do this” missions, of which there are at least 2 in every standalone novel, I’m sure.

I also think that, in an issue nearly identical to one in probably every YA trilogy closer I’ve read in the last five years, this volume could have benefited from some editing. There are extended passages where Kira and/or other characters are wandering around some landscape feature, and while these journey sequences have compelling moments, they could have been clipped or condensed quite a bit without sacrificing the significance of the outcome.

All in all, those issues aside, I still thought this series collectively finishes on top of many of its more popular contemporaries, or at least many of the ones I’ve read. I’m not going to clamor for it to be optioned for a film because I think Hollywood definitely needs to stop banging on the corpse of YA dystopia for awhile, but the series is still certainly worth a read (the original entertainment!)

Monday, April 21, 2014

Book review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

To me, this book was perfect. Between Rowell’s flawless turns of phrase, her on-point descriptions of adapting to college, and her loving nods to fandom, I tore through this novel and loved every moment. The premise is this: Cath and her identical twin sister Wren had been, for most of their lives, mega-fans of the Simon Snow series (a Harry Potter analog.) Both were avid fanfiction writers and consumers, and they were also involved  with cosplay, creating and sharing fanart, the works. Upon entering college, though, Wren seems to be taking a step back from fandom and from Cath herself, leaving Cath feeling abandoned and confused. Initially, she dives deeper into completing her massive, ongoing Simon Snow fanfiction — a piece which has tens of thousands of adoring fans who know her pseudonym by name and has even spawned fanart of its own — but she finds it harder and harder to balance her updates online with various obligations at school. The other key players in Cath’s life become Reagan, her roommate; Levi, Reagan’s boyfriend; and Nick, a classmate from her advanced literature writing class.

I’ve seen criticism that Fangirl perpetuates the worst stereotypes about fangirls and fandom and gives lit-nerds “The Big Bang Theory” treatment (readers laugh at them, not with them,) but I just didn’t interpret the book this way at all. It’s true that Cath is painfully socially inept at times and she is also naive in a way that one wouldn’t necessarily expect from someone who writes “slash” fanfiction, especially when contrasted with her sophisticated, outgoing sister Wren. But even as someone who would rarely be described by anyone as introverted, I identified with Cath throughout the book, demonstrating that personality quirks aside, many human emotions and experiences are universal. Who hasn’t ever felt defensive about something they love in the fact of ridicule or even gentle teasing? Who hasn’t, at any point, ever misunderstood the intentions — platonic or romantic — of someone close to them? Hasn’t everyone had a time of feeling stressed and confused by someone in their life who they thought they knew acting wildly out of character? I didn’t see any of Cath’s personality elements as stereotypical flaws, but as genuine and understandable reactions to unfamiliar and jarring situations.

I could go on at length about so many other aspects of this book that I loved, but really I just recommend that everyone experience it for themselves. It’s really that good, and I can’t believe it took me so long to read Rainbow Rowell. I’m remedy-ing that as we speak!

Book review: A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin

And I’ve finally caught up to Season 3 of HBO’s series and, according to the showrunners, informed most of what’s going to happen in Season 4. Who gleefully anticipated the Purple Wedding, y’all? THIS GAL! There are possibly spoilers in the rest of the review, though I’ve tried not to refer to anything too specific.

Without a doubt, A Storm of Swords was my favorite so far of the ASOIAF series. Where, in the past, I frequently felt torn away from my favorite characters to return to others I cared less about, here I was engaged with nearly all of them (sorry, Bran, I can tell you’re very important to GRRM for whatever reason, but I like your sisters a lot better) and perceived a great deal more cohesiveness with regard to how all of the character POVs together advanced the whole narrative. When I reviewed A Clash of Kings awhile back and noted its dreary pace and how I felt the POVs fragmented the story rather than completing a full picture, a commenter/fellow reader here assured me that I’d find this book more enjoyable. Indeed, the slow building pace here ratcheted up tension and didn’t feel dull and dragging, and the different characters separated by leagues and kingdoms still seemed to be breathing the same breath and circling each others’ destinies slowly ever closer.

I love the development of Arya and Sansa. Everyone took to Arya from early on in A Game of Thrones, since it’s kind of easy to love a tomboyish girl who prefers swords to silk and bucks gender norms in a VERY normative society. Fans have been less kind to Sansa, who remains every bit the lady, even in the face of appalling adversity and horrendous treatment by her “guardians” in King’s Landing. For some, it seems, for having the gall to act feminine, Sansa deserves what she gets. This attitude disgusts me, and I hope, almost for more than anyone, that Sansa’s careful self-preservation while observing and digesting the politics at the Landing eventually leads her to a position where she can seek righteous retribution. I say that knowing that Martin doesn’t seem to have anything kindly in store for any of his characters, at least this far, but it remains a hope-against-hope that Sansa gets hers in the end. Less-than-positive comments: as much as I love Dany as a character, I am becoming increasingly uncomfortable with her white savior narrative. It’s not that she’s not good and not trying to do good, but this is just such a common trope and she’s so white and the perpetrators are so brown that it’s becoming very glaring, weird, squicky thing.

Overall, though, I re-iterate that this was the strongest in the series so far. There are absolute, harsh consequences and shocking sequences that occur here that kept this exciting as a standalone entry, but it also deftly laid groundwork for the upcoming novels and ensured that readers would be chomping at the bit to continue the saga. As for myself, I began the fourth book immediately after finishing this one — I was that hooked.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Book review: Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

I really enjoyed this novel, a character-driven SciFi story about Earth in the aftermath of its sudden enclosure within what became known as the Spin membrane. Inside the membrane, on Earth, time progresses as normal, while outside the membrane time advances as relativistic speeds — billions of years pass by in space over the span of a couple of decades on earth.

Our protagonist is Tyler Dupree, close childhood friend to siblings Jason and Diane Lawton. One night, the three are outside stargazing, when the sky suddenly goes pitch black — the stars and moon disappear and there is nothing left in the sky. As it progressively becomes more clear exactly what happened that night, the world grapples with the implications of being enclosed within the Spin membrane: namely, that while our lives on Earth continue at a languorous pace, our planet is in fact rapidly nearing its terminal condition of being enveloped by the expanding sun; furthermore, something out there placed the membrane over Earth, so who was it and why did they do it?

Our three characters react in different ways to the initial Blackout and eventual revelations that mark their forward paths into adulthood. Jason was marked by genius at a young age, much to the delight of his father, E.D., who plans from very early on to have Jason follow in his footsteps. As such, as E.D.’s protege, Jason builds a career at Perihelion Industries, a JPL/SpaceX analog on the east coast of the US, where his research covers a range of questions relating to the Spin membrane. Tyler goes to medical school and becomes a physician, but due to his friendship with Jason he is privy to more insider information than most. Diane was deeply affected by the Blackout on a spiritual level and turns to a number of religious cults that attempt to provide their own existential explanations for the Spin.

The three characters’ insight provides for very interesting human psychological and ideological ruminations that balance out the harder SciFi aspects of the plot. This is a perfect example of a SciFi novel that uses an extraordinary situation and/or SciFi backdrop to explore the human condition. The world-building and character profiles were all carefully constructed and engrossing, and the science was on point. I’d definitely recommend this one!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Winter 2014 Playlist

It's time again to post another playlist -- this one about wraps up what my favorite songs were this last winter. Again, these aren't *new* songs per se, just songs that I tended to have on repeat for whatever reason.

Winter 2014 by Amanda Crow on Grooveshark

I definitely had a major Phantogram moment, as evidenced by the inclusion of two songs here. I'd seen them back in September when they opened for m83 at the Hollywood Bowl, but though I enjoyed their set, I hadn't actually heard of them before at the time! Since I liked their show, I kept intending to go back and check out their stuff, but it wasn't until "Fall in Love" popped up on Spotify radio that I actually went back and did it. "Fall in Love" is probably still my favorite song of theirs (thanks Spotify!) but I had basically all of their albums on repeat listen for most of January. I was finally then able to see them again in February at the Palladium, which was a whole new experience then being familiar with their music. I danced my face off.

In other music news, Coachella (aka my mind palace) is next weekend. I can't even type out in words how I feel about this so I'll just leave this here:

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Book review: Burn (Pure #3) by Julianna Baggott

Goodreads summary: "Inside the Dome, Patridge has taken his father's place as leader of the Pures. His struggle has led him here, intent upon bringing down the Dome from the inside, with the help of a secret resistance force. But things are not as simple from his new position of power and he finds himself tempted by his father's words: perhaps if the world is to survive it needs the Dome - and Partridge - to rule it...

As Partridge's resolve weakens, Pressia and Bradwell continue piecing together the clues left to them from the time before the Detonations. It is their hope that they will be able to heal the Wretches, and free them from their monstrous fusings and the Dome's oppression once and for all. But everything depends, too, on Partridge. Separated by distance and history, can they still trust their friend and ally? Or is the world doomed to an eternity of war and hardship?"

Burn was a mediocre resolution to a series that, as I have said, was probably better than I gave it credit for, but ultimately failed to grab me. 

The key factors that left me unimpressed by the conclusion were a complete unraveling of Partridge's characterization and and ending that wasn't really, in my view, an ending. As the plot summary suggests, Partridge begins to feel concern and sympathy for the citizens inside the Dome, after two novels of nearly all of the primary characters despising them. Though the Pures were silently complicit in the massacre of human beings outside of the Dome by following the lead of Partridge's father, at this point they are weak, sheltered, and wholly unable to process the repercussions of the Detonations on life outside of the Dome. At Partridge's admonitions that they should accept their responsibility and assist those outside with rehabilitation and re-integration, many of the Pures go insane with guilt and begin committing suicide en masse. (This teetered on the edge of eye-rolling for me, but go with me here.) The point that Partridge was meant to gather is that it's not necessarily more good to sacrifice the lives and well-being of all of those in the Dome for the sake of bringing justice for those outside of it. This lesson is fair and warranted, but the way that Partridge steps into that role felt wholly unsatisfying. For one thing, he is essentially bullied and blackmailed into submission by a character who is still ostensibly evil, and there are no repercussions. For another, when he is reunited with Pressia under unseemly circumstances, he becomes defensive and antagonistic at Pressia's completely understandable negative reaction. Where the first two books pegged him as a rather empathetic, righteous character, here he is lost and confused and seems eventually to accept self-preservation above all other leadership tactics. If character assassination is what Baggott intended here, then fine, but I'm not sure that it was her goal.

The only character who really triumphs, here, is Lyda, which I was happy about. This all, though, came after a good 75% of the book had her frittered away in some locked room going all Yellow Wallpaper on herself. It's a fine bit of revenge to have her end up nearly exactly where she'd like to be, but the same 75% that wastes Lyda's talents also dolorously wade through a whole lot of useless talking, arguing, angst, and re-hashing of redundant character ideologies before finally making it to the final showdown. This showdown, then, at the very bitter end, is abruptly cut in half. I don't need bows and strings, but I would like a sense that the book or series ends somewhere differently from where it started, or, conversely, that the overarching lesson is perhaps that "things won't ever change" or some other similar platitude. Granted, literally speaking, this book ends in battle where the series started in restlessness, but as a reader I don't even have the luxury of making educated guesses or creating my own interpretations of how the story progresses after the conclusion because there are really no clues or platforms to build such theories on. I could just as convincingly argue that everyone is cured and made Pure as that everyone ends up dead.

Anyway, if you're out of the YA range, I'm not sure this one will really work for you. The angst and lovey sideplots might make for a bit of intrigue for younger readers but for me they were rote and strictly secondary to a primary plot that already wore thin.