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.