Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Verdict, No. 7

 Well, I got what I paid for.

Books are just becoming more and more disappointing. Really, though, it was exactly what it said it would be: a love story. With a love triangle gone haywire. I just didn't expect it to be so…uneventful.

I was pretty much dead-on with the judgment (about the love square with a best friend, old boyfriend, and the bad boy) and that made me feel good about myself. But I quickly discovered there was no real plot to follow. It was just a classic story of girl-breaks-head, girl-meets-boy, girl-meets-other-boy, girl-meets-another-boy, girl-chooses-boy, girl-chooses-wrong-boy, girl-chooses-right-boy. Predictable? Definitely. Believable? Sometimes. Entertaining? Not exactly.

The best I can say is that Gabrielle Zevin definitely knew her protagonist. As a character, she made sense. Most of the time. And I loved the best friend. I was laughing out loud in the beginning over his goofy antics and his and the protagonist’s natural back and forth. In fact, I could believe everything about the main character and the sidekick best friend. It was the bad boy new guy that threw me off. The major emotional baggage he carried—didn’t see that one coming. And her original boyfriend felt very flat, dry, dull, irksome. He was just there to be there. Some sort of tie to her past. But that’s just it: her past was the part of her that didn’t make sense. The version of her hinted at in the beginning, before she lost her memory—the calorie counter happy to be popular—didn’t make since in the new-self context. And it was never explained. Plus the popular/shallow side versus the yearbook/dorkie side versus the damaged/mysterious side was never really explained or pulled together in any way. She was just who she was according to who she was with. And that is what eventually…well, ruined the story.

The first half of the novel was definitely better than the second. The second dragged with the weight of all this lovey-dovey, daddy issues stuff. As a teen romance dramedy, it went off the beaten path. Which could have paid off, but here the whole piece just floundered. Halfway through, I was no longer excited by the will-they-won’t-they. It was obvious who she would end up with—who she should end up with—but who’d she’d choose first. But I can usually put up with predictable fiction, only here there was no pay off. No point in caring, no point in remaining attached. There was no reason to her rhyme, so the say. The story fizzled, the plot arch disappeared, and all there was was a girl fighting the inevitable in a dull sort of way. It wasn't necessarily bad, it just wasn't that good.

Verdict, No. 6

This was a simple book (to put it kindly), so this will be a simple review. Mostly because I don’t want to spend more time on this review than I did feeling involved in the story. That means I have like…three minutes to write this.

So. Three reasons I didn’t like The Compound?

One: The characters made no sense. A mother willing to poison her husband but not willing to stand up to him about killing babies? A little girl who talks in a British accent because she spent her childhood watching Mary Poppins? A step-sister who is simultaneously emo, a classical dancer, and a weeping romantic? A man smart enough to make BILLIONS but crazy enough to consider locking a family in a compound a fun family vacation people would pay for? And then a boy who truly hates life, who’s supposed to be super evil, yet finds it in himself to love his opposite brother and pull a 180 in less than a day?

Sorry, but I just can’t buy it.

Two: The plot made no sense. A compound as a resort function? Really? Sorry to sort of spoil the ending, but the “explanation” is just so lame. The climatic reveal is just a what-the-crap-was-that-person-thinking moment. And I’m still confused on what the father’s intentions were with the “supplements” and then the cloning. I’m still reeling from how far Bodeen expects us to suspend reality.

Three: The finale made no sense. And for those still hoping/willing/wanting to read it, I won’t go into it. But just trust me. It made no sense.

If any of you have seen the film Knowing…think of that ending…and then just don’t read this book because it’s even worse.

Really, though, there were some exciting moments. Some twenty pages towards the end—with the puzzle and the pieces all coming together—were all entertaining to read. It was fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat stuff. But then it just…ended. For such a long, tortuous build-up, no rising action/falling action made the ending worth it. It all felt too easy, too obvious, and so boring.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Verdict, No. 8

The cover uses buzz words like "haunting," "tender," "honest." I mean, look at that girl: doesn't she seem desperate for closure? Or at least for spinning around in great, beautiful circles? It seems like it should be about redemption. They even describe it as some great revelation on loss and love and moving past and moving on. Sounds real moving, doesn't it? To be honest, though, I felt uncomfortable reading it. It was trying trying too hard. All those busy words, happy-feely worlds? LaCour was determined to fulfill them all, and that was just too much to manage in 250 pages or less.

It was as if LaCour threw an entire season of an ABC Family drama in a blender and then dumped it all on the rather-innocuous narrator. There was too much happening at once. Every teenage stereotype and cliche was introduced and swiftly brushed over. All that was missing was a calorie-counter struggling with an eating disorder. It felt messy, trite, dull. Even the narrator seemed bored. There was no journey, no moving forward. There was just jumping from scene to scene, each chapter sounding more and more like a bad public service announcement.

Don't cut yourself, it says. Don't have sex with strangers in seedy parks. Don't ignore your parents. Don't judge people. Don't suddenly take off your shirt and make out to feel better. Don't not talk about it.

Do build a tree house with your bare hands.

It was dizzying, reading it. It was excessive. I almost think it would have played out better on television, that the characters would have made more sense in a serial where various eccentricities and unfinished story lines could have played out, all while dramatic music purrs in the background. As is, the novel fails to impress. There were scenes. Snippets. But nothing tied them together. And most of it never played out.

Like the snotty queen bee who had a couple useless interactions with the main character. Or the friend of a friend of her boyfriend who suddenly shared a private moment with her at the end that just made no sense. Or the fact that her new friend's a lesbian, and that matters to everyone in the beginning but not later. Then there's the teacher's strange and overwrought version of mourning. And how her parent's handle her. Or the suicide's sibling (I think it was) suddenly showing up to ask about music. The suicide's parent's hug that lasts an entire page. There's the random bad girl at school she hangs out with for two pages. Or the other random girl she gets jealous of when she sees her with her new/ex/old/new friend. How she knows how to build a tree house. How her boyfriend doesn't know this key fact. How they all brush over revelations in little snippets of dialogue that just lead into another hasty kiss. There's the production of Romeo and Juliet. The old theater. The old theater being torn down. The million cups of coffee. The photography. The driving. The making out shirtless. Even the journal.

Rest assured, for all that, there is no pay off. If it's confusing sounding, be sure it's even worse reading it. Nothing was ever fleshed out. So much was never explained. I never knew why I should care. If it was just LaCour's way of setting a realistic scene, it backfired. I've never trudged through something that felt so entirely contrived. Even the main plot point--the suicide due to depression and the journal that reveals it--felt flat, unimportant, unexplained. I wasn't satisfied. It just fell together and...then it ended. It wasn't sad; it was mostly disturbing. And I was bored.

A novel wasn't the right form for this story to take. It was so poorly done from start to finish that it can't even settle for being a disappointment. That suggests good expectations and hopes that were just never met. But, no, this book was no only completely unsatisfying, it was a disaster.I threw it in the trash, actually. Because, for three bucks, that's exactly where it belongs.

No wonder kids hate to read.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Review, No. 4

The Forgotten Garden is a sprawling narrative transcending traditional time barriers. It follows three women at the same time—Eliza, from the very-late 1800s to the truly-early1900s; Nell during the mid-to-late 1900s; and Cassandra in the current day. The plot itself is concerned with solving Nell's identity, yet the crucial character is Eliza, who has all the answers, and then it is Cassandra who is piecing it all together. The author, Kate Morton, starts the tangled affair brightly enough. Though the mystery is slightly contrived, it seems interesting, with narration dancing between each characters' time. But then it gets muddled and unnecessarily complicated, with too many characters interrupting the already-struggling action. The plot becomes tired and the answers obvious and, by the end of it, you wonder why it mattered at all.

Worst of all was the amount of characters that didn't matter—acquaintances that were crucial for only a page yet kept popping up, or those that didn't matter at all yet wouldn't leave the narrative alone. There were implications never answered, allusions never met, assumptions never justified. Most of the characters made no sense at all—the aunt, the brother of Eliza, the emphasis put in the beginning on "the bad man" that never came up again; the doctor, most of the servants, and then that convenient romance between the gardener and Cassandra. There were dozens of stock characters you were expected to keep track of that never actually played any important part. And then the characters and their actions never seemed to match up. Relationships fell apart too easily and started up too quickly; characteristics changed drastically and inexplicably. And the garden itself as a character was too cliche. Morton seemed determined, desperate to make it the heart of the story. Only she failed. It had no magic; it was just a setting. The one twist I cared about was the creepy uncle, and that went absolutely nowhere.

The novel was thick in every sense of the word: it was long, often dragging, sometimes pretentious, with weighty topics too easily ignored or quickly shrugged away. Morton tried so hard to develop her characters thoroughly and that meant years—chapters—trudging through random experiences that never amount to anything. It was entertaining early on, yet the answers came on too easily and suddenly and…unimportantly so that, by the end, I wasn’t only disappointed, I was bored. It all became too trite: the fairytales, the trinkets, the seascape and detailed landscapes. It is looking back that you realize what a waste most of the novel is. Morton was too concerned with romanticizing the plot, hoping to capture us in vivid detail and sweeping vistas. The entire story suffered because of it. It straggled, dragging the weight of its own unimportance with it.

It struggled to be grandiose but fell flat by the end. And the more I think about it, the less worth-it it becomes. Yet there were moments. I'll give it 2/5.

Review, No. 5

Never Let Me Go is as evocative as it is tiring. It follows three children (Kathy, Ruth and Tom) as they grow up in Hailsham, a place where their lives are already planned out for them, where they each have a destiny they cannot escape. The story follows the narration of a reflective Kathy, who is remembering her life growing up in a not-so-normal environment, raised for a not-so-normal purpose. The concept is familiar, yet Kazuo Ishiguro enthuses it with originality through his breathy presentation. The plot line is subtle, with rising and falling action secondary to the characters. Memory after memory is shared with intense back-and-forth; foreshadowing and flashbacks are intermingled so perfectly, and you suddenly find yourself lost in Kathy's life, following her steps, progressing with her, feeling the same helpless, unavoidable destiny pressing down around you.

There is no easy way to describe Never Let Me Go. It's a journey more than a story, a too-short life retold in a too-content voice. It takes place in an alternate reality, in the rolling hills and clouded skies of the English countryside. Though Ishiguro rarely takes the time to describe the environment in detail, or even directly, you still get the sense of standing under stilted sunlight, staring over dying fields in a wet winter. That feeling transcends the language, the telling of a normal novel. Never Let Me Go becomes more a picture than a story.

You never know how to feel. You look to Kathy to tell you, but she passes no judgment as narrator. She is merely relaying a few friends' lives, writing up her own story. There is no telling one what to think, no real conclusions on what she thinks, and no sentence placed on what their lives have meant. No pretty bow is tied on at the end; we stand with her, complacent and content, and it is not till we put it down that we realize, no, we should not be so passive. And there's the power in his novel: it won't leave you alone. True to the title's subtle plea, you can never let it go. The burden of the lives within the novel are now yours to carry; the quiet contemplation--a mere sharing of memories, harmless enough alone--suddenly gives way to a rage. Finishing is unsettling. Kathy had become too real--she transcended fiction, she seemed alive. She had a soul (such a provocative thought, considering what the novel is).

Ruth is a perfect antagonist, though she can sometimes seem only two-dimensional. Tom doesn't seem like such a big deal, and then you suddenly make room in your heart for him near the end. And the finish is unsettling, but it's meant to be. Truly, Ishiguro is an astounding storyteller: all the intricacies fit, as if you've been studying a painting by starting at the corner and then stepping back slowly, each chapter revealing something new until, at the very end, you see the masterpiece and realize you've been seeing it all along. This is no fairy-tale, but a confession you feel almost guilty for stumbling across. Ishiguro has written a book so real, when it "completes," you're haunted.

There are some random, unsettling dialogues about sex. Still, it is never crude or graphic. There are also lulls in the beginning, before you can see what it all means, why it all matters. And, I admit, I got tired at first of not being told what was going on; you come to realize you're expected to feel it.

I can't say I really enjoyed reading it but, once I finished, I couldn't stop thinking about it. So, 4/5.

Review, No. 4

Sam is perfect, popular. And then she dies in a car crash. Only she wakes up again to that last day, living it seven times over, determined to save herself. But maybe it's not her who needs saving.

This is Oliver's first novel, which is astounding, really, for how well done it is, how perfectly she captures the characters and makes a tired plot ploy somehow suddenly original. It is...mature in the sense that it follows a far-from-perfect teenager angry at her death and having to face it again and again, without real consequence. Predictably, she spends a day doing anything--and I mean anything. It got a little uncomfortable, but never graphic. There there is swearing and drinking littered throughout the book, but it makes everything feel real.

Oliver makes us feel whatever her narrator, Sam, is feeling. From that first day, when she's still alive and a totally snotty HS queen bee, to the last night where she finally realizes what life counts for--I followed each step, felt every emotion. The confusion of waking up, the frustration of not just dying, the desperation of wanting to live, and the peace of understanding, Oliver's story is powerful, even intoxicating at times.

Though the first half is hard to get through--with her still far from fixing things, still ruining hers and others lives day after day--the second half takes a perfect turn. It's a perfect journey to the end. For the last three "days," I was completely breathless, watching the tortured Sam finally figure things out.

Even if it was a bit predictable, it was so well-done, I could not mind. Any other first-time author might have been tempted to wrap a pretty bow on the end, giving every character a happily-ever-after, but Oliver remained true to her slightly-dark-yet-so-hopeful story, pulling us through a harsh end, inspiring us to Sam's same sense of hope.

Plus, you know a story is good when you can imagine the characters living beyond the book. Each character came alive in such a real sense, you can picture what happens next, even after the rather abrupt end.

Teenagers can be really stupid sometimes. So there is a lot of hardness to get through, hence 3.5/5

Review, No. 3

Gregory is famous for historical fiction, especially of the Elizabethan period. Here she tells the story of the fictional Hannah, the Holy Fool of the English court, used as a spy, caught between Queen Mary and Princess Elizabeth. She weaves an intriguing tale of fact and fiction and her characters all come alive in a very believable way. Even with the already-widely reported stories of Mary (aka Bloody Mary) and Elizabeth (aka the greatest queen probably ever), Gregory manages to avoid stereotypes. If anything, she makes us question what prejudice we brought to the table. Through the transparent plot (Hannah, a secret/illegal jew, caught between two lovers), we are asked to sympathize rather than judge, question rather than condemn. There is no right or wrong, good or bad; we are as helpless as Hannah when it comes to picking sides. It is almost as if Gregory merely hopes to represent history, using Hannah as an excuse to write a double-biography.

The novel spans years and I came to care less and less about what Hannah had to say, or how she would live her life, or if she would ever get over herself and love her betrothed. She--the narrator--got in the way of an intriguing interpretation of two very different princesses. The real story is in Gregory's interesting play on history, with Mary as a faithful victim and Elizabeth as a heartless slut. Honestly, beside the historical events of Queen Mary's reign and the possibly-manipulated moments of Elizabeth's...flirtatious rise, there was no plot. Anything in Hannah's life just distracted and detracted. Especially her infuriating infatuation with a sleazy "lord" and her cliche concerns about faith vs. religion.

Honestly, it failed to impress; it was just...there. So I guess I'll give it 2/5. 

For fair warning, there are some...mature parts--mostly of crude men groping willing women--but they are few and far between. As is anything truly interesting. So, it was neither disappointing nor exactly extraordinary. And that's that. 

Review, No. 2

Truth be told, I finished this book back in January. I wrote a review for it then but, for some reason, I never posted it. Actually, there are a few of those. So here they come in a wild stream meant to make me look like an overtly voracious reader.

Ian McEwan's acclaimed novel takes place in London, starting in-between the two World Wars where a poor young man and a wealthy young woman fall in love only to be torn apart by a little girl's lie that she spends her whole life trying to make right.

I picked up this book because I thought the movie looked gorgeous. I never saw it, but just the richness and the texture, that vibrancy. And I can never say no to a pretty book. Unfortunately, I was quickly disappointed.

I knew how it would end; I went in knowing. I was actually looking forward to the shock, the beautiful wrap-up meant to be true to its name. But it was never there. The romance didn't seem real at the end. There was too much anger, obvious resentment—justifiable, sure, but isn't love meant to transcend those emotions? And I just never saw it. Robbie's narrative was the best, and I wish I could have seen more of Cecilia's, but the characters were mostly unlikeable. No, they were inaccessible. I wasn't made to care; there was too much time spent on the obscene, the coarse. I knew it wouldn't be a flowery love story, but I thought there'd be that lavish, forbidden, impossible love affair that had you crying at the end. I suppose I wanted too much. The idea was there. It could have been beautiful, but I think I just disagree with the author's methods. His love seemed vile and tainted, even caustic at times.

Besides, it is mean to be about atoning for a mistake, and yet the narrator is more possessed with redeeming herself, not those hurt by her. That was worst of all.

I don't think I'll rate it, because I would never recommend it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Judgment, No. 8

I love sad stories. As long as they feel honest. I am quite the heartbreak-manic. Not with the oh-he-just-dumped-me-my-life-is-over type of stories (please), but serious, wrenching pain that has nothing to do with infatuation and everything to do with real loss.

In Hold Still, a girl deals with the suicide of her best friend. She finds the girl's diary and discovers things she'd never known--like how her friend suffered from depression, and what drove her to the end. But she's still here and she's the one expected to move on (when all she wants to do is...hold still).

I'm a little trepidacious about getting too excited. The tag line threatens melodrama. And not that I want to see a slit wrist or a girl grunged down in black, the artwork seems a little...lustrous. But I'm not obsessively cynical; I believe in hope and happiness even after heartbreak. I'm just scared of how that all comes across in a 250-page novel.

The risk with YA is melodrama. A book like this can become very tiresome very fast. Especially with first-person narration. Not to sound callous, but it's hard to sit through an already-depressing book with a very depressed narrator. Purely meditative novels can feel trite and become boring. The whining can become unmotivating. Think of Thirteen Reasons Why: that worked because the narrator's shock at his involvment; he wasn't the heartbroken one, so it was refreshing. Yet I could barely get through Speak because I got tired of the narrator--I wanted her to just get out of her head and talk already. So depressing themes paired with introspective narrators feel risky.

Also, these books play up a big revelation at the end where the sun is suddenly shining and everything is grand and she's able to move on in a big way (usually with the help of a new, ever-patient boyfriend). As a reader, you do want that closure, but it sometimes feels like a betrayal to the rest of the novel and the serious themes of suicide and loss. But it's hard have some sort of tangible plot when it's really just about coming to terms with reality. Since the climax is the beginning (the suicide), what do you build up to, you know?

So I just hope that this journey feels real enough that the ending--which is bound to be happy, because it has to be--seems natural. After all, death shouldn't ruin a life; it should invigorate it. There should be a newfound will to live and make it matter.

But I'm getting all philosophical. Over a YA book that cost me three dollars. Silly, silly me.

Judgment, No. 7

I am actually pretty STOKED for this book. One, I love typewriter keys. Two, I'm obsessed with amnesia-related stories. Three, I read a sample chapter and I love snarky heroines. You that old ABC show, Samantha Who? I loved it, and this is like the melodramatic, teenage-angsty take on that. Basically, a girl hits her head, wakes up, and can't remember anything after 6th grade. Complications arise.

She won't remember friends or why they're friends.

She won't remember puberty (lucky) or how she became who she is.

She won't remember what she cares about, her likes and dislikes.

And she definitely won't remember her boyfriend. Which is probably the heart of the story--her having to decide if she wants to fall in love with Beau #1 or go for the new guy(s). Because, let's face it: every YA novel has a love triangle. Or rectangle. Or hexagon. And with a set-up like this, the author will try to bank on multiple love interests.

That will be the center of attention: is she different enough to love the completely different new guy? Or will she go back to the guy that represents the past she can't remember? There will be the ex, the best friend, and the new bad boy vying for her attention. Naturally, there will probably be no reason for all these guys to want her so badly (except the fact that she's the protagonist. And they have to), but maybe they'll all learn something along the way.

Probably not, but maybe.

And then, adding to the drama, the review online says she eventually remembers everything. So then what! Is a clean slate really a clean slate, or is there something innate that can't be fought, with or without the memories to support and explain? Dun-dun-DUN!
It's going to be quite the soap opera. I just hope it's a good one. 

Judgment, No. 6

To be honest, these next three books I'm previewing here are not because of their covers (though they are still aesthetically pleasing). I'm getting them en masse because, oh yeah, they were three bucks online. Whether that is a reflection of their worth remains to be seen. But they were on my "To Read" list, they weren't ugly, they're all paperback (I have such a weakness for paperback), and they were practically free. So. There's that disclaimer. And so we begin.

The Compound is a book that hardly seems as aggressive as it's cover. It's a YA novel about a spoiled rich kid stuck in a compound with his family thanks to his all-controlling and paranoid father who thought a nuke was about to go off and so he prepared a place to reside in safely for nine years. Or something like it.

Well, actually, it's only half his family. Because his grandmother and twin brother didn't make it in before the attack. But I'm putting my money on the world still going on above them and they're the stupid jokes stuck in a hole because the father's too proud to admit he was wrong. The twin is going to be alive, the grandma is going to be alive, and the spoiled kid will do a whole lot of growing up to face his father and get him to open the door.

In theory, at least.

It seems entertaining if a little cliche. And, like the cover, it might be trying too hard. Plus, teenage boy POVs are always hard for me to buy into because they're just so...stupid. It's either too stone-age-male-grunting or all touchy-feely-introspective. Either way, I usually can't get along with them. Especially when they're introduced as that unlikeable, spoiled rich kid.

Also, I'm a little worried that nothing can go down in a compound with four people. It could be boring. And seeing as I don't believe the compound is necessary, I might wind up shaking the book and daring them to get a move on and just walk out already. But I don't know; the book with the ultra-macho cover might surprise me.

For three bucks, I'll happily give it the benefit of the doubt.