Kris Milstead

Author's posts

Review: The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw

The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw follows the life and career of Charlie Garrett, a Southern transplant to the North.  The book opens with Charlie Garret’s first day in a new job.  The son of a younger widow, Charlie’s mother re-married into an elite family and she and now has young son Nick, whom Charlie dubs “The Golden Boy.”

Feeling as if he doesn’t belong within his mother’s new family, Charlie attends Harvard and is then hired at The Abbot, a prestigious Massachusetts prep school.  Even though he continues to feel out of place among his high society colleagues, Charlie finds true contentment in the classroom.

There he meets May, the headmasters young daughter, who feels as much out of place in her own family as Charlie does in his.  As May comes into her own as a woman the attraction between them grows, culminating in a romance that comes to life just as May’s father begins the end of his.

In the midst of all this, Charlie’s mother Anita hovers in the background like a specter.  At first she is the driving force that pushes him to Harvard and eventually to Abbot.  Then, she becomes the constant reminder that it is his brother, and not he, Charlie, who is the beloved son.  Her continual worry over her younger son as he begins his own teaching career first in Haiti and then in Afghanistan, drives an even further wedge between her and her older son.

Meanwhile May finds her first source of true happiness in her relationship with Charlie.  Happiness, which comes to a sudden halt when he ends their relationship almost immediately after her father’s funeral and heads west for several months.

Told entirely from the perspective of Charlie, The Half Brother is an enjoyable but not fully developed story.  The book shows initial promise, but relies too much on the prep school environment and quickly falls into predictability.

As the story progresses, we learn that each character holds secrets that all intertwine with each other’s lives.  For Charlie it is at first the feelings he harbors towards May, his student.  It then expands into his buried resentment of his younger brother who instantly charms everyone he meets.  For Nick it is the realization that despite his brilliant mind and his ability to draw people in, he can only feel alive within the chaos of a third world country.  For Anita it is the truth of her first marriage and how it has impacted her relationship with Charlie.  Finally, for May it is the longing she feels to be loved by her own mother while simultaneously pushing her away in an effort to guard herself from rejection.

Each of the character’s secrets has a ripple effect changing not only their own relationships but also the relationships of those around them in severe and life altering ways.  In the midst of this, LeCraw creates a tragic sub-plot surrounding one of the students at the school.

Lecraw’s writing style is engaging enough to keep the reader interested, but the storyline never completely finds its stride.  The primary plot twist while dramatic, comes off as somewhat contrived and unsurprising.  As a reader, I found the storyline mostly interesting, but I did find myself struggling at times to remain engaged.  The story starts out at a brisk pace and quickly draws the reader into the plot and the ending pulls the reader back into the story with a bittersweet twist and well timed pacing.  The middle section drags however, and readers may find themselves in a position where they are ready to give up.  I would encourage readers to stick it out, though admittedly skipping a few small sections in the middle have no impact on understanding the book as a whole.

The Half Brother’s characters show great potential to be interesting people.  The potential however is never quite reached as LeCraw fails to develop them to full understanding.  Charlie’s loneliness and sense of abandonment which stems from the death of the father he never knew, dances on the edge of whininess at times.

Nick, Charlie’s brother has no complexity at all.  Like Charlie he shows signs of struggling with feelings of abandonment as his own father (Charlie’s step-father) drinks himself together while he is still young.  These feelings however are expressed as one who is an egotistical and self-centered brat who never matured emotionally beyond the age of three.

Anita, Charlie and Nick’s mother hovers in the background where Charlie is concerned and is over-bearing where Nick is concerned.  Neither son has any sort of healthy relationship with her, and her presence becomes necessary only when used for a not entirely shocking plot-twist.

May is the most complex character of them all and I found myself wishing LeCraw would explore her more.  After her break up with Charlie, May travels through France and other parts of Europe.  Her strength is a testament to the fact that she can function perfectly well without either Charlie or Nick, and yet she continually pushes herself towards both.

Finally, the sub-plot becomes a driving force for the primary plot, but leaves the reader wanting something more.  The impact that it has on each of the main characters leads to a too neat resolution as if LeCraw got to the end of writing and realized she had forgotten to resolve that aspect of the book.

Fans of The Secrets of Midwives will likely enjoy The Half Brother.  Though The Secrets of Midwives centers on the lives of the three women, The Half Brother is similar in its theme of secrets and feelings of displacement within one’s own family.  Unlike The Secrets of Midwives which allows the reader to see events from each of the characters points of view, The Half Brother is told entirely from the perspective of Charlie who comes off as an unreliable narrator at best.

Readers looking for a strong book about family and the impact of long kept secrets would do better to turn to The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy or Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler.  Each handles intense and controversial topics with a deftness that LeCraw tries for but never actually reaches.

Review: Trigger Warning and Hansel and Gretel by Neil Gaiman

As I was planning this column, I began thinking about the concept of fairy tales – not fairy tales in the Hollywood Disney sense, but rather fairy tales as a learning tool, an instruction that the good guys do not always win.  With that in mind, I chose two recent books by Neil Gaiman, whom I consider a master at telling modern fairy tales.

Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman is the third collection of the author’s short fiction.

The titular concept stems from the phrase which is often used to warn readers or viewers of potentially disturbing or graphic material.  Gaiman developed the idea after seeing numerous uses of the phrase online.  He wondered if at some point it would be applied to his own works and whether or not it should be.  Finally, he decided he should be the one to do it first.

Each story has appeared previously in various anthologies or collected works.  Trigger Warning, however, collects them all together for the first time into a single cohesive theme.

From the lightest to the most terrifying, Gaiman creates a world of unconventional and sometimes whimsical fairy tales for adults.  In keeping with his own theme, Gaiman cautions readers in the forward:  “Many of these stories end badly for at least one of the people in them.  Consider yourself warned.”

Gaiman’s collection starts out simply enough in “Making a Chair”.  In the simple prose about struggling through a creative block, Gaiman muses as to whether or not building a book should come with the same sort of warnings a chair does.  “Do not use as a stool or stepladder.  Failure to follow these warnings can result in serious injury.”

In many ways, the story comes across as a mockery of the idea of trigger warnings.  Gaiman subscribes to the Aristotle way of thinking.  Aristotle believed that seeing horrors committed on stage would allow people to experience those horrors and the feelings they evoke in a safe environment and would keep them from acting out their urges on society.  Gaiman takes a similar approach.  He purports that the things which shock or disturb, are the things which most make us think and grow.  With that in mind, it does appear at times that Gaiman is making a particular effort to disturb the reader.  Such is the case in “Down to a Sunless Sea” in which an old woman wears a bone from her dead son as a necklace and in the end reveals a terrible secret.

“Orange”, written completely in questionnaire form, is a brilliant cautionary tale about becoming addicted to tanning lotion.  While many of the answers will illicit a chuckle, there is an underlying sinisterness to the tone, and readers will be longing for Gaiman to fill in the gaps.

“Click-Clack the Rattlebag” begins innocuously enough with a young man meeting his girlfriend’s little brother for the first time.  The little boy takes an immediate liking to the boyfriend and asks to be told a story.  Specifically, a click-clack the rattlebag story.  As the story unfolds the boyfriend learns all about the click-clack rattle bag and the reader is left with an ending that will leave even the adults checking under the bed at night.

Gaiman also lets loose his fanboy side.  “The Case of Death and Honey” follows Sherlock Holmes into retirement and reveals the true reason Holmes took up bee-keeping in his retirement.  “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury” was written as a present for Bradbury’s 90th birthday.  It is a poignant tale of loss, and Gaiman writes it with such sadness and eloquence that one can’t help but mourn the loss of things forgotten.  Finally, “Nothing O’Clock” delves into the world of Doctor Who.  Gaiman is well known for having written two episodes of Doctor Who and one can see hints of those stories in “Nothing O’Clock.”

 

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Hansel and Gretel, Gaiman’s most recent book for children, makes a fine companion piece to Trigger Warning.  A re-telling of the classic Grimm’s fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel takes a similar approach to Trigger Warning in that Gaiman thinks children should be exposed to dark things, stating “…if you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up.”  He then adds “…it is really important to show dark things to kids—and in the showing, to also show that dark things can be beaten, that you have power. Tell them you can fight back. Tell them you can win. Because you can, but you have to know that.”

One notable change in Gaiman’s version from the more recent editions is that Gaiman takes care to preserve one of the more controversial elements of the Grimm Brother’s version:  the mother.  At some point in the mid 19th century, the female antagonist transitioned from biological mother to step-mother.  Gaiman restores the original version, allowing the story to take on a macabre overtone.

Gaiman’s witch is also a more sinister character than later tellings.  In the modern tellings the witch comes across as a deranged caricature – a demented hag who perhaps is not fully cognizant of the fact that she is eating children.  In Gaiman’s version, the witch is instead simply a bitter, dragged down old woman who happens to have a taste for human flesh.

Illustrations by Lorenzo Mattoti enhance the creep factor of the fairy tale. Initially the black and white ink sketches appear haphazard and non-cohesive.  Upon further inspection, however, the reader sees the subtle features of the main characters as they are lost in the forest or as Hansel sits in jail waiting his execution.  Rather than detract, these illustrations evoke a sense of heaviness and even dread in the reader.  Patches of white are used sparsely until the final Happily Ever After where the white fills nearly the entire page, deftly filling the reader with a sense of joy and victory.

Though perhaps not recommended bedtime reading, at least not for the easily frightened, Trigger Warning and Hansel and Gretel will easily become new favorites for fans, young and old, of Gaiman’s work.

 

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Review: Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler

Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler recalls the relationship between Isabelle McCallister and Dorrie Curtis, her hair dresser.  The novel begins with a brief introduction by the main character Isabelle.  She confesses that she feels she acted horribly towards Dorrie on their first meeting: her regular hair dresser had quit and Isabelle is not a big fan of change.  As the years pass, they form a friendship which on the surface seems unlikely.  Isabelle is 89 and white, whereas Dorrie is in her mid-30’s and African American.  Although neither woman says it out loud, they come to depend and rely on each other and their bond deepens to that of a mother/daughter relationship.

Still, Dorrie is taken aback when Isabelle approaches her and asks Dorrie to drive her from their home in Texas to a funeral in Cincinnati.  Isabelle does not initially say who the funeral is for, and Dorrie, in an effort to respect her privacy doesn’t ask.  As the two travel, Isabelle begins to recall events from life as a young woman of 16 to the present.

Told in alternating perspectives, starting with Isabelle in 1939, the reader discovers alongside Dorrie how Isabelle fell in love with and married Robert Prewitt, the son of her family’s “colored” housemaid.

As the story unfolds, Kibler allows the reader to experience Isabelle and Robert’s relationship almost as an intimate participant.  We learn of Isabelle’s overbearing mother, her good old boy brothers, and her caring but ineffectual father.  Interspersed in this, we also see Dorrie’s reaction and how it impacts her dealings with her own family and romantic relationships.

Calling Me Home will draw immediate and obvious comparisons to Kathryn Stockett’s The Help.  Both are debut novels which deal with race relations in the United States during the early and mid days of the Civil Rights Movement.  In contrast to The Help, which takes place in the 1960’s and surrounds the lives of an extensive group of people, Calling Me Home focuses primarily on Isabelle, Robert, and their immediate families.

In addition, The Help touches on the impact people such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and Malcom X have on the characters’ lives, whereas Calling Me Home takes place before those figures rose to prominence.

Finally, in Calling Me Home, Isabelle is a naive and idealistic woman in love, whereas in The Help, Skeeter views herself as an activist.

Calling Me Home drew me in from the beginning and even now, weeks after finishing, has not fully let go.  I became so fully immersed in the book that I had to stop in the middle of a shopping trip to find a place where I could sit and finish it.  In the end, I felt as if I had been put through an emotional wringer.  While the book ends on a positive note, it does not neatly tie up all the loose ends – much like real life.

Calling Me Home is likely to prompt considerable discussion among readers.  The novel does an excellent job of showing the reader that while society has progressed considerably since 1939, things are still not where they should be in the year 2015.  Seeing the characters dealing with concerns such as where their marriage will be legal or clergy who tell them their marriage is an abomination or un-Biblical, drew significant parallels for me in the current struggle for gay rights and marriage equality.  In addition, reading this novel in light of the recent events of Ferguson and elsewhere shows the reader how little certain things have changed.

Kibler writes with a style that draws the reader deep into the story in a subtle and eloquent manner.  I found the story so engrossing that I experienced a certain element of culture shock coming out of the novel.  The slow but natural development of Isabelle and Robert’s relationship over the course of many months felt neither rushed nor drawn out.  Many moments of their transition from passing acquaintances to newlyweds had me waiting with a sense of anticipation to see what would bring them together and what would be the factor that tore them apart.  Isabelle and Robert both read as true to life characters.  Robert is cautious where Isabelle is spontaneous, which is in keeping with their respective roles in society.  At first I struggled with the idea of Isabelle as the pursuer in her relationship with Robert, but as the book progressed, I began to see how Isabelle would be drawn to Robert’s quiet personality.  Both are intellectuals and voracious readers, are misfits within their own families, and have an idealistic desire to change the world in which they live.

While Kibler did an excellent job of developing the primary characters of Robert and Isabelle, I did find myself connecting less with Dorrie and some of the secondary characters.  Dorrie came off as unnecessarily angry and while Kibler adequately explained that Dorrie had been deeply hurt by her ex-husband and other significant family struggles, I did not feel they warranted her hostility towards society as a whole.

I also wanted to understand more of Isabelle’s father.  It is clear by his actions that he did not agree with the societal view towards African-Americans.  He encourages Robert’s aspirations of becoming a doctor, takes time out of his own schedule as a physician to tutor Robert, and contributes funds in order to ensure Robert’s proper education, but is completely ineffectual when it comes to his own daughter.  In contrast, the characterization of Isabelle’s mother was solidly written.  The reader came to discover how her lower class background drove her fight for a place in “proper society”, and the lengths to which she would go to keep up her carefully crafted appearances.

Calling Me Home is a compelling tale that handles decades of race relations with sensitivity while not shying away from harsher elements.  Certain scenarios are predictable and familiar, but Kibler doles out the story in small enough increments to keep the reader hanging until the surprising end.

Review: As You Wish and What If?

Nearly everyone who grew up during the 1980’s has a special fondness for the movie The Princess Bride.  Adults who would have been in their teens when the movie was first released understand the special meaning of the phrase “As You Wish”, are perhaps just a little suspicious of anyone with six fingers, and know that you should never get involved in a land war in Asia.

In honor of the movie’s twenty-seventh anniversary, Cary Elwes, best known as Westley, has released a behind the scenes retrospective.

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales From the Making of The Princess Bride recalls Elwes’ memories of landing the role (a Bill Cosby impression is involved) and working with director Rob Reiner and writer Bill Goldman.  Elwes also discusses working with actors such as Robin Wright, Wallace Shawn, Mandy Patinkin, and Billy Crystal, all of whom he interviewed for the book.  In addition, Elwes recounts the various challenges and setbacks that went into getting the film to the screen.  Since the book’s publication in 1973, a number of big names from Robert Redford to Francis Truffaut had toyed with trying their hand at a film.  The issue was that no one quite knew what to do with a sometimes silly, sometimes serious, and sometimes satirical swashbuckling romance.  Finally, Rob Reiner, fresh off the success of Stand By Me was offered a carte blanche choice by Columbia Studios.  By that point, The Princess Bride had earned a reputation as unfilmable and did in fact meet with a mediocre response at best upon opening.  Thanks to the advent of the VCR, however, The Princess Bride found it’s way into the homes of millions and became a sleeper hit.

Elwes’ writes as if he and the reader are two chums recalling old times while sitting in front of a fire.  Each knows all the stories of the other but still can’t resist repeating them just one more time.  His narrative style is casual with a few previously unknown bits of trivia thrown in for good measure.  As a reader, I found myself wanting just a little more, while as an avid fan of the movie I found myself enjoying the sidebar bits from others involved in the movie.

Casual fans of the movie or those looking for a sensationalistic soap opera will be disappointed.  Hard core fans who can recite every line on a whim, will find enjoyment.

Interesting bits of trivia include Elwes detailing the intense training he and Patinkin endured in order to pull off “the sword fight to end all sword fights”, Billy Crystal’s ad-lib “have fun storming the castle”, and Shawn’s constant fear that he would be replaced by Danny DeVito.  One is left with the feeling that perhaps Elwes is holding back even as his praise of his co-stars is ebullient.  Overall, As You Wish makes a nice book for the more earnest of fans, but will fail to impress casual readers.

 

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What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe does exactly what the title says.  Munroe, a former roboticist for NASA, is best known for his webcomic xkcd.  Drawn primarily using basic stick figure characters, xkcd address issues from love and life to scientific or mathematical in-jokes.  Occasionally the strip features intricate landscapes or mathematical patterns.  In July 2012, Munroe launched a secondary website entitled What If? in which he answered reader submitted questions.  This book is compiled from those questions.

Though a math and science book at it’s core, What If? presents its subject matter in a light hearted, easily accessible manner.  Questions range from the reasonably serious “How dangerous is it, really, to be in a pool during a thunderstorm?”  (Answer:  Pretty dangerous) to the more silly such as “From what height would you need to drop a steak for it to be cooked when it hit the ground?”  (Answer: you can’t really.)  Interspersed among the explanations, Munroe has inserted xkcd-style illustrations which create a better understanding for the reader.

Sprinkled throughout the book are twelve questions that Munroe decided not to answer or gave very abbreviated answers.  Labeled “weird and worrying questions from the inbox”, these include questions such as “Is it possible to cry so much you dehydrate yourself?”  or “What if I swallow a tick that has Lyme disease?  Would I get Lyme disease from the inside out?”  In some respects I found these more entertaining than the rest of the book, in that they are of a more personal nature.

Non scientific or mathematically inclined readers should not be put off by the subject matter.  Although some of the explanations involve equations and scientific premises with which I was unfamiliar, they are presented in an easily understandable and accessible manner.  In addition, the book presents some interesting real life application to the science fiction or fantasy world.  For example, the Death Star in Star Wars essentially created a 15 magnitude earthquake on Alderaan.  (This segues into an explanation of what it would be like if earthquakes with a negative magnitude hit your house.)

Readers familiar with Munroe’s work will find the same dry humor in longer form.  With more room in which to create his explanations, Munroe is able to stretch the humor and create a better set up for the sketches.

Newcomers or casual acquaintances will find themselves hooked from the disclaimer gracing the first page.  Even the book itself maintains the xkcd style in that the inside cover is actually a full-size infographic of what the Earth would look like if the oceans were drained from the bottom of the Marianas trench.  Instead of the normal praise from other authors, the back of the book is a collection of things the reader might want to know before making their purchase.  For example, “Humans can’t digest the cellulose in paper, but if we could, eating this book would give you about 2,300 calories.”

What If? is a highly entertaining book which will make the reader laugh at least as much as it makes them think.

 

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Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian by Andy Weir begins as a typical castaway tale:  the protagonist finds himself suddenly alone in a barren wasteland dependent only on his wits to survive.  In this case, however, the castaway is astronaut Mark Watney and the barren wasteland Mars.

A sudden sandstorm forces the Ares 3 crew to abort their mission early.  Mark, having been impaled by a satellite antenna and then seen tumbling down a hill, is presumed dead and left behind.  Mark survives his injuries but awakens to the realization that he is alone, the next manned mission isn’t scheduled to arrive for four years, and even with rationing he only has enough food to last a little over a year.

From the first line of the novel (“I’m pretty much fucked.”), Mark approaches his situation with humor and ingenuity.  Possessed of a firm stubborn streak, Mark decides that rather than be the first person to die on Mars, he’s going to be the first person to live on Mars.  So begins the “Mark Watney doesn’t die” project.

Quickly engaging the reader, the story follows Mark as he works to keep himself alive for the next four years.  Using personal log entries, Mark chronicles his successes (farming potatoes using a mixture of Earth and Martian soil combined with water made from rocket fuel) and his failures (nearly blowing himself into oblivion while trying to make said water).  Things get even more interesting when NASA realizes through analyzing satellite imagery that Mark is still alive.

Interspersed with the log entries are alternating chapters (told from a third person narrative) which show NASA in crisis mode and give the reader insight into the minds of those making life or death decisions from almost 250 million miles away.

Other reviewers have compared The Martian to Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer, or even to early science fiction classics such as Rex Gordon’s No Man Friday or Welcome to Mars by James Blish.

Life as We Knew It shares very little with The Martian in my mind.  Both feature strong protagonists of above average intelligence, and both have a strong set of secondary characters designed to help the main character achieve survival, but the similarities end there.  The Martian  reads more in the style of classic science fiction, where Life As We Knew It, reads more like another in a long line of post-apocalyptic YA novels.

Comparing The Martian to No Man Friday or Welcome to Mars is far more fair, but both fall victim to their time period.  The scientific accuracy of No Man Friday is quite plausible for the mid 1950’s.  The narrator, Rex Gordon, follows much the same process as Mark Watney in producing oxygen and water, and the ship used to carry the seven astronauts to Mars bears a marked resemblance to the pointy rockets used in the early space race.  In addition, both novels clearly owe a considerable amount of their plots to Robinson Crusoe, and No Man Friday in fact references it frequently.  At this point however, their plots diverge as Gordon discovers and tries to communicate with giant Martian centipedes, while Mark remains alone.

In Welcome to Mars, eighteen year old Dolph Haertel invents an anti-gravity device and then, telling his parents he’s going camping for the weekend, sets off for Mars.  I am in fact not completely convinced that Welcome to Mars was not deliberately farsicle.  The novel is set sometime between the 1980’s and 1990’s and yet man has not yet travelled to the moon.  Also, Haertel’s science is described in the novel as having “swallowed Einstein the way Einstein swallowed Newton…”

Hartel is conveniently joined by his Earthly girlfriend with whom he left the instructions for his anti-gravity device and together they discover oxygen producing lichens growing on the planet.

Aside from the common element of becoming stranded, I did not feel that Welcome to Mars is a fair comparison to The Martian by even the most generous stretch of the imagination.

Searching for more reasonable comparisons, I found The Martian far more comparable to Year Zero by Rob Reid.

As with Year Zero, The Martian’s protagonist is a completely believable character.  While it would have been easy to create a hero who is in all ways better than everyone else, Weir avoids this by creating Mark as someone who is more likely to annoy others with his glib humor than incite hero worship.  As a reader, I enjoyed the gallows humor and sarcastic quips, but to others this may be off-putting.  While Nick Carter in Year Zero was decidedly more self centered than Mark Watney, both share the same devil may care attitude, and a tendency to channel their inner twelve year old when cracking jokes.

Year Zero’s tone is far more reminscent of Douglas Adams, but both novels intermingle a bit of fun within the seriousness, and each has more than a few laugh out loud moments.  Mark and Nick’s approach their respective situations creates a sense of of levity, offsetting what could otherwise turn into a festival of wallow and self pity.

Mark’s experiments with modifying the NASA Hab for long term use, show not just unique creativity, but also serve to demonstrate the extreme lengths to which a person is driven by the simple will to survive.  As a reader, I found myself quickly engrossed in the storyline, cheering for Mark with each success and feeling a genuine sense of disappointment or anxiety with each failure.

Weir’s attention to detail and his scientific accuracy is nearly impeccable.  Those looking for plausibility will be hard pressed to find fault in Weir’s research.  Those with a less technical mindset or without a fairly advanced level of scientific knowledge may find themselves bogged down by some of the details.  I found myself having to stop on more than one occasion to Google various aspects of Mark’s McGyver-like maneuvers, which was at times jarring due to how engrossed I had been in the book up to that point.

I would encourage the reader to stick with the book, however, as The Martian features a complex, fast paced plot that immediately draws in the reader, making them eager to follow along on Project Mark Watney Doesn’t Die.

 

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Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple centers around Bernadette Fox and her family over the course of several months.

Once a renowned architect, Bernadette now spends most of her time sitting in an Air Stream trailer parked in their backyard.  Bernadette’s husband, Elgin, is a high level executive at Microsoft, and her daughter Bee has just graduated from eighth grade at Galer, a prestigious local prep school.

Told in the first person perspective, the book opens with Bee asking her parents for a trip to Antartica as a graduation present.  For Bernadette, who is already reclusive and borderline agoraphobic, the idea of such a trip becomes the catalyst for an emotional breakdown.

Soon she is outsourcing the majority of her daily tasks to India and becomes engaged in an all out war with several of the mothers at her daughter’s school, who she refers to as “gnats”.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? begins as a humorous and lighthearted tale.  Bernadette’s long and rambling emails to Manjula, the virtual personal assistant she has hired, give the reader hilarious insight into Bernadette’s inner workings.  Remarks that might otherwise seem mildly offensive come out of Bernadette with an unabashed matter of factness.  In the midst of the humor, however, Semple gives the reader tiny glimpses of an underlying darker storyline.

Bernadette’s marriage is in trouble.  Her husband Elgin takes the Microsoft bus to work every day so as to escape his wife an hour early.  Bernadette decries what she views as the Seattle chic while her husband thrives in the same environment.  Bee loves both her parents deeply but feels abandoned by her father due to his long working hours and is burdened by worry over her mother’s growing eccentricities.  Bernadette in turn has been worn down first by several miscarriages, then by worry over Bee’s childhood health issues, and now from the haunting of past failures.

Semple presents all these with humor and grace but does not fall into the trap of painting her characters without fault.  Bernadette thinks herself smarter than nearly everyone else and has come to the belief that all of life’s problems can be solved with money.  In the midst of this, Semple introduces a bevy of supporting characters such as Audrey, one of the Galer moms, Audrey’s son Kyle who is the school drug dealer, and Soo-Lin-Lee-Segal, Elgin’s assistant and possible lover.

Semple does a brilliant job of creating characters the reader is eager to hate but winds up feeling sympathetic towards.  Audrey is oblivious to her son’s extra curricular activities and is dealing with a crumbling marriage of her own.  Soo-Lin-Lee is a recent divorcee, newly single mother, and a charter member of Victims against Victimhood (VAV).

Often in novels, supporting characters fade too quickly into the background or fall into the trap of becoming cliched.  Semple, however, brings each of them to the foreground just often enough to be integral to the overall storyline but not so much as to interfere with the plot of the main characters.  In addition, Semple confronts the cliches head on and treats them with a humor that is almost surgical in its precision and delicacy.  Semple divides Where’d You Go, Bernadette? into seven parts.  Each part deals with a different aspect of the titular question, weaving it into a complex literal and metaphorical form.

Viewers of Mad About You or Arrested Development will already be familiar with Semple’s comedic style as she was a writer on both shows.  Readers who enjoyed Rob Reid’s Year Zero may also enjoy Where’d You Go, Bernadette?.  In both cases, the author draws heavily from significant personal experiences.  Reid drew from his career in the music industry, and as with Bernadette, Semple struggled with adapting in her move from Los Angeles to Seattle.

Each book shares the same sense of satire and the same poking fun at the “societal elite”.  In addition, Semple and Reid manage to avoid the bitter, angry tone that is so often infused into satire by injecting a healthy amount of self-deprecation.  Also the two novels combine a sizable chorus of characters into a single coherent storyline.

Year Zero though more of a sci-fi novel in the same vein as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, reminded me of Where’d You Go, Bernadette due to similarities in humor style and the mixing of darker undertones.

As with Nick Carter in Year Zero, Bernadette finds herself caught in a series of events that spiral beyond her control almost before she is even aware of them transpiring.  Also, both Nick and Bernadette find themselves in situations where they must play victim to those they have previously victimized.  Finally, Bernadette like Nick, discovers that the secret to finding herself might mean placing herself in the middle of her deepest fears and insecurities.

I found Where’d You Go, Bernadette? to be a quick and easy read.  The light-hearted tone in the beginning sets the mood and remains upbeat despite more intense plot developments.  Semple’s primary strength is characterization.  She does an excellent job of taking characters that are otherwise unlikeable and making them likeable.  One element that was of particular interest to me was that despite Semple’s talent for and background in creating witty believable dialogue, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is told from a first person narrative using emails, police reports, and other documentation.

Overall I found the characters fit into the storyline well and did not overly detract from the plot.  In the case of Kennedy (Bee’s best friend) and Kyle, however, it seemed that Semple built two characters and then lost track of what to do with them.  Kennedy, in particular, gave the impression of having a more significant role only to abruptly fade into the background.  Kyle, although important in terms of the impact his actions had on other characters, seemed to have no purpose other than to serve as filler in places where the plot began to slightly drag.  Finally, Semple’s ending was abrupt and did not fit well with the rest of the novel.

 

 

Review: Books made into movies

With summer winding down and school starting back, I decided to take a look at popular novels that have been made into current movies. I chose The Hundred Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais and The Giver by Lois Lowry.

The Hundred Foot Journey title refers to the hundred foot distance that separates two restaurants and the people that both live and work there. Unlike the short time required for a  journey of a hundred feet, the book itself takes its time getting to the point of this plot.

I decided to review this book because I received a free pass to see the movie and loved it.  Based on the story of the movie and the portrayal of the characters, I was eager to read the book.  I looked forward to learning more about the story and discovering the elements that the movie left out.

As I began reading, however, my excitement quickly gave way to disappointment.  The Hundred Foot Journey is one of those rare cases where the movie proves to be better than the book.

Told in first person narrative from the perspective of the main character, Hassan, the first three chapters focus primarily on Hassan’s childhood in India and then very briefly on two years spent in London before moving into the main plot.

The attempt is to give the reader an understanding of Hassan and to set up the events which serve as the catalyst for the rest of the novel.  The result is a disjointed ramble that gives far too much attention to detail and minutia.

While the movie manages to capture the important elements of the events in Hassan’s life, the book goes into great detail on events that are never mentioned again.  I found this distracting as at first it seemed these events were significant, when in fact they were later determined to be unimportant or secondary to the primary plot.

One exception to this is the momentary focus on Hassan’s early romantic relationships.  It is shown that the sudden death of his mother early in the novel profoundly impacts his subsequent relationships with women and with other people in his life.  One example is when he and his mother spent a day together and dined in an upper scale French restaurant.  In this instance, Morais’ attention to detail works well in establishing the special closeness that Hassan feels towards his mother and gives the reader a strong feeling of sympathy towards Hassan when his mother dies a few pages later.

Reading is often an escape for me.  When I am having a bad day or am feeling otherwise pressured, reading calms me.  Trying to get through The Hundred Foot Journey left me feeling frustrated at trying to keep track of the details and understand their relevance to the overall storyline.


The Giver by Lois Lowry is a young adult novel set in an unspecified future.  Having decided that being different or unique leads to strife and war, society has for generations focused on creating its own form of utopia.  In this society called “The Community”, the Elders keep everything and everyone under tight control.  “Sameness” is the ideal, and uniqueness is deemed shameful.

Each December, The Community holds a ceremony advancing children to the next age. When a child reaches twelve, they are assigned their role or job, and the remainder of their education becomes focused on training them in that role.  In his ceremony, Jonas is assigned to the role Receiver of Memory.  He trains privately with the last Receiver, now labeled the Giver, receiving the Giver’s memories of the past.  Jonas is now exempt from many of the community rules such as sharing his dreams or avoiding rudeness and is forbidden from requesting any medication.  These changes allow him to experience true emotions such as love, attraction, and intense pain.  Jonas also finds that he is able to see colors whereas the other members of the community can see only monochrome.

As with The Hundred Foot Journey, I went to see The Giver in the theatre.  Whereas The Hundred Foot Journey did an excellent job of presenting the important elements of the book, The Giver took considerably more liberties.  In the movie, Jonas’ age is changed from twelve to sixteen, a love triangle is added, and the role of the Elders takes on a sinister overtone.  The book implies that The Community was developed by the Elders out of good intention, a belief that if everyone was the same there would be nothing to create conflict.  In the film, the focus of the Elders shifts primarily to the Chief Elder whose motives are less clear.

I enjoyed both the film adaptation and the book The Giver, but I felt the book spoke to me more. Where the film created scenes that appeared thrown in just for the sake of creating an action element, the book focused more on the subtleties and nuances of being unique in a society that reveres conformity.  In addition, the film made a few minor changes I did not understand such as the number of Jonas’ birth order.  In the book he is number nineteen in his birth year, and in the movie he is number fifty-six.  The only reason I could discern for this was an effort to create a more suspenseful scene.  One other element changed from the book to the movie was Jonas’ eye color.  In the book, Lowry places a special emphasis on the fact that Jonas, the Giver and a select few others have “funny eyes” (presumably blue though this this is never stated outright).  In the movie, eye color is changed to a special birthmark on the inside of the wrist.  To me, featuring the eye color rather than a subtle mark created a stronger point in that it is an instantly visible and distinct characteristic.

Although The Hundred Foot Journey and The Giver appear to have no similarities, there are common themes to be found.  In both novels the protaganist struggles with the conflict of societal expectations versus his personal growth.  In The Giver, Jonas struggles with trying to understand his experiences of deep emotion against the traditions of his society.  In The Hundred Foot Journey, Hassan struggles with understanding his own deep emotions in light of his mother’s death and father’s emotional shut down, while fighting against the traditions of his society.  In addition, both Jonas and Hassan experience long personal journeys that force them away from the comfort of their communities and their traditions.

I strongly urge those interested in seeing the film adaptation of The Giver to do so, but I would just as strongly encourage viewers to read the book first.  For those interested in The Hundred Foot Journey, I highly recommend going the film adaptation but would advise anyone considering it to skip the book.

Review: Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell centers around the lives of two teenagers in Omaha, Nebraska, during the mid-80’s.  Eleanor has just moved back in with her mother and abusive stepfather.  Forced to share a room with four younger siblings, Eleanor spends the majority of her time desperately trying to be invisible so that her stepfather won’t kick her out of the house again.

Eleanor finds herself forced to sit next to Park on the first day of school after being heckled and shunned by everyone else on the bus.  Eleanor is large, with bright red hair and clothes that can only be called “strange”.

For several weeks, Eleanor and Park don’t interact at all.  Park secretly thinks Eleanor is just weird, and Eleanor wonders how it is that the only Asian kid in school is simultaneously a misfit and part of the “in” crowd.   One day Park looks over and realizes that Eleanor is reading his comics over his shoulder.  After this, he starts giving her comics to borrow, until one day he comments on some song lyrics written on her book cover.  This serves as the needed ice breaker, and soon the two find themselves talking non-stop about music, Han Solo, and the sexist undertones of X-Men.

On the surface, the two begin a fun and lighthearted teen romance, but beneath the surface we find that Eleanor’s entire family lives at the whim of her drunken stepfather.  Eleanor can’t understand why her mother stays with him, but soon we start to see little glimpses here and there of how beaten down and worn out her mother has become.

In contrast, Park has a seemingly perfect home life.  His parents can hardly keep their hands off each other, and his mother’s success as a beautician accords Park a certain acceptability with the cool kids.

Park and his father are constantly at odds since his father doesn’t understand his son’s seeming inability to learn to drive a stick or his penchant for wearing eyeliner and therefore constantly berates Park’s masculinity.

Finally, their individual situations reach a climax and Eleanor and Park are forced to face the realities of trying to turn a teen romance into “forever”.

Eleanor and Park has been compared to John Green‘s The Fault in our Stars or Paper Towns.  I found, however, that it reminded me far more of The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LeBan.  As with Duncan in The Tragedy Paper, Eleanor is starting over in a new school late in her high school career.  In addition as with Duncan and his albinism, Eleanor’s red hair and large frame  set her apart.  Finally, both books are told through alternating perspectives and culminate in a sudden event that irrevocably changes the main characters’ lives.

While I enjoyed Eleanor and Park and found it to be a fun and easy read, I felt it lacked some of the elements that make a truly great novel.  Rowell depends largely on cliches and predictability and fails to explore elements that could add complexity and believability for her characters.  For example, Park’s mother is emphasized as being Korean, and Park struggles with what it means to him to be half-Korean, yet Park’s house seems devoid of anything resembling Korean culture.  The author also gives no indication that Park’s parents encountered any difficulties as an interracial couple who began their life together in 1960’s Nebraska.  Park claims that his previous lack of romantic success is due to a dearth of attractive male Asian examples, yet we discover his ex-girlfriend is still eager for his attention and the most popular girl in school has a crush on him.

In contrast, Rowell does an excellent job with Eleanor’s characterization.  From the first day on the bus when she is labeled as “Big Red”, the reader can relate to Eleanor’s situation.  Eleanor is portrayed as a smart kid who has all but completely shut herself off from everyone, due to the inability or unwillingness of the adults in her life to help.  Her mother is so overrun with trying to anticipate the demands of her husband and with raising the younger children that she sees Eleanor more as a problem than a daughter.  The school guidance counselor thinks everything can be fixed with a smile and a hug.  Her teachers are seemingly unaware or unconcerned.  As a result, Eleanor is sometimes sarcastic and caustic or shuts down when struggling to explain her family situation or the intensity of her own feelings towards Park.

Set in 1986, Eleanor and Park makes solid use of the time frame.  Situations that would be solved by today’s modern technology such as cell phones or MP3 players are integral elements to the plot.  When Park lends Eleanor his tape player, she worries about running down the batteries, noting that they are expensive.  Eleanor also comments several times that she does not have a phone at home, making it difficult for her to call Park or for anyone to call her.  Finally, the music that Rowell weaves into the plot was quintessential of the rise of the 70’s and 80’s punk culture.

Eleanor and Park is marketed for teens fourteen and up.  This is an appropriate starting age due to themes of abuse, bullying, and teen sex.

I found Eleanor and Park to be a quick and enjoyable read.  Rowell’s use of dialogue is her strongest point, but the over use of cliche’s and exaggerated physical descriptions read more like a beginning novel rather than the work of an established author.  A few of the characters were believable in their flaws and insecurities, while others seemed either caricaturish or too undeveloped for their transformation to be realistic.  As with The Tragedy Paper, the dual narrating voices added nicely to the storyline and kept the pace flowing well; however, I would have liked to have been given more insight into some of the lesser characters.

 

Rating: 

Review: Founding Mothers by Cokie Roberts

As adults, many of us know the detailed history of the American Revolution.  We’ve heard the tale of Paul Revere’s ride, of the Founding Fathers, and of Nathan Hale’s last words.  Not much, however, is told about the role of women in the fight for independence.  With this in mind, I decided to review Cokie Roberts’ book Founding Mothers.   Roberts is the daughter of two prominent former members of Congress and is a well-respected news anchor.  Two versions of her book were created: one for children and a more in-depth one for adults. I have addressed both in this review.

Each book opens with Deborah Reed, the wife of Benjamin Franklin.  In both versions, we discover that Deborah and Franklin met while they were still in their late teens, fell out of touch but reconnected years later.  In the expanded adult version, we discover that Franklin was sent away on business and quickly forgot about Deborah.  As a result, her mother married her off to another man who eventually disappeared in the West Indies.  Later, after Franklin and Reed reconnect, they are unable to legally marry due to the fact that her first husband’s death cannot be proven.  The relationship was well accepted however, so Deborah took the name Franklin and became recognized as his wife.

In the children’s version, we are told that Benjamin was appointed as Postmaster and required to travel extensively, leaving Deborah to run the Post Office in his stead.  Roberts expands on this in the adult version, and we find out that Franklin traveled to England for an extended period, setting up household with another woman while his wife ran a sundry shop and maintained the post office.  In addition, Deborah later kept the books for Benjamin’s print shop and invested in real estate, opening some of the first franchises in the country.

After traveling back and forth, Franklin returned to England promising to be back within seven months.  He did not return until after Deborah’s death more than ten years later.

Both of Roberts’ books give us glimpses into some of the lesser known women of the Revolution.  A brief quote from The Women of the American Revolution by Elizabeth Ellet tells of a Mrs. Pond who fed more than 100 Patriot soldiers the morning after the Battle of Lexington.

Other less famous women include Emily Geiger who carried a message through British territory for General Greene.  She was detained by British soldiers who called in a woman to search her.  During the delay, Emily could memorize the message and swallow the paper evidence.  Finding no justification in keeping her, the British freed her, and she rode on to deliver the message.

Margaret Corbin’s husband, John, was killed at Fort Washington, New York.  Afterwards, she took up his artillery position and was wounded three times.  Unable to work after the war, Corbin petitioned Congress for a retired soldier’s pension.  They agreed, making her the first woman in United States history to receive a military pension.  She was re-buried at West Point in 1926 and is one of two Revolutionary War veterans interred there.

One amusing mention in Roberts’ book is of Mary Lindley Murray.  After defeating the Patriots at Kips Bay in 1776, British General Howe and his soldiers stopped at Mary’s house for dinner.  Mary was quite generous with the wine and managed to distract Howe and his men long enough for the American soldiers to escape.

Another notable woman of the Revolution was Deborah Sampson.  In the children’s version of her book, Roberts’ tells us that Deborah made herself a suit of men’s clothing and joined the army as Robert Shurtleff.  After serving for more than three years and being wounded twice, Deborah eventually fell ill and was discovered by the doctor treating her.  She was then forced to leave the army and after the war had ended was granted a soldier’s retirement pay and recognized by Congress for her service.

In the adult version of this tale, Roberts fills in a few more details.  Deborah Sampson did indeed serve as Robert Shurtleff for more than three years.  Ironically, the men she served alongside nicknamed her “Molly” due to her inability to grow a beard, never realizing that “he” was indeed “she”.  The doctor who discovered her secret kept it hidden and sent her on a mission to deliver a letter to General Washington who immediately granted her an honorable discharge and enough money to get home.  Years later, after several petitions to Congress, she was granted a retirement pension of $76.80 per year and some land to live on.

Roberts delves into the histories and services of many other women of the Revolution. The Daughters of Liberty began a boycott of merchants that sold British goods and created “spinning bees” where they spun cloth to provide clothing for the Patriot army.  Eliza Lucas Pinckney at the age of 19 decided to grow indigo for the soldier’s uniforms and eventually created one of the largest agricultural businesses in South Carolina.

Roberts also tells us about the women of whom we all have heard, such as Martha Washington.  Martha is credited as being one of the first people to receive the smallpox inoculation, thus encouraging the soldiers by example.  The inoculation is now considered to have given the American army a major advantage over the British.  In addition, the reader is told about Abigail Adams who ran her husband’s farm while overseeing the education of their young children, wrote letters favoring the abolition of slavery, and spent much of her life advocating women’s equality.

Both books do an excellent job of keeping the subject matter fresh and interesting.  In the children’s version of Founding Mothers, Roberts manages to present the subject matter in a way that is easily accessible but is not dumbed-down.

In the adult version, she gives more detailed anecdotes of the women’s lives and the roles they played in shaping the early days of our country, but does not bore the reader with irrelevant trivia.

I enjoyed both books immensely and recommend them to readers interested in learning more about the women of the American Revolution.

 

Rating: 

Review: The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope

The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope by Rhonda Riley opens in 1944 when Evelyn Roe is seventeen.  The U.S. involvement in World War II is at its peak, and Evelyn has recently graduated from high school when Evelyn’s great aunt Eva dies suddenly.  As all of Eva’s sons are off fighting, and Evelyn’s only brother is a bit too young, Evelyn is tasked with taking over the family farm.

One night during a bad rain storm, Evelyn discovers a figure buried in the mud.  Assuming that a wounded soldier has stumbled back from the war, Evelyn brings the figure into the house where she discovers that it is not exactly human but not entirely alien either.  Within a few days, Evelyn’s charge has transformed into a tall, red-headed woman: the near identical twin of Evelyn.  When a local boy is injured on Evelyn’s farm, she is forced to quickly invent a backstory for her new companion’s sudden appearance.  The unnamed figure suddenly becomes Addie, Evelyn’s long lost cousin and the daughter of her father’s estranged half-sister.

Addie’s strange vocalizations and shape-shifting elements draw Evelyn in, and they become sexually involved almost instantly.  After a couple of years, however, Evelyn finds herself longing for a husband and children.  Sensing this, Addie seduces a passing stranger and takes on his likeness.  Thus Adam Hope is born.  Adam’s vocalizations have a calm, soothing effect, and he is quickly accepted by Evelyn’s family and small town.  Several years go by and tragedy strikes, resulting not only in the emotional estrangement of Evelyn and Adam but also in the risk of Adam’s secret being revealed.  What follows is the tale of how they attempt to make their way back to Adam being perceived as human and to the former closeness in their relationship.

Most critics have compared The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope to The Time Travelers Wife due to the common element of an intense romance filled with unexplainable events and secrets kept from everyone else.  I found however, that it reminded me far more of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane.  Though Gaiman’s book does not posess the romantic storyline that The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope does, it does have the otherworldly aspect.  As with Gaiman’s novel, ordinary life is punctuated by elements that can not be easily explained.  In addition, both books are told from the perspective of a person who finds themselves in the minority by being a normal human.

Readers of The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope may also be reminded of the 1984 film Starman.  While Riley’s book and the film both involve shape-shifting aliens, I found the differences from Riley’s novel to outweigh the similarities.  In Starman, it is made clear from the start that the storyline centers around an alien being, and he is in fact concious of his extra-terrestrial origins.  In The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope, Addie/Adam have no knowledge of their origins, and the alien aspect becomes secondary to the main plot.

The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope is an adult novel.  The descriptions of alien/human sex, while not as strange as the reader might imagine, are detailed.  In addition, the novel does not shy away from loss, and character death is dealt with in a very frank and realistic manner.

The opening historical setting of the book was in my mind an excellent choice by Riley.  Too much earlier in history, and the appearance of a shape shifter would have fallen prey to superstition and hostility.  Too much later in history, and the author would have been forced to deal with the complications of a society that is dependent on a paper or electronic trail.  In choosing a mid-World War II setting, Riley has picked just the right middle ground.  Developments of the bomb and the rumors of German and Japanese advanced technology create a bit of believable leeway for an alien visitor.  In addition, the element of the war created an environment where one could easily pass off the sudden appearance of new person as a returning soldier or a long lost relative.

Riley has created relatable characters that the reader will be able to easily recognize.  The depictions of a small town in which the residents are suspect of everyone outside – and are not completely sure of those inside – are spot on.  The reactions of the residents when confronted with evidence that Adam is different are precisely the attitudes one would expect to find in a small town.  The polite but obvious distancing, the thinly veiled derision, and the secret gossiping are all written in such a way that it is clear Riley has drawn from personal experience.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope and found that the book was not at all what I expected.  At first glance, I was uncertain and admittedly skeptical.  A historical, science-fiction romance sounded far too absurd for the author to pull of in a believable manner; however, Riley manages to achieve exactly that.  My primary criticism of the book is that the plot was a little slow in developing.  It is clear once the book is finished that the early plot development is necessary to establish the foundation, but I did find myself wishing the pace would pick up a little.  On the other hand, I did read this book in nearly one setting.  I would encourage the reader to stick with the first several chapters as I found that, just as I was at the point where I was ready to give up, the pace picked up dramatically and from that point was a quick read.

The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope seems an unlikely candidate for a book that will stick with you long after the cover is closed, but I found myself repeatedly thinking about the characters and their choices.  The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope is Rhonda Riley’s first novel, and I look forward to reading more of her works in the future.

 

 

 

 

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