Category Archive: Reviews

Jan 17 2017

Review: The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher

Carrie Fisher is best known for her role in the Star Wars franchise as the iconic Princess Leia.  Many of us who are now adults spent long hours of our childhood pretending to be characters in the Star Wars universe.  Whether we were the snarky Princess escaping the clutches of the evil Lord Vader, the equally snarky and jaded smuggler Han Solo, or even the wise and stoic Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars left an indelible mark on our formative years.  (Except for the prequels – those don’t actually exist)

What fewer people realize though is that in addition to being an accomplished actress, Fisher was also a prolific author.  Given the impact of Star Wars on my own childhood, and the recent revelation of Fisher’s affair with Harrison Ford during the filming of the original movie, I was excited to acquire a copy of Fisher’s The Princess Diarist.  Soon after came the news of Fisher’s sudden death, making her most recent book her final book.

Fisher opens her memoir with a recap of highlights from 1976, the year she began filming A New Hope.  A number of things happened in 1976, Fisher notes.  Apple was founded, Interview with a Vampire was first published, and U2 was formed.  It was also a year of significant world events including Jimmy Carter beating Gerald Ford in the Presidential election and Son of Sam killing his first victim.  Finally, it was the prelude to the year in which Fisher feels her life radically changed forever.

Before auditioning for Star Wars, Fisher played a minor role in Shampoo.  Having grown up in a Hollywood household as the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, Carrie Fisher comments that at the time the last thing she thought she wanted to do was go into show business.  Nevertheless, she auditioned for Shampoo on a lark, thinking at 17, that it would be exciting to be wanted by Warren Beatty “in any capacity at all.”  She got the role and went back to living at home, hoping that perhaps she would be able to soon move out now that she was “hip”.

Two years later, having dropped out of high school and bored with college, Fisher auditioned for Star Wars while home on Christmas break.

George Lucas and Brian De Palma held joint auditions for Carrie and Star Wars. Fisher auditioned for both – originally hoping for Carrie over Star Wars because she thought “Carrie in Carrie would be a casting coup.”

DePalma primarily led the auditions as Lucas sat mostly mute, simply observing.  After stumbling through the seemingly inane questions of “I see you were in Shampoo, how was it working with Warren Beatty?” and revealing that she would drop out of college if given either role, Fisher was convinced she had bombed the audition.  Much to her amazement, however, her agent called her a couple of weeks later with the news that she had been cast.

At the start of filming, Fisher recalls trying to remain under the radar so that nobody would notice that she had not lost the 10 pounds that were part of her casting contract.  She muses that the now famous Princess Leia hairdo may have been used in part to keep her face from looking too big.

Fisher then dives into what she dubs “Carrison”:  i.e. her three month long affair with Harrison Ford.  Fisher starts by stating that she had spent so long not talking about the affair that it was hard to know where to begin talking about it now and in fact her thoughts on it are somewhat reticent and disjointed.

The affair began, she reveals, in the back of a taxi on the same night Ford rescued her from some crew members who had purposefully set about to get her drunk as a prank.  They had intense and frequent sex on the weekends while studiously ignoring each other during the week.

Although Fisher admits she entered into the movie with the idea of having an affair with a crew member or cast mate, she was surprised that it became Ford given that he was married at the time, and she had intense feelings of guilt over that issue.

Fisher writes with a style that is conversational but rambling.  She begins passages on one thought, finds another thought in the middle, and finally, ends on yet a third thought.  While her recollections are humorous, I found her style to be rather labyrinthine and as a result frequently re-read passages in an effort to keep track.

A vast portion of the middle of the book contains transcriptions of the diaries Fisher kept during her time filming the movie.  In these, she reveals a deeply insecure young woman who was extremely conflicted about her relationship with Ford.  In one entry, she laments her penchant for inaccessible men noting previous experimentation with gay men and then men whom she knew would treat her poorly.  In another, she notes that she thinks Ford is boring which he tries to make look deliberate as if he is “the strong silent type.”  Eventually, towards the end, she admits that she is falling for him hard and muses that things might have gone better for her if she had fallen for Mark Hamill instead.

At first reading, these entries seemed like the melodramatic over the top lamentations of a teenager.  Then, thinking about it, I realized that is exactly what they were as Fisher was not quite 20 during filming.  She may have been finally telling the story as a 60 year old, but the feelings and thoughts were still that of her 19 year old self.  Given that, it was easier to understand her perspective and even smile a little bit at the heightened drama.

While the book starts off slowly, it improves as Fisher eventually figures out what she wants to say and actually says it.

Fans of Fisher’s previous works such as Postcards from the Edge or Wishful Drinking will likely enjoy The Princess Diarist.  Fisher employs the same conversational tone in each and reveals much of her struggles with poor self-image and becoming permanently tied to the role of Princess Leia at such a young age.

Some readers may be put off by her snarky and sarcastic descriptions of fan interactions, while others may cringe good naturedly and recognize a bit of themselves at fan conventions or autograph signings.

Overall, The Princess Diarist is a quick and somewhat enjoyable read with several moments which will evoke feelings of poignancy in light of Fisher’s now posthumous telling.

 

Rating: 

Jun 21 2016

Review: The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

Over the course of his career, Neil Gaiman has written a number of essays, introductions, and speeches.  The View from the Cheap Seats pulls together over sixty of these pieces in one place for the first time.

For veteran fans of Gaiman, many of these writings will revisit previously seen works.  For newer fans, The View from the Cheap Seats is a rare and quite interesting look into the mind of one of the greatest modern writers.

The book’s preface sets the tone the collection with Gaiman’s personal credo: a very brief summary of the basic tenants by which he lives his life and which influence his writings.

Many of Gaiman’s beliefs seem self-evident: killing or maiming others to suppress ideas doesn’t work.  Neither does attempting to control the ideas or thoughts of others.  Gaiman argues that ideas in and of themselves are neither good nor bad – they simply exist and members of society should be free to express those ideas no matter how vile or reprehensible they seem to others.  Rather, Gaiman states, it is up to each person to counter and persuade those representing the vile and reprehensible over to their side.

From there, Gaiman jumps into a speech on the importance of libraries that he gave in 2013 for the Reading Agency, a U.K. charity whose mission is to help people become more confident readers. Gaiman admits that, as an author, he is biased towards libraries.  He also gives the reader a small insight into how libraries and librarians shaped his path when he was a child.  During the summer months, his parents dropped him at the library on their way to work and picked him up on their way home.  There he worked his way through the card catalogue looking for books on vampires, witches, detectives, and other wonders.  After he had finished with the children’s library, he began on the adult books.  During this process, the librarians nurtured his love of reading by teaching him about interlibrary loans and steering him toward other books he might enjoy.

Touching on his personal credo from the opening of the book, Gaiman later talks about Charlie Hebdo and the PEN literary gala.  Since six tables had pulled out of hosting tables and so Gaiman was asked if he would step in to host one.  He agreed and what follows is a deeply personal and touching moment between him and his wife, Amanda Palmer.  Palmer tells him he is doing the right thing and then asks “Will you wear a bullet proof vest?”  Gaiman argues that security will be tight and tries to assuage her fears by assuring her a vest will not be necessary.

“But you should wear a vest anyway.” Palmer argues.  “Remember, I’m pregnant, and our child will need a father more than a martyr.”  In the end, Gaiman does not wear the vest, but the exchange is a startling reminder of the power of ideas and words.  Comics and cartoons can viscerally offend, Gaiman argues, but that does not mean they should not be defended.  In closing, he quotes the editor in chief of Charlie Hebdo “Growing up to be a citizen is to learn that some ideas, some words, some images can be shocking.  Being shocked is part of democratic debate.  Being shot is not.”

The View from the Cheap Seats is an odd mixture in both quality and subject matter.  Some of the writings are deeply personal, giving the reader a rare and intimate view into the writer’s childhood, school life, and very early career.  Gaiman shares his personal insecurities in interviewing authors he has long admired and reveals the origins of his friendships with figures such as Tori Amos, and Terry Pratchett.  Included among these is a moving tribute to Douglas Adams.

Other elements of the book are as ungainly as their titles suggest, such as “A Speech to Professionals Contemplating Alternative Employment, Given at PROCON, April 1997.”  As a reader and a reviewer that particular entry was a head scratcher.  Even in the seemingly banal, however, Gaiman manages to shine by offering an intriguing look into the publishing industry just before the Internet exploded and changed everything.

Throughout the book are numerous personal anecdotes of people famous and otherwise with whom Gaiman has formed close relationships over the course of his career.  Few though are as touching as the tribute to his wife’s late surrogate father, Anthony.

Intertwining themes of living and dying, Gaiman reveals the path of his relationship with Palmer and by extension, Anthony.  Ironically, Gaiman and Palmer meet as a result of her commissioning Gaiman to write a handful of stories and poems for her album “Who Killed Amanda Palmer?”  During their first date, she introduces Gaiman to Anthony who proclaims that he thinks Gaiman would make a good boyfriend.  Despite not yet realizing Anthony’s importance to Palmer, Gaiman is nonetheless pleased.  Anthony soon becomes not simply Palmer’s close friend but a trusted confidant and counsel to Gaiman.  Then, approximately six months after Gaiman and Palmer are married, Anthony is diagnosed with leukemia.  In the midst of this, two other of Gaiman and Palmer’s friends die unexpectedly.  Finally, the news is delivered that Anthony is in remission.  Sadly, however, a post-script reveals that Anthony in fact died from leukemia in June of 2015.  What is not revealed in the piece, but is of importance, is that three months later, Palmer gave birth to a son, named Anthony in honor of their dear friend.

Fans of Gaiman’s previous works will find themselves enthralled with The View from the Cheap Seats.  Gaiman has long had a reputation for being open and accessible to fans.  The View from the Cheap Seats, however, offers a deeper, more intimate look at Gaiman’s early life and career.  One can easily imagine from his prose a serious and quiet little Neil Gaiman stuffed into the corner of his local library.

Those previously unfamiliar with Gaiman should enjoy his conversational style and dry humor.  Gaiman is that rare mixture of both famous and unassuming.  It is clear from his writing and the stories he relates that he is exactly as he seems: a somewhat befuddled English bloke who likes to tell stories.

 

Rating: 

May 10 2016

Review: Books to TV shows

Having previously done a review on books made into movies, I decided this month to tackle books or book series that are currently in development of or in the midst of their first television season.

Shannara by Terry Brooks begins with the The Sword of Shannara and currently continues through The Darkling Child.  Brooks’ primary work has been the Shannara series, but he is also well known for the Magic Kingdom at Landover series.

The Shannara series takes place on Earth, approximately 2000 years after a great nuclear holocaust has destroyed most of the planet.  Over the years following The Great Wars, mankind evolves into four distinct races:  Men, Dwarves, Gnomes, and Trolls.  In addition, Elves have emerged after centuries of hiding.

The television series begins with characters and events of the second book in the series, The Elfstones of Shannara.  The novel introduces the reader to Wil Ohmsford, (grandson of Shea, the main character in the first novel)   Wil inherits the Elfstones and through the instruction of the druid Allanon teams up with Amberle Elessedil, (granddaughter of the King of the Elves) and  Eretia, a Rover (a race of humans who live as gypsies).

Together the three, accompanied by Allanon, embark on a quest to save the Elcryss, a magical tree which keeps the Demons locked away from the Four Lands.

Brooks has long been a favorite of fantasy lovers, and the Shannara series makes it clear why.  Long compared to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series, Shannara pulls the reader into a world that is every bit as compelling as Middle Earth without the over verbosity for which Tolkien’s work is known.  Readers who enjoy the Shanarra series may also enjoy the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind or The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan.

 

Rating: 


The Magicians by Lev Grossman has been frequently described as “Harry Potter for grown-ups.”  The novel centers around Quentin Coldwater, a high school senior from Brooklyn.  Quentin has long been obsessed with a series of books about a group of children who discover a Narnia-like land called Fillory.  On the day of his admissions interview to Princeton, Quentin is instead evaluated for and admitted to Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy.  Here he becomes engrossed in learning magic and in the fight against a mythical enemy called “The Beast”.

There are significant changes from the books to the television series, including aging Quentin and the other characters from high school seniors to adults in their mid-20’s embarking on graduate school.  In addition, in the television adaptation, more emphasis is placed on Quentin’s depression.  In the opening of the television series, he is shown being released from a mental hospital. None of that occurs in the books where he is portrayed as simply being more aloof or disaffected than his peers.

The Magicians is at times a brilliant piece of parody, acknowledging and perhaps mildly poking fun at similar books such as the Harry Potter series and The Chronicles of Narnia.  At other times it drags slightly with the characters appearing overly negative or cynical.  These issues are easily overlooked, however, against Grossman’s excellent use of dialogue and characterization.

Readers who grew up on Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia may find themselves drawn to The Magicians based on the obvious similarities, and indeed, it would be easy to dismiss The Magicians as a Harry Potter or Narnia rip off without deeper investigation, but readers will quickly realize that Grossman has created a darker, more grown-up world which acknowledges the fantasy of the other worlds but which also recognizes that being magical does not guarantee greatness.

Readers may also enjoy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke or Soon I Will Be Invincible by Lev Grossman’s brother Austin Grossman.

 

Rating: 


American Gods by Neil Gaiman centers around the idea that the ancient stories of gods and mythological creatures are real.  Since people have stopped believing in them, they have faded into obscurity having been replaced by new gods of technology, drugs, and celebrity.

The novel opens with Shadow, a convict who, days before he is due to be released on parole, receives word that his wife and his best friend have been killed in a car accident.  Consumed by grief, Shadow takes a job as a bodyguard for the mysterious Mr. Wednesday, who appears to know a great deal about Shadow’s life without having been told.  Soon they embark on a journey across America where Shadow learns the truth about all the gods, old and new.

Gaiman is an established author known for books such as Neverwhere, Anansi Boys, and the acclaimed graphic novel Sandman.  In addition to American Gods, Gaiman’s Sandman spin-off, Lucifer has also been made into a current Fox TV show.

Gaiman shines throughout all of his writing and American Gods is no exception.  From the easily imaginable physical descriptions, to Gaiman’s solid use of dialogue, readers will be drawn into the world of American Gods and Shadow’s life.  As with many of Gaiman’s previous novels, American Gods draws on the idea that ancient legends and fairy tales have a foundation in reality.

In The Ocean at the End of the Lane Gaiman created a world in which fairies co-exist with mortals.  In Lucifer, Satan  has become bored with ruling Hell and has instead taken up residence in Los Angeles as the owner of a piano bar.  In American Gods a world is imagined in which the gods of Norse, Greek, and other cultures co-exist with mortals.

Readers starting with American Gods should investigate Gaiman’s other works such as Coraline, Neverwhere, or Good Omens (co-authored with the late Terry Pratchett).  Readers familiar with Gaiman’s work may also want to consider John Dies at the End by David Wong or The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams.

Each of these novels provides a good foundation for their TV adaptations, and readers should find something to enjoy in all of them.

 

Rating: 

Jan 26 2016

Review: Humans of New York: Stories by Brandon Stanton

Humans of New York: Stories by Brandon Stanton is the third in the Humans of New York series.  Preceded by Humans of New York and Little Humans, Humans of New York: Stories was born out of Brandon’s experiences in creating the first book.

The first book in the Humans of New York series is primarily a photographic essay.  Brandon purchased his first camera six months before losing his job as a bond trader.  A weekend trip to New York inspired Brandon with its vast array of eclectic and vibrant residents.  Brandon’s original plan for his blog was to create a map with ten thousand photographs of New Yorkers plotted across it.  Eventually, he begin adding short quotes and captions to the photos.  This new format rapidly increased the site’s popularity and out of this came the first Humans of New York book.

The original book is almost entirely visual.  Stories and captions are sparse, save for a simple location reveal or simple information describing the photo.  This allows the photos to stand on their own giving the reader an opportunity to bring their own interpretation to the scene.

As Brandon collected photos for the first book, he found the camera served as a conduit for people to open up and tell him their stories.  From this, Brandon decided the world would benefit from the sharing of these stories, so he came up with Humans of New York: Stories.

In Humans of New York: Stories the reader is treated to the same concept of the original book, but this time with the something extra.  Instead of spartan captions or mere location tags, the new book is filled with accompanying text.

From small children to the most wizened of adults, no person is deemed as less or more, nor is anyone portrayed as more important than the others.

Many of the stories are whimsical such as the little girl of about three who gleefully exclaims “You’re taking my picture!”  Next there is the small boy, perhaps 5 or 6 in age, who profoundly describes how he wants to build bridges in Wisconsin because he feels as if there are a lot of people in Wisconsin who don’t have bridges.  The wrinkle in his plan?  He’s not entirely certain where Wisconsin is.  A few pages later is the Sikh boy holding his infant brother who says his favorite aspect of his younger sibling is that “he’s cute.”

Some of the stories are more inspirational in tone.  There is the 20 something year old woman in a wheelchair who wants to become a diplomat in order to make life in China easier for people with disabilities.  She reveals that she lived in a Chinese orphanage until she was 10 and was unable to attend school because she couldn’t walk.  At the end of her story the reader discovers that she has begun with first step with an acceptance to the London School of Economics.

The book is also a study of contrasts.  Across the page from the aspiring diplomat is a middle aged man who states that he served ten years in prison.  When questioned why he responds “…Organized crime.  Allegedly.”  In the span of five short sentences, one gets the distinct impression that even though this man is currently anonymous his face will one day be plastered on the news.

In fact, in the original Humans of New York, Brandon reveals that one couple he photographed later became a national headline after a cache of explosives was discovered in their apartment.

Nothing is off limits in Humans of New York: Stories and Brandon delves into a considerable range of topics.

There are the two teenagers who don’t seem to know yet if they are friends or something more.  There is the elderly couple who cannot agree whether this is their 61st or 62nd anniversary.  Sandwiched in the middle of this mini-essay is the young couple whose nervousness is evident as they reveal they are on their first date.

Many of the stories are poignant reminders of the fact that circumstance and life can change practically on a dime.

This is best highlighted with a three page spread of a young man who talks about how he and his wife were at dinner soon before her due date of their first child.  While enjoying their meal they received a phone call that they needed to get to the hospital quickly as Marwa’s (the soon to be mother) platelet count was low.  At the hospital they are assured that things will be fine, but a a few days later the man finds himself a widower with a newborn baby.  While he describes meeting her as evoking a “finally home” feeling, losing her creates an emptiness in him that he cannot imagine ever filling.

The stories continue on from cute and funny to serious and heart breaking.  The common theme throughout is that our stories connect us.

In keeping with that theme, Brandon has used the visibility his blog grants him to promote and fund humanitarian causes.

Recently he travelled to Pakistan and Iran to highlight stories of residents from those countries.  He also did a lengthy feature on the refugee crisis revealing harrowing tales of escape.

Through stories revealed readers of the HONY (Humans of New York) blog have helped numerous people.  From refugees feeling terrorist attack, to a woman in New York who fled an abusive situation with four children and was facing eviction.  Other fundraisers helped a man who lost his tractor in an accident and a Pakistani woman who also had left an abusive relationship with a young daughter and was in need of treatment for Hepatitis C.  Finally, HONY raised over 2 million dollars for the Bonded Labour Liberation Front.

There are few books with which to compare Humans of New York: Stories.  While there are a number of photo essay books, none touch on the human experience in the same manner.

Readers might find interest in life. love. beauty. by Keegan Allen.  Like Humans of New York: Stories, Allen intersperses story and caption with his photos.  life. love. beauty. however is more a personal photographic memoir as it centers around his career and the people he encounters within that setting.

Humans of New York: Stories is well deserving of its best seller status.  The stories pull the reader in causing them to love, laugh, and cry.  In short, Humans of New York: Stories strives to make the world a smaller, better place, and succeeds brilliantly.

Sep 01 2015

Review: Books centering around LGBTQ teens

With the recent Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage and the renewed surge in movements such as the It Gets Better Project and the No H8 campaign, I wanted to focus on Young Adult books centering around LGBTQ teens.

Cut Both Ways by Carrie Mesrobian asks the reader “What would happen if you found yourself falling in love with your best friend of the same gender?”

Will Caynes is 17 and has never even been kissed.  His best friend Angus lives down the block and has been publicly out since junior high.  Will divides his time between his divorced parents who treat him as a weapon to use against each other.  Will wears glasses that are slightly out of fashion because his father pays for those, but clothes that are clearly more expensive because his mother provides those.  Angus, with his good looks and quiet confidence, strikes Will as everything he himself is not.

One night as Angus and Will are getting high and drunk in the park, Angus leans over and kisses Will.  The make out session that ensues leaves Will feeling confused and intrigued.  On the one hand, he knows he’s not gay, on the other, he enjoyed kissing Angus.  A few days later, Will meets Brandy, a girl from his school and quickly begins a relationship with her, complicating the situation even further.

As Will struggles to maintain both relationships, he is also beset with worry over his father who has recently started drinking again and with anger towards his mother whose new family has little room for him.  It becomes clear that Will has fallen in love with Angus despite not thinking of himself as gay, but he also has a strong physical attraction to Brandy.

Cut Both Ways is a darkly honest novel which confronts the issues of emotional attraction and teen sexuality without flinching.  Mesrobian writes with a blunt and forthright style.  Will’s characterization and manner of speaking reads so true to that of a teenage boy that I was genuinely surprised to learn the author is female.

Cut Both Ways contains characters which are believably flawed and complex.  Brandy proves that she is more than a bubbly cheerleader type and her insecurities and attitudes ring true to the fact that she is barely fifteen to Will’s nearly eighteen.

Angus demonstrates that, despite his quiet and disaffected attitude, he too is plagued by insecurities and uncertainties in his relationship with Will and in his own sexual experiences.

Finally, Mesrobian leaves certain elements of the story unresolved, which felt very true to life.

Readers who enjoyed The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban will likely enjoy Cut Both Ways.  Although vastly different stories, both novels present complex and imperfect characters that one would expect to find in everyday life.  In addition, both novels acknowledge that, unlike fiction, life does not always come with neat endings.


Simon vs. the Homosapiens Agenda by Becky Abertalli is, in contrast to Cut Both Ways, a lighter and more simplistic novel.

The titular character, Simon, is 16 and gay but has not yet come out to his friends and family.  The only one who is aware of Simon’s secret is a boy at Simon’s school known simply by the pen name “Blue”.  The two struck up an anonymous correspondence earlier in the year, and recently their emails have taken on a more flirtatious tone.

One day Simon is approached by an acquaintance, Martin who has a bit of a bully reputation.  Martin has stumbled on Simon and Blue’s correspondence and threatens to reveal it publicly if Simon doesn’t help him pursue Abby, one of Simon’s closest friends.

Suddenly Simon is faced with a choice: out himself before he’s ready, be outed by Martin and risk revealing Blue’s secret in the process, or help someone he despises hook up with his best friend.

Albertalli writes with a fun and conversational style.  Simon is easily imaginable as a self described Harry Potter look alike, and his friends are equally easily pictured.  Leah, the quiet bookish one, who harbors a not so secret crush on Nick the philosophical musician with surfer looks, and Abby, the perky and skinny cheerleader whom Nick has a crush on.

I was, however, left with the sense that Albertalli is writing to a younger audience than expected given the ages of the characters within the novel or that she is perhaps not completely familiar with teenage vernacular.

For example, the social networking site Tumblr features heavily in the plot and yet each time it is referenced in either description or dialogue, Albertalli refers to it as “the Tumblr” when the most used terminology is simply “Tumblr.”  As a reader, I found this jarring and distracting from the overall plot.

In addition, sections of character dialogue read as if Simon and his friends are within the young teens range instead of their actual ages of seventeen and eighteen.

Martin, Simon’s blackmailer, commits an act that is reprehensible and without redemption, yet is almost immediately apologetic and suffers little to no consequence.  This felt out of character for him given his actions and words earlier in the novel.

In fact, it is Blue who is the best developed character and the one who rang truest to his written age.  Even though his identity is not revealed until the final pages, Albertalli creates a character who is far more rich and complex than the characters whom we know more intimately.  Through his and Simon’s correspondence we come to understand Blue’s own issues with his sexual identity.  He reveals his struggles with his strict parents and his internal conflict regarding their divorce.  He also reveals to Simon his deep feelings of inadequacy around his father and his fear that his mother may be unable to accept him as he is due to her religious beliefs.

Readers who enjoyed Fangirl or Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell will likely enjoy Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.  Albertalli and Park write with similar styles and like Park, Albertalli creates characters the reader would likely enjoy getting to know better.

 

May 19 2015

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.

Apr 28 2015

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.”

 

Rating: 


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.

 

Rating: 

Jan 13 2015

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.

 

Rating: 


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.

 

Rating: 

 

 

 

Jul 08 2014

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: 

Jun 17 2014

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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