Tag: fiction

Nov 15 2016

Review: It Looks Like This by Rafi Mittlefehldt

The issue of bullying in teens and children has had an increase in awareness over the last few years, with countless news articles about teens or pre-teens who have been either victims or perpetrators.  Statistics show that approximately 160,000 teens skip school every day due to issues of bullying.  With those numbers in my head and a further awareness the bullied teens are nearly 10% more likely to consider suicide, I decided to review It Looks Like This by Rafi Mittlefehldt.

It Looks Like This centers around Mike, a 15 year old boy whose parents have recently moved Mike and his little sister Toby to Virginia from Wisconsin.  Mike’s father is authoritarian and religious.  His mother is equally religious but quiet and almost subservient.

The book opens after its ending.  A short chapter shows Mike recalling a memory of a time watching the sunrise with the other main protagonist, Sean.  This moment sets the stage for the second chapter which jumps back to the beginning where Mike is revealed as the narrator.

Dismayed that his son is “soft”, Mike’s father pushes him towards sports and similar activities in an effort to “toughen him up.”  Mike, recognizing that he is a misfit both at home and at school, tries to appease his father but has neither the talent nor the passion.

After Mike is paired on a project in French class with another boy in his class, Sean, things begin to change.  The two quickly strike up a close friendship and the tentative beginnings of a romantic relationship.  Unfortunately, neither Mike nor Sean can escape their fathers.  Nor can they get away from Victor, another boy in their class who has targeted Mike with his bullying.

It Looks Like This touches on issues of homophobia, cyber-bullying, and conversion therapy.  Religion is a very significant specter in Mike’s relationships with his family and friends.  Several of Mike’s friends at school are also part of his church.  His father’s mercurial temper is deeply intertwined with his religious convictions.  His is the final word in the household, and Mike’s mother is either too afraid or too conditioned to speak out against her husband.

It Looks Like This contains a good but not a great story.  Much of the blame for this lies in the characterization.  Mittlefehldt paints many of his characters with the same brush.  All the men in Mike’s church are stern and distant, while the women are meek and submissive.  The church minister is a stereotypical hellfire and brimstone preacher.  Certain characters are introduced as if they are meant to have some impact on the storyline and then dropped with no significant development.

Many of the scenarios presented in It Looks Like This fall prey to cliche and stereotype.  Mike’s sexuality is suspect due to his disinterest in sports and his strong artistic talent.  The only two characters who defy stereotype and convention are Mike’s sister, Toby, and Mrs. Pilsner, the mother of one of his friends.

Finally, the overall undercurrent of gay bashing feels suspect.  The reader, who is privy to Mike’s inner thoughts and recounting of the events, is given occasional hints that he is gay, but to the outsider, there would be no reason to suspect, other than the fact that he is not athletic and enjoys art.

Readers who enjoyed It Looks Like This might also like Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, Cut Both Ways by Carrie Mesrobian, or The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan.  Each of these books address issues of bullying, adapting to a new environment, and first loves.

Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda specifically deals with the issue of cyber-bullying and has a far lighter tone, although both it and It Looks Like This veer toward the predictable.  Simon Vs. the Homospiens Agenda never fully addresses the consequences of the characters actions.  It Looks Like This goes slightly further yet still does not show the events as having any long term consequences for the perpetrators.  In fact, it is Mike and Sean who suffer the greatest consequence from the actions done to them.

In contrast to It Looks Like This, Cut Both Ways takes a more serious approach to the issue of bullying and creates more realistic scenarios, placing it somewhere between Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda and It Looks Like This in tone.

As with Cut Both Ways, The Tragedy Paper treats the issue of bullying with a serious tone.  Like Mike, Tim becomes the target of one particular individual who seeks him out with malicious intent.   Also like Mike, Tim stands out as different and awkward, though Tim’s differences are primarily physical whereas Mike’s are that he is quiet, introspective, and uncertain of his sexuality.

Other similarities between The Tragedy Paper and It Looks Like This include a singular tragic event for which both boys blame themselves and which will shape both their futures.  Mike, however, unlike Tim in The Tragedy Paper, has a minor but direct role in the tragic event.  Also, while Tim is targeted by Patrick the jealous boyfriend of his crush, no particular reason is given for Mike being targeted by Victor other than a subtle implication of self-directed homophobia.

It Looks Like This is enjoyable, although the first half drags somewhat.  I found that the pacing increased almost exactly half way through, as I had just reached the point where I was ready to give up when the momentum increased.  As such, the second half of the book was stronger and more enjoyable than the first half.

In addition, I found the books formatting to be distracting.  Mettlefehldt does not use quotation marks to indicate who is speaking, but rather depends on line breaks and “he said” or “she said”.  While the “he said” and “she said” is standard usage, the lack of visual indicators for speakers made it difficult in places to differentiate narrative and dialogue.  This choice is based on the fact that Mike is retelling events that have already happened, but I felt that it detracted from the story and interfered with my enjoyment of the book.

 

Rating: 

 

 

 

Jan 05 2016

Review: Dumplin’ and a 52-Hertz Whale

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy tells the story of Willowdean Dickson, self-proclaimed fat girl.  The story opens with Willowdean telling the reader that all the best things in her life have started with a Dolly Parton song.

It starts in the summer before first grade with Dumb Blonde from the 1967 debut album “Hello, I’m Dolly.”  Willowdean’s Aunt Lucy bonded with Mrs. Dryver over their mutual love of all things Dolly.  As the women sipped tea and gossiped in the dining room, Willowdean and Mrs. Dryver’s daughter Ellen sat on the couch watching cartoons.  Each uncertain of the other, Dumb Blonde begins playing on Mrs. Dryver’s stereo one day, and before the chorus, Ellen and Willowdean are dancing in circles.  So begins the bond that unites them as best friends.

Fast forward to the present where Willowdean (called Dumplin’ by her mother) feels as if her life is slowly starting to unravel.  Willowdean’s beloved aunt Lucy has recently passed away, her mother a former beauty queen is constantly on her about her weight and seems hell bent on removing all remaining traces of Aunt Lucy from their house.  Ellen has taken up company with a new friend who does nothing to hide her contempt of Willowdean, and Bo, the boy she’s had a huge crush on, suddenly seems interested in her as well.

Thinly veiled put downs from Ellen’s new friend and furtive, secret, make out sessions with Bo do little to boost her confidence.  So, Willowdean sets out to reclaim it by doing the one thing unimaginable to her mother and nearly everyone else.  She enters the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet beauty pageant.

What at first is meant as an act of defiance towards Willowdean’s mother, soon becomes a protest against societal norms as several other overweight girls enter the contest with her.

Dumplin’ is a fine commentary on the societal pressures placed on teens today.  Willowdean is an immediately likable character in that she’s a bit sarcastic and sassy, but also in that she is initially happy with herself and her looks.

In fact, most of Willowdean’s unhappiness stems from the expectation of others that she should not be secure and confident in her own skin.  Her mother, who peaked when she was not much older than Willowdean, continually nitpicks about Willowdeans weight telling her she’d be happier if she was skinny.  The only one who seems to understand Willowdean is her Aunt Lucy.  Unfortunately, she recently passed away from complications of extreme obesity.  Willowdean’s relationship with her mother was already strained at best and has now become outright hostile due to efforts on the part of her mother to clean out Lucy’s bedroom and turn it into a craft room.

Bo, the former football star from a local elite private school, seems to enjoy making out with Willowdean behind the dumpster and in the parking lot of an abandoned school, but shows no signs of wanting to go public with their relationship.  Upon this realization, Willowdean dumps him rather than stay in a relationship that diminishes her self-confidence.

 

Rating: 


In A 52 Hertz Whale by Bill Sommer and Natalie Tilghman, James is a 14 year old loner with two primary interests:  humpback whales (particularly a juvenile named Salt whom he sponsors) and avoiding interaction with his peers as much as possible.  When Salt appears to separate from his pod, and James’ only friend gets in with the cool crowd, James looks for advice from the only place he knows, Darren an aspiring filmmaker who once volunteered in James’ class.
Darren knows nothing about whales, but after being dumped by the one true love of his life, he has little but time on his hands.  Recognizing a kid in need of a listening ear, he fires off a quick reply.  This sets off a chain of emails between the two setting them on a course neither could have predicted.

A 52 Hertz Whale portrays the developing friendship between James and Darren with quirky humor but also has a serious side that deflects the humor just enough that neither element is too little or too much.

The novel is written entirely in email format, the majority of which are between James and Darren but some also introducing other characters giving the reader insight into their lives and interweaving them with the main characters with subtle finesse.

Both Dumplin and A 52 Hertz Whale deal center around characters whose misfit status comes not as much from the fact that they don’t quite fit in anywhere, but more from the fact that it doesn’t bother them as much as it bothers those around them.

In the case of Willowdean, it is not her weight that sets her apart so much as the feelings of others about her weight.  To her mother, her best friend, and a town obsessed with beauty pageant culture, Willowdean is an outsider because she simply doesn’t care.  She is comfortable in her own skin and wishes others could accept her as she is not who they want her to be.

Like Willowdean, James doesn’t particularly care that he is different.  He admits to missing his friend, but can’t fathom why he should be expected to conform to society.  Through his exchanges with Darren he learns a little about being true to one’s self while also being willing to compromise.  Darren, through his exchange with James, learns about chasing his dreams and being less afraid to take risks.

Both books share a common theme of loneliness, acceptance, and the horrible awkwardness of being a teenager. James and Willowdean both experience a period of learning that asking others to accept you as you are, means being willing to accept them in the same manner.

Dumplin’ ties together it’s storyline in a neat and cohesive manner while A 52 Hertz Whale leaves some minor plots dangling.  The latter might frustrate readers looking for a clear resolution, but it works within context of the main plot.

A 52 Hertz Whale and Dumplin’ are vastly different stylistically and in their settings, but the books compliment each other in such a way that one could imagine a universe in which James and Willowdean might recognize each other as kindred spirits.

 

Rating: 

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: 

Feb 24 2015

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.

Dec 23 2014

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.

 

Rating: 

Nov 11 2014

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.

 

 

Sep 09 2014

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.

Jul 29 2014

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: 

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