28 Following

Her Fine Eyes

Caustic reviews of YA books I adore. 

Currently reading

Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc
David Elliott
Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity
Julia Serano

A Very Large Expanse of Sea

A Very Large Expanse of Sea - Tehereh Mafi

***Warning: This review assumes that you've read the book.***


I so wish this book had done more. It's hard to say this, but it felt phoned-in. I'm surprised it was long-listed for the National Book Award.


It felt a bit like Ms. Mafi was not writing from a need to write this story, although I'm sure she felt passionate about the project when the idea occurred to her. It's Own Voices about a Muslim girl's struggle with prejudice (others' and her own), it has a sweet young-adult romance, and the heroine has a hip, unusual hobby. But everything was explored on such a superficial level, I found myself thinking, "I guess it's nice to have a meh book about diverse characters." We need diverse books that hit it out of the ballpark, but we also need diverse books that are just okay. 


I got the sense that Ms. Mafi began writing this with the idea that there was an important story to tell: a person who is unjustly rejected and ridiculed by society because of her religion and clothing can herself begin to adopt prejudices. But then I picture Ms. Mafi unexpectedly finding herself slogging through the manuscript, trying with some discomfort to make it part memoir, second-guessing herself on how to tackle these serious issues, wanting it to be YA, thinking (erroneously) that the romance was the key to her character's growth, and the whole while she wasn't achieving the depth or lyricism that she wanted. But she'd written something by the end, it was finished, and her editor liked it well enough.


It was so benign, as literature. Shirin's family's religious life is oddly absent (the only mention of praying is when she and her brother lie to their parents that they've said their morning prayers) while focusing almost exclusively on the family's cultural traditions. The sections about break dancing are described without a hint of passion, or what it feels like for the character to dance, or what dancing makes her feel. (Some of the sections about her hobby sounds almost rote, like a wikipedia entry of break dancing and its history.) Break dancing doesn't tie in thematically in any sense, it just moves the plot along. The prose is flat and telling. ("Music [through earbuds hidden under her scarf] made my day so much easier. Walking through the halls at school was somehow easier; sitting alone all the time was easier.") And by the end, the story spends far too many pages and too much emotional energy on the struggle that the white boyfriend character, Ocean, faces when he dates Shirin. (He loses his basketball scholarship, gets expelled from school, Shirin worries about what their relationship has done to his college prospects and breaks up with him for the sake of his future, etc.)


It's incredibly valuable to show not only characters of color and of diverse religions and cultures in YA literature, but also the wide range of diversity there is. For example, undoubtedly Ms. Mafi's family and many other Muslim families are very accepting of white friends, so that the parents' welcoming attitude toward Ocean reflects an accurate part of the spectrum of the lives of children of immigrants. But while I don't expect Shirin's parents to reject Ocean, I do think his whiteness, his boyness, would create at least a small issue for these otherwise traditional parents--would be discussed, would be grappled with. By eliminating all sources of conflict about Shirin and Ocean's relationship other than what the outside world lobs at them, we get that same sense of superficiality that the novel has in so many dimensions. (Even Shirin's otherwise protective brother arranges for a quiet rendezvous for them in Shirin's bedroom.) In general Shirin's parents are not three-dimensional characters but a montage of charming, jovial characteristics. 


After reading the focus on Ocean's struggle toward the end, I became suddenly disappointed by the title, too. A Very Large Expanse of Sea is, in fact, an ocean. I have an active imagination, and I picture Ms. Mafi's beta readers or editor pointing this out. I see the author tossing in this line to try to deflect the criticism that this book is too much about the boy: "We broke apart, fighting to breathe, holding on to each other like we were drowning, like we’d been lost, left for dead in a very large expanse of sea.” See there, she says? Now it's a line in the book, now it's only a double entendre.


We need diverse books, even the ones that are just okay. This one is just okay.


Your Inner Critic Is a Big Jerk

Your Inner Critic Is a Big Jerk: And Other Truths About Being Creative - Danielle Krysa

This was on sale on Audible for 99 cents, so I couldn't resist. 


At two hours and forty-three minutes, it's a short, self-help pick-me-up, designed to encourage artists of all sorts to set aside negative internal thoughts about their work and just get back to making stuff.


The tone is warm and encouraging, which is precisely what the material calls for.


It might be most useful for someone who's just embarking on a creative enterprise, to give them courage, and to force them to stop and think about why they might have negative thoughts about themselves. (Did you receive a negative critique in the past? Did a parent or teacher dismiss your art as a child?)


I'm not much of an "exercises" enthusiast (e.g. thirty-day projects, writing prompts, painting prompts), so I wasn't interested in those suggestions.


I wish it had been more carefully researched and edited. I don't need it to be a scholarly tome--it's supposed to be light and fun, after all--but a little fact-checking always helps to make a published work feel more authoritative. 


1. It did not take Thomas Edison 10,000 attempts to produce a successful lightbulb. This is an often-repeated myth. See the explanation of his trials and errors here. (His lab did apparently conduct thousands of experiments while designing a storage battery.)


2. The phrase "working in a vacuum" does not refer to a vacuum cleaner. At first I thought Ms. Krysa was talking about it being dusty and too small inside as a play on words, but she continued the description throughout the chapter. She does understand that the metaphor means "working in isolation," but doesn't seem to realize that the origin of the expression is "a space devoid of matter," not "a machine to suck up dirt." :)


3. She asks "What if Leonardo da Vinci had thought painting the Mona Lisa was a waste of time?" In fact, da Vinci is a terrible example if you want to portray a healthy attitude about one's artistic career. He was notorious for not completing commissions, for leaving paintings unfinished for years, and for feeling like an abject failure because of it. He carted the Mona Lisa around with him until his death, rather than present it to the patron who commissioned it.


The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue

The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue - Mackenzi Lee, Christian Coulson

This book surprised me in the best way. I thought it would be another fluffy young-adult historical fiction novel that veers off into a jolly romp at the expense of getting the time period and the history right. But Ms. Lee takes her research seriously all while providing colorful, rich characters and slamming her readers with adventure.


There is anachronism, yes. There is the spunky sister who secretly wants to be a physician but is being sent to finishing school. There are occasional slips into modern slang (I can't find the first recorded date of "absobloodylutely" but it does seem to be Australian, not English). 


Perhaps the novel doesn't commit to its genre early enough. The fact that alchemy is a real kind of magic in this world, not a fruitless scientific pursuit, makes it a touch fantastical, although nothing else in the plot suggests that (and the alchemy turns out to be more of a MacGuffin than something the characters use). And the author herself seems to realize that she sat down to write about a young man who is in love with his best friend and going on his Grand Tour, yet it somehow became an amusement ride instead. Monty nearly breaks the fourth wall with his meta comment, "We've had an adventure novel instead of a Tour." 


But I enjoyed the action, and maybe even the surprise of it. I learned to accept that the privateers are unusually sensitive because of their pasts, not cutthroat--when in reality maybe they'd be more violent because of the wrongs committed against them. I only rolled my eyes a little when Felicity stitches a large gash on her own arm without even wincing, because she's that tough and clinical. I decided not to be disappointed that the Duke of Bourbon is a one-dimensional villain. I closed my eyes to the fact that this incredibly important box that drove the action of the book was just sitting on a desk where anyone could take it. I forced myself not to investigate whether Venetian islands can actually sink while you're standing on them. I just went along on the romp.


I loved that Ms. Lee had a goal of telling a story about queer, disabled, bi-racial, feminist characters in a historical setting. I thought it was a nice realistic touch that Felicity never quite accepts Monty's attraction to Percy, though she doesn't get in the way of their relationship. 


One tiny plot question: the deal with the privateers was that Percy would go back and get a letter from his uncle allowing them to legally patrol the seas. And yet at the end of the novel our protagonists haven't stopped back "home." Did I miss something? I don't think a long-distance message from Percy to his uncle would suffice in getting that letter--he'd have to show up personally to secure it. Perhaps the sequel will start with their return to England, though my impression is that the second book is about Felicity on the high seas.


(Not: I listened to this in audio, and Christian Coulson's narration is excellent.)


Burial Rites

Burial Rites - Hannah Kent

***spoilers ahead****


BURIAL RITES is lovely and poignant. The writing is beautiful. Unfortunately, since you know the ending before it happens, it fizzles a bit. Interestingly, I did not feel the same way about Madeline Miller's SONG OF ACHILLES--another novel where the ending is fixed and inevitable. I think this is perhaps because the plot and character changes were somewhat predictable in BURIAL RITES: Agnes is portrayed as a bright, hardworking, unconventionally pretty, sympathetic heroine trapped in her circumstances, and the people who live with her (and care for her) at the end of her life are wary and judgmental but are eventually won over by her relative humanity. These side characters (the farm family at Kornsá, and the assistant reverand), whose points of view are in third-person, are never quite as rich and fleshed-out as Agnes, who speaks in first-person.


There are hints at ambiguity that I would have liked to have seen pursued more: Agnes's first-person-internal version of her story is different from what she recounts aloud to Margret. There are hints that she is an unreliable narrator. (Although it's obvious that she also has given up on telling the nuanced truth, which is that she both loved Natan and suffered terrible emotional abuse at his hands.)


As I was reading, I even thought there would be an implication of sexual harassment on District Commissioner Blöndal's part--that we'd find that his vindictiveness was based on Agnes rejecting promises of leniency in exchange for sex (and that Siggy had given in, and thus gotten an appeal). None of that came to pass, although it's made clear that being older (in her early 30s) and being intelligent made Agnes seem threatening and evil to the court, where young, pretty, and seemingly simple Siggy was considered more of an innocent victim of her accomplices.


Still, this novel is well researched and so evocative of time and place. An accomplished, highly readable debut.


Wolf By Wolf

Wolf by Wolf - Christa Lewis, Ryan Graudin, Hachette Audio

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***


One-sentence review: the hand of the author was too visible to allow me to fully immerse myself in this one.


My favorite part: Brava to Ms. Graudin for showing so subtly and clearly that, no matter how hard one tries, one can never inhabit another person's thoughts or fully understand that person. This was the subtlest theme of the novel, and one I truly enjoyed--watching Yael realize the tiny ways in which human relationships, even when public, are by their nature intensely private, and how another person's mind and life are impossible to grasp, despite intense research and investigation.


Premise. The most common praise I've heard for Wolf by Wolf is that it has a unique and fascinating premise. The alternate-history aspect, in which Germany and Japan have won the war, is not in itself unique. (See this Wikipedia article entitled "Hypothetical Axis Victory in World War II.") Even the element of an underground resistance movement that wants to kill Hitler has been done before in this same alternate-history context.


So the unique aspects in Wolf by Wolf are the facts that Yael is a shapeshifter, and that she has to win a cross-continent motorcycle race in order to get her shot at the Führer. Unique, perhaps, but these two features actually weaken the novel somewhat in my opinion: 


Road Race. For me--and this may not be true for other readers--a race is just not interesting enough to sustain the entire book. It very quickly felt like a series of hurdles: problem introduced, problem solved; another problem introduced, etc. Sometimes solving one problem created the other. Many times, Yael solved the problem simply by revealing her plan or identity to the person involved. (More on that below.)


Shapeshifter. Alternate history and historical fiction are a great pairing, but the fantasy element of Yael being able to shapeshift made the history less believable. In every other way, the world was like ours: unmagical. And other than the implied existence of other shapeshifters, nothing else is fantastical in this book. It made me wonder whether a) shapeshifting was necessary to accomplish what Ms. Graudin wanted to achieve, and b) if it was necessary, why this world didn't have more fantastical elements.


The science. Because let's face it, the science-fiction aspect was not convincing. When your plot device is medically based, I want some sort of plausible mechanism. You can make it up, but it should be based on something scientific or biological. What sort of injectable agent could possibly cause a person to be able to change their body, right down to bone shape and length, within minutes? The reader is meant to accept this as the premise and move on, but I got stuck in Untransported Land.


The hand of the author/author devices. When the author allows implausible things to happen just to keep the story moving, it becomes difficult to stay transported as well. How likely is it that in a concentration camp the gate guard would allow Yael to exit the camp when she tells him the doctor has requested to see her? Wouldn't he accompany her from the gate to the doctor's door? How likely is it that the nurse wouldn't accompany her from the clinic to the commandant's door? Ms. Graudin needed to develop a more sophisticated escape route, rather than ask us to believe these two impossible moments could occur.


Similarly, how likely is it that the race organizers have stocked fuel but not drinking water at the checkpoints? They've lugged spare motorcycles to each checkpoint, but no water? This was an author device to get Yael to approach Luka for a favor. And even that is unbelievable: why would Yael go to Luka, her nemesis, for a canteen, rather than to Adele's brother, who has said he wants to protect her? And why would Luka bargain the water for a mere favor, rather than demand that she partner with him, which is what he really wants?


Why does it take so long for Yael to ask Felix where he got his information about a "big event" happening at the race. Wouldn't Yael be suspicious of him?


How is it that the Russian partners in the resistance don't know Yael's code name, or that she's on this crucial mission, even though the race goes through their territory?


The Russian commander says that his life and the life of his men are forfeit if he lets her go, yet if she "happens" to escape "that's a different matter?" Really? He wouldn't be punished in the extreme for his incompetence in allowing an escape? 


Linearity. Although Ms. Graudin tries to break up the monotony of the motorcycle race by inserting flashbacks of Yael's origin story (which I did find interesting), it's hard to stop this book from feeling very...linear. There is a hurdle, then a solution, repeat. The solutions are often Yael skinshifting her way out of the problem, spilling her plan--to the soviets, to Felix--or provided by a deus ex machina (e.g. Felix fixes her bike for her).


The Soviet side-trip. Why is this in the novel? It achieves nothing in service of the plot. I can only think that Ms. Graudin thought the monotony of the race needed something to break it up. Everything that she achieved (getting the competitors to rely on each other) could have been done another way.


Research. There were some errors here:


Ms. Graudin painted a picture of Cairo with "carts full of pomegranates and figs." Well, this race begins in early spring (late March, early April) and Egypt's pomegranate season runs from early September to December. Figs are more complicated (they have two seasons, a big one and a small one), but since Ms. Graudin doesn't specify dried or fresh, we should probably cut her some slack by assuming the cart had dried figs.


Luka says, "Not such a great bullet point on your curriculum vitae." And the narrator says, "No number of bullet points and biography facts could pin the soul behind her eyes." Unfortunately the term "bullet point" is from 1983, and the advent of wordprocessors.


Miriam reassures Yael that Babushka and Mama, both deceased, will be "watching" her escape from beyond. This implies a Christian view of heaven, doesn't it?


The writing. The language is meant to be evocative, but sometimes it simply doesn't make sense: "Act like you belong, not a hollow stuffed girl."


Sometimes the descriptions are so unspecific as to not be helpful, visually:


[To reach the knife in her boot,] she had to bend her body at awkward angles (which might have been impossible if Yael hadn't used her skin shifting to lengthen Adele's arms a few centimeters)...

Tell us how her body is bending, please.


Ms. Graudin also likes to serially pair nouns and/or adjectives, which might be fine in moderation, but there's a little too much of it of it. For instance, in describing Luka's lips:

Moving and melding. Soft and strength, velvet and iron. Opposite elements that tugged and tore Yael from the inside. Feelings bloomed, hot and warm. Deep and dark.

And speaking of "soft and strength," she has an interesting habit of using nouns for adjectives (strength instead of strong) and adjectives for nouns ("the tight of his fist"). Pretty, or distracting? I truly couldn't decide.


I had questions:


Why was the Japanese racer crying, only to be murdered without our finding out why? 


What the heck are the rules of the motorcycle race, and how is it timed? We're given some information, but if I had to reconstruct it to hold an actual race, I couldn't.


In sum: This was refreshing YA fantasy for not being yet another Beauty and the Beast retelling, and for choosing an alternate history for its "dystopia." I was totally happy to keep reading it, but now that it's done I find I'm enjoying watching The Man in the High Castle more.



Learning to Swear in America

Learning to Swear in America - Katie Kennedy

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***


One-sentence summary: A John Green read-alike, plus an asteroid hurtling toward earth.


The good. This book is charming and wholesome, and I'm thrilled to see a STEM kid as the hero. There's a disabled teen in a wheelchair who becomes a good friend, which is great. The prose style is good--not pretentious, not overly descriptive, just plain and pretty.


Just...not for me. I read a lot of young-adult literature, but it's very hard for me to find a YA contemporary novel that I savor, that I learn from. I read this (listened, actually) a little too dutifully, feeling distant from it the whole time. 


I feel particularly removed when a book reminds me of John Green's writing, where the characters seem more like clever, quick-witted, quirky teenage ideals than potential living people. This novel does not share the sometimes precious prose style of Mr. Green, but it has the lonely-boy main character (in this case Russian) who "suffers" from his nerdy awkwardness, it has witty dialogue at inappropriate moments, and it has the deal-killer for me: a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who has very little internal life of her own and whose purpose is to cause emotional growth in the main character. Here, the girl is part of a Manic Pixie Dream Family--hippie types who celebrate their own, quirky secular holidays and welcome a wayward teenage Russian scientist into their lives as if he's family, too.


The asteroid. The premise of the book is that there is an asteroid hurtling toward earth, and Yuri is shipped off from Moscow to the U.S. to help decide on the model (and do the calculations for) the country's anti-asteroid defense, primarily because of his specialization in anti-matter. It's a risky thing for an author to write about difficult science when they're not a scientist, particularly when the situation is supposed to be grave. In this case, the author seems to think of the asteroid more as a plot device than the main conflict--which has the odd effect of making it feel unthreatening. Even the characters treat it lightly. Moreover, Yuri's work is almost exclusively mathematical, in a windowless office, which also reduces the tension. But mostly, I found myself questioning so much of the science, and then thinking, since the novel is really a contemporary and not sci-fi or fantasy, "Why do we even have that asteroid?" The very first scientific premise in Learning to Swear in America, that we can know the impact will occur precisely in Los Angeles, is already wrong. 


(In Tommy Wallach's We All Looked Up, another contemporary YA novel that features the imminent destruction of the earth by an asteroid, there is no attempt at science. The conflict is thus how the characters deal with the notion of the end of the world.)


Forced immigration. Another technical detail that had me scratching my head was the idea that Yuri, a seventeen-year-old boy on loan from the Russian government, would be kidnapped by U.S. intelligence and forced to live in the U.S. for having peeked at a weapons list. It felt like another plot device, and I struggled to suspend my disbelief: would Russia willingly let one of their most valuable scientists go without a fight?


The author's hand. This is something that I'm a stickler for: I really do want to believe the premise of the book I'm reading. I don't want to see the author's hand--see her thinking about how to achieve something, see her troubleshooting in response to an editor's comments. The Nobel Prize quest felt this way to me. Actual real-life scientists know that winning the prize is a crap shoot, not a "goal." It's a lovely bonus that no one plans for or talks about, other than to speculate on names every year--they do their research because they love it, and because they couldn't imagine not doing it. So the convenient introduction of the son-of-a-party-leader who is going to steal Yuri's work (and half his Nobel Prize) felt doubly forced, to make us root for Yuri to find his way home--to make him give up something he cares deeply about in order to save Lennon. The author struggled with a problem: this is a boy who has so little "life" in Moscow that he brought a photo of his thesis advisor as his personal memento when he packed for the U.S.. So how can she motivate his desire--his need--to return? Well, she adds in the threat of his work in Moscow being stolen. That creates another problem: what about that thesis advisor, who cares enough about Yuri to defend his work? Well, that thesis advisor will be forced by powerful politicians behind the scenes to retire. And in terms of character development, I imagined Ms. Kennedy (or her editor) worrying, "What about this girl, Dovie, who seems to have limited internal life, compared with Yuri? How can she be fleshed out?" The "answer" is she's a passionate artist, and an art teacher who prefers teenage cleavage to real talent has told her to tone down her colors, which is a metaphor for toning down her dreams. Don't give up your dreams of being an artist, Dovie!


Which brings up the question: why can't the STEM main character be a girl, and the artsy character who paints rainbow fingernail polish be the boy?


The "real" plot. The asteroid and the threat of being forced to live in the U.S. are plot devices that are there to cause growth in Yuri. He's a somewhat well-adjusted guy who doesn't know he's really grappling with the following emotional problems: having given up his childhood to be a scientist; having a distant relationship with his physician mother, who is successful but busy and non-maternal; and placing all of his self-worth and the legacy of his dad into winning a Nobel Prize in Physics. So what does he really need? He needs a girl with dyed hair and glittery eyeshadow and a disabled brother to help him uncover those emotional problems, and to show him what's really important in life. 


Which brings up the question: why can't the physician mother (a female STEM character) who is successful and busy also be nurturing?


In sum. Not engrossing or illuminating. But many reasonable people have enjoyed this book. It's highly readable, and it mostly does readers no harm, except for perpetuating the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope.


The Great American Whatever

The Great American Whatever - Tim Federle

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***


One-sentence summary: a quick read, and the story goes down easy, but the "cerebral" protagonist is too familiar from other YA novels (see: John Green, Becky Albertalli, David Arnold), and the author is so busy hitting his notes correctly that the result feels less like a plot and more like a checklist of YA.


Consumable. On the other hand, maybe the familiarity of this novel is one of its good qualities. If I were a highly verbal gay teen boy who loved to read contemporary novels, I'd want a big supply of them. Here's the formula: a contemporary young-adult story about a teen boy coming out and coming of age, with a high-concept hobby (making short films), a quirky habit (writing the perfect movie scene of his life when he's uncomfortable or under stress), and a first romance, all set against the backdrop of a tragedy that the protagonist is slowly recovering from.


Positivity. There's are healthy relationships and a fair amount of diversity in the book, and it's all treated positively. Quinn's best friend, Geoff, is rock solid (other than keeping a secret of his relationship with Quinn's late sister). Quinn's mom is overweight, but she's beautiful to Quinn, and Quinn is not ashamed of her--he sees the real her, not her obesity. Quinn is fully accepted by everyone who loves him when he comes out (they already knew). Is all of this too bland? Mr. Federle seems to want to restrict Quinn's true hardship to grief, and not burden him with more, which means his myriad other conflicts feel unnecessary and easily resolved. (The "betrayal" of finding out that Geoff was dating Annabeth didn't feel terribly authentic to me.) 


First romance. I'm not sure why Amir is in the book, except to check off a couple of YA boxes (first romance, first sex). We know the relationship can't last because Amir is leaving town. There is some growth in Quinn's realization that Amir isn't a great writer, and that even though he's attractive, he's not a lifelong love. But is that the point of Quinn's growth? To see the world in more realistic detail? Perhaps this would work if Mr. Federle had introduced Quinn's problem as "seeing the world as a movie," so that his growth was learning that some things are just ordinary and not glamorous.


Ricky. In a similar vein, I wonder why Mr. Federle included the next-door neighbor, Ricky, who was Quinn's screenwriting idol and onetime mentor. Ricky's slightly disappointing reappearance (which really goes nowhere for the reader) seems only to serve the purpose of making screenwriting seem like a real job, not a mysterious, glamorous, unattainable thing. But that wasn't Quinn's conflict, was it? As a result we simply have a dropped thread: Ricky is in town filming a movie that actually tells the story of his relationship with Quinn--which should be a pretty big deal for our protagonist--but after Quinn visits the set we never hear about the movie again. (Of course, Ricky serves a practical purpose to the plot of living in L.A., where Quinn's film scholarship will take him over the summer, and we readers are meant to assume that he will house Quinn for free, making that trip possible.)


The writing. Clever, erudite, first person. We've seen this a lot. I also found that the beginning dragged--to the point where I would have put this book back on the bookstore shelf if I hadn't bought it already. Are we really going to talk for several pages about how hot it is in Quinn's room, and how he hasn't had the energy to do something about it? We literally begin with Quinn waking up in the morning. (Now I understand why writing manuals warn not to do that.) And on a slightly tangential note, I was disappointed that Quinn's film references were all classics, and that a person who adored filmmaking would categorically reject foreign films. 


The issues. There are too many issues. A dead sister who was Quinn's film collaborator (but secretly not that interested in the art form, just a loving collaborator). Quinn blaming himself for Annabeth's death because she was texting him when she crashed her car. An overweight, grieving mother who won't leave the house. A best friend keeping a secret. The protagonist's coming-out moment. Virginity. Attention-deficit disorder. First romance. A film competition. Finding the oomph to get involved in life again after a tragedy. 


Can we talk about dead siblings? So many YA novels use the death of a sibling as the backdrop for the character's conflict. In the U.S., we're so lucky in having this be a fairly uncommon life experience. Like red-haired characters, the percentage of dead siblings in novels has got to be many times the national average. It means death has become a trope. ("What can I throw at this character to hobble him at the start of my book?") I think that's actually counterproductive to our discussions about illness and death in this country--discussions we don't have enough of, in real life, with our family and friends. It's particularly a problem in this book because Quinn's sister is already dead when we meet Quinn, so we have no chance to become attached to her.


Year of Wonders

Year of Wonders - Geraldine Brooks

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***


One-sentence summary: this novel was a beautiful work of historical fiction until the last twenty pages, which were so unbelievable and out of context that the book was ruined for me.


The writing. I absolutely loved the research and the language of this novel. Ms. Brooks did a beautiful job of depicting a 1600s English village--especially the brutality of their hard-scrabble life. Everything was small and gritty and real. The research regarding mining in the 17th century and life in a mining community was fascinating. The prose was almost poetic at times.


Distance of the main character. However, I struggled throughout the novel to feel close to Anna Frith. This book demands closeness--we are, after all, stuck in a village of some 300 people, quarantined with them by the plague--but I felt like I was observing her from a distance. I respected Anna, I admired her, and enjoyed watching her growing (and believable) strength in that isolated community, but I didn't feel she was...real? I still wonder how this happened: was it her relative perfection? The way even her flaws were excusable, particularly from a 21st-century feminist morality? Somehow she was a bit reserved and formal, even to me, even while experiencing such pain and revealing her inner thoughts. Why?


The ending. This absolutely killed the novel, in as little twenty pages. Such a disappointment! It would have been quite unusual enough (and a great ending) for Anna to become a healer in her own village--to replace the Gowdies. But instead Ms. Brooks throws twists and impossibilities our way: the rector that Anna (and we) admired turns out to have been a horrible husband to Anna's best friend and a religious fanatic. Anna rescues a newborn baby and runs away to North Africa, marrying an old Barbary doctor (but in a platonic arrangement, which seems unlikely), becoming a midwife for Muslim women, and raising her two daughters in the "safety" of the doctor's harem. WHAT.


My second try. This was my second Geraldine Brooks novel. I found the historical sections of People of the Book to be a bit cold and distant, and the melodrama and feminism of the contemporary sections to be overwrought. Year of Wonders is clearly the work of the same author, with a mysteriously distant main character, and an unnecessarily melodramatic ending--meant to be cathartic to the reader, but instead being so impossible and unrealistic as to be disappointing.

The Medici: Power, Money, and Ambition in the Italian Renaissance

The Medici: Power, Money, and Ambition in the Italian Renaissance - Tantor Audio, Paul Strathern, Derek Perkins

One-sentence summary. This is a thin biography of several generations of the Medici family, written at the level of a good wikipedia entry, with no depth or complexity, and unfortunately nothing new to add.


Research. I was prepared to think the author had trained himself well enough in the history of the Medici to write this book until I came to the period of time I actually knew something about (1537 to about 1545). Three glaring mistakes made me mistrust everything else I had read in the book to that point: Caterina Soderini Ginori is described as Lorenzino di Pierfrancesco de' Medici's sister, when she was his mother's sister (p. 326); Maria Salviati is referred to as Lorenzo the Magnificent's daughter, when she was in fact his granddaughter (p.328); the author calls Eleonora da Toledo "Don Pedro's only daughter," when Cosimo I was famously offered the hand of Don Pedro's eldest daughter and vehemently refused it, insisting on the younger daughter, Eleonora, instead. (p.334) A smaller mistake--which should have been caught in copyediting--was that Emperor Charles V was referred to as Charles VII in one paragraph.


Homophobia. I was offended and perplexed by the author's frequent, sometimes pointless references to homosexuality. He rarely makes it clear whether he's expressing the opinion of the time, or letting his own feelings intrude. Given that "homosexual" wasn't even a word until the 1800s, it seems irresponsible to make commentary about sexual behavior without attribution, and without delving more deeply into the historical attitudes regarding sexuality. A few examples:

In the words of a contemporary: '[Henry III of France and his buddies] all dress alike in coats of many colours and they are sprinkled with violet powder and other sweet perfumes.' Catherine [de Médicis] seemed to accept [her son Henri III's] homosexuality as perhaps inevitable in the weak son of such an overbearing mother. However Henri III's pathological extravagance, together with his interest in zealous religious flagellants, appear to hint at deeper deviancy from the norm. (p. 350)

Just who is saying what, here? Is the author saying that Catherine herself accepted that her own overbearing personality "made" her son a homosexual? Or is that the author's opinion? Is it the opinion of the unnamed "contemporary" at court? And how are we to interpret "deeper deviancy from the norm?" Does it mean that homosexuality is "deviant?" Is that the author speaking? If not, is it a historically accurate viewpoint of the time? 


The fact that Donatello's David is "erotically homosexual" is mentioned without controversy and almost obsessively several times (pp. 108, 109, 111, and more...). There's considerable disagreement among scholars about whether sexuality was one of Donatello's points while creating this sculpture.


The author suggests that Poliziano was gay, and that his relationship with Lorenzo the Magnificent wasn't platonic:

This raises the question of [Poliziano's] love for Lorenzo, and of Lorenzo's feelings for Poliziano; risking widespread outrage, it is possible to suspect that their attachment may on occasion have been more than platonic. In the light of [Poliziano's presumed] sexuality, the ardent love expressed by Poliziano for Lorenzo takes on a less purely poetic aspect. There is of course nothing but suggestive evidence to support this suspicion. Apart, that is, from one disputed fact about Donatello's somewhat ambisexual David... (pp. 178-179)

Mr. Strathern goes on to say that Lorenzo may have been the one to install Donatello's statue in the Medici courtyard, rather than Cosimo the Elder, and this could mean it was a hidden message from Lorenzo about his own sexuality. Lorenzo's "covert bisexuality" is postulated without a single scholarly footnote.


Later, Leonardo da Vinci's strong personality is attributed to his homosexuality, which is in turn due to...the devoted love of mother figures in his life?? Really?? 

[Leonardo da Vinci's two stepmothers] doted on the young Leonardo as if he were their own." When they died in succession during his teenage years it must have been a source of deep personal pain, and this may have been responsible for a certain reserved self-possession that soon became evident in his character. Yet it was the continuum of unquestioning female love that lasted through his childhood, youth and into early manhood which affected him most. This gave him the utter self-belief which comes from being the centre of such a worshipping motherly world; and it may also have contributed to his homosexuality. (p. 188)

In sum. I'm sorry that some people will read this book trying to understand the Medici family, and will unwittingly read something that's not particularly well researched, that contains inaccuracies, and that contributes nothing new other than guesses at the sexuality of historic figures and what might have "made" them that way. 


A note to Pegasus Books, the publisher: my first-edition hardcover of this book had very wonky print. The font changed sizes from one sentence or paragraph to the next, and almost seemed skewed in some places, as if it were a bad PDF of a printed copy. It was distracting, and hard on the eyes.


The Rose and the Dagger

The Rose and the Dagger - Renee Ahdieh

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***


One-sentence summary: this is a cheesy, purple-prose-ridden, slightly annoying, but inexplicably enjoyable finish to a two-novel series.


Despite myself. The writing in this series has driven me batty from day one. The anachronisms, the flowery-formal language mixed with contemporary clichés, the Disney-movie version of medieval Arab culture--all of it made me want to cringe. But Ms. Ahdieh won me over, perhaps by giving herself wholeheartedly to the world she had built, and by not allowing the book to be anything higher-and-mightier than it is. 


On the other hand, I wrote in my review of The Wrath and the Dawn that I hoped Ms. Ahdieh would address the "disturbing ethical issues she brought up in this installment," and she clearly hasn't done that. I said, "To be a series of any literary merit, the second novel in this planned duology has its work cut out for it--it will be a disappointment if it doesn't dissect the moral quagmire that the first novel dropped us in." I suppose that means I must pronounce The Rose and the Dagger not to have serious literary merit, even though there's a slightly better balance of politics and romance in it. But still, it's quite enjoyable in the genre of "potato-chip, romance fantasy novel," like the first book, and at least we suffer through fewer descriptions of the caliph's tiger eyes.


The plot. Ms. Ahdieh long ago lost track of the premise of this story--that Khalid's curse required him to marry and kill one maiden a night to stave off the misfortune of his entire kingdom. In the first book, not killing a maiden led instantly to drought in Khorazan. Yet when he fell in love with Shahrzad and failed to kill her, there were apparently no repercussions. Instead, the destruction of Khalid's city happened at the hands of Shazi's power-obsessed father.


In this second installment, there's a wandering plot, trying to find its way to the end without distressing too many of the main characters. Shazi has been whisked away to the desert by Tariq, with Jalal's odd approval. (She'll be safer with the man going to war against Khalid than with Khalid himself?) There she reunites with her sister Irsa--a good addition to the cast, a kinder, gentler version of Shazi--and their father, who is recovering from blowing up an entire city using only his bare hands and poor Irsa's horse. We wander in the desert a bit: Shazi practices magic every night and returns to her tent to sleep away the day; Tariq doesn't notice Shazi's disappearances--even though he's obsessed by her--because, well, because it's not convenient to the plot, I guess; we meet a magical character with a pet dragon, and his aunt, Isuke, who's apparently a mighty genie, but we have no proof of that; we see Khalid spending time rebuilding libraries and giving snacks to smart little orphans while we worry he should be fortifying the city walls and rebuilding his army; Shazi learns that the only way to break a curse is to fulfill it; wait, no, Shazi and Khalid learn that if she and Khalid destroy her father's book, Artan's auntie will break the curse for them as a favor; and on and on. There doesn't seem to be a real arc to this, but we're happy to go along for the meandering ride, and it does come to a satisfying conclusion for most of the characters. (Poor Irsa, though, her lover was a redshirt.)


The dragon. Can I just say this is the biggest waste of a dragon I've ever seen in fiction? And while we're at it, Artan and his aunt Isuke can wield fire, and Vikram (the Rajput) can breathe enough heat to melt metal, and there's a book with untold (literally--Ms. Ahdieh doesn't tell us what they are) powers; and even Shazi has some powers and can ride a carpet like a surfing pro...but the magic really is not developed or used at all. Why include it, then?


Shazi's dad, Jahandar. Well, now, it turns out he's the main antagonist, doesn't it? He's at least one of the bad guys in both the first book, where he destroys Rey, and in the second, where he colludes with Khalid's uncle to rule over all of Khorazan, and then he actually stabs Khalid to death. Why don't we know more about this guy? Why don't we have a good understanding of his relationship with Shazi? It makes his immediate about-face of giving his own life in Khalid's place slightly incomprehensible to us. We get the feeling that the author wanted to ratchet up our worry by killing Khalid before giving us the happy ending, at the expense of fleshing out Jahandar's character.


Love never waivers. I have to say one very refreshing thing about this series is there is never a competing love interest, and the devotion of our characters to each other doesn't waiver. No one questions the other's love, "book-reasons" style (i.e. due to poor communication). Which makes it all the more peculiar that Ms. Ahdieh begins to introduce strife in two places, only to drop the thread: the burned letter at the beginning, in which Khalid professes his love but then destroys it, and the pretend relationship between Tariq and Shazi to appease the soldiers in the camp. We think these two events will lead to wounded lovers thinking the other has betrayed them, but they don't. (I suppose there's an argument that Khalid destroys the note because he has promised himself never to use the words "I love you," but only to show his love through deeds.)


The epilogue. Pretty cute. I like it when YA novels aren't afraid of showing marriage and children.


The writing. Ah, so...the writing.


1. Ms. Ahdieh's philosophy seems to be: why say something clearly, with simple words, when you can load it up with flowery-formal complexity instead? I don't object when the dialogue is ripe and stilted, if the author wants to build a distinctive tone for her characters: "Are you finally starting to breathe in a normal fashion?" or "Is it a matter of import?" But the narration in this book is generally so purple, it needs to take a big oxygenating breath.


--Kicking water at the ocean's edge becomes, "The boy continued to exert his irritation on the hapless sea."


--The word "hidden," as in "keeps her reasons hidden," becomes "shrouded in mystery."


--The word "emanate" is a favorite: "The soft shuffle of slippered footsteps on polished granite emanated nearby." "Soon, the sound of swords being torn from their sheaths emanated on all sides." The word "regarded" is often used instead of "looked" or "watched."


2. Excessive, unnecessary, and sometimes unhelpful explicating: "And now Shahrzad had been successfully taken unawares, to a place she was certain would bring about a predictable turn of events. Especially since Shahrzad had a sinking feeling she knew where she had been taken." 


3. Clichés, many of which feel anachronistic:


--The army is at his "beck and call"

--Beg, borrow, or steal

--Without missing a beat

--Full of vim and vigor

--Turncoat (from 1557)

--Mouth (or lips) in a moue--the use of this word is only about 150 years old

--"Despina is the only reason you have a palace-rat's chance of escaping" (the expression "a rat's chance in hell" may be old--I honestly don't know--but the shortened slang version of "a rat's chance" feels very contemporary)

--Begging, bartering, and stealing my way there


4. Small mistake, but where was the copyeditor?-- When Artan is lying "prostrate" (i.e. face down), he can't also be "regarding the night sky above." Supine is the word Ms. Ahdieh needs here.


The audiobook narrator.  Ariana Delawari has a sweet, frank voice, and she speaks clearly and slowly, but she has very little acting ability and no sense of lyricism or melody. There is no distinction between voices, she actually mispronounces words she could look up in the dictionary, and her performance is flat. For the first couple of hours I found myself comparing her reading to Natalie Portman's bland portrayal of Padmé Amidala.



Galileo's Daughter

Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love - Dava Sobel

One-sentence summary: though it has the title Galileo's Daughter, this is an ordinary, relatively superficial, definitely uncritical biography of Galileo himself, with its only "innovation" being the interwoven portions of his daughter's 124 extant letters.


A little background. Galileo had two daughters and a son by Marina Gamba of Venice: Virginia, Livia, and Vincenzio. He supported all three of his children, and eventually had the Grand Duke of Tuscany legitimize Vincenzio as his son. Virginia and Livia were consigned to a convent, "for their safety," and because Galileo thought their marriage prospects as bastard children were not good. They became Suor Maria Celeste and Suor Arcangela. Ms. Sobel perpetuates the notion that Marina eventually married a man named Giovanni Bartoluzzi, and that Galileo had a cordial relationship with them, purchasing lens blanks for his telescopes from Giovanni. However, Marina Bartoluzzi is probably a different Marina, and was entrusted with the care of young Vincenzio after mother Marina's death in 1612. If that's true, Marina Gamba may have suffered the same fate as Suor Maria Celeste—death through neglect by the man in her life who held the purse strings—though we'll never know.

Feminist history? Nope. It's really just a standard, textbook review of Galileo's life, without a rigorous presentation of his scientific work, yet without a real contribution of the feminine or family point of view that the title promises. Suor Maria Celeste's letters are dropped in at appropriate chronological moments, but only where they fit into Galileo's well-trodden biography—a biography that has been done by other authors before Ms. Sobel, and I hope better. What I wanted to get more to the heart of was: why did Galileo put his daughters in a convent? He worked very hard to get them in before the canonical age of sixteen, and called in a few favors to do it. What else could he have put that considerable effort toward? What were the other alternatives at the time? Had any fathers of illegitimate children done better for their daughters during this time period? Why did he not re-think his decision as they approached the canonical age—when they had to either take their vows or leave? What was Maria Celeste's life in the convent like, and what could her life have been like had a different choice been made? Could Virginia and Livia have run his household, as spinster daughters? Could they have been married to someone decent in the merchant class, or a town butcher, baker, or candlestick maker? Even though Maria Celeste's letters don't elucidate her specific circumstance, a more energetic historian might have fleshed out that world for us based on documented reports of similar young women in similar circumstances. It would have helped us to see what kind of man Galileo was, given the choice he did make. Similarly, the reasons for not marrying Marina are tossed out as if they're immutable: professors don't marry (really?); his Venetian-nobility contacts wouldn't like the fact that he had illegitimate children (why?); Marina was of too low a class for him to marry (did this never happen at the time?). The impression a cynical reader finds between the lines (though Ms. Sobel would never say it) is that Galileo's ambition was always return to Tuscany as the Duke's Mathematician, and he was perpetually preparing to dump Marina as soon as the call came.
Where is the original angle of this book? Even wikipedia will tell you that Galileo put the girls in a convent because they were illegitimate and he thought their prospects for marriage were therefore poor. Even Wikipedia will tell you the Rules of the St. Clare of Assisi (female Franciscan) convents. Ms. Sobel's only addition to the historical narrative seems to be her speculation that the impending inquisition may have made Galileo hurry (and then not re-think) the decision to send his daughters to convents.  
No critical analysis of Galileo. To me, the most important line in the book is Galileo's own admission that he is "full of self hatred" after Maria Celeste's death. THIS is what I want the book to be about. Sobel passes over that massive line with zero commentary. And that's because the whole book is an overly reverential view of a scientist, not an attempt to flesh out anything new about the man. Ms. Sobel treats this line as a commentary solely on the deep affection between father and daughter.
Scientific details are passed over, and even documentary ones. Given that it's not a feminist contribution, and it's not an exploration of Galileo as a father, and that it's really just a biography, there should have been more scientific detail. Otherwise, this is no better than a high school textbook, or a fan website. Why is Galileo's version of the spyglass (later named the telescope) better than Hans Lippershey's model? If his refinement was in the lenses, why were his lenses better? Was it the Murano glass, or his personal grinding? Did he grind the lenses himself from the blanks he purchased? Did he ignore the moon's influence on tides simply through his zeal to bolster Copernicus's model of the earth moving around the sun, or was he unaware of the moon's influence? How could he have clung so resolutely to the "sloshing" explanation of tides, given that his model wasn't fully predictive? Even medical details are poetic rather than factual: in the end, Sobel says that Suor Maria Celeste succumbed to dysentery because she had literally worried herself into a state of weakness over Galileo—that she died of a broken heart. 
Maria Celeste's life was a literal prison. Her sister, Livia, lived longer than she did, but fared worse emotionally. There are hints at Suor Arcangela's depression, at her possible resentment of her father's decision to the point of perhaps refusing to write letters to him, but Ms. Sobel doesn't investigate further. (I realize there's no evidence for Livia's feelings in the historical record, but there must be recorded observations about other, unrelated conscripted Clare nuns.) The sisters' only outside contact was through an iron grill, separating them from their visitors. Their vow of poverty meant they were sleeping without warm blankets (unless they could beg them from their families), on hard cots, consistently without enough food, depending on alms. I'm fascinated by Maria Celeste's ability to become a truly pious nun—hardworking, obedient, humble, generous, and loving—in spite of her conditions. That's perhaps a more interesting story than a superficial rehash of the life of a seemingly "faultless" Galileo. In yet another bit of flimsy research, Sobel tells us that one of the convent's sisters' brothers bequeathed his estate to the convent before Maria Celeste's death, with an income and an endowed fund to take care of the staff who tended the property. Yet we know nothing about whether that income improved their living conditions. If Sobel couldn't find out about this particular event and its outcome, I would have liked to have heard of other similar historical examples. But Sobel has not researched at a level that would bring other historical material to bear on this situation.
In sum. This book is reasonably good, but not remarkable. The fact that it's so popular indicates to me that there's a supply problem: people are interested in popular books about the history of science, which is great, and there's not enough of it out there. But this particular effort seems to me to suffer a bit from shallow research. Ms. Sobel's real contribution is the translation of 124 letters (which she kindly uploaded to the "Galileo Project" website). But that contribution does not a book make. There are too many missed opportunities, and there's no new view of Galileo from the daughter's perspective, or from the historical perspective of what family structure was like at the time. I wish this book had been more substantive in any research dimension: daughters in convents, illegitimate children, marriages between classes, Galileo's science, Galileo's contemporary critics—anything, pick one. My preference would have been for Ms. Sobel to focus the family issues, since surely other biographers have done the science and inquisition better, and since Maria Celeste's letters are the conceit of the book. I suspect that Galileo's "self-hatred" was because he realized that he had put his daughters in the convent for expediency's sake and then essentially left them there to rot, distracted by his own greatness and place in history. While he was doling out a scudi here or there to the sisters, giving money when poor Maria Celeste quietly begged, or a basket of thrushes and quails when she pleaded, or a blanket here or there, he had utterly failed to realize the malnourishment and health issues of his daughter (she had lost most of her teeth), which he could have mitigated at least financially, since he had failed to spend any of his vast brain power trying to arrange a way out for her and her sister earlier on.

The Raven King

The Raven King (The Raven Cycle, Book 4) - Maggie Stiefvater

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***


One-sentence summary: Fans will be highly satisfied with this ending, and much of The Raven King is beautiful, smart, and engaging, but in some ways this final installment got away from Ms. Stiefvater, with a touch of bloat, some dropped threads, introduction of a previously unknown villain (for lack of a better word) and rushed copyediting.


Many of the same wonderful things about this series are present in my previous reviews of The Raven Boys, The Dream Thievesand Blue Lily Lily Blue, and many of the same failings are here, too. 


The good: a band of friends who are in love with each other; a believable, languid southern setting; characters who follow their passions; playful language that makes you laugh out loud; several scenes with exciting action; a powerful, budding gay relationship; a sense that magic is real.


The less good: the introduction of characters who are there to get killed off; said characters being somewhat cartoon-like; convenient removal of characters who are no longer necessary to the author; an unwieldy plot that Ms. Stiefvater barely wrangles into submission; a sense that the author had a notion of where the series was going, but no detailed route laid out for herself; the belated introduction of the real magical problem that needs solving; lost threads and repeated words that make it seem the author/editor team barely made their deadline. 


The ending. I'm not sure I followed the ending. I caught the general sense of how the resolution worked, but not the specifics: Cabeswater gives its "life" as the sacrifice that will bring Gansey back. I admit that I was confused about Noah's final death, and about the sudden description of circular time in the last quarter of this novel. Cabeswater's "death" almost seems like the cousin to a temporal time-travel paradox. (Ronan dreamed the forest into existence; it gave its life to save Gansey; but Gansey had already given his life to save Cabeswater and the world...from a demon that traveled to our world through Cabeswater?) I think Ms. Stiefvater tries to explain all this by telling us that what Ronan brought forward already existed somewhere, in a different form: Opal speaks a language that's not Latin or English, for example, but a third language even Ronan doesn't know; and Artemis told Blue that his ancient form was not actually a tree. We're also told that Cabeswater's natural state isn't really a forest at all, further adding to the notion that it pre-dates Ronan's dreaming. Gansey has déja vu, and feels time slipping--though both of these symptoms feel new to this installment, which seems a bit unfair to the reader. (It's true that he was characterized as seeming to be both young and old in past books.) Finally, by not tying all the threads, it almost seemed that Ms. Stiefvater left room for future adventures. For instance, Ronan finds an ancient Camaro steering wheel that he somehow knows is not from past adventures but from a future one. (How he can tell the difference isn't explained. Is it because all the other ancient steering wheels would have been destroyed with the unmaking of Cabeswater?) And Mr. Gray is off on his own quest of sorts. 


Bullet points of things that troubled me:


--Something about Piper's death befuddled me. For a long time I didn't believe that she was truly a living human being after her resurrection, so I was  surprised that she could be felled by a gunshot. Silly, I suppose. But more important is the sense that Piper is yet another character who exists to be killed. We see her strained relationship with her dad, and we get a hint that she has a deeper motivation--a desire, maybe, because of her domineering dad and husband, to succeed independently in a competitive, gangster-like field--but it's not explored enough for us to understand it. She comes off as flippant, power-hungry, strong, but somewhat clueless. She doesn't quite rise to the status of an important secondary character in terms of substance, though she gets a lot of screen time and is the catalyst for the climax of the entire series.


--What happened to the demon and the purchasers-of-magical-things after Piper was shot? I think we see a sudden scene change, after Seondeok yells "Call me!" to Mr. Gray as everyone disperses. This is all we get in the Gray Man's story line: he is going to work to disband the mobster ring that traffics in magical goods (but the "how" seems a little nebulous, and even Seondeok points that out). In a plotting sense, the "Call me" line felt thrown in to tie up that thread for readers.


--What happened to Ronan's dream attempts at creating a safety-skin to protect Gansey from bees? Didn't he pull a working skin out on the last try?


--Come to think of it, did the threat of a sting turn out to be a red herring throughout four books? Was RoboBee an attempt to make us think there was a thematic purpose to the bees all along, when they are simply a dead end? Similarly, is that why the demon was wasp-shaped (to tie in symbolically with the whole Gansey-is-allergic thread)? Are we meant to think Gansey's literal death by stinging insects represents, metaphorically, the death of the world at the hands of this waspish demon? Or did causality go the other way: did Ms. Stiefvater make the demon a wasp to explain Gansey's obsession with them?


--Were the Laumonier triplets really necessary? Like Malory, they felt like caricatures. Even with their own, dedicated chapters they failed to feel fully developed.


--Orla is sent away in what seems to be an authorial move of expediency, to have one less character to deal with. Similarly, Matthew and Declan are whisked to safety.  


--Devices introduced in previous novels are missing: for example the orb that allowed Ronan to wake his mother after his father's death. (We do see the translating box again.)


--Noah gets several paragraphs at the end to explain his confusing "circling through time," but we still don't understand...or I didn't. And he says this is his final time watching Gansey die--but do we understand the repetition and why it's ending? Why would Noah have a final death now, if Gansey has died before and this is cyclical?


-The Welsh King, Glyndwr is actually dead, not sleeping. It makes Gansey's quest through three and a half books feel a bit pointless, other than drawing the four kids together so that they can eventually face and defeat the demon.


--Does the demon have motivation, other than pure evil? What does it intend to do after Cabeswater is unmade? Where did it come from?


--Did the word "demon" even appear in any of the previous books?


The big picture. If you step back and look at the series as a whole, you get the strong feeling that Ms. Stiefvater wrote it by the seat of her pants, and had trouble shaping all the clever ideas into a coherent arc. We never do get a bee sting, dangled so prominently throughout the previous books, we don't get a sleeping king, who was for so long the point of Gansey's quest, there is a belated introduction of a demon who turns out to be the real problem the teens need to solve. (The form of the demon is incredibly cool, though.) And Henry Cheng becomes important to the plot...or maybe not. Did he need to be added as the "fifth friend?" Does he actually exist so that his mother can exist, to give Mr. Gray an ally? These issues made it feel as though the author was fishing for a way to conclude the story, but couldn't figure out how to fashion the ending from the material she had already put in previous books. I suspect, given that the release date was moved back, this was actually the case--she was wrangling until the last moment.


Nitpicking. Ms. Stiefvater's prose is exceptionally good in the series (and particularly the moods it evokes), but this book was not edited or copyedited as well as usual. There is some bloat, with scenes that are unimportant (like Ronan's attempt to dream up a skin for Gansey, Gansey's mother's fundraiser at the school, Gansey's bribe of the headmaster to graduate Ronan--a graduation that doesn't even come to pass for him). The repetition of individual words made it seem that everyone was rushed to get the book to publication--editors and copyeditors included. Some nitpicking examples:


"Ronan flickered briefly back into consciousness, his eyes awash with black, a rain of flickering pebbles scattering from his hand and skidding to a mucky stop...."


"The easy rocking of [the door] indicated that it would open easily...."


"Gansey felt the feeling of time slipping one last time...."


"Adam's attention focused sharply at this. Grief sharpened his tone to a knife's edge..."


"She lifted her head, and the light through the window made a perfect square of light on her glasses."


"The engine roared to life. Or rather, the car roared to life. Who knew what was even making the sound. Blue made a ridiculous whooping sound of glee."


"There was a cave opening beneath the house. Not a grand, aboveground opening like the cave they'd entered in Cabeswater. And not the sheltered hole-in-the-ground entrance they'd used to enter the cavern Gwenllian had been buried in. This was a wet, wide-open maw of an opening, all collapsed ramps of dirt spread over concrete bones and bits of furniture, the ground splitting and part of a basement falling into the resulting pit."


In sum: Surprisingly, I found myself reading this last installment a bit dutifully, without the same joy as before. I love the language, and I love the characters, so I was willing to finish the ride. It was a big beast to corral, and Ms. Stiefvater was only partly successful in creating an inevitable arc from all the clever pieces in the first three installments. But the series is a triumph of effort, and has much to recommend it. It's smart, it's different, and the young protagonists have passions, projects, healthy friendships, and complexity. 



The Thing About Jellyfish

The Thing About Jellyfish - Ali Benjamin

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***


One-sentence summary. This somewhat predictable middle-grade novel is a good effort, and dutifully hits all the correct notes, but in the end takes itself too seriously.


Quick synopsis. Suzy is a bright girl who has experienced trauma: the loss of her best friend, Franny, to drowning. At a certain moment in her grief process, Suzy stopped speaking (unless she had to answer a direct question, in which case she spoke--which is sort of a relief relative to other novels that feature selective mutism). In a pivotal conversation, Suzy's mom tells her that there's no explanation for Franny's death, things like this sometimes "just happen." Suzy can't understand this, knowing what a good swimmer Franny was, and believes there must be a real cause. On a field trip to the aquarium, Suzy learns about a tiny, nearly invisible type of jellyfish with a deadly sting, and sets out to prove that this could have been the cause of Franny's death. Flashback chapters told in the present tense show that the girls' friendship was strained to the point of breaking, and Suzy is grappling with the loss of a friend on two levels, and the guilt that accompanies her last cruel act toward Franny. Meanwhile, Suzy slowly grows to trust a teacher who knows how to be there without being invasive, and a boy with ADHD who likes her for her. 


What's good. First, the prose in this novel is good. Second, the way Suzy's relationship with Franny unfolds in alternating present-tense chapters is excellent. The present-tense subtly ties in with Suzy's quantum-physics notion that time is relative and all moments are happening and have happened and will happen at the same time. Third, the fact that Suzy's older brother is gay and is seamlessly incorporated as a normal thing in life--brava. Fourth, although the "not talking" thing was initially annoying (this has become almost a trope in kidlit, and I wonder how common it actually is in real life), it does cleverly allow Suzy to live exclusively in her mind, where she cultivates important misunderstandings. And eventually, it's a relief when she acknowledges that you can't really learn if you're silent. Finally, the early childhood friendship between Franny and Suzy felt authentic to me--the way young children enter smoothly and quickly into deep friendships, and approach them with no biases.


What didn't work as well. The novel is divided into sections that follow the scientific method, as taught by Mrs. Turtin, a teacher Suzy admires. For some reason, rather than give the novel an organic structure, it winds up making it feel "constructed." Each time a section was tied to the scientific method (e.g. "develop a hypothesis"), it became a moment when I saw the author rather than the story.


Ms. Benjamin dutifully hits the right notes. But somehow those notes often felt forced. For instance, in the end Suzy's mother retrieves her from the airport after her failed attempt to travel to Australia. (Suzy was trying to meet a jellyfish specialist by traveling overseas.) But somehow her mother and her brother and her brother's boyfriend end up at the airport to pick her up. It makes for a lovely ending, where she is surrounded by this quirky family that adores her and wants to support her, but if you ask yourself, "How did they all get there?" it falls apart. Obviously the airline would call Suzy's mom--but would Suzy's mom then call her grown son, who lives in his own apartment? Because, what, she couldn't handle picking Zu up alone? It feels constructed by putting them all in one place to wrap the story up. (See also: "An awkward, happy ending" below.)


Autism spectrum disorder. I see only one other reader on Goodreads who mentions this phrase in relation to the book, and I'm interested that more readers haven't picked up on it. Suzy seems to be on the autistic scale to me, though she's high-functioning and extremely verbal: she imagines telling Franny with her eyes that the pee in the locker is the "big message," that Franny asked her to do this, that Franny hurt her feelings; in return, she fully expects that Franny's eyes will apologize. Suzy talks about the sterile properties of pee at lunch without initially seeing it's inappropriate. She's not just socially awkward, she has a profound lack of social understanding. She's often overly focused, counts and calculates obsessively, and has restrictive interests (though they're all academic). I admire the fact that the book itself doesn't label Suzy--she is simply being her authentic self. But I'm quite perplexed that readers didn't factor it into their understanding of her character. 


An awkward, happy ending. In the end a girl named Sarah, whom Suzy begrudgingly admired and was curious about all year, will clearly become her new best friend. This plot development fell right on the margin of feeling hopeful but also pat to me. For one thing, Suzy was only ever cold to Sarah (for instance, glaring at her when Mrs. Turtin asks her to join them in watching the science video), so it's hard to understand why Sarah would seek Suzy's friendship, particularly when the popular girls want to take Sarah under their wing. For another, there's a fine line between saying "there are other friendships after loss" (which I think Justin represents) and "another best friend will take away your sorrow." The trouble with Sarah is that we don't know her as well as we know Justin, so it's hard to avoid that second, more superficial message. And furthermore, why does Justin take an interest in Suzy? This is one of the problems with totally silent protagonists: in the real world, all children would ignore silent Suzy, even the misunderstood boy. (And what was the point in his nicknaming her Belle? I understand its thematic significance--he sees her inner beauty--but what boy actually decides to call a girl by the wrong name, consistently, even to her mother over the phone the first time he calls? It's also not believable that he chooses to do this to tie in with the "bell" of a jellyfish and counteract the other children's taunts of "Medusa." Calling her by her given name would counteract those taunts well enough.)


Inconsistency in Suzy's age and smarts. Sometimes Suzy was precocious, and sometimes she was dense. I don't object to that in principle, since children mature at different rates in different areas of their lives, but I do object when it seems that the uncharacteristic denseness is the author's way of manipulating the plot. For instance, Suzy is a child who can explain the concept of a rip-tide on the spot for us, but has never thought of it as a possible cause of Franny's drowning. She can research any subject on the planet, but doesn't look into whether underage international travel is allowed, or know what a travel visa is. At twelve, she doesn't know which numbers on a Visa are necessary for purchasing something online?


The premise is a bit artificial. Suzy won't accept "sometimes things just happen" as an explanation, and decides she'll find out the real cause of Franny's death. But this is an artificial tweaking of the difference between cause and reason on the author's part, to get the plot moving. By definition jellyfish stings (Suzy's own, prime thesis) "just happen"--so how will proving that Franny died of a jellyfish sting help her? Obviously this realization is her journey, and she summarizes it nicely at the end--there isn't a reason for Franny's death, no matter the cause--but it verges on babyish that she didn't understand all along that her mother meant exactly that.


Who will want to read this? At the end of the book, this was the question I was unsure about. It's quite appealing to adults who love middle-grade literature, and was perhaps a swing at a home-run: a Newbery award. But there are no small injections of humor in the novel to give it levity and nuances of joy for children. It takes itself quite seriously. How many readers have had their best friends die, and will feel a strong empathy for the protagonist? Only very cerebral, voracious middle-grade readers will be happy to consume this book. And then I wager they'll forget it fairly quickly.  



The Darkest Part of the Forest

The Darkest Part of the Forest - Holly Black, Lauren Fortgang

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***


One-sentence summary: A good premise, with some fairytale tropes nicely upended and moments of respectable prose, but as with The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, I found that the execution felt jumbled upon reflection--especially the unfolding of the plot.


The title. (A small point, but metaphorically significant.) I grant that titling books is difficult, and that the author is not always responsible for the title since the publisher often steps in to change it. But I've read two Holly Black books now, and no matter who thought up the titles (publisher or author), they both fail to make a connection with the actual work. In some way I wonder whether the titles inadvertently reveal the publisher's--or Ms. Black's--confusion over what her books are about, and where she meant to go with them. Both The Darkest Part of the Forest and The Coldest Girl in Coldtown are titles that successfully convey atmosphere and genre but have little to do with any kind of story. Combined with killer, gender-neutral dust jackets, the market for each book is clearly signaled with these covers, but not the content: we know from looking at them that one is paranormal horror, the other is fairytale horror. "Do you like this category and this cover image?" the publisher seems to ask. "Then this cool-looking book is for you!" It's virtually impossible to tell anything more from the title. Yet they're selling oodles of copies, so I suppose they're doing something right.


Quick synopsis. Siblings Hazel and Ben live in Fairfold, a town that exists alongside a fairy kingdom in the woods. Tourists come to see the handsome horned boy sleeping in the glass coffin and to search for fey in the forest, sometimes succumbing to a tragic fate (e.g. being turned into boulders, which I'm convinced is homage to one of my favorite picture books, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, by William Steig). The local "townies" can for the most part avoid these fairy pitfalls by following certain rules. We learn that five years ago, Hazel foolishly made a pact with the fey in order to get her brother accepted at a prestigious music school in Philly. She did this because Ben had always been her partner in slaying fairy monsters in the forest--he charmed them with his music, and she killed them with her sword. It's never really explained how their butchery of fairy folk was never punished--you'd think they'd be on the Most Wanted list of the king of the fey, and that whatever truce the fairies have with the townfolk wouldn't apply to vigilante fairy-killers. But in any case, Ben's confidence in his magically-attained music faltered at a certain point, and Hazel naturally thought human music school could help. (Hey, she's a kid, so maybe this logic is age appropriate.) Ben's best friend is Jack, a changeling who was raised as a human. This is one of those shining moments of Ms. Black's cleverness: I loved the way Jack's mother figured out that her son, Carter, had been substituted with an infant lookalike, and in a badass confrontation with the changeling's mother, managed to keep and raise both children. Hazel has a crush on Jack, but feels compelled to make out with every other boy in town and not Jack. Later we learn that this compulsion somehow stems from one ill-advised kiss, when Ben's Philly boyfriend kissed Hazel in front of Ben after breaking up with him. The one person Hazel should be kissing, Jack, is in true YA-trope fashion the person she's sure she can't kiss, because he's her friend and Ben's best friend. One night, the town discovers that the glass coffin has been broken, and the horned prince released, and Hazel suspects that she's involved, though she has no memory of it. Yet she knows only the magic sword could have smashed the glass, and she has a lot of leaves in her bed and mud on her walls. (In all the nights she went out as Sir Hazel, she never had forest debris in her bed? Her brother never heard her leave and enter the house? She was only tired while she was in Philly? But I'm getting ahead of myself.) It turns out Hazel's barter with the fey involved promising them seven years of her life, and the fey king has been exacting the payment every night. "Night Hazel" is a trained knight of the king, and has been forced to torture and kill tourists. (Her guilt over these acts is meant to be lasting, but is only superficially covered.) For MacGuffin-esque reasons (to win back some Eastern Kingdom we've never visited and don't know a thing about), the fey king wants both the sword and his son back, and gives Hazel two days to turn them in. His son is of course Severin, who is out in the human world falling in love with Ben. When Hazel doesn't produce the goods, the king turns his daughter, Sorrel/Sorrow, on the town--she's a tree-like monster who induces a mournful sadness that puts people in a miserable coma, and her creeping moss swallows buildings whole. (Her backstory is fairytale-like, involving her brother, Severin, killing her mortal husband and her weeping herself into a monster, but again, Severin's guilt over this murder should be more profound than Ms. Black has time to allot to it.) In the end, Night Hazel has hidden the sword for Day Hazel, Severin has made up with his sister enough to shake the king's hold on her, and together they're able to kill the king. In the epilogue, Severin becomes king, Ben lives in fairyland with Severin while learning more about his music, Jack decides to live with Hazel as a human for a lifetime (presumably until she gets old and dies), and Hazel becomes Severin's champion--although I'm guessing she can only work for him part-time, what with, you know, high school and kissing Jack. 


The good. In her review on the blog "Reading Rants," Jennifer Hubert Swan said, "Boys fall in love with boys, and girls fall in love with swords..." and those are two things I also enjoyed about the book. The notions that the damsel in distress saves herself and the boy gets his prince are wonderful. The sleeping beauty is a horned boy, which is awesome. The juxtaposition of contemporary life and a fantasy setting--kids drinking and dancing on a Saturday night on a magical, unbreakable glass coffin in the forest--was fun for me. (Unlike other readers, this did not complicate my view of my own, magic-free United States. Have some whimsy, people.)


The plot line of Ben and Hazel's parents neglect. This is meant to be the emotional core of the story, but it's introduced too belatedly. It's possible that Ms. Black wanted us to see how much Ben and Hazel had been repressing the bad parts of their childhood by holding it back from us, too, but it veers dangerously toward feeling like an afterthought, edited-in for depth and plotting reasons. Ben and Hazel's artistic parents are somewhat dysfunctional. They euthanize the dog rather than treat him with pricey medical care; they hold parties with their bohemian artist friends and forget to feed the children; Ben and Hazel have the freedom to slay monsters--which means risk their lives--without their parents wondering where they are. At the same time, Ms. Black shows the casual interactions between parents and children to be loving, and they did move the whole family to Philly to pursue Ben's music training. It ends up being a bit of a mixed message for the reader, which is a problem when we're meant to believe that the early neglect of Ben and Hazel is what prevents the siblings (emotionally) from opening up to each other, even while they're fiercely devoted to each other. Which brings me to...


Hiding things from each other. This theme is critical to the plot of the book, but still manages to be annoying in that "why don't they just talk to each other?" way. Hazel doesn't tell Ben that she made a pact with the fairies and owes them seven years of her life; Ben doesn't tell her that he fears that his music was the only reason his Philly boyfriend fell in love with him in the first place, and that he's trying to escape Fairfold and his music by falling in love; Hazel doesn't tell Jack she loves him even after he professes his love to her; Jack doesn't tell his friends that he has been spending time with his birth family (the fey); Ms. Black herself doesn't tell the reader until well into the book that Hazel and Ben's parents neglected them.


The king's motivation. As mentioned in the synopsis, Ms. Black introduces a MacGuffin-esque reason for the king to want the sword and his son back. It feels imprecise and chaotic, when there might have been time to develop a strong reason earlier in the novel. Also, the king is the generic bad guy who of course gets bloodily killed. No gravitas points awarded for that.


Rules of magic. I'm not terribly familiar with fairytale books, so if some of my head-scratching is due to inexperience, forgive me. The diversity of the fey was interesting--there were lots of lists of the varieties in this novel--but it's not clear whether they are species who coexist and intermarry, etc., and whether there are class differences based on type. As much as people praise Ms. Black's world building, it felt like these creatures were described simply for atmosphere. Similarly, it gives the story a wonderful fairytale quality to list the rules of protecting yourself from the fey (iron shavings or oatmeal in your pocket, your socks turned inside out), but I found myself wondering why these tricks work--is it a biological repellant, a scientific interaction, the superstition of the fey? Similarly, some rules were violated: drinking fairy wine supposedly ruins your taste for any mortal beverage, but that didn't happen to Hazel. But as I said, it may be that there is a long tradition in this literature that I'm missing.


Haphazard plotting. In my review of The Coldest Girl in Coldtown I mentioned that I had the feeling Ms. Black wrote without an outline, by the seat of her pants, and gave herself a daily word count, hoping to find the novel's point and instill order later. This book gives me the same feeling. She couldn't quite wrangle the plot into submission, and couldn't tie the loose ends. For instance, Hazel feels guilt over her actions as Sir Hazel, but there isn't time to explore that. 


The characters. Some of the characters aren't as fully fleshed out as I like. The horned boy, for instance, only has some infodump moments with Ben while staying in his room, despite becoming an important character in the story after he wakes up. The king is an anonymous bad guy.


The gore. I'm thinking gore has become one of Ms. Black's trademarks. As with Coldest Girl, it felt as if the violence only happened to people we didn't really know or care about. In that sense, the horror is just...actually, trademark is a good word: it's not significant in any literary way; it's there so you can market the story as "horror," while simultaneously offending the fewest readers possible.


Nitpicking. I wasn't convinced Ms. Black knows (or her copyeditor checked) what the lintel of a window is--in one case I was sure she meant "muntin," and possibly "casing" in another.


In sum. This is one of those books that went down in my estimation as I worked on the review. It's consumable and reasonably well written, and it has a happy ending that makes it feel "rounded out." I enjoyed it well enough while I was listening, and I don't regret the time I spent on it. But the flaws reared their heads as I wrote about the plot, and the vague, nagging feelings I had while listening coalesced into more concrete complaints. For my friend Liam, I guess I would summarize by saying I thought it was better than Coldest Girl in Coldtown


People of the Book

People of the Book - Geraldine Brooks

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***


One-sentence summary: The contemporary thread of People of the Book was disappointingly melodramatic, and the historical threads had too little depth and feeling for the periods and the personalities.


People of the Book tells a fictionalized account of the hidden history of the Sarajevo Haggadah, a book that is known to have survived wars, cross-country journeys, years in hiding, and undoubtedly multiple owners.


Real history. A Haggadah is a book of readings for the Jewish seder service. The Sarajevo Haggadah, a real book, appears to have been made in Spain in the mid-fourteenth century, as a wedding gift. What we know of its history is only several lines long: the National Museum of Sarajevo purchased it from a man by the name of Josef Kohen in 1888; a note in it says that it changed hands in 1492 when Jews were expelled from Spain; an inscription from 1609 says it passed the Catholic Church's inspection by a (presumably generous) priest, saving it from being burned as a heretical book; it made a trip to Vienna for several years (to be studied) before being returned to Sarajevo; in 1941 the Nazi regime specifically searched for it in the Museum, but it was hidden from them by the director and the curator of the museum (the curator also saved a Jewish girl); during the Bosnian War in the 1990s the book was saved again from bombings by the director of the museum and put in a bank vault until the end of the conflict.


Synopsis. The contemporary segments tell the story of Hannah Heath, a book conservator who has been hired to stabilize the Haggadah before it is put on display at the encouragement of the U.N. as a testament to unity and peace. The Haggadah is a particularly intriguing book because it is illuminated with detailed, representational illustrations--something that Jewish manuscripts of the time did not have. Hannah finds artifacts in the pages of the book that present mysteries and may lead to a better understanding of where the book has been: a tiny butterfly wing, a white hair that is dyed with saffron, a wine stain, a stain that appears to be made of salt water. These artifacts each of course have a story critically linking them with the creation and journey of the Haggadah--and the reader has the benefit of seeing the stories in full, but Hannah does not (she guesses only at the edges of them). The historical segments move back in time from World War II to the creation of the illuminated illustrations by a black female Muslim artist in 1350. (There is a black woman at the seder table in one of the illustrations, and Ms. Brooks takes the liberty of fictionalizing her as the artist.)


Actually, you know what? I won't go into the gory details of the synopsis because Cate Ross has done it better than I ever could right here.


I also like her snarky take on the whole book: 


....This book is terribly cold. Family members shun each other, religious calling is nothing more than a sanctuary from murder or the shame of being born Jewish. The Jewish families that possess the Haggadah never use it for seder; they are too busy being murdered apparently. It's a fairly cynical novel--the Haggadah is never loved, never treasured as a family relic, never shown except as the byproduct of melodrama. It's as though Brooks has only a theoretical understanding of what a Haggadah means, and she has a blood-thirsty imagination that can't be set to the quieter themes.


Like Cate, I would have loved to have seen what this Haggadah meant to a real family while it was in use, rather than the relentless destruction, rape and oppression that we see associated with it in a peculiarly superficial fashion. And in fact, the actual Sarajevo Haggadah shows lots of evidence of use, presumably by many, many families (more than one wine stain, for instance). The book should feel not just momentous to us, it should feel magical and loved. 


The historical sections. The historical stories all occur at critical moments in the Haggadah's journey, and thus are dramatic, but (oddly) they have very little feeling to them. For instance, the longing for freedom of the black slave artist somehow rings hollow. How is that even possible, with such a weighty, moving subject as slavery? All I can think is that the addition of the lesbian relationship and forced parting, and the perfunctory rape by her previous master, and her exceptional circumstances as a Muslim artist trained in a Christian illuminated style, all make the narrative of her short story too packed, in such a small space, for us to feel her plight in our cores. Sometimes simplicity is the more powerful way of telling the story.  


Dropped threads. The short forays into these overly-meaningful moments in the Haggadah's history also do themselves a disservice by inevitably dropping threads. For example, Ruti steals her gentile infant nephew from a cave after her sister-in-law has given birth to what she thinks is a stillborn baby, and we hear nothing of what happens to the mother, or the father, who is being tortured by the Inquisition in the "place of relaxation," or in fact of the baby himself. Thus, in terms of plot, the baby is only there to provide the salt-water stain on the book when he's submerged in the sea by Ruti in a ritual to make him Jewish, yet we end up wondering what happened to him. It's hard to feel emotionally attached to the historical sections when they're so clearly there to wham us over the head with "drama" and "history" without allowing us the time to care for the characters.


Dull contemporary melodrama. Hannah's story was by far the least interesting part of the novel, yet it's what theoretically ties it all together. The Hannah thread feels self-absorbed and almost juvenile compared with the historical sections, even though it's fleshed out more. And even in this story line, Ms. Brooks can't resist melodrama: Hannah's mother, an accomplished neurosurgeon, was not only "too absorbed in her career" to be a good parent, but essentially killed Hannah's artist father, presuming for him that he wouldn't want to live without eyesight; Hannah's lover has not only lost his wife in the Bosnian war, but his son has suffered a traumatic injury and is brain-dead in the hospital.


In sum. I've been on the hunt for great historical fiction since reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, but I'm starting to wonder whether popular historical fiction is often just fluffy contemporary literature in disguise. So much of historical fiction inserts fantasy, or chick-lit, or tells the story from the point of view of invented historical characters observing real historical figures. Someone, please bring on the real stuff.


The Rest of Us Just Live Here

The Rest of Us Just Live Here - Patrick Ness

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***


One-sentence summary: I saw this described by a reader as "an unusual misfire by an otherwise excellent YA writer," and I think I have to agree.


Premise. The premise of the book seems awesome, at first: if we lived in a world that had superheroes saving us from paranormal and alien events, what would the lives of non-heroes be like? There were elements of this--done better--in the animated movie, The Incredibles. In that movie, we saw an ungrateful society become disgruntled with the collateral damage of epic battles between superheroes and bad guys, and we saw the end result: the marginalization of--even incarceration of and lawsuits against, if I remember correctly--the superheroes. We saw the superheroes back off, and try to lead ordinary lives, suppressing their abilities and "fitting in" with average people. Now those are interesting concepts. Tackling those issues from the "average person" point of view might have been quite interesting: "We're trying to live our lives here, and the superheroes are endangering us every time they 'save' us. How can we live normally in a world where we feel threatened and unsafe?" The parallels with war and habitat destruction and species extinction, etc (all things that children have to cope with even though they're not responsible) would have been excellent. 


What we actually got. But that's not the story Patrick Ness pursued here. What he wanted to look at was the supremely ordinary lives of ordinary teens, very much apart from whatever the "Indie kids" (the superheroes) are facing, and it turns out to be...well, a little dull. Why did Mr. Ness juxtapose the ordinary lives of the teens against the short paragraphs describing the Indie kids' supernatural battle, we find ourselves asking? Why, in the end, are the Indie kids there at all? I struggled to answer this question. Obviously he wanted to celebrate the extraordinary in the ordinary: superheroes have to stop the Immortals from taking over the world, while ordinary kids have to confront their obsessive compulsive disorder, anorexia, dysfunctional parents, schoolwork, and relationship complexities. Surely those are heroic struggles? I think they are, but only if those ordinary struggles are written compellingly, which is perhaps where the book fell flat for me.


What's the point of including the Indie kids? The juxtaposition of the Indie kids' heroic struggles at the beginning of each chapter might have seemed more complementary to Mike's story if as I mentioned above, they were a metaphor for world events, or if instead there were a subtle correspondence between what the Indie kids are going through and what the ordinary kids are struggling with. There's a hint of teen crossover, for instance, as Satchel first falls in love with the Prince, then is betrayed by him, kisses Dylan and is betrayed by him, and then realizes Second Indie Kid Finn is the one who has been loyal all along. But since these paragraphs are written sarcastically, almost cartoonish, it's impossible to draw a serious parallel. 


Some people have called this Patrick Ness's "John Green" book. I suppose it has a similar affect, a sort of teenage self-absorption, especially if you're thinking of one of the more "day in the life" Green books: An Abundance of Katherines, or maybe Paper Towns, both of which had a male narrator almost neurotically focused on himself and his friends. But many of the more engaging young-adult novels out there have some out-of-the-ordinary, overarching external plot, in addition to an exploration of teenage concerns. For instance, The Accident Season covers many of the same issues about mental health, obsession, lifelong friendship, and couples pairing, but it's told over the course of a nearly mystical month when Cara's family annually experiences injuries and deaths. The magical realism of the accident season is so interesting, the metaphor of it is so pertinent to the story, the threat of being hurt so present, it gives the novel teeth. In contrast, while the real story in The Rest of Us Just Live Here is in fact about Mike and Mel getting a grip on their anxiety disorder, and Henna learning to stand up to her parents, there's no avoiding that the characters' stated goal is to "get through high school, wait for my college life to start, enjoy my friends, and graduate before the school is blown up," which in the end is sort of what we get. I found myself wanting something deeper to happen, and assumed the "something special" would occur at the intersection of the Indie kids' lives and the ordinary kids' lives. In fact, that's what kept me reading. When Mike and Henna hit the deer on the road during the mysterious stampede (caused by an alien blue light), and when they had the encounter with the police with glowing-blue eyes, there seemed to be a hint that there might be more supernatural events to come. But no, nope. We were promised early on that the two worlds (our ordinary one and the Indie one) rarely cross--that the two types of kids don't really pay much attention to each other, and the "normal" population, especially the adult population, lives in a sort of denial about the supernatural occurrences (a denial that's never explained, psychologically or emotionally)--and by golly, Mr. Ness keeps that promise. The result was disappointment on my part when I realized, Oh yeah, this book really is about ordinary kids. 


Synopsis. The book is told in the voice of Michael (Mike, Mikey) Mitchell. He has a problem with obsessive compulsive disorder, and it's getting worse. He gets caught in loops where he counts things, or washes himself until his skin cracks and bleeds. He adores his older sister, Mel, who has anorexia and who technically died for three minutes once when her heart stopped. Their younger sister is Meredith: brainy and funny, and beloved. Their parents are verging on dysfunctional, so the kids stick together. Mike's best friend is Jared, who is one-quarter god, is gay, and has a supernatural connection with cats. Mel's best friend is Henna, half Scandinavian and half black. (Haitian? I can't recall.) Henna's parents are religious, and are planning a missionary trip to a war-torn region of Africa when school ends, and Henna doesn't want to go. Mike thinks he might be in love with Henna, but he also had sex with Jared when they were younger, and loves Jared like his "chosen family." Indie kids are beginning to get killed, which has happened in past generations, always leading up to a supernatural showdown that everyone dreads. The recent deaths of the Indie kids are ruled accidents or suicides. Mike attributes this to adults being in denial, but Mr. Ness also makes sure we see that the police are taken over by the Immortals, which could explain why the truth is so obviously being ignored. Satchel is the Indie-kid heroine of the supernatural story, which takes place in the periphery of the "real" world. Mostly we see Mike wanting to kiss Henna, Mike being jealous of new boy Nathan for making friends with Henna, Mike's OCD escalating, Mike's mom entering a race to fill a vacant seat in congress, Mike getting help from a psychiatrist, Mike's dad getting drunk and being useless to the family. Eventually, Mike and Henna not only kiss, but sleep together in the interest of exploring whether they might be in love (they're not), Mike's mom becomes more understanding and less a driven politician, Mike's dad promises to go into rehab, Jared accepts his role as a god (but bargains to delay his "ascent to his realm" until after he's done college), Henna tells her parents she won't go on their mission to Africa, Jared and Nathan start a relationship, and everyone graduates right before the school actually does blow up in the final showdown of the Indie kids vs. the Immortals--a showdown that of course isn't shown.


What's good. The loyalty and devotion of the Mitchell kids to each other is wonderful. The youngest Mitchell child, Meredith, was never treated like the annoying little sister, but cherished by her siblings and even her parents. The cast is somewhat diverse, although not as much as everyone claims, at least in terms of race: Henna is half black, and her ex-boyfriend (barely seen) is Asian. (Am I missing others?) There is diversity in terms of sexual orientation: Jared is gay and Mike seems to be bisexual. And there's a lot of good discussion about mental health, and living with it. I loved the way the teens were a close-knit group of friends, not initially broken up into couples (which I think is true to many contemporary high school experiences).


Call Me Steve. Sorry, this is a direct rip-off from Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. (Thomas Wriothesley is nicknamed "Call Me Risley.") Obviously Mr. Ness didn't think any YA readers will have read a Man Booker Prize winner. (Wrong.)


Why wasn't the Hero Story more integrated with the plot? Is it plausible that modern kids wouldn't be intrigued at all by the worldly battles with aliens and paranormal creatures? That they wouldn't make friends with the Indie kids? Why, even in the end, when it's clear the Indie kids have saved mankind somehow, do the teens not thank them or ask questions? Is Mr. Ness perhaps making a sly commentary on the undeveloped pre-frontal cortexes of teens that makes them intensely "me" centered? If so, it's a very cynical book indeed. But the earnestness of Mr. Ness's writing, particularly of the togetherness of the group of friends at the end as they're about to go their separate ways to college, belies that there's any deep social commentary here. I think Mr. Ness really just didn't want to include the hero story as anything but a comic-book backdrop to the personal issues of Mike and his friends. And he wanted the alien attack to be so obtuse to the reader that we can't even tell if the Indie kids are saving the world or attracting the danger in the first place. There's mention of Henna losing her brother to the vampires in the past (it's implied that he has become a vampire), and Nathan's sibling, too, and many readers have used that information to infer that "average kids" willfully ignore Indie kids and their battles in order to stay safe. But is that realistic and believable, or just plain frustrating?


The chapter with Mike's psychiatrist was an info dump. I really appreciate mental health being dealt with in such a level way, as it is in this book. And I think it's so helpful when authors show teens how pervasive these health issues are, and show that cool characters have disorders, characters with close friends have them--everyone has them. What Mike's therapist says made me want to applaud: having a mental illness is no different from having a disease. Taking medication for mental illness is no different from taking insulin for diabetes. That said, we're privy to just one appointment, and in the interest of expediency everything had to happen in that one appointment. It was almost like Mr. Ness and his editor decided that, for the sake of children suffering OCD, we'd better throw in a chapter where we have a trusted adult address all the medical science and social implications in a super healthy way. I'm all for Mike getting help, I just thought it needed to be written into the narrative more fluidly, rather than in one Reader's Digest appointment. 


There were moments when I was annoyed on behalf of teenagers. Sometimes Mr. Ness writes like an adult trying to sound like a teen, and misses the mark.


1. There were several instances of breaking the fourth wall in this novel. But since it's written by an adult, some of the words directed to the reader didn't seem to come authentically from Mike, but sounded more like Mr. Ness using Mike to say, "This book is for you! It's about young people! I understand you!"


"You know what it's like [to be waiting to start your life], right? 


"What is is about adults forgetting and denying--don't they remember the first eighteen years of life?"


"Jared's dad is the nicest grown man I've ever met." [The emphasis on "grown" implies that most adults aren't really that nice.]


"I imagined [Henna and me] living together...[homes and travel]. I imagined personal things, too. Always respectfully. Well, you know what I mean--you do it, too."


"The sex was so hot I jerked off for several days to the memory. Shut up, you would, too."


2. There was a slip where Mike said he was serving yet more cheesy toast to the "really, really fat family at table two." Ugh. Fat shaming.


3. Mike says that "Adults always tell you world events aren't your concern." I have no idea what this even means. As far as I can tell, kids nowadays are receiving constant messages about how they have to engage with, participate in, and change the world.


In sum. For me the inclusion of the supernatural elements wasn't especially helpful to this novel. Yet without the superhero backdrop, I'm not sure the author had enough of a story to tell. Instead, the superhero story should have become a metaphor for the wider world that teens can't control, or should have drawn more parallels between extraordinary Indie-kid problems and ordinary average-teen problems. I got the strong feeling that Mr. Ness might have seen the problem mid-way through: that his metaphor wasn't connecting, that he could be saying more with the superheroes. But he plowed through to the end without fixing it or adding depth. He could have made this book great, but perhaps he didn't have the energy or will or affection for it (or the time) by the end. And anyway, there's roughly a John-Green amount of teen issues explored, and the superhero "hook" combined with a great cover and some good buzz were more than enough to satisfy most of the people, most of the time.