"I Must Read, Read, and Read. It is my Vocation." - Thomas Merton
This is where I chronicle my reading life. I also blog about writing at Lacey's Late-night Editing.
This is only the second A.S. King book I've read, and while I didn't enjoy it as much as Glory O'Brien's History of the Future, A.S. King's writing voice is so effortless and engaging to me that so far I've been willing to follow her places I might not put up with from other authors. The magical realism in this book -- Sara encounters past and future versions of herself, which her family members can also see and interact with -- is never really explained, and that didn't bother me. In addition, you have to wait a LONG time before figuring out why Sara has basically issued a big F.U. to her life, quitting school, disengaging with family, etc., and I can understand why certain readers would give up on her existential crisis as whiny or entitled.
But none of this bothered me because King's writing weaves this sort of spell on me that makes me trust that she is taking me someplace worthwhile. And that did end up being the case in this book. What starts out feeling like the pointless meandering of a teenager in a funk eventually blooms into an exploration of the longstanding effects of abuse, trauma, and repression. There are no "big revelations" here, but instead an examination of the way all the tiny cracks in a life can add up in th end to something totally broken that must be built again from scratch rather than reassembled from the rubble.
I think teenagers who feel disengaged for seemingly "no reason" could find a real kinship with Sara, while those who relate to her less could find deeper compassion for those around them if they are willing to stick with her through her journey. I'm glad that I did.
This book took a little while to get going for me -- at first it felt as if Rowell was clearly out of her element writing fantasy -- and as someone who reads a lot of fantasy, I couldn't help but notice the shortcomings in worldbuilding, and just how LONG it seemed to take to set everything up; the story was about 1/3 of the way in before the plot really got going. Everything else was just showing us what it was like to be a student at Rowell's version of a magical school.
However, this book can really be read on two different levels: as a fantasy story in its own right, or as commentary on the world of Harry Potter.
It's passable as a story in its own right, but as commentary on the Harry Potter franchise, it is brilliant.
The parallels and nods to J.K. Rowling's worlds are obvious -- after all, the book started as an obvious stand-in for Harry Potter and Potter fan culture in its original incarnation in [book:Fangirl|16068905]. It's in the departures from Rowling's world that Rowell really drives her points home. Her version of a magical wizarding school is far more culturally and ethnically diverse than Rowling's, and it includes gay characters who don't have to wait for the whole series to be completed before being "outed" (::coughcough:: Dumbledore being gay after the fact was a copout ::cough cough::). It is, of course, much edgier than Rowling's world, with plenty of swearing and some making out, although certain aspects of it were strangely chaste. (Like, why did we never know the extent of Simon's and Agnes's sexual relationship even though they had been together for three years? Am I the only one who wondered about this?) It also examines the whole idea of the "chosen one" mythos and especially takes a jab at the somewhat creepy/inappropriate/irresponsible relationship between Dumbledore and Harry that is glossed over as perfectly healthy, warm, and admirable in Rowling's book. By contrast, the Mage (Dumbledore's stand-in), is an ethically ambiguous character, ultimately more dark than light, but for a long time Simon sees him through an adoring child's eyes much the way Harry sees Dumbledore. The difference is that Simon's perception of the Mage matures; Harry's never does.
It's somewhat strange to come in reading the "last book" in a series when the earlier books in the series do not actually exist. I couldn't help but notice how much more of an impact this story probably would have had on me if I had been following these characters' lives for years rather than being dropped into their world in the final act. I'm not sure I would have wanted to commit to seven books of this, anyway, but it's definitely a worthwhile read. It's got that Rowell "relationship magic" if that's what you go in for, but it's also a smart, incisive critique of what is arguably the most influential children's series of our lifetimes.
Even though I am a book lover, novels that are supposed to pay homage to books never quite do it for me. There is just something to "fangirl/fanboy" about it all -- and in this book it was especially bad because the author also spent the majority of the book gushing over Google and tech culture. I was like, is this a novel, or a Google infomercial? Right down to the main character's quirky love interest working for the company.
There were times when the pace picked up and I was very curious and intrigued to see how everything would fit together -- but this sense of suspense and mystery was strongest at the beginning of the book, and it got less and less compelling as the book went on -- which I'm pretty sure is the opposite of how it's supposed to work. And the overall conspiracy/message/etc. just ended up feeling so convoluted that by the end I had trouble caring enough to hold it all together. It wasn't a horrible book, but it just felt a bit too much like Silicon Valley (the place, not the show) fan-fiction to me.
This is a fun, energetic and girl-centric alternative to the "Wimpy Kids" and "Big Nate" books that popularly combine journal-style storytelling with funny illustrations. The illustrations of Abbie as she navigates middle school are definitely the best part of this book -- so incredibly expressive! Also addresses the themes of fitting in and finding your own place with an empowering message.
This is not your typical WWII novel because it focuses on a lesser-explored aspect of the war -- namely the voyage of thousands of refugees, many of them of German descent, who fled the country in the wake of a Russian invasion. The story follows four narrators: a kind-hearted Lithuanian nurse, a Polish teen attempting to hide her ethnicity, a German artist who has defected, and a German soldier.
The writing is beautiful and at times heart-rending, from the protagonists' grueling winter journey to the harbor to the horror of the eventual shipwreck. The characters were well-developed with distinct voices. The book does not shy away from the horrors of war, but it also has enough moments of hope and light to keep it from being too bleak. Two things about the book did annoy me, though. First, I found it unbelievable that Joana would have had as much time as she did to pursue her romance with Florian and her relationship with the other characters once they were actually on the ship, where her skills as a nurse were needed and in incredibly short supply; and second, with as many who perished on the Wilhelm Gustolf, pretty much all our main characters defied the odds and survived, but I guess that's part of what keeps the book from being too bleak.
All in all, it is a masterful piece of historical fiction that does what the best of the genre does: makes history feel truly real, and awakens a desire to know more about the real lives that have been shaped by the tragedies of time.
When I was young, the toy-mation movie adaptation of this book was one of my favorite Christmas movies ever. It still is, although I don't watch it with the regularity of, say Muppet Christmas Carol. It was always a bit obscure -- it was not played every year like Rudolph or Frosty, and a lot of people had never seen it. I was thrilled to finally find it on VHS and later on DVD so that I can enjoy it for every Christmas and share it with my own kid(s) someday.
All of that preamble is to say that it was impossible for me to read this without my perception being clouded by nostalgia. Because the movie actually follows the book very well, reading the book was like seeing the movie in my mind once again -- and we've already established that I love the movie. Objectively speaking, if I read this without the context of my fondness for it, it may have felt a little like one of those books that was just one thing happening after the other without a really clear through-line. On the other hand, the prose was very often quite beautiful and it was easy to get swept away in the magic of the setting and the nostalgia of a Christmas origin story. I do think it's a pity that this is not as well known as Baum's Oz books, because I found it to be just as magical (although, like the Oz books, it did get a little clunky at the end.)
Around the Year Reading Challenge #TBD: A book you are embarrassed to read in public
I wasn't actually embarrassed to read this book in public, but I was reading it before I had announced that I was pregnant, so I was keeping the book secret.
Now that I'm no longer keeping a secret (and couldn't if I wanted to if you saw me IRL), I'm happy to talk about this book.
I am not an economist like Oster, but I very much related to her obsession with knowing exact numbers and exact reasons behind different pregnancy outcomes and advice. I've spent countless hours Googling (often in vain) for specific statistics and studies to back up general pregnancy/conception advice. Oster looks at a lot of these studies so you don't have to. I loved the tone of this book, which is empowering in that Oster believes women are capable of weighing the risks themselves and making their own decision rather than blindly following conventional wisdom.
Oster's overall takeaway is that women can be much more permissive during pregnancy than one might believe -- moderate drinking is OK, moderate caffeine is OK, invasive genetic testing is not really that dangerous. While she can back all this up and a lot of women will probably feel freed by her information, I still ended up following pretty much all of the "conventional" wisdom because I am so risk averse that even a small increase in the chances of something going wrong is more than I'm willing to take. But it is nice to know I don't need to stay up all night worrying if I give in to the craving for an occasional coffee or sip of beer.
American Girls by Alison Umminger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Probably wouldn't have read this book if not for my book club, but I found it to be an enjoyable enough read nonetheless.
Generally I don't like movies set in Los Angeles or around the movie industry because a) I've been to L.A. and it was the most soul-sucking place I've ever experienced; and b) a lot of times movies set in and around Hollywood have an element of "wish fulfillment" when it comes to the idea of stardom/fame/etc., that I find to be off-putting.
This book did have a bit of the latter, particularly in Anna's somewhat far-fetched romance with a teen star of a cheesy, Disney-channel-esque show and all her opportunities to hang with famous peeps (some of whom were not so glamorous close-up). But what redeemed this aspect of the book was that it also did not shy away from Hollywood's seedier side -- the difficulty of finding and keeping work as an "unknown" actor, the emphasis on looks, the dysfunction that often accompanies fame, the lengths women must go to to remain thin and beautiful, and yes, the overall soul-sucking nature of it all.
Ultimately, what I liked best about this book were its themes about the way our culture perceives women, from Anna's sister's run-in with pornography (I got the sense that there may have been more of this than the book let on) to Anna's musing over the youth and beauty of the "Manson girls," who she is researching for an indie film for her sister's creepy ex. I expected the Manson murders to play a bigger part in the story, but instead they ended up contributing more to the overall themes rather than standing as plot points on their own. I wish more attention had been given to the throwaway line about how the Manson cult was deeply embedded in racism, though.
At times this book felt like it had too much going on -- Anna's family drama (which she fled to Los Angeles to escape), her romance, her crumbling relationship with her best friend back home, commentary on Hollywood and our looks-obsessed culture. But it could definitely serve as a good antidote to the stars so many Americans still get in their eyes when they think about L.A.
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The Twelve Dancing Princesses by Marianna Mayer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I think I might have read this when I was a kid, but I reread because a friend in my book club said it had been her favorite book when she was growing up.
Illustrations are gorgeous and Mayer is excellent at adapting fairy tales -- I still long to find her adaptation of Aladdin that I fell in love with when I was young. What surprised me in this adaptation was the emphasis on the feelings and experience of the boy who uncovers the princesses' secret. I always thought of this as a story about sisters and their illicit adventures, but this version makes it the male "rescuer's" story. I wonder if that is the way the story is traditionally told or if that was the focus of this particular telling.
At any rate, it was a little discomfiting. As a kid I certainly never noticed how creepy the idea of a boy going invisible so he can spy on a room full of girls/women was! But the strangeness of it all is one of the things that still makes this a rich and compelling fairy tale to me, regardless of how it is told or who is emphasized.
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I fell off the wagon of uploading my book reviews for the end of 2016, but I'm starting fresh in the new year.
Sacred Wilderness by Susan Power
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book was divided into several different story "sections" -- one that took place in present day and followed an older Native American woman who was employed by a wealthy couple as a cook/housecleaner and others that delved into the stories of the main characters' ancestors.
I loved the way this book blended Native American and Catholic spirituality (which is what drew me to the book), particularly the Virgin Mary's intuitive understanding that all beings who forged a path of peace were sacred and would have been "friends of her son." Mary's manifestation appeared in both the historical and the modern timelines, and I liked her portrayal in the historical one better; she felt just a touch too "woo-woo"in her modern incarnation, and I kind of felt as if the privileged, unemployed middle-aged woman she was sent to "awaken" was not really deserving of the honor. On the other hand, her appearance to comfort a grieving mother and clan leader in the historical storyline seemed a much more worthy visitation.
The historical writing was incredibly beautiful and evocative. The modern writing I found to be a little stilted in places, but I liked that it lent some greater insight into the politics of being American Indian and living in the current culture. This is something I still strive to find a deeper understanding of, especially since moving to a state with a significant Native population that still remains mostly a mystery to me.
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It's been ages since I posted here due to life stuff (read: I got pregnant), but I'm hoping to make this book blog active-ish again in the new year. I am starting with this fun and low barrier-to-entry reading habits survey. :)
Around the Year Reading Challenge Item #38: A book about an anti-hero
This was a light read, but not shallow. It had just enough heart and smart cultural commentary to be substantive despite its sometimes breezy tone. The relationship between Blackheart and Nimona was super sweet, and any potential weirdness in the adult male/teenage girl dynamic evaporated when it became clear that Blackheart was gay. I also liked the shameless meshing of traditional fairy tale elements - kings, knights, market days - with modern communication like news alerts and video chats. And the question of who is really the villain in any given system is always worth examining - Blackheart had a sense of "honor" and a personal ethics that belied his moniker.
I would have liked to have known more about Nimona's actual backstory; the gist of it was there but the edges remained a little blurry. The ending felt a bit abrupt to me as well, although the epilogue took the edge off.
Around the Year Reading Challenge Item #50: A book originally written in a language other than English
Yes, this is a deeply unsettling book.
The artwork is garish and creepy, nightmare-like, really. There is far more going on than either the cluttered, overlapping images or the text will say. There are no easy answers, and ultimately I gave this book four stars instead of five because I was left with a few TOO MANY questions. [Like, was panther an imaginary friend Christine used to work through past or present trauma? Was he a psychotic break, her own psyche setting out to harm her, a brush with schizophrenia? Or was he really a being from another world come to seduce and molest her (along with his creepy friends)? I also had the uncomfortable fear that Panther was really her father coming to visit her in the night, and that she "coped" by imagining him as an actual predator -- a panther -- or that he coaxed her into thinking of him that way. This is the interpretation I like least, and I wish I could shake it, because I really want to believe that Christine has SOMEONE safe she can turn to.]
This is a book best read in the light of day, although that won't be enough to keep you from filling icky. There's just a better chance you'll be able to shake it off by bedtime.
Around the Year Reading Challenge Item #49: A Book with a Great Opening Line
This book has intrigued me since it first came across my desk when I was a teen services librarian -- I remember my intern taking it home the day it was processed and reading it all in one night. But I put off reading it until I could no longer put it off (my book club was reading it.)
So, why the resistance to a book that caught my attention right away? I was afraid that it would be "gimmicky," that the actual story would never live up to the stories promised in the creepy vintage photographs scattered throughout. Within the first few pages, I was pleased to find that I was wrong -- the prose is actually very good, and the storyline is strong enough to stand on its own. The photographs become a delightful perk, pushing the book into the realm of "experimental" or "mixed media" rather than the sole reason for the book's existence. There were times when the usage of photos felt a little incongruous -- places where they were used as "illustrations" without any explanation of why a photograph of that thing would exist were a little off-putting to me.
I liked the first half of this book better than the second. The beginning section is so atmospheric, with the descriptions of the bombed out, empty house, the rainy island, the creepy mummy in the tiny museum. Some people may find this slow to start, but I wanted the anticipation to go on and on. I liked the mystery more than its resolution.
The second half of the story doesn't take a nosedive or anything. It just gets a little jumbled, with a bunch of characters bursting into what has been mostly a solitary journey for Jacob, a somewhat questionable romance, some skewed parental interactions, and a lot of different plot points jammed together into a mostly coherent puzzle.
I haven't seen the movie yet, but I have a feeling it will focus on the "peculiar" children and rush through the opening, which would be a shame. It also makes me somewhat less inclined to read the follow-up novels, since they'll probably more closely resemble the second half of the book than the first. I invite those who have read them to make a case for or against continuing the series!
Yesterday I finished reading Panther by Brecht Evens. It's an artsy graphic novel that can be read in about an hour -- a deceptively short amount of time, considering how impossible it is to shake once you've read it. In my exploration of the book, I'm going to give spoilers, so if you want to read it unspoiled (it will only take an hour, after all!), you should come back to this post later.
Panther begins when Christine's cat dies. She is heartbroken; this is not her first traumatic loss. Later in the book, we learn that her mother "left" the family and may have committed suicide. Christine is a sad, lonely little girl living in a big house with her father who seems to be basically a good guy, but I'll come back to that later.
The night of her cat's death, Panther emerges from Christine's bottom drawer. He is shifty from the beginning, always changing his story and backtracking to make Christine happy. And she is mostly delighted with him. But the book's sinister undertones are unsettling to the adult reader. In one image, Panther has his nose buried in Christine's crotch, "sniffing" her out in a game of hide-and-seek. In another, he tells her she's not "a little girl" anymore as he massages her back after trying to coax her to get the key to her room from her dad so she can have privacy. (This whole "key to the bedroom" thing kind of creeped me out all on its own. Why would you need a key to a child's bedroom? Is she locked in at night?) Christine never discovers it, but Panther devours her stuffed dog, who had been attempting to warn her about him. When she notices the dog is gone, Panther replaces it with what basically an "evil twin" -- a lookalike full of dangerous and unsettling suggestions for "games." The night of Christine's birthday party, the dog is the ringleader in a "game" that ends with the Pantherland gang stripping Christine down to her underwear while she cries and begs them to stop. Afterwards, Panther attempts to comfort her by urging her to snuggle up to him and "pet" him while he keeps her warm. The book ends without "connecting the dots" of its troubling implications in any concrete way. What seems clear to me is that the book is grappling with the slippery connections between trauma, abuse, and imagination -- but the lingering question is whether the potential creation/imagination of Panther was a coping mechanism for Christine to deal with real-life abuse, either past or present, or whether the entity of Panther itself was given too much power and ultimately became the abuser.
These are the possible interpretations that emerged for me upon first reading. (I had to return the book to the library, but I would not be surprised if additional meanings or interpretations emerged if I could spend more time with it.)
I couldn't help but think of Tulpamancy as I read the book -- because Tulpas are "real" and "separate" people to their creators, I don't think I am the only one who harbors an insidious fear of what might happen if a Tulpa "goes bad," bringing its host with it. In fact, Panther could be read as a cautionary tale of just that sort.
But it could also be read as a demonstration of the only thing some people have to fall back on when their real life is too hard to bear: imagination. And no matter how scary that gets, it's still a safer place than reality.
Regardless of interpretation, Panther is one of the most haunting explorations of that line between fantasy and reality that I have ever read.