Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A review of "We Were Liars" by E. Lockhart

We Were Liars has been talked about all summer as the new trendy YA novel, and from first glance, it's got all the right credentials: a prominently placed quote of praise from "Mr. YA" himself, John Green on the cover, an intentionally vague plot summary on the dust jacket that speaks of a "shocking surprise ending", and photographic cover art. After I read it, however, it was revealed to be a far more old-fashioned affair. It's a psychological thriller from YA novelist E. Lockhart, that tells the story of Cadence Sinclair, a wealthy 17 year old girl who lives an idyllic life of golden sunsets and childhood adventure on an island off the coast of Massachusetts during the summer, until a mysterious accident changes everything.  

There is a lot of good stuff in this book. Its characters are all likable and occasionally funny, and even though they lean slightly on comforting archetypes like "affable goofball", there are enough little details to keep them feeling real, and less like cliches. The writing is spare and elegaic enough to both convey the intricacies of teen angst, and the beauty of the island. Lockhart also knows how to write a good suspense thriller, revealing small clues along the way, until hitting the reader with the big ending reveal. She creates a real sense of mystery and dread that sustains until the rather disappointing surprise ending. 

It's not perfect however. Its old-mansion-old-money setting harks back to 50's teen romances like A Summer Place, and the spookiness of the plot seems to recall even older gothic novels like Wuthering Heights (which is once directly name-checked by a character), and The Castle of Otranto, so it often seems like it should be set in another time period. As a result, it was often distracting to see references to iPads and other modern items among the lush, romantic descriptions of swimming in the ocean and making homemade wine, and as a result, often made the tone of the story seem uneven. It often seems to be trying too hard to hector the audience about race and class in America, and at several points in the story, characters stop what they're doing to make small speeches about those aforementioned issues, that often feel like Lockhart hitting me over the head with a large hammer labeled "SOCIAL COMMENTARY". 

Of course, I can't forget the infamous surprise ending. I don't know how other people took it, but I thought it was rather cheap. It's essentially (SPOILER ALERT: DO NOT READ ON IF YOU CARE ABOUT SUCH THINGS) the hoary old chestnut "It was all a dream" that I thought died out with pulp novels. One could argue that it was done partly in homage to the creaky 1930's and 40's melodramas the book is essentially a modern riff on, but that still doesn't make up for how much of an unsatisfying cop-out it was.This prominent flaw will probably prevent it from being the next Fault in Our Stars or Thirteen Reasons Why, but aside from that's it's an okay pulp suspense novel.


Friday, April 4, 2014

The Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye is about a boy named Holden Caulfield who gets kicked out of Pencey Prep school. He does not like his school and therefore does not apply himself there. He also accuses almost all the students and teachers at Pencey Prep to be phonies. After he leaves the school, Holden Caulfield has to go home, except he doesn't want to go right away. Because of that, Holden Caulfield decides to explore the world in New York City by himself. This book is about his many adventures and many thoughts during this few day period.

I had to read The Catcher in the Rye for my American Lit class. At first I thought this was going to be another typical boring book that I had to read for school. However, I realized that The Catcher in the Rye was a very real book. Holden Caulfield thinks many interesting thoughts, and it was a pleasure to hear his opinions about things, such as peer pressure, parenting, phoniess, sex, and careers. Although it was not my favorite book that I had read, I could find no faults with it. It thought it was well-written, and J.D. Salinger did a good job portraying the realness and humanness in the The Catcher in the Rye. It was a very good book!

Out of my Mind - Sharon Draper

Out of my Mind - Sharon Draper

The book Out of my Mind by Sharon Draper is a book about a young girl named Melody who has cerebral palsy, which affects her nervous system and makes her unable to move a lot or control her movement. Because of this, she could also not talk except in shrieks, cries, and other noises. This is especially difficult for her when she goes to school, because she is unable to communicate with anyone clearly.

On the bright side, Melody has one advantage: she is extremely smart. She has a photographic memory that can remember the most minute details from years back. She watched a lot of educational TV and has learned a lot to begin with. So when she finds out there is a Quiz Bowl team, she auditions for it, except nobody thinks that she will do well at all. However, Melody is devoted enough to prove everybody wrong and that she is a person who is worth a lot!

In my opinion, this was a very good book. I could easily sympathize with Melody and the ending did surprise me. I even got misty-eyed at one part of the book. The only fault I had with this book was that the dialogue was a bit unrealistic at times; some of the insults thrown at Melody were completely unlike what people would say today. Despite that negative point, however, I thought Out of my Mind by Sharon Draper was a great book that opened my eyes to help understand people with mental disabilities more and to understand that they are actually just as equal as everybody else.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Evey Day - David Levithan

Did you ever wonder how life would be if you were somebody else? Well in Every Day by David Levithan, a human soul named A wakes up in a different person's body every single day. A has done this since the day it was born. However, one day, A falls in love with a girl named Rhiannon. A feels love it has never felt before, and it wants to spend the rest of its life with her. However, asides from the fact that she has a boyfriend, A cannot stay in one person's body. Can Rhiannon still love A even though he changes every day?

In my opinion, the best aspect of this book wasn't the romance. In Every Day, A lives inside a different person's body every single day. It goes only into bodies of people its age (16), but A lives in many people. Because of this, the reader gets to see and better understand the positions of other people's lives. They get a better perspective on the realities and truths of men, women, depression, race, ethnicity, homosexuality, and mental disabilities. One can learn to appreciate and accept these people more after reading Every Day by David Levithan.

A great, original plot, combined with a deeper message creates Every Day by David Levithan, an amazing book that is definitely worth reading.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

'Round Midnight Part Two: "The Figure in the Shadows" by John Bellairs

In honor of Halloween, all this month I'm going to be reviewing books that have scared over the years, in a new series I call "'Round Midnight".

John Bellairs, I guess you could say, was the thinking man's R.L. Stine. He, like Stine, made a career churning out a panoply of childrens' horror books, but while Stine's work (which isn't without its merit, mind you) is full of grotesque images, and often aspires to be kiddie Stephen King, ends up being blackly comic self-parody often reminiscent of the Evil Dead series. Meanwhile, John Bellairs' books took their inspiration from classic American ghosts and ghouls writers like Ambrose Bierce and Edgar Allen Poe, and often relied more on atmosphere, and suggestion to create fear, than whatever screwed up thing came into the author's head. The Figure in the Shadows, was one of my first forays into the horror genre at large, and as such, this article will be more of a nostalgic retrospective/recommendation than a  review.

 Even though it's not as well known as his (quite delightful) gothic mystery, The House with a Clock in its Walls, The Figure in the Shadows was one of the first books to truly terrify me. Sure, certain scenes in Harry Potter books (the first appearance of the Dementors, for example) and the dread-filled Series of Unfortunate Events spooked me, but it wasn't until this book, that I ever trembled with fear while reading. It tells the story of Lewis Barnavelt, a kid who has the unfortunate habit of getting into trouble with the invisible world, finding a coin with magical powers, that unfortunately is also connected to a malevolent spirit. He's appeared in other books of Bellairs', including The House with a Clock in its Walls, and is different other kids' fantasy protagonists, because of how roundly average he is: he has an above average intellect, but isn't a genius, he's kind of overweight, and has no special powers to speak of, making him the quintessential everyman. This helps the reader to sympathize with how truly out of his depth he is, when he's thrown into situations beyond his comprehension.

Even though he does go on to many other adventures after this one, Bellairs does a good job making you disregard this, and fear for Lewis' life during particularly tense moments. The supporting characters are also pretty well developed, and are far more competent than Lewis at dealing with his ghost problems. But where Bellairs really excels is taking the sublime spookiness of the best ghost stories, and combining them with a propulsive overarching plot. He knows how to create tension and atmosphere, emphasizing the almost existential loneliness of Lewis' hometown of New Zebedee, Michigan to great effect, especially during the scene when the ghost approaches Lewis' home.

The famed illustrator Edward Gorey slummed it drawing for Bellairs' books, and added to the creepy mood with his subdued, starkly beautiful depictions of the events of the aforementioned scene. This specific passage, was the one that made my heart pound with dread and horror, and nearly put me off Bellairs' work forever, until I realized how much fun it was being that terrified. And that thrill of controlled fear is what's been bringing me back to horror fiction ever since.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

'Round Midnight Part One: "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" by H.P. Lovecraft

In honor of Halloween, all this month I'm going to be reviewing books that have scared over the years, in a new series I call "'Round Midnight". 

For a notorious shut-in and misanthrope, H.P. Lovecraft sure knew how to scare a person. His "Cthulhu Mythos" stories are known for their quaint New England settings, their unique cosmology, and overwhelming sense of cosmic dread. He was one of the first horror authors to stray away from your typical witches-ghosts-undead triumvirate, and was met with middling success during his life, but after his death was revered as one of the greatest writers in the genre, and highly influential on authors from Stephen King to Neil Gaiman. He was also a racist in the "grouchy old man" mode, but we'll get to that later.

His 1927 novella, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is strange among the works in his oeuvre, in that it grafts his "mind-breaking abominations from beyond the void are slowly taking over the universe" ideas onto a traditional English-style detective thriller. This actually works surprisingly well. It concerns a young man named (you guessed it) Charles Dexter Ward. He's a pretty normal WASP-y New Englander who develops a strange obsession with his long dead ancestor Joseph Curwen, who was known for his eccentric habits. Not to ruin much, but things go pear shaped, and his doctor, Marinus Willett, is sent in to investigate.

The beginning of the book is a little slow. Lovecraft enjoys building atmosphere gradually over time, but all that eventually culminates to some of the scariest horror writing ever. I was reading this on the train, one of the least immersive places to read, and I was afraid. This is made even more impressive when you see that Lovecraft doesn't rely on cheap shocks, or overly gruesome/sick description to make you jump. The mystery elements ground it, so it doesn't float too far off into Lovecraft's twisted, whimsical head, like some of his other novellas (e.g. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath), and provide a welcome relief and comfort from the stark horror taking place elsewhere. There even is a little comedy at one point, although it's easy to miss.

I have two main issues with it, though. It takes a long time for Charles Dexter Ward to get going, and it often spends pages digressing into the villainous Curwen's backstory, which drags a bit. The aforementioned racism is also at play here, but only in the occasional descriptive passage. Lovecraft didn't get out much (and kind of hated all people), so he ended up with a skewed perception of humankind, that most often manifested in prejudice. This doesn't forgive his racist biases by a long stretch, but doesn't diminish the mostly great writing here, and Lovecraft's impact on the genre of horror. In total, this is a flawed, but singularly frightening work from one of America's premier masters of spooky.


Saturday, August 24, 2013

One More Triple Post: Nine Days, Light, and a preview of The Dream Thieves

I've finally got around to doing this: my last blog entry. (cry) So I'll do it on the three books I think I enjoyed the most this summer.

Nine Days

Nine Days by Fred Hiatt is about Ti-Anna and Evan, two high school sophomores who bond over their interest in social justice in China. After Ti-Anna's father, a Chinese human rights advocate, disappears in Hong Kong, Ti-Anna and Evan must go to Hong Kong in secret and only have nine days to find and rescue him.
I have been learning and taking interest in some human rights stuff, and this book really brought it to life, especially towards the end where Ti-Anna and Evan uncover a human trafficking ring. The story was fast paced and hooking, and Ti-Anna and Evan were two kids I could definitely cheer for and say "You go, guys!" I felt like I was in Hong Kong with them as they tried to find Ti-Anna's father. This is the perfect book to help you get interested in human rights and the best part is that it's based off the story of someone who was in Ti-Anna's shoes.


Light by Michael Grant is the final book in the Gone series. For those who haven't read it, the series about a town where everyone over fourteen has disappeared and those who are left are cut off from the rest of the world. They must fight to survive, find food, discover their new abilities, and in this final book, prepare for the final battle with the force that put them in this situation in the first place and exit the FAYZ (what they call the area they are living in).
This book was the perfect ending to a perfect series, and it left me breathless and thinking about it for a long time after. It was the perfect balance of action, romance, and suspense and I felt like I knew each and every character almost as well as real people. Fans of the series, be forewarned: a lot of main characters die in this one, so your favorite might not be there to see the end of the FAYZ.

The Dream Thieves
The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater doesn't come out until September 17, but Ms. Miller lent me the arc, and I loved it (thank you again, Ms. Miller!). I don't want to spoil anything for anyone, so I'll stick to a brief summary and a few thoughts.
Since Blue and her friends have woken up the Cabesbury ley lines, things have definitely gotten strange. Adam is still acting strange. Ronan is able to take things out of his dreams. Blue is starting to wonder if she has a crush on Gansey. And who is that strange man in gray and what does he want?
Maggie Stiefvater, as usual, wrote a beautiful work of awesomeness. The characters and setting are so lifelike, and the plot is so complex, you're not going to want to stop reading this. If you haven't read The Raven Boys yet, I highly recommend that you start, and then read this one. You are in for a treat.