"Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather, and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know." - John Keats

"You're not allowed to say anything about books because they're books and books are, you know, God." - Nick Hornby

Monday, May 11, 2015

Review #23: Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card

Ender's Game arrived in my inbox from JB with this note: "Read this now...better than whatever you are currently reading." Since I was reading Every Day, I can't agree with that statement, but I can say that once I finished Every Day, I blew through Ender's Game in just a couple of days and loved it. 

Ender's Game is the first book in what eventually became a quintet about Andrew "Ender" Wiggins, the youngest of three brilliant children, who is chosen for Battle School, an elite military academy that trains young boys and girls to defend Earth against the threat of a species from another planet. Ender is young - only six when he is first sent to Battle School - but according to some shadowy conversations between some military higher-ups the reader is privy to, he's pretty much humanity's last great hope. It's up to the brass to train him to quite literally save the world. 

If I had read that summary (and/or not trusted JB's taste), I would have put this book back down and moved along to another section of the bookshop. Fantasy isn't my deal, and sci fi even less so, but even though this was largely set in outer space with rockets and zero gravity and all the other trappings of a futuristic story, it was so very human that all of that fell away as I became engrossed in the story of Ender's destiny.

It's hard to talk about the story without giving away the ending, and I really don't want to do that, so I'm going to stop my summary there. The climax and conclusion was so well executed that I truly didn't see it coming, not even a hint of it. And even though the book is part of a series, it works quite well all on its own.

I know much has been made of Card's personal politics both here and on Pajiba, and I didn't connect the dots until after I finished the book. Reading about Card's beliefs is disappointing, and honestly, quite surprising, given the way his characters are constructed. That said, Ender's Game is one of the best YA books I've ever read, and in a sea of books about vampires and uninspiring characters and poorly written stories with weak and uninteresting protagonists, it's a stand out. 

Review #22: Every Day, by David Levithan

I read Will Grayson, will grayson the other day, and developed a little bit of a crush on David Levithan. (Is it dorky that I get crushes on authors the way that other people get crushes on movie stars?) So I went to my library's website to see what I could download, found Every Day, and blew through it over the course of a couple of hours.

Told in a first person narrative, Every Day is the story of a boy named A who wakes up each day in someone else's body. He gets one day to live as that person, and at midnight, he vanishes in to another person's life. It's an interesting concept, how to live a life without changing it too much, and it brings up some unanswerable moral questions. What do you do when the body you're inhabiting is craving a drug that your mind knows could be fatal? Do you let the body win? Or do you let the mind - your mind, not the body's mind - win? Will one day be enough to change the addiction? What do you do when the body you're in is suicidal? Do you step in and try to prevent the death? Do you leave it up to the fates? If you aren't in that body any more, what can you even do?

And what happens when you fall in love? 

Because eventually it's bound to happen, and one day, A falls in love with Rhiannon after waking up in the body of her boyfriend Justin, and he can't get her out of his mind. So he seeks her out, each day in a new body. Rhiannon is disbelieving at first, of course, because it's a preposterous idea, but eventually she sees him in there, hidden behind the eyes of high school wrestlers and Goth art students, the class nerds and the popular girls. But how can a love like that last? Never knowing where he is, or even who he is, knowing he will always leave? Every day, A wakes up in a different body, sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes fat or thin or beautiful or ugly or black or white or purple. Sometimes he can get to Rhiannon and sometimes he is four hours away, with no way to get even a message to her, so she's left wondering every day if this is a day she'll have him, her life constantly on hold for something that can only last a couple of hours at a time. A and Rhiannon fight with everything they have to make it work, an impossible love in an untenable situation. It's heartwarming and heartbreaking, hopeful and hopeless all at once.

I want to mention Levithan's treatment of mental health in the book. More than a few times, A wakes up in the body of a person who is struggling with depression or body issues or drug addiction. He handles it with exquisite grace, saying that when he was younger, he would wake up and couldn't understand why things felt "muted, dimmer. Or the opposite - I'd be supercharged, unfocused, like a radio at top volume flipping quickly from station to station." He says that he finally realized that these feelings were "as much a part of the body as its eye color or its voice". He makes a very firm statement that it's the body that is sick, not the soul. He talks about how it takes "uncommon strength" to live with those feelings, and how he has seen that strength in many of the bodies he's inhabited. Every Day is a YA book, aimed at teenagers, and I think it's so important for kids to read - and understand - that if they are feeling muted or supercharged, dimmed or unfocused, it doesn't mean that there's something wrong with them. I saw the same treatment and care of this topic in Will Grayson, will grayson, and any review would be remiss if it didn't commend Levithan for tackling this topic with such a skillful hand.

"I want love to conquer all. But love can't conquer anything. It can't do anything on its own. It relies on us to do the conquering on its behalf."

Every Day is set against a wholly unique backdrop, but in the end, it's a simple love story. As A says, "It's as simple as that. Simple and complicated, as most true things are."

Review #21: Will Grayson, will grayson, by John Green & David Levithan

Will Grayson, will grayson is a Cannonball favorite, so I'm going to skip the summary and dive right in, because I have lots and lots of thoughts about this book. It's the kind of story that when I was done with it, I needed to call up someone and talk about it right away, but felt like maybe I was overreacting just a smidge, because after all, it's impossible to fall in love with Tiny Cooper, because he isn't real. And that, my friends, is a great, great tragedy.

Because Tiny Cooper might just be the best thing ever. (And did you know he's got his own book now? Hold me closer, indeed.) He's big, black, and gay. And in your face. And a little bit self-involved. And exhausting to be around. And definitely has some delusions of grandeur. But you know what else Tiny is? An amazing friend. Sometimes I wanted to shake Will and scream at him that he would never find a friend as loyal and true as Tiny. Tiny, who wears his heart on his sleeve, who falls in and out of love with the flip of a switch, who is, yes, a little bit self-absorbed, but who loves Will with a fierceness and protectiveness that we all crave in a best friend.

I've read John Green (Looking for Alaska, Paper Towns) before. He's a Cannonball darling, and he's a hoot on Facebook. He'd be a blast to hang out and have a beer with and I love his unabashed excitement over seeing his stories come to life. But this was my first exposure to David Levithan, and he blew me away. His treatment of will grayson was spot on. The very matter-of-fact way that he dealt with will's depression and mental health, the running commentary in will's head, his shock at Maura's betrayal...it all felt so natural. His disbelief and anxiety - that anxious hope that someone could like him for him, really like him - was extraordinarily on point. Levithan tackles depression and anxiety, sexual identity, and personal identity, as well as the usual teen angst, in a way that I've rarely seen on the written page. If I want to have a beer with Green, I want to lay on Levithan's couch and explore the inner workings of his mind.

I loved Will Grayson, will grayson the way eighteen year old me loved My So-Called Life. The characters could have easily been a Very Special Episode of Blossom or Glee-ified, but they rang so incredibly true - like Angela and Rayanne and Ricky and Brian and Jordan Catalano did to me twenty years ago (sweet baby Jesus we're old) - that I was sad to close the cover and say goodbye to them.

Review #20: Paper Towns, by John Green

My first John Green novel was Looking for Alaska, and I loved it. I follow him on Facebook (he's delightfully goofy), and with all the buzz surrounding Paper Towns being made in to a movie, I figured I should give it a read. Plus, I was reading Father and Son, which is fantastic but very, very dark, and I needed a little bit of light for a couple of days, and I knew I could count on Green to give it to me.

Quentin (Q) and Margo Roth Spiegelman have been friends since she moved in next door as a young girl, their friendship forever cemented when they discovered a dead man in the park together. But as often happens between boys and girls, they drifted apart as they entered high school, with Q loving Margo from afar and Margo sliding in to the in crowd, leaving Q behind. Until one night, Margo appears at Q's window, determined to take him on an adventure that includes stealing her philandering boyfriend's pants and breaking in to Sea World. After such a night, Q is sure that she's come back to him, but he gets to school only to find that she's gone missing.

What follows is Q's journey to find Margo, discovering clues that he's convinced she's left for him, pleading with his friends to help him. Finally, with just minutes to go before their graduation ceremony, he realizes that she's in a paper town (a fictional town mapmakers use to prevent plagairism) in New York, and he grabs a handful of friends, ditches the cap and gown, and takes his mom's mini-van from Florida to the upper reaches of New York, praying all the way that he finds Margo before it's too late.

I have to say that I really didn't like Margo. Perhaps that was Green's goal, but I wanted to cheerfully strangle her more than once. I found her to be extremely frustrating, the epitome of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl with more than a dash of selfishness. Q's friends, though, were delightful, nerdy and funny and serious and exactly the kind of support system one should have. And I grew more and more frustrated with Q, because Margo just didn't deserve Q's devotion. At least with Alaska, I could understand some of her behavior, but Margo was just a selfish, spoiled, narcissistic little brat, completely undeserving of Q's attention or affection.

I've read elsewhere that Paper Towns isn't Green's strongest effort. The more I sat on this review, the more indecisive I became about my feelings about it. Sometimes I think I loved it, and other times I think it isn't his best work. But Green himself is so likable that I'll read anything he writes, even if it's a description on the back of the cereal box.

Review #19: Father and Son, by Larry Brown

Set in rural 1960s Mississippi, Father and Son spans a week in a small town after one of their own, Glen Davis, returns from three years in the state penitentiary for running over and killing a young boy while driving drunk. Glen is angry, furious, and the reader senses immediately that this is not a man who has learned his lesson. He's hard-edged, cold and disconnected, and there is no redeeming quality in him.

Glen returns to an elderly father intent on drinking himself to death, a former lover, Jewel, for whom he has very little feelings, a bastard four year old son for whom he has even less, his sainted dead mother's unmarked grave, a hero-worshipping, no account little brother, and Bobby, the sheriff of the town. Glen's hatred of Bobby is more than the natural hatred a criminal has for a lawman, and Brown lets it slip, in a very unobtrusive way, that Bobby's mother and Glen's father once had an affair, and Bobby is the product of that union.

The town is as much a character as the humans, with its run down houses, tiny general store, steamy afternoons, even sun bleached cotton fields. Everyone chain smokes, drinks whiskey, drives with no seat belts, and has a six pack of Old Milwaukee on the bench seat. Young boys are going off to war with stars in their eyes, and it's nearly certain that they'll be returning with those stars burned out, if they return at all. It's a town that is slowly dying, with men eking out a living on dry and dusty farms and women donning polyester waitress uniforms and trying desperately to make ends meet.

Within hours of his return, Glen has assaulted, killed, raped, and robbed, and Brown deftly weaves his actions in with other, more mundane stories of the town and its inhabitants. Sheriff Bobby follows Glen's trail, sorting through the chaos left in his wake, the white knight to Glen's raping and pillaging. Glen rails against his place in this world, even as he clings to it with all his might, so consumed with rage that he is doomed to self destruct. Bobby could have easily been painted as an aw shucks, Andy Griffith kind of sheriff, but he, too, is human and flawed, and quietly, desperately, wants to do the right thing.

Father and Son was a tough read for me. Glen was such a dark character - and the town was so depressing - that I found myself having to step away from the book for a couple of days, needing something light and funny to offset the clouds that had suddenly appeared when reading this. I'm glad I returned though, and I'll be looking for more from Brown in the future.

Review #18: When All the World Was Young, by Ferrol Sams

When All the World Was Young came to me via JB, and I think know why. It's exactly the kind of book he likes - kind of a meandering, character-driven novel that doesn't really have a story, per se, but is more about the human experience.

This is the third installment from Ferrol Sams in a loose trilogy, although it's not necessary to have read the first two (Run with the Horseman and The Whisper of the River). Porter Longstreet Osborne, Jr. is the first of his family to have gone to college and is just about to start medical school at Emory University. It's 1942, and World War II has broken out, so like many colleges and universities across the country, Emory has accelerated its curriculum, and Porter is starting medical school at 19, destined to become a doctor by 22. He survives his first year, but is frustrated at being stuck at home while the war rages on without him. Porter deliberately throws a final exam, failing, and by getting kicked out of the medical program, he's able to join the army, where he is sure that he will be scooped up and put to use immediately in the European theatre.

Porter is stuck stateside for far longer than he anticipated, but eventually makes it overseas, coming ashore at Normandy in the weeks after the famous June 6th invasion. From there he criss-crosses Europe, running in to old medical school friends and basic training buddies, half falling in love with army nurses and French women, playing pranks on commanding officers. There's one running prank in the book about an invented soldier that plays out many times over several hundred pages, and it's a testament to Sams' gifted writing that the threads of that prank were woven so neatly in to the story, coming back up when least expected.

Sams tackles some fairly big topics: racism (both of the small Southern town variety and the veiled xenophobia of the era), feminism, classism, family relationships, the transition from boyhood to adulthood, the idea of family and home. But he does it deftly, so that the ideas that he explores are part of the story and not necessarily Topics To Discuss. Porter struggles with all these, and more, and yet manages to keep his sense of humor, his sense of childlike fun, and his sense of self and home and family. Post reading research reveals an awful lot of similarities between Porter and Sams, who himself was a small town Georgia boy, a country doctor who dropped out of medical school to join the army. If real life Sams was anything like what I think Porter eventually became, I'll bet he was quite a guy.

Review #17: The Liar, by Nora Roberts

My mom is an avid Nora Roberts fan. I used to be as well, but in recent years I've become less avid, but it's hard to resist a shiny new hardcover from the library, so when Mom finished up her copy of The Liar a week before it was due, I snagged it. 

The book opens with Shelby, a young widow with a three year old daughter, coming off the news of her husband's tragic death in a sailing accident. Richard was an investor of some sort - Shelby's not really sure; it was a whirlwind romance and he didn't like her to worry her pretty little head about such matters - but after his death, it comes out that Richard was broke. And now, so is Shelby. More than broke, actually; Richard left her with millions of dollars of debt.

Forced to sell the McMansion she hated anyway, as well as most of the furniture, which she also hated, Shelby packs up her little girl, her few belongings, and two hundred thousand dollars - as well as some fake IDs and a gun - she found in Richard's safe deposit box, and heads for home. Home is Rendezvous Ridge, where her family has lived for decades. Her dad is the town doctor, her mother and grandmother run the local day spa, and her brother is a police officer. 

Once home, a private investigator comes knocking, and once the dead bodies begin piling up, Shelby realizes Richard may not have been what he said he was. In fact, Richard may not have existed at all. Her friends and family rally around her, though, including her former BFF Emma Kate, with whom she had a falling out when she left town the first time, and Griffin, the town's Yankee contractor, who falls in love not only with Shelby but her little girl as well.

I'm sure by now you've figured out that Richard's not really dead, and the fact that it took Shelby about 350 pages to realize that when I figured it out after three kind of drove me nuts. And while I don't want to say that Shelby's recovery from the crippling debt was easy - it's never easy to sell your home and your dead husband's clothes, even if you hated the home and the husband - it was tied up pretty neatly, and felt even more unrealistic than the usual romance novel suspension of disbelief.

I also felt like I could see a lot of J.D. Robb coming through in this novel, and I've noticed that more and more in her last few books. It's nothing overly specific, more of the rhythm and certain turns of phrase. And it can't be easy taking off her J.D. Robb hat and putting on her Nora Roberts hat, but if I wanted to read J.D. Robb, I'd pick up J.D. Robb. Lord knows there are eleventy billion to choose from.

Years ago, my mom and I used to read Danielle Steele all the time. Zoya was my all time favorite. (I was fifteen - what can I say?) But as the years went on, my mom would read her latest and say, "It was okay, but I think she needed to buy another car, so she wrote another book." That's kind of how I feel about The Liar. It was okay, but I think maybe Roberts wanted a new car.

Review #16: The Cinderella Deal, by Jennifer Crusie

Normally, I like Jennifer Crusie. She can be counted on for some mad-cap adventures, a hot guy or two, and a girl who is kind of a mess but fiercely independent. She's chick lit, but she's usually pretty good chick lit. Perfect for an audio book. But The Cinderella Deal left me feeling pretty disenchanted.
Daisy Flattery is a free spirited unemployed artist, struggling to make ends meet and struggling to make her paintings speak. Her apartment is a riot of color, and she has an illegal cat. Linc Blaise is a no-nonsense professor, rigid in both his dress and his demeanor. His apartment, directly above Daisy's, is black and white and silver, all modern chrome and hard edges, and he hates Daisy's cat. When Linc needs a stand-in fiancee, he offers to pay Daisy's rent for the month so that she can pose as his girlfriend to him get a job at a nearby college. Daisy agrees, and Linc gets the job.

But when Linc arrives at the college with the cover story that he and Daisy "just didn't work out", the dean forces him back to get Daisy, and suddenly, he and Daisy are on their way to the altar. Linc and Daisy agree to make the marriage work for the school year, giving Daisy a chance to get out of town and concentrate on her art without having to worry about how to pay the bills, and freeing Linc up to work on his book. Of course, Daisy and Linc are meant to fall in love and discover their true feelings at the eleventh hour, and true to form, that's what happens. Daisy discovers she likes Linc's rules and rigidity and Linc discovers how much he wants the crazy artist with the wild hair. And they should live happily ever after.

Except, by the end of the book, by the time they discover their true love, I didn't really care. Daisy, who wasn't all that fiercely independent but was definitely a mess, had become a faded carbon copy of herself, weak and almost Stepford wife-ish. And Linc, never exactly a bastion of sexuality, felt boring and even more rigid than in the beginning of the novel. Clearly, these are two people who are destined only to have sex missionary style and only on Saturday nights. Which is fine if that's your deal, but I expect more from a romance novel. Plus, the whole subtext that Daisy needed a man to take care of her, to pay her bills, was just a little bit more than I could stomach. I need my romance novel heroines to be a little bit more independent.

I still like Crusie, but this one missed the mark big time.

Review #15: The Fixer-Upper, by Mary Kay Andrews

Mary Kay Andrews is one of those authors who I've read a couple of times and enjoyed in a breezy, beach book kind of way. I liked Savannah Blues and Savannah Breeze, but I'm left feeling a little ambivalent about The Fixer-Upper. Perhaps it's because I listened to it as an audio book and didn't much care for the reader, or perhaps it was just too long. Either way, it filled the gaps in my time during my commute and during my walks, but I have a few nits to pick with it.

Dempsey Killebrew is a young up and coming lobbyist in Washington, D.C., when her boss is suddenly thrust in to the limelight, accused of corruption and bribery. Dempsey is unceremoniously dumped in the aftermath, and, needing to get out of town, not to mention out of the papers, her father sends her down to one-stoplight Guthrie, Georgia, to the ancestral home that he just recently inherited. Dempsey is to clean the place up and get it ready to sell.

But when Dempsey arrives at Birdsong, she finds more than she bargained for. The grounds are overgrown and the house is in desperate need of not only a cleaning, but a total gutting, including new plumbing, new wiring, a new roof, and about five garbage trucks to haul old Uncle Norbert's fifty-year collection of National Geographic magazines away. She has a squatter in the form of Ella Kate Timmons, a distant cousin who moved in to take care of Uncle Norbert before he died, and who now refuses to leave. And if all that wasn't enough, the FBI is sniffing around, wanting to talk to her about those pesky credit card charges that trace back to hookers and "massages" for the Congressman her former boss was lobbying, and T. Carter Berryhill, handsome attorney and newspaper man, keeps wanting to take her out to dinner.

So here's where my nits come in. I've done home renovation. Maybe not to the extent that Dempsey is having to do it, but I'm here to tell you that there is no way on God's green earth that she's not only going to magically find a contractor who can do everything from plumbing to roofing to electrical work, but that that contractor will a) happily lend his tools to her, b) be available immediately, c) find a vintage farmhouse sink from the 20s at the town dump, d) build a fantastic kitchen island out of scrap wood from a dark and damp basement, and e) fix a slate roof in one day. And that T. Carter Berryhill is going to find her adorable in her dead uncle's overalls, peeling up green linoleum, which, of course, reveals gorgeous heart pine floors. And that she's going to figure out how to tile a kitchen counter (with salvaged tile from the basement, natch) when two weeks ago, the biggest thing her hands were doing was getting a manicure. And that the kitchen counter would only take an afternoon. Never once did Dempsey run in to any sort of snag. The hardware store always had what she needed, the local Realtor painted her house (for free), and her contractor was a dream. And the timeline for getting things repaired kind of blew my mind. Stripping the paint off of all your cupboard doors takes more than a couple of hours, especially when there are eighty years of paint on them. Can you tell that I felt like the home renovation stuff was a little bit unrealistic? And that's disappointing, because one of the things I loved best about Andrews' other stories were those exact things - the junking and renovation and searching for just the right faucet. 

There's also a weird extraneous storyline involving Ella Kate's reason for hating Dempsey's side of the family so much, and, believe it or not, it's because Ella Kate never forgave Dempsey's grandfather for stealing Dempsey's grandmother Olivia away from her when they were young girls together at Agnes Scott College, a marriage which led to Olivia's early demise. Apparently, Ella Kate and Olivia were lovers, and the entire story line felt forced and sort of added on at the end. 

Maybe I'm being too hard on Andrews. It's fiction, after all, and maybe I should just suspend a little bit of disbelief. Honestly, I think what irritated me the most about The Fixer-Upper was the narrator. Her voice for Ella Kate was perhaps the worst and most grating old lady voice I've ever heard, and sadly, Ella Kate talks a lot. I felt like I would have liked Ella Kate had I read the book, but her voice, as read by the narrator, turned me off from the character permanently. Luckily, the scenes with Dempsey's five year old twin half brothers were mercifully short, because I nearly turned off the book when they began whining. 

I'll give Andrews another shot down the road. I just don't think I'll listen to this narrator again.