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review 2017-10-22 18:15
Little Star, by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Little Star: A Novel - John Ajvide Lindqvist

After seeing the recent adaptation of Stephen King's It, I was inspired to delve into a big, fat horror novel (I already read It a few summers ago); plus, 'tis the season. John Ajvide Lindqvist has been referred to as Sweden's Stephen King, and I can see why. What I like most about King's writing is his characterization: characters feel like real people, no matter how fantastical, or evil. Little Star is my second Lindqvist novel, and he has a similar gift for creating engaging characters.

 

In some ways, though, I find his horror even more frightening than King's. He has a way of providing the details that are often skipped over in horror movies, such as the way the human body reacts to terror. Acts of violence are shockingly brutal (early in the novel a husband savagely breaks his wife's kneecap). He also appears to be interested in children as protagonists, especially girls. Little Star, like Let the Right One In, the other Lindqvist novel I read, features two children as the characters who drive the narrative. One (Theres) does not seem to be quite human (like the vampire in the latter novel), while the other (Theresa) is a human who is an outcast (like the boy who befriends the vampire). Each one's story is told separately at first, including their parents' points of view, until they meet--virtually and then in person. At this point we know the two will be frightening together.

 

Much of this novel details the angst and alienation of young girls, which can be painful to read if you're a woman who felt like an outsider at some point during your childhood. That alienation is weaponized; it's a freight train whose collision you can't stop but also can't look away from. It reminded me of Dietland, which I read a while ago and is not a horror novel, or even Kill the Boy Band and The Girls. I suppose I'm drawn to stories where patriarchal suppression erupts in violence.

 

I was left with a question or two, including Theres's origins (she's left to die as an infant in a forest before being discovered) and the red smoke she and the girls feed on. I also wanted a bit more of Theres's adoptive mother's perspective at the beginning.

 

Despite these questions, this novel shocked, disturbed, and awed me. I tore through it. AND I learned about several Swedish pop stars!

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-04-03 17:13
Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher
Thirteen Reasons Why - Jay Asher

I've had this book forever but was prompted to finally read it by the series adaptation that just came to Netflix.

 

(Spoiler-free until the note.)

 

The most impressive element of this book is the fact that it takes on toxic masculinity and rape culture head on. It's the sort of book that I'm not sure would have existed when I was going through high school. That alone makes it a relevant, disturbing, but necessary read for students (and teachers, counselors).

 

The story is divided between protagonist Clay's perspective and Hannah's, the girl at the center of the narrative who committed suicide. One day Clay finds a package containing seven cassette tapes, which he must pass on to the next person spoken about on the tapes (one side per person). Each person had a role in Hannah's downward spiral, so the book is set up as a mystery. What happened to Hannah? Why did she kill herself?

 

Each chapter takes on one tape, and as he listens, Clay follows the map Hannah made and slipped in his locker before she died that marks key spots in her story. It was sometimes difficult for me to engage with this structure; someone wandering around listening to audio tapes isn't all that dynamic. I liked the idea of the book's structure but not necessarily its execution.

 

(SPOILERS) I'm also disappointed in the revelation of Clay's role once he reaches his own tape. I understand the choice to keep Clay a "good guy" in the reader's eyes since his is the point of view we're following, but I think the story would be more impactful if there was something he did or didn't do that forced him to reevaluate his own actions or inaction. He does regret leaving Hannah alone, but it's when she asks him to, which felt a bit problematic because generally when a girl tells you to leave, YOU SHOULD LEAVE, so technically Clay did the right thing. He blames himself for not helping her, for not persisting, but it feels like he's making Hannah's pain about him.

 

Clay also feels guilty and angry at himself for not standing up to others when it comes to how girls are treated, and by the end, in the last scene, we're to understand that will change (in contrast to another person on the tapes he runs into earlier, who still seems incapable of understanding his role--or won't acknowledge it). Though there are girls among the thirteen reasons, there's a way in which their roles enact rape culture and patriarchy (not that this makes them beyond blame). At the same time, the potential saviors the narrative suggests could have made the difference are boys/men, which both fairly places the responsibility on their shoulders--but also suggests the old man-as-rescuer trope. (END SPOILERS)

 

Regardless of my concerns, I'm grateful there's a book like this out there, tackling these subjects, and I'm interested in how the show on Netflix adapts its particular structure.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-01-14 17:03
The Unseen World, by Liz Moore
The Unseen World: A Novel - Liz Moore

From the Tournament of Books longlist.

 

Some thoughts on this book are going to entail spoilers (which I'll mark), but I'll first say this was a unique story and point of view: a girl raised and schooled at home by her peculiar, computer scientist father in the '80s is forced from that bubble when he begins exhibiting signs of Alzheimer's. Some elements were a surprise, others predictable but mostly worthwhile anyway, as the father's identity comes into question and Ada, his daughter, seeks answers. The book is written in chunks, some taking place in the recent present, a bit in her father's past, a bit in the future, but mostly in the 1980s when Ada becomes a teenager.

 

Non-spoilery elements I enjoyed:

I liked Ada, named after Ada Lovelace, considered the first computer programmer, and Liston, her father's lab mate and later Ada's guardian. This novel acknowledges the role women play and have always played in computer science.

 

I liked how David's choices in raising Ada stem from the personal; in the beginning, before David's history is revealed, these choices could feel like poor ones, not abusive but perhaps selfish. Ada does not associate with peers; she has no friends and knows only adults that her father works with. She observes Liston's boys from afar and only learns of popular culture via Liston and other lab workers. Despite this, Ada still develops the insecurities that go with teenagehood, but on top of that she has insecurities about her insecurities, like she's letting her father down by wanting the things she wants because she should be above them.

 

My favorite moments in the story are when Ada first begins attending Catholic school after being unofficially homeschooled by David her whole life. Interacting with her father and adults at the lab, Ada is used to being treated as an adult herself, with worthwhile things to say and contribute to their research. On her first day of school, she's immediately assumed to be misbehaving or incapable. This says a lot about how we treat children in the education system, whether public or private. I wish we saw more of Ada at school and her transition to making friends. I also wonder how she did academically and what she thought of the work, given that she's likely operating at above grade level.

 

Non-spoilery elements I wasn't crazy about:

Liston's sons William and Matty felt somewhat generic as characters, fulfilling roles in Ada's growth, versus Gregory, who is fleshed out (though we don't see how exactly he becomes like his mother). Besides Liston, the other lab folk also feel indistinguishable until the end when a few are more strongly differentiated.

 

Though the mystery and reveal of David's identity is done well, at times it feels like there are too many pieces of the puzzle (the code, the locked filing cabinet, the computer program, the photos...).

 

Ada's one of those girls who is attractive, with multiple boys who are interested, but she's unaware of her appeal. It makes sense given her upbringing, but it's a familiar type that's come to drive me nuts. We need more Jane Eyres.

 

In terms of writing style, my one complaint is that sometimes the author tells you what she just showed you or repeats observations (e.g. David is Ada's whole world). She should trust her readers more.

 

SPOILERS below:

 

Returning to an item from above, the revelation of David's queerness and work history in government put his choices in raising Ada in much-needed context. His mistrust of authority, his emphasis on education and thinking for oneself, his near sequestering of Ada, all come to feel less like strictness and eccentricity and more like sane choices.

 

My biggest gripe is the last chapter and epilogue. The former reminds me of Harry Potter's epilogue where we're given a predictable Happily Ever After of the sort some readers like or require; I would have preferred the story end with the section in 2009. The latter is an unnecessary "twist" that suddenly puts the novel in SF territory; it reminded me of the end of the film A.I. Artificial Intelligence. I can guess the intent--another "child" brought up uniquely, an objective observer to give the story context (e.g. people make mistakes, hurt each other, etc.), but suddenly learning the story's been told by an A.I. is too much of a rug-puller. Still, it wasn't awful enough to sour my enjoyment of the rest.

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review 2016-12-01 21:59
Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff
Lovecraft Country: A Novel - Matt Ruff

Another book with a fantastic premise and strong start that doesn't quite live up to its potential. The novel establishes 1954, post-Korean War, Jim Crow America as Lovecraftian horror for its African American characters.

 

Each chapter/section explores the point of view of a member of the (extended) Turner family and their dealings with some batshit white people who are wizards of a sort. I've seen some readers refer to the book as a collection of short stories rather than a novel, but the stories are too closely connected narratively and chronologically. The upside of the structure is that each member of the family has a moment in the spotlight, a chance to illustrate how living in this time as a black person has shaped the extent to which they can pursue their dreams. The downside is that you may prefer some characters' perspectives than others and feel as if you don't get to know any one character enough. Though the chapters are connected, the novel can also feel disjointed.

 

Another plus is the black SF fans in the book whose love of the genre is complicated by its persistent racism (Lovecraft himself wrote racist material). It is a sort of sweet revenge to put these characters in charge and watch them respond to and take control of the very forces being used to make them tools.

 

(This bit is a tad spoilery, but I've kept it as vague as possible). I struggled with one chapter in which the protagonist is able, through magic, to transform physically into a white person. Predictably, she is treated radically different, even in a northern city like Chicago, where much of the novel is set. However, I feel this chapter plays into the notion that all black people secretly want to be white. It also illustrates something we already know: that white people in America are privileged. The white characters are the ones who need to get woke.

 

Mostly this book made me think about how little has changed in some respects. A few characters in the novel work on something called The Safe Negro Travel Guide whose purpose is to help black people know where safe(r) spaces in the country are while traveling (or conversely, where to steer clear of absolutely). The guide is based on a real thing, The Negro Motorist Green Book. Jim Crow may be over, but as events in the past decades indicate, it is still less safe for a black person to travel or simply be in this country.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2015-02-08 15:37
Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng
Everything I Never Told You - Celeste Ng

The middle third of this book gripped me so hard I both didn't want to stop reading and had to take breaks because it was so emotionally intense. I enjoyed the book from the start but felt like I wouldn't love it--then I reached the portion where we start getting the perspective of Lydia, the dead daughter.

 

A strength of this novel is the fine portrait of family dynamics and how one event and even one moment can change everything. On top of that, we get to see the particular dynamics of a mixed race family: a white mother, Chinese American father, and mixed children (who of course read as Asian American). Near the beginning of the book, I remember thinking about how much it hadn't occurred to me that there might be the same "rules" (and, literally, laws) regarding Asian Americans as African Americans (e.g. not marrying and reproducing with someone of a different race). I suppose it's because, through my white eyes, this country feels so focused on the wrongs done to black people. This book demonstrates how difference--wanting and rejecting it--shapes a family. How race and identity shape each of us.

 

Another strength I admired is the structure of the novel, which is carefully arranged, clear but subtle in revealing details about the family and what happened to Lydia (and why). I thought repeatedly of an onion unpeeling itself, layers saved for later. We get perspectives from all the family members, and shift back and forth in time. It's never confusing, and I didn't find myself wishing to return to some pov's over others as I do with some novels. You ache for everyone, get frustrated with everyone. I recognized my own role in my family in some way: it can be a delicate balance.

 

The first third was okay, the middle and toward the end fantastic, but it lost me again somewhat in the very end. The explanation for what happened to Lydia gave me mixed feelings: I was glad she was strong enough to reach the conclusions she did, but it's hard for me to buy that she would think she could suddenly swim on her own. I appreciated that the novel was ultimately hopeful but found some of the language on the cliche side.

 

This book certainly wrenched at my heart (in a good way), and I'm glad to have read it.

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