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review 2015-05-08 05:40
I'll Give You a Two Out of Five
I'll Give You the Sun - Jandy Nelson

When I heard how Jandy Nelson's "I'll Give You the Sun" won the Printz, a lot of the reviews boiled down to the story's surrealist narration. Those who liked it, loved the book. Those who didn't found it tedious.


I found it okay, but mostly a brightly colored varnish because, without the surrealistic blue barf and quirky superstitions of their characters, this novel doesn't hold together very well in any test of grounding it by characterizations, situations, or relationships. And magical realism or surrealism works best when it becomes a distortion from the foundations of the world we see.


The way Nelson wove the two halves of the story in past and present was very well planned out, but the manner in getting them around often resorted to destined instant love, strained conflicts arising from rom-com levels of not bothering to have simple conversations, and secondary characters acting as mouthpieces for the twins' validation.and struggles rather than actual human beings. The worst cases being Oscar, a walking bundle of English bad boy cliches, and Heather, Noah's best friend who is never given a personality beyond "once liked Noah and found out he was gay."


While it's not a bad book, I'm still very surprised to see so many people think it worthy of the Printz. Its moments of artistic poignancy were well done, but a lot of the book felt like strained symbolism or random digressions involving orgasmic donuts. I like my surrealism to transcend, not resort to cliches so frequently.




P.S. I'm also surprised it got a Stonewall honor. It's good that we've gotten to the point where our gay protagonists can be complete shits (and Noah is definitely a jealous and possessive jerk toward his love interest), but the resolution for their conflict is taken care of off screen a few pages from the end, and in a manner that's way too tidy for something as egregious as outing the person you loved right after they explained how they were afraid for their safety and scholarship if it came out. Surely there were more LGBTQ fiction stories published this year that are worthier?

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2015-01-08 02:40
The Scorpio Races
The Scorpio Races - Maggie Stiefvater

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


One-sentence summary: a long build-up to a very short actual race, with Ms. Stiefvater focused laser-like on character and setting, while losing track of plot and pacing again.


Plot summary (so I don't forget). The book starts with a flashback: little Sean Kendrick watches his father get killed on the beach at the Scorpio races. His dad is riding Corr, one of the capaill uisce--sea horses that have been snatched from the water and barely tamed, and are famed for their speed and murderous unpredictability. Before the race, young Sean whispers to Corr not to eat his dad, and Corr technically obliges him.


In the present day, Sean Kendrick has grown up into a talented, hunky stable hand, and a four-time winner of the Scorpio Races. He longs to buy Corr, having a special bond with the horse, but his boss, Benjamin Malvern (think Mr. Potter from It's a Wonderful Life) won't sell him. Malvern makes Sean live in a tiny room above the stables, but even so, he likes Sean better than his own spoiled, useless son, Matthew (Mutt). Mutt resents Sean so badly, his anger escalates from peeing in Sean's boots to trying to kill him.


Puck Connely decides to ride in the Scorpio Races, too. At first she wants to do it to keep her brother Gabe from moving to the mainland for a few weeks longer (he can't leave without watching that she comes through safely, can he?), but soon she's hoping to actually win, in order to pay off the mortgage on their house, which Malvern is calling due. Puck didn't know Malvern was her family's mortgage lender, but that's okay because neither did we.


Puck is not going to ride a water horse, she's going to ride her beloved Dove, an ordinary but devoted palfrey. When it's clear that the male islanders and riders hate the idea of a woman in the race, Puck and Sean begin to train together. Corr is relatively polite to Dove, and might even fancy her, which is unusual for a water horse. And Dove might actually have a chance at winning, because she can run in a straight line without trying to kill things or leap into the water. Nevertheless, her posted odds are 45 to 1. Sean and Puck decide that on race day she'll take a path through the water, where the other riders are afraid to go, and Sean will protect her flank. 


An American customer of Malvern, George Holly, would like to hire Sean away, but Sean won't leave Corr. Sean eventually bargains with Malvern to let him buy Corr if he wins the race one more time.


On race day, Mutt threatens Puck, knowing that Sean cares about her. Mutt's water horse, Skata, attacks Dove. Sean and Corr drive him into the sea, where he's never heard from again. Sean falls off Corr, and is in danger of being trampled to death by the other horses. Corr stands over him, protecting him, but has such a badly wounded leg, he'll never run again. Puck and Dove win the race. 


Puck has earned enough to buy back her house, but there's not enough left over to buy Corr. Luckily, Puck's younger brother, Finn, reveals that he has used some of the money from selling his car to bet on Puck, and at 45:1 odds, the winnings turn out to be a hefty sum. Puck meets with Benjamin Malvern to pay off the house and buy Corr for Sean. She also demands a job at the stables.


At the end, while George Holly and Puck watch, Sean tries to release Corr back into the sea, where his wounded leg won't bother him. (We are supposed to take that as fact, but don't water horses depend on their legs to swim?) Corr refuses to leave, gimping along after him toward land. Awww.


Hot damn, Ms. Stiefvater's writing is enjoyable. The words on each page expertly evoke the deliberately-vague period (1910-ish, because it's the era of the women's suffrage movement), the place (the UK, an island, north), and the magic (killer sea horses). As with the Raven Cycle, I accept that fantastical beings exist in our own world without question, because the writing closes around me and lulls me into believing. This island is a worthy sister to the one in Margo Lanagan's The Brides of Rollrock Island, which is saying something.  


The romance. I'm okay that there are no fireworks, and you should be, too. To begin with, The Scorpio Races contains one of the most romantic interactions I've ever read (the Sean-taking-Puck's-pulse moment). And the novel is a bit like a Japanese manga in that you ship the characters hard, even though they barely get to kissing. Let's face it, hesitancy is more satisfying than gushing protestations of love or explicit erotica. In fact, the slow romance is one of the great things about this novel. It means that Puck's conflict and Sean's conflict take center stage. It means they're deep and trusting friends before they get together intimately (which we never get to see, but surmise to be something like what George Holly crassly predicts: "I'll come back next year and you'll have a nest of horses outside your window and Puck Connely in your bed and I'll buy from you instead of Malvern"). Additionally, it suits the characters themselves to have this slow build: they are both excruciatingly reserved and fiercely independent--not the mooning Bella and Edward types.


Does Ms. Stiefvater hold herself to a word count every day? There seems to be a lot of rambling filler that should have been sculpted or removed in subsequent drafts. Or perhaps the author adds ordinary scenes in between climax scenes to try to get the pacing right, and actually damages it. In Chapter 48, for example, Puck comes home after riding wild Corr on the cliff, and Finn has nervously scrubbed the house from top to bottom. We see that Puffin has (against all odds) survived the attack of the capaill near the shed. Finn and Puck fret yet again about whether Puck will get hurt in the race and whether they'll lose the house, and Finn pulls his mattress into her bedroom to sleep, like he did as a young boy. What was the purpose of this chapter? It's almost as if Ms. Stiefvater thinks we need to decompress after the romance and tension of a training scene, and wants us to understand how long Puck and Finn have to live with their anxieties before the race, so she inserts a scene of "troubled domestic life" for good measure. There are a fair number of complaints on goodreads that this book is long, dull, and not enough happens until the race, and this sort of chapter is partly to blame. Ms. Stiefvater enjoys character--and in this book, setting--more than she cares about pacing and plot.


Plot holes. Well, "holes" is a strong word. In this category I also include, "the introduction of unnecessary material that doesn't have any real reason to be there."


--The entire character of George Holly, maybe. He's just there to show us things: that Sean is a talented worker; that Sean is opening up to friendships. He's that guy who tells our main characters they're in love. Ms. Stiefvater keeps looking for things for Holly to do, to justify his existence (hence the oddball, out-of-place romance with Annie).


--Mr. Malvern doesn't blink at Mutt's death. (Puck implies that this is a delayed reaction because the body hasn't been recovered and there's nothing to mourn. But would any father, even a negligent one, put his missing son so quickly out of his mind?)


--What is the point of bringing a capaill uisce to the shed...just to force Finn, Puck, and Gabe to the butcher's house to see what Gabe has been up to? And am I mis-reading, or in chapter 38 does Ms. Stiefvater imply that Gabe and Peg Gratton have been having an affair, and that's the reason Gabe has to leave the island? Gabe is in a relatively intimate position, standing close behind her at the sink, speaking to her in a low voice about "not having the strength..." Did anyone else wonder why that moment was in there?


--Did Sean get the shell? Did we ever actually see it handed from from the horse-witch-lady to him? This was one of those sections where the mystical-Maggie writing that I usually love trod over the line into becoming obfuscating and confusing.


--Dory Maude and Elizabeth try to get George Holly to marry their blind sister, Annie. Huh? This comes from out of the blue. And why do the sisters send Holly off with Puck for breakfast? How does that help their cause? It seems like it's just a chance for Holly to be alone with Puck so he can say the line, "I hope you won't wait for Sean Kendrick to realize he's lonely."


--Tommy Falk is introduced just to kill him off. We know he's one of the young men who plans to move to the mainland, and we see him help Puck and Finn escape from the capaill uisce in the shed. But his biggest scene is in chapter 52 for the dinner with Sean at the Connely house, where we're supposed to remember he's such a dear friend of the family, and then a mere three chapters later he's a goner. To boot, we have no idea why Puck was looking for him on the beach when she found him dead.


Screeching POV changes. This happens pretty frequently in Stiefvater's work. For instance, Chapter 26 starts out in Puck's POV on the cliff, watching Sean ride bareback, and switches to Sean's head, racing the mare against Dove (the mare that jumped unexpectedly into the sea).


Redshirt deaths. When you promise killer horses from the sea, you have to deliver on some gore. But it's hard to kill the characters you love. Heck, Ms. Stiefvater can't even kill the barn cat. So instead she invents peripheral characters we don't really know, kills them, and hopes we'll internalize how dangerous the races are from that. Wah, some stranger named Prince has died. Wah, supposed-dear-friend Tommy Falk has died (and yet even Tommy's father says that his move to the mainland would have been the same as dying for his family, so, whatever, light the pyre). 


In sum. Ms. Stiefvater is becoming masterful at character, atmospheric writing, and setting. If she can tighten up her pacing and plot, she'll be a force to be reckoned with. 

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review 2014-10-19 19:44
Review: Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
Jellicoe Road - Melina Marchetta

I have books collecting dust on my shelf that I tell myself over and over again that I need to read.  "Today will be the day," I tell myself.  Instead, I pick up a book I've read numerous times but still feels like a fire truck rammed itself into my stomach each time I reach the ending.


Jellicoe Road starts off slow and I remember the first time I read it that I disliked the constant shifting between Narnie's story and Taylor's narration.  I still prefer Taylor's story to Narnie's but Marchetta successfully merges both perspectives into a moving tale about survival, friendship, family, and how secrets kept with the best intentions can ultimately cause more pain and destruction to the people we love most.


This book is a tad melodramatic but I love the lyrical passages and the way the author is able to craft characters who are damaged but likeable.  This is something Marchetta excels at in her other books as well.  Although it's somewhat hard to believe that Taylor so easily forgets certain aspects of her upbringing, her character's strength, wittiness and persistent desire to find answers to her mysterious childhood is compelling.  This book has everything: a slow burn romance, amazing dialogue, lies and secrets, major plot twists, death, friendship and a sense of community.  The themes of the story are dark and none of the characters come away unscathed from the events that unfold, but there's still a possibility of hope and redemption.  For me, this is the best kind of story.

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review 2014-01-31 15:33
Jellicoe Road
Jellicoe Road - Melina Marchetta

I wanted to love this but it was so slow.  It took more than half way though for me to feel engaged with the characters and by then it felt too late.  Maybe I'll try Finnikin of the Rock which my co-workers love and see if it was just this book or if I'm just not a fan of this author. 

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2013-06-15 17:54
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks - E. Lockhart

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


The prose and language of this book are delightfully brainy. Frankie's voice is snarky and bright, but in a way that is believable, given her circumstances (a reasonably wealthy girl in an elite boarding school on the level of Exeter and Andover). I appreciated that the main theme of the book is about equality--a girl recognizing that her strength and worth are inside of her, not outside. She's perturbed that she's noticed by boys for the first time as a sophomore, simply because she has grown and filled out over the summer. She sees that her value to the cool senior boys (and the sparse girlfriends who are allowed to share their circle) is based to some extent on her wit, but also on her looks, and on her behaving in a conforming way. Her project of furtively running the Order of the Basset Hound (a secret, all male club) by e-mail, pretending to be Alpha, one of the leaders, is a clever plot device and, well, clever on Frankie's part. So far so good.


For me, a problem arose when the author chose not to show Frankie trying any other alternatives to combat the "Old Boy" attitude she feels exists at the school and in society in general (even in her family). In fact she never did try to join the secret society just by asking (as her sister suggested). To keep her from seeming like she perhaps is obsessed (a possibility mentioned by her sister), I'd like to have seen Frankie try to go through normal channels and then get thwarted: she could have pointed out that her father was a Basset Hound, revealed that she knows about the book, bartered it for entry once she had found the book, threatened to expose them, start her own club that's inclusive...anything. I understand that she didn't want to alienate her new circle of friends, that she initially saw this as an anonymous way to make a point, but when she's finally getting good and pissed by the fact that her pranks aren't making anyone see her in a different light anyway, and that the Bassets themselves aren't comprehending the revolutionary message behind the pranks they're pulling under her direction, it surprised me that Lockhart didn't give Frankie the oomph to challenge them outright. I struggle with whether this makes her a more believable, "young," protagonist--she genuinely doesn't want to lose her boyfriend, and she does revel in being part of the "in" crowd, and her feminism may just be budding but not fully formed--or whether it undermines a potentially healthier message: that you're not fighting this battle alone, you just need to search for friends who are sympathetic and energetic about the same causes.   


I think Lockhart wanted to end with some ambiguity and bittersweetness--Frankie comes to terms with the fact that demanding equality isn't going to work with certain people (not even Matthew, the boy she's still in love with), and she's resigned to losing them--but in fact there's no clear reward for her struggle at all, and I think there should have been. This book has a clear message, despite being delightfully written on a prose level, about being true to yourself. And since there's no denying it's a "message book," I don't see why girl readers shouldn't be given the healthier message, "99% of the people you encounter won't like your dogged pursuit of equality, but 1% of them will become your dearest friends." Instead we're left with the feeling that Frankie is at least temporarily alone, devoid of both boys and girls who understand her. Does this risk teaching us that being morally correct means you're on your own? Aren't there in fact  boys at her school who might appreciate her for exactly who she is? (If I were a boy, would I take offense at their absence in the book?) Is there's really not a single, bright kid who would adore Frankie for her strong personality rather than her new knockout figure? There are no potential girlfriends who want to pursue equality and feminist causes with her--who understand and laud her passion?


Everyone in this book besides Frankie seems to either not recognize the harm of the status quo (the Bassets), accept it with resignation (Zada), or think it's not worth worrying about (Trish). I was really hoping that Trish would continue to be the true, staunch friend who understood Frankie's quest once she learned about it. I thought Lockhart was leading up to that by having Trish and Star debate the meaning of the pranks, with Trish getting the closest in terms of understanding. But Trish is clearly put into a box at the end: the box containing all the women who see they're not valued equally and for themselves, but choose not to get up in arms about it. And even Zada, who chose Berkeley over Harvard and is a bright young woman functioning in society, who arguably plays the role of the clear-headed adult in this story, feels a little detached from Frankie's outrage, like Frankie is overreacting. Shouldn't Frankie have had an ally? Should Porter, or Trish, or Alpha seen the importance of what she did (Alpha comes closest maybe, with his conciliatory e-mail)? Should someone have acknowledged her strength so that readers could acknowledge it?


Finally, there would have been many small ways that Frankie could have grown that would have been subtle and empowering. She notices profound flaws in her relationship with Matthew--for instance that he doesn't reach out to her friends or take an interest in her activities--but she never confronts him with it. She has specific complaints that she holds inside, going along with the crowd, feeling underappreciated, but we really never see her get her footing and tell her guy friends what's bothering her. It's not the same to say, "You don't value me as your equal" once, at the end of a relationship, than to speak up often: "I don't eat garlic knots because I don't like them, and it says nothing about me as a woman." In the end, we see her thinking to herself, "Matthew's not the guy for me, because he didn't see me for who I am," rather than speaking out for herself.


A note on the narrator: this is primarily in third-person past (with a switch to third-person present at the end), but the narrator is intrusive--even referring to herself (himself) as "I" at one point. I found it a little confusing. Is it Frankie herself, speaking in third person? Maybe it's not Frankie, given the moralizing at the end, and "this girl will go far" implication? 


Minor plot inconsistency: Matthew is the one who tells Frankie that the cafeteria has no fresh vegetables because of a building donation by a powerful alum who runs a canned-food conglomerate. He says that he tried to use the newspaper to drum up interest in the cause, with no success because no one reads the paper. And then Frankie says near the end that no one was willing to fight this battle but her, that Matthew could have used the newspaper and chose not to. 

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