Thursday, 28 March 2013

Eleanor & Park - Rainbow Rowell

Bono met his wife in high school," Park says.
"So did Jerry Lee Lewis," Eleanor answers.
"I’m not kidding," he says.
"You should be," she says, "we’re sixteen."
"What about Romeo and Juliet?"
"Shallow, confused, then dead."
''I love you," Park says.
"Wherefore art thou," Eleanor answers.
"I’m not kidding," he says.
"You should be."

Set over the course of one school year in 1986, ELEANOR AND PARK is the story of two star-crossed misfits – smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own first love – and just how hard it pulled you under.

I picked up Eleanor & Park at Powells earlier this month because you may remember how much I enjoyed Attachments last year and also, Rainbow Rowell is adorable on Twitter and her enthusiasm  about the book got me excited about it as well.

Eleanor & Park is great because it is very much about that super heady teenage love, love where it is important and it's everything and it is the most. It captured that feeling perfectly and it's one of those things that I think will revert every reader to about seventeen years old.

What's even better, though, is how great the characters are. Underneath this veneer of teenage love, there are two teenagers just trying to get through their lives, grow and mature in very different home lives and very different problems. They're not perfect: Eleanor gets upset overly easily and is heavier than she'd like to be. Park doesn't always get along with his dad and still sometimes gets embarrassed to be seen with Eleanor (who isn't cool) and then mentally beats himself up about it.

These kids are real in a way that a lot of YA fiction doesn't cover. They're also the kind of kids that I would have hung out with in high school (yes please, reading Watchmen together) so perhaps I'm a bit biased but Park's problems seemed real in a way I know most kids deal with and Eleanor's are indicative of another significant portion of kids. 

It all fits in perfectly well with Rowell's writing style, which is crisp and fresh, never meandering (except when it should) and full of references that pop. I really enjoy her style and look forward to reading more from here. She has a book called Fangirl coming out soon that looks right up my alley.

Eleanor & Park is absolutely lovely, full of teenage love and angst in just the right doses. You will breeze through it (I read it in less than 24 hours and had a tv marathon in-between) but it will stick with you. Read it and remember what it felt like to be sixteen and in love.

P.S. Also, the cover is adorable.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald - Therese Anne Fowler

When beautiful, reckless Southern belle Zelda Sayre meets F. Scott Fitzgerald at a country club dance in 1918, she is seventeen years old and he is a young army lieutenant stationed in Alabama. Before long, the “ungettable” Zelda has fallen for him despite his unsuitability: Scott isn’t wealthy or prominent or even a Southerner, and keeps insisting, absurdly, that his writing will bring him both fortune and fame. Her father is deeply unimpressed. But after Scott sells his first novel, This Side of Paradise, to Scribner’s, Zelda optimistically boards a train north, to marry him in the vestry of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and take the rest as it comes.

What comes, here at the dawn of the Jazz Age, is unimagined attention and success and celebrity that will make Scott and Zelda legends in their own time. Everyone wants to meet the dashing young author of the scandalous novel—and his witty, perhaps even more scandalous wife. Zelda bobs her hair, adopts daring new fashions, and revels in this wild new world. Each place they go becomes a playground: New York City, Long Island, Hollywood, Paris, and the French Riviera—where they join the endless party of the glamorous, sometimes doomed Lost Generation that includes Ernest Hemingway, Sara and Gerald Murphy, and Gertrude Stein.

Everything seems new and possible. Troubles, at first, seem to fade like morning mist. But not even Jay Gatsby’s parties go on forever. Who is Zelda, other than the wife of a famous—sometimes infamous—husband? How can she forge her own identity while fighting her demons and Scott’s, too? With brilliant insight and imagination, Therese Anne Fowler brings us Zelda’s irresistible story as she herself might have told it. 

Who doesn't have a little bit of love for the Fitzgeralds? They were both larger than life and the life they shared was the thing movies are made about. When I saw a book about Zelda, I was excited to read it. I definitely don't know enough about her and wanted to know more.

Z is fiction but very clearly well researched. It starts when Zelda is seventeen and soon to meet Scott and ends with Scott's death in the early forties. Everything is from her point of view and it shows the frequent ups and downs of the life of literature's two hippest movers and shakers.

What impressed me most about this book was how easy it is to sympathize with Zelda. Although she is definitely a wild child, there is a lot in the book about how her being a woman in the early twentieth century was perhaps what lead to more of her famous problems than just mental issues. There is a segment where she's in a sanitarium and they tell her that the reason she feels so out of it is that she's not being motherly enough, that she is trying to do too much of her own thing and not taking care of her family like she should. Reading this in the early twenty-first century, it definitely seems ridiculous but knowing that's the sort of thing Zelda had to go up against is heartbreaking.

I loved the image Fowler painted of the Fitzgerald marriage. It definitely has its ups and many, many downs but there is never any doubt that they are the loves of each others lives. They just never can quite be happy. 

Another great relationship, the one between Scott and Hemingway, is greatly crafted. I enjoyed Fowler's view on how Zelda and Hemingway's relationship turned sour and the ongoing fight for Scott's attention. Very well illustrated and thought provoking.

This is a great book, both for the narrative quality and the way it shows an era in focus like that of the "roaring twenties." Definitely recommended for any Fitzgerald, twenties, flappers or feminist fans.

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald comes out tomorrow (March 26) from St. Martin's Press.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Weather Witch - Shannon Delany

In a vastly different and darker Philadelphia of 1844, steam power has been repressed, war threatens from deep, dark waters, and one young lady of high social standing is expecting a surprise at her seventeenth birthday party–but certainly not the one she gets!

Jordan Astraea, who has lived out all of her life in Philadelphia’s most exclusive neighborhood, is preparing to celebrate her birthday with friends, family and all the extravagance they might muster. The young man who is most often her dashing companion, Rowen Burchette, has told her a surprise awaits her and her best friend, Catrina Hollindale, wouldn’t miss this night for all the world!

But storm clouds are gathering and threatening to do far more than dampen her party plans because someone in the Astraea household has committed the greatest of social sins by Harboring a Weather Witch.

Reading the short summary of the book, Weather Witch sounds like pretty much any fantasy YA novel. A young girl finds out about a heretofore unknown power of hers on her birthday, cue adventure. I guess this is technically true. However, the book is incredibly slow. The actions of that summary take roughly a hundred pages to happen. A hundred

It isn't even that all this exposition gives us time to explore characters or setting. I can tell that Delany knows exactly what's going on in her world but things are mentioned so offhand and never referred to again that it's hard to follow exactly what's happening at any given time.

The perspective shifts constantly. Normally, I would be a fan of that because it adds to the action and energy of the story. However, this is too quick, to the point where I feel like I don't know any of the characters since when I feel like maybe we'll get a feel for what they're like, the perspective shifts again. In theory, Jordan is the main character but we probably only spend a fifth or so of the book with her.  She spends most of the book in transit and commenting on the fact that she's in transit. 

I was impressed by the ease with which Delany kills off characters. For a YA book, it's rather refreshing to have characters in dangerous situations that they don't necessarily live through. However, it suffers from the same lack of not knowing a character well enough that lessens the dramatic impact of the death. It's a quick shock instead of a lingering, emotional toll.

Once I finally felt like the book was going somewhere, around page 150 or so, I did get curious as to what was going to happen. I started reading more quickly, curious as to how the story would end. The answer? Abruptly. All at once I realized I only had four pages left and how in the world was this going to wrap up in four pages. Well, it didn't. It read like a chapter end, not the end of a novel. Although I realize that this is the first in a series, it needs to still be a self contained story as well and this did not achieve that. 

I wanted to like it because I really like the idea behind it but the writing was too haphazard and the plotting too loose. Sorry, Weather Witch.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens - Robert Gottlieb

Charles Dickens, famous for the indelible child characters he created—from Little Nell to Oliver Twist and David Copperfield—was also the father of ten children (and a possible eleventh). What happened to those children is the fascinating subject of Robert Gottlieb’s Great Expectations. With sympathy and understanding he narrates the highly various and surprising stories of each of Dickens’s sons and daughters, from Kate, who became a successful artist, to Frank, who died in Moline, Illinois, after serving a grim stretch in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Each of these lives is fascinating on its own. Together they comprise a unique window on Victorian England as well as a moving and disturbing study of Dickens as a father and as a man.

I honestly could not put this book down. This family is just fascinating. I had known the history with Dickens and some of the dick moves he pulled as he got older (kicking your wife out of the house and forbidding the children to see her? Dick move) but I had never really thought of all the children he had and when I saw this book on the shelf, all I could think was, 'What would you do if you were the child of Dickens?'

It turns out that it's quite hard to succeed when your father is ridiculously famous and very strict. A lot of the children didn't amount to much or at least, weren't perfect enough in the eyes of their father. He was sincerely disappointed in a lot of them (even ones that weren't doing that badly) and it seems that many of the children were just working hard for their father's approval.

The other issue was, though, that although Dickens was seen as a bit nasty due to the way he treated his wife and many people would think this would color the children's view on their father, they all hero worshipped him. I have never read of people that loved their father more than these children did. 

Reading about the different lives of the various children, the ones that went abroad and the ones that never left home, is a fascinating study and Gottlieb has a great narrative voice that at once provides facts but never makes for a dry reading. I was chuckling all the way along. There is also a generous dose of photographs which I think biographies and histories should really make more use of. 

If you have any interest in Dickens or Victorian life, this is the book for you. Fun, funny and interesting, these are some lives you definitely want to check out.

Friday, 15 March 2013

[Duel Review] Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles - Ron Currie Jr.

In this tour de force of imagination, Ron Currie asks why literal veracity means more to us than deeper truths, creating yet again a genre-bending novel that will at once dazzle, move, and provoke.

The protagonist of Ron Currie, Jr.’s new novel has a problem­—or rather, several of them. He’s a writer whose latest book was destroyed in a fire. He’s mourning the death of his father, and has been in love with the same woman since grade school, a woman whose beauty and allure is matched only by her talent for eluding him. Worst of all, he’s not even his own man, but rather an amalgam of fact and fiction from Ron Currie’s own life. When Currie the character exiles himself to a small Caribbean island to write a new book about the woman he loves, he eventually decides to fake his death, which turns out to be the best career move he’s ever made. But fame and fortune come with a price, and Currie learns that in a time of twenty-four-hour news cycles, reality TV, and celebrity Twitter feeds, the one thing the world will not forgive is having been told a deeply satisfying lie.

What kind of distinction could, or should, be drawn between Currie the author and Currie the character?  Or between the book you hold in your hands and the novel embedded in it? Whatever the answers, Currie, an inventive writer always eager to test the boundaries of storytelling in provocative ways, has essential things to impart along the way about heartbreak, reality, grief, deceit, human frailty, and blinding love.

Colin picked this month's book but it was totally fine with me. He'd gotten me to read another book by Currie called Everything Matters! about a year earlier and I had loved it so it was no trouble to get me to agree to read another book by Currie.

One of the things you first notice about Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles is that it's written in a very unique style. Each page is a complete thought or anecdote. Sometimes that's one paragraph. Sometimes that's three pages. Because of this way of writing, it's both easy to start reading and a quicker read than normal. At first I worried that this style would make it hard for me to connect to the story, since there was less story and less narrative connection than you would normally have. Now that I've finished, though, I can't really imagine the story told through a more regular means. It works in snatches and adds some depth that you wouldn't be able to get with a linear narrative.

That's another thing: this story is completely nonlinear. Not that you can't figure out a timeline as you're reading but it does get a bit confusing in the beginning. Currie skips around from his life with Emma, his life on a tropical island, the last few months with his dad and his slightly-obsessive thoughts on what he calls 'The Singularity.' All the stories are compelling and his observations in some areas inform different thoughts. I really enjoyed this aspect.

About two thirds of the way into the book, the novel takes a turn towards where it was headed all the time. This is the only thing that I didn't really like. The last forty or so pages, in my opinion, are the best and the most interesting. I really wish that there were more to this. His time back in the states and dealing with what had happened while he was gone was my favorite part and I feel like he didn't give enough time to this. I see why it's short, since the audience within the narrative would arguably already know all this but I do wish I could have seen more.

I'm still not sure how I feel about Emma. I always have a bit of an issue with books about men with obsessive love. I just feel uncomfortable for the woman involved, normally and this wasn't any different. I think the book manages to be more than this but there was still a tad of that creepy obsessive love that never sits right with me. I think it was handled well in the end but for the first two thirds of the book? Tad creepy, Currie.

Overall, though, the book was really good. I think I still prefer Everything Matters! on storyline alone but this was no bad book by a long shot. I look forward to reading more by Currie in the future.

This is a duel book review with Colin. I will post a link to Colin's post as soon as he puts it up. :)

Thursday, 14 March 2013

The Edible Woman - Margaret Atwood

Ever since her engagement, the strangest thing has been happening to Marian McAlpin: she can't eat. First meat. Then eggs, vegetables, cake, pumpkin seeds--everything! Worse yet, she has the crazy feeling that she's being eaten. Marian ought to feel consumed with passion, but she really just feels...consumed. A brilliant and powerful work rich in irony and metaphor, The Edible Woman is an unforgettable masterpiece by a true master of contemporary literary fiction.

I've decided to read more Atwood novels as I thought The Handmaid's Tale was a revelation. I completely unintentionally decided to read The Edible Woman next, not knowing that it was the first novel she had written. Surprise!

I really enjoyed The Edible Woman, even if it was a bit vague at times. I thought the heroine, Marian, was quiet relatable, even if there were a few moments where I didn't quite follow her thinking and she did inhabit a completely different era than me. She seemed like a normal woman in her early twenties and I could understand a lot of her decisions. That makes for a good main character for me.

I especially enjoyed the side plot of her roommate trying to seduce a man so that she could have a child. It's easy to forget how hard single women had it back in the sixties and the idea of having to seduce a man just so you could have a child, even if you wanted to raise it by yourself, seems ridiculous to modern audiences. The best part of the whole charade, however, is when the man she tricked finds out about it and starts yelling at her for using him for his body. This gender reversal makes a real impact and I thought was really well done.

Perhaps the most impressive part of The Edible Woman is that it was written in 1965 when Atwood was 24. She didn't get it published until 1969 and it ended up getting swept up in the feminism movement of the early seventies. To know that it was written so much before that and predated a lot of feminist ideas is really interesting, though. I like that Atwood wrote this without a ton of buzzwords in her head, that this came out of real experience of being a single girl in the mid-sixties. It makes it feel more real.

This book was very interesting, entertaining and just well written. If you're a fan of Margaret Atwood, I would recommend it.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Sexy Feminism: A Girl's Guide to Love, Success and Style - Jennifer Keishin Armstrong & Heather Wood Rudulph

Feminism can still seem like an abstract idea that is difficult to incorporate into our hectic, media-saturated, modern lives, but Jennifer Keishin Armstrong and Heather Wood RudĂșlph show how the everyday things matter. In an age when “concern-trolling,” “slut-shaming,” and “body-snarking” are blogosphere bywords, when reproductive rights are back under political attack, and when women are still pressured to “have it all,” feminism is more relevant than ever.  For many young women the radicalism of the Second Wave is unappealing, and the “do me” and “lipstick” feminism of the Third Wave feels out of date. Enter Sexy Feminism. It’s an inclusive, approachable kind of feminism—miniskirts, lip gloss, and waxing permitted. Covering a range of topics from body issues and workplace gender politics to fashion, dating, and sex, Sexy Feminism is full of advice, resources, and  pop culture references that will help shape what being a feminist can look like for you.

I absolutely adored this book. I was reading it while on a road trip with a friend and kept annoying her by going, "oh hey! listen to this!" and reading out passages. I just couldn't get over how interesting and well written it was.

What I love about the book is that it takes issues that spring up for modern feminists, like plastic surgery and relationships, and explores how to deal with issues that come up trying to reconcile your life with your ideals. 

One section I thought was particularly well done was the section on plastic surgery. They took some of the top plastic surgeries performed for purely cosmetic reasons and explained exactly what the doctor did in each operation. Just by taking off the easy name and describing the act, it really shows what kind of awful things women do in the name of beauty. 

I also liked that it was a healthy mix between ideals and compromise. One chapter, on relationships, points out that a real feminist sometimes puts her partner first. This has nothing to do with feeling that men are somehow better than women but that, in a partnership, sometimes you have to put your partner's needs before your own and that's the way it should be. As long as your partner reciprocates this respect, then you are doing it correctly. I thought this was a very important chapter and very well written. 

This is a great book that every woman in her late teens and twenties should read. It lays down the facts and gives you some ideas on how to interpret them in your own life. It's fun, smart and witty. A must read.

Sexy Feminism comes out tomorrow(!!), March 12 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt .

Thursday, 7 March 2013

John Saturnall's Feast - Lawrence Norfolk

I quite liked posting the back cover blurb for Best of All Possible Worlds and I think I'm going to make that a regular thing. Here is the blurb for John Saturnall's Feast.

A beautiful, rich and sensuous historical novel, John Saturnall’s Feasttells the story of a young orphan who becomes a kitchen boy at a manor house, and rises through the ranks to become the greatest Cook of his generation. It is a story of food, star-crossed lovers, ancient myths and one boy’s rise from outcast to hero.

Orphaned when his mother dies of starvation, having been cast out of her village as a witch, John is taken in at the kitchens at Buckland Manor, where he quickly rises from kitchen-boy to Cook, and is known for his uniquely keen palate and natural cooking ability. However, he quickly gets on the wrong side of Lady Lucretia, the aristocratic daughter of the Lord of the Manor. In order to inherit the estate, Lucretia must wed, but her fiancé is an arrogant buffoon. When Lucretia takes on a vow of hunger until her father calls off her engagement to her insipid husband-to-be, it falls to John to try to cook her delicious foods that might tempt her to break her fast.

Reminiscent of Wolf Hall and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, John Saturnall’s Feast is a brilliant work and a delight for all the senses.

I had heard really good things about John Saturnall's Feast. A friend who's opinion I trust had read it and really enjoyed it. It sounded quite interesting and I love things set in English history. I was quite excited to read it.

The bits about John growing up I found very interesting and I was super curious about the ridiculously religious folk he and his mother lived with in the small village. I think those first few chapters were perhaps some of the strongest of the piece.

When John gets to the kitchens, though, I lost a bit of interest. To be honest, I don't really like reading about food. I just get incredibly bored. I suppose I should have thought of that before I started this book that is clearly about food but I thought it would be so beautifully written or interesting that I'd get carried away. Not to say that it isn't a good book or well written but it wasn't enough to keep me from skimming chunks.

To be honest, there was a lot that I liked (the mythology, the relationship between John and Lucretia, the characters of the other servants) but I feel like it wasn't enough to make the story truly spectacular. A lot of the plot was expected. Everything that was unique was wonderful. The mythology of the feast and of the witch and her lover was very well done. However, it's still a love story between a lowborn man and a highborn lady. It plays out like you expect. 

I guess what I'm saying is that I really liked the details and the odd historical anecdote (the chapter where the kitchen is at war is particularly well done) but the overall plot development felt a tad bit trite. I wish John's story was half as original as the world he lived in.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People - Mahzarin R. Banaji & Anthony G. Greenwald

The book sounded super interesting and I'm always curious about this kind of thing. I've always been interested in psychology and although there was too much work for me to seriously consider minoring in it in college, I do love reading about these sorts of things.

Blindspot wants to explore the world of hidden biases, things we wouldn't say we believe but deep, deep down have a slight tendency to lean towards. People who support gay marriage and believe all people are equal that will still side on the side of whites when it comes to an 'implicit Awareness Test' which studies these unconscious biases.

The conclusions that the researchers came to were very telling, if not a bit predictable. Clearly the world isn't perfect yet but all the different test cases that were cited were very interesting, if only for the way the different researches tested for bias.

I wish I had liked this book more but one of the real downsides is that it doesn't read well. It's very dry and at times when it starts veering towards interesting and fun, it seems to catch ahold of itself and run right back into scientific jargon. It tries, it really does but ultimately, it can get quite dry.

The other problem is that it kept referring to Appendix A. If you have to refer to an appendix over and over again, maybe you should have just put that information in the book itself. To be honest, I thought Appendix A was the most well written and interesting part of the entire book. So yes, please do refer to Appendix A. Maybe even before you read the rest.

I did enjoy the book and was curious about the different outcomes that would be explored. Some testimonies were very interesting. All in all, though, it was quite dry and while I know it was science, it needs to be jazzed up a tiny bit for the general public, I think.