Wednesday, December 30, 2020
Reflective surfaces have become portals that spread thick fog everywhere and through which horrible monsters emerge. Staring into a mirror is suicide and owning one has been quickly outlawed. But people still needed mirrors, lenses, and other shiny objects and that is where Marty makes a living as an underground dealer in reflective contraband. It's a dangerous occupation, both because of the materials handled and the classification of dealing as a capital offense, but Marty has no choice. He needs to find his brother who he believes is in London and getting there is going to take money.
Before he can manage to make the money he needs, Marty gets caught and is summarily exiled from the island. Along with him is the son of the mayor, exiled for the "crime" of having captured and turned Marty in to the law. Now, ironically dependent on each other for survival, the two boys try to stay alive in a world of fog and danger. With the enemy hiding in the fog and reflective surfaces, the paranoia and fear will keep you on the edge of your seat. But as scary as that world is, we quickly learn that the situation is much more complex and terrifying.
This highly entertaining science fiction adventure combines a terrifying premise with complex and interesting characters. Marty suffers from OCD, which causes minor tics like his need to tap doorframes and triple check locks, but which also plays a significant role in the story. Without giving away major spoilers, the OCD becomes an integral part of the solution to the story. His complicated relationship with the mayor's son adds additional tension to the already tense and paranoid setting. The result is a taut and scary thriller that gave me nightmares. It stumbles at the end, but mostly because of the impossible standards it sets us up for. Highly recommended.
Sunday, December 27, 2020
Pepper is an academic achiever and a driven perfectionist in everything she attempts, whether it is being captain of the swim team or baking amazing desserts. So when her mother's burger chain business Big League Burgers is struggling to make a bigger impact on Twitter, she naturally agrees to help their hapless social media director.
Jack, who always feel like the lesser of his identical twin brother, does everything he can to help his family running the neighborhood deli. At school, he's considered something of a clown and not the star achiever that his brother is. But he has a secret: he's a coding genius and he's created the social media app Weazel which allows students to communicate anonymously. It is both wildly popular and completely banned by the school.
When Big League Burgers unveils its new sandwich, Jack and his brother notice an uncanny resemblance to their own deli's fave. Convinced that the corporate giant is trying to steal from their family, they launch an attack on Twitter that takes off. Soon, although neither one knows initially that the other is behind it, Pepper and Jack find themselves wrestling in an internet battle using their family's corporate accounts. At the same time, they are similarly haplessly entwined with each other on Weazel.
This update of You've Got Mail has all the usual rom-com charms. It's a bit crowded between the Twitter battle, Pepper's baking finesse, and the Weazel app, but it manages to tie everything up neatly in the end (with some help from some convenient coincidences). With all that stuff going all, it's a bit of a slog to get through the first eighty pages. To really get the storying moving in fact, some of the key elements at the beginning simply drop away (Pepper's grade point average takes a dive, the swimming fades away, etc.). So, this isn't anything spectacular, but it is fun if you don't overthink it. And after I've had my head in the world of Panem for three days, I definitely didn't mind some food porn and smoochy bits!
Saturday, December 26, 2020
The story begins on familiar ground as we walk through the events of the Hunger Games themselves (as we did in books I and II) but where those were smooth running affairs, it is apparent that at this early date, they were still working out the kinks. In striking contrast, the body count has racked up long before the Games even start.
Snow is a student at the Academy and in a novel new twist this year the students have been enlisted to "mentor" the tributes. Snow gets assigned to the female tribute from District 12, Lucy Gray. She's a musician and and a member of a wandering troupe of romani-like entertainers called the Covey. Like a gypsy, she flits around in colorful skirts and charms the people around her (including Grey himself) which proves decisive in her ability to stay alive and defeat much more able opponents. But there is more than charm at play. They have a mutual shared interest in her staying alive. Her success in the Games will help Snow get a college scholarship he desperately needs.
That works fine during the Games, but when things go awry and the story shifts to District 12, their roles change. The mutual interest persist, but there is suspicion and distrust and Snow doesn't know if he can trust her anymore. But in all honesty, could he ever trust her?
There are several things that make this a very different sort of story. One obvious difference is the point of view. In the trilogy, we are seeing the world through the eyes of Katniss and her rebellion against the Capital District. Here, the story is told through Snow and life in the Capital is nowhere near as easy as we have grown used to it. Some of that is because the Capital is still rebuilding from after the war, but Collins is also showing us that even those who benefit from the power structure suffer.
This is the origin story of a tyrant. While Katniss was heroic and fighting a good fight through most of the story, Snow is a troubling protagonist. Some of his ideas (in particular his obsession with order and his selfishness) are odious. One starts feeling uneasy when the book pushes us to root for the oppressors and we hope that the rebels get caught and killed.
An interesting message to explore in a YA book, but what about the story itself? It's long and meanders a lot. Once the Games are over, the story truly drifts away from its focus, but it does eventually come back together in the end, in a rushed finale that solves problems by largely killing off characters (an approach also found in Mockingjay). This is a less accessible story. It is hard to imagine someone picking up this book without already having been drawn in by the trilogy. In sum, not just a prequel but an ambitious political critique that is fated to be read by fans looking for some Katniss magic and disappointed to find only gloomy portents of the things to come.
Thursday, December 24, 2020
Struggling against sexism, tradition, racism, and economic injustice to realize her dreams, it's a battle that one cannot truly say that she ever won, which makes the decision to tell her story in verse particularly poignant. So much of what she faced and fought with goes unsaid in this novel. For those parts of her life left in ellipses, a brief biographical essay and the transcript of the author's interview with her descendants fill in some details.
The verse is occasionally ambitious but overall sufficient to convey the action of the story and pull our focus to Clara's personality, accent her drive and ambition, and call out her doubts. Faced with so many obstacles, she is particularly ravaged by regrets as the failures of her actions and the costs of those failures start to pile up. Verse gives us the silent spaces and moments of reflection that a more standard text would have felt compelled to push through. And so my usual skepticism about the format is set aside. This is a good book, providing an inspirational approach to labor history and the role of women activists in the labor movement. Recommended.
Wednesday, December 23, 2020
Her father is French and her mother a Muslim Indian, which makes her an exotic American transplant. Right now, Khayyam wouldn't mind some quiet to take stock. In addition to her bungled scholarship application, there's her frustration with her sort-of boyfriend back in Chicago.
But Paris simply takes her closer to the causes of her woes. Surrounded by the places where Dumas and Delacroix lived, Khayyam picks back up her search. In the process, she stumbles across a young man with a similar quest (and strangely enough a direct descendent of Dumas!). Together they learn of a Muslim woman named Leila who crossed paths with not only Dumas and Delacroix, but also with Lord Byron. A historical mystery (interspersed with Leila's story from her voice) unfolds. Along with it, a contemporary romance in the streets of Paris develops.
While listed as Young Adult, this literary mystery is really more of an adult novel with a young protagonist. Khayyam has some angsty teen moments, mostly involving the triangle with her American boyfriend and the young Dumas, but otherwise there is nothing here that particularly speaks to adolescence. That doesn't mean that young readers will not enjoy the unraveling of the mystery or characters, but simply that the novel will appeal to a broader audience. As a mystery it works pretty well.
The book is less effective at promoting Ahmed's ideological goals. Using Edward Said's critique of orientalism as a launching point, she uses the example of Leila (and Khayyam's obsession with telling the woman's story) to illustrate the process of giving voice to women in history. Byron, Dumas, and Delacroix and their odious relationships with women make easy cannon fodder and this is entry-level criticism aimed at younger readers. Here, it hangs uneasily, much as her bombastic novel Internment did for anti-Trumpism. The polemic, which only becomes fully developed in the latter part of the novel, does not add much and largely occurs at the cost of Khayyam's story of personal growth and confidence building.
Monday, December 21, 2020
Saturday, December 19, 2020
One day, the routine suddenly stops and the Loop goes quiet. Something is happening and the only way Luke will find out is to escape the Loop. With help from other inmates, he manages to do so but what they find outside is even more horrifying: an existential threat to humanity itself.
The great strength of this book is the author's love for nasty sadistic details. There's sheer delight and glee in the way he documents the inhumane tortures of living in the Loop and then finding equally horrific things to match it on the outside.
It's a very very complex dystopia, but the complexity is the major weakness of the story. Hemmed in by so many elements, so many characters, and so many rules, the story really struggles to emerge. Oliver is clever and full of idea, but he's lousy for story and plot. The story, such as it is, is incoherent and largely pointless. The heroes show their mettle largely through stupidity, hesitation, and cowardice in the face of raw evil (it's a very uneven match). There's a mystery unfolding that might explain the contradictions and weird plot twists, but you'll have to read the sequel to have a chance of figuring it out. There's no conclusion, no real accomplishments, and largely no logic to what happens in this book. But there are fantastic, gruesome, and nasty details!
I would give this book (and the forthcoming sequel) a hard pass. It's creative and innovative, but lacks a story or characters worth caring about to support it.
Wednesday, December 16, 2020
Sunday, December 13, 2020
Seemingly torn from the headlines, one of the shocking things about this book is that the real-life sex scandal in women's gymnastics that most resembles the events in the novel (i.e., Terry Gray's arrest) actually happened after this book was published. That probably says a lot about the sad state of women's gymnastics as a sport beset by so much scandal and so thoroughly in need of some self-examination.
The book aims for a lot of things, but it is unclear where it actually succeeds. There's a lot of broken storylines: a fairly useless romance, a potential peer conflict between Audrey and some girls who get cut from the team, hints of judging bias, and some tension between Audrey and the replacement coach. All of these threads could have gone somewhere but never do. Even the main topic (about solidarity in the face of an abuser) is largely anti-climactic and never really developed. I can understand not wanting to flesh out all of these ideas, but what was the book supposed to be about? Iacopelli definitely does enjoy describing the blow-by-blow details of a gymnastics match and the fine details of a routine in loving detail. If you're a serious fan (and someone ho picks up this book is likely to be), that will be a lot of fun. But without that character development, the action reads like the sports pages and failed to engage me emotionally.
Saturday, December 12, 2020
A taut and tense thriller that alternates between the time she spent locked up ("then") and the time she spends afterwards trying to recover ("now"). Of the two, "then" is really the most interesting and dramatic. Thankfully it is not nearly as icky as it could have been. Jane's emotional health takes a beating during her lock up, but thankfully there is no overt violence. For the subject matter, this is relatively trigger-free.
But the "now" time is more problematic. I spent much of it in deep frustration watching Jane get some really poor counseling and familial support. While being kidnapped and locked up is certainly an ordeal, no one should have to suffer through the nearly abusive treatment she receives afterwards. It seemed unnecessarily cruel and more than a little implausible. There's also less coherence to the story in "now" as certain threads (e.g., her parent's marital problems) remain frustratingly unresolved and disconnected from the story.
Wednesday, December 09, 2020
With all of their possessions in a wagon, they join other families and travel hundreds of miles across modern-day Missouri and Nebraska. Disease, hostile animals, Indians, and homesickness plague the wagon train. Some give up and go back home.
Based on historical fact and full of period details, Emmy's engaging first-person account of life in a wagon train will appeal to middle school readers and to fans of the Little House books. Dallas's attention to detail certainly feels very familiar (although I think Dallas hasn't tried to cram as much in here which it makes the book an easier read). As the title suggests, there's a lot said about quilts in the book, but without illustrations or at least a list of titles for suggested further reading, it's a bit of a let down.
Sunday, December 06, 2020
Their initial attempt to crack a garou ring in Cincinnati goes bad and (for various different reasons) they find themselves in Deadwood, confronting the Alpha, where all is not quite as it seems. Jane, at the center of the story, finds that the fight is far more of a family affair than she anticipated. Annie learns that you can indeed get a man with a gun.
I might have been better prepared if I had read the first two books in the Jane series, but there's no greater test of a serial than picking it up mid-stride and seeing if it can work. For the most part it does. I tend to break into hives when I find out that the book in my hands runs past page 320, but I managed to stick with this one through all 516 pages even if my interest flagged a bit in the last hundred or so. Hand, Ashton, and Meadows all have well-developed literary careers that tend towards contemporary romances and romantic fantasy. In this project they've downplayed the romance and a sassy alt-history that combines random historical facts, tremendous license, and lots of nudging and winking pop cultural references and anachronisms. Driving all of this (and definitely essential for keeping things moving briskly) is a constant Greek Chorus of side comments that help to remind you that this is all intended to be silly fun.
Saturday, December 05, 2020
Meanwhile, Jemima is struggling with the whole concept of what it means to be a "feminist." After all, when it comes to discriminating, Jemima herself is pretty hard on women. She does her fair share of disparaging girls who dress fashionably. And is she really helping when she discounts the chances that her geeky Asian friend Jiyoon could get elected to student government? Are her attacks on Chawton's traditoins about fighting patriarchy or is she only trying to draw attention to herself? Closer to home, how should she deal with boys? That's always been theoretical in the past, but when football player Andy (the object of her current crush) starts showing interest in her, she struggles with how to define what a true feminist would and would not do in response.
A peculiar, but ultimately entertaining romantic comedy. The prom story is pretty stock material, as are the general characters (jock, queen, nerd, gay sidekick, etc.) but its the treatment which really stands out. For one thing, there's a lot of explicit sex in the book, described in pretty visceral and physical terms by Jemima. There's a lot about how good it feels, but not really much about her emotions surrounding it. I get the idea here (i.e., being sex positive), but it's pretty clinical and not very romantic. A similar practical approach appears elsewhere as well: Jemima's potential foil, social director and queen bee Geniffer, turns out to be pretty nice and points out that any antagonism between them is more due to Jemima's judgment (and not anything Gennifer has ever said). The jocks also prove to be surprisingly reflective and academically-inclined as Hattemer seems to want to flip all of these archetypes on their head. It makes the book memorable and stand out, although it does grate a bit having people fail to follow their usual assignments. I'm less sure I agree with Jemima's read on "feminism" but Hattemer has certainly created a memorable read on the idea.