Review: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

23734628Blurb:

Rainbow Rowell continues to break boundaries with Carry On, an epic fantasy following the triumphs and heartaches of Simon and Baz from her beloved bestseller Fangirl.

Simon Snow just wants to relax and savor his last year at the Watford School of Magicks, but no one will let him. His girlfriend broke up with him, his best friend is a pest, and his mentor keeps trying to hide him away in the mountains where maybe he’ll be safe. Simon can’t even enjoy the fact that his roommate and longtime nemesis is missing, because he can’t stop worrying about the evil git. Plus there are ghosts. And vampires. And actual evil things trying to shut Simon down. When you’re the most powerful magician the world has ever known, you never get to relax and savor anything.

Carry On is a ghost story, a love story, a mystery and a melodrama. It has just as much kissing and talking as you’d expect from a Rainbow Rowell story — but far, far more monsters.

Review:

When Carry On was announced last year, I couldn’t help but feel a bit extra special. In my review for Fangirl, Rowell’s previous YA novel that featured the novel-within-a-novel that eventually inspired her new novel Carry On (did you get that?), I requested that she adapt the Simon Snow scenes to a standalone book. Because in Fangirl the Simon Snow scenes were bonkers: a mash-up of Harry Potter with an Edward Cullen-esque vampire thrown in for good measure, topped off by an astonishingly well-developed mythology for seemingly throwaway scenes.

So Rainbow wrote it (for me! And I guess the thousands of others who clamored for it), and here I am, deeply downtrodden, because I have to report that this special-order book was not what I wanted. And okay, I immediately recognize that “this book is not what I wanted” is not a valid criticism. Rainbow doesn’t know who I am and she is not writing for me and that is good! Authors tend to shoot themselves in the foot as soon as they write for an audience. But the criticism holds somewhat seeing as Carry On is not Rainbow’s first Simon Snow rodeo. These characters already existed elsewhere; Carry On, as I understood it, would simply be their movement towards center stage.

Simon, Baz, Penelope and the gang have not just found the spotlight, however. They are entirely different incarnations of the characters I recall from Fangirl. And in shocking ways too. Originally, Simon and Co. were thick, meaty characters, dripping with turmoil in the face of insurmountable obstacles, but always–always–surmounting them. They managed to shine so brightly despite the fact that their appearances were intermittent and brusque. With more than 500 pages all to themselves in this novel, I expected their stories to develop in more complex and epic ways. Yet faced with so many pages to fill, they deflate to dull versions of their Fangirl selves. Petty problems rule the day; the supreme villain is rarely mentioned. Which I suppose is true in other epic fantasy novels. Harry Potter was not always thinking about Voldemort. For serious swaths of the series, he’s more concerned with Quidditch.

But Rainbow Rowell does not have the same advantages JKR had writing Harry Potter. Carry On is as if she started writing the series at Deathly Hallows. There’s so much that happened before, but we don’t see it so the stakes are so much lower. The result is a sham, a house of cards she tries to convince us is an actual house. But the little gusts the pages made as I turned them faster–eager to get to the good bits and finally eager to finish because there were no truly good bits–blew the whole house down. And then I see that Simon and everyone was just paper, thin and lifeless paper.

2 out of 5 stars

Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

22522805Blurb:

“You’ve long set your heart against it, Axl, I know. But it’s time now to think on it anew. There’s a journey we must go on, and no more delay…”

The Buried Giant begins as a couple set off across a troubled land of mist and rain in the hope of finding a son they have not seen in years.

Sometimes savage, often intensely moving, Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in nearly a decade is about lost memories, love, revenge, and war.

Review:

Reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel The Buried Giant, a fablelike quest story set in the decades after King Arthur’s reign, I was struck by a desire for something I never wanted to see again after receiving my high school diploma: a reading guide. I wanted an old-fashioned English class worksheet full of questions that used to make me rage (What does the titlesymbolize? Can we describe the novel as a modern-dayallegory? Why or why not?). This vintage wish is not masochistic but simply necessary: there is allegory and symbolism and motifs and all sorts of nitty-gritty literary stuff to unpack here, so much so that I needed a guide. Or maybe just a fellow reading discussion partner to accompany me.

Alone, as a piece of storytelling, The Buried Giant fails. As a motor of thought, however, as a tool to provoke meditation, it succeeds. Which, using my personal calculator, says that as a literary work, it fails overall. The problem here is that the story doesn’t stand up. Essentially, Axl and Beatrice set off on a journey to find their son’s village. Along the way they meet a Saxon knight and start to grapple with the “mist,” no mere British meteorological phenomenon but a dastardly (or beneficent?) haze that fades the memories of all the medieval inhabitants. There’s also a dragon, of course.

Normally I’d be quite keen on any “literary” author’s attempt to retell legend, but the result here is flat, from the plot to the dialogue. (Brace yourself: one of the protagonist’s repeatedly calls his wife “princess.” And by repeatedly I mean every.single.time he has dialogue.) There’s excellent and timely stuff here about grudges and forgiveness, both after a lover’s quarrel or a bloody war, and if moving on really means moving forward, which means leaving the past firmly in the past. But the dull story inches toward an ending that we can predict, even if the final pages are on par with other masterful Ishiguro endings à la Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day.

The Buried Giant is evidence of Ishiguro’s continued fascination with memory. Is memory valuable or nefarious? Does it push us onward or pull us backward? Are we the lives we’re living or merely the lives we’ve lived? He’s normally a maestro with these topics, but it didn’t shine through here. With Ishiguro, however, my memory is merciful and short.

2 stars out of 5

Review: This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

46165Blurb:

This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s romantic and witty first novel, was written when the author was only twenty-three years old. This semiautobiographical story of the handsome, indulged, and idealistic Princeton student Amory Blaine received critical raves and catapulted Fitzgerald to instant fame. Now, readers can enjoy the newly edited, authorized version of this early classic of the Jazz Age, based on Fitzgerald’s original manuscript. In this definitive text, This Side of Paradise captures the rhythms and romance of Fitzgerald’s youth and offers a poignant portrait of the “Lost Generation.”

Review:

The literary landscape is overpopulated with insufferable egotists, often of the white male semi-autobiographical variety, but what separates the sympathetic from the antipathetic?

This Side of Paradise is F. Scott Fitzgerald playing in his usual time period with his usual beautiful words. In the booming era leading up to and following the Great War, men were being lost and found. A lucky guess on the stock market made you a millionaire and gave you a name, but battles in Europe led to a battered generation of men questioning where they were going and if it was anywhere good. Amory Blaine spends the entirety of This Side of Paradise as one of the lost until he miraculously finds himself at the end.

This joyous climax did not evoke any triumphant readerly emotions here, however, because Amory Blaine is the most hateful, undeserving character I’ve ever met. And sure, perhaps his character is a window into the minds of the Lost Generation, but if people were/are thinking like this, then I don’t want to know about it. Amory meanders through life, striving towards something indefinable, which is to say striving towards nothing. His privileged childhood and adolescence lead him to Princeton and into the arms of many delightful debutantes whose chief qualities are soft lips and the proclivity to use said lips even before a marriage proposal. Amory’s striving often looks more like stomping. In climbing upwards, he crushes these women and various other members of the underclass (in other words, anyone who didn’t spend his sixteenth and seventeenth years “prepping” in Connecticut, New York, or Massachusetts), an ascent which again, isn’t upwards, but nowards, since he has no destination except superiority.

These are legitimate words uttered by/about Amory:

Oh it isn’t that I mind the glittering caste system. I like having a bunch of hot cats on top, but gosh, I’ve got to be one of them…But I hate to get anywhere by working for it.

Amory usually liked men individually, yet feared them in crowds unless the crowd was around him.

He took a sombre satisfaction in thinking that perhaps all along she had been nothing except what he had read into her ; that this was her high point, that no one else would ever make her think.

And say all you will about unlikeable narrators—I’m certainly an ardent defender as seen here—but something about Fitzgerald’s depiction of Amory rings false. I didn’t know if I should pity him or sympathize with him, so I ended up being disgusted by him. Amory, like personages from The Great Gatsby, is a careless man. But his thoughtfulness is supposed to make him a redeemable man as well, so that we cheer when he reaches epiphanous clarity riding along the New Jersey highway in the novel’s final pages.

Yet I couldn’t cheer for Amory, I couldn’t like Amory, I couldn’t even tolerate reading his various anodyne thoughts. Insipidness is still insipidness, even if it dresses well, prepped at St. Regis, studied at Princeton, and finds itself described by the magic words of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

2 stars out of 5

Review: Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm

22571781Blurb:

On the grubby outskirts of Paris, Grace restores bric-a-brac, mends teapots, re-sets gems. She calls herself Julie, says she’s from California, and slips back to a rented room at night. Regularly, furtively, she checks the hometown paper on the Internet. Home is Garland, Tennessee, and there, two young men have just been paroled. One, she married; the other, she’s in love with. Both were jailed for a crime that Grace herself planned in exacting detail. The heist went bad—but not before she was on a plane to Prague with a stolen canvas rolled in her bag. And so, in Paris, begins a cat-and-mouse waiting game as Grace’s web of deception and lies unravels—and she becomes another young woman entirely.

Unbecoming is an intricately plotted and psychologically nuanced heist novel that turns on suspense and slippery identity. With echoes of Alfred Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith, Rebecca Scherm’s mesmerizing debut is sure to entrance fans of Gillian Flynn, Marisha Pessl, and Donna Tartt.

Review:

So the Unbecoming details the construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction of a girl following a failed heist. Shame that I’m not one for a heist novel because the story’s founding ideas are solid; its flashy plot, however, is not.

What we have is a love story. Grace has a childhood sweetheart whom she intends to love forever until her growing up reveals different, contradictory intentions. She’s faced with a question I ask myself a lot lately: at what age can we finally assume that the person we are is mostly the person we are going to be? And whose decision is it? That is, who decides who we are going to be? Us? Someone else? The blind, unfeeling universe?

Grace learns that when whoever that whomever is makes his decision, it’s impossible to bridge the gap. Gone are the days of one leg firmly sunk in the sands of childhood, the other leg tentatively stepping toward adulthood; Grace is pushed along whether she likes it or not. She tries, like any normal human being, to fight what she’s becoming. And that’s where we get the heist, the much touted thriller element crying out to prospective readers on the back cover. That’s also where the story begins to fail. Once Grace’s largely plotless but entirely typical personal metamorphosis disappears under piles of blueprints, printouts from art auction house websites, and million dollar paintings, the story moves too quickly and loses itself. In life climaxes tend to happen quickly; in books climaxes must unwind slowly and carefully or else the reader’s patience is only briefly, perfunctorily rewarded.

The crazy fast plot befuddles character motivations. Where Grace was once recognizable, indeed pitiable, she is now confusing, unrealistic, and unsympathetic. Author Rebecca Scherm tries to say some great things in Unbecoming, but her choice to pursue a commercial thriller plot foils her attempt. Grace’s love and growing up are justifiably convoluted; unfortunately the heist plot is too.

2 out of 5 stars

Review: The Fever by Megan Abbott

18656036Blurb:

The Nash family is close-knit. Tom is a popular teacher, father of two teens: Eli, a hockey star and girl magnet, and his sister Deenie, a diligent student. Their seeming stability, however, is thrown into chaos when Deenie’s best friend is struck by a terrifying, unexplained seizure in class. Rumors of a hazardous outbreak spread through the family, school and community.

As hysteria and contagion swell, a series of tightly held secrets emerges, threatening to unravel friendships, families and the town’s fragile idea of security.

A chilling story about guilt, family secrets and the lethal power of desire,The Fever affirms Megan Abbot’s reputation as “one of the most exciting and original voices of her generation.”

Review:

The thing about red herrings is that they have to be believable. A red herring is plainly not a red herring if it doesn’t inspire you to believe something false while distracting you from the truth.

The Fever is one giant trail of failed red herrings. Teenage girls are falling sick in a small town and the entire book hums along trying to find out why. We are presented with two main options: either the HPV vaccine has led to unanticipated side effects (an awful red herring because um, it’s a real-life vaccine with real-life evidence showing its safety and efficacy–Abbott would have been better off creating a fake vaccine) or the toxic algae coating an off-limits local lake has infected the girls (again, an awful red herring because um, what? it should at least be sensical.)

There is too much jumping from character to character, a tactic that mainly serves to bamboozle and frustrate as you wait for a viable reason for the teenage girl plague. I gave up 52% through because Abbott and the characters were still languishing among the protozoan lake viruses and dangerous yet FDA-approved vaccine reasons, even though these options were ridiculous from the get-go.

I read someone’s spoilers and the final solution is believable but nothing earth-shattering, certainly not incredible enough to justify countless meandering chapters lamely asking and never properly trying to answer “What could possibly be causing this disease???”

All in all, a big disappointment.

2 out of 5 stars

Review: Landline by Rainbow Rowell

18081809Blurb:

Georgie McCool knows her marriage is in trouble. That it’s been in trouble for a long time. She still loves her husband, Neal, and Neal still loves her, deeply — but that almost seems beside the point now.

Maybe that was always beside the point.

Two days before they’re supposed to visit Neal’s family in Omaha for Christmas, Georgie tells Neal that she can’t go. She’s a TV writer, and something’s come up on her show; she has to stay in Los Angeles. She knows that Neal will be upset with her — Neal is always a little upset with Georgie — but she doesn’t expect to him to pack up the kids and go home without her.

When her husband and the kids leave for the airport, Georgie wonders if she’s finally done it. If she’s ruined everything.

That night, Georgie discovers a way to communicate with Neal in the past. It’s not time travel, not exactly, but she feels like she’s been given an opportunity to fix her marriage before it starts . . .

Is that what she’s supposed to do?

Or would Georgie and Neal be better off if their marriage never happened?

Review:

Rainbow Rowell, author of my favorite heart-stuttering tales of first love Eleanor & Park and Fangirl, conquers tepid marriage in Landline. Well not so much “conquers” as “casually approaches and throws up her arms in semi-defeat.” Because while a love story comes with a prepackaged resolution—a kiss and confession of mutual desire—a story about a couple with two kids, married for 15 years, not necessarily in love, more so in shambles doesn’t really have a resolution. Sure, the embittered husband and wife can close the book with a kiss and a re-confession of mutual desire, but that’s no promise that the conflict of the 300 previous pages has been definitively surpassed. It’s probably just lying in wait around the next bend.

So what I’m saying is Rainbow Rowell has decided to attack an altogether different subject in Landline. It’s still a talky romance but it’s not romantic. It’s a harsh and measured look into sputtering relationships, into what happens post-happily ever after. I didn’t like it as much as Rowell’s YA novels, and superficially, I must admit that it’s partially due to the lack of will-they-or-won’t-they-please-please-will-they?? flirtation that accompanies two young people falling in love. But although I may appreciate it less, Rowell is no less wise when it comes to describing two older people falling in and out of love on a day-to-day basis. She has some truly fantastic musings on love and marriage, ideas that young’uns like me, people nowhere near slipping a ring on their left hand finger, might be reluctant to accept. She suggests that love is sometimes not enough, that two people can adore each other to the end of time but they will never be happy if they try to stay together. Rowell says things that her teenage characters Eleanor and Park and Cath and Levi might scoff at upon hearing but then anxiously turn over again and again in their heads at night before falling asleep. These are truths feared by the young and gained only by maturity.

What I liked less is the gimmick that moves the plot forward. After skipping Christmas with her husband’s family in Nebraska to work, Georgie feels like her marriage might be over until she finds a magic phone that calls her husband Neal in the past. This unrealistic device is incongruous next to the realistic portrait of marriage. It’s also unnecessary. If Rowell wanted Georgie to compare her present relationship to her past relationship, she could have accomplished this merely by making Georgie reflect and remember. In general, the novel feels somewhat rushed, like it could have been constructed with more care and an eye on deleting superfluous scenes.

Selfishly, I want Rainbow Rowell to return to the realm of YA so I can watch two young kids kiss and confess mutual desire, i.e., fall in love. But she definitely has the skill to write about broken relationships and the (im)possibility of their repair—next time, however, she’ll hopefully do this with one less magic phone.

2.5 stars out of 5

Review: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

18339662Blurb:

A beautiful and distinguished family.
A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.
Lies upon lies.
True love.
The truth.

We Were Liars is a modern, sophisticated suspense novel from National Book Award finalist and Printz Award honoree E. Lockhart.
Read it.
And if anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE.

Review:

The thing about reading a whole book that purports, in its very blurb, to be a massive lie is that when you finish the book you feel unsatisfied because nearly everything you just read was a massive lie.

I don’t have much to say about We Were Liars partly because the book summary instructs me not to reveal the super amazing surprising awesome plot twist (though I will reveal: the twist is not that super nor that amazing nor that surprising nor that awesome) and partly because two thirds of the book feels irrelevant after reading said twist. Apologies for vagueness, but basically you spend most of the book thinking one thing is true only to realize it isn’t true, which left me feeling quite hollow. In essence, pages upon pages of character growth and interaction are false and therefore rather useless.

For a story that seemingly aims to be gritty—with its wtf ending, its family dysfunction, its depressed and traumatized narrator—it didn’t read realistically enough. Nothing about We Were Liarsfeels like something real people with real, beating, breakable hearts would experience. The book follows the Sinclairs, a blueblood family with a private island near Martha’s Vineyard where most of the story takes place. But the Sinclairs rang false for me. They didn’t behave like real East coast elite do, instead they were coarse renderings of how we imagine such people behave.

It could be Lockhart’s inventive prose style that destroys any sense of reality. She writes in short, choppy, almost verse-like sentences with nonsensical descriptions. One character, for instance, is “ambition and strong coffee,” which…I don’t know what that means? I don’t even know what it’s trying and failing to mean. Lockhart also employs faux fairytales to depict the downfall of the Sinclair family, which are interesting but overly obvious. They could have been wonderful metaphorical asides open to interpretation, but instead they were twee retellings of the 10 previous chapters’ intrigue where the narrator’s mother, aunts, and grandfather are played by a king and princesses.

Yes, I enjoyed We Were Liars. Its blurb-writer is a mad genius because I would read anything that warns, “if anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE.” But I found it heavy on lies and low on truths—real meaningful life truths, you know, the stuff that really matters.

2 out of 5 stars