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

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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: 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

Review: The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein

1140719Blurb:

“To anyone who wonders whether it is possible to survive adolescence, this is as much as I can offer of reassurance.” So begins Rachel Klein’s dark and disturbing first novel. Told through the page of a sixteen year-old girl’s journal, The Moth Diaries is an unsettling and provocative portrait of obsession and fear.

In the hothouse atmosphere of an exclusive girls’ boarding school during the late sixties, political activism, social revolution, and the war in Vietnam might never have happened. Nothing existed outside the girls and the school where it was all too easy to confuse fantasy and reality; friendship and lust; dreaming and wakefulness. And just as easy for the unnamed narrator, isolated with her increasingly obsessive musings, to imagine that a schoolmate was slowly destroying her friend and roommate. But what was the truth? That Ernessa was a vampire responsible not only for Lucy’s mysterious and wasting illness but for a series of other disasters at the school as well? Or that the narrator, fragile and unstable, had intricately constructed her own gothic nightmare? Thirty years later, rereading her journal, she is no more certain than we are.

Brilliantly conceived and compellingly readable, The Moth Diaries will haunt readers long after they’ve turned the final page.

Review:

Probably the only thing you should know about The Moth Diariesis that when I sat down to write this review, I spent the first 30 minutes composing a nine part list of questions, subquestions, and subsubquestions about what the hell I just read.

I seriously have no idea. And I really really like that I have no idea.

A diverse mélange of genres—boarding school tale, coming of age story, vampire gothic (well, maybe…), psychological thriller—The Moth Diaries resists easy definition. What is this book? What is it even about? And most pressingly, what does it all mean?

Although this novel eschews certainties, I’ll venture to say that it’s about the tenuousness of teenage identity. As the 16 year-old unnamed narrator chronicles her junior year at boarding school, she constantly probes those common almost-adult questions: who am I, who do I want to be, who am I expected to be?

It’s also about jealousy. The hateful jealousy the narrator feels towards Ernessa, a new student who dazzles her peers with her deconstruction of Nietzsche and her apathy towards school rules, leads her to label Ernessa as a vampire. Whether or not Ernessa truly is a vampire—indeed whether or not Ernessa even actually exists—depends on your appraisal of the narrator’s deteriorating mental state as she grows more and more jealous. In many ways, Ernessa seems to be a facsimile of the narrator—both are intelligent Jewish girls with dead dads and accompanying outsider cachet—though Ernessa is the more content, confident facsimile. She is simply a better, truer version of the narrator, and this self-assuredness may just inspire the narrator to suffer a psychotic break and persecute Ernessa as an abomination, a supernatural other who sleeps in a coffin.

This jealousy is compounded by the microenvironment of the narrator’s boarding school. Most of the drama unrolls in a single dormitory hallway. And so the novel is about the destructiveness of isolated groups. A small social circle leads us to study others and ourselves too closely. No one can really like herself or other people when viewed so intimately. No one can contain jealousies in such a limited environment. The narrator’s delusions thus don’t seem delusional but reasonable. Perhaps anyone’s skin can adopt a pale, heliophobic sheen when being observed daily, for hours, at a distance of less than a few meters. It’s only normal.

The Moth Diaries is ambiguous, rewarding repeated close readings. Klein’s writing is exquisite. Ethereal yet harsh, it is the gospel of a girl, a faithful record of how she sees things to truly be. True or not, these are her words. The prose suffocates you with its terrible insularity. You are caught in the narrator’s nightmare. Whether the nightmare is real or self-created is unimportant, because you are caught in it.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

341896Blurb:

I Capture the Castle tells the story of seventeen-year-old Cassandra and her family, who live in not-so-genteel poverty in a ramshackle old English castle. Here she strives, over six turbulent months, to hone her writing skills. She fills three notebooks with sharply funny yet poignant entries. Her journals candidly chronicle the great changes that take place within the castle’s walls, and her own first descent into love. By the time she pens her final entry, she has “captured the castle”–and the heart of the reader–in one of literature’s most enchanting entertainments.

Review:

What a melancholic and beautiful book!

My favorite books are those that lead to an inextricable moment. A moment where everything comes to head in the only way it possibly could, and there doesn’t seem to be any solution. And yet, at this moment, there are 50 pages left in the book. I like these moments because I feel like they are the closest the literary and reality come to touching. In real life we encounter terrible situations without a gleaming exit or a handy detour. All we can do is face them, acknowledge that it will be a struggle and go on struggling.

I Capture the Castle features one of those moments. Cassandra, a 17 year old English girl who lives in a castle post-WWII, narrates her and her family’s experiences in her personal journals. She has a charming and witty voice. At the age of 17, she’s certainly naïve and prone to overimagining but her skill for analysis renders her account mature and self-assured. And what an account it is! Her family is wildly eccentric: her father is a washed-up world-famous novelist, her stepmother a former nude model and early convert to New Ageism, her older sister a heroine seemingly plucked from an Austen novel, desperate for love and, of course, money. There’s also a servant boy love interest and two young Americans who move in after inheriting a nearby estate.

While Cassandra’s journals read like a real-life story from a 17 year old—occasionally mundane and jejune—they are also full of romantic moments. Something about living in a freaking castle naturally ups the romance quotient. Cassandra’s storybook life is thus relatable yet distant—I mean, who can say they went swimming in a moat under the moonlight with two sleeping swans after a dinner party?

Basically I Capture the Castle is a lovely story that both enchants and aches. It leads to the inevitable unsolvable conflict, that perfect climactic moment without a proper denouement. And the ending is my favorite kind: ambiguous but hopeful.

Recommended for fans of Anne of Green Gables and Jane Austen.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: And All The Stars by Andrea K. Höst

16054889Blurb:

Come for the apocalypse.
Stay for cupcakes.
Die for love.

Madeleine Cost is working to become the youngest person ever to win the Archibald Prize for portraiture. Her elusive cousin Tyler is the perfect subject: androgynous, beautiful, and famous. All she needs to do is pin him down for the sittings.

None of her plans factored in the Spires: featureless, impossible, spearing into the hearts of cities across the world – and spraying clouds of sparkling dust into the wind.

Is it an alien invasion? Germ warfare? They are questions everyone on Earth would like answered, but Madeleine has a more immediate problem. At Ground Zero of the Sydney Spire, beneath the collapsed ruin of St James Station, she must make it to the surface before she can hope to find out if the world is ending.

Review:

For me, the twists and plot reveals in And All the Stars are among the novel’s strongest points, so this review will be vague and short in order to prevent spoilage.

This is a marvelous scifi/post-apocalyptic YA novel (there are tinges of romance and lots of action as well, so basically every genre ever is represented here). Here are the top reasons why you should read it:

1. a hilarious and original cast of characters: why is it that fictional characters are so much better than most of the people I interact with in real life? I always lament this fact, and in And All the Stars I met a bunch of new characters that struck me down with this sadness again. From Madeleine, the artsy protagonist, to Noi, the no-nonsense best friend, to all the boys from a local boarding school, there are too many possible favorites. Bonus factor: the characters are diverse! Go away completely heterosexual, white casts! And All the Stars features multiple races and sexual orientations.
2. an ode to friendship: if required to provide a main theme from this book, I’d say friendship and the importance of having people to rely on. This theme is well explored, especially through the inclusion of the aforementioned outstanding characters and their constant allusions to Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. All for one, one for all!
3. awesome plot twists: no elaboration here, because I want readers to experience them personally, but oh my god, they are worth it. Even minor plot reveals were stunning and really upped the stakes (not that they weren’t sufficiently upped, you know, with the apocalypse and all)

Some things I didn’t like (but shouldn’t discourage you from reading it!):

1. action scenes could be confusing:  In scenes with a lot of movement and fighting, I can get a little lost in who is doing what to whom.
2. mushy, overly feel-good epilogue: Another weakness I’ve noticed with Höst; she is a bit prone to overly perfect endings. This one especially stung since the final line of the actual book was so wonderfully ambiguous, which was then marred by the epilogue. It was somewhat ameliorated by a pretty good but not quite as good final epilogue line.

This is simply a fun read. I was particularly impressed because having read some of Höst’s earlier work, I can see that her craft has greatly improved, though it wasn’t too shabby to begin with! She is a promising author that I will be watching closely.

4 out of 5 stars

 

Review: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

15751398Blurb:

Foolish love appears to be the Roux family birthright, an ominous forecast for its most recent progeny, Ava Lavender. Ava—in all other ways a normal girl—is born with the wings of a bird. In a quest to understand her peculiar disposition and a growing desire to fit in with her peers, sixteen-year old Ava ventures into the wider world, ill-prepared for what she might discover and naïve to the twisted motives of others. Others like the pious Nathaniel Sorrows, who mistakes Ava for an angel and whose obsession with her grows until the night of the Summer Solstice celebration. That night, the skies open up, rain and feathers fill the air, and Ava’s quest and her family’s saga build to a devastating crescendo. First-time author Leslye Walton has constructed a layered and unforgettable mythology of what it means to be born with hearts that are tragically, exquisitely human.

Review:

According to the author’s bio, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender was inspired by “a particularly long sulk in a particularly cold rainstorm spent pondering the logic, or rather, lack thereof, in love – the ways we coax ourselves to love, to continue loving, to leave love behind.”

It could have been an unadulterated disaster. Miraculously, it wasn’t.

I find that when people expressly seek to explore love, they pulverize everything that is so captivating about it. Very cleverly, Leslye Walton writes her gorgeous treatise on love by not writing about love. In the same way you do not find love in real life by looking for it, you do not find love in a story by looking for it. Instead Walton writes about the generations of a special family and the magical Seattle neighborhood they occupy. And of course, there is love—all sorts of love—there. But it is an organic and true form of love. The type of love that leads to smiles but also to blood and tears.

It’s exquisitely written. Walton’s magical realism is incredible: just wacky enough that you tilt your head when someone turns into a bird but never so crazy that you feel thrown from the story. She packs the story with enduringly beautiful images—a white Communion dress stained with cherries and mud, a wooden countertop gleaming with patisseries, a heart hacked away because of a child with blue-green eyes.

It’s just stunning. And it contains more truth about love, more hard, real facts about love than any contemporary, hyperrealistic literary novel. In this tragical and hopeful family saga, we learn that love cannot be pinned down. It is nowhere and it is everywhere and that is magical.

5 out of 5 stars