Saturday, January 5, 2019

Books Read in 2018: Three Stars Part One

Marilyn asked whether I kept notes about my books somewhere other than Goodreads, since it's clear that I don't always review the books I read there.


I am honoured that anyone would think I'd be that organized. When I started doing these posts I didn't have nearly enough notes, and would have to look at the book covers and plot descriptions again and search my memory for relevant thoughts. Then I started making better review notes on Goodreads so I wouldn't be at sea during the posts. Then perimenopause started creeping up. My procedure now is that I look up the book, look to see whether there's a review, and if there isn't one I curse past me and if there is one I want to make out with past me. Several times I have been certain that I wrote a review and then POOF - no review. I assume that I wrote the review in my head but didn't actually get around to typing it out - so Marilyn (HI MARILYN) I feel you SO HARD on the mind slipping thing. Looking at the book on Goodreads usually refreshes my memory enough to put together at least a short review. 

Three Star Plays (Play)

Our Town By Thornton Wilder: Synopsis from Goodreads - Our Town was first produced and published in 1938 to wide acclaim. This Pulitzer Prize-winning drama of life in the small village of Grover's Corners, an allegorical representation of all life, has become a classic. It is Thornton Wilder's most renowned and most frequently performed play.

Full disclosure - I actually got a collection of three Wilder plays, but I only read Our Town. I realized I had seen numerous works where it was discussed or produced, and read one really great zombie parody of it, but had never read the actual play. It was pretty good - I mean, it's probably very good, but it's hard to untangle all the associations clinging to it from my actual reaction. It felt a little dated (I was going to say "of course", but there's not necessarily any "of course" about it - maybe some people would feel that it's timeless) - but I liked the simplicity and bittersweetness. 

Three Star Fiction

The Disappeared by Kim Echlin: Synopsis from Goodreads - A sixteen year old girl falls in love with a Cambodian student. 
A revolutionary closes the borders of a country for four years. 
Families, friends, lovers disappear. 
Kim Echlin’s powerful new novel tells the story of Anne Greves, from Montreal, who meets Serey, a Cambodian student forced into exile when he cannot return home during Pol Pot’s time of terror. Anne and Serey meet in a jazz club where their shared passion for music turns into a passion for each other, against the will of her father. But when the borders of Cambodia open, Serey is compelled to return home, alone, to try to find his family. Left behind, and without word from her lover, Anne tries to build a new life but she cannot forget her first love. She decides to travel to the war-ravaged country that claimed Serey. What she finds there is a traumatized and courageous people struggling to create new freedoms out of the tragedy that claimed their traditional ways, their livelihood, and a seventh of their population.
“Despair is an unwitnessed life,” writes Anne as she searches for the truth, about her lover, and about herself. “If we live long enough, we have to tell, or turn to stone inside.”
From its first page, The Disappeared takes us into the land of kings and temples, fought over for generations. It reveals the forces that act on love everywhere: family, politics, forgetting. Universal in its questions about how to claim the past, how to honor our dead, and how to go on after those we love disappear, it is a story written in spare and rhythmic prose. The Disappeared is a remarkable consideration of language, truth, justice, and memory that speaks to the conscience of the world, and to love, even when those we love most are gone.

I'm of two minds about this book - actually, maybe of several minds. The writing itself deserves four stars easily, it's a beautiful book and the writing is exquisite. At points it was a bit like Fugitive Pieces, where the writing becomes so poetic that it nearly obscures the story. And then there's the romance. Anne and Serey meet when he is twenty-one and she is sixteen. They have a fairly brief relationship and then he goes back to Cambodia and she doesn't see him again until ten years later. I admit that I might just be too old and cynical for the 'love conquers (nearly) all' trope, for the headstrong woman who will do literally anything for the man she loves. The description of Cambodia, landscape and people, was vivid and affecting. Maybe because Echlin is not from Cambodia she felt like she could only tell the story from the perspective of a foreigner, which is fair. Maybe I just didn't like the character of Anne that much - she doesn't seem to think or care much about her actions affect other people, which is understandable when you're sixteen but somewhat less so when you're twenty-six. I think the story of the Pol Pot regime needs to be told often and extensively. I'm just not sure this lens was the most effective one for me. 

Three Star Children's Books

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts One and Two by J.K. Rowling: Synopsis from Goodreads The eighth story, nineteen years later …
Based on an original new story by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany, a new play by Jack Thorne, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is the eighth story in the Harry Potter series and the first official Harry Potter story to be presented on stage. The play will receive its world premiere in London’s West End on July 30, 2016.
It was always difficult being Harry Potter and it isn’t much easier now that he is an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic, a husband and father of three school-age children.
While Harry grapples with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted. As past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes, darkness comes from unexpected places.

Meh. Then a tiny bit of 'aw'. But mostly meh. I went in with low hopes, so I wasn't disappointed. The Harry Potter magic was very real but very much of its original time for me - I didn't think lightning would strike twice. 

A Mutiny in Time (Infinity Ring #1) by James Dashner: Synopsis from Goodreads - Scholastic's next multi-platform mega-event begins here! History is broken, and three kids must travel back in time to set it right! 
When best friends Dak Smyth and Sera Froste stumble upon the secret of time travel -- a hand-held device known as the Infinity Ring -- they're swept up in a centuries-long secret war for the fate of mankind. Recruited by the Hystorians, a secret society that dates back to Aristotle, the kids learn that history has gone disastrously off course.Now it's up to Dak, Sera, and teenage Hystorian-in-training Riq to travel back in time to fix the Great Breaks . . . and to save Dak's missing parents while they're at it. First stop: Spain, 1492, where a sailor named Christopher Columbus is about to be thrown overboard in a deadly mutiny!

I grabbed this off the shelf to read on my lunch break at work, so this is the first I've seen of this "Scholastic's next multi-platform mega-event", which expression makes me vaguely nauseous. I didn't love all of the Maze Runner trilogy, but the first book was pretty solid, and, well, time travel! I quite liked this, especially the description of the 'Remnants' - a feeling of longing created by an unknown disruption in a person's history. As a series it could be a really effective way of teaching history - this book deals with putting Christopher Columbus's discovery of America right, but the possibilities are endless. I will be recommending this to middle-grade readers.

Crispin (The Cross of Lead #1) by Avi: Synopsis from Goodreads - "Asta's Son" is all he's ever been called. The lack of a name is appropriate, because he and his mother are but poor peasants in 14th century medieval England. But this thirteen-year-old boy who thought he had little to lose soon finds himself with even less - no home, no family, or possessions. Accused of a crime he did not commit, he may be killed on sight, by anyone. If he wishes to remain alive, he must flee his tiny village. All the boy takes with him is a newly revealed name - Crispin - and his mother's cross of lead.

Newbery Medal Winner 2003. It was a really good example of a story that humanizes a certain period of history. It's not overly complicated but has a good relationship between Crispin and his rescuer Bear, and a digestible description of politics and court intrigue. 

Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder: Synopsis from Goodreads - On the island, everything is perfect. The sun rises in a sky filled with dancing shapes; the wind, water, and trees shelter and protect those who live there; when the nine children go to sleep in their cabins, it is with full stomachs and joy in their hearts. And only one thing ever changes: on that day, each year, when a boat appears from the mist upon the ocean carrying one young child to join them—and taking the eldest one away, never to be seen again.
Today’s Changing is no different. The boat arrives, taking away Jinny’s best friend, Deen, replacing him with a new little girl named Ess, and leaving Jinny as the new Elder. Jinny knows her responsibility now—to teach Ess everything she needs to know about the island, to keep things as they’ve always been. But will she be ready for the inevitable day when the boat will come back—and take her away forever from the only home she’s known?

This was quite beautiful in many ways (I can still see many of the scenes in my head - it would make a visually stunning movie - and look at that cover, for goodness sake) but ultimately I found it disappointing. It's an intriguing set-up, and an enjoyable story as far as it goes. There were certain passages about burgeoning adolescent emotions that were breathtakingly insightful. As I passed the halfway mark, I started to feel apprehensive about the ending, and my suspicions were unhappily confirmed. I can sort of guess at what the author was aiming for, but I'm not sure it was really earned.

Young Adult Fantasy/Horror

The Swan Riders (Prisoners of Peace #2) by Erin Bow: Synopsis from Goodreads - Greta Stuart had always known her future: die young. She was her country's crown princess, and also its hostage, destined to be the first casualty in an inevitable war. But when the war came it broke all the rules, and Greta forged a different path.
She is no longer princess. No longer hostage. No longer human. Greta Stuart has become an AI.
If she can survive the transition, Greta will earn a place alongside Talis, the AI who rules the world. Talis is a big believer in peace through superior firepower. But some problems are too personal to obliterate from orbit, and for those there are the Swan Riders: a small band of humans who serve the AIs as part army, part cult.
Now two of the Swan Riders are escorting Talis and Greta across post-apocalyptic Saskatchewan. But Greta’s fate has stirred her nation into open rebellion, and the dry grassland may hide insurgents who want to rescue her – or see her killed. Including Elian, the boy she saved—the boy who wants to change the world, with a knife if necessary. Even the infinitely loyal Swan Riders may not be everything they seem.
Greta’s fate—and the fate of her world—are balanced on the edge of a knife in this smart, sly, electrifying adventure.

Part of me thinks I should have reread The Scorpion Rules before reading this, and part of me thinks it wouldn't have helped all that much. It might be the fact that I am perpetually wading through peri-menopausal brain fog at the moment, but I found it really hard to keep track of the A.I. personalities who borrowed bodies, and keep the A.I. separate from the bodies, and then there was more than one Talis and Jesus, forget about it. I didn't enjoy this as much as The Scorpion Rules. I did like the ethical debates, and the back-and-forth between Greta and Talis, the immortal, towering intelligence that has to take more than just human feelings into account without (hopefully) becoming a monster, and the witty banter. But as a story it didn't hang together quite as well, and not just because I missed Princess Xie. Plain Kate is still Bow's masterpiece, in my opinion.

Cryer's Cross by Lisa McMann: Synopsis from Goodreads - Kendall loves her life in small town Cryer's Cross, Montana, but she also longs for something more. She knows the chances of going to school in New York are small, but she's not the type to give up easily. Even though it will mean leaving Nico, the world's sweetest boyfriend, behind.
But when Cryer's Cross is rocked by unspeakable tragedy, Kendall shoves her dreams aside and focuses on just one goal: help find her missing friends. Even if it means spending time with the one boy she shouldn't get close to... the one boy who makes her question everything she feels for Nico.
Determined to help and to stay true to the boy she's always loved, Kendall keeps up the search--and stumbles upon some frightening local history. She knows she can't stop digging, but Kendall is about to find out just how far the townspeople will go to keep their secrets buried.

I saw this in the library and considered grabbing it multiple times before I actually did. It wasn't as good as I hoped or as disappointing as I feared. The best thing was probably the depiction of the small town through setting and relationships. The new romance suffered, in my opinion, from familiarity - the sexy-but-arrogant new boy with a well-hidden heart of gold, the main female character being reduced to adorable spluttering rage by said arrogance, lather, rinse, repeat. The horror plot was a little different and worked well enough. 

There's Someone Inside Your House by Stephanie Perkins: Synopsis from Goodreads - Love hurts...
Makani Young thought she'd left her dark past behind her in Hawaii, settling in with her grandmother in landlocked Nebraska. She's found new friends and has even started to fall for mysterious outsider Ollie Larsson. But her past isn't far behind.
Then, one by one, the students of Osborne Hugh begin to die in a series of gruesome murders, each with increasingly grotesque flair. As the terror grows closer and her feelings for Ollie intensify, Makani is forced to confront her own dark secrets.

Three-and-a-half stars. This was kind of dumb and yet I still quite enjoyed it - it was like a really fun, fairly light horror movie. The relationship between Makani and her grandmother is lovely, and the parts about her parents are uncomfortably realistic. The romance worked really well for me - it seemed natural and sweet and believable. I found the vignettes introducing the characters who die a little jarring, in the way I always do when an author introduces a sympathetic character just to bump them off, but I prefer that to mindless mowing down of nothing characters. There were parts about the end that I found weird, but overall it was a fun read.


Mary Lynn said...

Too bad about The Disappeared not being so great. Another of Kim Eichlin’s books, Under the Visible Life, was fantastic. Highly recommend it.

Marilyn (A Lot of Loves) said...

The Infinity Ring series hasn’t seemed to have taken off in my school library. I haven’t read it so I can’t say why but I’ve only managed to convince a few kids to give it a try and I don’t think many of them read the whole series.

Question about what your feelings are for a three star...this was a debate at my book club recently. A few people said a 3 star rating means they would never read it or recommend it, but to me a 3 star means it’s ok, just not amazing. How about you?

Steph Lovelady said...

I felt pretty much the same about HP & the Cursed Child, or I would have strictly on the merits, except when we read it (a couple years ago), I think it was the last time both kids wanted to hear the same book at the same time, so it made a nice Friday after school ritual for a while there.

I'm going to answer Marilyn's question about stars, if that's not too presumptuous. For me, a three star book is competently written, maybe more workmanlike than artistic, but potentially enjoyable for other reasons. Or it could be very well written book that's not particularly enjoyable either because it wasn't the right time for me to read it, or maybe it could never be the right book for me under any circumstances, but I still recognize something worthy in it. A bad book is two stars or less, in theory, though I've never actually rated a book one star, maybe because I don't ever choose to read a book I'd rate that low.

Nicole MacPherson said...

I've seen Our Town, because my friend's daughter was the lead in it. I found it...long. So I'm not sure I would enjoy reading the actual script.