Sunday, September 27, 2015

After Alice by Gregory Maguire

Review based on advanced review copy received for free in exchange for an honest review.

I am no stranger to Gregory Maguire. I started with Wicked, as everyone should. I was wow'd. After Alice did not completely move me, as Wicked did. However, it w
as a wonderful little novel with a lot of the magic that Maguire showed in Wicked coming through.

As the title and cover imply, After Alice is somehow a take on Alice in Wonderland. However, this story does not really track Alice, per se; rather, it tracks her awkward, chunky, physically disabled friend Ada. Ada is mentioned in Carroll's own Alice only in passing (passage at the beginning of After Alice shows only mention of Ada's long ringlets).

In Maguire's version, Ada is a difficult, perhaps abrasive, curious, but sweet-hearted child, with a near-full body back-brace and an inclination to get in trouble. Ada perhaps intentionally misunderstands the instruction to bring Alice some marmalade and uses the opportunity to escape not only the vicarage, where she lives with her noisy baby brother, but also her governess who is always attempting to correct Ada into ... well, into someone perhaps more like Alice.

Ada sees the famous white rabbit with a timeclock and, as we know Alice has done, follows the rabbit and falls down the hole to wonderland. Everything from the fall itself to Ada's experiences in Wonderland and the various "people" she meets down there are described with a very strong nod to the images and stories we know from the traditional Alice. Unsurprisingly, Maguire's take is dark. There is an ominous presence hanging over everything and even careless death occurs without the batting of an eye.

Additionally, amidst Ada's adventures, Maguire takes us back and forth between her nanny's awful day (she has lost one of her charges!), Alice's sister's day (her very teenage confusing feelings about her mother's recent passing and the attentions of an American visitor and his black adoptee), and Siam, the black child who has escaped slavery and worse under the care of Mr. Winter (the American). And there are, I believe, a few other perspectives as well. Yet Maguire is certainly a talented writer, and the varying perspectives work well together, moving together toward a climax in Wonderland and in the real world around the same time.

I enjoyed the story and the magic that Maguire weaves into the everyday, and the everyday that Maguire weaves into the magical... and I was particularly impressed with the ending.... something about it (no spoilers!) just... I don't know, it almost made me feel as if the world were unsteady for a few moments.

What I didn't love... all I really didn't love about the book might be the pacing. I say "might be" because I had so much going on in my own life while I was reading this, it is hard to tell if the book or real life was the cause of my relatively slow read. Regardless, I thought it was a pretty, enjoyable read.

I would recommend to fans of Maguire, to fans of Alice in Wonderland, and to fans of magical realism and fantasy. FOUR of five stars.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

7 Minis! From romance to sci-fi, from 1 star to 4.5!

Cloud Atlas

I particularly enjoyed the New Seoul section (LOVE the way Mitchell wrote the concept of a corpocracy!). And I wasn't as thrilled w/ the Hawaii after-the-fall section. But, overall, a very satisfying and enjoyable read! Mitchell is clearly a master at enveloping his reader in the setting in which he's writing ... in a book that covers 6 completely different eras and perspectives, this challenge was nevertheless met with apparent ease. I can't wait to see the movie now! It's waiting for me at the library :) And I can't wait to read more Mitchell!
FOUR of five stars

The Golem and the Jinni

Just a beautiful written tale. It's about a golem (generally, a mass of clay made into human'ish form for the purpose of serving its master, usually for a brief, intense, and muscle'y task) who finds herself master'less almost immediately after being brought to life, while on her way to New York at the turn of the century. This is one "half" of the book -- what and how Chava (the golem) do in a small Jewish community in Manhattan. Around the same time, a jinni (genie), named Ahmad, is brought back to existence by a clueless Syrian in a small community, also in Manhattan. And of course they 2 meet. Amid their stories and challenges, including the one that may challenge their very existence, we get a little mythology and a little history of the 2 and the others who impact their lives. It is not fast-paced, but it is well-paced. It never seems to slow really, just keeps on going. It was a very complete and satisfying read and I'm glad I finally got to it!
FOUR of five stars

The Phantasmagorical Astrarium Compendium

which I received from NetGalley (for free in exchange for an honest review)... Ugh. Almost immediately, I began reading sentences to my husband, who begged me to stop because it was so bad. I got to about 5% and he asked why I was still going, and I said I thought I owed it at least 10% (it's ~400 pages.. I had it in Kindle format, so I'm not sure how many pages, exactly). It just... it's one of those books where every 3rd sentence (on average) ends in an exclamation point. Seriously. It was almost impossible to take it seriously. It also had .... I really didn't see the originality in it. It purported to be original, and it sounded interesting, but it pulled (way) too much from other classics and... well, at 10% I just couldn't anymore.
ONE of five stars

Paper Magician

Another great disappointment. I did finish this one (and it read quickly enough)... it just was... blah. It was incredibly predictable and cliched, even while attempting to do something different (a paper magician -- one who uses magic via paper).  So.... yeah. Ready to move on...
TWO of five stars

From Notting Hill with Love Actually

I know some people really enjoyed this (including a good friend of mine!), but I couldn't do it. I understand the concept was that the main character is obsessed w/ movies, but McNamara took it too far and made too little story up herself. The characters are flatter than 2-dimensional, and if the ooooooobvious love interest grins one more time.......... argh. So Yeah. Couldn't.
ONE of five stars

Queen of the Tearling (audio version)

great book! (though I did listen to it on audio, as mentioned, and I think the reader deserves a lot of the credit... I don't know if I would have enjoyed it as much as a self-read book?) I found myself often moved by the story, and the characters have been richly drawn and compelling. I'm very much looking forward to reading the 2nd - Invasion of the Tearling! (and I also can't wait to see the movie, starring Emma Watson!)
FOUR AND A HALF of five stars

Bellman and Black

I also really enjoyed this. Glad that I had read the reviews criticizing it for not being just like Thirteenth Tale (which I loved)... it isn't just like it. It's a completely different book and, in most ways, a completely different kind of book. But Setterfield is still an excellent writer and I really enjoyed it. EsPECially once the whole "Bellman & Black" bit takes off (about halfway through). Probably surprisingly, I was somehow newly inspired in my own ... erm, desires that resemble B&B (no spoilers -- but, for those who've read it, not the macabre aspect of it all ;))
FOUR of five stars

Armada by Ernest Cline (audio version)

Loved it. So, I don't know if I would have loved it as much had I not been listening to Wil Wheaton (at 1.5 speed)... he's a great audio reader! But since I don't know until I do read it myself, I can only base my opinion on the audio version. And it was just wonderful. It's true sci-fi with aliens and spaceships and moon bases, but it's also a very accessible book about a kid who's lost his dad when he was a baby and grew up obsessed with video games, only to discover there's a LOT more to his obsession than it would appear. Yes, there are a lot of references to games and classic sci-fi movies and famous persons in the science and sci-fi genre (Carl Sagan being at the top of that list), but for me, it did not interrupt the story at all and, rather, gave it depth and humor and personality that I think the story, without the nostalgia, might have lacked. Overall, I just really loved this book. I have NO complaints about the book (at least, the audio version), and I will definitely get the actual book as well to read it "on my own" ;)

FIVE of five stars. 

The Boy Genius Detective Agency by Robert Grey

I had a hard time really deciding what to rate this one... On the one had, it was a really quick read and it was really unique, interesting, silly, and kind of fun. On the other hand, there was such a lack of information presented, that I'm not sure is really necessary?

It's about a boy genius... whose age is never revealed, but based on context clues could be anywhere from .... 12 to 17? He's sort of girl-crazy, but doesn't care at all about his appearance; he's obviously super intelligent, but also kind of arrogant-a** about it; and he seems to be appealing to the opposite gender of various ages... ranging from, I don't know, 8 to 50? And his detective agency cohorts, Lollipop, who I think might be younger and less intelligent, and Bubble Gum, who is I think the same age as Boy Genius (aka Phidias) and perhaps just as smart. And they have started a "kid" detective agency and Boy Genius is concerned about not being taken seriously... when Wham! Boom! Bam! they're suddenly in the middle of some crazy sci-fi, super-villain, time-traveling, time-looping, telepathy whirlwind adventure. And the wham-boom-bam... it's a literal description. The book reads like a comic book, but without the actual pictures.

And it somehow works! Although there's virtually no set up of the overall book or each scene, somehow you have just enough information to mostly glean what is going on and keep turning the pages (quickly) to find out how it all resolves. And you mostly know at the end of it all. Or maybe not. Despite the plethora of unanswered questions (including, notably, how old Boy Genius and Bubble Gum are and... I don't believe we know when it takes place? (though it's definitely in the future)), it's a fun middle-grade book with bad guys, super-hero abilities, intrigue, hot women (perhaps a little too much focus on this?), and a clear ongoing plot-base (i.e., it's the beginning of a series). I think the younger generation will appreciate a book that seems much more catered to their way of thinking (maybe? at least insofar as the ADD plot & pace were concerned), though I am a little hesitant to suggest it to my friend's 12-year-old son because, really, Boy Genius has a serious wandering-eye, and it does not seem to matter how old the girl/woman is.

So. Enjoyable? yes. Quick fun read? yes. Amazing? well, no. But still recommended for something completely different.. and pretty well accomplished. So overall, THREE AND A HALF of five stars .

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

It's about: Hannah, a teenager who decides to commit suicide. But, before she does, she makes recordings on tape cassettes explaining why and pointing to 13 very specific reasons (people). She tells her story from where she sees the beginning, and explains how each of the 13 people who get copies of the recordings either contributed to her decision or could have helped her and didn't.

The thing is, it's uncomfortable, and the main character is at times very off-putting and unrelatable - in many ways a typical selfish self-obsessed teenager... and yet, I think the book should be REQUIRED reading for all 8th graders. Maybe even younger, I'm not sure.

Asher did an amazing job of going through the actual psyche and impact that various words and actions have had on Hannah that led her to kill herself. And although these words and actions will not always have the same impact on all teenagers, it is certainly not unusual for this type of reaction -- the isolation and fear and depression that results. At the same time, Asher did an amazing job with Clay (the other narrator) and hope and awareness.

Such an impressive feat.
An easy FOUR of five stars (based on audio version, listened to at 1.5 speed)

Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

I don't know why this one was so hard for me to review. Rushdie has written a lyrical and poetic tale that is supposed to be a spin on 1001 nights. It is about a storm in the approximate-now (a little in the future) that resulted in 1001 nights of "strangenesses," a near-millennium long debate between two philosophers that began in the far past and continued into the time of the strangenesses, and a historical account of the narrators' ancestors, who began with one of the philosophers and continued into the 1001 nights of strangenesses. So right, that doesn't clear it up.

It's about a jinni who falls in love with a philosopher in the past, who allows him to mistreat her and refuse to marry her and give all of her children (with him) his legitimate name, and who passes back into her own world for nearly a thousand years, while their children have children and so on until there are many descendants all over the world and we are in the approximate-now. It is then about a re-awakening of the philosopher and his philosophical nemesis and their continued intellectual debate which turns into a physical war, apparently between the jinn and the humans but, at its heart, between the two philosophies. It then becomes about the war and the strangenesses that are indicative of that time when the jinn sought to take control and the humans, many descendants of the jinni-who-fell-in-love and her philosopher, who fo
ught back. And it is all told as a history, from the perspective of the future (near-1000 years in the future) descendants of the descendants.

Maybe that's why it's been so hard to review... it's much to wrap your head around. It is interesting and it is pretty and it is thought-provoking. It is romantic and harsh and philosophical. It is historical and analytical and distant. It is so many things (in not that many pages!), and it is a dense, thoughtful read. And it is enjoyable, but not fun. It is fulfilling in many ways, but not complete. Its focus is broad - covering millennia - and yet it is almost only about 1 person (the jinni who fell in love with a human). And it is even funny. Rushdie throws in a lot of repetition about the obsession of the jinn (sex) that, in lesser hands would have been infuriating but was, instead, point-making and amusing. I really appreciated a lot about the book. I liked Rushdie's story and imagination and his take on the 1001 nights.

What weren't so great to me were the pace and the fact that it seemed a bit unfocused. I would have liked the book to be a little more intentional about being 1 thing or another. I would have loved Rushdie's take on the fantastical or Rushdie's romance and philosophy or Rushdie's political waxing as a historical tome... but attempting all 3 at once ended up feeling a bit slow and cumbersome. It also felt a bit unfocused... I'm not sure why - it's not simply the time-period or the variety of characters that are covered - I think it was the constant shift in perspective, perhaps without enough of a shift in perspective. Maybe there was too much sameness with all the differences. I'm not sure, but it felt, to me, a little unfocused and a little belabored.

Nevertheless, I am very glad to have read this. I am looking forward to more Rushdie. I would definitely recommend to Rushdie fans. I would also recommend to those interested in a philosophical evaluation of our time with some fantasy thrown in for good measure. But I'm not sure I would recommend to someone looking for a quick fun magic-realism tale - this one takes on a more serious tone and pace.
All in all, THREE AND A HALF of five stars 

The Night Parade by Kathryn Tanquary

Review based on advanced reader copy received from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

What I think I enjoyed most about this book is the imagination that went into it. This is something I would like to recommend to my friends' children (only because I don't yet have my own!) because it's smart and thoughtful and ultimately has a good message without feeling preachy.

Saki (middle-grade) is forced to spend several days during her precious summer vacation in the village where her grandmother lives, preparing for the annual Obon ceremony (honoring the dead), rather than with her friends in her big-city Tokyo. She is, as expected, sullen about the retreat, spending the time with her family, and being without good signal on her cell phone. Looking for any way to have some real fun during this antiquated ritual time, Saki agrees to go with several local kids (typical troublemakers) to her family's property and dishonors it in an attempt to prove both her bravery and her coolness. Saki unknowingly invokes a death curse and opens the door to the spiritual world.

In the nights that follow -- the nights of the Night Parade -- Saki is guided by various spirits, meets good and evil spirits, and learns a lot about the village, the importance of the rituals and honor, and herself.

I thought Saki was written beautifully. She is a complex character, accurately depicting that pre-teen/teen angst, apathy, anger, care, and innocence all at once. She is frustrating and endearing and ultimately tries to do the right thing. I like that the path was not easy, that things were not always what they seemed, and that little efforts made big differences, both good and bad.

The book is pretty and soft and gentle, while addressing big and hard and deep issues. It is not fast paced, but it is steady and consistent throughout. And, as I said, ultimately, I think the things that Saki learns throughout her experiences in the book are great things. And I think the book pulls off an impressive feat by merging Japanese legends, universal truths, and difficult physical and emotion lessons with a beautiful, creative, and imaginative background, populated by a unique array of friends and foes.

I would definitely recommend (and give!) to smart middle and high schoolers open to something beautiful and thought provoking, and to anyone looking for the same!
(and a beautiful cover to boot!)
FOUR of five stars.