Review: The Fault in Our Stars

Posted on August 20th, 2014 @ 15:07
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The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green

My rating:

Summary:

Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.

Review:

I’m not at ease with cancer stories. That illness itself makes me shudder; I might go as far as to say I’m even mildly phobic about it. But I still wanted to check this book, after reading so many good reviews about it, and after I was told that it wasn’t so much about vivid descriptions of cancer itself. So, when it popped up at the library near my parents’ home, I seized the opportunity.

Well, I might be a horrible, callous person, because I just don’t get the whole tear-inducing, heart-wrenching hype around this novel. Or maybe whatever passes for a heart in my chest cavity was too busy rolling its metaphorical eyes at all the pompousness, which for me totally ruined the story. It made me wonder if a thesaurus was harmed, raped and defaced in the process. When using Big Words, the least one can do is to us Big Words That Actually Mean What They’re Supposed To Mean. (Definition of hamartia: the error in judgement that causes the hero to achieve the opposite of what s/he meant, leading to the actual tragedy. Not just any character flaw.) This is not how I, of all people, could be touched, not when I’m too busy wondering who the hell talks like that.

Hazel struck me as pretentious, and incredibly judgemental when it came to a lot of people around her. Gallows humour I could definitely take, understand, and appreciate—but this wasn’t humour. This was just demeaning. The way she spoke of the support group and of Patrick, as if his life had no value? Disgusting:

“…the relief that he escaped lo those many years ago when cancer took both of his nuts but spared what only the most generous soul would call his life.”

I sure couldn’t empathise with her attitude towards her parents at times (how dare they show feelings and cry; or wake her up at 5:30 in the morning to prepare and board the plane to go to Amsterdam; or send her to support group, instead of allowing her to basically be already dead in
her everyday life). Even her attitude towards her teachers, when she attended morning classes.

And the “metaphors”. That whole thing with the eggs and breakfast foods and me going “can we get to some actual point, and not some stupid rambling about a topic that I wouldn’t even tackle if I were completely wasted?” Or the hurdles:

“And I wondered if hurdlers ever thought, you know, This would go faster if we just got rid of the hurdles.

That’s not philosophical. That’s idiotic.

The love-at-first-sight trope seldom works for me, and it didn’t work here either. It turned the narrative into something rather cheesy, especially with all the pompous dialogues. (Seriously, I’ve met my share of university teachers and educated people in general… and we just don’t talk like that, certainly not without preparing our speeches first. So teenagers, no matter how smart? Sorry, I just can’t believe it.)

Somehow, it reminded me of some of the stuff I wrote when I was 15-16, and found recently at the bottom of a cardboard box. I remembered those “pieces” as witty, smart, full of deep meaning. I remembered writing them with such goals in mind. I was good at writing, too; I always had top grades in French and Literature classes. Then I read those again—now, that is, 20 years later—and I realised how full of myself I was at the time, and how my Big Words And Sentences were in fact just so shallow. The characters here, and their way of talking and being, left me with the same feeling. They never seemed to leave the surface level. Now that I’m done with the book, I still don’t know what Hazel likes (apart from An Imperial Affliction and her favourite TV show), what else she used to do before being diagnosed, and so on. She’s defined by 1) her illness (though said illness looked kind of like a ploy to elicit emotion, rather than anything else) and 2) Augustus, and… What else? I have no idea.

I think it could’ve been a great story… only without its pretentiousness, without its flat characters, and without its tendency to take the reader by the hand to put his/her nose into the supposed deep meaning hidden within the pages. When you feel like a novel is trying to manipulate you, is when suspension of disbelief shatters.

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Review: Engines of War

Posted on August 19th, 2014 @ 14:05
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Doctor Who: Engines of WarDoctor Who: Engines of War by George Mann

My rating:

Summary:

“The death of billions is as nothing to us Doctor, if it helps defeat the Daleks.”

The Great Time War has raged for centuries, ravaging the universe. Scores of human colony planets are now overrun by Dalek occupation forces. A weary, angry Doctor leads a flotilla of Battle TARDISes against the Dalek stronghold but in the midst of the carnage, the Doctor’s TARDIS crashes to a planet below: Moldox.

As the Doctor is trapped in an apocalyptic landscape, Dalek patrols roam amongst the wreckage, rounding up the remaining civilians. But why haven’t the Daleks simply killed the humans?

Searching for answers the Doctor meets ‘Cinder’, a young Dalek hunter. Their struggles to discover the Dalek plan take them from the ruins of Moldox to the halls of Gallifrey, and set in motion a chain of events that will change everything. And everyone.

An epic novel of the Great Time War featuring the War Doctor as played by John Hurt.

Review:

(I got an ARC through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.)

I very seldom read “fan” books—i.e. featuring characters from TV shows/movies. I think the last one I read was an X-Files novel, some 20 years ago, and not even its original edition/language. So keep in mind I may not be the best person to judge such stories, and try to consider them from my point of view as a reader in general.

Also, it doesn’t help that I’ve only seen one season of Doctor Who. I love the series, but never managed to go further, because of reasons. Shame on me. Whatever. I was spoiled about a few things, and not spoiled about many others. However, I can at least give an opinion about that, and I’m happy to report that the present novel isn’t of the crumbling-under-spoilers kind. If, like me, you’ve only seen the first season, or not many more episodes, then you already know that there was a Time War; that the Doctor is a Time Lord, and that they do regenerate upon death; that he had an important role to play during said war; and that the Daleks are, well, the Daleks.

You don’t need to know more to read and enjoy Engines of War, and it won’t spoil the whole series for you either. Which you may consider either a good thing (like I did), or a bad thing (if you’re a seasoned Whovian who wants a lot more). Although I admit I didn’t catch a few references to events that happened in episodes I didn’t see, I don’t think it’s really a problem. This lack of background is specific to me anyway, and the story functions well even if you don’t know anything about those events.

Here, the Doctor meets a new companion, Cinder (or, rather, Cinder does meet the Doctor), a young woman from Moldox. Her planet and surrounding solar system was attacked and ravaged by the Daleks, and she’s been part of a doomed-to-fail resistance movement since childhood. When their paths cross, she jumps on the opportunity to leave this dying world, but soon comes to realise that it’s not so easy as to just go away and find another place, because the latest Dalek-made weapon is one that would totally change the fate of universe, both in space and time, if it were to be deployed.

This book reads fairly easily, and much like an episode from the series. I wasn’t always completely happy with the writing, which was sometimes a bit too “tell-not-show” to my liking, but such occurrences were actually quite sparse. There are plot hooks and cool concepts (the possibility engine, the time-wiping weapon), there are twists, we meet with a Doctor who’s more jaded and hardened than the one I got to know (the Ninth one), yet still displays a lot of the “Doctor-isms” I liked on TV. The author managed to make scenes very easy to visualise, including the TARDIS’s and other sounds—not so easy to do without falling into the realm of ridicule. The Time Lords are shown as just as fearsome as the Daleks, in their own ways. And Cinder is a resourceful companion for the Doctor, not just some girl tagging along. She has a reason to leave, a reason to fight, has picked useful fights along the way, and her humanity is an important anchor for the Doctor, one that deeply contrasts with Rassilon’s cold, distanciated views.

This wasn’t the best novel ever, but it sure was worth the few hours it took for me to read it.
3.5 stars.

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Review: Tell The Wolves I’m Home

Posted on August 16th, 2014 @ 20:43
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Tell The Wolves I'm HomeTell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

My rating:

Summary:

1987. There is only one person who has ever truly understood fourteen year old June Elbus, and that’s her uncle, the renowned painter, Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her older sister, June can only be herself in Finn’s company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies, far too young, of a mysterious illness her mother can barely speak about, June’s world is turned upside down. But Finn’s death brings a surprise acquaintance into June’s life-someone who will help her to heal, and to question what she thinks she knows about Finn, her family, and even her own heart.

Review:

Overall I liked this novel. It is a story of pain, of love, with both touching and tense moments, and the way it tackles the theme of AIDS works well within the chosen context (1987). I was only 8 in 1987, yet I still remember that people were scared and didn’t understand what it was all about. I still remember asking my own mother, frightened, “Mom, will I get AIDS, too?” The whole fear and rejection permeating this novel, the way people considered this disease as “gay-only”… it all ties up within that scare, and some of the characters’ reactions are thus rendered mean not out of sheer nastiness, but fear, ignorance, and misunderstanding. As annoying as those are, they remain, well, human.

Indeed, the characters weren’t particularly likeable—there were times when I just wanted to slap them. Greta for being cruel instead of saying from the beginning what she really felt and wanted. June for being so self-centred and oblivious to other people around her, focused on Finn, Finn, Finn only—good thing she grows up a little in that regard. The absentee father, and the mother who was quick to judge. Part of me didn’t like them, yet part of me also found them flawed in a human way. They acted out of loneliness, out of love, out of jealousy—all too human, again.

I must say that I really liked Toby, who had to remain hidden and would have ended up alone in his grief. He seemed so lost, and his feelings shone through that loss with an acute honesty, underlined by genuine smiles and spontaneity. I perceived him as someone who had had to pay for one mistake, didn’t have much luck, who finally found true love, only to lose it again, and be shunned in the process. I don’t think he deserved that. Nobody does.

However, I think that the portrayal of AIDs in general, how it was perceived at the time, is a strength, but also a weakness in this story. While it made sense to me as an adult who remembers that period, I think it wasn’t properly exploited in a novel for younger people who didn’t live at that time. When you read this book in “my” light, it’s quite accurate in showing the irrational ways some people reacted; when you don’t have the necessary hindsight, it actually doesn’t do much to dispel all those “only gay guys get AIDS and OMG don’t touch them they’re dangerous!” notions. In that regard, I wish Tell The Wolves Are Home had gone further, shown more obviously how things changed for some of the characters, instead of relying on hints. Usually, I’m not too fond of novels that lay it thick; here, it may not have been thick enough, and the complex dynamics within the Elbus family (Finn included) weren’t fully exploited.

In fact, in my opinion, it would have needed to be more openly confrontational sometimes. Somehow, the characters didn’t really faced the consequences of their choices when it cames to shutting out good people out of their lives just for having AIDS. Somehow, they got away with too many shitty decisions, and this with barely some sliver of guilt. No, it’s not OK to threaten to kick your brother out of your life and deny him his nieces just for being in love, for being unlucky regarding sickness—nor to force the poor bloke he’s living with to stay in the cellar, pretending not to exist, while the girls believed Finn lived alone. How callous can people be? I really wish Danni would have been called on her bullshit there.

(Also, I could say the same for some triggers in it—that they’d have needed to be shown in a different way. Like, Toby and June smoking together, doing things together in secrecy. I got how Toby must’ve felt lost, and some people, when they’re like that, stop thinking and don’t always make the best decisions. June’s narrative should’ve made this obvious, yet didn’t. In turn, it just made it seem like he was potentially getting her into drugs, rape-inducing/paedophiliac situations, and so on. The girl being only 14 may explain her lack of insight; still, it’s a slippery slope, and could probably have been avoided.)

Still 3 stars for me because in the end, I liked it, I liked its depiction of the way everyone reacted to that specific disease in that specific era, no matter how ugly and stupid their reactions. But I’m not too happy about how some aspects panned out. Maybe because it’s YA—maybe it’s too focused on the “misunderstood teenager” side, instead of really going the whole way, that is, the mislabelled people whose “crime” was to have hit an unlucky spot and fallen sick.

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Review: Accession

Posted on August 15th, 2014 @ 22:55
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AccessionAccession by Terah Edun

My rating:

Summary:

Sixteen-year-old Katherine Thompson wasn’t trained to rule a coven. That was her sister – perfect, beautiful Rose. But when a mysterious plane crash kills off the heir presumptive of the Sandersville coven she has no choice.

After stepping in to fill her sister’s shoes, Katherine realizes she didn’t have a clue – faery wars, depressed trolls and angry unicorns are just the beginning.

For centuries, her family has served the high Queens on both sides of the Atlantic but it is a well-known rule that mid-level witches stay away from high-level Queens.

But when Katherine’s youngest cousin vanishes without a trace in the Atlanta court and no one wants to investigate, Katherine decides to step into the darkness on her own. She will soon discover that nothing, in a queen’s court, is as it seems.

Review:

(I was given a copy through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.)

This was a fast read, but I’m afraid to admit that’s because I ended up skimming after a while: I couldn’t stand the telling-not-showing style. Actually, I was this close to DNFing, and only finished because I felt I had to write a review.

There was definite groundwork here for an interesting world (the witch queens of the original thirteen colonies, having to maintain political balance between various factions of supernatural creatures…). It is a rich world, with a lot of tensions, differences between the Queens and how they rule their respective territories, alliances that may be toppled at the slightest change, diplomatic conundrums to keep in mind, and a potential political assassination (Rose’s death was pitched as an accident; I so can’t believe that).

However, I think this setting wasn’t exploited in a way that would have made the reading pleasant, mostly because of the pacing and the writing style—two aspects that tie into each other, in my opinion. I started sensing this problem in the first two chapters, and it got confirmed later, as more and more information was dumped onto the reader in the middle of scenes. For instance, there’s this one scene where the Queen is sentencing a secondary character, and while it should have been filled with tension, it got slowed down by Katherine remembering information about other courts and other events: it wasn’t uninteresting, but it definitely dragged the plot down. Other similar scenes suffered the same fate.

Also, Katherine’s character just didn’t appeal to me, both in personality and in how almost everything was introduced. She had a tendency to just voice out loud whatever went through her head, especially when she was alone, which looked really weird (this coming from someone who tends to think out loud, so if I find it bizarre, then it sure means something). She acted in immature ways, wasted time in useless bouts of dialogue. Worst, most of the time, I was told she was this and that, felt like this or that, supposed this or that character thought this or that… A lot of telling, and too little showing. It coincided with a few plot points coming out of the blue: we’re told she’s not popular at school, is picked on by teachers and at best ignored by a lot of pupils… but then, around the 25% mark, we suddenly learn she had a boyfriend six months ago. I think he should have been introduced sooner, since it was kind of important (all the more because of some big reveal later on).

As mentioned above, the writing consisted in much more telling than actual actions showing the characters as they really were, and I caught quite a few similes that looked pretty strange and useless:

“Their massive trunks were so wide at the base that the trees looked like the round teepees of the Native American shamans who came to Georgia once a year to renew the sacred 1850 concord of Coven-Shaman Relations.”

Some sentences/paragraphs I had to read three times in order to get their meaning:

I guess I can’t ever call life in Sandersville boring again, Katherine thought wryly as she ignored an itch in her eye that she firmly told herself she’d deal with later. She didn’t want to draw attention to her presence in the room now. Besides, it was more than an itch. As long as she ignored the sensation it would wait and simmer, like an itch at the corner of her eye. That itch that represented more than a space of skin in need of being scratched, it was the patch on her mind and heart that was holding closed a dark well ready to burst open with the rush of emotions boarded up behind its cap.”

And the one mistake I really, really can’t deal with:

“The gator’s mouth might as well of been a flimsy stick…”

This book would have needed a couple more rounds of editing.

Conclusion: I skimmed, I unfortunately got bored, I didn’t really get a sense of a plot, and the writing style irked me in no time.

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Review: Dear Daughter

Posted on August 15th, 2014 @ 11:13
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Dear DaughterDear Daughter by Elizabeth Little

My rating:

Summary:

‘As soon as they processed my release Noah and I hit the ground running. A change of clothes. A wig. An inconspicuous sedan. We doubled back once, twice, then drove south when we were really headed east. In San Francisco we had a girl who looked like me board a plane to Hawaii.

Oh, I thought I was so clever.

But you probably already know that I’m not.’

LA IT girl Janie Jenkins has it all. The looks, the brains, the connections. The criminal record.

Ten years ago, in a trial that transfixed America, Janie was convicted of murdering her mother. Now she’s been released on a technicality she’s determined to unravel the mystery of her mother’s last words, words that send her to a tiny town in the very back of beyond. But with the whole of America’s media on her tail, convinced she’s literally got away with murder, she has to do everything she can to throw her pursuers off the scent.

She knows she really didn’t like her mother. Could she have killed her?

Review:

(I got an ARC through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.)

Dear Daughter was a compelling enough story, but I admit I thought I’d like it more. There were several moments in which the pace dragged down and the story didn’t seem to progress much, and the characters didn’t exactly “fill” those moments either.

Though Jane Jenkins isn’t exactly a likeable protagonist, because of her demeaning attitude, I still liked her in general: she calls other people on their crap, sure, but she does the same when she’s concerned, which is enough of a redeeming feature in my eyes. I can’t say I smiled at all her quips (some were really not great); nevertheless, she was mildly amusing. Also, I tend to appreciate characters that aren’t necessarily nice and kind. Jane had her manipulative streak, tempered by the fact she had been in prison for ten years, and sometimes this made her a little rusty, thus not perfect at her own game. Sometimes, she was clever. At other times, she realised she had made some huge blunder… and she considered it as her own, not pinning it down on someone else, even though her tone might make it appear so.

The Ardelle setting was interesting, too: derelict twin little towns, founded during the Gold Rush yet doomed to die with it, with five old families pretending that everything was nice and dandy, except every closet has its skeleton, of course. I could feel the desperate “I hate this place, but I still can’t leave” atmosphere. No matter what, I wanted to read about them, be on the ride with Jane as she uncovered bit by bit who they were, their relationships, and how they may have factored in her mother’s death.

The mixed media approach, with snippets from blogs, Wikipedia, etc.: I like this format, though I can’t tell all of those excerpts always added a lot to the story.

On the dowside, at times the secondary characters just seemed too helpful for the sake of being helpful. Jane’s identity as “Rebecca” may have fooled them, sure, but it wasn’t so perfect, and I would have expected more ruthlessness, more distrust than what was shown, more tension, in a way. Even the cop’s presence didn’t make things that exciting (also, random vague love/sex interest that wasn’t really interesting in my opinion).

I found the plot to be dragging far-fetched and flimsy in places. The clue to Ardelle/Adeline was a rather light one, and I would have found it more believable if Jane had had just a couple more hints about it, thus justifying more strongly her going there. I was given the impression that some huge secret loomed above the town, yet in the end, the aforementioned skeletons were rather… bland, and not so unexpected. This was a bit of a letdown for me. I think the most problematic part, though, was Jane’s own lack of certainty regarding her mother’s murderer: she never appeared as so stoned/drunk/whatever as to prove to me she may genuinely not remember. I don’t know, but the mere adrenaline shot of murdering my mother would most certainly put me out of any drunken stupor I might be in. Either you know or you don’t, and in this case, the mystery of “did she or didn’t she?” seemed like an unfounded device.

The ending… I don’t know about the ending. Somehow, it fits bith the narrative’s tone, yet it made me fell “so, she did all of this for that?” Not very satisfying here.

This novel had its strong points, and my liking Jane’s narative voice helped a lot in my enjoyment of it. Nevertheless, I’m putting it in the “OK-to-good” category, not more.

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