Sunday, August 24, 2014

Pointe by Brandy Colbert

Pointe  Seventeen-year-old Theo is an aspiring ballerina with a lot on her mind.  She is one of the few African-Americans in the mostly lily white world of ballet and in her smallish Chicago suburb.  She has issues with food and control.  Her best friend Donovan was kidnapped when they were 13-years-old and has just recently been found and returned home.  When Theo was 13 she dated a guy who talked her into doing things she wasn’t ready for and then he left and she can’t understand why he left her when he said he loved her.  Four years later Theo is dating a guy who has a girlfriend and they can’t tell anyone about their relationship because the guy can’t find the right time to break up with his girlfriend.

In trying to describe Pointe the first adjective that comes to mind is ambitious.  It tackles a lot of issues, maybe too many.  This caught my attention because the main character is an African-American woman who dances ballet and I love ballet and want to see more people of color in the ballet world.  Ballet, however, was just the appetizer and not the main course.  What’s the story really revolves around is self-esteem, abuse, and the different shapes both can take.

I liked it but had some problems with it.  For one, I am not sure if Donovan’s story really worked.  There is a lot of talk around the edges of the kidnapping but we don’t really get to it until the end.  Even then, it is still all about Theo.  Perhaps that is why Donovan felt like a two dimensional character.  I would have liked to know more about him, although perhaps in another book.  Theo’s experiences at age 13 would have been enough to explore the issues Colbert tackles in this book. 

Theo was an inconsistent character and I cannot decide if that is realistic or bad writing.  Ballet is supposedly the most important thing in Theo’s life.  She puts in extra time at the barre, dancing till her feet bleed in preparation for upcoming auditions for a spot in one of the ballet world’s prestigious, career starting summer programs.  Then in her spare time Theo smokes and drinks.  She has issues with food but apparently is not fazed by the calories in alcohol.  I get that most teenagers might try smoking and drinking but it didn’t seem to match up with someone who is otherwise so controlled.  

On the upside, with the exception of Donovan, some of the secondary characters were interesting and well-drawn.  They had issues of their own to deal with and were neither all good or all bad.  Even the kids that seemed bad at first turned out to have more going on in their heads and hearts than might first be apparent.

Pointe is Brandy Colbert debut novel.  Even though I did not completely connect with this one, I would be interested to see what she writes next.  Further, although I can think of people of varying ages who might enjoy this I would recommend Pointe to teenage girls in particular.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

The Neverending Story  

"If you have never spent whole afternoons with burning ears and rumpled hair, forgetting the world around you over a book, forgetting cold and hunger...

If you have never wept bitter tears because a wonderful story has come to an end and you must take your leave of the characters with whom you have shared so many adventures...

If such things have not been part of your own experience, you probably won't understand what Bastian did next." 

For those unfamiliar with The Neverending Story in any of its forms, it centers around Bastian Balthazar Bux, a fat little boy who bullies love to pick on.  One morning while escaping said bullies he wanders into Carl Conrad Coreander's bookstore and leaves with a special book covered in copper-colored silk.  In reading The Neverending Story Bastian is introduced to the land of Fantastica and all its wonderous creatures.  He meets Atreyo, Falkor the luck dragon, and the Childlike Empress.  There are gnomes, a rock creature, and a racing snail. He learns about the Swamps of Sadness, the Lake of Tears, and the Ivory Tower.  Alas, Fantastica and the Childlike Empress are dying as The Nothing floods the land.  Atreyo goes on a quest to find how to cure the Childlike Empress and thereby save Fantastica.  Bastian finds that he may have a role to play in saving Fantastica as well.   

I fell in love with the movie The Neverending Story  the first time I saw it.  I must have watched a dozen times or more throughout my childhood.  For some inexplicable reason I have only gotten around to reading the book just now.  What a pleasure it was to revisit the land of Fantastica, Atreyu and Bastian.  Reading the book brought back vivid images of the movie and how I felt watching Bastian hide away in the attic, skipping school to read his magical book. Just writing this post takes me back. I remember watching Bastian read and relating to his love of books and his ability to fall into a story so completely.  I still do that.

The book is a bit different from the movie.  Or more precisely, about halfway through the book is where the movie ended.  I recall there being a sequel to the movie (and not liking it nearly as much as the original).  Parts of the sequel come from the second half of the book. 

The Neverending Story is a rich fantasy story with stories within stories.  As we read The Neverending Story, so does Bastian, and so others live it.  It is I suppose aimed at adolescents but touches on universal themes like sadness, loss, and how getting everything you want may not always be the best thing.  It is an old-fashioned fairy tale and by that I mean bad and scary things happen before the happy ending comes.

It was such a joy to read this book.  I especially love the opening pages, some of which is quoted above.  I love the pictures.  I love that there are 26 chapters and that the first word of each chapter starts with a different letter of the alphabet in order - from All, Because, and Cairon, to Xayide's, Yor, and Zigzagging.  This might be one of my favorite books of all time, at least it is in the top 10. 

I would recommend this to all readers.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Frostbite by Richelle Mead

Frostbite (Vampire Academy Series #2) Frostbite is the second book in Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy series.  The first book mostly centered around high school mean girls and horny boys with one or two supernatural problems thrown in.  In Frostbite the stakes are a bit higher but there is still plenty of high school drama.

This time the danger is that Strigoi (the evil vampires) appear to be organizing with one another and with humans and attacking Moroi (the not evil vampires).  This is a shock to the Moroi and their Dhampir guardians who were under the impression that the Strigoi were too self-destructive, blood thirsty and generally evil to ever to manage to work with anyone else for an extended period of time.  That Strigoi are working with humans makes the problem even worse since it means they can coordinate attacks in the daytime when the sun is shining.

I’m enjoying this series.  Overall it is light, fun and entertaining.  Work is starting to get busy so light reading is all I have time for now.  One thing in particular that I liked – and I realize this is not so light – is that killing is taken seriously.  As Rose learns, it is not so easy to kill.  Even when their enemies have been vanquished, the Dhampirs acknowledge their victory but also acknowledge the death and destruction it took to achieve the victory.  That is kind of unusual.  Often in books with a lot of action no matter the genre, people or other beings fall left and right without anyone batting an eye.  It was refreshing to have a hero in the making learn that although victory is great the process of getting there might not always be so great.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead

Vampire Academy Official Movie Tie-In Edition 

Earlier this year there was a lot of buzz surrounding the movie version of Vampire Academy, the first book in Richelle Mead's series that goes by the same name.  I impulsively bought the entire series as I generally prefer to read a story before watching it, but didn't get around to reading any of the books until now.  (I do that constantly - buy books and then not read them until months or even years later.  It is a habit I am trying to break.) My last two reads were long, heavy, and left me exhausted.  What I needed was something light, frothy, and fun before diving into another big book.  (There are several big books I hope to get through before the end of the year.)  Looking through my to-be-read pile, Vampire Academy sounded like it would do nicely.

The world of Vampire Academy is populated by Moroi, Strigoi and Dhampirs.  Moroi are living vampires who drink blood but who generally try to not kill their victims.  Dhampirs are the half-human, half-vampire protectors of the Moroi.  Strigoi are fully dead, evil vampires who try to kill everyone else.  I’m not sure if they have any other goals beyond that.  Anyway, Rose and Lissa are students at St. Vladimir’s, a boarding school in Montana attended Moroi and Dhampir children.  

Lissa, a Moroi, is a vampire princess and the last of her family.  Rose is her best friend and future protector, or guardian, in training.  When we first meet them Lissa and Rose have run away from school and Dimitri, a Dhampir guardian and Vladimir teacher, has been sent to bring them back.  Rose and Lissa ran away because it wasn’t safe at school and they’re not sure it is any safer when they return.  Now in addition to dealing with the trials and tribulations of high school, Rose and Lissa have to figure out how to protect themselves from whomever or whatever is after them.  

Vampire Academy was an ideal palette cleanser, so to speak.  It was fun and entertaining.  One of the strongest aspects of the book is the strong friendship between Rose and Lissa.  They are both strong and caring albeit in different ways.  Rose takes her future role as Lissa’s guardian seriously and repeatedly puts her friend’s welfare ahead of her own, even when it means endangering her own reputation or even her life.  Lissa also takes care of Rose in her own way.  Although overall I was describe Vampire Academy as frothy and light its characters did confront serious issues like depression, cutting, and when to ask for help. The one thing that bugged me was the constant slut shaming.  I’m not sure yet what Mead is aiming at here.  She doesn’t quite seem to be taking a stand against it.

Overall this was a fun read, and right now I am craving fun in my reading.  There are six books in this series and I may just read them all in a row.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Night Film  I want my money back!  Okay, maybe Night Film wasn’t that bad.  In fact it started off quite good but then it took a turn into witchcraft and devil worship and lost me.  After than it got utterly ridiculous and there were still more than two hundred pages to go.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s start at the beginning where my reading future seemed so bright.

Stanislas Cordova, a director whose movies are so dark, violent, and overwhelmingly terrifying that mainstream studios won’t back him anymore and theaters won’t show his films.  Given that this takes place in a time when torture porn movies do quite well at the box office it is hard to buy the story about Cordova’s rejection by the mainstream.  Putting that aside, Cordova continues to make movies, writing, editing, and filming them on his huge estate in upstate New York.  Over the years he becomes a recluse, giving his last interview in 1977. 

Scott McGrath is a once well respected, now disgraced investigative reporter.  His disgrace came about essentially because he failed to investigate.  The story that broke him had do with the secretive Cordova.  Like many, McGrath wondered what kind of depraved person makes the kind of movies Cordova does.  One night he gets his answer, sort of.  An anonymous caller claiming to have once worked as a driver for Cordova says he does “something to the children.”  Based on that anonymous call and nothing else McGrath all but calls Cordova a child predator on national TV who should be “terminated with extreme prejudice.”  A lawsuit ensues and McGrath loses.  This all comes in the very beginning of the book so don’t worry, I’m not giving anything way.

Fast forward to the present.  McGrath is once again drawn into Cordova’s orbit when Cordova’s daughter, Ashley, commits suicide. McGrath decides to investigate the suicide.  This is one of the central problems of the book: an investigation where everyone already knows who died (Ashley), how (by jumping into an abandoned elevator shaft) and who did it (Ashley again).  Early on in his investigation McGrath picks up two sidekicks: Hopper and Nora.  Hopper tags along because he once knew Ashley and wants to know what happened to her.  Nora’s connection to Ashley is a little less substantial.  She was working as a coat check girl.  Ashley checked her coat and never returned to pick it up.

In the last interview he gave Cordova said mortal fear was crucial to life and challenged people to face fear or “live in the dark delusion that the commercial world insists we remain sealed inside”.  McGrath, Nora and Hopper, I suppose, decide to face the fear begin looking for the “truth” about Ashley and by extension, her father.

For the first 200 pages I thought, this is a really good, bad book.  Bad because every clue conveniently leads to another.  There is always a perfect explanation to explain something weird.  Still it was good because I couldn't help but turn the page.  It reminded me of Dan Brown’s books - totally implausible but compelling.  Those first 200 pages had me hooked.  I constantly wanted to know what was going to happen next.  Then all of sudden there were witches and devil worshipers and it lost me.  Night Film doesn’t start out as a horror story or anything close so the turn to the occult just didn’t feel genuine.  It felt like a red herring from the start and because it felt like a red herring, any sense of tension, urgency or fear drained away.  It was also around this point that I began to wonder what McGrath and his sidekicks were hoping to find.  Cordova comes off as a weird guy into weird things but there is never really any indication or description of some specific bad thing that he did.  The idea that bad things may have happened on Cordova's estate years ago floats around in the background but I needed something more concrete to buy into the mystery or care about McGrath's investigation.

One other strange thing about this book - the italics.  They are everywhere for no discernible reason.  Take this sentence: “As if by black magic, a boy in a truck passed me, backed up, and offered me a ride.”  Why does “if by black magic” need to italicized?  Why is this detail so important?  To put this into context, McGrath’s rental car breaks down on the side of the road and another driver stops and asks if McGrath needs a ride.  Why this would suggest magic, let along black magic, I’m not sure.  Sometimes people are nice and stop to help when they see other people stuck on the side of the road.  It isn’t magic and if were, it would probably be whatever the opposite of black magic is.  But forgetting whether this was magic or not, why the italics?

While the italics were confounding and annoying, the craftsmanship of the book is spectacular.  The paper is really soft and sturdy.  This may seem like an odd thing to comment on but the quality of the paper is so outstanding it should be acknowledged.  It was one of the first things I noticed when I picked up the book in the store.  I would even say it was one of the reasons I chose it.

Reading over my review it sounds like I hated Night Film.  I didn’t.  The first third was compelling and intriguing.  Unfortunately it then veered into left field.  Still, I admire the ambition of the book even though I didn't completely like the execution.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Middlemarch by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)

Middlemarch (Barnes & Noble Classics Series) 

Middlemarch is a sprawling narrative about life in an English village.  In it George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans) contemplates the romantic ideal of marriage versus actual marriage life, the role of women in private and public life, and inheriting versus earning money, among other life questions.  There are numerous characters and multiple story lines.  Some books are just meant to be read as part of college class or some other type of group endeavor.  This is one of those books.

Middlemarch begins by introducing Dorothea Brooke.  She and her sister Celia are orphans living with their uncle Arthur.  Dorothea yearns for a life in which she can change the world for the better.  Partly this reflects her religious beliefs but it also reflects a woman who wants a life that includes some sort of professional fulfillment in addition to being a wife and mother.  Unfortunately Dorothea exists at a time when a woman's public and professional opportunities are limited.  Dorothea instead hopes to fulfill her public ambitions by marrying Edward Casaubon, a man she sees as an intellectual who will teach her and with whom she will grow and pursue intellectual aims.  Dorothea of course wouldn't quite phrase the situation like that, but that is essentially what she wants out of marriage with Casaubon.

Casaubon is considerably older than Dorothea and is understandably flattered by the young woman’s adoration.  They marry and end up making a terrible couple.  They are a textbook example of bad communication, constantly unintentionally offending each other with their every word.  Neither really sees or appreciates the other for what they are.  Even when they attempt to comfort one another the other sees it as a form of criticism or rejection.

Another terrible marriage on display is that between Rosamond Vincy and Tertius Lydgate.  A doctor, Lydgate is new in town and kind of an upstart, introducing new medical methods.  Change is difficult and many people are none too pleased with Lydgate and his new methods.  It doesn’t help that Lydgate is somewhat oblivious to social norms.  He isn’t an idiot or anything; he simply believes that hard work and the success of his medical treatments will win over people.  Although he is not entirely wrong it becomes clear how important getting along with people and acknowledging social standing can help in certain situations.

At first Rosamond and Lydgate seem quite compatible.  If not for a want of money they would have had a near perfect marriage.  The problem for them is that the real world and its problems interfered.  For Rosamond marriage is an escape out of her boring parents' home to a magical place where she gets to be a princess.  She expects money to be abundant and all her needs and wants to be taken care of automatically.  When her husband encounters money troubles she is ill equipped to deal with the situation.  

In addition to these four characters and their two marriages there are a whole host of others with intersecting problems that arise.  Eliot packs a lot into 800 pages.  There is no fairytale happy ending, but it is a realistic ending and I appreciated that.  

Why did I read this?  Because every so often I like to really challenge myself.  I read a lot and most of what I read tends to take the form of mysteries, science fiction, fantasy especially urban fantasy, romance, so called “check lit”, with some non-fiction thrown in on occasion.  I enjoy these kinds of books without regret or shame but also aspire to be “well read,” an ever changing goal which to me in part means reading “classics.”  By classics I mean those books that have lasted generations and tend to show up on high school and college reading list time and time again.  I figure there must be a reason why these books stick around.  Also, Victorian fiction is one of the genres in Literary Exploration genre challenge that I’m doing this year and Middlemarch seemed like a good way to satisfy the challenge, and it was definitely a challenge.  I can usually read a book a week, sometimes two.  This took about three weeks to read.  Reading one book for so long was frustrating and exhausting.  Halfway through, I had to take a break and picked up another book.  I’m glad I read this book but it definitely felt a little bit like work which is not usually how I feel when reading.  I recommend this but be prepared for the challenge.