Tag Archives: coming of age

“Shadow and Bone” by Leigh Bardugo

First of all, cool author name. Beautiful cover art. Original Russian inspiration to a slightly historical fiction-feeling fantasy. Yeah, sign me up. This is a book I would love to see on the big screen, just as much as any of the Harry Potters, and I mean that. It’s a book with a map in the beginning on a double page spread. Enough said.

It starts out like other YAs, but in that third or fourth chapter, the conventions get a big twist, and happens again just after the mid-point.

It has it’s flaws and it’s weak chapters and its girly moments as any fantasy/war story does with a teenage female protagonist, but all flaws aside, the overall experience is filled with original yet familiar world-building and high levels of conflict. While other novels have “world-built” better or deeper, and yes, I would have like a little more from the book in that respect, the majority of the creatures, characters, and environments were better than most, and maybe I’m being too critical. I really, really, liked it, but I did want to know more about the class distinctions and Grisha powers. The culture’s details were never overkill going on and on, and it was never underdone either. I guess it found a happy-medium.

There was just enough Russian insipred diction and dress and decor in “Shadow and Bone” to keep me invested and curious about this place called “Ravka”, however some people may find it thin in some of its details. Considering this is the beginning of a YA trilogy though, and this novel truly set off Bardugo’s career on the right foot, I am eagerly anticpating the next novel. It should expand on what has already been set-up, and if it does, this is going to be a best-selling series.

The wait may be a while though, since Shadow and Bone was released very recently.

If you enjoy original plot twists, stakes which continue to climb and climb, total fear at the three-quarter mark when it seems all hope is lost, splashed with magical beasts, light court intrigue, and some coming-of-age romance (the weakest part of the novel), then this excellent first installement of “The Grisha Trilogy” is for you.

Some writing was weak and you might skim a few pages here and there, but over all, this 4/5 book gets a 4.5/5 from me just because the ending was exciting and seemed terrifyingly hopeless and I really got sucked in. That was well-executed, and Miss Bardugo knows how to write conflict. This has “make me a film” written all over it.

For fans of The Wizard of Oz, The Princess Bride, The Lord of the Rings, Graceling, and Grave Mercy. (If you haven’t read Graceling, and you’re a girl, read it now.)

4.5/5

MH

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“The Goats” by Brock Cole: a book review

We are all Goats at one time or another, usually in our early teens when we’re discovering what our identities truly are while the adults have laughable and incongruent perceptions of “us.”

Using themes of identity, friendship and trust, author Brock Cole’s “The Goats” illustrates a late 80s camp ground ritual where two thirteen-year olds deemed social outcasts are stripped naked and left for a whole day on Goat Island. So, what did Howie and Laura do next? And what happened when the kid’s and the counselors can’t find them the next day? Where have they gone and why do they not want to be found?

To begin, I must disclose I would not have read this book based on its previous covers. This book is about 24 years old. Yup. Third new cover right here. Clever, clever marketing to get new kids reading old books. I’m glad though, because this is worth reading for teens, and the premise and reviews I read for it are what got me. But not everyone puts that kind of time and energy into their information gathering. I was sold on the plot is my point, where other younger people would possibly hear the premise, think it was neat, then see an old cover and pass on it. What sillies.

It should here be mentioned that while the themes and ability to relate to the characters in “The Goats” are strong, the writing is far from award worthy, at times clunky and under-relished, and most of the threads come together in the last third or so of this book. That’s what books are supposed to do of course, but at times the reader will say “where is he going with this?” The part where the two protagonists are in the other camp of mostly black children felt very tagged on and screamed that the book was written in the eighties with lingering seventies social awareness. The middle 40-pages are a drag. It didn’t add much to the character development, which already left a little to be desired.

Having said this, the truth is, this is a good book. “The Goats” has a lot to say about simply being a kid where we don’t get much say and other powers rule what we do and who we are. Who can’t relate to that?

It was nice to have a Young Adult book told in the third-person past tense, which is simply how it was decades ago. Today, YA is frequently and abusively first-person present tense. I also enjoyed Brock Cole’s framing device of showing what Laura’s mother or the camp counselors were doing every few chapters, as they tries to reunite with the missing kids, all the while speculating about what they’ve done, etc. Again – further showing the reader how adults view kids, sometimes rightly, sometimes way off base.

All in all, this book illustrates what sexuality is and what we perceive it to be in young teens. What bullying is. What survival is. How kids silently hate their awkward years. How some decide to play in the system and some almost leave it—or do leave it. This book also makes a believable friendship blossom that will surely last a lifetime between the two main characters. You want to know if they stayed friends, dated in the following years, changed their ways, grew stronger, lost contact with each other, etc.

While I found the author’s decision to call Howie and Laura “the boy” and “the girl” for symbolic reasons understandable and reasonable, I didn’t think it was all that necessary and lead to some confusion and dull sentences. This could have almost been an awe-inspiring short story of 30-pages, but the author wrote a short novel, practically a teen novella. And he pulls it off. It’s good. I can say that, and middle-schoolers should read this book, often banned for mild language and nudity in the first two chapters, none of which is highly sexual or violent in any sense. It’s just an example of censors not liking kids being nude, but why are they nude—that what makes this book worth reading.

The book is likely worth more than a three, but it didn’t entertain me enough or do anything that hadn’t been done. It’s a better story than a three, but that’s what it got.

182 pages. 1987. SquareFish/Macmillan Press.

3/5

MH

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“The Glass Castle” by Jeanette Walls: a book review

It’s probably a five star for direct and straight-forward writing, honesty and general flow, but the tale is heavy with dark twists and barely enough “light at the end of the tunnel” for me.

Yes, there’s redemption, but this isn’t a book you fly through in a few days. You should take it slow. There’s no reason to read this memoir, this terribly sad life spanning decades for Jeanette Walls, in a weekend. Why pump these wacky and awful memories in your own mind in a few days when she herself at least had the luxury of experiencing them slowly over time?

I enjoyed it at a 3 star level, but I know the writing is a 5.

It gets a four (4) because I don’t know how important this story is or how brave she really was for most of the tale. Some of you are going to hate me for saying this, but hear me out:

She happened to have the good fortune at a young age of being genetically capable of dusting herself off again and again where she could have easily been kidnapped or died of hunger or ran away and starved. I don’t know how much of her younger years were really any kind of learned bravery, but rather, something innate. Other kids in her shoes may have never been able to cope, somehow Jeanette just… could. I don’t know… as far as the critics of the book are concerned who say it’s the bestest, bravest thing ever — well, it’s like being proud of yourself for being 6 feet tall or being Latino or having hairy knuckles. Don’t have pride in what you have no control over. Pride should be for something you accomplish, not something you just happen to be born with. You can like it, and appreciate it, but for the critics or the author to have “pride” in something that just “is” strikes me as spiritually and philosophically questionable. On the surface, I’m a dick and this is a great triumphant and sad story. But I just want to play devil’s advocate. Some people’s lives are worth sharing. But can you not see how a reader could find the possible exploitation of a troubled life for the sake of book sales questionable? Someone with a nice life with not much conflict could write a book and it would never sell. People like the vicarious experience of other people’s lives that sucked worse than their own, and that carries a whole other conversation about the interests and entertainment values placed upon by your average American. It’s like that other book “A Stolen Life.” Is it really ethical we salivate for these titles of ruined, non-ficitional lives by consumers? Debatable.

Again, I’m not trying to disparage Walls’ tenacity, but cast some light on perhaps a more cynical view of how we all grow and deal with our shit. It is how it is. Walls’ kicks ass, but she surviving more than being brave in my opinion, and no, those thing s are not always mutually exclusive, though sometimes they are hand-in-hand.

Jeanette Walls DOES have a “triumph” story that she can tell, but it wasn’t because she was instilled with any great life lessons from an adult about “holding on” and working hard. It was almost fate. She just did it, and maybe that’s a cynical view and one that is surely in the minority, but she just happened to be who she happened to be and came out tough as nails. I know I sound like an asshole, but I want to point out that her success, and her “bravery” didn’t show up until her maturity came to fruition in the “Welsh” section of the book where she was 17, a junior in high school, and decided to leave for NYC. The end of this tale was a brave one, but most of the book is about a little kid getting the shit end of the stick.

I hate Jeanette’s asshole parents, and I feel terrible for Jeanette. But the real question is: should authors on a moral or philosophical level make profit from sharing a scarring life’s tale of themselves? Is an artful recollection of dark, personal events in one’s life ethical to sell books of, however cathartic or remedial?

I recommend this book to people who like fucked up lives or biographies/coming-of-ages where a milieu of awful, shameful, crooked, bastardly things happen to one family and one girl in particular. The family, Jeanette, and her siblings move from place to place in America, being dirt poor or homeless, unschooled, and Jeanette basically takes care of the whole family and herself from the age of 9. Jesus. By the time she’s in her 20s, she makes it to NYC, he siblings are for the most part okay, and her parents are still homeless drifters worth nothing with a fucked up view of the world. I would say it has to be read to be believed, but even then, you will not believe some of this really happened, and whatever “bad upbringing” you had will pale in comparison.

4/5

MH

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“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” by Ransom Riggs: a novel review

This “young adult” oriented fairy tale is beautifully written and can be read by any aged reader. Don’t let the cover fool you: it’s not a horror and it’s not terrifying or sick and twisted. A relatively clean “PG-13” style fantasy and adventure, it is centered on a 16-year-old boy but both males and females will probably enjoy it. Fans of Harry Potter and X-Men will take pleasure in this coming-of-age mystery, unfolding into a bit of the supernatural (including some time travel).

The inclusion of eerie, vintage photos added a surreal atmosphere to the book. Some may find this gimmicky, but I found it original and refreshing. You can’t please everyone.  Also, the “Mystery” portion of Jakob’s adventure as he tries to put the puzzle pieces left by his grandfather really worked well. There was a great sense of strangeness, and the tension built up fairly steadily.

The author Ransom Riggs has a gift and definitely can write a great fairy tale. He writes very descriptively, adds depth to his environments, and builds three dimensional characters. I love his sentences—often poetically quotable passages that the bookworm in you want to share with someone! “Listen to this! Great, huh?”

Critically, I can say that some information comes a little late in the story: for example—and I’m not spoiling anything here—the big reveal where Miss Peregrine discusses just what the heck happened on the island and what those creatures are that want them dead. It all comes about 50 pages too late for me.

The most beautifully written sections can be found in the romantically haunting descriptions of Miss Peregrine’s House in Chapter Five near the beginning. This was the chapter that hooked me.

Until the end, it’s not a very action packed tale—there are not many obstacles for Jakob to overcome, other than random snooping and intellectual conversations. However, the plot devices all set-up and pay off well, where many little things included early on (for little or no reason) come around in neat and surprisingly satisfying ways.

The biggest issue with the book is there are only ten chapters in this densely margined 340+ page book, making some of the chapters over 70 pages! I was begging for a good place to take a breath, no matter how good the plot. Some sections drag, there’s no way around it, but they are few in number in my opinion. The remedy is simple: break up the chapters in logical places—which exist—so the book is a cozy but still dense 15-20 chapters.

Near the end, as a “stand alone” piece, I think I would give it 3.5 Stars. I didn’t like that some characters were being developed so late which we were all of the sudden supposed to care about. But with 75 pages to go in the book, I realized this was not going to be a solitary book, but the first installment of some series. My frustrations were mildly alleviated. Because this is the first part of what could be an amazingly original trilogy over the next few years and whose sequels could outshine the original “Miss Peregrine’s”, I’ve given it a higher star rating for personal anticipation and excitement.

There is enough here to make the next book better, without question.

This is not a “Must Read”, but after you finish those two other books you’ve been meaning to read, this is a great first attempt at a novel by Ransom Riggs.

4/5

(p.s. the first thing I thought when I was half-way done this book was “Time Burton could do this.” Well, he is. Watch out on the blogosphere and imdb.com for more info.)

MH

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“The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes: a book review

Finally, an award-winner appealing to more than solely the scholarly writers, socialites, and hipsters of the reading community.

Winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2011, I’m surprised this poetic and heavy little book is not being talked about more considering its inclusion on many Must-Read lists of 2011—nationally and internationally. Included on these lists have been the likes of Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding”, Franzen’s “Freedom”, and Eugenides’ “The Marriage Plot.” While all of these novels are intelligent and technically sound, which will really stand the test of time? Only “The Sense of An Ending.

The others are uneven from cover to cover, arguably over-written, stumble over their own enigmatic styles, and in some cases are simply unremarkable. Self-aware, post-modern yarns put a particular idea (often abstractly) under a microscope, and if you have the patience to get to the last page and the final words, you might have the energy to comprehend and appreciate what you just read. They are books about “how” the story is told more than “what” the story is telling.

Luckily, Julian Barnes doesn’t do this like other best-sellers. If only they knew: life isn’t crafted to perfection. Too much wit and technical crafting is a death sentence to many readers’ enjoyment of the story. Connecting to those types of characters can be difficult. Many hyped literary books that are so critically-acclaimed are often not what you would call everyday books for everyday people.

“The Sense of An Ending” is that book however, saying huge things with simple sentences.

So what is it exactly about Barnes’ 163-page novel that earns such high praise? It’s about the human condition. Aging. Memory. Mistakes. Life, death, and things everyone can relate to. We all have our imperfect memories play tricks on us, which is exactly what this short novel touches on in a devastating way. Elegant and thought-provoking, we follow Tony Webster in London through his life. Book one, the teen years. Book two, his old age. It is thought-provoking, character-driven, and emotional. I doubt anyone considering themselves an adult could avoid connection with some aspects of this book. It’s one of those haunting books about suicide, philosophy, and relationships, guaranteed to echo in your head for days.

While the first part is better than the second, it is only slightly so, and I think the point of the change in tone is to reflect the now older narrator and his uncertainties. While not a perfect book, it’s darned close. This coming-of-age feels so much like a memoir it is almost doubtably fiction. Metaphorical and superior to many books from last year, it is well worth the time of anyone who grew up in the 60s or 70s, but is also relevant to other generations as well.

4.5/5

(for fans of Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day”)

MH

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