048. Review of Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link

I’m a big fan of Kelly Link. She’s beyond imaginative, a unique and very talented writer, and I feel, sometimes, as though the essence of my writing and hers isn’t that much different. I absolutely loved her second collection, Magic for Beginners, and although I liked some of the stories in Stranger Things Happen, as a whole it didn’t have the same sort of impact that other book had for me.

I particularly loved “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,” “Flying Lessons,” “Vanishing Act” and “Survivors’ Ball, or, The Donner Party.” But some of the others fell short to me. And even some of the stories I rather enjoyed had some of the same pitfalls I noticed in Link’s other stories when I first read Magic. One such pitfall is Link’s inability — or refusal — to wrap up most of her pieces. Not to say that everything should be neat and tidy with no loose ends, nor should everything work out perfectly and be completely comprehensible, because, as Link is clearly trying to show us, life isn’t that way. And if stories are meant to echo life, they can’t be that way either.

In some of Link’s stories — and in fact in a lot of them, particularly in this collection — it’s very hard to grasp the essence of the plot or of the story she is trying to tell. And although I don’t believe endings should be neat, I do think that the reader should be left with questions — not gaps in understanding. And sometimes, here, I felt that I simply wasn’t able to find the connective tissue or the point hidden underneath all those lovely words and brilliant ideas. I think sometimes, whether or not this is the truth or the way it’s conveyed to the reader, Link’s ideas are great but not quite complete. Half-baked. In the best way, possible, of course. I think some of her stories are novels and novellas yearning for expansion, and others are in need of pruning.

Some of her stories are delightfully odd, some of them are bafflingly bizarre. But I enjoy them. I get a feel for her characters, except when she deliberately makes things too confusing, like in “Louise’s Ghost” or “The Girl Detective.” I think if Magic for Beginners was fabulous, this book, her first book, was the work of an unpolished artist who hadn’t yet learned that there is a difference between keeping a mystery and an air of wonder about a story and deliberately withholding information that could help clarify the end result.

But more often than not, you get the point. There’s a feminist angle, a whole lot of fantastical elements that are meant to be enjoyed as much as they are to inform about some aspect of society or life.

I love Link. I really do. And I recommend her to anyone who thinks fantasy is stale. But I don’t know if I would recommend this particular collection in whole. Magic is my go-to, and it will remain that way.

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045. Review of Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.

Beautiful Creatures follows a typical YA trajectory: teen from a small, dull town encounters a brand new teen who’s not entirely human. But the cliché — for it is one — is twisted slightly: the narrator is a boy. This change might not seem like a big one, but for a YA book like this, it made all the difference.

Ethan Wate is a mostly believable sixteen year old from a small southern town, and he’s been dreaming about this mysterious, beautiful girl for quite some time before she shows up in school as the town recluse’s niece. I was afraid Ethan and the girl, Lena, would have that insta-connection you so fear to read in books of this sort, but thankfully that wasn’t quite the case. Yes, Ethan was instantly drawn to her; yes, they began liking one another a tad quicker than perhaps was necessary — but Lena resisted his interest for long enough that I was okay with it.

Lena, it turns out, is a Caster — basically a hybrid of a “gifted” teen, a witch, and an X-man. Casters have all sorts of powers, and Lena is more powerful than most. I thought she was perhaps a little too powerful at times. After all, most of the other casters have specific “gifts”: Ridley can persuade people to do anything, Ryan can heal, and Lena’s aunt can see multiple timelines at once. They all have the ability to do little things, like telekinesis, but sometimes I felt that Lena (who is called a Natural) had powers that weren’t so strictly defined as some of the others. She can control weather, which is her main power, but  additionally, she can make people forget things, make her instruments play themselves, manipulate fire, write on her walls as she thinks the words without lifting a finger — and for me, I didn’t quite understand how her limits worked, and why she could do certain things that perhaps others like her could not.

The plot is, more or less, about a curse that has plagued Lena’s family for centuries: most casters can choose their own destinies. On their sixteenth birthdays, they choose to become Light or Dark, and can never switch once they’ve decided. But Lena’s family members have their fates randomly chosen for them by a magical and ancient book instead, which means that on their sixteenth birthdays, they become one or the other at random — whether they want to or not. Lena’s sixteenth birthday is approaching, and she fears she’ll go Dark.  She and Ethan spend much of the book trying to figure out how to break the curse so she doesn’t end up on the Dark side.

Sometimes Lena gets repetitively emo about this, as is bound to happen whenever YA books feature some sort of unavoidable and unwanted destiny. She often pulls away and says “you could never understand!” in that horribly melodramatic way that makes you want to smack her. It’s irritating at times, yes, but it’s not quite as intolerable  as if she’d been the narrator. Both characters were likeable, though I preferred Ethan immensely: Lena is a bit of a one note at times. I understand that people fear and dislike her at school because she’s so different, but she is victimized constantly throughout the book, and consequently becomes mopey and does the classic pseudo-noble shut-out too often for my tastes (“you should go be normal so you shouldn’t be with me, Ethan!” or “I don’t want to hurt you so I’ll stay far away from you for a while, Ethan.” For a full repertoire of this annoyance, please see the Twilight series).

Ethan, as I said, is mostly believable. He’s got strong convictions, he’s sensitive, he’s loyal, he’s compassionate, he’s even-tempered, and although he’s had great loss in his life (his mother died before the novel’s beginning) he deals with it in a believable manner. Sometimes, though, Ethan’s too “big” of a man. I understand he’s a good guy, but for someone who consistently comments on how beautiful Lena is, he never thinks of anything but kissing her or being in love with her — there are no other sexual thoughts or desires. I’m not of the mindset that teenaged boys  always think about sex, but in approximately 500 pages of mostly dating a beautiful girl he is obsessed with and trades his popularity to be with, he never has any of those desires or impulses at all. He’s also too good in other ways. While I completely understand that he is loyal, compassionate, and he sticks up for his beliefs, he is also a high school student. When everyone in his school turns against Lena (which is for the duration of the whole book), Ethan chooses to let himself be ostracized with her — even though these people are the people he grew up with, and even though it’s a lonely situation. I don’t believe that he’d just be completely and utterly okay with this. He never regrets it, never wishes he could hang out with his old friends, never feels torn between Lena and the people he’s spent his whole life with. I find that Ethan is completely and utterly above reproach, that he’s too good and too faultless, and that he never makes a single mistake when it comes to a question of character.

There are, of course, some clichés in the book: among others, the premise is typical of YA fiction, the book’s peopled with southern townsfolk who are completely and utterly prejudiced against anything new, and there’s a stereotypical black “mammy” character — Ethan’s wise, caring, and loving housekeeper, Amma. But as stated before, the authors made little changes that really made all the difference. Swapping the protagonists’ genders worked well for me. And although Ethan’s housekeeper, Amma, still held on to some clichés of the black “mammy” character, she had some really interesting character quirks, which made her all the more real. I love that Amma is obsessed with crossword puzzles, and that every time she reprimands Ethan, she uses a “crossword” word, spelling it out and giving him the definition. This is original, smart, and gives her the extra pizzazz she needed, the twist to make her character original.

The writing had a great tone, a voice that was all Ethan’s (although at times it was clear that the authors were women writing a boy — not too often, but it emerged every now and then), and the prose was smooth, fast-pasted, and well-done, minus one or two sections when it got clunky due to the amount of information the authors loaded into one scene.

I was intrigued by the end — so sad to see Macon die, but pleased to know that the book had real, honest-to-goodness stakes — but am still somewhat suspicious of Lena going neither Light nor Dark, as well as suspicious of what the next books in the series will entail. Ethan’s obviously still going to be around (and I do hope he continues to narrate and it doesn’t switch to Lena’s perspective), and I’m crossing my fingers that the relationship between them will evolve in a natural and believable way, and that it doesn’t dissolve into Twilight or The Mortal Instruments-esque forced relationship drama. But I’ll certainly be reading the next installment regardless!

038. Review of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I finished Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief last night and sat in the bathroom bawling my eyes out for ten minutes straight.

This book is utterly amazing. True, it seems like one of those books that EVERYBODY says is good, and therefore it seems like it should be overrated. But it isn’t. I challenge you to find anyone who doesn’t find this book incredibly compelling and well-written. If you can, I will write a romantic ode to Stephenie Meyer, who I hate with a burning passion.

The Book Thief, as you may very well know already, is a book set in WWII-era Germany. The protagonist, Liesel, is not Jewish, which frankly is a breath of fresh air. Don’t get me wrong — I do like literature about the Holocaust and its Jewish survivors. I’ve read plenty of it: Maus, Auschwitz and After, Number the Stars, The Shawl, and many, many others. But while these books are good in their own right, sometimes it gets to be too much — to be desensitizing. And to an extent, they are all the same (and for good reason). Sometimes, I want to read about that time period, and I want to read about the other side of the war.

And The Book Thief gives that. Liesel is German. Her brother dies and she is taken from her mother and sent to the town of Molching, where she is adopted by Hans and Rosa Hubermann, two full-blooded Germans who are just … wonderful characters. The novel tracks Liesel’s life in Molching, showing her everyday life, her life as affected by the war, the dangers and tragedies she encounters. But the greatest chunk of the book deals with the Hubermanns taking in a Jewish fugitive named Max.

The relationship between Max and preteen Liesel is incredibly fleshed out. It progresses beautifully — not, however, romantically, so don’t get any odd ideas about that — into this marvelous friendship that is kept secret from everybody except those in the Hubermann household. It’s so … touching. It sounds so lame to say that, but that’s really the only way it can be described. It’s a touching, beautiful friendship, and in fact, despite the wholly different dynamics of each relationship between each set of characters, all of the relationships are like this.

There is Rosa and Liesel, who base their relationship in insults and harsh words, but deep down there’s this unquestionable love. There’s Liesel and her best friend Rudy, who tease and taunt and challenge each other and work their mischief together, and who fall in childlike love together that is pure and simple and perfectly understated. There’s Liesel and the mayor’s wife, Ilsa, who begin their relationship in uncomfortable silence and which grows into an unlikely friendship predicated on tragedy and books. And there is, of course, Hans and Liesel — and Liesel loves Hans most. They have the relationship every father and daughter should have, and it is for this reason that the end is utterly heartbreaking.

There’s one thing I have not yet touched upon: the fact that The Book Thief is narrated by Death. And it is brilliant. Death does not believe in mystery or suspense, and thus he tells you flat out which characters are going to die and when. It does not soften the blow. Death has an odd, quirky, insight into everything, and his observations and narration are beautifully worked. Having never read anything else by Zusak, it is hard to tell whether this incredible wordsmithing is Zusak’s own personal style or whether it’s Death-as-narrator’s own voice, but he describes things in such an original, fresh, and unforced way. As a writer, every time I read a sentence or phrase like that, I thought, “Damn — how does he think of that?” Because it’s original but in a way that you realise it’s the absolute perfect way to describe it, but you could never have thought of it yourself.

Some great examples:

“Her voice was like suicide, landing with a clunk at Liesel’s feet” (391).

“Behind him, a building groaned and tripped” (433).

“His cool voice was unusually warm. Half-baked” (272).

“Rosa had a small rip beneath her right eye, and within the minute, her cardboard face was broken. Not down the center, but to the right. It gnarled down her cheek in an arc, finishing at her chin” (419).

 

All in all: you will cry at the end of this book. Do not read it in public. But do read it — it’s worth the tears.

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