Thursday, January 28, 2010

Review: The Next Thing On My List by Jill Smolinski

The Next Thing on My ListThis is exactly the kind of book I enjoy - light, funny, real and with some deep-running undercurrents.
The realness of it all was probably the best part. So often in fiction everything happens just like the protagonist plans it, a couple of snags along the way but in the end all dreams come true. Here things do work out, but not quite how June thought she wanted them to, which in itself is so real. She wants to date the hot guy who appears to want to date her, but... as soon as she tells him about her plans to adopt a baby fire turns to ice and he's not so eager any more. A teenager pregnant after a one-night stand, a child preparing to have a child; she is so grown up in planning to quit her regular classes and thinking about the realities of having to take care of a baby but at the same time she gets thrilled at the prospect of make-up and new clothes. A thirty-something woman seething in her cubicle when she gets passed over for the promotion she was waiting for. A middle-aged woman hiding the pain of losing her daughter and the fears of not being able to mend the ties behind the tough facade of a biker. A couple who have been trying to have a baby for years and who must face that nothing is working, leaving them broken-hearted and exhausted. The guy who at first comes across as extremely obnoxious and even disgusting turns out to be a genuinely good person, even if rough around the edges. The best of it though for me was the last chapter, when June has finished someone else's list and is beginning her own, beginning her own life after years of going with the flow and not taking her life into her own hands. She's sitting there and she still doesn't know what to put on that list, what it is she wants. She's just like so many of those of us who are great at following instructions but not necessarily writing them, even for ourselves. And yet she's gotten a taste of what it's like to finish something and what it's like to keep trying regardless of how far this trying takes her out of the cocoon of her comfort zone so she writes something down and surprises even herself with what it is. She'll do it too, I know it.
There's plenty of laughs in this book. In fact I giggled through it, all the while thinking about these people who inspired June and Deedee and Bob and Troy and Marissa. They're out there, eating at restaurants, driving cars, making mistakes and trying new things. To me fiction is life, disguised as make-believe for the benefit of entertainment but it's all real, it all happened somewhere to someone to some degree. Even if the story is undeniably fantasy, there's real people in there underneath the blue skin and fur and antennae. Here Ms. Smolinski simply didn't go as far as antennae, she stopped at making them all real and you know when an author has done a good job when the next morning you're still thinking about the twists and turns and the outcome. I finished the book last night. Today mid-morning my text to a friend read "I still can't get over June and Martucci and that the girl didn't even call her to tell her she decided to not give up the baby!!". Enough said.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Review: Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare

The Mortal Instruments Boxed Set: City of Bones; City of Ashes; City of Glass (Mortal Instruments, #1-3)There's plenty of controversy surrounding these books. They've been criticized for the apparent incestuousness of the relationship between the two main characters for about 2 books out of 3, for two secondary characters being gay and another a rather promiscuous lady. There's blood and gore and cold-hearted twistedness and frankly I don't think these are YA books. The characters are teenagers, but to me that's not enough to make a book suitable for teen reading. Then of course there was the scandal of Cassandra Clare allegedly plagiarizing everything fantasy from TV to books in her Harry Potter fanfiction. I haven't seen or read the allegedly plagiarized works or the said fanfic so am not qualified to have an opinion on this, I can say though that there are elements in MI that are common to other stories. The extremely powerful and charismatic villain with a group of supporters he gathered while they were all in school and the orphan courageous enough to stand up to him come to mind immediately and I think we all know what they're reminiscent of. Here's what makes that not matter to me: anything after the folk tales, myths and legends is a repeat, anything written now has been done before in one way or another and the important thing is not to create something absolutely original (that I think would be next to impossible) but to make something familiar your own and different. I think Cassandra Clare does that beautifully.
I really enjoyed these books, could hardly put them down really. Ms. Clare's writing is witty, the characters are realistic enough with all their flaws and fine qualities, there's plenty of action and lovelorn adolescent angst to satisfy both types of readers. Even mild character continuity problems, like the bookish Clary who regularly skipped PE in the first book all of a sudden becoming strong and agile in the second, didn't ruin the experience. I loved how developed the world is with plenty of fantastical creatures, their intricate dynamics and how the fantasy world coexists with the regular world with the 'mundie' humans suspecting not a thing. If you are the kind of reader who can manage to not let the things I talked about in the first paragraph make these books unpalatable I think you're in for a treat and you should put them on your To Read list.

Waiting to read

When I was growing up we had works of classical literature on our standard school reading list. For example in junior year of high school we had to read and analyze War and Peace, among others. This always bothered me because, let's face it, there aren't many 16-year-olds who would willingly read the huge volumes let alone relate to fictional characters from some other century. A brief examination of the YA shelves at the local Barnes & Noble shows that unless it's fantasy or adventure young people simply aren't interested and the amount of shelf space devoted to classical literature is so miniscule in comparison to the fantasy, romance, sci-fi, crime and manga that even specifically looking for the section I almost missed it. 
So why do the educators continue to force Tostoy, Kafka, Hugo and Dickens on our poor minds when we don't even possess the maturity to understand half of what the authors set out to tell us? Are we supposed to be so grown-up by the time we graduate from high school to grasp what adults with grey in their hair spent countless hours putting on paper? They might think that if they don't make the kids read these books now they never will. They also might think that the teenagers are ready to process and learn from these stories.  If they're old enough to have sex they might as well read One Hundred Years Of Solitude. As if. 
The fact of the matter is majority of stories that we know as "classics" were written by adults brimming with realizations and understanding of life they gained through years worth of experience and I suspect they didn't write for fresh-faced youths whose main concern is whether a particular someone likes them. They shared excerpts of new chapters with their friends, not the friends' children. 
I dutifully read what the teachers told me to read in my school years but don't remember a third of it. The deep moral lessons I'm afraid are also forgotten. Sounds like wasted time and effort if it left no trace at all. Wouldn't I have been better off reading something more age-appropriate? At least I would remember it!
War and Peace is on my list, as well as a hundred of other books that are considered classics worthy of admiration. I figure if so many generations praise these works there must be something to them. Will I tackle them this year? Probably not. I'm waiting for the right time and mood and a glimmer of confidence that the works of great minds won't be wasted on me once again. As the saying goes, art is long, time is short. I'll add "especially if it's wasted". In the meantime, I'll spend my hours on lighter reading, surely the bowing shelves of my book case will appreciate that. 

Monday, January 18, 2010

Review: Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

Shiver (The Wolves of Mercy Falls, #1)A friend of mine recommended this book to me and although at first I was skeptical within only a couple of chapters the pages started to almost turn themselves and I just had to keep up.
Here's how it all begins: bookish teenager Grace is fascinated with wolves who live in the woods on the edge of her back yard, especially with one of them who keeps coming back and with whom she has an inexplicable bond. When her classmate is mauled by wolves and the townsfolk decide to hunt them down Grace feels she must save them all and 'her' wolf in particular. Soon after she hears the hunters' shots in the woods she finds a naked boy, bleeding and almost unconscious. When she looks in his eyes she realizes immediately that he is her wolf, who is in fact a werewolf.
While this story of fantastical romance is common nowadays Maggie Stiefvater's treatment of the fantasy element is very different from everything else I've read so far. Her wolves aren't affected by the moon but turn when the weather gets cold. They can be killed with regular weapons. They hunt just like any other carnivore in the wild. Sooner or later they stop turning and live out their days as wolves with no conscious memory of their human life. Perhaps the most unconventional though is that there is a cure and Grace is living proof of it, fighting to keep Sam human as long as she can and hopefully forever.
This story isn't action-packed until the last several chapters but this only adds to it's charm. The unhurried narrative gives us glimpses of Grace and Sam alone with their hopes, dreams, fears and reservations. We see them develop and open up to each other and as they do we begin to care more about them and hope for their triumph even as they seem to fail without any hope of putting the pieces back together. The secondary characters are also well developed and interesting in their own ways, with their own plot lines. I really can't wait to see where the next book in the series takes them.
The only thing about this book that I didn't like is that the adults are clueless, again. Sam spends almost all of his time in Grace's room, drives her to and from school and her parents notice nothing. How is that possible? If my parents even suspected whispering in my room in the middle of the night they'd come to investigate but here, just like in many other YA books, they are perfectly oblivious.
I'll let you in on something that I didn't figure out until the last chapter of the book. Under every chapter title there is a temperature indication, it's either for Grace or Sam, depending on who is the protagonist in the chapter. The temperatures are always different, even if the two teens are side by side, and only in the last chapter are they the same because only in the last chapter are they truly together. When this dawned on me I literally got chills.
All in all it's a very satisfying read with a fresh take on a familiar story and I've been recommending to my fantasy romance-loving friends ever since I turned the last page, just as I recommend it to you.