Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Young Love Done Wrong

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

I need to state right away that YA is not one of my favorite genres: I hated the Twilight books, I'm not a fan of paranormal romance and I've been avoiding the flood of YA dystopian novels. I want this to be clear because if you like YA, then my negative reaction probably won't apply to you. You may love this book, as many others already have.

I wanted to read this novel because it received several glowing reviews and it was being compared to John Green's "The Fault in Our Stars," which I really liked. "Eleanor & Park" is set in a high school in Omaha in 1986. The titular characters are teenagers who meet on the school bus -- Eleanor dresses weird and is new at the school; Park is biracial and tries to keep his head down so he won't get picked on. The two bond over comic books and music and fall into puppy love.

My main complaint is that Rowell tried putting 10 pounds of plot into a 5-pound bag. As if the outsiders-fall-in-love story wasn't enough, she gave Eleanor a hellish home life: her stepfather is abusive, neglectful and had previously kicked her out of the house for standing up to him. Meanwhile, Park, whose father is white and his mother is Korean, feels like a "pussy" compared to his ex-military dad, who yells at him a lot. Much of this family stuff didn't ring true and it felt so forced that I had to do a lot of skimming to survive the home scenes. Of course, I also had to skim a lot of the school scenes because the dialogue of the teens was so contrived.

And then there are all the retro pop culture references -- never for a page does Rowell let you forget that the story is set in 1986. OK, OK, we get it already.

But what really made me want to heave this book across the room was the ping-pong writing style. Rowell wrote very short sections, bouncing back and forth and back and forth between Eleanor and Park's point of view. It is the perfect example of how limited the modern attention span is that writers think the only way a young person will read something is if it's in short posts. (Curse you, Twitter!)

I think "Eleanor & Park" was trying to do too much and ended up being bad at all of it. There are so many other books that do all of these elements better. For young love, I really liked John Green's "The Fault in Our Stars." For 1980s references that aren't overdone, I liked Carol Rifka Brunt's "Tell the Wolves I'm Home." For dysfunctional family, try Jeannette Walls' "The Glass Castle."

As for me, this book may have scared me away from YA for a while. I'm sticking with adult books, because I'm an adult who is getting grouchy about losing precious reading time on mediocre stories.

More Precious Stories From Afghanistan

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This is a difficult book to review. Hosseini is a good storyteller, but I have the same complaint about this book as I did with "The Kite Runner," which is that it is too precious. As in, roll-your-eyes, on-the-nose precious.

But before I focus on the negative, let me share the positive: This is an impressive story that spans generations and continents. Each chapter is told from a different character's point of view, and each section builds on the events that have come before, and by the end we have covered more than 60 years of a family's story.

The book opens with a legend about a giant who would go to a village and demand a child be sacrificed to him. A father was forced to give up his favorite son, and he was so heartbroken and upset that he later left the village to try and retrieve him from the giant. But when he arrived at the giant's house after many days of walking, he saw that his son was happy and was living a better life than he could have provided. The giant takes pity on the father and gives him a potion to help him forget his son. But did the father ever really forget?

The meaning of this legend is soon made evident when we meet a boy, Abdullah, who is forced to say goodbye to his beloved sister, Pari, who is being sent to Kabul to be adopted. In the next chapter we meet the woman who will become Abdullah's stepmother, then we meet Abdullah's uncle, then we meet some cousins who used to be neighbors of the uncle... and so on, and so on.

There are many good moments in the book, such as when a character recognizes his or her selfishness and vows to do better. Or when relatives have been reunited after a long separation because of the war. And as the story unfolds, we must ask if Pari was better off being adopted, or should she have stayed with her family in the village?

A minor complaint of mine is I think Hosseini skimped on details of the wars in Afghanistan and on the clashes with the Taliban. True, he covered this in previous books, and in this book one of the characters wrote in a letter that the wars have been well-documented elsewhere, so there's no point in describing it. But I disagree, because I think it was a bit of laziness on the author's part. This is a story about an Afghanistan family from the 1950s to present day. The war violently disrupted the country and the family, and yet here it only surfaces as background noise. (For readers who want to know more about Afghanistan during this time period, I recommend the memoir "The Favored Daughter" by Fawzia Koofi.)

For most of the book I was prepared to give it four stars, but about three-fourths of the way through I grew weary of the too precious dialogue, the characters who were just too earnest and understanding, and the seemingly endless exposition. What finally pushed me over the edge was an extended section in Greece, which I think could have been cut entirely.

I think Hosseini is a big bestselling author because he tells good stories -- and for most people, that is enough. But when I compare him to my other favorite novelists, his books leave me wanting something more.

The Blue Blazes

The Blue Blazes (Mookie Pearl, #1)The Blue Blazes by Chuck Wendig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mookie Pearl has been working for the Organization for most of his adult life. When his boss reveals he has terminal cancer, who should show up just in time to exploit that than Mookie's own daughter? And who is the mysterious Candlefly that has shown up to help The Boss in his hour of need? And what do the creatures of the Underworld have to say about the situation?

It's hard to summarize a novel that packs so many great ideas between two covers. The easiest way I can think of to pitch The Blue Blazes to people is to say "Neverwhere Noir."

The Blue Blazes is the latest of Chuck Wendig's innovative urban fantasies. The main character, Mookie Pearl, is a thick-headed mountain of a man working for the Organization, the criminal syndicate that controls NYC at street level. Below the streets is another story entirely, for that is the Underworld, the territory of Gobbos, Roach-Rats, Snakefaces, and things a thousand times worse.

The Blue Blazes of the title is the street name for a drug that lets the user see beneath the veil, revealing half and halfs and other mystical creatures for what they are. It goes a long way toward explaining the usual urban fantasy conceit of monsters living among us more or less undetected.

This isn't your grandmother's urban fantasy. Instead of lightly flirting with the hardboiled noir genre, The Blue Blazes has it's way with it hard and rough in the filthy alley behind the porno theater. Mookie's no white knight. He's a thug and a murderer and does what he has to do. He actually reminds me of Richard Stark's Parker, only with more muscles and much less brain. The conflict between Mookie and Nora is what keeps the book rocketing forward, even when everyone's having a chat.

The situation looks like one of the standard criminal fiction plots at first: the boss is going down and a lot of people are wondering who is going to fill the void. Will it be Nora, Mookie's estranged daughter? Will it be the Boss's grandson? Will it be Candlefly?

The mythology of the world Wendig has created is unique: there are no vampires, werewolves, or women wanting to have sex with vampires or werewolves. There are cities of the dead in the Underworld but they aren't populated by zombies. I love the concept of the pigments and the powers they confer. I could go on for paragraphs about the Hungry Ones, the Naga, the gangs, soul cages, etc.

Mookie muscles his way through the plot like a meat-cleaver-wielding battering ram. Much like the fabled Timex, he takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin'. By the time the Blue Blazes was over, I was simultaneously dismayed that the journey was completed but also somehow relieved.

4.5 stars. I want more Mookie!

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