Tag Archives: contemporary

Review: Goodbye, Vitamin

Sometimes I have more luck with the Book of the Month selections I don’t choose than the ones I do; Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong is one of the selections that I decided against last year, though it caught my eye. My library had a new copy of it this month so I finally picked it up. And I loved it!

goodbye,vitaminAbout the book: Ruth goes home for Christmas for the first time in years, and to her surprise she’s asked to stay for the year to help with her father, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. At first her dad seems like his old self and the only proof of the dementia comes to Ruth through stories from his colleagues and students at the local college. But as time passes, she sees the change for herself. She finds reason to worry about her mother as well, and her parents’ marriage. And through it all, she’s dealing with big changes in her own life– the loss of her fiance to another woman, regret for dropping out of college, a move, uncertainty about her career. She finds unexpected help along the way, and unexpected strength within herself.

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? It is. There’s very little plot to this book, which is usually a turn-off for me. But it worked here.

Goodbye, Vitamin is narrated through journal entries. The style changes occasionally, but the voice remains the same. Interspersed are pages from a journal Ruth’s father kept for her when she was small– just a few lines here and there about what young Ruth did today. (Some of these entries are more overtly “cute” than the book needs, but many of them are just amusing.) The reader knows early on how this book will be structured: slightly rambling accounts of Ruth’s days, including all the events that may or may not seem significant later on. Some of it is fluff, certainly, but most of it is interesting. Ruth is interested in trivia so there are some weird factoids worked in, but even her commentary of daily minutiae is unique and entertaining. It’s sentimental without being overly sentimental.

“The fish are getting fatter. The fish, in fact, are obese. Today I see why: I watch Dad feed the fish, sit down, and minutes later, rise to feed them again.”

Running through it all is the Alzheimer’s. Even in the moments when Ruth’s father seems fine and remembers everything correctly and acts normally, memory remains a constant theme. Ruth learns about foods that help fight dementia, she compares what she remembers of the past to what her younger brother remembers, she writes about what is known medically about the Alzheimer’s disease, and she considers which parts of her life she would be glad to remember or wishes weren’t in her head at all.

“There is, presently, no single test or scan that can diagnose dementia with complete accuracy. It’s only after the person is dead that you can cut his or her brain open and look for tell-tale plaques and tangles. For now, it’s process of elimination. What we have are tests that rule out other possible causes of memory loss. In diagnosing Alzheimer’s, doctors can only tell you everything that it isn’t.”

I have to admit, even for a character who’s losing his mind I had a hard time believing Ruth’s father wouldn’t have seen right through the phony class she told him was real. And maybe I’m just too cynical but I had an equally hard time believing several university students would go through the time and effort of taking a fake class for no credit, as a kindness to an ailing professor. But that obvious plot device was the only complaint I had while reading the book, and I did nevertheless appreciate the additional characters it introduced to the story.

As is necessary in a book without much plot, the characters drive the story in Goodbye, Vitamin. It’s pretty clear which characters the reader is meant to like and which he/she isn’t, but each one is unique and brings something important to the table. Ruth and her family are the most ambiguous in terms of “good” and “bad,” as they should be, and each of the supporting characters filters the way we see the main ones. None of their stories are coincidental or easy, and I would not have minded reading another year’s worth of journal entries to see where they ended up next, though this story didn’t require more from them. I appreciated how Ruth’s experiences with each of the secondary characters all tied back to memory and the mind. It’s a focused ramble from the first page to the last.

“Memories are stored in collections of cells, and when we remember, we reassemble the cells like a puzzle.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. It’s entirely possible that this book worked for me because Alzheimer’s runs in my family and I’m morbidly interested in malfunctions of memory and the mind. I usually don’t like plot-less books, but I was genuinely pleased to pick this one up, for the two sittings it lasted. I did take off one star for the lack of plot and surprise, but even so this one might make an appearance on my favorites list at the end of the year. It’s not the sort of book that everyone will love, but it was the right sort of book for me.

Are there any weirdly specific topics you like to read about even if they’re never wildly popular?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: An American Marriage

Oprah has made her book club selection for 2018, and it’s Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage. That’s actually not the reason I picked it up, but it’s always a nice bonus when a book you’ve read / want to read gets some big recognition. And now that I’ve read An American Marriage, I understand exactly why it’s been getting so much attention.

anamericanmarriageAbout the book: Roy Hamilton Jr. is visiting his parents in Louisiana. He and his wife, Celestial, have traveled from their home in Atlanta. They sleep in a local hotel instead of Roy’s old bedroom because he has something to tell his wife that he doesn’t want to talk/fight about in his parents’ home. It goes about as well as he expected. What doesn’t go as expected is the rest of the night: another lady on their floor, who met Roy at the ice machine, is raped that night, and even though Roy and Celestial swear they’ve been together and alone all night, Roy is arrested. He’s convicted of the crime, and sentenced to twelve years in prison. While he and Celestial are dealing with this fresh strain on their young marriage, life changes for them both and the relationship warps, leaving Roy, Celestial, and their mutual friend Andre in increasingly awkward and painful positions until the situation explodes when the three find themselves together again.

About the layout: there are no white characters in this book. The chapters alternate between the perspectives of Roy, Celestial, and Andre. Some parts of the book consist entirely of letters that these characters write to each other in their time apart. Everything is written in the first person, so the reader can see into each character’s head and heart.

” ‘Six or twelve,’ he sometimes said when he was depressed, which wasn’t all the time but often enough that I recognized a blue mood when it was settling in. ‘That’s your fate as a black man. Carried by six or judged by twelve.’ “

This is a thought-provoking book. I knew a lot of the plot going in; the premise gives almost everything important away. I think it’s good to go about this book that way, because the plot progresses with abrupt spurts. I thought reading this book would give me a better idea of how this crazy love triangle of injustice started, but this novel focuses much more on consequences than reasons. I wish this book had been longer, to give a little more depth leading in to the conflicts of the story. I certainly would have followed these characters on a longer journey.

“If I say that my husband is in prison, that’s all anyone can focus on, not me or my dolls. Even when I explain that you’re innocent, all they remember is the fact that you’re incarcerated. Even when I tell the truth about you, the truth doesn’t get delivered. So what’s the point of bringing it up?”

But there were some things I didn’t like: Roy, to begin with. Mostly because of the way he thought about women and sex, which came up a lot. Andre’s sections had less sexual focus, but in all other ways it was hard to tell Andre and Roy’s sections apart. Especially when the two of them would appear in the same scene, I would have to check back to the chapter header to double check which perspective I was reading.

“Celestial suggested the word forgive, but I couldn’t give her that. I could ask for understanding. I could ask for temperance, but I wouldn’t ask him to forgive me. Celestial and I were not wrong. It was a complex situation, but we were not on our knees before him.”

Celestial also was difficult for me at times. I love her career and her dedication to her art. I thought everything about the dolls she makes in this book came across beautifully and I was so proud of her success at making a career with them. But when it comes to her love life… she seems so easily swayed. She’s always giving, but never seems to know what she wants for herself. She resorts to silence when she could help settle things by making her own choices and explaining her actions, even if her feelings are confused. As the lead female, and caught between two men, I expected more strength from her. Some of her thoughts on men/women/sex were also uncomfortable for me. Passages like this come up in her narration:

“A woman doesn’t always have a choice, not in a meaningful way. Sometimes there is a debt that must be paid, a comfort that she is obliged to provide, a safe passage that must be secured. Every one of us has lain down for a reason that was not love.”

I don’t outright disagree that sex isn’t always about love, but she’s using this as a defense. She doesn’t want to have sex, but she feels obligated to. That’s not consent. Even in her mind, that shouldn’t be consent.

But in the end, despite the problems I had with the pacing and the characters, I had so much respect for this story because it feels real. Every one of these characters felt like someone I could meet on the street. They’re not perfect and likable because real people aren’t perfect and likable. We all have flaws, and we’re no less entitled to justice for them, or to love or respect or anything else that all humans should be entitled to.

There’s incredible insight and portrayal of emotion in this book, and reading it is an eye-opening experience, but I think a little more time with some of the situations in this story would have gone a long way. I would have appreciated seeing Celestial fall in love rather than just hearing that she had. I would have appreciated seeing more of the letters between Roy and Celestial, and more of their visits in the prison; it’s clear in the early days of Roy’s imprisonment that the narration is skipping over some of their exchanges and I wish it didn’t. This book has so much to say. But I wish it would have said even more. I was ready to listen.

“Even if you go in innocent, you don’t come out that way.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I was torn between 4 and 5 stars, because this book is so well-written and impactful, but in the end I did think it fell a little short for me. Nevertheless, it deserves the impact it will have (and is already having) on its readership– a further understanding and acknowledgment of real problems in this world, and a drive to fix them. The world needs more fiction like this: compelling stories of social issues that are too often overlooked. I know I’ll be looking for more.

Further recommendations:

  • I’ve read nothing like An American Marriage, except perhaps Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, 2017’s popular YA novel about police brutality against black citizens. This one reflects the Black Lives Matter movement, and I highly recommend it for all fiction readers (teen and up) interested in the current state of racism in America.
  • Jones’ readers might also enjoy Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a surprisingly modern and fictional take on the history of black slavery in America. Although the atmosphere of this novel takes the reader back to the 1800’s, so many of its messages are even more relevant today.

Which new releases have you been loving lately?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

Back in high school, I read a wonderful book called Elsewhere, by Gabrielle Zevin, about where we go when we die, before we’re born again. It was beautiful and whimsical, but for some reason it took me about eight years to pick up another of the author’s books. I’ve been feeling these conflicting desires lately to read old favorites, but also to read new and different things, which led me to The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, a newer Zevin novel.

thestoriedlifeofajfikryAbout the Book: A. J. Fikry has a lot to be upset about, and he is. The beloved wife who convinced him to leave school and open a bookshop with her in a hard-to-reach town died in a car accident one night after an author event, leaving A. J. to make do however he can on Alice Island, alone. He turns snobby and rude, and sometimes drunk. But his story doesn’t end with Nic’s death, and when he finally starts making room for some new people in his life and bookstore, a new chapter of his life begins.

The Storied Life is a bookish book, a tale about a bookseller who reads and talks about books and buys and sells books and lives and breathes books. There are title drops and references, discussions of genres and writing techniques and reader habits. These sorts of books are especially intriguing for the average book nerd, but I’ve got to admit this is probably one of the least fun bookish books I’ve read.

Part of the absence of “fun” in The Storied Life stems simply from the fact that a lot of sad things happen. There are thefts and losses and deaths, lies and missed opportunities. There are some great moments too, of course– weddings and babies and great books and wins. But for me, there were not enough of the good moments to outweigh the sad.

But the biggest reason I didn’t have much fun with this book was its predictability. As Fikry notes,

“He doesn’t believe in random acts. He is a reader, and what he believes in is narrative construction. If a gun appears in act one, that gun had better go off by act three.”

And so it does, metaphorically speaking. Of course Amelia the new sales rep from Knightly Press, the whimsical woman with a passion for books who is scared off in the first chapter, is going to become a giant part of Fikry’s life. Of course the baby left in his store is there to stay. Of course the stolen Tamerlane hasn’t vanished into thin air. A lot of the main plot points are easy to see coming in the regular narration; but then there are the short story commentaries Fikry adds to the book. It’s clear almost immediately that these are being written for someone in particular, and often the phrasing in these little summaries gives away a big detail that’s just about to appear in the greater story. Personally, I thought the book could have done without these passages entirely.

And in the end the point is… that books are a good way to connect with people? That love is the answer/reason for everything? The Storied Life is just that– a life that makes a good story, though in the end it’s just someone’s life, and he’s lived and learned his lessons and left what he could, just like anyone else. I didn’t close the book feeling like I gained anything from reading it other than a few momentary chuckles and threatening tears. There weren’t any new ideas for me to take away from it.

“Sometimes books don’t find us until the right time.”

The pacing also felt a little off; this is a pretty short book– 250 pages, but the book is small with relatively few words per page– but it covers a lot of ground. Some big moments in Fikry’s life pass very quickly in the narration, while other moments are drawn out for haphazardly chosen characterization. The reader is given as much detail about some of the lesser characters’ lives as some of the more important ones, which gives the novel an odd balance.

“Why is any one book different from any other book? They are different, A. J. decides, because they are. We have to look inside many. We have to believe. We agree to be disappointed sometimes so that we can be exhilarated every now and again.”

I also found this book a little discouraging, as an aspiring writer. There’s some talk about writers laboring fruitlessly over the next Great American Novel, there’s a writer who had to lie and cheat the system to get her book published because no one thought her idea would sell. Galleys are thrown around and ruined, taken for granted and overlooked. I know the publishing world is relatively small, that there are a lot more prospective writers out there than publishers prepared to take them, that not everyone who writes a book will go somewhere fantastic with it, but even knowing those things I was disappointed with the way this book seemed ready to shut out newcomers to the book market.

“It is the secret fear that we are unlovable that isolates us […] but it is only because we are isolated that we think we are unlovable. Someday, you do not know when, you will be driving down a road. And someday, you do not know when, he, or indeed she, will be there. You will be loved because for the first time in your life, you will truly not be alone. You will have chosen to not be alone.”

It’s not all bad, of course. I did like reading The Storied Life. There’s a great variety of characters: a mix of races, a mix of professions, a mix of ages, some poverty, some illness, a thrift shopper and a fake author and even a tabby cat. There are some great, optimistic messages about appreciating the good things in life and soldiering through the bad days. There are lines especially geared toward prolific readers, familiar scenarios and thoughts and difficulties that come with a lifetime of reading widely.

“Her mother likes to say that novels have ruined Amelia for real men. This observation insults Amelia because it implies that she only reads books with classically romantic heroes. She does not mind the occasional novel with a romantic hero but her reading tastes are far more varied than that. Furthermore, she adores Humbert Humbert as a character while accepting the fact that she wouldn’t really want him for a life partner, or a boyfriend, or even a casual acquaintance. She feels the same way about Holden Caulfield, and Misters Rochester and Darcy.”

The Storied Life is a very quotable book. It’s also the sort of book that’s best read primarily for amusement, in one or two sittings, and then moved on from.

“We read to know we’re not alone. We read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone. We are not alone.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I expected to like this more than I did, but I think I was approaching it the wrong way. I think I was expecting Elsewhere and instead I got The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry when I should have just reread Elsewhere. This was definitely not a bad or unenjoyable read, just not what I was looking for at this moment. I’ll probably try something else from Zevin at some point, or at least reread Elsewhere and see if I still love that one as much as I remember.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

 

Review: The Truth About Forever

I could have chosen a picture book from way back to fill the “book from your childhood” slot in my 2017 reading challenge, but why go the easy route, even this late in the game? So I decided to reread my first ever Sarah Dessen novel, The Truth About Forever. I was 11 or 12 the first time I read this, and I did read it multiple times in those first few years, but it’s been a long time now. I wanted to find out if it was still one of my favorites. The verdict: it definitely is.

About the book: Macy saw her dad die. thetruthaboutforeverShe was there. If she had been with him just a few minutes earlier, she might have been able to get him help in time– or at least she might have had one last conversation with him before the unexpected end. That was over a year ago, but Macy and her family still haven’t learned how to cope. Macy and her mother strive for perfection and control in the aftermath, to keep themselves busy and to prevent any more horrible surprises. But when Macy takes over her perfect boyfriend’s perfect job for the summer while he’s gone, things really start to unravel. The job, it turns out, is not perfect for Macy. The one that is comes out of nowhere, in the form of a catering company. At first glance, Wish Catering is a disorganized mess, but its employees just might be able to guide Macy through her twisted path of grief with their whirlwind of controlled chaos.

“I am not a spontaneous person. But when you’re alone in the world, really alone, you have no choice but to be open to suggestions.”

This is a book that never gets old for me, apparently. I loved it for the story line when I was younger, and now that I’m wise enough to see through to the mechanics of the book, I still like what I see. There’s no single fantastic element I can point out that makes it so great; it’s just one of those books that has all the right pieces in their proper places. Everything works as it should, and it’s a worthwhile picture once it’s all together. Each of the characters is unique and important in their own way. The villains are human and sympathetic, and even the good guys make mistakes. All of the details mesh together, from the “Gotcha!” game to the Armageddon discussions, to the used-parts sculptures and the refurbished ambulance. Nothing feels like a cheesy and obvious plot device, although it’s all working toward the same themes.

“I just think that some things are meant to be broken. Imperfect. Chaotic. It’s the universe’s way of providing contrast, you know? There have to be a few holes in the road. It’s how life is.”

I think the biggest success in The Truth About Forever is the focus on coping with grief. Readers are rooting for the romance, but that’s crafted carefully under the umbrella of taking new chances, appreciating what used to be, but building something new from what’s left. Macy’s fear and sadness after losing her dad, and the struggle with perfectionism that grows from those emotions, are always at the forefront; when Macy befriends the male lead, there’s real substance in their conversations rather than a corny, forced romance. Love is secondary, and that’s what makes this one so strong.

“Grief can be a burden, but also an anchor. You get used to the weight, to how it holds you to a place.”

“That was the thing. You never got used to it, the idea of someone being gone. Just when you think it’s reconciled, accepted, someone points it out to you and it just hits you all over again, that shocking.”

I also think Dessen makes a wise decision with the level of honesty in this book. There are lies, of course, because any book about truth needs that balance, but it’s so refreshing for teen characters to be honest instead of playing games. Well, I mean, the honesty is part of a Truth game, but after the first round or two of the game, it feels like an excuse to talk openly rather than a real challenge. What I mean is, no one’s trying to impress their crush by pretending to be someone they’re not. I’m partial to that sort of blunt reality, especially in romance.

It’s like Gilmore Girls, wholesome but not in a cheesy and/or boring way. There are great messages in here for grieving teens, for perfectionists, for anyone struggling to accept who they are and take a chance on being themselves. And it’s fun uncovering them.

If there’s anything I might complain about with this book, it’s Macy. Now that I’m past high school senior age, she no longer seems much like a high school senior to me. (Or soon-to-be senior, I suppose, since the book takes place over the summer). She’s supposed to be a smart girl, and she is, but she’s also confused all the time. Many of her conversations include at least one instance of her needing to ask for clarification on what the other person is talking about. If she lacks strength at times, the reasons are apparent, but I will never fully understand her delusion of thinking that the way her mother treats her at times is an acceptable form of parenthood. There isn’t always a lot a child can do about bad parenting, but for a child of this age she should at least understand that her mother is doing it wrong. Especially if it’s a change as a the result of a recent grief, which suggests that most of her childhood was different. It wasn’t quite enough for me to find Macy truly annoying this time around, just… a little less impressive than I remembered.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I just love the Wish Catering crew. They’re funny and wise and… ordinary. They’re awkward and weird, they make mistakes, and they just feel more real than most secondary characters do. This book is the reason I’ve read almost all of Dessen’s books, and continue to pick them up, even though I’m past the age where YA contemporary/romance really appeals to me. I’m so glad I reread this one, and I will definitely read it again. Maybe I should reread a Dessen book every year. Or maybe I should just reread any old favorite once a year– around Thanksgiving, like this one was, to appreciate past loves and my reading growth. Rereading The Truth About Forever was too fun an experience to let go without establishing a new tradition.

Further Recommendations:

  1. If you’re looking for more Sarah Dessen, I suggest some of her earlier books more strongly, like This Lullaby, Keeping the Moon. Just Listen is probably the best contender if you like The Truth About Forever, because it has that same sort of mild romance under dealing with a past trauma, although the story is entirely different (as far as I remember. I really want to reread this one now, too).
  2. If you’re looking for more YA about dealing with grief– and especially with a missing father– try Emily Henry’s A Million Junes. This one is brand new in 2017 with a magical realism twist, but the main characters’ banter is hilarious, the messages are powerful and relevant, and the plot is certain to surprise. I’ve never read a book with a stronger father/daughter relationship that also feels so realistic.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Karin Slaughter’s latest mystery/thriller The Good Daughter, which is my first Slaughter novel. Parts of it feel pretty fictional to me so far, but the events are completely captivating and the writing style keeps pulling me back in. There have already been several murders and a girl buried alive, so at least it’s not boring. I can’t wait to see where it’s going. Stay tuned.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Eligible

The idea of a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice caught my attention before I had even read Jane Austen’s famous classic. Now that I’ve read both the original work and the modern translation (Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible) back to back, I’m even more enthused. Generally I love a good retelling, but the fairy tale trend is starting to bore me a little. Here, though, is a fresh rendering of social engagements, prickly personalities, family misfortune, and– of course– romance.

eligibleAbout the book: Liz Bennet is one of five daughters in a notable Cincinatti family that is quickly falling into crippling debt. The Bennet parents are eager to marry their daughters off to help both generations financially, but of course, nothing seems to be going as planned. The eldest, Jane, is more interested in being a mother than a wife, and is taking steps to start the next phase of her life without marriage. Liz, the second eldest, has the most stable job and income, but her boyfriend is already married to someone else. Mary isn’t interested in marriage at all. Kitty is single, but has her eyes set on someone her parents disapprove of, and Lydia seems to have found the perfect match, until an unexpected secret about her boyfriend comes to light. The sisters are reunited for the summer in Cincinnati following their father’s heart attack, but the drama of their love lives is only beginning. At a 4th of July barbecue, the Bennet girls meet the Bingleys and their friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy. Some of their first interactions are favorable, others decidedly not. Everything is going to change over the course of the summer, and marriage will inevitably find some of the Bennet sisters, but their relationships may look nothing like the sensible matches their parents expected for them.

“He looked, Liz thought, like a model in a local department store newspaper insert: handsome, yes, but moody in a rather preposterous and unnecessary way.”

First, I’d like to note that you can read Eligible without reading Pride and Prejudice, and find just as much enjoyment in it. You’ll even get a good sense of the classic’s plot, because Eligible is loyal to the original in many respects, despite the change in time. But I would say that if reading Pride and Prejudice (or even watching a film of it) just before picking up Eligible is a move you’re considering, you’ll probably find the most enjoyment of this retelling with Austen’s original work fresh in mind. I also believe that readers who did not like Austen’s Pride and Prejudice may like Eligible more. I recommend giving it a chance.

Next, let’s look at the narration. Pride and Prejudice uses a third person narration that focuses primarily on Elizabeth’s thoughts and experiences, but does venture to note some details about the other characters’ lives that Elizabeth would not have been privy to. In Eligible, however, the narration focuses solely on Liz, except for one chapter about Jane’s life at the beginning of the novel, and a chapter of Mary’s life at the end. Eligible‘s chapters are very short, which makes it easy to keep turning pages. Both of these structural components are good choices for the novel– Liz’s thoughts pull readers in, and the short chapters are convenient for stopping and starting (or finding excuses to read just one more).

Pride and Prejudice has its humorous moments, but I laughed out loud probably half a dozen times in the first fifty pages of this novel– unusual for me. I thought knowing the characters’ personalities fairly well from the classic would take some of the entertainment out of discovering their ridiculousness in Eligible, but that was not the case. There is something even more amusing about (albeit fictional) people from the early 1800s being planted in a modern setting and let loose– though technically Eligible‘s characters are new, they are certainly based on the old and their absurdity remains intact.

” ‘He’s a lawyer in Atlanta, and he’s very active in his church,’ Mrs. Bennet said. ‘If that’s not the description of a man looking for a wife, I don’t know what is.’ “

Even more important than the humor though, is the fact that Eligible tackles some tough topics familiar in the current day and age, and Sittenfeld handles them well. There are LGBTQ+ characters and nonwhite characters. There are difficult, prejudiced characters, who are encouraged to change their minds. Liz responds to everything life (or her family) throws at her with an open mind and a willingness to help those who need it.

A little more comparing/contrasting: Liz has so much more dialogue in this book (especially with a certain tall dark and handsome man) than in P&P, which was one of the things I loved most about this updated version. Her climactic dialogue near the end of the story is filled with less apology than in P&P as well, which I was happy to see. Apologies are a good thing in healthy relationships, but here we see characters ready to move on without rehashing every offense they’d ever uttered. A plus. Alternately, while I thought Darcy’s overheard remark at the beginning of Eligible was worse than his saying in P&P that the girls in town were only tolerable, I did like him in this novel a lot earlier on. In contrast, I thought Liz was more obviously blind to the possibility that she was making mistakes in Eligible. She seems more brash in Eligible, more impulsive and outspoken about her opinions where I saw cautious reserve in P&P despite her strong opinions. Kathy de Bourgh makes a much better character in Eligible, though her character and her role in the plot is perhaps the most changed from her place in P&P. The change is apt. And Eligible‘s main strength comes from the biggest change of all– the centralization of focus on family. Each of Liz’s sisters is crucial to the tale Eligible has to tell, complete with their own morals and wonderfully distinct from each other. It’s a great dynamic, and it only improves as the book progresses.

“Time seemed, as it always does in adulthood after a particular stretch has concluded, no matter how ponderous or unpleasant the stretch was to endure, to have passed quickly indeed.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I absolutely loved this book. It still had the air of a classic, but was easily readable (not that Pride and Prejudice is difficult to read, but classics generally take a bit more time to parse the difference in language usage). I want to look into reading more from the Austen Project series, which features modern retellings of each of Austen’s works (though I don’t believe they’re all published yet).

Further recommendations:

  1. Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is an obvious choice for readers who’ve enjoyed Eligible (or plan to) and haven’t yet gotten around to the original classic. Even if you’re not a classic fan normally, let me highly recommend this one to anyone who appreciates a funny romance.
  2. White Fur by Jardine Libaire has a sort of crossed plot between Romeo and Juliet and Pride and Prejudice. This one’s definitely an adult story (the romance is a bit explicit in places), but it has the same sort of hate-love at the beginning, and a problematic affection between a wealthy heir and a poor independent, neither of whose families support their relationship.

What’s next: I’m just finishing up Cate Holohan’s Lies She Told, a new release thriller (and a September Book of the Month selection) about a mystery writer whose life turns into a similar mystery. As the lines start to blur between her fictional novel and her real circumstances, everything falls apart and nothing is certain.

What’s your favorite retelling?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Midnight at the Electric

Jodi Lynn Anderson’s Peaches trilogy was one of the significant contemporary YA stories of my teen years. I hold it in such high esteem that I’m afraid of reading it again so many years later, in case my opinions would be different and my memories tarnished. But when I saw Anderson’s latest release, Midnight at the Electric, I thought this would be a great chance to revisit a beloved author through a new story, so I picked it up as soon as it came into my library.

midnightattheelectricAbout the book: Adri is preparing for life on Mars, to spend her remaining years building a new home for future generations. By 2065, Earth is a used-up place, but when Adri moves in with her distant cousin, Lily, for the duration of her final round of mission training, she discovers that there are still things to love about the planet she’s ready to leave behind. She and Lily find letters and a journal that connect them to a history they had never known themselves to be a part of. Through written words, they experience post-war England from the 1910s, and farm life in Oklahoma from the 1930s, when the Dust Bowl ravaged that part of the country. The three young women lead very different lives, but the stories line up to give Adri the answers she needs about her imminent trip to Mars.

“Time matters. Time matters. In nature’s calendar, midnight is the breath between day and night. It’s only at this hour that neither the sun’s rays nor the moon’s great pull can interfere with the electrical currents.”

There’s a lot going on in this book. We see a giant tortoise from the Galapagos Islands, various family dynamics, a carnival, the Dust Bowl, war heroes and pretenders, international travel, electricity, old age and dementia, the deterioration of a planet and construction of life on another, wealth and poverty, sickness, scars, the follies of youth, friendship, preparation for space travel, and so on. There are so many big themes, settings, and discussion points folded within this story, but at heart it’s a coming-of-age tale.

“Tomorrow feels like flipping a coin. Every moment I wonder if I’ve done the right thing, but tomorrow we begin to find out, and I almost can’t stand the thought of that.”

There’s also a lot going on in the formatting. Adri’s perspective is shown through a present, third-person narration that provides Adri’s actions and thoughts in “real time.” But through Adri, we also have two other perspectives in additional formats– Catherine’s sections are narrated first through a journal she kept, and then through letters she wrote after leaving her journal behind; Lenore’s sections are narrated entirely through her letters. Each section feels like the present (or recent past written from the present), though many years divide some of the characters. The formatting can be a lot to juggle, but it is all connected through Adri’s experiences.

” ‘The dust is terrible,’ he said after a long spell. ‘I know that. But… the rest of the world can be terrible too.’ “

If you can keep an eye on the raveling thread between all those areas of detail, the driving force of the story comes through the emotion in putting the pieces together. The reader learns in bite-sized snippets about life in dust storms, or after a war, or on a deteriorating planet. None of it is told exhaustively enough to become boring or overwhelming, but rather scratches the surface just enough to draw the reader’s attention, teach him/her something new, and move on to the next theme. The emotion between each is the glue that holds the story together.

“You become as strong as you have to be, don’t you think? When you’re trying to protect someone you love, you’ll do anything.”

There’s some romance (tastefully done, developing over time with each character unique and human and lovable), but there’s also heartbreak, friendship, adventure, betrayal… almost every emotion imaginable. (I realize adventure is not an emotion, but the combination of fear and excitement involved in adventure is.) In short, emotion is the thing Anderson does best here. In this coming-of-age story, with so much going on in the background, it can be hard to pinpoint a main plot. You could argue that Adri’s upcoming trip to Mars is the main plot arc, but that’s just one deadline among many. Even Adri seems to understand that the reader’s interest lies elsewhere– she’s regularly telling Lily that she needs to find the rest of the letters and records because she’s curious, because she likes to finish things, because she feels that there’s more to the story. It’s as though she’s urging the reader to keep turning pages, trying to convince the reader that he/she is curious too, reminding that there will be more to the story. A book with a strong plot doesn’t need those tricks. What it lacks in plot, though, Midnight at the Electric makes up for in emotion.

” ‘Don’t pin your hopes on something out there that doesn’t exist,’ he said, ‘or some ball of light or anything else. Pin them on me.’ “

“Grief isn’t like sadness at all. Sadness is only something that’s a part of you. Grief becomes you; it wraps you up and changes you and makes everything– every little thing– different than it was before.”

Highlighting emotion, however, introduces another problem: many of the main actions in the story happen just because the characters “feel” a certain way. They’ll have plans to do one thing, and then change their minds at the last minute because it doesn’t “feel” right. Most of the big decisions in Midnight at the Electric come down to impulse and feelings, which seems like an easy way out of rationalizing actions and fleshing out motivations.

” ‘Earth,’ Alexa finally said. ‘It’s not that great anyway.’ And they all smiled sadly. Because, of course, it was everything.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I liked the atmosphere(s) of this story more than anything else. The characters were sometimes predictable, and the tension was all over the place, but I did have a good time reading it. Although Midnight at the Electric didn’t impress me as much as I’d hoped, it also encouraged me to pick up another of Anderson’s books. I might have to check Peaches out again.

Further recommendations:

  1. In case you haven’t picked up on it already, Jodi Lynn Anderson’s YA Peaches is my favorite book by this author. If you like stories like Midnight at the Electric and are wondering where to go next, try Peaches, a story of three girls who become unlikely friends on a failing peach farm during a summer’s work that’ll affect all their lives.
  2. If it’s the crossing of characters through time that interests you (in YA), check out Ann Brashares’ My Name is Memory. This one’s about souls that are aware of their reincarnations, set on a plot that arcs over several lifetimes to culminate in one grand fight for love and life.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, from the Man Booker Prize long list. This novel is magical realism focused on a war-torn country whose inhabitants flee as a last resort, though they find that the difficulties of their country will follow them past its borders.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Hate U Give

Angie Thomas’ debut novel The Hate U Give has been picking up steam before it even released to the public, and now, a couple months past its publication date, it still hasn’t slowed down. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this book is both timely and well-written–if you read (and even if you normally don’t) this is a book worth picking up.

thehateugiveAbout the book: Khalil is driving Starr home from a Garden Heights party when they are pulled over by a cop for a broken taillight. The cop thinks they’re acting suspiciously, and one unannounced move wins Khalil three shots to the back. This is the second time Starr has witnessed the death of a best friend. She’s caught in the middle between loyalties to her family and neighborhood and the reputation she’s built for herself at a predominantly white school. Speaking out for Khalil and fighting for justice is dangerous for her in both worlds, but as her home life and school life collide she has to decide what she’s willing to fight for, and which people in her life are really on her side.

” ‘These cases always interesting,’ King says. ‘The dig for information. Shit, they try to find out more ’bout the person who died than the person who shot them. Make it seem like a good thing they got killed.’ “

Right at the start, I want to talk about how hard it’s been to find a good direction for this review. Generally when I’m writing reviews I aim to stick to the story itself, and not go into tangents about the current state of the world. But this is a book that’s meant to raise awareness and start conversations, and that intent is what I want to talk about.

“People like us in situations like this become hashtags, but they rarely get justice. I think we all wait for that one time though, that one time when it ends right.”

There are a lot of things to love about The Hate U Give, and readers have been talking about all those good things for months. Like everyone else, I appreciated the writing style, the plot, and its attempt to raise awareness of continuing racism in America, because the book does all those things indisputably well. I do think it misses an important opportunity, though.

I don’t disagree with the argument that there is still racism in the US. It’s not something that I see firsthand every day, but I have no difficulty believing that it’s out there, not just in big ways like unfair deaths but in a thousand small words and gestures. I can get behind that argument. I can get behind the need to stop racism. What I can’t get behind is substituting one instance of racism with another one. There are generalizations about white people in this book. Just a small handful of instances, and nothing too cruel beyond the fact that they’re generalizations, but I was surprised to find them here at all. It’s odd to see commentary like that coming from Starr, who’s so aware of offenses going the other way and who’s interested in justice, not revenge. I felt that these moments were maybe meant to make white readers a little uncomfortable, to flip the tables and show them what the characters in this story are dealing with, and for that reason I didn’t completely mind that those instances were in the book even though generally I feel that’s the wrong approach. The real reason those little instances of being lumped in a category with people who ride garbage cans down stairs and kiss dogs on the mouth bugged me was because this book could have done more to make a positive change. It has everyone’s attention–but what is it doing with it?

That’s the missed opportunity. The Hate U Give does a great job of raising awareness of injustices. It shows a case where the white man’s word means more than the black girl’s, and does it in a way that convinces the reader that this is not unusual in modern US. But what can we learn from it? What is it telling readers they can do differently to help solve continuing problems of racism? If you’re a cop, maybe it tells you to learn the whole story before you shoot. But if you’re not a cop, what can you do? If you don’t have a black girlfriend to follow through riots, what can you do? There are good characters who set good examples in this book, but very little to suggest what readers can do to follow their footsteps. I didn’t expect this to be a stop-racism-instruction-manual. But I think this book really missed a great opportunity to encourage positive change when it stopped at raising awareness.

“At the end of the day, you don’t kill someone for opening a car door. If you do, you shouldn’t be a cop.”

But that’s not the reason I docked a star from my rating. I believe this book could’ve made even more of a statement, but the statement it does make is an effective one. It’s a great book, and I highly recommend it. But it’s one of those stories you have to read for the characters, because there’s not much to surprise readers in the plot. Once you know the premise, you know the most important event of the book, and anyone living in (or hearing about) modern US can make an educated guess about the end result of that main event. Everything else has to do with character, and while they’re great characters, they’re not surprising either.

“I can’t change where I come from or what I’ve been through, so why should I be ashamed of what makes me, me? That’s like being ashamed of myself.”

But let me end on a good note, because I loved everything else about this book. Starr’s family is fantastic. The writing style is easy to follow, inspiring, and keeps the reader hooked from page one, no matter what they’re feeling about the subject matter. These are the sort of characters that readers wish were their real friends. It’s that perfect blend of fiction and reality that I love–the sort that blurs the line between fact and imagination, and proves literature can do important things.

” ‘Brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared, Starr,’ she says. ‘It means you go on even though you’re scared. And you’re doing that.’ “

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I got exactly what I expected from this book. We need more of this in literature–fiction that shows what’s going on in real life; although I also hope that writers will be brave enough to offer more suggestions for change. There are important messages in this book, about voices being powerful weapons and the need to listen to the whole story, every time, and refrain from making assumptions. I would definitely read another book from this author, and you can bet I’ll be recommending this one in the future.

Further recommendations:

  1. The Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward, a memoir about a young woman in Mississippi whose family and friends have been dying one by one as a direct and indirect result of continuing racism. This is a powerful story of five lives lost in five years, with enough narrative to appeal to habitual fiction readers even though it’s grounded in fact.
  2. If you’re looking for more YA that raises awareness of real-life problems, Mindy McGinnis’ The Female of the Species and Robin Roe’s A List of Cages are great choices. McGinnis’ book highlights the very real effects of rape on an entire community, and Roe’s book focuses on misuse of the foster system and guardianship rights. Neither deal directly with racism, but are timely and important YA novels that I believe are also important for readers looking to learn about the modern world through fiction.

What’s next: I’m just starting Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray, a YA historical fiction novel about a Lithuanian girl trying to communicate with her father through her art while she’s at a Serbian work camp during WWII.

Have you read any recent releases? What did you think?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant