Tag Archives: contemporary

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

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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

Review: A Man Called Ove

I’m not even sure why I’ve been wanting to read this book for so long. There’s just something about a fictional grumpy old man that makes me sure I’m going to laugh and learn about life, so I finally decided to go ahead and pick it up. This is a review of Fredrik Backman’s adult novel, A Man Called Ove.

About the book: Ove is 59. His wife, the amancalledoveonly person Ove knows who deserved a good life, died of cancer 6 months ago after years of living with a wheelchair because of a terrible accident. His parents died before he was grown, his childhood home was allowed to burn and then taken from him, and Saab was sold to General Motors. Clearly, Ove has plenty of right to be angry. He’s angry at the young men who have decided he’s ready for retirement. He’s angry at the county officials who want to take his ex-best-fried away from his wife. He’s angry at the new neighbors who’ve broken traffic rules to back a moving trailer up to their house and run over Ove’s flowerbed and mailbox in the process. But anger is what makes Ove productive, and before his aggravating neighbors can lay new projects at his doorstep, his productivity is focused on ending his life because all he wants is to see his wife again. But Ove is particularly bad at suicide, and his growing anger is directed toward other projects in the meantime–projects that’ll make his neighbors rethink their opinions of the grumpy old man next door.

“In the end, there is nothing left but a series of weekdays with nothing more meaningful than oiling the kitchen counters. And Ove can’t cope with it anymore. He feels it in that moment more clearly than ever. He can’t fight anymore. Doesn’t want to fight anymore. Just wants it all to stop.”

This is the sort of book that reminds me everyone has a story. Backman writes with the sort of narration that’s both matter-of-fact and emotional. It’s the sort of story that reminds readers that every seemingly ordinary person in every ordinary neighborhood has a lifetime of intrigue behind or ahead of them, and appearances are never what they seem. Ove is just a man, like any person is just a person, and like anyone else, he’s got an incredible story to tell.

“He’d been a grumpy old man since he started elementary school, they insisted.”

The first and foremost attribute to note about A Man Called Ove is its humor. This is a great summer read because its humor keeps the story light even when it’s running through the most tragic parts of Ove’s past. There’s something unexpectedly amusing about a character so harmlessly abrasive. There’s real bite behind his bark when he needs it, but for the most part he knows his opinions about all the idiots in the world and their backward ways are not opinions that anyone else seems to share–and thus he can’t do much about it beyond muttering at their idiocy. He’s an old soul that doesn’t quite fit in the modern world, and where the edges overlap he stands his ground–he may not fit, but he’s not letting the rest of the world run him over. And it’s funny. Here’s a taste of Ove’s grumpy personality:

“Because nowadays people are all thirty-one and wear too-tight trousers and no longer drink normal coffee. And don’t want to take responsibility. A shed-load of men with elaborate beards, changing jobs and changing wives and changing their car makes. Just like that. Whenever they feel like it.”

This is an example of the running commentary through Ove’s present life. Every person and situation he meets sparks some sort of rude thought, if not dialogue, that outlines the faults Ove sees in the world around him. It’s never offensive because he seems to understand that the problem with his inability to mesh with the world is his own outlying personality. What he has to say about the people around him speaks just as much about who he is as who they are.

But this humor is a weight that balances the parallel seriousness of the tale. Ove doesn’t fit in–it’s funny, but it’s also driving him to extremes. The humor is what prevents morbidity when the differences between Ove and the rest of the world become too great. Then we have statements like these:

“Of course, he was supposed to have died today. He had been planning to calmly and peacefully shoot himself in the head just after breakfast.”

The downside: it’s a slow story. The humor has to keep the reader going because the plot is all but nonexistent and the tension is mild at best until a brief spike of adrenaline near the end. Mixed in with Ove’s present thwarted attempts to die are snatches of his past. His life has one bright beam of positivity–his wife, Sonja–shining through a mess of painful and tragic events. Ove has seen death and destruction and unfairness, and it all plays on the reader’s emotions, but it does little to forward the plot until Ove’s character begins to change at the end of the book. A few details that culminate quickly in Ove’s present tie his past, present, and future together in meaningful ways, but until a few events start happening very quickly at the end of the book, it’s just a nice story with some humor and sadness that doesn’t seem to have much directionality. It’s not boring, but it takes some patience if you’re primarily a plot-reader because this is a character-driven story.

“Death is a strange thing. People live their whole lives as if it does not exist, and yet it’s often one of the great motivations for living. Some of us, in time, become so conscious of it that we live harder, more obstinately, with more fury…We fear it, yet most of us fear more than anything that it may take someone other than ourselves. For the greatest fear of death is always that it will pass us by. And leave us alone.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I laughed. But also I regained the will to carry on, imperfect as life can be. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book other than a funny story about a grumpy old man, and I got that, but I got so much more. Maybe this will be the start of a tradition for me–a Fredrik Backman book every summer.

Further recommendations:

  1. Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants is a tale about a traveling circus that’s told from the future, when the main character is an amusingly crabby man in a nursing home. Although much of the book is focused on the adventures of his younger years, that older, wiser, grumpier version makes some interesting appearances.
  2. Mitch Albom’s The Time Keeper would also be a great next choice for Backman readers. This one features a small cast of troubled characters–a girl ready to die, a man who intends to use science to live forever, and the inventor of time; the book focuses on the benefits of overcoming despair to save oneself and/or someone else.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Angie Thomas’ debut YA novel, The Hate U Give. This is a wildly popular 2017 release inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s both timely and well-written, inspiring and entertaining. I have a lot of thoughts and it’s probably going to be one of the most challenging reviews to write, but I’m working on it. In this book, Starr, a black teen, witnesses her best friend being killed by a white cop and seeks justice, learning that racism is still a problem in modern US.

What are you reading this July?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: A List of Cages

Robin Roe’s A List of Cages is a 2017 contemporary YA release that’s been on my radar all year, but I haven’t actually seen it anywhere–bookstores, libraries, etc. It’s been oddly absent. Finally I requested it on interlibrary loan so I could read it in July, and here we are.

alistofcagesAbout the book: Julian and Adam were foster brothers in childhood, but then Julian’s uncle came to claim him. For five years, Julian has been living with his uncle, but now he’s starting high school–the same high school that Adam attends as a senior. Adam has a whole crew of friends already assembled, but after meeting Julian again at school he makes sure there’s always room in his life for Julian. At first the two are just happy to be reunited, but Julian’s life hasn’t been problem-free for a long time and this is no exception. His uncle objects to Julian spending time with Adam. Adam is not allowed in the house, Julian has to hide the time he spends with Adam both in and out of school. As Julian’s uncle becomes more aggressive in an attempt to control Julian’s life, Adam begins to notice that something is wrong with the situation, though Julian is making every effort to appease his uncle by denying that anything bad is happening. Adam may be able to rescue Julian from his uncle’s abuse, but if he can’t succeed, Julian’s situation will only get worse.

“I know what I think, but people don’t want you to say what you think. They want you to say what they think. And knowing what that is isn’t easy.”

I appreciate the messages of friendship and justice in this book, and I think that Julian’s character is adorable–he’s young for his age, but observant and objective in ways that prevent him from seeming ridiculously childish when he doesn’t understand something or behave as expected. These are the aspects that made me rate this book as I highly as I did, though I also had some problems with its execution.

Firstly, Adam’s character falls flat. He’s not unrealistic, necessarily, but predictable. He’s the kind of guy who would maybe be fun to know in real life, but in fiction he comes off as particularly fictional. After about two chapters in Adam’s perspective, nothing he was going to do had any power to surprise me. I grew increasingly bored in his chapters. His plot threads about the senior class dare game and crushing on  Emerald seem almost painfully cheerful-bland and unnecessary to the overall story. In light of what Julian is going through, it’s hard to be interested in Adam having his usual good time with his horde of friends and generally being loved by everyone. It’s nice to see a character who has struggled with ADHD living such a happy life, but I did not need nearly so much detail about that because it didn’t really have anything to do with the plot. It seems like Adam is only necessary in this book at all to be in the right place at the right time for Julian. I’m glad Adam exists in this story, for Julian’s sake, but I wish he stuck to the background. It doesn’t feel like his story to tell.

I also didn’t like that almost every adult in this story is so mean. Sometimes when you’re a kid, the grown-ups seem like the bad guys; sometimes the grown-ups actually are the bad guys. But I don’t think that every single teacher and nurse and casual bystander should be depicted as cruel toward children. I can only think of two adults in this novel who were nice to any of the teens in this book, and those two were the overly nice “I’m going to spend all of my time and energy looking after kids who need my help” type who didn’t step in when it was needed until one of the other kids brought the big problem to their attention. It feels unrealistic, and it’s a bad message to send teen readers that there are no adults willing to help them, and that all adults are blind to teenage strife. There are grown-ups who can and are willing to help.

“It’s strange how many ways there are to miss someone. You miss the things they did and who they were, but you also miss who you were to them. The way everything you said and did was beautiful or entertaining or important. How much you mattered.”

On the plus side, this is one of those books that brushes close to actual problems in the real world and raises awareness without becoming overly moralizing. It highlights problems like child abuse and how children with quiet and/or unusual personalities can be taken advantage of by ill-meaning adults, but it does those things without cramming “you should do this to help the cause” suggestions down the reader’s throat. It doesn’t make the reader feel like a bad person for being unaware that stories like this can happen. And that’s one of the things I love best about fiction–something totally made up can make a real difference without turning into a how-to pamphlet.

Warning: A List of Cages deals with some heavy topics. Be prepared to encounter some abuse, bullying, and grief in this story.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I had a good time reading this book, despite its grim subject matter and the few complaints detailed above. It’s easily readable and insightful, and I’m definitely going to be recommending this one. I’ll be interested to see if Roe will have future works to check out. A List of Cages reignited my interest in hard-hitting, meaningful YA stories–which is great because today I’m starting Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give.

Further recommendations:

  1. Emma Donoghue’s Room is an adult book with a young child narrator that makes the story accessible for a wide range of readers (read: it’s an adult book that may interest YA readers). If you’re touched by Julian’s struggles and the possibility of real-life similar cases, then Room is a good choice for a next read. In this one, a woman and her young son are imprisoned in Room, a small, windowless, sound-proof shed where their captor has held them hostage for years. The book covers a plot for escape and justice.
  2. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell is a YA book about a teen girl with an abusive stepdad and a slough of other difficulties (poverty, bullying, many young siblings to take care of), trying to make her way through a new public school. This is another great story about friendship (and romance), and kids fighting horrible situations and unfit guardians.

Coming up next: I’m just finishing Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, which makes a great summer read. It’s about a 59 year-old man who’s angry at the world and everyone in it, with a past full of grand and painful stories and a future full of unexpected friends–and a mangy cat. It’s humorous and emotional, light enough to read at the beach but heavy enough to take seriously.

What type of book is your perfect summer read?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Marlena

I’m a little late with my March BOTM club selection (Julie Buntin’s debut novel, Marlena), but you know what? It was just as good in April as March, and someday I’ll catch up again. I actually finished this book a few days ago and have been struggling to put together some formal thoughts. Although I loved this beautiful novel, it’s hard to say exactly why because I have very little in common with the characters and their story. And yet, somehow, I could relate.

About the book: Cat’s parents are FullSizeRender (12)newly divorced, and she’s moved with her mom and brother to Silver Lake, Michigan. Her mom cleans rich people’s houses for a living, and her brother, Jimmy, has put off college to work at a plastics factory to help their mom pay for the tiny house they’ve moved into. Next door is a barn that’s been converted into a home for a meth chef and his two uncared-for children: Marlena and Sal. Marlena is a seventeen year old girl trying to take care of herself and her eight year-old brother while also keeping her dad out of legal trouble. Having been introduced to the drug-and-alcohol scene from a young and impressionable age, and having no role models to speak of, she’s already developed some bad habits and a reckless streak. She befriends Cat almost immediately, and leads her down a dangerous path, but she also tries to protect her from some of the worst aspects of her own life. It’s a doomed relationship from the start, but that doesn’t stop them from giving it everything they’ve got.

Marlena is primarily one of those coming-of-age stories that explores what happens when a young girl faces bigger conflicts than she’s equipped to handle yet. It’s told from a future perspective, in alternating viewpoints of the narrator’s present and her past.

“When you grow up, who you were as a teenager either takes on mythical importance or it’s completely laughable. I wanted to be the kind of person who wiped those years away; instead, I feared, they defined me.”

The thing about friendships in literature is that they’re either unrealistically perfect or make the reader want to slap the friend that’s making an obviously horrid decision. In real life, while true friendships are great, there’s always a little jealousy behind the love and desperation behind the loyalty. Maybe you’d do anything for your friend, but you expect the same in return, and yet people are imperfect and often just end up hurting each other even with their good intentions. Marlena hits true friendship right on the nose, complete with those moments when the main character hates her best friend, when she tags along no matter the cost, and when the friend encourages bad choices. It’s a real, gritty friendship.

“I thought being her best friend meant keeping her secrets. I trusted that she knew what she was doing.”

The story benefits from its point of telling, as well. It’s a story about fifteen and seventeen year-old girls, but the narrator is in her mid-thirties by the time she’s telling it. This gives the reader two things: room to doubt some of the details that have been weathered by time and memory, and insight into life and meaning that the narrator lacked as a teenager. Cat can look back and recognize aspects of the story that she didn’t understand yet while she was living it. She sees how she could have helped, in a way that she probably didn’t fully grasp at the time and which gives the story it’s sense of tragic guilt.

“Before that year I was nothing but a soft, formless girl, waiting for someone to come along and tell me who to be.”

Marlena is not a plot-driven book. The reader is told right away which of the characters will not survive, and even the event in the narrator’s present that keeps that part of the story moving forward is a small event, and an anticlimactic one. This, in a sense, fits the story well, though. Marlena’s life was a spark that burned hot and quick, and after it’s gone out there’s simply nothing left. That’s the problem with losing a loved one–they’re just not there, and nothing you can do after can reignite the lost connection. So in a way, the disappointment of Cat’s present fits right in with the tragedy in her past.

“…that day, I learned that time doesn’t belong to you. All you have is what you remember. A fraction; less.”

The only thing I might mention disliking about this book were its sentence fragments. The rules of grammar exist to be broken, I know, it’s an artistic thing; but there were so many beautiful, complete sentences in this book that I’d stumble upon the half-finished ones occasionally and not know what to do with them. There’s nothing wrong with sentence fragments, really, it’s just that they reflect connections in the writer’s thoughts, and sometimes those connections are less clear to readers. It can be a fault of the book when the writing is so lyrical and grammatically perfect that the narration becomes boring, so maybe the fragments help in the end, but they did require a couple of reads sometimes when I was trying to make grammatical sense of a long sentence fragment that just tied back to something mentioned earlier. These awkward little stops and starts were the only problem I had with the writing style.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. At first, the cover made me wary. I think the white swirls are supposed to maybe represent cigarette smoke, but to me they looked like ribbons. The glowing red letters at the ends of the words maybe represent the glowing end of a cigarette, but at first it just looked like some odd pattern with the lettering. An actual cigarette on the cover might have turned me off from the book completely, so perhaps there is something to be said for the subtle approach, but for most of the time I was reading it just looked nonsensical. Between that and the instant removal of plot by Cat mentioning Marlena’s sad and pathetic death, I was skeptical. But somehow this book made me feel everything, even though my own life has been nothing like the story Cat is telling in this novel. This one’s going to stick with me.

Further recommendations:

  1. History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund. Here’s a coming-of-age story about a fifteen year-old girl growing up in Minnesota who meets with death in a strange and painful way before she understands that she could have helped prevent it.
  2. The Girls by Emma Cline. This one’s also a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl, in this case one who becomes involved with a Manson-esque cult in the 1960’s. It’s full of the same sort of commentary on what it means to be a teenage girl that Buntin does so well in Marlena.
  3. Faithful by Alice Hoffman. If it’s the tragedy of Marlena that appeals to you, nothing beats Faithful for difficult emotion and the struggle to rise above one’s past. Also, this is a book for lovers of dogs.

Coming up next: I’m currently finishing up Cassandra Clare’s City of Fallen Angels, the fourth book in her Mortal Instruments series. Unlike the first three volumes in this series, this one is a first-time read for me, and without the nostalgia factor it’s a bit of a different experience. I hope I’ll end up enjoying this one as much as the other Cassandra Clare books I’ve read so far, and I also hope to have a review ready for you tomorrow, so stay tuned!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant