Tag Archives: contemporary

Review: Again, But Better

Earlier this month I mentioned in another post that I don’t read YA contemporary romance anymore, and here I am eating my words. In all fairness I did not pick up Christine Riccio’s Again, But Better because of its synopsis. I’ve been following Riccio’s writing updates on her Booktube channel since early 2016; though my interest in YA content (and thus most of her videos) has severely declined, I stuck with her writing series.

When Again, But Better was finally published this spring, I had to check it out because 1) seeing a physical, finished product after watching a complete stranger talk about it conceptually on my phone screen for several years seemed like a fascinating experience I couldn’t pass up, and 2) there’s been a lot of backlash against Booktuber books, which some believe are published for their easy marketability rather than story quality; that’s a judgment I didn’t feel I could chime in on without ever having read a Booktuber book. After waiting on a long hold list, I finally got my chance this month to pick up Riccio’s book. Results: It’s not the most accomplished debut I’ve read, but I certainly don’t resent its publication!

againbutbetterIn the novel, Shane leaves New York for a study abroad semester in London. Though she’s been making good grades and pleasing her parents with her progress toward a medical degree, she’s not happy with her college experience and is eager for a fresh start. So eager, in fact, that she signs up for a creative writing program in London that has nothing to do with her major, and takes an internship at a travel magazine. And, best luck of all, she’s rooming next to a cute boy who makes her want to stick to her resolution to try new things! But of course, it’s all too good to be true. When the trip takes a sour turn, Shane’s left wondering what she would do with a second chance.

“I was trying really hard to do what I thought was the right thing for so long, and turns out maybe the right thing was the wrong thing… It’s hard to come to terms with that.”

Riccio states in an author’s note before the novel proper that this is a fictional story, based on her own experiences. I think the extent to which Shane is Christine will be fairly obvious from the start for readers who have any familiarity with the author. Her sense of humor and personality (such as I have gleaned without having met her) seem to be a direct match with her characterization of Shane. If you pick this up because you enjoy Riccio’s social media presence, I think you’re far more likely to find this an appreciable book.

Again, But Better is divided into two parts that each take up about half of the book’s space. The first half features Shane’s semester abroad in 2011. (There are so many pop culture references that forgetting the year is impossible.) The second half features Shane’s second chance. Both parts are immersive and entertaining, though perhaps longer than necessary. The transition between the two is abrupt, with an unexplained magical element tying the two together; this feels like lazy writing- the magic is easy, convenient, and totally unviable as an option for readers looking to take advice on second chances from this story- but it allows Riccio to demonstrate her point clearly and keep the story light, so I suppose it serves its purpose in the end.

” ‘Could we have gone through a wormhole?’

‘Magic is more plausible than a wormhole,’ I argue.

‘Wormholes are scientific.’

‘Magic is just science we don’t understand yet.’

‘Shane it’s magic; that’s why we can’t understand it.’

‘Hogwarts could be real!’

‘I can’t believe this is a serious conversation I’m having.’ “

The constant attempts at humor were somewhat exhausting and unnecessary in my opinion, but the characters ultimately struck me as believable. Shane is painfully awkward, the love interest is flawed but kind, their roommates bring new and worthwhile perspectives to the mix. Though I would argue that both halves of the story could have endured some shortening without losing anything vital, Riccio does an excellent job of circling back on even the smallest scenes to imbue meaning; every inclusion is deliberate and the layering of detail complex. The writing is not without skill, though I’m sure time and experience will hone it further.

I did have a few small hangups with the premise, though. Thematically, this is a story about stepping out of your comfort zone (particularly in college, though not necessarily limited to that environment) and taking chances. Making room for your dreams instead of focusing only on obligations. I can get behind that. And while I don’t think the narration means to present study abroad as the cure for introversion, and it certainly doesn’t present introversion as some sort of serious personality flaw that must be overcome at all costs, I did find the implication that the key to jump-starting your life is to travel and abandon your major a rather privileged and simplistic stance. Additionally, I think the book skirts one of the biggest issues it raises: how to make that grab for independence. Shane learns the hard way that she can’t make her stand on her parents’ dime, and though their lack of support adds an interesting challenge to the narrative, the story skips straight from that conflict to Shane’s settled life several years later. Of course, Again, But Better is a fictional romance, not a self-help book. I love that it depicts a young woman falling in love without giving up her own goals. But I did feel a bit of disconnect between its apparent aim to inspire and its lack of realistic suggestions.

But, Riccio says in her acknowledgments:

“I hope you enjoyed my first book. I hope it made you happy in some way or another. I hope you laughed. I hope it made you want to face your fears.”

I did enjoy the read, parts of it made me happy, I laughed twice, and I did close the cover in the end with the mindset of wanting to take a chance in my own life. In this, Riccio’s intent seems to have been met. She also states that this was the story she wanted to read when she was twenty (Shane’s age), and I am quite sure that if I had read this as the naive, introverted twenty-year-old that I was, I would have loved this book. It does have a lot of elements that were missing for me in the books I was reading at that time- modern college-aged protagonists, a search for elusive independence, proof that failures and disasters even of one’s own making are survivable, familial discord, YA pop cultural references, Beatles appreciation, etc. It might not have been a perfect fit for me even then, but I would have appreciated knowing I wasn’t the only one skipping parties to stay in and read. And as such, I’m grateful that other twenty year-olds who struggle to find their place in college will have the opportunity to discover a book they might relate to in that way.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. All in all, an interesting reading experiment. Would I read more from this author? I’m not sure. Though I enjoyed this book and am curious to see where Riccio goes with her writing career, this isn’t a genre I reach for often and I don’t particularly want to read another self-insert story. I picked up Again, But Better to cap off my experience with her writing videos for this novel; in the future, I’ll decide whether or not to pick up her work based more directly on my interest level in the synopses.

How do you process reading a book written by someone you know, or feel like you know? Do you find it difficult to separate the author from the story?

 

The Literary Elephant

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Review: The Farm

Like many “dystopian feminist” titles released over the past few years, I think Joanne Ramos’s The Farm suffers from its Handmaid’s Tale comparisons. Fortunately, I think it has plenty to offer in its own right.

thefarmIn the novel, Jane, a US immigrant from the Philippines, has recently left her husband and must now care for their newborn daughter alone. When her elderly cousin, Ate, must leave a baby-nursing job due to failing health, Jane is persuaded to take Ate’s place; thus begins her career of caring for the babies of the rich in order to provide for her own small family. When Jane must leave that first job, Ate finds her another- this time as a surrogate mother at a facility where women are paid to carry and birth the babies of those who can afford to outsource their pregnancies.

The first thing to know about The Farm is that it is not, in fact, dystopian. Though Golden Oaks (“The Farm”) is fictional, we do currently live in a world where the wealthy can pay other women to carry their babies to term. Furthermore, I’m not even sure I would call this a feminist book, as Ramos herself admits that she’s not trying to make any particular point with this story:

I didn’t write [The Farm] to come up with answers, because I don’t have them. Instead, the book is meant to explore- for myself, and hopefully for its readers, too- questions of who we are, what we cherish, and how we see those who are different from ourselves.

As such, I think this book is a huge success.

It follows four main characters- Jane, Ate, Reagan (another surrogate mom), and Mae (head of the Golden Oaks facility). Several other significant characters are introduced and play their own tangential roles, but all of these women- even the other three perspective characters- primarily serve to add depth to Jane’s situation. And yet, though each fulfils a specific role and may seem at first a stereotypical representation of the viewpoint they embody, all are nuanced and distinct. Their motivations differ wildly, and yet even as they act in opposition it seems that each is making the only logical choice available to them. The clincher is that there really is no obvious judgment one way or the other; The Farm‘s greatest strength is that it presents so many facets of a delicate issue while also leaving readers plenty of room to form their own opinions.

What is this “difficult situation,” this “delicate issue?” At heart, it is the question of legality vs. morality, especially when it comes to women’s bodies. When Jane agrees to become a surrogate for a Golden Oaks Client, she signs a contract stating that she will care for the Client’s child to the best of her ability. The leaders of Golden Oaks have some ideas about what this means- living in a secure environment, eating particular healthy foods, attending mandatory exercise classes and weekly ultrasounds, etc. But when the “Host” and baby inhabit the same body, where does one draw the line between the Host’s own rights and the Client’s right to dictate their baby’s care?

” ‘Fetal security’ is Ms. Yu’s excuse, although Lisa insists it’s a ruse, a way to keep the Hosts ignorant, because then they’re easier to control.”

The greatest conflict arises when Jane wishes to prioritize her own child’s well-being, while the Golden Oaks folks cannot allow anything to sabotage the well-being of their Client’s child. While searching for middle ground, Jane and Mae push each other nearly to their breaking points.

But the commentary does not begin and end with the complications of surrogacy. Jane, Ate, and many of the Hosts are immigrants struggling with poverty, and Golden Oaks, all specifics of its business aside, is attached to a big corporation that is either helping with or taking advantage of their precarious positions- another moral quandary. Jane cannot afford proper housing and needs money in a hurry; is she in a position to decline questionable business propositions? Furthermore, is she in a position to recognize when she is being taken advantage of?

“She always said the worst thing you can do to a child is raise it with too much softness, because the world is hard. But Jane is not sure. There are people who move through the world like they own it, and the world seems to bend to their demands.”

The Farm is a conceptual story, meant to enlighten and test the boundaries of perspective. It doesn’t have a busy plot, because plot is not the driving force of the novel. In fact, I found the plot completely transparent, especially at its climax. The book doesn’t particularly encourage readers to develop a sense of emotional closeness with the characters over the course of the story either, as not even they are the driving force. And yet, despite the lack of those two main elements that often make or break my reading experiences, I was absolutely hooked from beginning to end. I loved the dialogue, the complex relationships and myriad confrontations within, and most of all the repeated shocks of the many ways in which women are used, allow themselves to be used, and continue to use each other. Ramos has done a stellar job with this one.

” ‘You’re letting a rich stranger use you. You’re putting a price tag on something integral–‘

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I had a few minor issues, mainly with the predictability of the plot, but ultimately I was excited to continue every time I picked the book up again and thought about it constantly when forced to put it down. This story could easily have been sensationalized, but never felt heavy-handed. There are no clear villains and no clear solutions, though The Farm certainly raises a lot of questions. I would absolutely read more from this author.

Hilarious side note: it took me longer than I’d like to admit to realize that the shapes on this cover are probably the vague silhouettes of pregnant women; until I really thought about it, they looked to me like the edges of violins…

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Number One Chinese Restaurant

Women’s Prize No. 10/16

Lillian Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant was the first title I picked up from the 2019 Women’s Prize longlist titles I haven’t yet read, for the arbitrary reason of it being the first one to arrive in my possession.

numberonechineserestaurantIn the novel, Duck House owner Jimmy Han wants to break free of his father’s shadow and build a legacy of his own. In the eleventh hour of his shady plan to swap his father’s old Chinese restaurant for Jimmy’s own brand new Beijing Glory, he tries to back out of the scheme, to ill affect. Gradually he will learn that his actions have affected every person connected to the old Duck House, and that these friends and family are a more important part of his life than he ever realized.

The familiar saying “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans” seems to be a fair sum of the concept behind Number One Chinese Restaurant. The narration follows several characters who’ve played a role in making the Duck House what it is, including staff and other members of the Han family, as well as an influential backer of dubious intent. Each is driven by his or her own dreams and desires, seemingly oblivious to the fact that years of acquaintance and working toward a common purpose have forged an unbreakable bond between them all.

“They were all friends, if one defined friendship as the natural occurrence between people who, after colliding for decades, have finally eroded enough to fit together.”

For me, this book started promisingly; I found each of the characters intriguing and was invested in learning the eventual fate of the Duck House as well as unearthing the secrets behind its precarious state of existence. I loved the restaurant’s dynamic, with its mix of languages and its internal power structure. I wasn’t hooked but I was having a good time with no complaints. This lasted for about the first third of the novel.

Unfortunately, it went downhill from there. Let me preface my issues with the book from this point by noting that there’s not necessarily anything wrong with Number One Chinese Restaurant; it simply alienated me in every conceivable way, thus ruining my experience with it. I found that I cared less about each of the main characters as I learned more about them. Jimmy, an unlikeable man from the beginning, began to grate on me to the point where I dreaded reading his sections at all. I lost interest in both the Duck House and the subsequent Beijing Glory, and with them went any last investment in finding out how Jimmy’s colossal mess would end or wanting it turn out any particular way. The elements that intrigued me most- the origins of the Duck House, as well as Jimmy’s parents and their relationship with the manipulative mafia man Uncle Pang- are left largely mysterious and unexplored. Even the real estate agent on the outskirts of the plot seems to have a more interesting trajectory than most of the characters that the narration does follow, though I thought all of them could have been described much more briefly to perhaps greater effect.

At the very end of the novel, there are a few lines that made me think Li was aiming for a story about immigrant experience, about the difficulty of coming to a new country and succeeding in the restaurant business as a means of survival, and the equal difficulty of later escaping it. I think I would have liked that story. But at no point in Number One Chinese Restaurant did I ever feel that this was a theme the novel was working toward. Jimmy certainly has a complicated relationship with the Duck House, which he both loves and despises for myriad reasons, but his attempt to break free of it and begin his own restaurant from scratch felt more related to his own ambition and familial relationships than any sort of consequence of his immigration. Furthermore, he was just such an asshole that I might have been happier to see his failure than success by the end of the novel.

The writing style struck me as competent and readable, which helped me through even after the novel had lost all sense of enjoyability. I did find occasional attempts at meaningful commentary:

“In China, they would have seemed a strange couple, with Ah-Jack clearly decades older than she was and both of them dressed in stained formal-wear. But in this waiting room, they belonged together if only because they were both Chinese.”

but each such statement seemed only to scratch the surface of its potential (in this case, the cultural ignorance of many Americans and the importance placed on appearances), and the narration would move on before I felt that I had gained any fresh perspective. In the passage above, the narration is more concerned with the development of this pair’s friendship/romance than in the ways they are perceived by the outside world. And I think ultimately that is my main criticism of the novel- the restaurant is such an insular environment that its themes and morals are nearly impossible to transfer to any situations outside of this one fiction; when even that fiction devolved for me, I felt like there was nothing left to gain from the novel.

But I will readily admit that Number One Chinese Restaurant‘s placement on the Women’s Prize longlist- from which I’ve already read and enjoyed nine titles- may have skewed my expectations. Some of the titles I’ve previously loved from the longlist are certainly tough acts to follow, and this is the first book I’ve picked up knowingly from that list. It’s entirely possible that these circumstances have affected my reading experience, and I’m hoping that recognizing it now will prevent future disappointments as I continue through the longlist.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. It’s been a while since I’ve rated anything 2 stars, and I’m still feeling a bit uncertain about it. This has probably been the most challenging book I’ve had to review so far this year. I didn’t hate it- I just don’t have anything pleasant to say about it at this point. As always, it’s entirely possible that I’ve missed something or that key meaning has gone over my head. I’ll be very interested to see what other longlist readers will think of this one, though personally I hope to see other titles with more to offer advancing to the shortlist.

In no particular order (I’m hoping to finish the longlist in time to rank my favorites and predict the shortlist later on), here are the links to my reviews for the other longlisted titles I’ve read:

Freshwater, Milkman, My Sister the Serial Killer, Normal People, Circe, An American Marriage, The Silence of the Girls, The Pisces, and Ghost Wall.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before Trilogy

Back in December, I did something I NEVER do: I watched the movie before reading the book. Actually, I did this twice in the same day- to watch Dumplin’ and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. I enjoyed both, and committed to reading both books. Or, in the case of Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, the entire trilogy. I picked up Dumplin’ in January (and adored it), and I spent last week binging To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. 

toalltheboysi'velovedbefore

Since I read all three of Jenny Han’s (YA contemporary romance) novels back to back, I’ve decided to talk about them all together in one go instead of writing three reviews. So let’s take a closer look ->

About the book(s): Lara Jean is the middle of three sisters. Her older sister, Margot, is leaving the country for college at the start of Lara Jean’s junior year. Kitty, the youngest, is a fierce nine-year-old. The girls are very close, which means Margot’s absence is a challenge for them all; but the biggest challenge for Lara Jean comes shortly after Margot’s departure, when a box full of old love letters she’s written to all of her crushes goes missing, and the letters begin turning up in the hands of the boys she liked. One goes to a boy from camp, one to a childhood friend, one to a boy who likes boys, one to the most popular boy in school, and… one to the boyfriend Margot just broke up with.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before- this was my favorite book of the trilogy because it seemed the most unique and the least predictable. Having seen the movie (even though I wasn’t paying complete attention, knowing I would want to read the books later and then rewatch the film) ruined that a little more than I’d expected. The scenes are a bit different in the film than in the book, so it was still interesting to read and compare, but there weren’t really any important differences. I spent most of this novel just reading to get through to the next one.

“Gosh. To be sitting in the passenger seat of Peter Kavinsky’s black Audi. Isn’t that what every girl has ever wanted, in the history of boys and girls? Not Peter Kavinsky specifically, or yes, maybe Peter Kavinsky specifically.”

P. S. I Still Love You- A major character who didn’t make it into the first book comes into play here in book two, but not until halfway through the book. There are a lot of cute couple scenes as Lara Jean’s current relationship finds its balance after the drama that occurred in book one, but essentially the first half of this novel felt like a waiting game. This is also the point at which the trilogy started to feel very predictable to me. There’s a definite lack of nuance- if you were able to guess who sent out Lara Jean’s letters in book one (and come on, there’s really only one person it can be), you’ll also guess who Stormy’s favorite grandson is before he appears. You’ll see that Lara Jean’s jealousy/judgment is a bit misplaced before Gen reveals the truth about her “family problems.” But there is some quality commentary on high school relationships (romantic and platonic) beneath the teenage drama.

“You only know you can do something if you keep on doing it.”

Always and Forever, Lara Jean- I just wanted to know who she was going to end up with! But it becomes clear early on that the question is not “which of the five crushes will Lara Jean choose?” but rather “will Lara Jean and this one boy stay together after graduation?” This made the lead-up to graduation a bit tedious, though it still had its cute moments. Again, there was a lot of predictability in this one. Lara Jean has her expectations for college a little too set, very early in the novel. The end of high school will mean changes for Lara Jean and this boy, and somehow she’s the only one who can’t see that.

“The hottest places in hell are reserved for people who maintain neutrality in times of crisis.”

This is not my usual sort of reading fodder. I haven’t read this sort of cutesy contemporary romance since I was in middle school- I’m talking Meg Cabot and Sarah Dessen. If I had read Jenny Han’s books at that time, when I was 11 or 12, I probably would’ve loved them. The biggest obstacle to my enjoying them now is that Lara Jean’s narration seems more like the commentary of a twelve year-old than a seventeen year-old. I don’t read middle-grade books anymore because I learned while trying to read Percy Jackson about five years ago that this sort of writing just does not work for me anymore. This was most problematic for me in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, though I think reading all three back-to-back helped keep it from becoming so noticeable in the sequels.

So why did I pick these up, if all evidence seemed to point to them not being to my current literary taste? Well, I did enjoy the film. And a friend gifted me the boxed set for Christmas so I couldn’t not read them. I know a lot of readers love these books, and I was hoping to be pleasantly surprised. Furthermore, I’m a completionist. Once I had started this story (by watching the film), I had to know how it would end. And last but not least, it is February. I wanted to read a romance.

But unfortunately, I didn’t get much from this trilogy beyond the cuteness, and that’s not something that tends to leave a lasting impression for me.

I thought that a lot of the plotting was flimsy. It should come as no shock to Lara Jean who keeps (and addresses!) personal letters that someone finds and sends them. All three of the sisters came off as much more selfish to me in the books- Margot is negative about every development at home while she is away, and the only things she does to further the plot are 1) break up with Josh at the beginning of book one, and 2) tell Lara Jean that their mother said not to go to college with a boyfriend. Kitty has one key moment, but otherwise her side plots (convincing their father to buy a dog, matchmaking between her single dad and divorced neighbor, even giving the boy crushes her seal of approval) seem largely unnecessary to the major issues in Lara Jean’s life. Lara Jean hopes for romantic gestures, and does nothing in return but bake, which is something she does for stress relief anyway. And the biggest disappointment for me is that the letters that started it all (which also feel like they were written by a twelve year-old, or younger) are just the catalyst to Lara Jean’s relationship dramas; most of the letters are out of the story already by book two, and there are only references to them by the third book.

Despite the fact that this is turning into a list of complaints, I didn’t hate the reading experience. Obviously, I was enjoying it enough to read all three books. These were super fast to get through, and I think I only spent 4 or 5 days on the entire set. I am glad that I was gifted the box set because I think I might have lost interest if I’d had to wait between volumes, but since I did have them all on hand I let myself succumb to the brief addiction. And I do know a few people who will probably want to borrow the set now that I’m finished.

Some things I liked very much: the assassins game and the USO party, Lara Jean’s impromptu trip to UNC Chapel Hill, Peter giving Kitty a ride in his two-seater on her birthday. I smiled through a lot of the dates/hang-outs and dialogue. I really liked John Ambrose McClarren, and Lara Jean’s dad- he’s a great YA-novel parent. And Jenny Han does a great job of encouraging young readers to take chances in high school, to work hard but also to try new things and talk to people you wouldn’t. I do wish I would’ve had these books when I was younger.

“I think that time might be different for young people. The minutes longer, stronger, more vibrant.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars, each. It’s hard to pick a favorite. I think book one probably would’ve been my favorite if I hadn’t already seen the film, but there were pros and cons to each that left them pretty evenly matched in the end. I’m glad Jenny Han says (in the acknowledgments at the end of book 3) that this series is truly finished, and not going to endure a spin-off “Lara Jean in college” storyline; she knew exactly where to end it. I am immensely looking forward to seeing what Netflix does with the next (and hopefully the third) film! I think this series will end up being one of those rare occasions of liking the movie better than the book, at least for me.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Far Field

I kept up with almost all of my Book of the Month selections last year, and it felt good. But I did fall behind in December while I tried to catch up with some other reading priorities, so I made an effort this month to pick up both of my December BOTM picks. I read Severance earlier in January and now I’ve also finished Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field, which was a longer conquest.

thefarfieldAbout the book: Shalini’s outspoken mother died while she was in college. After finishing school, Shalini returns to Bangalore to live with her father, where she spends an aimless few years in an unfulfilling job of his choosing and has few meaningful interactions. When he pushes her to try harder, Shalini decides to take a trip to Kashmir, where a friend from her mother’s past had lived. She’s not sure which village she’s looking for, and she hasn’t seen the man in eleven years, but those factors aren’t enough to stop her- and neither is the precarious political state of the area.

I would primarily recommend this novel to readers looking for cultural fiction depicting recent/present India. There are so many descriptions of Indian life, both from a city perspective (Bangalore) and more rural (Kishtwar, and a smaller unnamed village built directly into the mountainside). Shalini stays with families that can barely afford to house her, a far cry from her life in Bangalore where her father’s money is always there should she need it. The reader sees Shalini approach the Himalayas for the first time, and note the different languages spoken in different parts of India. She learns to milk a cow. She eats with and sleeps near and walks among people whose lives she never understood.

At the heart of her journey, however, is the political turmoil in Jammu and Kashmir. All she has known from Bangalore are the news reports released to the public, which turn out to be only a shadow of the truths she discovers when she visits in person.

“But how can I explain to you what it was like, the time of the militancy? It was a very strange time, and one I hope I never have to live through again. It made people turn into the opposite of what they were, made them do all kinds of things they would never have otherwise done.”

In my last review, featuring the fantasy novel The City of Brass, I mentioned disappointment over my failure to learn anything about the book’s Middle Eastern setting through the customs and behavior of Chakraborty’s characters. I’m so glad I picked up The Far Field immediately after, because in the interest of reading around the world this book is a win. Vijay immerses the reader in this vibrant and unbalanced India, bringing the good and evil that Shalini finds in Kashmir (and beyond) to vivid life.

The ultimate strength of this novel lies in its depiction of ruinous ignorance- ignorance and assumptions made from it- but also how helpless misconceptions can make a person. There is utter devastation in Shalini’s recognition of how small she is, and how very powerful the adversary. Vijay handles this aspect beautifully.

But unfortunately, this book didn’t offer much beyond that brilliant cultural insight for me. Shalini is such a passive character, which may be understandable in the wake of her mother’s sudden death, but it makes for a slow and rather shiftless narrative. Shalini holds her emotions so close that it’s difficult to ascertain whether she cares about any of the characters she meets in her travels. She is kind to them and appreciative of the help they offer her, but expresses little to no attachment toward them even in her private thoughts. She follows where her companions lead, more or less. Even the idea to search for her mother’s friend is barely creditable to Shalini, and when the time comes she almost doesn’t go after all. Shalini narrates all of these events from some future point at which she has calmed, but this is used to offer an unnecessary air of mystery and a preview of Shalini’s sadness rather than worthwhile reflection. The story lacks a driving force.

“Without action, there is only waiting for death.”

Though Shalini’s journey seems an attempt to disprove these words from her father, they resonated with me throughout the reading experience. I hope that other readers will find Shalini’s emotions more reachable than I did, and that such a connection to her character would mean greater payoff.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m glad that I learned about northern India’s political unrest, but since I struggled so much to engage with the other aspects of the novel, it ultimately just felt much too long for its purpose. Vijay’s prose is easy to digest and her descriptions evocative, but I my motivation to keep reading flagged early on and didn’t come back until the final chapters. January is usually my ideal time to read longer, edifying fiction, but my disconnect with these characters- especially Shalini- was alienating.

Further recommendations:

  • For more reading around the world (with more gripping characters), try Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, a family saga full of tragedy set in Afghanistan.
  • Or Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder, an Irish-set story about a miraculous girl who seems to have lost the need to eat.
  • Or Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44, a dark mystery about a child’s death and an exploration of Communist Russia.

Do you have a favorite culture to read about in fiction?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Dumplin’

I watched the new Netlifx film Dumplin’ last month when I desperately needed a movie day, even though I had not yet read Julie Murphy’s novel and almost always prefer to read the book first. I was only going to watch the trailer, but then I couldn’t resist. After watching (and adoring) the film, I knew I needed to step the book up on my TBR, so I found a copy through my library and picked it up last week when I wanted something light to read.

dumplinAbout the book: Willowdean’s mom is a former pageant queen, but she’s never encouraged her only daughter to apply. At her size, people don’t exactly think of Willowdean as pageant material. But when she finds an unsubmitted application from her plus-size aunt’s teen years after Lucy’s death, Willowdean decides it’s time to make a statement- to her mom, to the mean kids at school, in honor of Lucy, and for herself. But how can she focus on the pageant when there’s a cute boy she might have a chance with, an epic battle of wills between Willowdean and her best friend, and her mom trying to turn Lucy’s bedroom into a craft room, devoid of beloved Dolly Parton memorabilia? And what about the other misfits who’ve signed up for the competition with Willowdean as their inspiration? One way or another, there’s going to be a big showdown.

“I think you gotta be who you want to be until you feel like you are whoever it is you’re trying to become. Sometimes half of doing something is pretending that you can.”

This is probably the only book I’ve read in years that I can say is completely cute without also being relegated to “guilty pleasure” territory for lack of substance. Dumplin’ the (YA contemporary) novel is just as wonderful as Dumplin’ the film, with a whole lot more drama packed in. It’s not YA fluff though- this is a book that makes a loud statement for any girl with body image doubts. I do appreciate that the movie is a bit more streamlined and less boy-focused, but I was relieved to find that there was so much more in the book that I didn’t even know to expect from the movie. The two formats make a great duo.

One main aspect that’s consistent across both mediums is Willowdean’s impression of herself. She is so set on refusing judgment from other people, and generally in front of any audience she stands up strong, knowing better than to let anyone else tell her what she’s worth. But she does judge herself. And she judges the people that she thinks are the most like her. In most books, I would’ve found this hypocrisy annoying, but it’s intentional here, and to great effect. Willowdean is a teen who learns throughout the course of the story that like most of us, she is her own harshest critic. She doesn’t want anything or anyone to hold her back on account of her size, which includes swallowing her own self-doubt.

“The way she says it. It’s not mean. Or rude. It’s true.”

On the flip side, Willowdean also needs to accept that she won’t be getting special treatment because of her mom’s place on the judges’ panel of the pageant. Refraining from holding herself back also means that she needs to put as much effort into her pageant events (and relationships) as the other girls do. If she wants to compete for any reason- whether it be in the name of revolution or in earnest for this year’s crown- she has to see the contenders as her equals, not her enemies. She has to play the game, just like everyone else.

“I don’t even want to win, but I think there’s this survival instinct inside all of us that clicks on when we see other people failing. It makes me feel gross and incredibly human.”

But this isn’t a book solely for plus-size readers. Dumplin’ is about friendship and grief, self-acceptance and acceptance of others no matter what their differences are. It’s about first love and family, coping with bullies, surviving high school. It’s about Dolly Parton and Southern traditions. It’s about being who you are, no matter what.

“You don’t always have to win a pageant to wear a crown.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’ll definitely be reading Murphy’s recent sequel, Puddin’, though I’m always a bit less enthused about sequels that focus on different characters than the original. I think Murphy will pull it off, though. It’ll probably be one of those books that will pleasantly surprise me when I get around to picking it up. I’m also more interested in checking out Murphy’s other publications. And I’ll certainly be rewatching  Dumplin’. Again.

Further recommendations:

  • For more reading on what it’s like to be big in a world that values smallness, check out Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger. This book is more for adults, but I think younger readers could benefit as well as long as they know to expect some mature and difficult topics. Gay talks about using food to build her body like a fortress in the wake of rape, but she also talks about more everyday challenges like chairs with arms, stares at restaurants and gyms, and buying professional clothing in appropriate sizes.

Have you read or watched Dumplin’? Which format did you prefer?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Fangirl

Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl was a last year’s Christmas gift that I wanted to read before this year’s Christmas. I cut it a bit close by picking it up in the week before Christmas, but I did finish in time! I even wrote most of this review before Christmas– I’ve just been bad about keeping up with blogging lately. But I’m getting back on track now.

fangirlAbout the book: Cath and her identical twin sister, Wren, have been the best of friends all their lives. When their mother walked out of their childhoods, they stuck together and built their lives with their eccentric and creative father. But when it’s time to pack up for college, Wren decides not to room with Cath, to encourage both girls to make new friends. The only friends Cath wants though are fictional– so she dedicates her first semester to completing her Simon Snow fanfiction alone. Her unsocial tendencies only get Cath so far, however, and she can’t help being caught up in some real-life experiences.

Despite my decreasing interest in fluffy YA, there’s a lot about this book that I thought would still appeal to me in my adult years. Cath is so nervous about college and unsocial without quite being rude, which fits my own experience a lot better than the excitement for change and adulthood that most people (real and fictional) seem to express. Furthermore, though I hadn’t taken to the internet with any of my own writing by the time I started college, I was writing my own fiction and had a hard time balancing what I wrote for fun with the classics and more serious works studied in proper English classes. In some ways, I related to Cath’s perspective completely, and was immediately invested in finding out how the year would end for her.

A younger me might have really loved this book. If I had read it immediately upon its release, it might have stood a better chance as something more meaningful to me than a cute break from my real adult life. But I didn’t read it at 18 in my first semester of college when YA was still one of my favorite categories to read, and at 24 I found it a bit too Quirky. (Cath’s actual name is Cather, which is supposed to fit with Wren as two halves of the single name Catherine. No one will ever be able to convince me that Cather does not sound completely ridiculous as a first name and much too reminiscent of “catheter.”)

Fangirl is also a bit too aware of its own awkwardness.

“Levi guffawed. (You don’t get many opportunities to use that word, Cath thought, but this is one of them.)

This first quote is easier to excuse because the qualification seems to come from a writing standpoint that fits Cath’s character. It makes sense that she would think like a writer, though it does give her writing a more amateurish feel to see her process this way. Admittedly, she is fresh out of high school. “Amateur” does not mean “no room for growth;” everyone has to start somewhere.

But here’s another one that just seems dumb:

“Levi’s face clouded over. Not grimly, she thought– thoughtfully. In thoughtful clouds.”

I mean, if you need that much clarification, maybe what you’re trying to say just doesn’t make sense?

I am always interested in reading about writing though, and some of the content Rowell includes about writing for college feels spot-on:

“She wasn’t going to stop typing until she had a first draft. Even if that meant typing things like, I don’t know what the fuck I’m typing right now, blah, blah, blah.

Everyone who’s ever written a paper for college should know that desperate moment well.

As you can see, Rowell’s writing and some of the details didn’t entirely work for me in this book, but I did try to overlook small qualms and just enjoy the overall story. For the most part, Fangirl is readable and it does make some good points about making room for relationships and hobbies/passions in college. I would not recommend this book as any sort of how-to-survive manual for upcoming freshmen, but I do think young readers would benefit from seeing a college story like this that promotes loyalty to oneself above the need to try new things. The new experiences will happen anyway– there’s no reason to change who you are in the search for them. The end resolution is a bit sparse, in my opinion, but this is a solid story with original characters. Bonus points for Levi’s ranch background– farmers/agriculture workers are hardly ever presented in a flattering light but I thought Rowell nailed the rural lifestyle with Levi.

On another note, I was surprised to find myself completely uninterested in the Simon and Baz excerpts from Cath’s fanfiction, even though I thought I would like that aspect of the book. I usually like fantasy and from everything I’ve heard, Carry On (the Rainbow Rowell novel modeled after Cath’s fanfiction in Fangirl) sounds promising. Maybe it’s just that we get such small snippets, some as Gemma T. Leslie’s canon Simon Snow fiction and some as Cath’s fanfiction, that it can be hard to keep the versions of the characters straight and even harder to get invested in each short scene. I still intend to read Carry On eventually, so I hope my reaction to those parts in Fangirl is not indicative of how that experience will go.

But I do love that the villain is called the Insidious Humdrum.

“That was the beauty in stacking up words– they got cheaper, the more you had of them. It would feel good to cut this when she’d worked her way to something better.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. It’s not a perfect book, but I was in the mood for something young and light and this hit the spot. I didn’t quite like it more than Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, but it did work better for me than Attachments or Landline did.

Further recommendations:

  • If you’ve not yet read it, Rowell’s Eleanor & Park is (I think, anyway) the best of her fiction novels. Though it is a high school romance, it focuses primarily on social issues for different minority students and it is an all-around beautiful YA book.

What’s your favorite Rainbow Rowell novel? Or, if you haven’t read Rowell, your favorite contemporary YA?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant