Review: “Speed of Life” by Carol Weston

Speed of Life

Fourteen-year-old Sofia Wolfe is still reeling from the sudden death of her beloved mother almost a year ago when her best friend takes her to a talk by an advice columnist called “Dear Kate”. Despite her initial misgivings, a grieving Sofia writes to Kate to fill the absence of a mother figure. Kate is pretty cool for an agony aunt and understands that not all families have two parents. This encourages Sofia to send her father to another Dear Kate talk. Soon, Sofia is regularly corresponding with Kate about grief, puberty, boys and growing pains.

A year after Sofia’s mother’s death, she realizes her father has started seeing someone. On the one hand, she dearly loves her father and wants to see him happy. On the other hand, she feels it’s too soon and Sofia doesn’t want her mother to be replaced. Imagine her surprise when Dad’s new girlfriend turns out to be none other than “Dear Kate”.

Embarrassed beyond belief, Sofia doesn’t know how to tell Kate that she has been corresponding with her for months beforehand. To compound the problem, Kate has a teenage daughter, Alexa, who is not pleased with the sudden onslaught of strangers in her mother’s life, especially seemingly perfect Sofia. Sofia and her father need to vacate the apartment, which leads them to move in with Kate and Alexa. And, at her new school, Sofia falls for a boy who has a complicated history with Alexa. How ever will she survive this year?

Even though the story is geared at children and young adults, Ms Weston has done a marvelous job of describing Sofia’s grief. Devastated by her loss, it is heartbreaking to see Sofia not understand the normal mother-teenage daughter tension between Kate and Alexa. Narrated over the course of a year, it’s heartening to see Sofia stop grieving and accept that the presence of another woman in her father’s life and her family does not mean that her mother won’t always be with her in spirit. Living with “Dear Kate” also makes her see the flawed woman behind the advice columnist persona.

While the story centers around Sofia, Ms. Weston pays a generous amount of attention to the secondary characters. The arc that Sofia’s relationship takes with Alexa was one of my favourites. The narration from Sofia’s point of view lends the story a poignant and simple tone. It is lovely to see her blossom into a happy young woman with a new “family”. Kudos to Ms. Weston for turning the Cinderella trope on its head and writing a heartwarming and touching story about grief, moving on and growing up.

Review: “The Solitude of Prime Numbers” by Paolo Giordano

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When I read The Solitude of Prime Numbers, I had no idea that it was originally published in Italy, had been translated into over 30 languages and had sold over a million copies. The few reviews I read before writing this post were nothing but complimentary, calling real-life particle physicist Giordano a literary genius and an incontrovertible  hottie.

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 At first glance, the novel seems to be a very conventional love story about two people who have been marked by tragedy in their childhood. When she was a plump little girl, Alice used to be forced by her domineering father into taking ski lessons. On one such freezing, very foggy morning, she manages to urinate and defecate into her ski suit, get lost in a fog and lose all sensation in one of her legs. Of course, that means Alice is justified in growing up seething with resentment, taking her revenge upon the world by becoming an extreme anorexic.

Meanwhile, her counterpart, Mattia, a little boy suffering from an undiagnosed variant of autism,  is growing up across town, imprisoned in a desperately lonely childhood largely because of his twin, Michela, who is developmentally disabled. Mattia’s clueless parents persist in sending both children to the same school, so Mattia never gets to play with his classmates and, above all, never gets invited to any birthday parties. When Mattia and Michela finally do get an invitation, Mattia ditches his sister in a public park right next to a turbulent river, telling her to wait a few hours until he comes back. Of course, little Michela is never heard from again. There’s nothing for Mattia to do but turn into a mathematical genius with a propensity to self-harm.

Flash forward to the traditionally harrowing high school years, Mattia and Alice go to the same school. Alice is being systematically tortured by the Italian version of Mean Girls, exacerbating her anorexia. Then the main tormentor orders Alice to find herself a boyfriend. Alice picks Mattia, who may be smart but is utterly lacking in social skills. They kiss at a party, and this experience, though it seems somewhat repugnant to them both, has the effect of making them soul mates for life.

While writing this, I keep thinking of those reviews which claimed that every reader of this novel will find small pieces of themselves in it. What particular small piece would that be? Alice spends the next 15 years or so sulking in her room, blaming her oaf of a father for her loneliness and depression. When she finally does get a job, it’s a transparent plot setup for Alice to punish her high school tormentor. She finally marries a nice-enough man who wants nothing more than to have a normal life with some children in it, but Alice’s concave belly is far more dear to her than any hypothetical kid. Her husband is intelligent enough to recognise “Alice’s profound suffering,” but obviously not close enough to help her battle her condition.

Things haven’t been going well for Mattia either. He’s grown up to be a mathematical genius, but when he gets an offer from a foreign university to take a prestigious research position, even his own mother isn’t sorry to see him go: “She hoped with all her might that he would accept, that he would leave this house and that place that he occupied opposite her every evening at dinner, his black hair dangling over his plate and that contagious air of tragedy surrounding him.”

Since I’ve been on a spree of watching Hitchcock movies and listening to Sinatra all day, I can’t help drawing parallels between Solitude and Dean Martin’s Rebel Without A Cause. Except in the latter, James Dean was not only smarter than his obviously moronic parents, but more special, better in every way. He was better because he was cuter, but he was also better because he suffered more; he had a livelier sense of the sorrows of the human (adolescent) condition. It’s a given here that both Alice and Mattia are better, made of entirely finer clay than their parents. To look at your own parents, with all their drooping skin and personal shortcomings, and to realise that odds are pretty good that you’ll end up with the same skin and shortcomings is the quintessential adolescent tragedy. Did I mention that Mattia carves up his skin and puts out the flames on stove tops with his bare hands? He manages to be in agony most of the time. And of course, Alice refuses to treat her behaviour as problematic on any level.

There’s no arguing with this depressive emotional position, besides growing up. We all have to die, and that means in the end that the depressives are right. I’m just wondering about the thousands upon thousands of Europeans who (presumably) subscribe to this position, and have turned, by their adulation, this whimpering cub into a literary lion.

Review: “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” (Harry Potter #8) by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne

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What should you, the Muggle book-buyer, make of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child? To begin with, if you were expecting the eighth Harry Potter novel, you might be surprised to hold instead the script of the two-part play now running on London’s West End. You might then be alarmed to notice that Cursed Child‘s author is not, in fact, J.K. Rowling, but the playwright Jack Thorne, working on a story by Thorne, the director John Tiffany, and Rowling.

Such is the pent-up affection for these characters, though, that I imagine most adult fans will grit their teeth and read their first stage directions since high school. (Could some enterprising business reporter figure out if, upon the instant of its release, Cursed Child became the best-selling playscript in publishing history? Maybe it still trails, like, Hamlet.)  As happy as I am to see people digging into a play, I’m not sure that this is the one to reintroduce readers to the wonders of the published script. As a delivery device for extremely informed Potter fan fiction, it’s adequate. As a reading experience, it’s terribly undramatic. If Cursed Child is, as I suspect, the first play an entire generation of children will read, theater might be in for a rough couple of decades.

I’ll do my best not to spoil the book’s plot in this post. But it’s not a spoiler to say that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child begins precisely where the seventh novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, left off—two decades after the primary action of the series. Harry and Ginny are on platform 9¾, bidding their son Albus goodbye as he heads off for his first year at Hogwarts. Harry’s scar has not hurt him for years. At that moment, Rowling told us then, “All was well.”

Many readers rolled their eyes at that pat ending, and Cursed Child reveals that needless to say, all is not well—and though Harry does feel that scar prickle again, the real conflict is between Harry and his troubled son. Rowling and her collaborators have made the surprising and interesting choice to explore not only the future of the wizarding world, but also the ramifications of Harry Potter turning into an awkward and flawed middle-age dad. Once the golden boy of Hogwarts, now Harry is a parent struggling to understand a very different kind of son—a Slytherin, to start with.

But, powerful as Harry’s and Albus’ filial battles are, that’s about the only fresh twist in a book whose plot feels disappointingly beholden to familiar events, twists, and villains. Through dreams, flashbacks, and other machinations, we spend much of Cursed Child revisiting the past, re-encountering characters both beloved (Snape!) and shrugworthy (Ludo Bagman?!). Albus and his best friend, Scorpius Malfoy, are fourth-years at Hogwarts for most of the play’s action, but they—and the story—are mostly concerned with the events of Harry’s fourth year as chronicled in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The book’s plot, meanwhile, is a mix of Prisoner of Azkaban and Back to the Future II.

That’s not to say the book doesn’t have momentum; Rowling is as good as ever at setting a plot ticking, and the fact that Cursed Child is a play means most readers can knock it out in a couple of hours. But reading a Harry Potter story in script form turns out to be a disappointing experience, one that helps clarify what was so pleasurable about Rowling’s novels. Gone, yes, are the limitless adverbs, the filler sentences of people going up stairs or packing away their books or telling the Fat Lady the new password to the Gryffindor common room. But gone, too, are Rowling’s inventive descriptive passages, the ones that gave the wizarding world magical life, the ones that fueled the imagination. Here, Thorne’s stage directions are resolutely unspecific, hinting at moments that are surely astonishing onstage (the West End production is, by all accounts, a dazzling achievement) but are fuzzy and uninspiring on the page.“This scene is all about magic,” we read early in the book; later, as two characters face off, we’re tipped to the scene’s import with an italicized anvil: “There’s real emotion in this room.” Oh, real emotion? Terrific.

We’re left with dialogue. In Rowling’s novels, characters deliver a mix of clever repartee and thudding exposition. Here Thorne, writing dialogue meant to urge forward a complex plot in a production more dependent on technical wizardry than character development, defaults to the latter. The result is a play that fails to utilize the most elementary of playwright’s tools: subtext. Characters say exactly what they feel, explain exactly what is happening, and warn about what they’re going to do before they do it. “I got his nose, his hair, and his name,” Scorpius says about his father, Harry’s nemesis Draco Malfoy. “Not that that’s a great thing. I mean, father-son issues—I have them.” Leave aside that an 11-year-old is theoretically saying these words—no character in a play should talk like that. And it’s a shame because Scorpius and Albus, best friends and troubled sons, are well-considered creations, potentially interesting characters who lose our interest the more they talk about their feelings.

So is Cursed Child a waste? No, not for a determined Potterphile on the hunt for small, gratifying details. For example, we learn that Hermione, in the position of power devoted fans have always yearned for her to hold, also kept her name. And Rowling seems to have seized the opportunity to correct several inconsistencies or film-related alterations to the rules of her magical universe, ones that have long irritated die-hards: In Cursed Child, Polyjuice Potion definitively does change your voice, and magical duels do not consist of wizards shooting colorful bolts of light at each other. In one electrifying sequence late in the book, Rowling and her collaborators paint a chilling portrait of Hogwarts under the influence of evil and deliver an inspiring scene of familiar characters given surprising new depths battling that evil. To say more would be to spoil it, of course, but the moment makes this flawed play quite worth the time, even if, in the end, it’s less a book than an advertisement for a magical night at the theater—a night most of us Muggles won’t be able to experience for a long, long while.

P.S. I know I repeatedly said I would not be reviewing this book. So, I dedicate this post to the person who changed my mind. Don’t you dare gloat.

Review: “The Summer Prince” by Alaya Dawn Johnson

The Summer Prince

In the 17th century, fugitive slaves founded a free community in the mountains of northeastern Brazil. They called it Palmares. Contemporary accounts describe the courtyards and the fountains, the churches and council meetings of that sprawling settlement, which survived for decades before a concerted military effort by Portuguese colonists wiped it out in 1695.

Fast-forward several centuries, past a nuclear apocalypse that has scrambled climates and countries, and we come to the founding of Palmares Tres, the great pyramid-shaped city on a Brazilian bay, where author Alaya Dawn Johnson sets her new young-adult novel, The Summer Prince. Founded and ruled by women, the city ascends in tiers — from the algae-farm slums at its base to the queen’s quarters at its tip — and it runs on a rich, strange mix of nanotechnology and archaic ritual.

The first queens of Palmares Tres devised a unique system of transferring power: Each woman can rule for up to two five-year terms. Every five years, the city elects a Summer King, who rules for one year with all the charisma of a rock star — and then dies in bloody sacrifice, choosing the next queen with his dying breath; a dying man’s choice is thought to be incorruptible. As the book opens, the city is preparing to elect a new Summer King, and teenager June Costa recalls the first time she saw the sacrifice. “When I was eight, my papai took me to the park to watch a king die,” she says. “Queen Serafina stood in a stark room of wood and stone – the high shrine. I liked her because her skin was dark and glossy and her hair silk-smooth. I had even gotten a Queen Serafina doll for my birthday last June. But today her face was fierce and still; today she held a blade in her hand.”

June, our heroine, is likably complex. She’s headstrong and confident, frequently referring to herself as “the best artist in Palmares Tres,” but she’s also believable as a slightly naive kid who hasn’t had to look outside the bubble of her privileged life as the stepdaughter of a government official. That life, of squabbling with her mother, working on cheeky performance-art stunts and hanging around with her best friend, Gil, changes dramatically when Gil falls in love with the newly elected Summer King Enki, a young man from the algae-farming slums.

It’s an unexpected twist in a novel full of them. Yes, this is a YA-dystopia-love-triangle story, but how unusual it is to see the heroine become the third wheel to a sensitively depicted gay relationship. And how deliciously unusual it is to read a YA dystopia that’s comfortable with ambiguity and nuance. This is a book that doesn’t condescend. Gil, June and Enki find themselves having to tread carefully as they work out their own answers to a host of questions about love, art, technology, tradition — even sex. Slightly bratty teenager June matures noticeably over the course of the narrative, becoming much more understanding of the adults in her life and what drives them. And even though one of the central conflicts in the book is a standard faceoff between the youth of Palmares Tres and the somewhat ossified ruling class, even the villains come off as understandable in the end.

With all this going on, Johnson doesn’t ignore her world-building. With grace and precision, The Summer Prince walks the line between literary lyricism and good old-fashioned science fiction storytelling. Johnson has created a city that lives and breathes on the page, its samba rhythms and sea breezes balanced by algae stink and rusting spiderbots. Palmares Tres pulses with a vibrant mix of high tech and Brazilian tradition. (Seriously, I want this book to be made into a movie, and I want Bonde do Role to do the soundtrack.) By the time June and Enki pull off their final work of art, you will love the city every bit as much as they do.

Review: “Girls of Riyadh” by Rajaa Alsanea

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I don’t know much about life in Saudi Arabia. It’s not very often that I have come across a novel, or indeed any other literary production from Saudi Arabia. The few times that I have, they are more often than not written by women, whom I invariably assume are covered up to the eyebrows and confined in their houses by tyrannical husbands, traditional-minded fathers or miserable Islamic religious authorities of one kind or another. My friend, who has read a lot more on the region than I have, informs me the cliches rarely live up to the true horrors these women suffer.

Even in the western imagination, as Rajaa Alsanea correctly says in her novel Girls of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia is made up of oil wells, terrorists and “women dressed in black from head to toe“. Giving the problematic first two a wide berth, she sets out to redress this injustice by proving that “women here fall deeply in and out of love just like women everywhere else“. More specifically, Girls of Riyadh is a self-confessed Saudi Sex and the City, tracing the lives of four twentysomethings from the capital’s wealthy “velvet class” – clever Sadeem, dumpy Gamrah, sassy Lamees and the rebellious half-American Michelle – in a series of weekly emails sent out by a sharp-tongued and “shamelessly” red-lipsticked narrator, reminding me of Gossip Girl.

Her fictional disclosures – illicit drinking, women posing as men in order to drive cars, homosexuality, premarital sex and clandestine dating – made Girls of Riyadh an instant bestseller in Arabic. It was banned by the Saudi authorities, who, with Alice in Wonderland logic, guaranteed Alsanea a rare book deal in the West. But while the girls’ love of shopping, makeup and checking their boyfriends’ star signs is instantly familiar, I found the English edition heavily edited and footnoted. This is not just chick-lit, Alsanea hints, but a primer to an alien society “riddled with hypocrisy, drugged with contradictions“.

And the trials faced by her alternately designer- and burqa-clad heroines are gruesome. Forbidden by law from driving or meeting unrelated men in public, the girls are denied a free choice in education, career or marriage by either overbearing parents or the baroque Saudi obsession with tribe and tradition. “Is her blood pure?” croaks an evil mother-in-law, about to scupper Michelle’s chances of marrying her aristocratic sweetheart Faisal. Gamrah is married off to, then divorced by, an abusive businessman; Sadeem’s fiance dumps her for “giving herself” to him before their official wedding day. But the proscriptions that fence their lives provide the novel’s rare moments of satire. In online chatrooms, Saudi men use one of two stock pictures: “a guy sitting behind his desk in a nice office with a Saudi flag behind him” or “a guy making himself out to be a big strutting Bedouin” – and of poignancy – marriage, the unhappy Gamrah’s family warns her, is like “the watermelon on the knife“: either “extra-sweet” or a “dried-out, empty gourd“.

Like the youthful majority of Saudi Arabia’s population, the girls are squeezed between homegrown tradition and global modernity. Alsanea’s prose pieces together classical Koranic Arabic with slangy, roman-script “internet language“, colloquial Lebanese and Emirati, song lyrics and scraps of English – a patchwork that enraged Saudi proprieties almost as much as the “racy” content. Though many of the nuances are lost to non-Arabic readers like me, the off-key Americanisms of her own translation are equally revealing. Between syrupy meditations on men or makeup (“light pink blush, a little mascara and a swipe of lip gloss“), the girls exchange lines such as “you’ll never pass Gossip 101” and, my favourite, “I’ll be giving myself the best closure ever“.

The clumsiness is significant: despite its American borrowings, it is obvious that Girls of Riyadh deals with a profoundly different world. The love affairs provide occasions for some inimitably Saudi kitsch: Sadeem’s boyfriend tenderly chauffeurs over “her favourite Burger King double meal” on Valentine’s Day, Faisal presents Michelle with a Barry Manilow musical teddy bear doused in “his elegant Bulgari scent” and wearing giant diamond earrings; after her divorce, Gamrah’s family send her to Lebanon for a restorative nose job.

But the details of day-to-day life in Riyadh are weirder, and more fascinating, still. Men still wear the traditional shimagh (headcloth) and thobe (robe), but they are now designed by Gucci, Christian Dior, Givenchy and Valentino. Boys “number” girls in shopping malls and on the highways, throwing business cards or scraps of paper into car windows. On international flights, people queue for the bathrooms to change into or out of prescribed Saudi dress.

I wouldn’t recommend this novel for its style of writing. Some of the sentences are extremely clunky (eg, “Is there an inverse relationship between one’s social and economic status, on the one hand, and good humour and a merry personality, on the other?“). There’s also an uneasy tension between the breathless narration and some of the unhappier plot twists. Girls of Riyadh is unromantic – bad things happen to its heroines – but Alsanea is clearly on the side of romance, and her exploration of whether it can exist in Saudi Arabia is brave and surprisingly informative.

Despite official paranoia, Girls of Riyadh is more conservative than crusading. Alsanea, like her heroines, barely touches on the fraught context of their reversals in love. “Why was it that young people had no interest in politics?” muses broken-hearted Sadeem.”If only she had a particular cause to defend or one to oppose! Then she would have something to keep her occupied and to turn her away from thinking about Waleed the beast … ” The girls’ final, rousing gesture of defiance is to set up a party-planning business importing Belgian chocolates. After Alsanea’s promises, the novel’s collapse into the frothiness of its TV blueprint is telling – in the end, Girls of Riyadh is more a love letter to America than a poison pen to the Saudi establishment.

Review: “Isla and the Happily Ever After” (AATFK #3) by Stephanie Perkins

The reason I’m writing this post literally minutes after my post on Lola and the Boy Next Door is because I don’t want to delay my thoughts on this adorable book for another 518 days like I did with the last one. Isla and the Happily Ever After is the end of Stephanie Perkins wildly successful YA romance trilogy, and quite possibly my favourite of the lot.

Isla and the Happily Ever After

Isla Martin has been in love with Joshua Wasserstein since she first saw him in ninth grade, but between Isla’s shyness and Josh’s misunderstanding of her relationship with her best friend Kurt, the two never managed to get on the same page. Suddenly it’s senior year, and these bicultural New Yorker/Parisians have started to figure things out, maybe a bit too late.

Isla is portrayed as a hot nerd, an exceptionally bright student with an autistic best friend, a voracious reader of adventure books and a teenager with no clue about what to pursue as a career. In contrast, Josh is supposed to be a tortured artist-cum-bad boy, at least as ‘tortured’ and as ‘bad’ as heroes can be in a Stephanie Perkins novel. He has a tattoo. He skips class by making up Jewish holidays. And the only reason he doesn’t get the highest grades in his class is because he doesn’t care. He is, however, an exceptional graphic artist and some of my favourite (and hottest) scenes from the book involve Josh and his art.

Josh and Isla

When they finally admit their attraction and begin to fall in love, Isla finds herself doing things that are out of character. She is studying less, spending less time with Kurt, and making choices that she’s not sure her parents would approve of. When she opts to sneak away from Paris with Josh for the weekend, she’s scandalized by doing something illicit, yet so delighted to have Josh all to herself. Of course, they get caught, and the consequences are dire.

But unlike Anna and Lola, which were all about the chracters overcoming their issues and finding each other, Isla tackles the question of what happens after you do get together. Can you live happily ever after if you think you don’t deserve it? It is the story of two teenagers who fall in love really hard and fast and then have to deal with the repercussions of “meant to be.”

This book is ridiculously sweet. It captures all of the things about teen love that I remember fondly: loving from afar, the intensity of teenage love affairs, the passion of the anger, the drama. Isla is a wonderfully complex character, with smarts and insecurities and charm. Josh is a dreamboat of a boy, full of rebellion and art and moods. They have wonderful chemistry and their relationship doesn’t shoot off like a gun, it’s a charming slow build that captures all of the things I remember with affection about being a teenager.

Two other reasons for Isla being my favourite book was because all the characters from Anna and Lola came together in the end and had a truly heartwarming scene. Possibly my favourite in the whole series. Also, it was really refreshing to see Josh and Isla’s relationship develop outside their boarding school, in Manhattan and Barcelona. Especially Barcelona.

Isla and the Happily Ever After is enjoyable because, like the previous two books, you can understand why they want to be together. It doesn’t simply come out of nowhere, and so I love that Stephanie Perkins has written about three completely different kinds of relationships, each with their own highs and lows. It was the perfect end for an amazingly sweet trilogy.

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Review: “Lola and the Boy Next Door” (AATFK #2) by Stephanie Perkins

As promised, I started reading Lola and the Boy Next Door as soon as I finished Anna and the French Kiss, 518 DAYS AGO. And now, fresh off my achievement of reading for all 24 hours in Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon, I have decided to post my review of a book I read a year and a half ago. Sorry.

Lola and the Boy Next Door cover

Dolores Nolan (aka Lola) is a budding fashionista with a seemingly perfect life. Hot slightly-older rocker boyfriend. Loving gay dads. Witty and ‘adorkable’ best friend. And she has a resolution to not wear the same get-up twice in a year. I thought she was what Lily from Modern Family would look like when she grows up.

Lily Modern Family

Then her world turns upside down when her childhood friends-turned-enemies the Bell twins, Calliope and Cricket, come back to live next door. Here, I am going to digress and just take a moment to wonder why anyone who is not a Hollywood celebrity name their son Cricket. Why couldn’t the poor guy be called Caleb/Cameron/Cary/Carter/anything even remotely name-like?! Some may find it endearing but I, for one, couldn’t find being named after a sport/insect adorable in any way.

Cricket Bell

Anyway, I knew that Lola and the Boy Next Door was a companion novel to Anna and the French Kiss – not a sequel – but I wasn’t prepared for such a different voice. Yes, Lola is a new character, but for some reason, I just expected to bond with her on page one the way I had with Anna. I loved her flamboyancy and self-expression. She just came off as really immature at times, from her justifications for her boyfriend Max’s rude attitude to her destructive tantrums she had when she was upset. I felt that even by the end of the novel she had yet to show substantial growth, as she put a lot of stock in what others thought of her habit of making and wearing costumes  So maybe the bond was not formed, but I did end up enjoying Lola and her story.

Cricket Bell adds a nice delicious layer to Lola’s heart struggles. He’s a hard one to resist. I liked that he was as endearing as St. Clair, but he didn’t seem like a recycled version of the boy who had already stolen my heart. Cricket is sweeter and shyer than St. Clair. He doesn’t have that strong charisma and sense of self. In many ways, he is a mirror of Lola. Neither of these characters sees themselves clearly in the beginning. Cricket is the handsome nerd who gravitates toward the girl he has known his whole life who is full of sparkles and light. I loved that he knew what he wanted and never wavered – even when Lola was being difficult. What didn’t work for me was how, despite her exceptional skill at sketching likable hot boys, Perkins made Cricket sound like such a doormat. Or maybe I just need to stop reading romance written for gushy teenagers.

I was also originally pleased to see Anna and Étienne in the story. I had assumed that they appeared in the book much later—towards the end—rather than showing up throughout the story. But it didn’t really feel like they were the same characters. I had thought previously that they were both interesting, independent characters yet they sort of blurred into one. However, this may be because we’re seeing them through Lola’s perspective and she could be focusing on that fact that they’re clearly a very happy couple. I also just found out that Stephanie Perkins wrote Lola first, so that also could be why.

Aside from the romance, Lola and the Boy Next Door addresses issues surrounding families and friendship and handles it in such a way that makes the story incredibly human and relatable. I find it really difficult to criticize a book like this, because it’s exactly what I expected it to be. Adorable, fun and fast-paced. It was predictable, but I’ll be honest, if it had ended in a way that wasn’t described in the title, well, let’s just say I wouldn’t have been a happy camper.

So bottom line, this book is either for you or it’s not, depending on what you’re looking for. If it’s not your kind of thing, then skip it, but if it is, you’ll be instantly enthralled in Lola’s pie baking, glasses breaking, Marie Antoinette gown crafting, moon chatting and tea reading adventures. I just liked it for the cute nerd.

Review: “Tell the Wolves I’m Home” by Carol Rifka Brunt

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The Greek language contains multiple words for love. Agape means spiritual love. Eros means physical love. Philia means friendship. Storge means familial love. In English, a single word — love — umbrellas all these emotional varietals. Without so many fine distinctions, is it surprising that 14-year old June Elbus’s first feelings of love leave her mixed up?

In Tell the Wolves I’m Home, debut novelist Carol Rifka Brunt poignantly portrays an adolescent girl’s struggle to comprehend love in a time and culture under strain as it comes to term with a complicated disease.

Set in Manhattan and Westchester, New York in 1987, the book opens with the death of June’s beloved uncle Finn, an early casualty of the AIDS epidemic. Finn was not just June’s uncle, however; he was her godfather, her inspiration, her first true love. Finn, a gifted artist, introduced June to everything she considers beautiful in her life–Mozart’s Requiem, visits to the Cloisters, an appreciation for the fine details all around her. June believes that the bonds between her and Finn are all-encompassing, but in the weeks following his death, she begins to realise that Finn had an entire life that she knew nothing about, and is forced to reexamine her relationship with Finn and its central role in her life.

As June reels through previously unimagined depths of loss, she is contacted by a stranger, Toby, who reveals himself to have had a key role in Finn’s life. Finn, before his death, left secret messages asking June to take care of Toby and Toby to take care of June, and as they try to honour Finn’s wishes, they find themselves connecting through shared bonds of loss, love and jealousy. June is shattered to realise how much she didn’t know about her uncle, as Toby struggles to let her in and to give dignity to June’s adolescent broken heart. As June mourns Finn and all she thinks she has lost, her older sister Greta acts out in her own brand of grief and loneliness in a desperate attempt to be understood and to reforge a connection before it’s too late.

The author does a wonderful job of capturing a particular time and place: New York, in the first throes of fear and ignorance about AIDS. Glancing references are made to Finn’s “special friend”, whom June’s parents consider a murderer—blaming him for Finn’s illness and death—and who is ostracised and banned from the funeral. June worries about catching AIDS from a kiss under the mistletoe; Greta is yelled at by their mother for using Finn’s chapstick. Other small details of life in the 80s bring the time to life: June wears her Gunne Sax dress in a desperate effort to isolate herself from the real world, as she hides out alone in the woods behind the school and pretends to live in the Middle Ages she so adores. Finn gives June cassette tapes of favorite music; June’s parents listen only to Greatest Hits albums (“it was like the thought of getting even one bum track was too much for them to handle”), and June has a fondness for “99 Luftballons” (the German version — much cooler sounding). June wears Bonne Belle lip gloss, and Greta has half of a “best friends” necklace, the other half of which some erstwhile best friend has long since discarded. It’s these small details and more which lend this book such a sense of nostalgic poignancy. At the same time, this coming-of-age story feels like it could be the story of any girl—or rather, every girl—growing up, seeing the human flaws in her parents, realizing that long-held truths may be illusions, finding and losing love, and coming to terms with a picture of one’s inner self which isn’t always so pretty.

Brunt strikes a difficult balance, imbuing June with the disarming candor of a child and the melancholy wisdom of a heart-scarred adult. Here, for instance, June reflects on the diminishing returns of getting older: “It seemed like life was a sort of narrowing tunnel. Right when you were born, the tunnel was huge. You could be anything. . . . Then you started to grow up and everything you did closed the tunnel in some more. You broke your arm climbing a tree and you ruled out being a baseball pitcher. You failed every math test you took and you canceled any hope of being a scientist. Like that. On and on through the years until you were stuck.

Though Brunt’s approach to AIDS and homosexuality is bold, her novel is mostly an extended meditation on all the meanness that could come out of loving someone too much. The plot is never dull, and the convincing emotional climaxes, while overwrought, are appropriate for a narrator of June’s age. Though the book has young adult–novel qualities, with moral conflicts that resolve themselves too easily and characters nursing hearts of gold, there’s enough ambiguity and subtlety to interest a wider audience.

Review: “Looking for Alaska” by John Green

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Looking for Alaska, wildly successful author John Green’s debut novel, is about a Florida high-school student Miles Halter and his foray into what he calls “the great perhaps,” a reference to writer Francois Rabelais’ last words. Before Culver Creek, Miles’s life was boring. No real pain or pleasure seeped into his days; no friends or enemies or challenges of any kind. Culver Creek throws him into a different world, one with all that he lacked before.

His first real friend is Chip, his brilliant white-trash roommate also known as “the Colonel.” Chip heads up the gang of kids that Miles falls in with, the most stunning and hypnotic of these is the gorgeous, sharp, troubled, sweet Alaska Young. Miles and his friends plan elaborate pranks against the “weekend warriors” (the rich kids who commute home every weekend) and the headmaster, eat junk food, smoke cigarettes, struggle to pass pre-calc, and maintain a steady level of drunkenness on strawberry wine and a concoction of milk and vodka dubbed “ambrosia.”

The novel’s chapters are split into “Before” and “After”, which lets you know something dramatic is going to go down (and by the time it happens, you can easily guess what it’s going to be). If you’ve read other John Green books, you know exactly how this book works. Quirky protagonist? Check. Profound lessons learned? Check. Awesome friendships? Check. Cool girl? Check. Personally, whenever I hear the phrase “cool girl”, I am reminded of Gillian Flynn’s spot-on quote from Gone Girl about how there is no such thing as a cool girl.

At this point, I want to talk about my biggest criticism of John Green’s writing. Even though Looking for Alaska is my first Green novel, I am familiar with his overuse of the manic pixie dream girl trope. To those of you who don’t know what it means, a manic pixie dream girl is basically someone that is injected into story lines to teach the male protagonist about life, freedom, love and all things that make one feel alive and connected. This girl thrusts the brooding hero into unfamiliar situations to force the emergence of self-identity in an effort to cope and adapt, confesses the darkness buried in her being of light, makes him feel unique, makes him question life, and gets him to do something completely freeing.

Looking at Alaska Young, it is glaringly obvious that beneath her vivacious facade there’s a troubled teenager dealing with depression. This was an opportunity for Green to really explore the complications of depression among young adults, but ultimately Alaska’s depression gets sidelined as she serves in her obligatory manic pixie dream girl role of helping Miles become a real boy.

I’m not going to say that John Green should have written this story differently, but I am going to say that he had the potential of breaking out of the mold and really exploring the complexities of Alaska Young. Alaska never becomes an actualized character, she always exists as others need her to for the sake of their own development.

As with all the other stories of Green’s, there is a strong literary component that exists as a running theme with the main action of the story. Yet, in Looking for Alaska, I felt that it was forced and tacked on in an effort to imbue some greater sense of meaning that could have just come from allowing an exploration of the full character of Alaska Young. Miles is desperately in love with Alaska and she is desperately in love with her college-aged boyfriend, except when she doesn’t want to be – then she lets loose and embraces spontaneity over commitment. Conveniently.

Miles has an interesting character quirk in that he is a collector of final words. He and Alaska have a conversation in which she mentions her fascination with Simon Bolivar’s final words: “Damn it. How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!” And so ensues a pseudo-philosophical and spiritual quest to uncover what the labyrinth is and how one can escape it. The quote holds meaning for Alaska, the kind of meaning that is worth concern if anyone knows anything about depression. And this once again leads me to the loss of potential for Green to really expose this underbelly of depression; how it impacts not only the individual who is depressed, but also everyone around that person.

The message at the end of Looking for Alaska is actually something I really appreciated. However, I just couldn’t really make myself care about any of these characters, or the plot for that matter. I know a lot of people love this novel, and I know this is John Green’s first book, which entitles him to some wiggle room I guess, but I just can’t help comparing it to other, better YA stories. Maybe Green’s brand of realistic fiction just isn’t for me. If it wasn’t my second book of the year, it’s possible that I wouldn’t have finished it. I’m sorry if this sounds harsh, but I couldn’t help feeling bored with the same old teenage drama that took up the majority of this book.

Overall, if you enjoy the sort of YA contemporary literature that is inevitably made into a teeny-bopper movie, and you’ve somehow skipped this book—I think you will find Looking for Alaska enjoyable. As for me, I don’t think I’ll be checking out any more of John Green’s books until he writes something new. This one just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Review: “Anna and the French Kiss” (AATFK #1) by Stephanie Perkins

So last night I got done making two projects on the same topic where I basically said that a law was progressive because the legislators decided to replace the word ‘workmen’ with ’employees’ 86 years after it was enacted. After faffing for some 10,000-odd words, I was tired as hell and decided to reward myself with something fun, foolish and light-hearted. I picked up Anna and the French Kiss, the first book in a trilogy by Stephanie Perkins. (Also because after feeling outraged on behalf of abused workers and the other book I’m reading being a tome on the history of Jerusalem, my soul had started reeking of pretentiousness :P).

Anna and the French Kiss cover

The book starts with Anna Oliphant (aka Banana Elephant), a girl from Atlanta, being sent to Paris by her wildly successful author father, whose writings are a mixture of Nicholas Sparks and John Green. Or as I like to think of him, Chetan Bhagat, if he did the world a favour and killed himself at the end of one of his god-awful books. Anna is heartbroken as she has left behind a loving mother, a cute baby brother, her OED-(Oxford English Dictionary, plebes)quoting, badass drummer best friend and the possibility of a romance with a cinema co-worker. Toph.

Who sends their kids to boarding school? It’s so Hogwarts Only mine doesn’t have cute boy wizards or magic candy or flying lessons.

As she sobs her heart out into her pillow, she gets invited by Meredith, the girl-next-door, for a chocolat chaud (hot chocolate) and they instantly become such good friends that she is now invited to sit at their lunch table with cool, boyish artist Josh, sarcastic yet lovable Rashmi (aka Rash, ouch) and our hero Etienne St Clair (As Chandler would say, “Could be BE more French?“).

The gang from Anna and the French Kiss

There’s an instant connection between Anna and St Clair. He is her physics lab partner. He takes her to see all the cool sights in Paris. He has an English accent and says “Fo’shiz”. He is basically your perfect high-school hero. But Anna still feels tied back to Toph. Even if she doesn’t like him that much. St Clair has a hot, older girlfriend, even though their relationship doesn’t seem to be going places.

Anna and the French Kiss checks all the boxes for what should be a fun, contemporary romance. It has the spark between two people, a slowly built rich relationship, strong secondary characters, witty banter and a subtext of important issues.

Home a Person not a Place

One of the best things about the story is Anna. She wants to be the country’s premiere film critic when she grows up. She doesn’t understand a word of French (“Here is everything I know about France: Madeleine and Amelie and Moulin Rouge”). She doesn’t have anything special which makes her stand out. But her voice in the writing is just so humorous and delightful that you can’t help but love her.

Etienne

St Clair is an equally dreamy and complex hero. He is 3 inches shorter than Anna but his personality and his “I-pretend-I-don’t-care-but-I-really-do” attitude makes that insignificant. He is witty and eloquent and still has his own set of problems like every other teenager. His interactions with Anna and his efforts to be moral despite his growing feelings for her makes for excellent tension throughout the story.

Rashmi Quote

What Perkins really nails in her debut novel, unlike countless other YA romances (yes, you, Twilight) is how the characters don’t straight away fall in love blindly. While both Anna and St Clair have a crush on the other, they start off as friends. Their relationship is built throughout the story and this makes for a very nice ending when the romantic tension is finally resolved.

Etienne's I love you

Another major plus for this book is how the author wasn’t afraid to show the not-so-nice side of her characters too. Anna has a strained relationship with her douchebag of a father, she isn’t the first to make up in a fight with her best friend and she likes two guys at the same time. St Clair has gigantic daddy issues and acts like a complete jerk when dealing with his problems. Hidden among the snappy one-liners and teenage angst are moments of subtle clarity which show how the characters evolve into better people. At the end, you can see how Etienne isn’t so bitter anymore and Anna is a lot more adventurous.

Anna Wish

This was supposed to be a short and sweet post. But as I wrote, I realised how many things there are to appreciate in this book. The humour. The numerous references to old films and French landmarks. Anna and the French Kiss is the textbook definition of a contemporary romantic dramedy. It’s one book I would recommend to everyone who loves a sweet (but not cavity-inducing) romance.

Needless to say, I have already started reading Lola and the Boy Next Door. You can find my very late review of it  here.