Saturday, May 24, 2014

"We Were Liars," by E. Lockhart

The Protagonist: Cadence "Cady" Sinclair Eastman. The eldest grandchild of wealthy tycoon Harris Sinclair, she spends every summer on a private island with her grandfather, aunts, and cousins until an accident occurs during her fifteenth summer.
Her Angst: Now seventeen, she returns to the island to find out the truth. Too bad she belongs to a family of liars.

The Secondary Cast:

Johnny: Cady's cousin and the eldest Sinclair grandson. Wacky and humorous.

Mirren: Another cousin - sweet and supportive. Still, after the accident, she doesn't return Cady's e-mails.

Gat: Cady's crush and the nephew of Johnny's stepdad. Ambitious and angry, he loves her but also challenges her to look beyond her narrow worldview.

Harris Sinclair: Cady's wealthy grandfather who owns the island. Determined to teach his descendants how to uphold the Sinclair family name.

Angst Checklist:

  • Privilege
  • Brain Injury
  • Racism
  • Divorce
  • Amnesia
  • Family Secrets

The Word: Once upon a time, there was a rich man named Harris Sinclair, and he had three daughters. This man was rich enough to buy himself his own private island by Martha's Vineyard, and rich enough to build a house for each of his grown daughters so that they and their children could come and live together on the island every summer.

Of those grandchildren, the oldest three formed a club called the Liars, comprised of Cady, Johnny, Mirren - and Gat, the nephew of Johnny's stepdad. Every summer, they congregate on the island to play tennis, go snorkelling, make homemade ice cream, and eat big gourmet dinners out on the deck, the whole Sinclair family together. It's loving and idyllic, and even Cady's angst over her growing affection for Gat can't strip the magic from the place.

Until the summer when the Liars are all fifteen, and something goes wrong.

Cady sustains a brain injury and nearly drowns - only she can't remember how it happened. Two years later, she still suffers from horrific migraines that have ruined her grades and caused her to withdraw from sports and clubs. She hasn't been back to the island since Summer Fifteen, and she misses the Liars, none of whom have ever been good about staying in touch beyond the summer months. Despite her mother's misgivings, she begs to return to the island to spend a normal summer with her granddad, her aunts, and her cousins.

Yes, part of her wants to return to the summers she missed, when she was normal and pain-med free. But part of her also wants to find out what really happened during Summer Fifteen, and why her family refuses to tell her the truth.

This novel is as slender, sharp, and effective as a stiletto. With a few efficient brushstrokes, Lockhart creates a gorgeous and evocative setting that appears, at first, like heaven. Imagine spending the summer with your family on your own sunny private island - with tennis courts, board games, family movie nights in front of the flatscreen, and an efficient staff of cooks and housekeepers to clean up after you.

But nothing is perfect. We Were Liars is about the unreliability of memory - especially nostalgia and its tendency to gloss over flaws and arguments. Unwittingly rendered an outsider due to her illness and her amnesia regarding her accident, Cady starts to see her family from the outside in, and her interpretations of the events of Summer Fifteen begin to unravel as she uncovers a darker side to the Sinclair family's manipulative dynamic.

We Were Liars is also a novel about privilege. Cady starts to learn more about what it means to be privileged through her interactions with Gat. Gat and Johnny's stepdad are Indian - a fact which hasn't (and has never) gone unnoticed by the other (white, beautiful, blond) Sinclairs. Cady and the other Liars have always considered Gat one of them, so it's a shock to learn that Gat has not always felt the same way - and with good reason.

Finally, We Were Liars is about innocence that, once lost, can never be regained. About truths that, once learned, cannot be unlearned. The characterization in this novel is superb. This is a novel without villains - only antagonists. And no one in the Sinclair family is the antagonist. Rather, its their combined flaws - their fear, their grief, their greed, their pride, their prejudice, their entitlement - that rise up to destroy themselves and the people around them. It's mesmerizing.

This powerful, layered novel is not to be missed.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

"The Girl You Left Behind," by Jojo Moyes

The Protagonist: Sophie Bessette. The owner of a little hotel called Le Coq Rouge in a small French town under German occupation in WWI.
Her Angst: Her artist husband's away at the front, and the only reminder of him is his portrait of her - a painting the local German  Kommandant covets.

The Other Protagonist: Liv Halston. A widow in 2006 still living in a grieving fog four years after the death of her husband.
Her Angst: The only reminder of him is a portrait he bought for her in Europe - a portrait she's being ordered to return for being looted in WWI.

The Word: How much is a painting really worth? Jojo Moyes, who blew me away with Me Before You, examines this in The Girl You Left Behind.

The title refers to the name of a portrait painted by Edouard Bessette, a minor student of Matisse who is away fighting during the Great War. His wife, Sophie, has not seen her husband for two years - two miserable years spent in a French village occupied by the Germans. Her only solace is The Girl You Left Behind, one of Edouard's portraits of her. Both the portrait and Sophie catch the attention of the Kommandant of her village. When Sophie learns that her husband has been sent to a horrific war camp, she decides to make the Kommandant a trade in exchange for her husband's safety.

Almost a hundred years later, in 2006, Liv Halston is living a similarly sad and narrow life. Mired in grief, drowning in debt, her life is devoted to preserving her deceased husband's house, even though she can no longer afford to live in it. She, like Sophie, takes comfort from The Girl You Left Behind, a beautiful painting of uncertain provenance that her husband bought for her during their honeymoon.

She manages to break from her comfort zone long enough to meet and fall for Paul, a shy but righteous ex-cop who works for a company that rescues looted works of art - until he sees The Girl You Left Behind on her bedroom wall and recognizes it as a painting thought to have been stolen by the Germans during WWI. Awkward. Now the artist's descendants are demanding the painting be returned, but Liv refuses. In order to save the only joyous thing she has left from her marriage, she sets out to discover what really happened to Sophie Bessette during the war.

The novel reminded me a bit of the film The Monuments Men, which argued that great works of art transcend war and time and the paltry label of "just paint on canvas." They are more then mere objects, mere possessions. Liv holds onto a lot of things in her life, to her social and emotional detriment. She still lives in her dead husband's enormous, empty, cold house. She still lives in her grief. She doesn't socialize and has few friends. Her attachment to her painting, however, is different, because it's not a cold object. It's a connection to life, and not just hers - Sophie's, too. Her search for evidence, any evidence, that the painting's transfer of ownership was legal draws her out of her own isolation and and into the mystery of Sophie's life, and the myriad things they have in common.

For Paul, he has to learn the hard way that morality rarely comes in black and white. He used to be proud of his work, returning stolen portraits to war victims and their descendants, and at first he cannot understand why Liv refuses to part with The Girl You Left Behind. What about the Bessettes and what they suffered? Shouldn't the situation be cut and dry? However, lately all the people he meets at his job are disaffected grandchildren eager to recover their family's paintings in order to sell them for the millions they're now worth.

Okay, I'll admit, this aspect of the novel bothered me. It's not like a few restitution-seekers (like the ones claiming The Girl You Left Behind) wind up being soulless philistines who only want a quick cash grab. Every restitution-seeker depicted in the book is depicted that way, to the point where I wondered if the author was trying to send a message condemning restitution in general.

The rest of the book is lovely. While not quite as heart-wrenching as Me Before You, the novel is filled with small, startlingly beautiful details - like when, in Sophie's time, the villagers bury their valuables to hide them from the Germans but are foiled when the clock beneath the rutabagas begins the chime the hour. Moyes has a deft hand with description and throw-away details of human absurdity.

The Girl You Left Behind tells a lovely story about how two women in different centuries can share the same experience thanks to a single piece of art. It's also a telling examination of when holding onto something is an act of bravery, and when it's an unhealthy act of desperation.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

"Dreams of Gods and Monsters," by Laini Taylor

The Principal Cast:

Karou: It's up to her to help the chimaera ally themselves with the exiled seraphim to bring peace to Eretz.

Akiva: He might be the only one with the experience and charisma to convince his fellow seraphim to rebel against the Empire - but can he convince Karou to forgive him?

Liraz: Akiva's angry, shamed sister, who believes she's too damaged by war to be any good in peacetime.

Ziri: A young chimaera who sacrifices his body to help impersonate Thiago to bring peace to his people.

Eliza: A human woman on the run from a mysterious heritage who's haunted by visions of angels and beasts.

Angst Checklist:

  • Life is Hard
  • Like, Really Hard
  • Did I mention Life is Hard?
  • Also War
  • And Hope
  • And a lot of other Abstract Concepts
  • Evil Grandmas
  • Gullible Christians
  • Douchey Research Fellows

The Word: I love candy, but in moderation. Eating too many turns the saliva in my mouth to acidic syrup, burning my tongue until I can't even really taste the sweetness anymore.

That's the reaction I had to Dreams of Gods and Monsters. The eagerly-awaited follow-up to Laini Taylor's endlessly inventive Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Days of Blood and Starlight taught me nothing so much as, this: Sorry Zuzana, but there is such a thing as too much cake.

Since the last book, Akiva and his Misbegotten seraphim brethren have fled the Empire to try and make an alliance with the remaining chimaera. To his surprise, Thiago, the notoriously violent chimaera general, is willing to put aside his people's hostility to consider an uneasy partnership.

Unbeknownst to Akiva - Thiago isn't exactly in his right mind. Or right body, I should say. Karou was forced to kill the general in the previous book when he tried to rape her, but she resurrected his body - with the soul of her dear friend, Ziri, inside. Karou and Ziri know the only way to keep the chimaera under control is to keep up the charade that their trusted general Thiago is still alive. But will the gentle-hearted Ziri be able to successfully impersonate the brutal White Wolf?

Meanwhile, Jael, Akiva's monstrous uncle who has assumed the mantle of Emperor, has travelled to Earth in order to exploit Judeo-Christian symbolism in order to acquire human weapons of mass destruction. If it looks like an angel, carries a harp like an angel, and speaks Latin - well, then let's hand over our nukes!

This all sounds fascinating, right? Unfortunately, Gods and Monsters is a chocolate cake with too much icing. The cake itself is delicious and dark and layered and creative, there's no doubt about it - but you have to wade through so much sticky, sugary angst prose to get to it that it's almost not worth it.

There is no reason for Gods ands Monsters to be 600 pages long. I've always liked Laini Taylor's gorgeous writing - when it's applied economically. Here, a single act of magic will take five pages to describe. There are pages and pages of repetitive angsty inner monologues from both Karou and Akiva about how Everything is Dark and Bleak and Hopeless. Why do difficult things, when complaining about how difficult things are to do is so much easier?

The novel is rather haphazardly paced as a result. Karou will waste paragraphs dithering about the precise mechanics of Akiva's smile and what it means For Their Future, but the Big Giant Bad Guys are dispatched with rather hilarious (and overly-convenient) swiftness. Oh, and there's the sudden, out-of-nowhere Extra Adventure tacked on at the end to gum up the narrative in the name of Plugging a Sequel Series.

This novel reads better when it's skimmed. Taylor's language is beautiful, but it's the application of the language that matters. I'm frankly disappointed that such a promising first novel would get bogged down by increasingly bloated, bleak, self-indulgent sequels.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

"Anne of the Island," by Lucy Maud Montgomery

The Protagonist: Anne Shirley. Now 18, she's off to college to get her degree.
Her Angst: Everything is moving so fast - friends are marrying, dying, and having babies. Will Anne be able to hold onto anything, or should she welcome change?

Secondary Cast:

Gilbert Blythe: Anne's childhood friend who's madly in love with her. But does Anne know how she feels?

Priscilla and Stella: Anne's amazing college roommates.

Phillipa "Phil" Gordon: Another roommate, and new character, who prides herself on being a flighty flirt until she winds up falling for a minister.

Royal Gardner: A tall, dark, handsome and rich senior who falls for Anne and sweeps her off her feet. But is a wild, magical romance what Anne still wants?

Angst Checklist:

  • How to Be Friendzoned without Being a Jackass About it, a Course by Gilbert Blythe
  • Adulthood is hard
  • Dealing with Change
  • Life and Death
  • The Life of an Artist
  • Romance Versus Love
  • How many cats is too many?

The Word: In this third book in the beloved Anne of Green Gables series, our darling Anne is bound for Redmond College to obtain her BA in English (ENGLISH MAJORS REPRESENT!), and also grow up along the way.

Like the previous two novels, Anne of the Island is more of a collection of vignettes around a common time frame that correspond with an aspect of Anne's personal growth and development, rather than a novel with a specific plot. For the four years in which Anne studies for her degree, she's forced to confront some rather painful truths about herself as she learns to accept adulthood and all the changes that transition entails - like her best friend's marriage, changes to Avonlea, and the death of a childhood friend.

One of those changes involves Gilbert Blythe. Gilbert - now a paragon of Edwardian manhood as the brilliant, handsome, pre-med captain of the college football team - divulges his full romantic feelings to Anne in this novel. A horrified Anne shoots him down point-blank, partly because she's afraid of losing their easy childhood friendship and partly because she's not ready to identify her own growing feelings for him. Anne still clings to the ideas of romantic love she taught herself from her favourite novels, but her college experiences soon teach her how to accept reality without compromising imagination.

Anne also grows as a writer during her college years. She experiences the despair of rejection, the embarrassment of being thought a sellout (when her story's accepted as an advertisement for baking powder), and the frustration of a painfully true critique. Anne is prone to too much flowery description and Gary Stu/Mary Sue protagonists - a common flaw for budding writers regardless of time period, it seems.

Anne of the Island isn't a perfect novel. A few too many things happen coincidentally - Anne discovers her dream house is being let right when she's looking for a place to rent with her roommates, and poor Aunt Josephine dies and leaves Anne an inheritance at the precise moment Anne worries about tuition. But the novel is still so heartfelt and genuine and true about what college kids still go through. A consistently good entry in a wonderful series.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

"Cinder," by Marissa Meyer

The Protagonist: Linh Cinder. A cyborg mechanic forced to fix cars and robots to support the disdainful stepfamily that owns her.
Her Angst: On top of being part machine, she has a huge crush on the son of the Emperor. While his feelings may be mutual, will they remain so once he finds out she can't pass through any metal detectors at the airport?

Secondary Cast:

Prince Kai: The heir to the kingdom. Fights to preserve his commonwealth from the depredations of pestilence, famine, and psychotic evil queens from the moon.

Dr. Erlhard: A scientist who experiments on cyborgs to produce a cure for the plague that's tearing the planet apart - and he discovers that something about Cinder might just hold the key to the planet's stability.

Andri: Cinder's evil stepmother.

Pearl: Cinder's evil stepsister.

Peony: Cinder's rather nice stepsister, who falls ill with the plague.

Queen Levana: Psychotic evil queen from the moon. Uses her psychic powers to convince other people she's beautiful.

Angst Checklist:

  • "What do you expect, Mother? I'M HALF MACHINE!!!"
  • Moon Queens be crazy
  • I love him but we're from two different worlds
  • I love him but my stepmum stole my foot
  • Parental Expectations
  • Secret Royalty
  • The Needs of the Many Versus the Needs of the Few

The Word: Right after reading A Long Long Sleep, a sci-fi retelling of Sleeping Beauty that I appreciated more than I liked, I picked up Cinder - a sci-fi retelling of Cinderella that I did appreciate and like. Well, how about that!

It's not a flawless novel, to be sure, but it has a much more likeable protagonist, a truly original and interesting setting, and it incorporates the elements of the original fairytale in highly amusing and clever ways (the pumpkin!).

Cinder lives in New Beijing, the Imperial City of the new Asian Commonwealth in a futuristic time far removed from ours. She toils as a mechanic in order to support her stepsisters Pearl and Peony, as well as her vicious stepmother Andri. Andri hates Cinder because her husband got sick and died on the trip he made to adopt the orphaned girl, and also because Cinder is a cyborg: significant parts of her (a hand, a leg) were replaced with robotic parts when she was eleven.

Cinder's not too wild about being a cyborg either. Since the country they live in considers cyborgs little better than legal property, she risks imprisonment and death if she tries to escape her unpleasant living situation. The only bright spot in her life is Prince Kai, the earnest heir to the commonwealth who asks her to fix a tutor android carrying sensitive state information. This Prince Charming has his own problems - his father the Emperor is dying of the same plague that is cutting a swath through his country's population, and an avaricious foreign Queen is looking to conquer his weakened kingdom by any means necessary.

When Cinder's kind stepsister Peony comes down with the plague, an unhinged Andri blames Cinder and signs her up for medical experimentation against her will. When Cinder is dragged to the Imperial laboratories, however, she becomes involved in a complex conspiracy involving the Prince, the mysterious and incurable plague, and the sinister Queen of the Moon.

Cinder's freakin' awesome y'all. She's got a lot of reasons to angst, but she's incredibly capable and forward thinking. While she struggles with a fair bit of self-loathing over her cyborg parts, she never lets it sway her into believing she's deserving of the ill treatment she receives. She fights for herself and she's a problem solver. I also really love how her inner monologue incorporates her adjustment to being part machine without ever seeming unrealistic, cutesy-clever or "punny."

And Prince Kai is, well, a VNYM. A Very Nice Young Man. He's earnest and well-meaning and righteous and RULING A KINGDOM IS HARD Y'ALL and Evil Psychic Moon Queens be trippin', but he's also not terribly interesting. Which he shouldn't be, to be fair. It's Cinder's book. But, well - he's a nice guy and he works hard but he really never does anything remotely unpredictable.

But now we're starting to get into the book's flaws. There aren't too many - but one of the major ones is the romance between Kai and Cinder. I just don't buy it - and not because of the class differences. Because they don't actually spend that much time together. They always seem to see each other in passing, a few minutes at a time, and suddenly Kai is asking her to be his date for the Super Important Political Ball, and it never seems like anything but the most Random of Choices. Like asking your pizza delivery guy if he'd squire you to your sister's wedding.

I also had a problem with the villain of the novel (and likely the series) - Levana, the Queen of the Lunar Kingdom (the moon). The way the Lunar people were introduced set me up to actually feel for them. The Earthens distrust them because it's rumoured they have psychic powers and chop off people's feet and set people on fire and kill babies and all I heard was, "They live far away on a tiny rock in the sky and look and act different from us, therefore they are EEEEVIL." Perhaps this is just my own reading expectations, but I felt like I was being led to believe they were simply misunderstood thanks to prejudice and ignorance.

But, as we soon learn, Levana really is just that mind-controlling, baby-killing, foot-chopping-off, niece-immolating evil, and the Moon is North Korea in Space. Levana is depicted as so obviously, over-the-top evil that she clashes with the more well-drawn and complexly flawed characters in the novel. Even Andri the Evil Stepmother has nuance and depth and grief that make her a person and not a cartoon. I get that Levana is intended as the series' ultimate antagonist, and that she represents the amalgamation of every Evil Queen figure from Brothers Grimm central casting, but girl needs to tone it down a notch.

Otherwise, though, Cinder is a finely-paced, creative novel with a fantastic, unconventional setting and a cheeky loyalty to the source material.