Thursday, May 31, 2012

"One of Our Thursdays Is Missing" by Jasper Fforde

It's hard to believe One of Our Thursdays is now the fifth book in the Thursday Next series. It's a series that I felt had started to become a bit stale, though I'm happy to say this most recent addition picked up for me. Perhaps that's because of the (mostly) new protagonist, the written Thursday Next. As this novel begins, the real Thursday Next is missing, and the written Thursday, the current star of Next's books, finds herself on the kind of convoluted quest the real Thursday would normally undertake.

The written Thursday is a lot different than her real life inspiration. Written Thursday is insecure and sheltered; she's trying to keep readership in a series with waning popularity while being true to the real Thursday's wishes. On her journey, written Thursday is joined by Sprockett, an adorable and loyal robot butler, and is chased by the nefarious Men in Plaid.

Significant time has been spent in the BookWorld in the previous books in the series, so it's nice to finally get the point of view of a written character. I loved written Thursday's point of view on the real world and her exasperation at its lack of narrative and purposefulness.

Like all the books in the series, One of Our Thursdays Is Missing is largely fluff and fairly forgettable, but it's a fun read and a neat way to think about the act of reading and the reader/book relationship.

Monday, May 28, 2012

"Bitterblue" by Kristin Cashore

There's something about Cashore's writing and the worlds she creates that sucks you in so that it doesn't matter what she's writing about, you want to know more. So even though--unlike Graceling and Fire--Bitterblue has an ordinary human protagonist and takes places almost entirely inside a castle, it's still compelling.

Bitterblue follows Queen Bitterblue as she attempts to rule the kingdom of Monsea eight years after the death of her tyrannical father King Leck, who is killed at the end of Graceling. Though Bitterblue desires to be a good and just leader, the secrets left behind from Leck's reign continue to plague her people.

When the novel begins, Bitterblue is in a haze; though she's queen, she seems to have little control over or knowledge about her kingdom. As a reader, I also felt this haze, which is perhaps appropriate, but somewhat served to distance me from the book. About a hundred pages in I really felt like I needed to start the whole book over again (though I decided not to).

Bitterblue's own journey is jumpstarted by her decision to sneak out of the castle disguised as a commoner (ala Jasmine in Aladdin, making it seem somewhat trite). In the town, she meets two thieves, Teddy and Saf, whom she abruptly becomes friends with. Though those relationships are essential for Bitterblue's discovery that much of the truth about her kingdom has been hidden, I didn't believe the ease and suddenness of their friendships, and Bitterblue's later romance with Saf was far too obvious from the beginning.

Nonetheless, somewhere along the way I fell in love with the story. Perhaps the return of Kasta and Po (protagonists of Graceling) helped, as did the solid assurance of Lord Giddon. Maybe my desire to know the truth of what's happening it the castle and Leck's lasting effects kept me going. Regardless, even though relatively little happens, I started to read eagerly.

That truth, by the way, is far more horrible than can be imagined, and I almost wonder if the horror of it is treated a little too lightly. That level of atrocity, murder, and suicide somehow just didn't fit the book's style.

The romance between Bitterblue and Saf didn't do a lot for me and lacked the power of Katsa and Po's love (or even Fire and Brigan's). Nonetheless, I once again commend Cashore for having a unmarried young adult couple have safe and consensual sex, something I'd like to see more of.

It isn't necessary to have read Graceling or Fire to understand Bitterblue, though characters and events from both previous novels make significant appearances, and I rather wished I remember more from those books while reading. Nonetheless, despite my quibbles, I believe Cashore is one of the best young adult fantasy writers today, and I'll read anything else she writes immediately.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

"The Land of Decoration" by Grace McCleen

Emma Donoghue, the author of Room (which I loved), has a blurb on the cover of Land of Decoration, probably designed to draw Room fans over to McCleen's novel, which has some similarities. The hook worked for me, but unfortunately the book itself was less successful, perhaps because I didn't "buy" the young protagonist's voice in the same way I believed Jack's (the protagonist of Room) voice.

The Land of Decoration is narrated by Judith, a precocious 10-year-old who lives with her father and is part of a doomsday religious order which believes the apocalypse is near. At school Judith is tormented by a bully named Neil, and the attacks only worsen when Judith's father decides not to join the union's factory strike, making him unpopular with many people, including Neil's striking father. However, one night, desperate not to return to school and Neil's abuse, Judith uses her faith in God to cause a miracle: by making it "snow" on her miniature "land of decoration" (a replica of the town made out of trash), Judith causes actual snow to fall and cancel school. However, Judith's "powers" soon begin to spiral out of control, as things worsen for her and her father.

I liked the idea of being inside the head of a young person convinced the world is going to end, but I had a hard time believing in Judith as a character. Her conversations with God seemed too deep and her narration too orderly for someone that young. I also didn't believe that such a person would really create a "land of decoration" in so much detail, so Judith's attention to it further separated me from the story. The other characters also fell somewhat flat. Judith's father is distant and cold; Neil is stereotypically thuggish and cruel; Mrs. Pierce is the heroic and kindly teacher.

The novel skirts around the idea that if everything is to be believed, Judith is a very disturbed child. She has active conversations with a voice she thinks if God's, but is probably instead the Devil's (?) or maybe just herself (even more screwed up). She hallucinates and goes into fits, and her father's pretty close to abusive.

As a synopsis, I really liked The Land of Decoration, and I didn't actively dislike reading it, but I never felt stirred or moved by the piece as a whole.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

"In Cold Blood" by Truman Capote

When I reviewed Behind the Beautiful Forevers last week, I suggested that Boo's nonfiction novel, despite its compelling subject matter, didn't quite work for me. It lacked the style of a novel and the real-life intimacy of nonfiction. So, it was quite a different experience reading a "master" (In Cold Blood is often credited as the first "nonfiction novel") at work.

And In Cold Blood is certainly masterful. Capote's account of the brutal Kansas murders of four members of the Clutter family by two men, Dick and Perry, is utterly can't-put-it-down suspenseful, despite knowing the family's and killers' ends from the beginning.

Capote is especially adept at creating mood. The ominous feeling of the first few chapters, as the reader follows the Clutter family, their neighbors, and the killers in the day leading up to the murder, is nearly palpable. Though the reader knows the family will die, it takes time before the reason for the murder comes to light, which adds even more mystery to the first part of the book. Surprisingly, given the obsession with lurid and gory details today, the specifics of the murders are told rather sparsely, something I appreciated. The book is all the more stronger for focusing more on the individuals themselves and less on those terrible few hours.

Once the crime is known, In Cold Blood focuses mostly on the killers themselves, Dick and Perry. They're both interesting characters, entirely unremorseful for their crimes. Though Perry comes off the more sympathetic of the two (perhaps even too sympathetic, as it becomes hard to see him as a murderer), he's also clearly the more disturbed, from his abusive childhood to his paranoid tendencies. By the end, there's no clear answer. On the one hand, I supported their death penalty conviction. These men knew what they were doing and chose to do it--and there's no evidence they could or would reform. But, at the same time, they were mentally damaged young men, and there's some sadness in that.

Capote retains a detached, neutral tone without, relying on other people (community members, police, Dick and Perry) to tell the story. Nonetheless, the rich details that make everything so real are clearly Capote's--a result of his writer's touch and his meticulous reporting.

In Cold Blood was fascinating and is one of the best nonfiction pieces I've read. Even though the book is now approaching its fiftieth anniversary, time hasn't worn down it at all.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

"Behind the Beautiful Forevers" by Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a narrative nonfiction account of several lives within the Annawadi slums in Mumbai. It makes an interesting point of comparison with the last book I read, Nothing to Envy, which details lives in North Korea. People in both countries suffer in terrible ways, though their experiences are unsurprisingly different.

Whereas the individuals in North Korea live in fear of their communist regime and leadership, the people of Annawadi live in fear of their country's corruption. The event which loosely ties the book together is the self-immolation of a one-legged woman, who dies blaming the slightly better off family next door, the Husains, for her demise. Though the families fought, the Husains are undoubtedly innocent, yet they live in a country where one's innocence or guilt has nothing to do with facts and everything to do with how much money you can pay.

It's this universal corruption that is the most terrifying part of Behind the Beautiful Forevers. In Mumbai, nothing can be relied upon; the government, the police, the medical professionals, the nonprofits, and your neighbors all expect and demand bribes for assistance. Money is everything, yet those in the slums must eke out an existence from the most meager of circumstances. Most of the young people make money through garbage collecting, which they can turn in for recycling, making a small profit. Yet even this is not simple, for the boys must steal the garbage from the adjacent modern airport, risking their lives in the process.

One thing Boo notes at the end is how the system is designed to keep the poor powerless. There are far more people in Mumbai in poverty than in money, yet the society is designed to keep such people fighting among themselves rather than uniting to demand change.

Stylistically, Behind the Beautiful Forevers felt a bit odd to me. It's written in narrative form, but it lacks the subtlety and richness that a novel would have. However, its story format makes it hard to read as nonfiction, serving to separate me from the real individuals that are depicted. Nonetheless, it's a well-written book about the lives of some of the poorest people. It offers no solutions or even real hope, but it does bring a face to an underrepresented community on our planet.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

"Nothing to Envy" by Barbara Demick

Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son will undoubtedly be one of my top books of the year, and part of that is because it exposed me to life inside North Korea--something which I knew nothing about. Demick's Nothing To Envy doesn't have the literary flair of the fictional Orphan Master's Son, but it's a just as engrossing nonfiction account of six North Korean lives.

North Korea is still almost completely cut off from the rest of the world, so all of Demick's characters are defectors currently living in South Korea. Considering the relatively small number of defectors (and the shockingly small number of defectors living in South Korea), her interviewees are certainly unusual, but the tales they have to tell of life inside North Korea seem representative.

The book traces about a fifteen-year time period in the subjects' lives, from the modest but relative comfort under Kim Il-sung to the horrific famine that weakened even the firmest supporters of Communism and Kim Jong-il, and ending with the subjects' lives in modern capitalist South Korea. It's easy to see how indoctrinated the citizens were with love of their land and leaders and hatred of democracy, South Korea, and the U.S. After all, they exist in a bubble in which no information enters or leaves. For example, one interviewee, Jun-sang, was among the most privileged in North Korea and received a top education, but he had never used the Internet before coming to South Korea.

What's most horrifying are the characters' descriptions of their lives during the famine, when almost no one had enough to eat. An entire generation of North Korean children have now grown up stunted from malnourishment. Mrs. Song watched her mother-in-law, husband, and son all waste away within three years. To go from a society in which everything is provided by the government--your food, job, and housing (citizens essentially received no salary)--to a point where you must forage just to get through a day must have been jarring to the extreme.

Nothing to Envy compliments The Orphan Master's Son well, and I appreciated its personal glimpse into a variety of lives in North Korea. Demick tells the stories from her subjects' point of view, making everything seem immediate. It's hard to believe the book describes events of only a few years ago (rather than decades), but as Demick points out, North Korea is stuck in the 1960s while everyone else around it progresses.

The book is highly readable and accessible, covering both the good and the bad of North Korea and its people. I like that she also discusses the nuances of living as a defector; life for the interviewees is better in some ways and worse in others, as there's no easy solution for this strange country and its citizens.