Saturday, September 24, 2011

Book Review - Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher

This book has been attracting buzz for a while, especially since the impending film version was announced. I am characteristically late to any sort of hyped material, but I think that serves me well; it allows me to approach the “best ever” anything with a healthy dose of cynicism. In this instance, though, I was completely blown away. After finishing Thirteen Reasons Why, I promptly placed aside all of the baggage and special considerations that come with “dark YA” and “teen readers.” This is one of the best books I’ve read this year, irrespective of genre or intended audience.

Thirteen Reasons Why has two narrators. The first, Clay Jensen, is a teenage boy who finds himself in possession of a package of seven mysterious audiotapes. Listening to the first tape reveals them to be recorded messages from the second narrator: Hannah Baker, a classmate that Clay knew and liked, but had committed suicide a few weeks prior. The tapes turn out to be Hannah’s last message to thirteen people she claims were in some way responsible for her death; each side of the tapes holds an anecdote about a single person, all of which connect into a series of events that took Hannah to her fateful decision. Following a map that had been surreptitiously placed in his locker, Clay follows in Hannah’s footsteps as she traces the stories across the various landmarks of their small town, listening to each tape and dreading the moment when his name will appear. As the various threads of Hannah’s story come together through the tapes, Clay must come to terms with his own feelings about what happened to Hannah and the repercussions of why it happened.

Stylistically, this book is pitch-perfect. The format is unique without being gimmicky, and is fine-tuned with a perfect amount of suspense. I found myself walking along with Clay, trapped in the thrall of the tapes and waiting with curiosity and apprehension for the next one. When I wasn’t reading the book, I was thinking about it, processing the previous chapters and anticipating the forthcoming ones. The story is compelling enough to keep readers turning pages, with no stumbling blocks in the narrative and no extraneous plot elements.

Regarding the content itself, it’s fairly obvious at first glance that the story is dark and heavy. But Asher handles the complexities inherent to a story about suicide (specifically, attempting to explain suicide) masterfully. I read a couple of other reader reviews, and was dumbfounded at how many people commented on how they didn’t buy the depiction of Hannah Baker, or didn’t agree with how Asher wrote her particular reasons for what she did. I was especially astounded by some reviewers who claimed experience with suicide attempts, and blasted her motivations as “unrealistic.” I didn’t know that there was such a thing, outside of some extreme exceptions, as a “realistic” motivation for ending one’s own life. Generally speaking, a friend or loved one’s suicide is fraught with mysterious motives, and when reasons come to light, they never justify or even explain why that person would do something so drastic.

The anger, though, I do understand. I was occasionally angry with Hannah Baker, in the way I would be angry with a real person for killing themselves. I’ll even confess to having an internal ideological war. Hannah’s tapes are calm, collected, and focused. They are full of dark humor, and of pointed accusation. They depict a teen who knew what she was doing, and knew the impact it would have on the people who listened to the tapes. The parent part of my psyche spent some time wagging its finger at the librarian part, insisting (with some logical cause) that this book paints a somewhat glamorous picture of a suicide victim using her death to exact revenge on her perceived tormentors, which is not the healthiest message to send.

However, I can say with some confidence that that’s ultimately not what gives this book its emotional power. Yes, the tapes have their share of graveyard humor and practiced vengeance, which gives the story a lot of its readability. But revenge isn’t the point of the tapes. I was fortunate enough to meet Jay Asher and get my copy of this book signed, and with his autograph he penned a key phrase from one of Hannah’s tapes: “Everything affects everything.” That, I feel, is the central theme of this book. As Clay makes his way through the tapes, Hannah makes it perfectly clear that the decision to kill herself was hers alone, and came from her “giving up,” not from any one person or event pushing her to it. As the various events recorded on the tapes come together to form a connected story, Clay is made privy to how each small thing affects other small things in her life, creating ripples that cascaded into unintended consequences. Everything affects everything. The story becomes less about explaining why a teenage girl might commit suicide (which will never resonate as “realistic” or “good enough,” honestly), and more about examining how we treat others in light of the fact that we can never know what someone is going through at any particular time, and how we might be helping or hurting without intending to or even thinking about it. This theme has interesting applications all throughout the story, from the sweet and tidy ending to the implied-but-unexplored effects that the tapes might have on the other people on Hannah’s list. I suppose I could construct a lot of interesting arguments about why other people (fictional or otherwise) who go through the same things or worse are often able to cope just fine, but that’s not really the point. In another story, maybe everything affects everything in different ways. Who knows.

Though, I do find it ironic that the common complaint with the book seems to be that many readers can’t sympathize with Hannah because they don’t really know anything about her other than her suicidal thoughts, don’t think that the common high school problems depicted are worth the melodramatic result, and aren’t satisfied with only hearing her side of the story. Guys? There is a scene in the book that deals specifically with that (the peer communications class), and according to the author’s afterword, it was drawn from a real-life incident. Just saying. I realize that it’s easy to dismiss Hannah’s story as “childish” and “unbelievable” due to it being fictional, but I interacted with more than one suicidal friend in my teen years. It was believable to me. Petty problems never seem petty to the person who has to deal with them, and in case you’ve forgotten what being a teenager is like, there is no such thing as a petty problem to someone who is often experiencing powerful emotions and complicated interpersonal interactions for the first time, without the life experience and biological capacity to see things with a longer view. To be fair, though, Hannah’s tapes do smack a little bit of self-righteousness (another reminder: teenager!), and it is easy to get caught up in this being a story about suicide instead of a story about how callously people can treat other people, due to them thinking such treatment isn’t that big of a deal.

Anyway, that’s a lot of philosophizing on a fairly simple idea. Wheaton’s Law: don’t be a dick. Frankly, though, you don’t need to have any aspirations toward deep self-reflection to enjoy this book. It has believable and achingly sympathetic characters, an engaging premise, and wonderful execution. The tone and content is perfect for older teens, while the format and suspenseful pace is the equal of any adult thriller. And I’m confident that even readers who don’t like the book will think about the story and the themes it conveys long after they finish it. I’m wary of what will happen once Hollywood finishes wrapping its flailing appendages around this story, but the book has my recommendation for anyone and everyone, with absolutely no reservations.

Verdict: 5 / 5

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Graphic Novel Review - Feynman, by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick

I found the idea of a graphic novel biography of physicist Richard Feynman to be so quirky and interesting that I was fairly excited to get my hands on a copy. Feynman is a bit of a book searching for an audience, but it ultimately encompasses a fascinating man’s interesting life and complicated ideas in a fairly accessible way.

Ottaviani presents this biography as a memoir told by Feynman himself, drawn from various primary sources. The book begins with Feynman’s early life and first marriage, along with his early studies in physics that culminated in some important contributions to the Manhattan Project. The narrative follows his groundbreaking work in quantum electrodynamics, including the invention of the famous notations that bear his name. Along the way, the reader is treated to various anecdotes and hilarious asides on everything from cargo cult science and the perils of accepting a Nobel Prize to Feynman’s tendencies toward safecracking and ogling pretty girls. The meaty graphic novel takes a hard left in the second half, where the largest section of the book is dedicated to Feynman’s famous lectures attempting to explain quantum electrodynamics to the layperson. However, by the time the reader gets to the end, where Feynman approaches his own illness and death with characteristic smarm and wit, they are left with a vivid impression of both who Richard Feynman was and the important contributions he made to modern science.

Myrick’s artwork is interesting. It has a comic-strip feel that sets a scene without being too slick or fancy for its own good. I don’t know if I’d call it attractive, especially considering that it can occasionally be hard to tell characters apart. The faces are beautifully expressive in clean, simple ways, though. Also, Myrick occasionally shakes things up with the injection of random magical realism and, naturally, plenty of scientific diagrams.

I admit that while I’ve always been fascinated by physics, I’ve never had a head for mathematical rigor. Thus, even though I found “the lectures” engaging, I had a hard time following some parts of them even though they are made for people like me. Even so, that made the occasional moments of understanding that much more illuminating. Honestly, I think being exposed to something as complicated as quantum field theory through the medium of a graphic novel helped a great deal, regardless of what that says about my intellect. Especially considering that the actual hard science is incidental, in this case, to the story of the man himself.

The biography is told in a disjointed fashion, comprised of a series of vignettes that are only loosely connected in any chronological order. This takes some getting used to, but ultimately transcribes a life in the way it should be experienced: messy and unexpected. The book covers all of the major facets of Feynman’s life- the atomic bomb, the Nobel Prize, the Challenger Disaster commission, the lectures– but it also chronicles the shenanigans of a hilarious eccentric, and presents the various tragedies in his life with a poignancy born of no-frills simplicity and honesty.

Though there are already a couple of books on Feynman’s life and work that would be good introductions to the general reader, I’d place this one at the head of the pack. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that I spent a decade being too intimidated to pick up one of those books, and after reading this I'm eager to jump in. Most importantly for me, the book has enough heft to it to be a satisfying read for a graphic novel. While hard-nosed scientists and comic enthusiasts with mainstream tastes may not find what they are looking for here, I’d recommend this to general readers as a fantastic story about an insanely interesting person, and to those already familiar with Richard Feynman as a fun, graphical take on the man.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Book Review - A Dance with Dragons, by George R. R. Martin

George R. R. Martin would like you to know that he bought a dictionary of archaic Scottish English in the six years it took to write this book, and he learned a lot of cool words from it.

For example, did you know “leal” was used instead of loyal? It’s true! Also, you can use “neeps” to refer to rutabaga or turnips. And we already know that the word “teats” is awesome, of course, but let’s not forget the marvelous utility of the word “cunt!” It can refer to a woman’s body part, the woman herself, or just be a general exclamation of frustration in any situation where a woman might be involved to the slightest degree!

So, if you’re as excited about these words as you were to read about “groats,” “nuncles,” and “valonqars” in 2005, make sure to pick up A Dance with Dragons. George is so excited about this new batch of words that you are sure to get your money’s worth! Cunt leal cunny cunt leal teats neeps neeps cuntcuntcunt.

Okay, for real, now. I kept my hopes at a reasonably low level after the massive letdown that was A Feast for Crows, and it’s a good thing I did, because there is no appreciable difference between that book and this one. On one hand, that’s kind of a good thing; these two books started as one book, and inhabit the same chronological space in the overarching story while encompassing two different groups of main characters. A radical shift in the writing would have been jarring. However, setting aside the problem of this format slowing the overarching story down to a crawl, the consistency also means that the same infuriatingly bad writing in A Feast for Crows is slathered all over this one, as well, which distracted me from the truly gripping story underneath.

The War of Five Kings is all but over, but the stage is being set for the return of House Targaryen, which could change everything. Daenerys Targaryen struggles to maintain her hold on the slaver city of Meereen, while enemies descend on her from all sides and her famed dragons grow increasingly hard to control. A number of potential suitors race across the narrow sea to her, hoping to win her hand and tip the balance in Westeros: Victarion Greyjoy of the Iron Islands, Quentyn Martell of Dorne, and a young sellsword boy who hides a powerful secret. Even Ser Jorah Mormont hopes to once again reach the exiled queen, with none other than Tyrion Lannister in tow. Meanwhile, Jon Snow keeps his eyes fixed beyond the wall, balancing a tenuous grasp on the Night’s Watch command with the need to do anything it takes to defend against the horrors that are coming with the winter. And, let’s see… Bran’s up in the north learning how to be the best skinchanger ever, while Arya’s still in Braavos learning how to be awesome.

In other words, lots of Going Important Places and Saying Important Things, and not much else. There’s plenty of action interspersed in the various chapters and settings, but most of it is subdued; we’re back to intrigue and foreshadowing as we build up to what promises to be a huge denouement in the final books. The problem is, Martin has established himself to be a master at world-building and writing on a large scale, but as the last book proved, he’s god-awful at writing dialogue and creating small, intimate scenes. Unfortunately, dialogue and intimate scenes make up the lion’s share of this book. So, even though most of these chapters are still pretty interesting, they don’t move the story forward too much, and showcase some of the worst aspects of Martin’s writing.

As I mentioned above, Martin continues his maddening habit of suddenly introducing archaic words that don’t mesh at all with the rest of the prose, and repeating them until you want to use the book to bash your own face in. He also continues to invent new clichés that didn’t exist in the books before, and throw them around like confetti. In this book, people aren’t speculating on anything’s worth in groats anymore, but they all agree that “words are wind.” It’s not just the Westerosi who mutter this gem at any given opportunity; people across the sea, who supposedly speak entirely different languages, are also prone to blurting it out whenever anybody promises anything to anybody else. Also, it’s apparently in fashion to point out that nipples on a breastplate are useless. That one shows up at least twice, and then… spoiler alert!… somebody finds an actual breastplate… with nipples on it! Ha ha! Ha. Meanwhile, expect Tyrion to basically repeat two things for the entire book. Considering how great a character he has been to this point, this is particularly depressing.

The sex scenes, frequent as ever, continue to range between somewhat odd and painfully bad. Well, at least this time Martin isn’t obsessively fixating on the differing sizes and colors of women’s nipp… oh, wait, there it is. And… yup. There’s another passage, a few chapters later. Sigh.

I know I’m nitpicking, but there are bigger issues at play, too. Entire story threads in this book are completely unnecessary. One particular character winds their way through the book, doing nothing much of note, and then suddenly dies at the end after accomplishing one thing of pertinence to the story. This is something that could have been handled in a single chapter. It could have been an aside in someone else’s chapter, for crying out loud. While stuff like this is good flavor text, it takes up a lot of space without adding much.

I’m being harsh, but I really do like this series, and since Martin is king of the fantasy world right now, there’s no point in lobbing softballs. I think Martin has started to believe his own hype. These books have become famous for their grittiness, and for no character being safe and no happy ending being guaranteed. It seems like Martin just assumes, by this point, that he can please the fans that have those expectations by just writing in as much casual violence and pointless sex as he can, and ending every chapter on a cliffhanger. Moreover, the series is starting to suffer from the same affliction that can be observed in every successful popular fiction series: once an author starts raking in wheelbarrows of money, nobody wants to suggest that their manuscripts need editing anymore. According to Clarion West, this man teaches other writers how to write fantasy and science fiction. It’s therefore somewhat alarming to observe that he not only didn’t recognize that his two most recent thousand-page novels should have been three-fifths of a single manuscript (at best!), but that he feels the best way to establish a leitmotif is with unrelenting, context-free repetition. The fact that things go wonky when he strays from that repetition (“womb” is not a synonym for vagina, George) doesn’t do much to reassure me. And nobody seemed to have the courage to point these things out to him. Or, more likely, nobody cared, since this book was bound to be a bestseller anyway, regardless of whether it is actually good.

So, with me ranting full bore about this book, is it safe to assume I hated it? Sigh. No. I devoured it, just like the rest of the series. Once again, it must be said that underneath all of the stupid crap is a solid, engrossing, intricate story. It’s tightly plotted, despite the sudden meandering pace, and the themes are smart, realistic, and consistent, even if they are poorly presented. This series is visceral. Each page is alive with textures, smells, sounds, and a sense of unflinching reality. There are important messages in this story, about the nature of power, the arbitrary whims of fate, and the ambiguity of concepts like morality and justice. And though I’m sick to death of Martin’s cliffhangers, there are a couple of jaw-dropping moments in A Dance with Dragons that promise big things in the next books.

It bears repeating that this book is basically the second half of A Feast for Crows, six years or no six years, and thus deserves the same rating I gave that one. I’m not done with this series. I’m still a fan, and I need to know what happens next. I still think anybody who reads fantasy should read the first three books in this series, at least. But this book and the one before are badly written. It’s as simple as that. Not bad enough to ruin the series, but bad enough to pale in comparison to the previous books. I’d be lying, though, if I said I didn’t like it enough to tear through it and wait in anticipation for the next one.

The nice thing about all of this, as my wife and I often joke about, is that I get to be a fantasy hipster, now. While the newcomers rave about Game of Thrones and buy the reprinted paperbacks with the HBO logo on the cover, I get to smooth my moustache, crack open a Pabst Blue Ribbon, and declare that I was into Game of Thrones before it was big, and was already disappointed with it before you ever heard of it.

Verdict: 2.5 / 5, plus extra credit for being gripping despite its massive shortcomings.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Book Review - Nowhere Girl, by A. J. Paquette

As I was walking through the exhibit floor at ALA Annual, I chanced to pick up an advance reader’s copy for a children’s book that had some very nice art on the cover, a definite rarity for ARCs. I browsed through the blurbs, and discovered that this particular children’s book is about a girl who grew up in a Thai women’s prison.

I dare you to say no to a children’s book set in a Thai women’s prison. If you say you aren’t interested in how that turns out, you’re a filthy liar.

Naturally, being a children’s book, this story isn’t as eyebrow-raising as one might fear/hope. It’s actually a sweet little parable, set against a very memorable backdrop. Luchi Ann was born behind the bars of the prison, tucked away in the Thai hinterlands and far removed from any semblance of civilization. It is the only home she has ever known, and has always brought here a naïve, sheltered form of comfort. After her mother unexpectedly dies, however, Luchi is propelled into the outside world, more lonely and vulnerable than she has ever been. With only the name and address of an American who might be her grandmother, Luchi must somehow find her way back to a home she’s never known. However, the secrets that sent her mother to prison in the first place may come back to claim her.

While the initial setup and opening chapters of this book are compelling, it doesn’t really have a solid finish. The story starts to come apart about halfway through, and ends with a climax and some drawing-room revelations that are somewhat absurd. The plot works, but the various resolutions to Luchi’s obstacles are too convenient, and overly saccharine. The unique premise and shallow execution make for a story that’s a little hard to take seriously, despite its earnestness. In fact, its earnestness occasionally gets in the way, too, with pages of overwrought internal dialogue and paragraphs of exposition that routinely go purple.

But of course, that’s coming from an adult reader. None of this should present a problem for the school-age readers for which the book is meant. Further, Paquette has a gift for setting; her depictions of Thailand are lyrical and vivid, and even the somewhat unbelievable section describing Luchi's boat trip had me interested enough to look up more information on freighter travel. The story itself has an interesting and likeable protagonist, a carefully constructed theme, and a taste of suspenseful danger without being too intense for the target age range.

Overall: a mediocre but solid book. I wasn’t very excited about it personally, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this to a young reader who is looking for a travel story, drama, or a book about Asian cultures.

Verdict: 3 / 5