Sunday, April 26, 2015

"Mosquitoland": An over the top, epic, coming of age YA journey

Sometimes less is more.  Sometimes more is more.  David Arnold's debut YA novel, Mosquitoland lands in the realm of more and sometimes it works brilliantly, and other times it just feels like too much.

I greatly enjoyed the fresh narrative voice of 16 year old Mim (Mary Iris Malone) who we find out in Chapter 1 is "not okay." Why is she not okay? Goodness.  That's a tougher question than you think.  She's on a journey to find her mother, who she stopped receiving letters from after her parents got divorced, and she moved (against her will) with her dad and step-mother, Kathy, to Mississippi (she calls her new home Mosquitoland).  After she stops receiving letters from her mother and she overhears the principal having a conversation with her dad and step-mom, she decides to board a bus and find out what is going out with her mother who she believes needs her help.  The novel follows her archetypal theory journey to Cleveland to find out what's going on with her mother.  Along the way she becomes a reluctant hero, encounters threshold guardians, shape shifters, villains, and sidekicks.

There's so much to love about this book.  Mim's take on life is both vibrant and heart wrenching.  She sees things very differently than most 16 year old girls, but it was hard for me to shake the fact that her voice was much more of a 30 something David Arnold than of a 16 year old girl.  She's a flawed hero who is struggling with her mental illness diagnosis and her need for Abilitol as well as her epiglottis issues (which cause her to vomit at inopportune times).  She has an uncanny knack for sensing danger and understanding how to get in it and out of it.

Along with the dangers of a 16 year old attractive in an Ellen Page sort of way traveling alone with an interesting and creepy array of fellow bus mates, she also finds a bit of romance in the form of the James Dean-like character Beck, who just happens to appear at just the right moment during her perilous journey (as all good James Dean-like romantic characters do).

The addition of too many characters might be the downfall of this book.  Herein lies the more is not always better issue. Too many tragedies take place along the journey including a tragic accident, a pedophile, a knife wielding thug, and strange gas station owners.  Those aren't the only tragedies that Mim is dealing with, though.  She also needs to deal with her romantic feelings towards a too old Beck, her protective mothering instincts for Walt, her parent's divorce, her own mental illness, and the big incident in her past that her parents believe sent her over the edge.  Sometimes too much is too much, ya know?

Arnold's debut is getting great reviews, and I don't want to urge others not to read it, but maybe to read it as a hero's journey tale with elements of fantasy (even if it is supposed to be realistic fiction).  It's a book that was almost great, but ended up just being good for me because Arnold over did it.  I still think I will be excited to read whatever he writes next.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

"The Art of Racing in the Rain": Human Philosophy From a Dog's Perspective

If you have ever looked at your dog and thought, I know he totally understands exactly what we are talking about, but you've never been able to prove it, Garth Stein's warm and moving book "The Art of Racing in the Rain" will confirm your suspicions.  It will also make you love your dog a little bit more, possibly want to watch race car driving even if you've never enjoyed it, make you ponder how to live life, and it will probably make you cry.

I had my doubts about this book.  Really? A novel narrated by a wise dog named Enzo who has the heart of a racer and the mind of a philosopher just didn't seem like the sort of the thing that I wanted to read. BUT I am so glad that I did.  I will most likely recommend this book to every friend of mine who isn't mourning the death of a pet or the loss of a loved one because it is a truly beautiful book.

Enzo isn't just lovable, but he's also believable as a narrator.  At the beginning of the book, Enzo is at the end of his life and he contemplates this in a philosophical way.  Having watched educational shows on t.v. while Denny and his family were at work and school, he learned that in Mongolia they believe that dogs who are ready come back as humans when they die.  Enzo is ready.  The rest of the book is his reflection on his life with Denny Swift, his "flawed hero" master who is an aspiring race car driver, Eve, the "interloper" who becomes Denny's wife and who falls very ill (which Enzo is aware of even before she is), and their daughter Zoe who becomes a pawn in an ugly custody battle between Denny and Eve's parents (Enzo calls them the evil twins).

The sometimes melodramatic plot of the pitfalls and hardships in life that Denny faces, and Enzo's inability to articulate completely his feelings to his owner, Eve and Zoe is tempered by the extended metaphors of racing and life.  Enzo is a keen narrator because he listens and pays attention in only a way that a dog can.  He understands the subtleties of communication because he is limited by not being able to speak. While reflecting on watching racing tapes with Denny, Enzo really internalizes the idea that in racing and life "that which we manifest is before us; we are the creators of our own destiny.  Be it through intention or ignorance, our successes and our failures have been brought on by none other than ourselves." We can't blame the other drivers in the race of life, or the road conditions. We are the ones who create where we go and how we get there by each decision we make.  "The car goes where our eyes go."

I finished this book very quickly, and I looked at my dog, Loki differently after I was done.  How much does he know and understand? People will never know, but just in case, I talk to him even more now to keep him in the loop of our lives.  He's an old guy now, and maybe he's ready to come back as a human in his next life.

And yes, you most likely will cry at the end.  It's hard not to when you fall in love with a dog who has lived a good life and it's their time to go.  I don't know many people that don't get sad when an animal dies in a movie even if people are dying left and right. During the scene that shows the good old dog die, the tears start to really flow.  It's something about the innocence of a dog, the loyalty, the blind faith and companionship that they offer that chokes you up when they die.

Regardless of the tears, you will be happy that you read the story that will soon be made into a movie starring Patrick Dempsey as Denny.  I don't know how the movie makers will do justice to Enzo, but maybe they'll pay attention to him as much as he paid attention in his life to assist his family through some of their toughest challenges.  The road of life is never without its accidents and set backs, but when you have a good, loyal companion to help navigate the rocky emotional terrain, it certainly helps.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

"Reconstructing Amelia": Mean girls on steroids

It's not often after I read a book that I look at my daughters ages 10 and 5 and fear for their future.  I hugged them tightly after I read "Reconstructing Amelia" by Kimberly McCreight, and told them very seriously, "I'm here for you no matter what happens in your lives.  Know that you can always count on me to listen and be here for you." Who knows what they will encounter by the time they are each 15 years old like the main character Amelia in McCreight's suspenseful debut novel.

Like so many of the other books I have posted about lately, this book also was compared to "Gone Girl" which is a silly comparison since the subject material is so much different.  "Reconstructing Amelia" focuses on the dark world of secret clubs at Grace Hall, a prestigious private school in Brooklyn and "Gone Girl" isn't really about that at all.   Maybe the comparisons come from the suspense, the unraveling of the mystery, and the dual narrations, but that is really where the comparisons should end.

The suspense forces the reader to turn page after page as each secret unfolds.  After Kate receives a phone call from Grace Hall's dean of students , informing her that her daughter had been suspended for plagiarizing a paper and that she had to pick her up NOW,  Kate freaks a bit and is puzzled. How could her over-achieving, introverted daughter ever be in trouble? Once Kate rearranges her high powered attorney schedule for the day, she arrives to get her daughter over an hour late only to discover emergency vehicles at the school.  She finds out, to her horror, that her beloved only child Amelia is dead from a supposed suicide. Kate doesn't believe that Amelia would ever jump off of the roof of Grace Hall, but her grief keeps her from questioning.  It's not until she receives an anonymous text that reads "Amelia didn't jump" that Kate decides to delve deeper into what really happened to her daughter.  What she discovers shatters her image of Amelia's social life, and makes her question herself as a mother. The suspense of the narration as Kate probes deeper into her daughter's recent history and the secret club she joined is startling.  Can girls really be this mean? Do clubs like this exist? Would a school really be this negligent in helping the girls who are bullied?

Yes, just like in "Gone Girl" there are multiple narrators in this book.  There are also parts of the book which are told through emails, blog posts, and text messages.  Although that seems a bit cliche given the fact that many YA authors have worn out the multi-genre format for a book, it works here.  What gave me a little bit of pause was Kate's character.  Amelia's narration reveals her to be mostly an innocent who was left alone often and made choices based on the moment because her support system (her mostly absent but loving mother and her completely self-centered, and acidic best friend, Sylvia) were non-existent.  Kate, on the other hand, comes off a bit clumsy especially for a high powered attorney.

Yes, there is a mystery surrounding the death of a main character which reveals horrible secrets.  I loved the suspense of the book until close to the end when the truths start tumbling out all over the place.  At that point it was hard for me to believe and maybe I just didn't like what really happened or the too tidy wrap up of all the events.  The girls were just sooooooooo mean and unfeeling, and their parents were just as callous.  On top of that, the improbability that a bereft mom would be able to have such a huge part in the investigation of her daughter's death AND never really run into huge road blocks during the unveiling of the truth was far fetched.

Regardless of the few flaws of the book, I devoured it and know that anyone who is looking for a quick, stimulating summer (or anytime) read will love the edginess of "Reconstructing Amelia." If anything, it will make you ask your kids what they are REALLY up to in school and in their private lives, maybe even check their text messages and Facebook pages.  If your kids are too young for all the stuff that clutters our lives and seemingly takes over the lives of our teenagers, just give your kids a good big hug and tell them that you love them, and maybe ask them to stay kids for as long as possible.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

"The Art of Hearing Heartbeats": A Magical Love Story

Two very distinct parts of me loved Jan-Philipp Sendker's International Best Seller "The Art of Hearing Heartbeats." The first part is my hopeless romantic side - the side of me that persuaded me to marry my high school sweetheart.  The other part is the part that seeks to understand myself and my place in this world based on my heritage and the lives of those who came before me.  These two parts - the heart and the head, collide in Sendker's magical book that takes the reader on a journey into a small mountain village of Kalaw as Julia seeks to understand why her father mysteriously disappeared.

When Julia's mother finds an unsent love letter from her husband to a woman named Mi Mi from Burma four years after his strange disappearance, she gives Julia that letter and tells her if she wants to find out what happened to her father she doesn't want to know what she finds.  She says, "When you get back I won't ask you a thing, and I don't want you to tell me anything, either.  Whatever you find there, it's no longer of any interest to me." Her mother reasons that long before her husband disappeared he had already left if he was even really with her ever.

Despite her mother's own indifference, and her own anxiety over what she might find out about her father, Julia boards a plane and takes the long trip to Burma to the small impoverished mountain village of Kalaw. In her first hours there, she encounters a man named U Ba in a tea house who not only seems to be expecting her, but wants to tell her the story of her father's childhood.  He tells her "I will explain everything in due course, but let me first ask you my question: Do you believe in love?"

Julia at first is incredulous to this overzealous storyteller who weaves a tale of a man who she cannot recognize as the man she called father, but she returns daily to hear more.  Late at night in her hotel bed,  Julia starts to question "What do we know about our parents, and what do they know about us? And if we don't even know the individuals who have accompanied us since birth - we not them and they not us - then what do we know about anyone at all?" It's a powerful line of questioning, and one that many people struggle with as they start to see their parents as people with pasts that are separate from their time raising children.

The true power of this story, though, comes from the touching love story between Tin Win and Mi Mi - the young blind boy who finds strength and companionship from a beautiful little girl who was born with deformed ankles and is unable to walk without assistance.  Together Tin Win and Mi Mi gain almost supernatural powers - Mi Mi's voice is so beautiful and magical that she can cure people of ailments and Tin Win can hear the heartbeats of people and animals.  Their love transcends any type of disability or hardship and has the power to overcome the trials of life and time.

Although this book is a translation (translated by Kevin Wiliarty) and at times feels like it's lacking in the poetic language that it deserves, the story is beautiful enough to carry the reader on the journey to understand how the past influences the present (just like Tin Win carried Mi Mi without any type of struggle).

I didn't openly sob with this book like I do when I read Khaled Hosseini's books, but I felt like Sendker, just like Hosseini transported me to another country and showed me another side to life and culture that I never knew with a touch of melancholy and emotional nostalgia.  The ability to tell a beautiful love story that doesn't feel trite or cliche is a gift and Tin Win and Mi Mi's story will stay with me for a very long time, as will Julia's brave journey to seek the truth about her father. This book speaks to both of the head and the heart, and to me that's what all good stories should do.

Friday, April 3, 2015

"All the Bright Places": Suicide and other dangers of young love

The unlikely romance of Finch (also known as Theodore Freak) and Violet Markey begins when they meet on the bell tower of their school.  Both are contemplating suicide for different reasons.  Since the death of her older sister in a tragic car accident 9 months earlier, Violet who was once popular and  vibrant with a promising writing career ahead of her, cannot move forward in her life.  She can't get into a car, or shake the feeling that it's her fault that her sister died.  Finch who is mercilessly bullied at school by the in crowd, struggles to regulate his bipolar system.  Recovering from a recent bout of depression, his mania takes him to the ledge where he welcomes the spectacle of the on lookers below.  It's only when Finch sees Violet's struggle and talks her down from the ledge that he finds a reason to live, but it's not exactly clear who saves who and for how long.

Their relationship solidified by fear, the prospect of death, and the heroism of being saved, develops even deeper when their teacher assigns a "get to know the culture in Indiana" project and Finch chooses Violet to be his partner in discovery.  Violet who is reticent at first starts to fall for the unpredictable, poetic, charming, and dangerous Finch who quotes Virginia Wolfe and can recite "Oh, the Places You'll Go" and has musical talent AND has a quirky sense of style.  Violet learns to let go of the past and start to live in the present, and Finch learns that life can feel good.

Yes, this book is charming, and yes, teenage girls will swoon over the the seductive and dangerous Finch who is a cross between Augustus in "The Fault in Our Stars" and Bender in the movie "The Breakfast Club." So much works in the book, that it's easy to overlook what doesn't work - like Jennifer Niven's heavy handed attempt to create a school world where Finch is less than acceptable (and somehow this doesn't make any sense since he is so very charming, kind hearted, intelligent and good looking).  Although there is  a quick explanation of how Roamer and Finch were once good friends until something happened, it doesn't support the continuance of the behavior.  And speaking of heavy handedness - having suicide, bipolar disorder, a tragic accident, abuse, bullying, sex, a mean girl, neglect, and divorce all in one book made this book feel unnecessarily complex at times.  The supporting characters from Finch's dad and step-brother to Amanda, the mean girl in school, to the too wonderful ex-boyfriend, Ryan, to the supportive friend, Brenda . . . all of them started to feel like too much.

Having said all of that, I still think that teenage girls will love this book and see the deeper side of it - the will to live vs. the will to die, and how depression is an illness that takes over people's lives even when things are good.  (Just an FYI: The movie rights have already been purchased and Elle Fanning (from Malificent) is slated to play the role of Violet).

I appreciate Niven's attempt to create an edgier storyline in the same vein as Rainbow Rowell's "Eleanor & Park" and Jay Asher's "13 Reasons Why." Having witnessed the abrupt shifts that those with bi-polar disorder struggle with and how powerless loved ones feel in the wake of the mood hurricanes, I also appreciate Niven's focus on the dangers of this disease.  Finch's first person narration on the depths of his depression and then his mania during what he calls "the awake" make it clear that balance does not exist without treatment for bi-polar disorder.

There's still a part of me that wanted this storyline to be a little bit cleaner - more of the discovery of the self while searching for the beauty in the unlikely landscape of Indiana, more about the love between two broken people who can help make each other better through shared pain and understanding and rediscover what living in the present is all about.  Because I taught in high schools for 15 years, I sometimes wonder if those who are writing about high school romance, friendships, issues and enemies have taken the time to actually go into a high school and observe how things really are.  Most students will tell you that authors and movie makers get it all wrong, that realistic fiction isn't really realistic at all, that although there is drama, it's rarely as horrible as it's depicted in movies, that their daily lives are so much more simplistic.  What I do love about Niven is that she touches on the truth even if she stereotypes at other times.  Her writing is good enough, though, to forgive the cliches and the oversights and the heavy handedness to create something that teens are sure to eat up like candy.