Review: Dear Mr. Knightley

Dear Mr. KnightleyKatherine Reay, Dear Mr. Knightley

Samantha Moore has been in and out of foster homes her whole life. Now, at age 23, she’s living at a group home called Grace House, but she’ll soon have to leave unless she can find a way to go back to school. One day she gets a surprising offer: if she can get into the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, an anonymous donor will pay her tuition and living expenses. The only condition is that she must write regular letters detailing her educational progress to the donor under the name Mr. Knightley. Samantha is reluctant at first, particularly because she feels much more connected to fiction than journalism. Indeed, her closest friends growing up were the classic novels that kept her company through dark times, and she frequently hides in the world of books when real life is confusing or difficult. Still, Sam agrees to the deal, and through her letters to “Mr. Knightley,” she is finally able to face her past — and her future.

Despite what the title might suggest, this book is not a Jane Austen spinoff; rather, it’s a contemporary reimagining of Jean Webster’s novel Daddy-Long-Legs. My overall opinion is that the original is far better, but I can’t get into more depth without SPOILERS for both books, so skip the rest of this review if you don’t want to know how they end! … OK, so if you’re still with me, what happens is that Samantha eventually falls in love with “Mr. Knightley,” who turns out to be the handsome mystery novelist who’s been keeping Sam company throughout the book. He knows everything about Samantha, whose letters to him have been more like a diary, yet he doesn’t confess his true identity until the very end of the book. There’s this huge power imbalance between him and Sam, and the book never really addresses it, and I just couldn’t buy it as a romantic or satisfying ending at all. For some reason I didn’t mind it as much in the original – maybe because of the time period in which it was written? So I had a huge issue with the core of the story, and I also didn’t like the author’s writing style. It’s a very readable book, and if you like Daddy-Long-Legs you may enjoy this one too, but I was disappointed.

Review: Un Lun Dun

Un Lun DunChina Miéville, Un Lun Dun

Zanna and Deeba, two seemingly ordinarly pre-teen girls, are suddenly thrust into an unfamiliar world when they follow an umbrella into a dark London basement and emerge in Un Lun Dun. Un Lun Dun is an “abcity,” part of a universe that parallels our own but has many significant differences. (For example, giraffes aren’t exactly harmless herbivores in Un Lun Dun….) At first, Zanna and Deeba only want to go home; but they soon learn that Un Lun Dun is under attack by the evil Smog, and Zanna is supposed to be the “Schwazzy,” or chosen one, who will fulfill an ancient prophecy and defeat it. The girls are willing enough to help, but when their first encounter with the Smog goes terribly wrong, it’s up to Deeba, rather than the chosen Zanna, to save the day.

This was my first encounter with Miéville, and I’m thinking it won’t be my last. If you enjoy detailed world-building and clever puns, this is definitely a book for you! The world of Un Lun Dun is wildly inventive, from the trash-can warriors known as “binjas” to the flying buses to the “extreme librarians” who populate the abcity. You may think the book sounds a lot like Gaiman’s Neverwhere, what with the alternate London setting, but I was actually reminded a lot more of Jasper Fforde. The plot itself is rather predictable, but it’s still a fun ride to follow Deeba as she figures out who her real allies and her real enemies are. Some may find the book a bit preachy on the issue of environmentalism — the villain is literally called Smog, after all — but since this book is aimed toward younger readers, I suppose the message shouldn’t be too subtle! All in all, I found this book very entertaining, and I’m interested to try some of Miéville’s adult novels now.

Review: Something Wicked This Way Comes

Something Wicked This Way ComesRay Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes

A week before Halloween, Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show creeps silently into Green Town, Illinois, in the middle of the night. To most of the town’s inhabitants, the show is a carnival like any other, with its sideshows, rides, and circus freaks. But 13-year-old best friends Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway suspect that something more sinister is at work. The carnival seems to lure unwary visitors into its depths, and those who fall under its spell will never be the same again. It’s up to Jim and Will — and Will’s father, an unassuming librarian who worries about his age and his relationship with his son — to uncover the dark secret at the heart of the circus and to prevent it from ensnaring more victims.

I don’t usually read horror novels, but I was interested in this book because of its classic status (and, frankly, because of its Shakespearean title). Unfortunately, this novel really didn’t work for me, but the problem wasn’t the story at all — it was the writing style. The prose is gratingly faux-poetic, overblown, and melodramatic. Words are often used in unconventional ways (nouns being used as verbs and the like), which can be an effective stylistic choice, but in this case I found it incredibly distracting. I also found the dialogue completely unrealistic and stilted. It’s a shame, because I actually do think the basic story is fascinating and could have been very effective in the right hands. I’m definitely not enthusiastic about trying more Bradbury after this — and I’m wondering how well Fahrenheit 451 would stand up to a re-read!

Review: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Balzac and the Little Chinese SeamstressDai Sijie, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (trans. Ina Rilke)

This slight novel tells the story of two young Chinese men who are sent to a remote mountain village to be “re-educated” during the cultural revolution of the 1970s. Both youths are talented individuals; the unnamed narrator plays the violin, and his best friend Luo is a master storyteller. Despite these gifts, however, they soon feel oppressed by the overwhelming boredom of their new lives, where they are forced to perform manual labor from dawn to dusk. But two unexpected events soon occur, changing the course of their lives forever: they discover a hidden cache of Western classics translated into Chinese, and they meet a beautiful young seamstress who steals both their hearts.

This is a very short book, and it honestly felt more like a tableau than a novel to me. The setting is described vividly with meticulous prose, but nothing much happens. I think I was expecting the book to be more overtly political, since the author was himself “re-educated” during this time period and ended up leaving China for France. But while the cultural revolution certainly isn’t praised, the boys’ lives aren’t portrayed in a particularly negative light either. Also, their exposure to Western culture isn’t always a good thing; in fact, their relationship with the seamstress is irrevocably altered by her exposure to European literature. So I was very interested by the ambiguities in the novel, but the plot and characters didn’t particularly grip me. I’d like to read another novel (or nonfiction work) about this time period, which seems like it would be rich in dramatic material.

Review: Fangirl

FangirlRainbow Rowell, Fangirl

Cath and her twin sister Wren have always been close, and they’ve especially bonded over their love of Simon Snow, a Harry Potter-esque series of books with a huge fan base. Cath is even writing a slash fanfiction novel about Simon and Baz (think Malfoy from the HP books), with some help from Wren. But now that they’re starting their freshman year of college, Wren wants to branch out and meet new people — which means she doesn’t want to be Cath’s roommate. Which means Cath is all alone in a strange place, with a painful amount of anxiety and no idea where the dining hall is. Cath’s only solace is hiding out in her dorm room and writing fanfiction, but slowly she begins to make friends and come out of her shell. She even meets a boy and experiences the shock of falling in love for the first time. But can Cath embrace these new experiences and emotions without losing the person she’s always been?

I’ve absolutely loved both of Rainbow Rowell’s previous novels, Attachments and Eleanor & Park, so I had high expectations for this book; happily, I wasn’t disappointed! Cath is a character I can really relate to, as I think most readers and book bloggers can. She knows what it’s like to get lost in a fictional world and really engage with the characters in a book. I also really liked the way fanfiction is portrayed from various perspectives. There’s Cath, who uses it as an outlet for creative expression; her roommate and friends, who think it’s weird; her creative writing professor, who views it as plagiarism; and a devoted fan of Cath’s work who eagerly awaits each new installment of her fanficiton. The romance is very well done, as always, and I loved watching Cath slowly let down her defenses. I wasn’t nuts about all the excerpts from the Simon Snow books and Cath’s story, but other than that, I really enjoyed this book!

Review: Eleanor & Park

Eleanor & ParkRainbow Rowell, Eleanor & Park

Eleanor is a chubby new girl with out-of-control red hair and weird clothes. Park is a quiet half-Korean boy who clings to his position at the edge of the cool group. In the normal course of things, they would have no reason to speak to each other. But the first day that Eleanor gets on the bus, she is immediately taunted and ostracized by the other students — and Park surprises himself by letting her sit next to him. Tentatively, Eleanor and Park begin to build a friendship, which gradually deepens into an intense love. But the odds are stacked against them: Park’s parents don’t warm to the prickly Eleanor, and Eleanor’s family life is such a disaster that Park can’t even come to her house. Plus, they’re both smart people and know that high school relationships rarely last forever. Will their relationship be able to survive these obstacles, or will love ultimately tear them apart?

After loving Rowell’s debut novel, Attachments, I naturally had to check out this book too…and happily, it is equally awesome! Both Eleanor and Park are wonderful, likable characters, and it was lovely to see each of them through the other’s eyes. I completely believed in their passionate love for each other, which is unusual for me with teen romance. I tend to scoff at happily-ever-after endings in YA, because very few high school relationships actually work out over the long term. But this book swept me away with its giddy intensity, and I found myself happily rooting for Eleanor and Park to make it. I also really enjoyed the pop culture references that are sprinkled throughout the book; it’s set in the 1980s, so there are many mentions of New Wave and cassette tapes and feathered bangs. I would definitely recommend this book to fans of romance or chick lit, even those who don’t normally read YA.

Review: Lessons in French

Lessons in FrenchHilary Reyl, Lessons in French

In 1989, Kate is a fresh-faced college graduate who dreams of becoming an artist someday. So she’s overjoyed when she is hired as an assistant to Lydia Schell, a famous American photographer currently living in Paris. Kate is excited to make the most of this opportunity, but she soon discovers that Lydia is an extremely demanding boss. For example, Kate not only coordinates Lydia’s schedule and runs her errands, but she is also expected to help Lydia’s husband Clarence with the book he is writing about 19th-century French fashion. The longer Kate stays with the Schells, the more she realizes that their seemingly successful family is fraught with dysfunction. As Kate tries to please all parties, she is pulled in so many conflicting directions that she begins to lose her own identity in the process.

I liked the basic idea of this book — naive American girl moves to Paris and learns about herself and the world — but overall it fell far short of my expectations. My biggest problem was that every single character, including the heroine, is absolutely insufferable. Kate is a total doormat, doing every single thing the Schells tell her to do regardless of how demeaning (and how unrelated to her job description). She’s also too stupid to see some really obvious things about the Schells that are going on right under her nose. I spent the whole book wishing she’d grow a spine, and while she sort of does at the end, it’s definitely too little, too late. As for the Schells, they’re pretentious pseudo-intellectual snobs with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. I did like the 1989 setting, with the Berlin Wall coming down and the Gulf War about to begin, but it didn’t play a very big part in the novel. Basically this book made me feel angry and frustrated, and only the somewhat competent writing style kept me reading until the end.