Contemporary Literature · Fiction · Teen Fiction · YA

Paper Towns

Paper towns
by: John Green

I borrowed Paper Towns from a friend yesterday; it’s actually the NZ/Aus version. So it was a little odd to read an American story with all those extra ‘u’s and Mum instead of Mom, not gonna lie.

Paper Towns is the story of Quentin – Q to his friends -, senior in high school whose neighbor, Margo Roth Spiegelman, wakes him up one night for a crazy adventure.  The next morning, she gone, run away or disappeared, leaving behind a trail of clues Q, with the help of his friends, must figure out to find her.

Like all of John Green’s work that I’ve read so far (Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars), this story is a play on the manic pixie dream girl concept.
(Nathan Rabin: The manic pixie dream girl “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”)

His whole life, Q has had a crush on Margo, but in high school they ended up in very different social spheres.  Written in first person, this book is Q’s coming of age novel.  Much of it is Q learning about other people’s inner life: the realization that his friends and peers are the star of their own story as much as he is the star of his.  There are some lovely gems in Green’s writing – the moment when Q quietly notes his parents like each other and he likes that, even as they’re shown bickering several times; a policeman’s pretty fair assessment of Margo’s future; Ben’s insightful comments on the difference between having a crush on someone dating them.  Green is a talented YA author with a keen insight into what it is to be a teenager and Paper Towns is no exception.

Q hangs out with band nerds but isn’t unhappy with his social lot in life and appreciates his good friends without longing for a different “popular kid” life. This is probably the strongest point of the novel – the acknowledgment that you can be perfectly happy with your high school experience without being a popular kid. Q is well-liked by his group but not popular and even when he gets the chance to hang with the popular kids, he doesn’t even consider it a possibility.  It’s just not his scene.  I really like stories that take the middle space between popular kid and bullied underdog; it’s where most of us grow up but it often feels like it gets the least attention in YA.

That being said, the main lesson Q learns is that women are people too, and, honestly, I’m not terribly fond of that as a plot line.  Q is 18 and has both dated and had female friends before, as well as a respected and loving mother, but apparently the thought of a woman (Margo) having a rich inner life is just a total revelation from him.  It’s a little disheartening that Q literally had to go on a crazy, whirlwind adventure to learn something that should have been integrated into his worldview a long time ago.  I think it bothers me most because there’s no negative repercussions for his lack of understanding as women as people. His journey is all about self-growth and benefits only him; there’s nothing wrong with his previous views except that they limit him.  It’s really disheartening in a way.

If you like John Green or YA, you should definitely give this a try! If you’re a little tired of an overly-male-centered perspective or if you like your adventures dark and tense, then, sadly, this might not be the book for you.

Contemporary Literature · Fantasy · Teen Fiction · YA

Ogre Enchanted

ogre enchanted
by: Gail Carson Levine

Ogre Enchanted is Levine’s prequel to Ella Enchanted, her breakout YA classic. It tells the story of Evie, a teenage healer who finds herself in the fairy Lucinda’s crosshairs after rejecting a proposal from a long-time friend.

Evie is turned into an ogre and given 60* days to accept a proposal of marriage or be stuck as an ogre forever.  She strikes out on an adventure to find either her true love or the skills and environment that will let her continue as a healer even as she must fight against her new ogre instincts.

I listened to Ogre Enchanted as an audiobook (instead of reading) and really enjoyed it. Normally I have trouble following books I haven’t read before but this one was no problem! I don’t know if my listening skills have matured or if it was my familiarity with the world (I’ve read Ella Enchanted numerous times) but I can absolutely recommend the audiobook if you’re an audioreader or if you like to listen to books with your kids.

OE is told in first person, and I have to say Evie is a fantastic main character.  Her main goals in life are to be with her family and friends and to work as a healer.  She’s passionate about her job without it being all-consuming, she has her head (more or less) on straight, and she is good people but not perfect by any means. Her transformation into an ogre is basically an extended metaphor for puberty and teenagehood – the mood swings, the never-ending hunger, the ‘tingles’ around anybody who is nice and/or attractive.  I was constantly thinking “I remember those days!” as I read.

Evie’s main journey was finding out what romantic love is, in the way that many teenagers do – exploring crushes, strong physical attraction, who you feel like you should love versus who you actually love, and learning the difference between charming and good. The reader can instantly see the compatibility (or not) between Evie and the various eligible bachelors she meets, but watching Evie figure things out on her own is fun and satisfying.

What I most enjoyed about the story, however, was that Evie always had a strong sense of self and it was the transformation into an ogre, not any male attention, that drove her adventure and character growth. Evie is never consumed  or defined by love; it’s always in balance with the rest of her life and interests. This is a definitely a love story, but it’s not a story that idolizes romantic love. Rather, Levine does an excellent job of placing it as one important piece of a life full of many important relationships and goals. Evie never entertains the idea that only love can give her life meaning, nor does she dismiss love out of hand. It’s a lovely and all-too-rare balance in YA literature.

Finally, this book ties in extremely well with Ella Enchanted; you meet many secondary characters and some puzzling things about EE make a great deal more sense.  And – I don’t think I’ve ever said this before – I think this book would have worked much better as a lesbian love story; I thought it was headed that way for a chapter or so and it would have been a much more satisfying ending.  But, alas, it was not meant to be.

If you loved Ella Enchanted, enjoy YA fairy tale works, or are looking for a strong female protagonist, I strongly recommend this book. If you’re looking for a swept-off-her-feet love story, aren’t interested in teenage angst, or want a story with strong personal growth, than, sadly, this may not be the book for you.

Contemporary Literature · Fiction · Romance

First Star I See Tonight

first star I see tonight
by: Susan Elizabeth Phillips

First Star I See Tonight is Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ latest addition to her Chicago Stars series, a contemporary romance series about the players and coaches of the fictional Chicago Stars football team.

I really enjoy Phillips’ writing and this was no exception.  It’s a light-hearted romp, with humor and spirited characters and just a touch of reality.  This installment follows Cooper Graham (who has either two first names or two last names), a retired quarterback breaking into the nightclub business and Piper Dove, the struggling PI who’s been hired to follow him.  It’s written in third person from both their perspectives.

Cooper was a nice, if lighthearted, take on a retired athlete – someone who hasn’t lost everything but still hasn’t found himself. He’s a great male lead: competitive, kind, and just a tad bit overbearing.  He’s definitely the kind of male hero it’s fun to daydream about without ever turning into the guy you’d never want to meet in real life. He actually listens to Piper and, even though the set up is ripe for it, Phillips never allows him to override Piper’s wishes with a

Piper is strong and confident and frustrated by the sexism of the world.  Her father raised her to be the toughest of women and then was unhappy when she wanted to use her skillset to make a living. Though this isn’t the conflict that’s driving Piper, it has clearly influenced her and I really appreciated Phillips’ inclusion of it. I think most women would can relate to a loving dad who wants to raise a tough little girl and then gets frustrated that she never turns into a dainty little lady.  She’s also a little impulsive in a way I didn’t always appreciate, just because she was generally so

Like a lot of Phillips’ work, the book has a bit of adventure and a dash of danger (which does work to push the characters into an “AHA!” moment). The plot moves really quickly without ever losing the fun of it all, something that Phillips particularly excels at. There’s a twist that I saw coming, but being able to see it didn’t take away from the pleasure of reading the book.

But there is a major element that I struggle with in Phillips’ writing that is really troubling for me.  She often includes characters of color as side characters and I feel like she often leans heavily on stereotypes to develop the characters.  They’re often developed characters just…they do feel based on stereotypes. And there’s often a hint of a white savior component.  In this book, she choose to include Muslim characters from an unnamed Middle Eastern…and the white main characters literally save one of the Muslim characters from a cartoonishly evil Middle Eastern Prince.

Now, Phillips does make a point to say not all rich Middle Eastern princes are villains, and she uses the opportunity to (a little clumsily) introduce several important components of Islam in a fairly positive and respectful light.  I do applaud that she clearly thinks bringing in more diverse characters in romance novels is important – it absolutely is. I believe Phillips had positive intentions. And at this point in time, there is certainly some benefit to even a clumsily done inclusion of a sympathetic Muslim woman into mainstream American romance.

But that doesn’t excuse it from its faults, either, or from the fact Muslim women, like all women, deserve to be developed as individual characters in novels, informed, but not defined, by their culture, religion, and/or heritage, and certainly not written based on stereotypes or brought in as a convenient plot point to prove how good the main (white) characters are.  And this isn’t the first time Phillips has handled inclusion of characters of color quite clumsily; she has several books with cringeworthy moments with black characters.  (Though this is certainly the most egregious example.)

So despite how much I enjoyed this book, I don’t think I’ll be rereading it. I don’t want to demonize Phillips for trying and failing, because honestly the genre as a whole is not inclusive and generally not trying. However, I’m also not comfortable recommending the book.

If you decide to read it, maybe pick up Huda Fahmy’s upcoming book Yes, I’m Hot in This: The Hilarious Truth of Life in a Hijab as well.  Fahmy writes and draws amazingly funny comics about her own life and I am so excited about her book coming out!  (and, hey, pick it up if you’re not reading First Star I See Tonight, too.)

Contemporary Literature · Fiction · Romance

The Traveling Tea Shop

traveling tea shop
by: Belinda Jones

I picked up The Traveling Tea Shop at the library when I was looking for a light, fluffy read to get through my cold with.  This looked like a good bet, and it definitely paid off.

It’s written in first person and follows the adventures of Laurie Davis, a sweets-obsessed British travel agent living in New York. She’s contacted by Pamela Lambert, legendary British bake show host, to organize a baked goods tour of New England. Pamela shows up with her mother and rebellious daughter, forcing Laurie to deal with her own family issues as she’s exposed to theirs.

The story is – oh, I hate this term, but classic chic-lit. I don’t mean that in a bad way, just that it’s light and fun, but there’s a focus on relationships and personal growth within the characters. A perfect beach read for those of us in the southern hemisphere, and a nice cheer up novel for those heading into the depths of winter.

Character wise, it’s good but not great. My favorite character actually left halfway through the novel, which was disappointing. It’s pretty realistic about normal flaws that people have; in particular one of the character has a serious conflict-aversion problem portrayed very well in a kind but negative light.  And the main character is implied to be plump or perhaps plus sized without any of her problems stemming from her self-esteem or a lack of body acceptance.

The resolutions and the ah-ha moment of the main character is a bit over the top for my taste, though. Everything does get resolved and, I think, in a fairly realistic manner – nothing is neatly tied up, but the characters can look hopefully towards the future and I liked that aspect.  But at the same time, a few of the moments and thought processes feel a bit contrived.  Not enough to ruin the story, just enough that it dipped a toe into the Hallmark movie pond.

The romance story lines were really well-done; they were secondary to character development and moved romantically but not unrealistically quickly. I love a book that can have a romance without making it the most important part of a woman’s life – Jones does a great job with this balance.

There is a big focus on baked goods and in that aspect, it’s very well-researched.  (Mostly. Popovers are more associated with Maine than New Hampshire in my experience.) I actually can’t eat wheat, so I am not a huge baked goods fan, but I liked all the descriptions – if you are a fan of baked goods, this might make you really hungry! It includes a lot of real American cooks and places and they’re well-described (mostly – the White Mountain National Forest elevation is way off). It made me really homesick for New England, actually! The author is British and she did some excellent research into iconic baked goods and restaurants of New York and New England.

But…the author is British writing about America and even though the main characters are British, she still missed a few things Americans are going to pick up on. Pound cake is a common American baked good; scones are not. The vast, vast majority of American restaurants and hotels do not serve afternoon tea*, much less with a tiered platter of baked goods.  Virtually every establishment and person in this novel has afternoon tea. We sort things into category; we don’t ‘sort a problem out.’ It wasn’t all-pervasive (the author was wise in choosing British characters) but American readers will definitely spend a few minutes going “wait…what?”

The characters seem to spend a lot of time unsupervised in commercial kitchens, which seems highly, highly unrealistic. but that’s a minor peeve.

If you’re looking for a beach-read type novel with realistically flawed people and a tiny bit of cheesiness, then this book is absolutely for you! If you don’t like a pinch of too-tidy revelations, are jerked out of the story by cultural inaccuracies, or don’t like extensive descriptions of food and places in your escapism novels, then alas, this may not be the book for you.

*specialty tea or British cuisine restaurants might, but you’d have to specifically look for such a place. I lived in Boston for four years and never went somewhere with a set afternoon tea service, nor have any of my friends – they exist, but you’d have to seek them out.

Contemporary Literature · Fiction

The Ruins of Us

by: Keija Parssinen

I finally made it back to the library yesterday and this book caught my eye (yesterday was grey and rainy so I spent the rest of the day reading it; it was not small but a quick read nonetheless.)  I read the back and was intrigued by the plot synopsis, though the quotes were uninspiring.  I gave the first page a shot, anyways, and was quickly hooked.

The Ruins of Us is the story of an American woman, Rosalie, who married a wealthy Arab man, Abdullah, and, 25 years and 2 kids into their marriage, discovers that Abdullah has taken a second wife (and hidden it from her.) Rosalie, who genuinely loves her husband, her adopted country, and her life as a nonpracticing Muslim, finds herself at an impasse right as her son finds himself influenced by a religious man with dangerous beliefs.

At its core, this book is about a failing marriage, a middle-aged love story.  Abdullah and Rosalie both love each other but are dealing with the realities of growing older and facing the inertia of their life together.  It’s a true love story, though not a romance.  Abdullah is a good guy, if spoiled, and Rosalie is a good woman, if somewhat made passive by a life of convenience.  The book doesn’t focus as much on cultural differences as I would expect; Rosalie is pretty well assimilated into the Arabic culture and truly doesn’t mind the restrictive laws of Saudi Arabia. (She is also more than a little protected by Abdullah’s status and wealth; this, I think, plays a lot into her worldview and decisions.)

The book is also fairly realistic about the realities of Saudi’s current political state; Rosalie knows about all the limitations put upon her but is not ever scared of Abdullah abusing them or her. The aftereffects of 9/11 are talked about, as are the, er, foibles of the ruling family. Again, though, the family is quite wealthy and sheltered, so while evils, injustices, and cultural differences are acknowledged, many of them aren’t explored in depth.  (Which feels very realistic of an upper class family, honestly.  The characters are not unsympathetic to the challenges others face; it’s just that the draconian laws don’t affect them as much.)

The major exception to this is the son, who is struggling with being an obviously mixed child.  The anger and resentment he feels is funnelled into a burgeoning fanaticism, clearly driven more by emotional need than by belief.  I actually really appreciated this storyline, as it makes the reader sympathesize with the motivations (though not the actions) of such a person. And through the sympathesizing, you can begin to understand the underlying issues that need to be addressed.

This book flew by.  I couldn’t believe how much I just wanted to know what happens next.  I found the ending mostly satisfying; the ends were tied up and though I’m not sure what ending I wanted, the ending I got was believable.  It’s actually fairly light reading, fast-paced, interesting but not incredibly complicated characters, a (for Americans) foreign and (for anyone not uber-wealthy) fantastic setting.

Though realistic about its setting, I didn’t feel like the book veered into Islamophobia – in fact, at times it addressed the negative impact 9/11-empowered Islamophobia had on the characters, especially the children.  All of the characters were flawed but sympathetic (it’s told in third person limited, and every main character gets at least one chapter) and Abdullah is not painted as a monster because of his religion; he’s likeable and self-centered (and that’s attributed more to his power and wealth than anything else.) (let me know if you felt differently, of course!)

Overall, this felt more like a love story dealing with a multicultural couple than a book committed to exploring vast cultural differences.  It made for a fun, fast, interesting read; a Harlequin novel all grown up and dealing with real people and cultures instead of caricatures.

So if you’re looking for an insightful read about the realities of being an American in a Islamic country, a slow and introspective read on an unusual marriage, or beautiful prose with a complex emotional landscape, alas, this book is probably not for you.  But if you want something fun and easy to read, with an unusual setting and premise, that treats stereotypical romantic leads as real people with real problems, and does so without demonizing, I’d highly recommend The Ruins of Us.

Contemporary Literature · Fairy Tales · Fantasy · Fiction

The Emperor of the Eight Islands

by: Lian Hearn

So I walked into a bookstore looking for a pen and walked out with 2 books, one of them being Emperor of the Eight Islands.  The blurb on the back really intrigued me – it sounded liked a darker sort of fairy tale, but set in a fantasy land based on feudal Japan.

The blurb on this one is a pretty accurate representation of the book! I really enjoyed the book – I’ve mentioned this a few dozen times before, I’m sure, but I love fairy tales of all sorts. I liked especially that it was set in a Japanese-based society; I feel like that drew me in more than it would have if it was set in a European-based one, simply for the novelty and the fun of the world building.

The story follows Kazumaru, the son of a lord who dies having lost a game of Go to tengu (legendary Japanese bird-men.) Kazumaru’s uncle takes over the estates and, in the traditions of fairy tales everywhere, does not want to relinquish his title back to his nephew when Kazumaru comes of age.  The story truly begins when Kazumaru decides to run away and find his own fate in the world, a world being torn apart by a civil war and plots for the throne.

Told in third person, the story shifts frequently from Kazumaru’s point of view to many other characters, though Kazumaru’s actions remain the driving force for the plot.  There’s sorcerers, royalty, mystical beings, magic, grudges, love, destiny, and songs about dragon children. Essentially, all the components for a good fairy tale are incorporated.

Hearn’s writing also lends itself well to the style. It actually reminds me a little bit of Robin McKinley – the same sort of slightly distant, almost impersonal approach to the characters, even as the reader learns their thoughts and feelings.  In an extended fairy tale, where the plot is of utmost importance, this style can work incredibly well and indeed I very much appreciated Hearn’s approach.  All of the human characters were complex and well developed and the non-human ones felt non-human because they were less complex.

Though terrible things happen in the story, I wasn’t necessarily emotionally invested in the actions.  This isn’t a bad thing – I like how it gave me clarity and room to think about what was happening.  It also meant I was less likely to rationalize away a character’s behavior, which, I think, is important to this particular story.  The characters, Kazumaru included, often do both amazing and horrible things and this distance allowed me to step away from the good vs. evil dichotomy and not categorize the characters but instead evaluate each action on its own merit.  Though there is a sense of a divine hand in this story, and from that a clear wrong and right, there isn’t such a sense of moral right and wrong and I loved the way the story made me think about each action to see how I truly felt about it.

I don’t know why, but I was somewhat disappointed to find that this was the beginning of a short series.  Though it does work as a self-contained story, there’s clearly room for the next novel – however, I felt throughout that this was a standalone and I have no idea why! I will be reading the rest of the series though.

Also, this is a book where the first chapter is very indicative of the entirety of the story, so if you’re on the fence, you should be able to tell by just reading a few pages whether it’s the book for you.

If you like plot-driven fantasies and a strong fairy tale vibe, you should definitely give this book a read.  If you’re not into violence or if you want a strong, intimate emotional connection to the main characters, then, alas, this book may not be the one for you.

Have you read it? Let me know what you think in the comments!