Friday, April 30, 2010

Vampire Forensics by Mark Collins Jenkins

Reduced to its common denominator, the vampire is a classic scapegoat.
Michael Bell, folklorist

Vampire Forensics really gets down to the nitty gritty of vampire origin, all the stuff you wanted to know but were too blinded by sparkles to find out. As it tuns out, vampires have existed in various forms and various countries. The common denominator seems to be the use of the vampire in explaining natural phenomena of everyday life, especially so where death is concerned.

Way back when, it turns out that people didn't have a keen grasp on the intricacies of biology. Thanks to this book, I now know more than I ever actually wanted to know about what happens when a body decays. Because of this knowledge, I plan on never dying. To return to the book, people used to see corpses that didn't decay naturally, corpses that seemed to grow after death, corpses that shifted in the grave and sat in puddles of fresh blood. Logically, this meant that the corpse was a vampire who must be incinerated.

There were countless tales of the dead returning to torment the living, sometimes through pestilence, sometimes other means. The bodies would be dug up, and sure enough, they were still fresh. Once the body was destroyed, burned, staked, or whatever means was used, the torment would stop and the vampire would be gone for good.

As for the origins of vampires, some connect outbreaks of vampirism with that of rabies. Rabies leads to aggression and a sensitivity to light and strong odors, such as garlic. It's all a little bit like finding out that Santa's beard is fake. I wasn't exactly hoping for confirmation that something out there may try to drain my jugular, but I am disappointed that it seems as though vampires are really just people being idiots. Not much has changed today, Twihards I am looking at you. At least people back then had ignorance as an excuse. When your life expectancy is in the 40s and half your family is dead from plague, you tend to blame whatever you can. Twihards, you have no excuse.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Paper Towns by John Green

What is it about some girls? You know those girls, the ones that become some attainable ideal of perfection to their many admirers, one of whom is the most pure of spirit and intention. This one person who admires the girl from afar and waits until the perfect moment to have his chance with her. This inevitable moment will be wrought with tension, then the girl will see that the admirer is the one for her, and they ride off into the sunset because it's twue wuv. Or at least that's the ideal. What's so much more special about these girls? If there's anything, I don't think the admirer really knows. Idealizing someone from afar means you can never really know the person. Therefore, you aren't in love with the girl, you are in love with your own idea of the girl. You're also probably kind of creepy, but that's a different story.

One such girl is Margo Roth Spiegelman. Quentin Jacobsen loved her since they were children together. Paper Towns opens with little Margo and Quentin discovering a dead body together. Then there is a flash forward to their senior year of high school. Margo and Quentin lost touch a long time ago. They no longer belong to the same social circles. Margo is popular, while Q hangs out with the band kids, despite not even being in the band.

One night, without any warning, Margo climbs into Quentin's bedroom window. She recruits him on a mission to get revenge, "right some wrongs and wrong some rights." At first Quentin resists, but soon he is pulled into the plan and he has the night of his life. He doesn't know what to expect the next day at school, but it turns out that Margo doesn't show up. She's gone. It was normal for Margo to disappear for days or weeks at a time and leave cryptic clues for her parents to follow. This time, though, it seems as though the clues are for Quentin.

He follows the trail with his friends Radar and Ben, and with Margo's best friend Lacie. Woodie Guthrie leads to Walt Whitman leads to an abandoned storefront leads to paper towns, but they are no closer to finding Margo. Soon enough, they start to wonder (I actually thought they were a little slow in this because I wondered about this much earlier) if they will actually find her alive, thinking about things she said about cutting all her strings, misinterpreting Leaves of Grass as a suicide note, and finding a graffitied note, "YOU WILL GO TO THE PAPER TOWNS AND YOU WILL NEVER COME BACK."

Quentin realizes in his searching that he never really knew Margo at all. He knew his idea of her as this perfect girl, the girl he loved all his life. He knew the legend of Margo, but he didn't really know Margo. There was a point when Quentin asks his English teacher for help interpreting Whitman's "Song of Myself" and he admits to looking for Margo when reading the poem instead of actually reading the poem to understand Whitman. In the same way, Quentin uses the clues to understand Margo, but his idea of Margo, not the actual Margo.

...You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself"

So nobody really knows anybody. Everybody is connected through blades of grass or invisible strings, but nobody really knows anyone. Someone you (think you) know could have a secret record collection or be an axe murderer. You can fall in love with someone and then fall in love again when you really know who that person is. Life is entirely too much about the future and not enough about the now. Finally, when you're on your death bed, you will inevitably be grateful that you carped at least one diem. So go and do that soon.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti

I once had a conversation with a coworker which ended in the conclusion that orphans are a hot commodity in literature. Starting with Dickens' Oliver Twist, through the Boxcar Children, Harry Potter, and the Baudelaires, the orphaned child automatically becomes sympathetic to the audience because of the parentless status. Orphans develop independence and responsibility much faster than normal children out of necessity. Orphans can go on all sorts of dangerous adventures and meet nefarious people because they have nobody stopping them.

The Good Thief is the story of one of these orphans. Ren is a young man with a mysterious past. He was left at St. Anthony's as a baby. He has only one hand and no memories as to how he lost the other hand. One day, a man named Benjamin Nab arrives and claims to be his long-lost brother. Benjamin gives a story about how Ren lost his hand. Benjamin takes him away from the orphanage. This turns out to be a story. Benjamin tells a lot of stories. He's a con man and gets money through the worst means possible. Ren is appalled at the actions of his new family, Benjamin and his partner in crime Tom.

Ren, Benjamin, and Tom arrive in a small former coal mining town and rent a room from Mrs. Sands. She takes good care of Ren and he becomes attached to her in return. In order to earn money, the trio set out robbing graves to sell the bodies to a nearby doctor.

One night while digging up corpses, the trio digs up Dolly. Dolly is a huge man with huge hands. He was made for killing. Ren becomes friends with Dolly. He doesn't want Dolly to kill, but Dolly was made for killing. The acquaintance with Dolly eventually leads to a run-in with the Hat Boys, a gang of men working for Mr. McGinty, who owns the large mousetrap company and basically the city. Mr. McGinty ends up holding the keys to Ren's past. It's pretty awesome how everything ends up coming together in the end.

Overall, Ren was a likable main character. He had sympathy built in, from being an orphan and from missing a limb. Further, he acted as moral compass for everyone in the book. Ren was the one who helped the sick landlady and tried to kiss the beloved mare, said the rosary over and over. I wanted things to work out for that plucky little one-handed orphan, and I'm happy that they actually did.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier

If you lived in a world where everyone had a personal fairy, what kind would you have?

How to Ditch Your Fairy is set in a world where people believe in fairies and most people have a personal fairy. The fairies vary, from a loose-change fairy to a clothes-shopping fairy to a boy-attracting fairy. Charlie Steele has a parking fairy that she hates. She is attempting to rid herself of the parking fairy by walking everywhere she goes and hoping that it leaves. Because she walks everywhere, she is getting into trouble at her school for tardiness and breaking other rules at her rule-filled school.

Charlie dislikes a girl named Fiorenze Burnham-Stone. Fiorenze has the boy-attracting fairy. Unfortunately, Charlie's crush, new guy Stefan, takes an instant liking to Fiorenze. He still likes Charlie and even claims to not liking Fiorenze whenever she isn't around, but her fairy makes it impossible for him to resist her. Further complicating the situation, Stefan has a never-in-trouble fairy so that he can lavish as many kisses and PDAs on Fiorenze as he wants, and Stefan doesn't receive any punishment even though such things are against the rules.

Two things surprised me about this book. The first was that Charlie was actually very unlikeable. Fiorenze was turned into an enemy by no fault of her own. I actually felt incredibly frustrated when it was clear that Fiorenze is miserable and only wants to be Charlie's friend. Her fairy is even worse than Charlie's, but Charlie is too busy hating her to listen or sympathize. All Charlie does is complain about her fairy, list her demerits and complain more about how life just isn't fair. We are hearing everything in her head and therefore most of these things aren't out loud. Still, as Alice said in The Magicians, "...You can choose to be miserable."

Even more surprising was how dystopian the book was. It is set in a city called New Avalon. Everyone in the city believes that New Avalon is the greatest city in the world, and if a street is the steepest street in New Avalon it must therefore be the steepest street in the world. Stefan just moved to New Avalon and is appalled at the sense of superiority and the pridefulness over local celebrities referred to as "Ours." He also resents that nobody has any curiosity at all about anyplace outside of New Avalon, places where he claims everyone hates them and hasn't heard of the "Ours."

Going even further with the dystopian themes, Charlie and her friends all attend New Avalon Sports, a school specifically for training athletes. These students have super-long days that include lunch and dinner breaks, and their only day off is Sunday. There is a long list of offenses that can earn demerits, then game, then school suspensions, and finally expulsion. These offenses were things like tardiness, kissing, crying, wearing the wrong uniform, not laundering your uniform, wearing the wrong size of uniform, not eating enough calories or protein, and on and on. Charlie claims that the rules are to teach discipline like athletes need, but the whole thing seems kind of fishy to me in a Big Brother kind of way. My concerns are never addressed, the story never strays from the fairies into secret government agencies or anything. It just would have been cool to have a simple fairy story turn in that direction.

Finally, I really enjoyed this book in spite of fairy talk. Despite an occasional belief that I am victim of voodoo when a pain pops up in my tummy, I am not superstitious. I simply do not believe in fairies (Clap to save Tinker Bell, kids!). I liked that some characters had fairies and still insisted that fairies don't exist, that everything was all just luck. In the end, a lot of things could be dismissed as luck or coincidence. Just in time for the perfect parking space, pheromones to attract the boys, and a knack for finding change. Maybe you knew how to fly all along, Dumbo. Who needs fairies anyways?

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Summer Before by Ann M. Martin

The Baby-Sitters Club is one of my guilty pleasures. The first one I ever read was Boy-Crazy Stacey. My favorite sitter was Dawn. I inherited a large collection from my cousins and I used to get new books at Meijer's when I got my allowance for feeding the dogs. Let's just say, I have a history with the series.

As difficult as it may be to believe, I am an adult now. It's comforting to read the BSC. Everything is predictable and formulaic and wholesome, but I love every word. I sometimes sneak BSC books into my piles at library sales and Goodwill, willing to feign ignorance if confronted about my young adult book trash habit. So when I heard news of a BSC prequel, I was very excited.

The Summer Before is the story of the summer before four girls came together to create a baby-sitting super conglomerate. There are four separate story lines, each narrated by the different original members of the club. The highlights of each line are as follows:

Kristy eventually starts the BSC. Her father left their family years ago. She still wishes he would come back, and in spite of her better judgment, believes he will visit on her birthday. At one point, Mary Anne mentions how much worse Kristy has it because even though Mary Anne's mother died when MA was still a baby, she doesn't have any memories to really know what she is missing. Kristy has the memories, plus the pain of a parent voluntarily leaving and voluntarily staying away. Honestly, this is enough to make me tear up.

Mary Anne feels overwhelmed by her father's many rules. He is very strict because he raises Mary Anne all by himself. She is trying to get him to let her become a babysitter. Mary Anne also spends a lot of time looking through a box of her mother's things and trying to feel closer to someone she never really knew.

Claudia has been growing up faster than Kristy and Mary Anne. She is more interested in boys and clothes and this makes her detach from friends she has known all her life. Her summer is spent with an older boyfriend and first love.

Stacey was recently diagnosed with diabetes. She has been dealing with a case of the Mean Girls, worst of all being her former best friend Lane Cummings. Her family decides to move from New York to Stoneybrook, Connecticut. Stacey is excited to get away from her old life and escape to a place that can only be better.

The Summer Before was just as satisfying as reading a regular BSC book. I enjoyed the switching narrators. There were interesting insights revealed, such as how Claudia may have felt that Mary Anne and Kristy were acting like babies, but Mary Anne and Kristy were far from oblivious to these feelings. There were some inconsistencies that make the flowing from this to Kristy's Great Idea a little choppy. It's not horrible, but it is noticeable to a perfectionist like me. There aren't any monumental revelations and nothing new is revealed. Still, I did enjoy a new visit with old friends.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Ghosts and Lightning by Trevor Byrne

This review is going to be difficult. Ghosts and Lightning was a real chore to get through. Most of the book is dialogue, there aren't any quotation marks around everything, and a lot of the words are deliberately misspelled for extra folksiness or something. It also turned out to be different from what I thought it would be from reading the book jacket description.

Ghosts and Lightning features Denny, a twenty-something man who returns to his native Ireland after the death of his mother. Denny's sister Paula claims to be haunted by a ghost under her bed, a ghost that is a man pretending to be a little girl. That was the book I wanted to read about, the story of the strange transgender ghost.

Unfortunately, Denny, Paula, and their miscreant friends hold a seance and get rid of the ghost right at the beginning. That was not and never is the main focus. It's a story of Denny and his friends and their many, many crazy misadventures. To put it delicately, they're losers. They drink and do drugs and have little to no motivation for anything else. Still, there's kind of a beauty in their hanging out, their makeshift family.

As I mentioned before, the writing style was difficult to get into at first, but it kind of flowed when I took the time to concentrate. The lack of ghosts disappointed me a little, but I get that it was less about ghosts and more about spending time with your friends and telling stories, getting it all situated, that came before that came before that.