Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Summer We Read Gatsby by Danielle Ganek

"How well can we really know another person? People can be in your lives for years- they can fill your lives. But all you really know of them are the stories they tell you. And then they die. They always leave a mystery behind."

Half-sisters Pecksland (Peck) and Stella Blue (Cassie) are spending their summer in Southampton while sorting out their Aunt Lydia's estate. They end up finding a mystery. In her will, their aunt requested that they find a "thing of utmost value." Right after reading that passage of Lydia's will, Cassie thinks of a painting inscribed "To L.M. from J.P." The painting, which they suspect may be an early Jackson Pollock, goes missing soon afterwards. Further details aren't really necessary because the treasure hunt is never really the main focus of the plot, just an entertaining backdrop and deus ex machina.

The main story lies with Peck and Cassie. As children, they never spent much time together. Their father fell in love with Cassie's mother when he was still married and subsequently left Peck and her mother. The sisters are as different as night and day, as identical twins always are in popular culture. Peck is curvy, loud, and prone to exclamation. She wears a lot of vintage clothes (The descriptions of which made me jealous). Cassie has lived in Switzerland for most of her adult life, and is quieter, stick thin, and doesn't care about clothes. Everything is seen through Cassie's eyes, which is probably for the best. Peck would probably have been an overwhelming, inaccurate narrator.

Throughout the summer, Peck and Cassie connect as sisters for the first time. They learn to appreciate each other as almost the only family either has left. Both sisters find love with old acquaintances. Peck falls in love with ex-boyfriend Miles Noble, then falls out of love, then back in again. Cassie has a difficult time with old family friend Finn Killian. Peck is wooed by a Gatsby-themed party and monogrammed pool, Cassie by baseball games and family s'mores.

The Summer We Read Gatsby actually repeats a lot of the themes from one of my other Cannonball Reads, Paper Towns. The half-sisters didn't really know each other well, they didn't know their aunt well enough. On the second, nothing more could be done because Aunt Lydia was dead, to be abrupt. Yet, her death led to greater bonding between the sisters. Her death led to romance: Peck and Miles, Cassie and Finn. Lydia's death led to a whole new dysfunctional family. It's really incredibly beautiful to see the disconnection of death forge bonds of connection amongst the living. Nobody knows everything about any one person, no matter how close you get. There will always be secrets taken to the grave. Ultimately, we have to focus more on the living, forge our connections, and disclose our secrets while we still have the chance.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Elliot Allagash by Simon Rich

"Money, money, money
Must be funny
In the rich man's world
Money, money, money
Always sunny
In the rich man's world"

Today I am doing the unbelievable (Well, unbelievably cheesy). I am opening this review with a quote from the lyrics of Abba. Yes, THAT Abba. Because the song "Money, Money" appropriately sums up the book I just read, Elliot Allagash. It is a story about money being the most powerful bargaining chip, more powerful than talent or effort because money actually can buy talent and effort, or at the very least the appearance of talent and effort.

Seymour Herson met Elliot Allagash for the first time when Elliot pushed him down the stairs. It was a way for Elliot to test his limits, see how far he could go before he was kicked out of the last school that would accept him. Seymour is at the very bottom of the social hierarchy at Glendale Prep and therefore used to being pushed around. He is chubby, unathletic, and spends his lunchtime guzzling as many chocolate milks as possible. Then Elliot makes him a proposition: He will make Seymour into the most popular, most powerful kid in school. All Seymour has to do is whatever Elliot says.

You see, the Allagash family is incredibly wealthy. They actually own a patent for the process of making wood pulp into paper, so everything and anything that requires paper is adding to their fortune. They aren't exactly nice rich people, though. Elliot's father commissions artists to create beautiful paintings, then refuses to let anyone else see them. He plans to have them burned after his death. Once, he paid a Pulitzer Prize-winning author to write a book for him, read it and then burned it.

Elliot is a strange rich kid who likes to experiment with people, which is why he takes Seymour under his wing. There are certain social dynamics that he understands on a primitive and scholarly level, but he lacks social graces and understanding of human emotion. He pays to get Seymour basketball lessons to turn him into the best player in school, going so far as to create an actual league so that Seymour has kids with whom to practice. After a victory in athletics, Elliot decides to make Seymour into class president, a ladies' magnet, and his companion at Harvard. Basically, Elliot uses his money to turn Seymour into whomever he wants to make him at the time.

Unfortunately, Elliot doesn't play fair. All of his plans are carried out through sabotage and deception, carried out by chauffeur and manservant James. He even carries around a book of enemies, marks down people who offend them and checks the name off when the deed is done. Elliot is a very unsettling child, kind of Richie Rich gone bad or Chuck Bass on a tamer day. Sometimes I wasn't sure if I wanted to smack him or give him a hug, because he was so delightfully sociopathic.

At first, the changes Elliot makes in Seymour are positive. Seymour loses weight and gains confidence. Eventually, Seymour starts to become too similar to Elliot, too calculating. He skips parties because he is becoming too cool to attend them. He starts to keep his own notebook full of plots, stolen quiz answers, and fake information that keeps him powerful and gets him into Harvard. Seymour also starts to get too cocky and forgets where all his power came from. What will happen when Seymour finally makes his way into Elliot's enemies book?

In the end, I was incredibly relieved that Seymour didn't really suffer from any permanent damage as a result of living in the Allagash world, damage of the floating face-down in a pool like Jay Gatsby variety (Um...spoiler?). The ending is actually very simple and easy to accept. It could so easily have been a heavy-handed MONEY CORRUPTS lesson, with a dash of BE YOURSELF thrown in for good measure, but I'm glad that the author didn't take that route. Elliot Allagash was really just a quick read about the high school boy version of Pygmalion, if Professor Higgins made a maitre'd into an accidental Nazi sympathizer. Doesn't that sound like damn good times?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen

The mystery genre can be confounding to me. There are so many strange niche mysteries. Seriously, there are cat mysteries and scrapbooking mysteries, chocolate lovers mysteries and mysteries for people who play sudoku. Some mysteries even come with recipes or home decorating tips. I have wanted to read a good mystery for years, yet was put off by the silly titles and assumed lameness.

Not too long ago, I had the chance to own some mysteries (A little bookstore miracle known as a strip). Her Royal Spyness sounded like it could be amusing. It turned out to be a quick read, and I actually surprised myself by enjoying the book.

The book is set in Great Britain in 1930, when the country is suffering from the Great Depression. Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie (Georgie) is 21, thirty-fourth in line for the throne, single with no prospects, and completely bored with life. When her half-brother Binky cuts off her allowance and the Queen starts making arrangements to blackmail Georgie into marrying a Romanian prince, she decides that it's time to start making some decisions for herself.

The first decision is to leave Castle Rannoch for the family's vacation home in London. Georgie even travels without any servants, since no one could be spared because of the harsh economy. She learns to cook and dress herself and even light a fire. Eventually, Georgie decides she needs a job to secure money and ensure that the Queen, HRH, can't force her to marry said prince or serve as companion to a boring old great-aunt. After a disastrous day as a shop girl, Georgie starts her own house-cleaning business. It's a great risk, as the royal family should not be working at all, but especially not as a cleaning woman. She cleans a couple houses and makes a little money. Everything seems to be working out until Georgie finds the body in the bathtub.

Now, Georgie must find the killer and clear her family's name. If that wasn't enough to deal with, HRH has commissioned her to spy on her son and his scandalous already-married American girlfriend. To complete the trifecta of woe, Georgie keeps encountering penniless but tempting Irish Darcy O'Mara. Adding a fourth problem, someone is trying to kill her. She just has to figure out who and why.

As I already stated, I enjoyed this book much more than I had expected. I was worried that Georgie would be another annoying and overprivileged female protagonist. She turned out to be kind of endearing, a lot of the weaknesses in her character stemming mostly from societal norms of the 1930s and from the pressures put upon even distant members of the royal family. I also liked the way the book mentioned the class system, how Georgie was treated differently as a maid or shop girl and how being in need of money made her view her grandfather and the other struggling members of the lower class differently. This book surprised me so much that I am seriously thinking about checking out the rest of the series because I would like to find out what happens to Georgie (and her badly nicknamed British relatives) next.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Imagine for a moment that reality television shows featured the contestants fighting each other literally for their lives. Imagine that all of the contestants are teenagers between the ages of 12 and 18. Imagine that every citizen is forced by law to watch as human beings kill each other for the entertainment of the rich.

This is the world of The Hunger Games. For some background, everything takes place in the country of Panem, once called North America. There were thirteen districts that rose up to fight against the Capitol. Twelve of the districts were defeated, the thirteenth district was totaled. As punishment, the twelve districts must hold a lottery (reaping) every year. One boy and one girl will be chosen and forced to compete in the Hunger Games. All of the children will then kill each other off until only one is left, the winner.

Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12. She has been supporting her mother and sister by breaking the law, hunting in the woods outside the District, and selling and trading the things she finds. Ever since her father died, their mother became withdrawn, almost catatonic. Katniss and her sister Primrose (Prim) almost died of starvation until she learned to take care of herself.

All the children have their names entered at least one time, adding an extra name for every birthday (One for 12, two for 13, etc.). If the child receives tessera, a ration of grain and oil, the child adds an extra name for however many rations and those rations are cumulative. It's a very unfair situation for the poor children of the Districts, but the Capitol isn't known for fairness. Katniss will have her name entered 20 times this year, Prim only once. At the reaping, the unthinkable happens. Prim's name is chosen as a tribute. Katniss quickly volunteers in her place. The other tribute is Peeta Mellark, the baker's son. Peeta once gave bread to Katniss when she was close to starvation. He is also in love with her, though she doesn't notice this.

What follows is training and preparation for the Hunger Games, and some fun parts where Katniss and Peeta are dressed up for presentations and interviews. Haymitch Abernathy, the only living District 12 winner, serves as their mentor. He is basically a lovable drunk. Haymitch wants Katniss and Peeta to play up their togetherness for the audience, show themselves as star-crossed lovers. Between stylist Cinna's unforgettable outfits and the faux (or maybe not?) romance, Katniss and Peeta stand out among the other contestants and become audience favorites. However, there's still the question of what happens when they get into the Hunger Games arena, where only one of them can be the winner.

The Hunger Games was often an incredibly harsh book. Katniss was no-nonsense in her quest to stay alive and I admire her for that, even though I felt bad sometimes when she killed animals or people. Most of the harshness can be attributed to the world Katniss exists in, the oppressive government and poor conditions. In that world, she can either kill the deer or starve, kill the other contestant or be killed. Sometimes I imagine myself into books, usually Harry Potter or Jane Austen. When I tried to picture myself surviving the Hunger Games, I decided that I would quickly die. Then I remembered that I am too old to ever have to enter the reaping or the Hunger Games and I was okay again.

Monday, July 5, 2010

How Did You Get This Number? by Sloane Crosley

If you haven't read Sloane Crosley before, then you should. Her first book, I Was Told There'd Be Cake is very funny. She told stories about being a bridesmaid for a woman she hadn't seen since junior high, asking boyfriends for ponies and ending up with a stablefull of breakup memorabilia, and the downside of volunteering at a butterfly exhibit. I loved experiencing these things through her writing, and when I found out that she wrote a new book of essays, I was very excited.

How Did You Get This Number is another book of eclectic stories. Some of the essays are about living in New York, dealing with taxis, and the desire to move away from an anorexic kleptomaniac roommate and into a possibly haunted former whorehouse. Other essays describe travels to Lisbon and Paris. In Lisbon, Crosley meets a group of clown college students and gets invited to an underground circus performance. Paris doesn't bode so well, as she accidentally gets trapped in an apartment courtyard while trying to show her grasp of Parisian directions. Several Parisians tell her to leave, and she takes this to mean that she is banished from the city.

Among my favorite essays was "An Abbreviated Collection of Tongues," which highlights the various pets the Crosleys have owned throughout the years. "If You Sprinkle" was fun to read because of the slumber parties, Girl Talk board games, and Mean Girls drama. It's the stuff I'm grateful that I never experiences in junior high.

More than those, I really liked "Off the Back of a Truck." It combines a story about dealing with a man who sold her stolen furniture and a story about starting a relationship with a guy only to find out that he may not be all the way broken up with his ex-girlfriend.

I enjoyed the book, but there was an incident in one essay where Crosley traveled to Alaska to serve as a bridesmaid. It involved a baby bear and a drunk driver. I cried. Don't read that part if you are overly sensitive and love baby bears like me. Crosley mentioned storing up emotional trauma from moments such as these to release later on, and I think just reading about that story has added the baby bear to my list of emotional trauma.

As much as I love essays, it is very difficult for me to write a review of this writing style. Just like in her first book, Sloane Crosley kept me captivated no matter what the subject matter. That's all you can ask from an author.

Going Bovine by Libba Bray

Cameron Smith was an average 16-year-old boy, maybe a little below-average. He spent his days smoking pot and playing video games, the textbook definition of slacker. Then he sees the fire giants and the giant armor-clad man. Then he loses control of his limbs. Then he gets diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakobs disease, more commonly known as the human form of mad cow disease.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob is an untreatable disease. There are prions in the brain that go bad and reproduce to create more bad prions. These bad prions take over and eventually destroy the brain. So not only is Cameron dying young, he will lose all his mental functions along the way. Adding to the tragedy, because of his slacker ways, Cameron has never really spent any time living.

One night, he is visited by a pink-haired punk rock angel named Dulcie. She sends him on a mission to save the world. A scientist named Dr. X has mastered the ability to travel through time and space. When he returned to regular time, he brought dark energy with him. This energy threatens to expand and destroy the world, and it is causing Cameron's disease, which is why the doctors can't help him. If he finds Dr. X and closes the wormhole, he will not only save the world but also cure himself.

It seems like an easy mission, but Dr. X could be anywhere. All Dulcie will tell Cameron is that he has to look out for signs and random coincidences. Also, he has to bring a partner. Gonzo is a hypochondriac gamer dwarf. Together, they travel around, mostly following actual road signs ("Follow the feather" on a bus ad) or advice from people along the way.

Among the duo's adventures are meeting dead jazz legend Junior Webster and visiting creepy cult-like CESSNAB (Church of Eternal Satisfaction and Snack N' Bowl). They pick up Balder, a lawn gnome who is actually an indestructible Norse god. Near the end, they even visit the YA!TV beach house for the real spring break experience and actually become minor celebrities.

They are being followed by the Wizard of Reckoning, the large armored man from the beginning, and his fire giants. The fire giants leave behind destruction every time they catch up. Because of the destruction, Cameron and Gonzo are being pursued by United Snowglobe Wholesalers as terrorists. Snowglobe retailers have deep roots in all markets and cities, and they are a lot tougher than you would expect.

One of the things I love in a book is symmetry. I like to read something and realize that it was mentioned at a different point or that it has some significance that I just realized. Going Bovine had lots of symmetry, the stoned friends mentioning Schrodinger's cat to the scientists at Putopia actually naming their test cat Schrodinger. Also, Cameron starts the story with a family trip to Disney World when he was 5, he gets a Disney eticket bracelet to stave off his mad cow symptoms, and everything ends with a showdown at Disney World. The road trip adventure is lots of fun, though the moments when Cameron wakes up in the hospital are a little bit of a bummer.

On a slightly unrelated note, I was trying to picture Cameron in my head and came up with the image of a young John Cusack. I decided that he would be great in the movie version of this book if he wasn't so old. Then I made up plans to clone John Cusacks to star in all teen movies.