Friday, 27 November 2015

Anna and the French Kiss - Stephanie Perkins

“Anna, Anna," Josh interrupts. "If I had a euro for every stupid thing I've done, I could buy the Mona Lisa. You'll be fine.”

This is not a book I was supposed to be reading (exams are a real thing, I’ll have you know), but I bought it while down in Edinburgh with my mum last weekend and well, I suppose it says a lot that I could hardly put it down after starting it. Also, please take note; I figured I could stop using dull book cover images pulled from Google for actual books, so have a hipster picture I took in the local Starbucks today instead! If I get accepted to this one thing in January, I'll buy myself an actual camera for my birthday. Things to look forward to...?

Anna and the French Kiss is the story of Anna, who’s a neat freak and a film enthusiast and gets sent to a boarding school in Paris by her father for a year. She doesn’t know the language and has to make new friends, but she also meets the gorgeous, gorgeous American-French boy with a British accent (yes, I know), Étienne St. Clair. Sad thing is that they’re both kind of taken, of course. We wouldn’t have a book if people could just get together as soon as they recognise that the attraction is mutual, right?

I recognise that the book has a lot of issues. I mean, it’s a first world problem book, and that’s something you just have to live with if you’re going to read it. Anna realises that she’s being sent to the Most Amazing City In The World (I’ll get back to this later) and a boarding school only open to rich Americans, yet she has the nerve to cry about it. She begs her father to up her weekly allowance because she doesn’t have enough money for proper food, yet she goes to the cinema six times a week. It’s kind of terrible.

She’s also terribly stupid and has that (admittedly stereotypical) ‘American teenager with enough privilege to ignore the rest of the world‘ air about her. I’m still seething that she didn’t know how to write s’il vous plait (instead writing see voo play and having a friend correct it) or even oui (“The only French word I know is oui, which means “yes,” and only recently did I learn it’s spelled o- u- i and not w- e- e.”) or that in her 17 years, she hasn’t realised that her family motto, tout pourvoir, is French. (“Argh, I don’t know. I always assumed it was in Latin or some other dead language.”) I mean, could you not have Googled a few basic things before making myself, the reader, think that you’re incredibly stupid? She's everything that's wrong with America, in one person.

Étienne – St. Clair as he’s known most of the book, is nice. He’s passionate about history and awfully kind, good-looking, afraid of heights and being left alone. He might be a bit too perfect, but I’ll let that slide since his description is through the eyes of a girl that loves her. All in all, I liked him. I also liked the rest of the people in their little group of friends – Josh, Rashmi and Mer. They’re all quite likeable and aren’t totally cookie-cutter in their personalities, and they don’t even warm up to Anna the New Girl right away. I don’t have complaints about them. I especially want to mention artsy Josh, who skips classes and draws and is generally super nice. I liked him.

The ‘bad guys’ of the school are very, very stereotypical, however. There’s the popular, pretty girl who hates the main character just because she gets along with the cutest guy in school. There’s the jock who just likes to drink and party and has little to no personality other than to be an asshole. They were just that forgettable, with super generic names like Amanda and… David or something. You know the type, I’m sure.

As for the plot, it’s mostly nice. It flows well and has a good balance of carrot and stick – Anna’s problems and the times things actually work out. The main conflict however is messy and had me skipping lines because I saw where it was going and didn’t really care about the description when it did. There are some bright moments that made me smile but on the other hand there are also very boring ones. For an example, there’s a very generic ‘getting drunk’ scene that could belong to any single movie or book aimed towards teen audiences. Bleh.

The book is set in Paris and I think I have to admit that’s why I picked it up to begin with. I wanted to see if it was Paris with rude people and croissants and a constant hurry and too high a rent or Paris with dreams and croissants and art and all that magic they claim the city has, the American fantasy. Of course, I was disappointed. I kind of wish the book had been set in, say Amsterdam or Vienna (this just because these are my personal favourites, cities I’d love to set a book in because they’re just so curious), or that it was actually set in Paris, fully and truly embracing the beautiful city and not just a dull tourist stereotype.

Anna and the French Kiss is cute YA chick lit, that’s all there is to it. I knew this coming in and I mostly enjoyed the read. I kind of want to give this four out of five, but that would put it on the same line as books like Laughter in the Darkness and Water For Elephants, books I liked more unconditionally than this one. Also, I talked to my friend on Skype and she told me to burn this book, so I can’t really give it more than a three. But if you happen to stand first world problems and want some cute romance set in a fairy tale city… go for it.

Monday, 16 November 2015

All the Bright Places - Jennifer Niven

“I remember running down a road on my way to a nursery of flowers. I remember her smile and her laugh when I was my best self and she looked at me like I could do no wrong and was whole. I remember how she looked at me the same way even when I wasn’t. I remember her hand in mine and how that felt, as if something and someone belonged to me.”

I don’t know what I expected from All The Bright Places anymore. I mean, the synopsis begins with the line When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school, it’s unclear who saves whom,’ and it sounds great. (Bell tower at a school though? I just rolled with it) I don’t know what and why but either way, it sounded nice. It sounded interesting, it sounded special. In the author’s note, Jennifer Niven mentions that she wanted to write an ‘edgy’ novel, a YA novel, a novel about personal pain (I wouldn’t have known this just reading the book, sadly). Was it all those things? I suppose you know where I’m getting at.

Meet Ultraviolet Remarkey-able – and I wish so bad I was kidding about that name but sadly I’m not. I mean, I kind of found the nickname cute in that terrible, dorky way that makes you want to cringe, at first anyway. But I lost count how many times the Hot Reckless BoyTM of the book repeats it. And I mean, it honestly made me cringe every single time so I hope you feel my pain here. Violet recently lost her sister, Violet is depressed, unfairly pretty, a cheerleader, a writer, quirky and popular. I kind of liked Violet. I had nothing against her depressed quirkiness. I think. Oh, also, Violet makes a webzine designed to help teenagers with all their problems, because she’s kind of saintly like that. It’s mostly irrelevant to the plot but relevant to my annoyance so there you go.

Theodore Finch is the mandatory hot reckless guy. He’s bipolar, suicidal, unreliable and hot, basically everything you could expect from a discount hot guy. Want to know the worst part of his character, though? He does not sound like a 18-year old. I mean, he quotes Virginia Woolf (some of it with the help of Google, which did make me chuckle) and writes Violet poetry on email. He writes songs and to top it off, he also talks like someone from the 19th century. I’ll get back to his ultimately annoying poetry when I’m ready to spoil the ending for you.

The book claims to be the story of both of these characters, but I believe it was the story of Violet more than anything. She was characterised more strongly, and she got the focus most of the way. I don’t mind – she was more likeable than pretentious Finch whom the end made me hate more than anything. I'm not going to go into detail about the plot - they're forced to be friends and fall in love, naturally. The plot lacks actual conflict, and I was just constantly waiting, waiting and waiting.

I’ve seen people compare this book to The Fault in Our Stars, and I’m fairly sure the synopsis brought this up as well. It's not out of nowhere, either - we have the atmosphere of death, the girl whose name is a colour, the guy whose name is right-up ridiculous and to top it off, they do not sound like teenagers in the slightest with their metaphors and carefully constructed sentences. Of course, All the Bright Places loses in this comparison by miles – the plot was dull and lacked the tension of TFIOS most of the way through, the characters didn’t sound beautifully poetic but annoyingly so, and most importantly, TFIOS did it first. All the Bright Places is in this sense a Monday copy, a lookalike mimicking the success of a wildly better book – and I’m not even a TFIOS fangirl, believe it or not.

The weird thing is that I enjoyed the book, mostly. It was around the time Finch runs six miles frantically to get Violet flowers (violets, naturally) and where I took the quote at the top of the page from that I started to think, ‘Wait a minute. Do I actually enjoy these characters, because they’re kind of starting to piss me off right now?’ From there it was all downhill and the last tenth of the book (audiobooks make me measure weirdly, I know), I just forced myself to chug it down so that I could write a review about it and finally, thankfully read something else. I hope this doesn’t mean I’m getting over my YA phase because there are at least 50 more YA novels I’d like to read and enjoy.

…So anyway, the ending. The ending. Finch dies – it’s not surprising per se, but it was badly built and the tempo of the book didn’t give it the importance it could have had. I wish to draw another parallel to TFIOS here – it’s the same ‘this even is so important I’ll just say it’ kind of plot development. Finch actually commits suicide by drowning, and before he does, he leaves Violet fucking cryptic Facebook messages filled with poems to talk about the places he visited before fucking killing himself. I am so annoyed by the premise of this that the wannabe cuteness of Violet visiting all these places and seeing the signs he left behind didn’t make me awww or feel bittersweet or anything. I was just so done.

Violet also writes pretty little poetry for Finch after he’s dead and I continue to be so done. We pretend to see Violet pick up the pieces of her broken life but I think Niven was too afraid to actually give us an actual look at her future, so we get half-assed little glimpses instead. I don’t think this was the right time to ~leave it up to the reader~, honestly.

I think this is where the book goes wrong for me. I mean, the author wants to get across the message that suicide is serious, that I should feel sorry for Finch, who felt like he had no other option. But honestly? His life didn’t seem that bad to me and half the book was from his POV so I should know. He seemed to be kind of getting it together and then he spends a week or so visiting all the cool sights of Indiana (this makes sense in the context, sort of) and writing poetry. Then he kills himself, and I don’t feel sorry for him, and I think he had a choice, and I think he was an annoying asshole. I’m just so upset by this, ugh. Like Everything, Everything, this is another audio book I’ll be returning to Audible, because I honestly did not like it.

Also! There’s going to be a movie based on this book, apparently! I can't express how much complaining I'll be doing when it actually comes out. *sigh*

On other news, I picked up Never Always Sometimes as my next project, and so far it seems like a fairly typical high school novel with unquirky, actually teenager-like main characters. I’m content with my life choices right now, but I still can’t recommend All the Bright Places to you.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Water for Elephants - Sara Gruen

“The thought has cheered me, and I'd like to hang onto that. Must protect my little pockets of happiness.”

“My father felt it was his duty to continue to treat animals long after he stopped getting paid. He couldn't stand by and watch a horse colic or a cow labor with a breech calf even though it meant personal ruin. The parallel is undeniable. There is no question I am the only thing standing between these animals and the business practices of August and Uncle Al, and what my father would do - what my father would want me to do - is look after them, and I am filled with that absolute and unwavering conviction. No matter what I did last night, I cannot leave these animals. I am their shepherd, their protector. And it's more than a duty. It's a covenant with my father.” 

I picked Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen to read especially in light of the upcoming National Novel Writing Month in November - this is the single most successful NaNoWriMo novel, after all. The book had been in my tbr-list way too long, probably even before the movie came out, so it's nice to finally be able to check it off my list. The illusion of productivity and all the such.

The novel tells the story of Jacob, both 23 and 93, a circus veterinarian and an old man with much of nothing but memories. At the beginning, I found the older Jacob's story jarring and desperate, horrifying in the all too real truth of life in a nursing home. I didn't enjoy it, but it's probably part of the book's charm - Jacob at 93 only comes truly alive as he tells the story about himself at 23.

The past is both extravagant and crude. The show Jacob joins - the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth - is mostly illusion, and the living conditions of the workers are not suitable for living. At the beginning, Jacob is believed to be a mere runaway that wouldn't last a month with the circus, but he gets to prove his worth when they learn of the advantages of his almost Ivy League degree and Polish heritage. He still has to constantly fight for his place, and nothing becomes easier after he falls in love with Marlena, who is already married to the equestrian director.

There are bits and pieces I absolutely love about the book, like the historical accuracy. Circus novels are great and all, but it's rare to see them done so well, with such attention to detail that I had to make sure the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth isn't an actual circus (spoiler: it's not, but Ringling, also mentioned, is). I think the beauty of historic novels should be exactly this; learning about things like The Disaster March (really interesting, look it up if you haven't heard of it!) and Jamaica Ginger  in a context one can't imagine without proper research. If I ever feel the need to strike a conversation about USA during the 1930s, I'm now a bit more educated.

Of course, animals are close to my heart, so the theme was easy to accept. My mother is a vet and you just can't grow up on a farm without a profound love for any and all little and not-so-little creatures. I saw my mother in Marlena's love for the horses and Jacob's worry over them, and it's easy to fall into the story when you feel that way about the characters. The second quote I picked up from the book is a bit longer than ideal, but I think it addresses this point extremely well. I'd find it extremely interesting to hear how someone else felt about this aspect of the novel, but I read it as a vet's daughter before anything else.

When it comes to the characters, I don't have many complaints. Marlena is mostly a prize rather than a person, mostly characterised through the love of animals she shares with Jacob. This is probably because of the time portrayed rather than literary oversight. Jacob himself is vibrant and passionate, and even though a lot changes in 70 years, he's still recognisable in the old, bitter man he becomes. My absolute favourite was Kinko, who's needlessly rude to Jacob at the beginning but shows admirable character growth during the story. He also has a Jack Russel terrier, and you can't really go wrong with that.

What do I have complaints about? Perhaps I found the romance a bit predictable at times, but this is mostly in hindsight. During the read, I was completely captivated by the intensity of Jacob's feelings for Marlena and the way everything just got kind of messed up as the story progressed. Some of the word choices in the book made me actually cringe in their clichéness. Perhaps it was intentional at times - of course the ringleader would feel that the show must go on, but I'm not really going to accept that excuse because it happened once too often. It wasn't an experience-ruining thing, just something I could definitely live without. 

This time (compare to the last book review I wrote earlier this month *shudders*) the ending made the story all the better. It wrapped up nicely and gave me warm feelings I'm still bathing in now, as I think back to the whole book that I spent some ten days slowly working my way through. It was such a nice ending, and I'm just really happy with it. Ugh, feelings.

I think it's important to mention here that I read this as an audiobook (sue me, I walk a lot to campus and back) and the readers - David LeDoux and John Randolph Jones, I checked it to make them justice - do an absolutely fantastic job. They really, truly capture the essence of the characters they portray, and listening to them makes it that much better. If there's ever a book you should listen to rather than read yourself, it's this one. Just trust me.

All in all, Water for Elephants was what I expected - a great read, a historical novel, a circus novel, a love story. It was worth the time it spent on my tbr-list, but I'm also glad I didn't read it before this. I probably understand it a bit better now than I would have at twelve, after all.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Everything, Everything - Nikola Yoon

“Maybe growing up means disappointing the people we love.”

There is much to be said about Everything, Everything, but sadly most of what I have in mind isn't going to be good.

Here's what I can say about it that's nice:

I enjoyed the read for about a third of the book. It had good description - sometimes - and cute dialogue. There were a few characters I liked. The layout was quirky. The book was somewhat in touch with the times (tumblr is mentioned, of course, and it's set in 2015), but at times it feels awkward. Does someone still use IM as main way of online communication? What about Skype, FaceTime, Facebook messenger? I don't know why, but this really bothered me. Mostly the book could be set in any year in the 21st century, and I feel like it could have felt a bit more current.

Let this be said: I have seen many reviews from people who loved this book on Goodreads and I have also read many of those reviews. I also expected to like this book because I find the bubble baby syndrome very interesting and have been looking for a novel quite like this for a long time. This should have, by all means, been a book I had been trying to find all my life, and I should have loved it. Then what went wrong?

The main character is Madeline Whittier, and she is both a bland, unlikeable vanilla personality and a half-Japanese half-African book nerdy special snowflake with a very rare but also very popularised disease, SCID. Don't get me wrong here - I'm all for multiculturalism and POC getting all the love in the world. Here, though, I feel like her cultural heritage begins and ends with the mention of where her parents are from and a reference to her skin colour, without bringing anything to the story. She could well be Generic Girl From Anywhere™. To put it in a nutshell, she can never go outside because she could die from anything.

At first she talks about her condition with understandable detachedness, but because of a boy - Olly, whom I wish to describe with annoying lack of character faults, even though I couldn't really dislike him - she soon turns reckless and decides she doesn't want to live anymore, dashing outside even though she has never in her life been able to do that without risking dying. I hope that sounds bad because it is.

Of course, there's a lot wrong with her that's not limited to just this. I'd personally be more interested in reading about an inspiring character with unfair optimism, spiralling into depression or something, anything else than this. She describes the same things over and over again - my white room, white shelves, white life et cetera, without it adding anything to the story. Yes, it made me feel just how boring her life was, but it didn't make me really relate to her.

Also, near the beginning, she mentions having precious online friends. This is nice and can see this happening. The issue is that I don't think they're ever returned to, even though they have to be pretty much the only friends in her bland life. But who cares when she falls in love, right?

Her mother seems nice, but for a character with such a major role in the story, she is given very little space to grow. She has devoted her whole life to Madeline and is very... motherly. If you have ever seen a mother in real life, you can probably imagine.

I didn't like the book at the beginning. I think it was because of my initial hatred for the main character, but I got over that. I enjoyed it for a while after that, when Olly was introduced and we got something other than Maddy describing her bland room and her average test results over and over again.

What ultimately ruined it for me was the ending. Possibly never in my life have I hated the end of a book so much (and I spent years as a child seething over the way Marilyn Kaye's Replica-series ended, effectively ruining the previous 23 books for me, just like that), and you will want to stop reading now unless you want to have the ending spoiled.

You've been warned.

She doesn't have SCID. She never did. It was her mother all along, traumatised by the deaths of her father and brother, convincing her that she did. It's a twisted, stupid and pointless Rapunzel ex machina, and it does the book a huge disservice. It's a fairytale ending in a book that's supposed to end badly. It feels like Yoon didn't know how to end the story, but this may well be the worst possible way to do it. Of course, this is every terminally ill person's dream - you weren't sick after all, go outside and be happy! - but it's also widely unrealistic and not the story the reader was promised. It's not what I wanted, at the very least.

I wanted to read a story about a teenager condemned to live their life indoors because of the disease and possibly gain hope and learn to accept their fate. I did not want to read a book where the teenager also has a Bella Swan -syndrome, risking her life at the tip of a hat for a boy she hardly even knows and ending up finding out that she wasn't sick after all. This was like a terrible piece of The Fault In Our Stars fanfiction, rather than an actual book I bought with real money. The worst thing is that it didn't need to be bad. I was fully prepared to give it three stars, never return to it again but admit that it was okay. Now I can only complain for the next month to anyone who will listen.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Gorsky - Vesna Goldsworthy

"I was hit by a wave of unexpected grief, the like of which I had felt neither when my parents died nor when I lost my country." 

Vesna Goldsworthy's Gorsky is a reimagination of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, set in 1990s London, filled with extravagant Russians with names quirkily borrowed from the work it was inspired by. It was also Waterstones' last month's Fiction Book of the Month, which is why I decided to give it a go. I think it's important to state here that I absolutely adore The Great Gatsby and have possibly read it a bit too many times.

It's a tale most people are probably familiar with, and Gorsky doesn't go too far, or even far enough, in attempts of giving it a twist. Nick - here it's a shortened version of his Serbian name Nikola - works at a charming little bookstore in Chelsea that makes virtually zero revenues, but where he meets Roman Borisovich Gorsky.  The rich Russian tasks him to gather glamorous books and pieces for his private library, which soon turns into an attempt at courting Natalia Summerscale. I don't know if this description makes the book sound interesting, but to me it was dull.

The language flows beautifully and the book makes great observations, but its true charm lies where it has the bravery to leave its inspiration behind - a miracle that doesn't happen often enough, especially towards the end. I devoured the book quickly, with the hope that I'd witness a turn that would take the classic story to a new level, take me by surprise and make me truly appreciate the beautiful piece in my hands. This - spoiler - never happened.

I think Goldsworthy's literary talent shouldn't be doubted - the beautiful lines aren't ripped from the original piece and the characters have charming traits on their own, from Nick's wavering love for his war-torn home country to Gery's - she replaces Jordan Baker as Nick's not quite love interest - imperfect, steroid-ruined beauty.

This being said, I would much rather see her tackle a plot of her own, because she didn't exactly do this one much justice. It's an unfair comparison because The Great Gatsby is one of my favourite books, but I did try to like this more than I ended up doing. I found appreciation for the author's love of Russian works, gently peppered into Nick's speech and Gorsky's private collection, as well as for what she set out to do. I do however think that the book would have been better with a different plot, or perhaps a better take at the one it had. Especially towards the end it falls flat and thin, with Gorsky's death taking place without a lot of the misery it causes in the original. Gatsby dies while thinking he was getting everything he wanted, Gorsky dies again and again in a tape Nikola can't stop watching. Daisy escapes Long Island without an explanation, while Natalia returns to give Nikola her whole life story.

It wasn't an utter waste of my time.
I didn't dislike it.
I just don't know how to describe how much I just wish to rewrite half of the book and give it a new plot, to let it surprise its audience and have it remembered as something else than just a reimagination that just didn't quite work as well as the original. I'll be looking forward to Goldsworthy's next novel, as long as it isn't based on another beloved masterpiece.