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.