Monday, March 30, 2009

applied inconsistently

Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, YA
Review: The premise of this book is that when we die, we go to Elsewhere where we age backwards until we reach babyhood, at which point we are returned to Earth to live another life. It's an interesting idea that is unfortunately applied inconsistently here, to the detriment of the story. In some cases, the aging backward is portrayed as being only physical level, with emotional maturity at least staying constant, if not increasing as the years go on. As the main characters return to young childhood, though, they are portrayed as both looking and acting their "age." This discrepancy wouldn't have bothered me so much except that relative age becomes an issue in the relationships between some of the characters.

Friday, March 27, 2009

lacking motivation

American Rust by Philipp Meyer
Rating: 0.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: We get inside the head of a lot of characters in this book. However, despite spending a lot of time inside their head, we rarely get any insight into their decision-making processes, which is unfortunate, since many of the characters make fairly dramatic decisions in the course of the narrative. Also, most of the characters seem somewhat mentally unstable, which is fine, if they're supposed to be, but I don't think they were. So overall it's just a bunch of unpleasant people running around making life-altering decisions without any apparent reason.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

depressing conscience

Mercury Under My Tongue by Sylvain Trudel
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, YA
Review: When I was a teenager, I was very into depressing books about depressing things. And perhaps if I was still a teenager, I would have liked this book too. But I'm not, and I didn't. Not only is this book horribly depressing (it's about a 17-year old boy in the hospital dying from bone cancer), but it uses one of my least favorite literary techniques: stream of consciousness. He's already come to terms with his own death, so there's not a lot of existential wrangling going on, just imaginary conversations with his family and a few glimpses of life in the hospital. And teenage angsty poetry. If you're interesting in knowing what's going on in the head of this particular fictional dying teenager, this is the book for you. But if you're actually looking for a good book or compelling writing, skip it.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

two for the price of one

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction, mystery
Review: I liked this book. Really, I did. The writing is wonderful. But I was a little confused about what kind of book it wanted to be. Was it a mystery? Or the story of Maisie's experiences as a nurse in WWI? Either one would have been great, but to start the mystery and then have an extended flashback to her childhood and experiences leading up to where the book started was, for me, too big a break in the narrative. But I liked each part, so I read on. And both parts finished in an unexpected way, which I couldn't help but like.

Saturday, March 7, 2009


Paper Towns by John Green
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, YA
Review: This book is about two different types of relationships. At first, it seems to be about a guy (Quentin, known as Q) who has been in love with his not-so-typical girl next door (Margo) since they were children together. Since being children, they've drifted apart and hang with very different crowds in high school. She's with the cool kids, and he's with the band geeks. But what happens when she decides she needs his help to carry out the ultimate revenge plan? And then disappears?

But there's also the relationship between Q and his two best friends. And I think that's what this book is really about. The interactions among Q and his friends as they try to figure out what happened to Margo and plan for prom at the same time had me laughing out loud even in this seemingly somber book.

I did have one problem with this book: Margo is almost the exact same character as Alaska from another of Green's books. The incandescent girl who plans elaborate pranks and captures the imagination of her peers is an excellent character, but surely Green has more than one leading lady in his repertoire. Incidentally, I like Margo better than her counterpart.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

the story of research

Ain't Nothing But a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry by Scott Reynolds Nelson
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: non-fiction, history
Review: The author made an interesting choice to make the story of his own research the focus of this book. I think it worked really well in this case, given that there's so little known about the actual John Henry. Nelson is very up-front about the fact that much of his results are based on theory or conjecture, but overall the transparency of his research process gives a lot of weight to his conclusions. This is an interesting book both for what it tells us about the research process, but also for what we learn about John Henry's world.