Friday, March 28, 2014

Young Adult Fiction: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Because I enjoyed Fangirl so much, I decided to do a little backtracking with Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor & Park. This book actually took first place for Best Young Adult Fiction in the 2013 Goodreads Choice Awards, while Fangirl got second. I figured if the book not only beat out my beloved Fangirl for the top spot, and was written by the same author, then it had to be worth reading.

The Situation: Like most teenagers, Park is just trying to survive high school. Everyday he rides the bus to school and just keeps to himself, drowning out the kids in the back with his loud 80's punk rock blaring through his headphones while reading comic books. He knows how to keep unwanted attention away, and had been doing it pretty well, until Eleanor showed up. Big, awkward, badly dressed, fiery red headed Eleanor. As soon as she stepped on the bus, Park knew she would be an immediate outcast. And then, horror of horrors, she sat on the empty seat next to him. Common sense, as well as the social politics of high school, told him he shouldn't engage. But Park soon finds himself picking out comic books to bring on the bus that he thinks she'll like too, since she is clearly reading along with him, hoping he won't notice. Then he finds himself discussing music with her and bringing her mix tapes to listen to, and lending her his cassette player so she has something to listen to them with. Then he's holding her hand. Then the morning and afternoon bus rides are his favorite parts of the day.

The Problem: Sure, Eleanor is weird, but that isn't the whole story. She is only just now attending Park's school because she spent the last year or so living away from home, which includes her mom, her stepfather, one sister, two brothers, and one half-brother. Her abusive stepfather had kicked her out of the house and was just now okay with letting her back in. But that didn't mean her problems were over. Now she must do her best to become invisible when she's at home, and that skill would come in handy at school too, except she's too big and her hair is too red to escape the notice of the meanest school bullies. But then there is Park. The boy on the bus who lends her his comic books, who makes her cassette tapes, who holds her hand in public, who invites her over to his family's house. But then again, there is also Park. The boy she'll have to leave if things get too bad again at home. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set in the 1980s...something I somehow missed when I first picked it up. But the mention of cassette tapes and the fact that no one had a cell phone quickly clued me in. Neither Eleanor nor Park are the typical modern-day young adult fiction protagonists. Park is a half-Korean guy living in a suburb of Omaha, Nebraska who has been taking tae kwon do since he was a kid and is really into 80s rock...which to him would be just rock...since it is still the 80s. Eleanor is a bigger than average teenage girl with fiery and unruly red hair. She was never really allowed the luxury of being into anything like music or comic books, as she spends most of her time avoiding her stepfather and keeping both herself and her siblings out of harm's way. The book is very much about young love and how, honestly, it isn't supposed to last. There is even a brief discussion about William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet and how people love it and regard it as his best play, when it absolutely is not. The narrative style was disorienting at times as it switches back and forth between Eleanor and Park, but not in the first person, therefore making it really easy to forget who is the focus of a certain section. But even with the confusion, having the story switch focus between the two characters gives equal access to both of their worlds and to how they think.

My Verdict: This story is real. But not the annoying kind of real where the author just throws stuff out there for a reaction or for shock value. It is the kind of real that is indeed gritty and raw and sometimes hard to stomach, but it is also almost refreshing to read a story where the characters have real problems and issues and not everyone can be imagined as if they were on the CW network. These two aren't Romeo and Juliet, and that's a good thing. I personally am not a fan of Romeo & Juliet. Eleanor and Park are two real teenagers who found each other. I can't say I liked it as much as Fangirl, but I do see what all of the fuss was about.

Favorite Moment: When Eleanor was able to find help in the last place she ever thought she would find it.

Favorite Character: Park's Korean mother Mindy. She doesn't let either of her boys, Park or Josh, curse in the house, and she even gets mad at her husband when he does it. She also stands up to her husband for Park's sake when she thinks he isn't being fair. And although Mindy isn't sure about Eleanor at first, she does not shy away from admitting she was wrong and does what she can to make peace with her and her son.

Recommended Reading: Of course I am going to recommend Fangirl...what else would I possibly recommend in this situation?   

Friday, March 21, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: Eyes Closed Tight by Peter Leonard

This week's post will be another departure for me as it is way more mystery/thriller than what I usually go for. I was sent Peter Leonard's most recent novel, Eyes Closed Tight, in exchange for a review as part of the blog tour for the book. It involves a retired police detective who must go back to an old case in order to solve the some recent murders that have been happening near his motel in Florida.

The Situation: O'Clair is a retired Detroit homicide investigator who now reside in Pompano Beach, Florida where he owns and operates a beach front motel with his much younger girlfriend, Virginia. Since retiring, he and Virginia live a fairly quiet life, renting out rooms to tourists and vacationers, and enjoying life on the beach. When O'Clair sees the body of a young woman on one of his lounge chairs that has been dragged away from the pool area, he assumes she is one of the college students that have been staying in the motel, sleeping off a night of partying. When the girl doesn't wake up, and when O'Clair searches for a pulse and doesn't find one, he has to alert the police, knowing having a crime scene so close to his motel will hurt business. But when a second body shows up in the same manner, a little loss of business is the least of O'Clair's problems.

The Problem: Having dead women show up on the property of your home and business is bad enough. But the more O'Clair finds out about these murders the more it sounds like a case he worked years ago in Detroit. Some of the details surrounding those murders are a little different, but still close enough for O'Clair to believe the killer is sending him a message, and that he arrested the wrong guy back in Detroit. And when it becomes clear that the killer now has his eyes on Virginia, O'Clair knows he is in a race against the clock.  

Genre, Themes, History: This is a mystery/thriller novel set in present-day Florida, with a good amount of scenes taking place in Detroit, Michigan, as O'Clair goes back there to look into his old case with his former partner. There is some suspense, but from the beginning the reader is told who the killer is and even sees parts of the story from their point of view. There is more to be revealed later, however, regarding the particulars of the killer's identity and why he is back. Plus, there is the general suspense over whether they will get caught or not. While the story may be told by a third person omniscient narrator, there are times where the reader is allowed to enter the character's mind, including the killer. And while O'Clair revisits his old case, the reader is given some history into the killer's background to see how they got into the business of ending lives. The book looks at what makes people act the way they do, and what could possibly motivate somewhat to believe that serial killing is a viable option.

My Verdict: As I said, this book is a departure for me and is not one I would normally just choose to review. But even so, I was generally pleased with it and even a bit entertained. There were moments where I rolled my eyes (the much younger girlfriend part was instance #1) and there were parts that I wanted badly to skip - basically any part where the story was told from the killer's perspective and it was obvious what was coming next. But even so, I enjoyed the book much more than I thought I would and recommend it to anyone who enjoys murder mysteries involving serial killers and even cold cases. There were only a few moments where I was truly less than impressed with the writing, and those moments were mostly due to either holes in the plot or character development issues. On the whole, this is a good book.

Favorite Moment: When O'Clair uses just a mention of the IRS in order to get information out of a less than reputable business.      

Favorite Character: This is difficult because O'Clair is pretty much front and center, with everyone else, even Virginia, with much less exposure. There is also much focus on the killer of course, who was by far my least favorite character. So I think I will go with DeAndre, O'Clair's former partner in Detroit. He's a smart, educated, well-dressed, successful, black lieutenant in one of the country's toughest cities, and is willing to look into the old case with O'Clair, even if that means finding out they had made a mistake. 

Recommended Reading: When I go to pick a mystery/thriller, I tend to go for something more like Marisha Pessl's Night Film. But be warned, Pessl's book is about three times as long and much much darker.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: The Bookstore by Deborah Meyler

This week's selection is one of those books I found about by accident through Goodreads and decided to give a chance. The premise of Deborah Meyler's The Bookstore seemed right up my alley as it involves a small used bookstore in New York City and a young graduate student on scholarship at Columbia University. And after receiving the book for Christmas, I figured it was time to take a break from my usual door stops and young adults in crazy situations.

The Situation: Esme Garland is a young British woman currently residing in New York City while pursuing her PhD in art history at Columbia. For the most part she is your typical grad student living in the Big Apple. She's attending Columbia on a scholarship and resides in a modest studio apartment on Broadway in Manhattan. She even landed and incredibly wealthy boyfriend, Mitchell, and has become good friends with her across-the-hall photographer neighbor, Stella. Being an art history major, Esme often stops by a local used bookstore called The Owl and has even become fairly friendly with the regular employees. Esme's life, while somewhat busy, is in order, and she likes it that way.

The Problem: One day she asks Mitchell to meet her because she has something important to tell him. Turns out, he has something important to tell her too. He's decided to break up with her because he doesn't think their sex life is exciting enough. Which is a shame really, since Esme was going to tell Mitchell that she is pregnant, and he is most certainly the father. Now Esme is single, in school on a scholarship, in the US on a student visa, so she can't legally get a job, and pregnant. Fortunately, she is able to get a job at The Owl, as the owner, George, agrees to pay her under the table. And even though her shifts at the store only add to the busyness of her life, the store and the relationships she makes there will be a strange sort of stabilizing and supporting force for Esme. Even the regular homeless men that come by end up being a source of comfort. There is potential for Esme to be okay. And when Mitchell decides to have a change of heart and wants Esme back, it seems things will be okay, until it becomes clear that being with Mitchell does not bring the order to her life that she desires.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in modern-day New York City, with a young British college student as the first-person narrator. At times Esme is naive, immature, foolish, desperate, needy, self-righteous, and completely blind to the obvious. But she is also incredibly smart, and sweet, and ultimately wants to help people and do the right thing, even if it is unpopular. Most of her unpopular decisions aren't even about her pregnancy, but instead are about her experiences at The Owl and its employees and its patrons. There is quite a bit of discussion regarding the plight of the modern-day bookstore, especially the used bookstore, with the ever-growing popularity of devices such as the Kindle and iPad, not to mention the ease with which people can order real books at a discounted rate off of Amazon, and with those come a guarantee that no one has taken notes already in the margins.  In the acknowledgments, Meyler admitted that the bookstore she describes here in The Bookstore does not actually look anything like the one she frequents that is currently at Broadway and 80th, Westsider Books. But I am sure every reader of this book can picture their own version of the store that they have come across in real life, either in their own home town or in their travels.

My Verdict: It is strange to come across a book that actually has some pretty fantastic writing, like really good, but the main character is such a pain in the butt that it kind of ruins the entire story. For the majority of the novel, Esme is so oblivious that I started to hope certain things would happen to her just so she would wake up and pay attention. It felt like the situation could not have been spelled out for her any clearer, but she just kept going along as if everything was fine. Also, there were certain characters and interactions that I just had a hard time believing. I couldn't understand why Esme believed that Luke, one of the employees at The Owl, didn't like her. And Stella, Esme's neighbor, just didn't seem like a fully fleshed out character. Meanwhile, other characters, like George the store owner, and DeeMo, a homeless man who makes frequent appearances, are quite well-done and incredibly likable. So in short, I have mix feelings about this one that lean toward the negative. 

Favorite Moment: Basically whenever Esme made a fool of herself, I was happy. Terrible but true. Like I said, I started to want bad things to happen her just so she would maybe get off of the path she was on.

Favorite Character: This is easily George, the owner of The Owl. He is a bit eccentric (the type who is very wary of most cleaning products), a vegetarian, and spends many hours outside of the bookstore making deals with people looking to get rid of their own personal libraries, often paying them more than he knows the books to be worth. But that only speaks to his graciousness, his patience, and his belief in the power of the written word.

Favorite Quote: "When the city rejected him he stayed anyway, with a book like this in his pocket, and this book, with all its stains and all its creases, who knows how many subways and streets it has gone through, who knows how many times Solomon has built his temple, who knows how many times Jonah has been spewed forth from the whale, who knows what pyrotechnics of imagination it has wrought, whether it was in Corso or in some mute, inglorious Milton. I think, I really think, that this book is a symbol of the city, not because it is rare and strange but because it isn't." - George talking about a Bible in the store that was supposedly carried around by Gregory Corso.

Second Favorite Quote: "No. I don't think I agree with you after all. That boy wanted to talk to me because he saw that I was reading a book, precisely because I wasn't at the door offering him a latte and an invitation to a poetry reading. He wanted to win my attention, by trying. Bookshops have got to survive because people want them, Esme. You've got to trust people to want them, not try to trick people into wanting them." - George on what a bookstore should be, particularly his bookstore. 

Recommended Reading: Since I honestly have no idea what else to recommend, I choose Christopher Moore's Sacre Bleu, mostly because it has to do with famous artists and Esme is studying art history. Sacre Bleu is a very different type of novel, but still an incredibly fun one.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Historical Fiction: Palisades Park by Alan Brennert

This is my first time reading an Alan Brennert novel, and given my fixation with amusement parks, it is no surprise I chose Palisades Park as opposed to his previous successes. A historical fiction novel with a historic park as its setting seemed right for me. 

The Situation: For Eddie Stopka, Palisades Amusement Park had a formative presence in his life since his very first visit as a small child. After a few years away from home - a time in which he rode the rails and pretty much went wherever the trains took him, working at various carnivals along the way - it wasn't very surprising to Eddie that he would end up back at Palisades selling cotton candy as young man. It is here that he would notice a young blonde woman named Adele, working at her own stand in the amusement park. They would soon date, get married, have a family, and even a business all their own, selling the same French fries that Eddie had been so taken with as a little kid. Naturally, their children, Antoinette (Toni) and Jack would also come to love Palisades and would treat it like a second home, and the people who worked there like a second family. 

The Problem: Working at an amusement park doesn't mean that life will always be cotton candy, French fries, swimming, stage shows, rides, and the sound of the calliope. When Eddie and Adele had opened their business, World War II hadn't quite gotten started yet, not for the US. Then one day in early December, news of the attack on Pearl Harbor reaches the Stopka household, and even though Eddie knows he probably won't be drafted because of his wife and kids, he still sets his mind to go. And this is only one part of the Stopka's long history with Palisades Amusement Park, and it won't be their only war. At least twice the park will experience terrifying and destructive fires. Men will be called off to fight for their country on foreign soil, leaving the park and their families behind. Adele will grow bored with running the French fry stand, longing to follow her abandoned dream of being a star in the movies or the stage. Toni will reject almost everything her mother wishes to teach her about being ladylike, the ultimate betrayal coming when she decides she wants to be a female high-diver. And even Jack will eventually feel the desire to fight in a war. Meanwhile, Palisades goes through its own growth of change, from rations during WWII, to the tension of pool segregation when Toni and Jack are teenagers. The amusement park is still a business run by human beings trying to make a living. And while it seems like a place where the fun never stops, especially if you're a kid, it is still just as affected by the events surrounding it as the people are who run it.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel about the real Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey that closed in 1971. The book is even described as Brennert's love letter to a cherished part of his childhood. And while Hawaii featured heavily in his previous books, Palisades Amusement Park is that star of this show. However, Eddie does spend his time in Hawaii as he is stationed there in WWII, and it is where he gets the idea to open his Hawaii-themed restaurant, even before it becomes a state. Even though the book follows the history of the Stopka family, beginning in Eddie's childhood with his first visit to the amusement park, it is just as much a history of the park itself as it ends more or less with the park's closing. But the book also follows many characters as they travel away from New Jersey, mainly Eddie when he serves in the war, and Toni when she begins to travel and perfect her high-diving routine. It is almost a study of life working in amusement parks and carnivals overall with just a heavier focus on Palisades. And some of the other themes included the cost of following your dreams, as well as the regret of not following them at all.

My Verdict: I have my issues with this book, but overall I enjoyed it immensely. Of course, as I explained when I reviewed Stephen King's Joyland, when it comes to amusement parks I am more than a little biased as they are one of my favorite things in life. I am mostly about the rides, but really I just love amusement parks. And while I love riding a good roller coaster, I also love reading about them and reading about the history of the parks in general. Not only did Brennert give me a thorough history of Palisades, but he also gave me the wonderful story of the Stopka family to go along with it. The reader gets to see little Eddie grow up and have a family of his own as well as a business at the park. And then we see the same thing all over again with his children, all with the sights and sounds of Palisades as the backdrop. One of my issues with the book, however, comes with the long and sustained absence of certain characters later in the book, who were the main focus for quite a while closer to the beginning. So long, in fact, that it was my belief that they would remain the focus for the duration of the book. But maybe that is just an illustration of life at Palisades. As the park continues to grow and change, so do the people around it, with some moving on and others never leaving. Although many times, as with this book, there were some who even made a very welcome return.

Favorite Moment: When Toni returns to Palisades after a long absence to find that the rumors were true: the owners had finally decided to de-segregate the pool.

Favorite Character: While I didn't think she would be when she first appeared in the book, Toni Stopka ended up being my favorite character. Being a Stopka, she has known Palisades all her life and fell in love with the idea of high-diving from the very first time she saw one perform at the free-act stage. Despite some setbacks, she manages to work hard and make her dream come true.

Recommended Reading: It probably won't be much of a surprise that I recommend Stephen King's Joyland. While both novels focus heavily on the amusement park industry and use one as the main setting, King's novel is more of a mystery/thriller as opposed to a story that looks back on the industry with a sense of nostalgia and longing. His book might actually scare you away from amusement parks and carnivals, specifically the haunted house rides (there is always one), while Brennert's book will make you want to find the nearest cotton candy stand and ride the bumper cars.