Friday, August 29, 2014

Young Adult Fiction: #scandal by Sarah Ockler

As promised, I am covering Sarah Ockler's latest novel, #scandal. It is a story that explores the kind of fallout that can come from a few posted pictures on Facebook after a night of partying with friends. In this age of social media overload, it is easy to find the relevance in a story like this, and I am sure many people, and not just teenagers, could relate to it.

The Situation: Lucy Vacarro is about to graduate from high school. While she would rather be taking out zombies online, she has been recruited by her best friend Ellie to take her place at prom. Ellie has come down with a superflu and can't go to the prom with her boyfriend, Cole. Lucy reluctantly steps in, even wearing Ellie's dress, and joins in the night's festivities not only by going to the dance, but also by accompanying Cole to the after-party. It takes everything Lucy has within herself to ignore the feelings she has had for Cole for the last few years and stay loyal to her best friend. But everything falls apart when Cole kisses her, admitting that he's had the same feelings as well.

The Problem: Betraying her best friend by kissing her boyfriend was bad. But the best friend betrayal is almost forced to take a back seat when pictures from the after-party end up on Lucy's Facebook page, including a picture of Lucy and Cole kissing. Needless to say, Lucy didn't take those pictures or upload them to her own page, but someone did, using Lucy's stolen phone to do so. Now Ellie knows what happened, and the whole school has labeled Lucy both a slut and a narc for uploading pictures from the party and tagging them. And it doesn't help that someone has also created a Facebook page titled "Juicy Lucy" aimed squarely at Lucy, occasionally uploading recent pictures of her as she is just trying to live her life. Now Lucy needs to find out who stole her phone, who took and uploaded the pictures, who created the "Juicy Lucy" page, and who the mysterious Miss Demeanor is: the mysterious keeper of a Facebook gossip page centered around the school and it's students. Unfortunately Lucy is running low on friends, forcing her to join up with the most unlikely group of people.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel with a heavy emphasis on the effects of social media and its potential to put out in public what you would prefer to keep private. With a few clicks, anyone with a camera phone can take a picture and have it uploaded to the Internet within seconds via a variety of outlets. Just by stealing Lucy's phone, someone was not only able to upload embarrassing photos to Facebook, but because they had her phone, they could upload them to her personal account, making it look like she took the photos and published them. Then someone made her the focus of a completely different Facebook page so they could humiliate her further, using the advantage of anonymity that the Internet often affords. All of this is incredibly easy to do and pretty much anyone could pull it off, although there are consequences of course. The events in the novel cause the principal of Lucy's school, Ms. Zeff, to err on the side of caution and begin instituting stricter rules when it comes to electronic devices on campus. There is even a student group on the campus called the Electronic Vanities Intervention League, or (e)VIL, that protests against social media outlets such as Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, etc, and naturally uses what has happened with Lucy as part of their argument. Cyberbullying has certainly become a very real problem in recent years, and what has happened to Lucy and her friends is not outside the realm of possibility.

My Verdict: This book had so much potential, but ultimately fails to deliver. It starts off with a completely believable scandal: Lucy is caught making out with her best friends boyfriend, and then incriminating pictures of everyone at the prom after-party show up on her Facebook page, even though she didn't take the pictures or post them. The adventure of finding out who is responsible and clearing Lucy's name should have been thrilling and also satisfying once the guilty party is brought to justice. But instead, what follows is 401 pages of frustration and futility. If Lucy would just speak up for herself and tell her side, honestly, things would have gone a lot better for her. But instead she consistently keeps her mouth shut despite mounting evidence that it is only helping make things worse. Something else making things worse are the people she has surrounded herself with. Her "friends" are either ignoring her or are just no help at all (including Cole, the boy she has been in love with for four years), while those who have signed up to help her are only using her story for their own selfish reasons. Lucy keeps waiting for someone else to speak up for her, while never speaking up for herself. And then, when she has the chance, and with a fairly large captive audience, she totally cops out, and as a reader, it is maddening. It also doesn't help that there is just too much going on in this book, which leaves a lot of loose ends when the book finally ends. I still have questions about what happened with some of the other characters that were seemingly pretty important, but ended up just fading away into the background with no resolution. Overall, the experience was just incredibly unsatisfying.

Favorite Moment: Whenever Ellie, the friend Lucy betrayed, shows up to stand up for Lucy even though she has absolutely no reason to.

Favorite Character: I didn't at all care for any of the human characters, so I pick Lucy's dog, whom she named Night of the Living Dog due to her zombie obsession.   

Recommended Reading: There are much better Ockler books, like Bittersweet or Twenty Boy Summer. Even The Book of Broken Hearts is better than #scandal.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Young Adult Fiction: The Book of Broken Hearts by Sarah Ockler

This will be my fourth book by Sarah Ockler, and not my last as next week I'll be writing about her latest novel #scandal. I have been a fan of Ockler's since reading her first book, Twenty Boy Summer, so it was a given that I would eventually pick up today's subject, The Book of Broken Hearts, even if it did take nearly a year after its publication for me to do so.

The Situation: Jude Hernandez is the youngest of four sisters, and the only one still living at home with her mother and father. It is the last summer before she is to go off to college, and with her mother picking up extra shifts more than an hour away, Jude has decided to help her father restore his old motorcycle in the hopes that it will help his memory. She doesn't want to believe the doctor's diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer's disease, but it does seem like her papi loses more and more of his memory everyday. But when it comes to his old motorcycle and his former biker gang days, Papi comes to life in a way that gives Jude hope. So she forgoes the usual last summer antics of a graduating senior and decides that her adventures will be with her father.

The Problem: Caring for an ailing father is hard enough, especially as his inevitable decline becomes harder to ignore. But when Jude and Papi go to a local mechanic to hire someone to help restore the motorcycle, the mechanic they end up hiring is none other than Emilio Vargas, of THE Vargas brothers. Miguel Vargas broke the heart of Jude's eldest sister, Lourdes. And Johnny Vargas broke the heart of his fiancé, Jude's second oldest sister, Araceli. After that, all four sisters were lead in an oath by the third sister, Mariposa, to never ever get involved with a Vargas again. That was six years ago when Jude was 12 years old, and after realizing that the mechanic that will now spend many hours at her home is a Vargas, she rationalizes the situation, believing she hasn't broken the oath because she has no plan to get involved with him. But even just having him around the house feels like a betrayal. She does what she can to put distance between them, but with her friends keeping their distance because of Papi's potential freak outs, and Emilio seemingly not like his older brothers in any way, he becomes the person Jude is spending most of her time with. She isn't looking forward to explaining any of this to her sisters. And she also isn't sure how she'll convince them that Emilio is different and won't end up as another page in the sisters' Book of Broken Hearts.

Genre, Theme, History: This is a young adult fiction book that centers around Jude, the youngest of four sisters in the Hernandez household in the town of Blackfeather, Colorado. As the narrator, it is Jude's story we're getting, as well as Jude's thoughts, her perspective, her emotions, and her retelling of her family's history as she knows it, although it is eventually revealed that because she is the youngest, she is left out of quite a bit. With Jude comes the relatable experience of being the youngest in a large family. And as the only one still living at home, she is also the only one who sees the effects and symptoms of Papi's Alzheimer's everyday, and yet she is left out of any major discussions about what to do next. She laments her sisters' attempts to decide on how she should live her life, and often looks down at her outfits and realizes that they are made up entirely of hand-me-downs, even if they don't quite fit properly. Also, this is the first Ockler book where the main character isn't white. Jude's parents are both from Argentina and moved to the states before any of the daughter's were born, and before they even knew English. Because of this, plenty of Spanish is thrown around, as is much discussion about Jude's mother's amazing empanadas. And then of course, there is also the well-known theme of a girl trying her best to stay away from the boy that could very well only end up leaving her heart-broken.

My Verdict: It's a weird thing with Ockler...I felt like Twenty Boy Summer was a hit. And then Fixing Delilah was somewhat of a miss. And then Bittersweet was a definite hit. And now, for me, The Book of Broken Hearts falls somewhere in the middle, but it leans more towards a miss. The characters were fine, and even the storyline was fine, but parts of it just seemed choppy as if large chunks of the story were edited out and no one went back to smooth over the gaps. It was like it was missing significant transitions, and maybe even a few crucial plot points. More than once I felt a little lost and almost as if there was a fog over relevant parts of the story. Also, much of the dialogue, and some of Jude's emotions, felt forced and like they came out of nowhere. And then there is the ending: I just don't believe it. It's just too unrealistic for me, and too much of a fantasy that I have a hard time believing would play out in real life. Maybe I'm just not good at living in the moment, or something, but the ending of this book just doesn't work for me.

Favorite Moment: When Papi has a moment of clarity and stops Jude and Mariposa from fighting, while also reminding them that he is still their father.

Favorite Character: I have read many books that have teenage girls for narrators, and I must say that Jude is certainly one of the least annoying. She is a young girl dealing with stuff that is way over her head, so she makes mistakes, but they are understandable, and nothing too dramatic. 

Recommended Reading: As I said above, I believe Ockler's Bittersweet to be a hit, and as it is the book that was published right before this one, it is the one I will recommend. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Classic Fiction: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary is one of those books that I bought forever ago, and like the good literature major that I am I've had every intention of reading it as it is considered a classic, although it took me six years to finally do so. I think I put it off for so long because I have already read other books like it with similar story lines, and I knew there was a great chance that I would grow tired of it really quickly and drag my feet in finishing it, and there was an almost non-existent chance I would actually find it compelling and want to recommend it to people. One thing that was a guarantee (after reading the first page) was that I would most certainly find it to be extremely tedious.

The Situation: Emma has married the widow Charles Bovary and has left her life on her father's farm. While she is pleased to finally be a wife and have her own home to run, she finds herself increasingly bored by her simple and repetitive everyday existence. Her life with Charles does not give her the joy and passion and excitement that she dreamed it would. It's the kind of life she read about in books and is disappointed to find that her actual existence looks nothing like what she found on the page. So like many people who feel bored and unfulfilled, Emma begins buying things she does not need and cannot afford. And when she begins to display the symptoms of a serious illness, Charles goes so far as to have them moved to another town where he can still be a doctor and earn a living. Eventually the change in scenery and the material things leave Emma feeling unsatisfied again, so she begins having affairs.

The Problem: Quite naturally, there are many risks that come with having an affair and trying to keep it not only from your husband, but also your entire household of servants, your neighbors, friends, family, and anyone else who might know you socially. And since this is early 19th century France, Emma can't simply leave her house whenever she wants without offering some sort of explanation as to where she is going. She does not have a job, and has very little she needs to do outside of the house to merit her leaving. But she finds a way, and is able to get some satisfaction with a new lover. But soon (spoiler alert!), her lover grows tired of her, just as he has all of the other women he has been with, and abandons her, once again leaving her bored and unfulfilled. And while Charles suspects nothing, he continues to love her and dote on her, but she just cannot bring herself to see in him what he sees in her. Meanwhile, debts are piling up as a businessman Charles lent money from manipulates Emma into boring more and more money until it looks as if, while Emma's second affair may not ruin her, her spending and borrowing habits certainly might.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a classic fiction novel set in 19th century France. At it's absolute simplest it is a story about a common housewife who is repulsed by her doting husband as she sees in him everything that is dull, boring, and painfully everyday. So in order to get some excitement in her life, the same excitement she reads about in her novels and feels when she goes out to balls and parties, she goes shopping and has affairs. But beyond this, Flaubert also has brief moments where medical procedures and advancements of the time are explored as Charles is a doctor, and another prominent character, Monsieur Homais, is the local pharmacist who practices medicine without a license. Monsieur Homais is also anti-religion and enjoys arguing with the local clergy, even at less than opportune times (like a funeral). Even with these brief forays into science and religion, the main focus remains to be Madame Bovary. As for the "obscenity" that this book is known for, and the reason Flaubert was put on trial for it, it really isn't much compared to today's standards. The problem was really with the fact that the narrator doesn't seem to condemn Emma's affairs, leading some to believe Flaubert condoned adultery. Personally, I would think that Emma's behavior throughout the book, as well as the ending, would satisfy people on that score, but maybe that is just me.

My Verdict: Sure, it is a classic, but it is still incredibly tedious. And there are other classics similar to it that are much better and more enjoyable to read. The only reason I gave it more than one star on Goodreads is because I don't necessarily regret reading it, and it did eventually start to get good. Granted, it was close to the end (like 30 pages out), but still, that does count for something. It is also one of the books that suffers from what I like to refer to as the Frankenstein effect. Much like Mary Shelley's classic, it isn't really that long of a book, but it takes forever to read. Something about the language makes you feel like you're trying to run through wet sand. In other words, I would get tired of the book extremely quickly after having made little progress. It was beyond frustrating. Maybe other readers will be more like many of my lit professors and recognize this novel as the great classic it is often held up to be. But for me, I am mostly just glad it's over.

Favorite Moment: Pretty much any moment that I pick out as one that I enjoyed is a moment when Emma is shown to be either slightly ridiculous or slightly mad. I also enjoyed when her plans came back to bite her. Suffice it to say she will not be named below as my favorite character.

Favorite Character: While he may be dull and somewhat vanilla in his personality, I choose Charles as my favorite character. He is blind, naive, and a little slow as far as seeing people for who they really are, but ultimately he is a decent human being. He wants to make his wife happy and does what he can. And if he weren't so easily swayed by other's opinions, especially those who wish to ruin him, then he could have been a pretty good doctor.

Recommended Reading: As I said, there are other classics with elements that are contained within Madame Bovary that, in my opinion, are much more enjoyable to read. If you want to read more about married women who decide to have an affair, then I recommend Leo Tolstoy's Ana Karenina. If you want to read more about a married woman who wants more out of life with her doctor husband and begins spending outside of her means, I recommend  George Eliot's Middlemarch, which will also come with bonus discussions on science, religion, and politics. And finally, if you want to read about an unmarried woman spending beyond her means in order to get ahead in life and ultimately coming to ruin, I recommend Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth.      

Friday, August 8, 2014

Young Adult Fiction: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

We Were Liars is the first book I have ever read by E. Lockhart, who has also written four books about Ruby Oliver (The Boyfriend List, The Boy Book, The Treasure Map of Boys, and Real Live Boyfriends), and the National Book Award finalist The Disreputable History of Frankie-Landau-Banks. I picked up We Were Liars because of the cryptic description on the inside of the book jacket, and because of the idea of something tragic happening to a family that essentially lives in a bubble every summer on their own private island.

The Situation: Cadence Sinclair Eastman lives with her mom and their three dogs in Burlington, Vermont. But they spend every summer on Beechwood Island in Massachusetts. It is essentially the Sinclair's own private island, owned by Cady's grandfather. Each of the three daughter's have their own house, where they each bring their own families and Cady's cousins. There are the older set consisting of Cady, Johnny, and Mirren, all the same age and born very close together. And then there are the littles, Will, Taft, Bonnie, and Liberty. All of them are blonde, all of them are beautiful, and all of them are rich and stand to inherit a great chunk of money from their grandparents. It isn't until the summer that the older set turns eight years old that they begin to be called the Liars. That is the summer that Gat showed up on the island. Gat is the nephew of the Indian man that Johnny's mother has begun dating. He isn't blonde, and he isn't rich, but after that initial summer, Gat is welcomed back to the island along with the rest of the family. Harris and Tipper, Cady's grandparents, don't really approve of Gat, but he is allowed on the island anyway, and everything seems fine.

The Problem: Something happened the summer the Liars turned 15. Something worse than the constant squabbling going on between Cady's mom and her sisters over the houses and their inheritance, with grandfather only fueling the fire, searching for who is the most loyal and loves him most. Something worse than Harris' subtle disapproval of Gat and his relationship with his eldest granddaughter. Cady has a terrible accident, but all she can remember is being found in the water, and sustaining a head injury. She has asked her mother many times over what happened, and her mother keeps telling her. Eventually, the doctor recommends that Cady try to remember on her own, as being reminded of the tragedy only to forget about it isn't helping. After skipping a summer, Cady returns to Beechwood, where a lot has changed. The main house where her grandfather still stays has been completely renovated, and one of her aunts has vacated the house she stayed in and has opted to stay with the grandfather, leaving one whole house for the Liars to occupy in their own. Because of her still fragile health and frequent debilitating migraines, Cady still stays with her mother, trying her best to piece together what really happened the summer the Liars were 15. Cady realizes that if the accident two years ago didn't kill her, and the migraines don't, then the truth just might. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel about one family that seems so perfect and happy on the outside, but is slowly deteriorating from the inside due to selfishness, greed, and the desire to always look the part. All of the Sinclair's are blonde, beautiful, and incredibly rich. The entire family gathers at their private island every summer to enjoy an idyllic season of family fun in the sun. But all of the money in the world cannot keep the marriages of the three Sinclair daughters from falling apart. It also can't keep the eldest grandchild from dating someone from another race...someone who isn't blonde with creamy white skin. As Cady gets older, even she begins to realize that her family isn't what it pretends to be: happy. Her grandfather's homespun wisdom of "never take no for an answer" is eventually revealed to be his justification for manipulating those around him and taking whatever he wants, no matter who it hurts. And it makes her sick to see him pit his own daughters against each other for his own ego. He also can't hide his true feelings towards Gat, despite the fact that he never addresses the issue directly. None of them address issues directly. And after Cady has her accident, directness is what she craves as she tries to piece together what happened. She feels like everyone, even the other Liars, are constantly hiding something from her, and no one will simply tell her what happened, insisting she remember on her own. We Were Liars takes a family full of first-world problems and has them deal with them in the worst way possible, and eventually, they end up with a very real tragedy. 

My Verdict: I think what impressed me the most about this book was that it is an incredibly easy and quick read, but it isn't necessarily light material. In fact, it deals with some incredibly dark stuff without getting too heavy-handed. And I think Lockhart handled the issue of Cady's spotty memory very well. Sometimes, having the narrative jump between the different summers as Cady tries to remember was a bit confusing, but ultimately it works out and it becomes clear as to what happened when. And although the book is fairly short (clocking in at a little over 200 pages), the story doesn't feel rushed, and nothing feels left out. Lockhart said what she needed to say and then left it at that. Also, the storyline is somewhat complex, not only because of the switching timelines, but also because of the many characters. But the plot never felt messy or all over the place. Instead, it was like being in the head of someone trying to remember something but just isn't able to grasp the main details. It is a well-done story, and definitely worth picking up. 

Favorite Moment: When the Liars begin to stand up for themselves and refuse to get involved in fighting over the inheritance that takes place between the aunts.

Favorite Character: This is one of those books where every character gives the reader a reason not to like them, but I pick Cady anyway. It isn't so much what she does or says to others, but it is more about her voice and the way she tells her story. She is dry, witty, clever, sarcastic, and even funny sometimes, even though what she is revealing is incredibly serious.

Recommended Reading: As a follow-up to this book, I recommend John Green's Looking for Alaska. It is also a YA book that deals with tragedy and loss, and how different people deal with losing someone close to them. 

Friday, August 1, 2014

Historical Fiction: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

I need more minority writers in my life, so I picked up Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi after it popped up in my recommendations on Goodreads. I was also interested in a storyline that includes elements from the story of Snow White that many of us are so familiar with, but reimagined for 1950s-1960s America.

The Situation: Boy Novak has managed to escape her abusive father Frank in New York City, and has made a modest life for herself in the small community of Flax Hill. She has friends in the boarding house where she is staying, a job at a local bookstore, and she even garnered the interest of a local widow who already has a daughter of his own named Snow. After a slightly awkward meeting with her fiance's mother and sister, as well as the mother of his late wife, Boy and Arturo get married and are soon expecting a child of their own.

The Problem: Although Boy was always slightly wary of her step-daughter Snow from the beginning, her feelings darken incredibly after the birth of her own daughter, Bird. Snow never actually does anything wrong, and seems to love and and adore Bird and treats her like her little sister. But apart from Arturo and Boy, she is the only one who seems to welcome Bird into the family. When Bird is born, it is obvious she is black. Boy is white, and had thought she had married a white man. Turns out Arturo and his family had been "passing" (when light-skinned black people successfully pretend to be white) for years. Also, his wife Julia was black, but she and her mother Agnes were also able to pass, and did so, which is why Arturo's family loved her so much, and also doted endlessly on Snow, who was not only able to pass like the rest of her family, but was also just incredibly beautiful. Boy is encouraged to send Bird away to Arturo's other sister Clara, who was not able to pass and therefore grew up separated from the rest of her family. But instead of sending Bird away, Boy sends Snow away, and finds herself becoming the evil stepmother she never thought she would be. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction book that has elements of a fairy tale, pulling mostly from the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Snow's last name is even Whitman). It is set in 1950s-1960s America, so Oyeyemi uses the country's racially tense history as the backdrop for a story involving an evil stepmother, and a little girl whose beauty is obvious to everyone so she receives incredible amounts of attention because of it. Oyeyemi also gives the use and idea of mirrors a prominent place in the story. Boy can't seem to get enough of her own reflection, which troubles her slightly, while Bird's reflection sometimes doesn't show up at all. But while Oyeyemi has the characters deal with physical mirrors, her characters also become mirrors themselves as they feel and believe certain things when they look, and sometimes refuse to look, at each other. Something about Snow makes Boy uncomfortable, so she sends her away. And Arturo's family is troubled by Bird's appearance, so a few of his family member's try to ignore her completely. Ultimately, the way people feel when looking at someone else says something about the observer, not the object. And in a racially tense country these reflections can be very telling indeed.

My Verdict: There is quite a bit going on in this book, and the description makes it sound incredibly interesting, which is why I picked it up. Not only does it deal with the subject of "passing," but it is formed like a fairy tale and has parts where suspension of disbelief is necessary. Unfortunately, the description of the book makes it sound much more interesting and compelling than it actually is. The parts of the book that dealt with passing, and the parts that were narrated by Bird were well done and engaging. But everything else was pretty disappointing. And while there are elements of the fairy tale in it, the theme isn't quite followed all of the way through, and often felt forced. And this was another one of those endings where it seemed like the author had painted herself into a corner and just needed a way out. What is even worse is that the way out that she chose felt like Oyeyemi was pandering to her audience, while trying to weakly hang on to the fairy tale theme. Ultimately, there were parts of this book that I enjoyed, but overall it left me disappointed.

Favorite Moment: When Bird is able to mimic the voice of her Gee-Ma Julia and gain vital information out of her Grandma Olivia.

Favorite Character: Bird is easily my favorite character. She is a young girl attempting to learn more about her racially confused and unsettled family. And even though the adults attempt to put her off and avoid the topic, she manages to find answers in her own way.

Favorite Quote: "School is one long illness with symptoms that switch every five minutes so you think it's getting better or worse. But really it's the same thing for years and years." - Bird on middle school and high school. 

Recommended Reading: If you want to read a historical fiction book set in 20th century America, I recommend The Supremes at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat by Edward Kelsey Moore. The book follows three black woman and chronicles their long friendship together from their teen years into adulthood.