Friday, December 8, 2017

#CBR9 Review #26: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

After finally reading The Handmaid’s Tale earlier this year, I figured it was time to dive into more Margaret Atwood content! I was looking at Alias Grace but my friend assures me I will love the TV show, so I’m holding off on that one for now. So where to go? Well, the title of The Heart Goes Last kept poking at something in my brain, and so, off I went. It’s as simple as that. And what I got was something very unique and filled with commentary about many different things, but also quite a wacky little setup and adventure in a way. Though, I didn’t love it: because I didn’t love any of the characters therein. For some reason, I couldn’t feel for them, and they seemed almost distant or not truly like real people to me. And perhaps that is part of what is important in this novel, given some of the issues and how they play out: they are the semblance of reality and just the ideas of people while really falling into a lot of unrounded tropes. “That type” of person at face value, if you will. And I do find that if I don’t connect with characters or don’t find them interesting or as if they connect to relatable emotions and personalities, I tend to not fully enjoy a story. It’s not as if this is a bad novel, but definitely not a favourite.

The Heart Goes Last focuses on a married couple named Charmaine and Stan, in the wake of an economic collapse in America. The wealthy remain so, but many people are facing unemployment and homelessness: Stan and Charmaine are living in their car when they see an ad for an experimental new community which provides everything they need, but once they are in, they cannot leave. They eagerly sign up and learn that the setup involves living a normal life in a normal house for a month, and then living and working in a prison for a month, back and forth. The design is derived from experiences utilizing prison labour and does seem to operate smoothly as people share resources and essentially all put in work to ensure that they community continues as it does. But of course, you get the feeling from the beginning that not all is as it seems, as certain “undesirables” are eliminated, only certain types of people and those who appear to follow rules without issue are accepted into the community to begin with, and life continues is a comfortable but strict manner. This unsettling seeming hidden side to the community and prison of course comes to light in what is actually a bit of a wacky situation, manipulated by people on the inside who want the truth out. Overall the plot is intriguing and I was engrossed enough to wonder how it would play out and zip through it quite quickly. Though truth be told it did seem a bit absurd at points, I didn’t totally understand all the inner-workings and economics of the situation, and I wasn’t sure if every part of it was really necessary in coming to the end goal. 

Despite being a little thrown by the overall story and seeming unnecessary or egregious nature of some of it, the novel is thematically very strong. It deals with a lot of subjects in a creative and telling way such as: how we perceive people versus who they really are, the security of being told what to go and how to be versus the freedom of making our own choices, is removing free will wrong if people are happy, how the things people tell us and drill into our minds can still come to affect us years later, etc. Some of the most poignant themes, however, are those that are so relevant to our society right now: one of the biggest ones being institutionalized prison labour that is essentially slavery, as well as how we treat those in prison or anyone who we deem to be undesirable or doesn’t follow the prescribed path. There is also a piece on sexual coercion and how sex can be tied up in situations that lead someone to feel powerless and unable to control the situation. Given what is occurring today with all the sexual assault cases particularly involving powerful individuals, this is a very important topic. However, once outside of these situations in the novel, I did find that the preoccupation on sex and happiness in some of the relationships was perhaps overdone: I’m not saying that sex isn’t important and can’t be a huge factor in relationships but really, that realm is not something I relate to.

I was also pleased to find some commentary and themes regarding sex, violence, and sex robots in this novel. I recently tried to start a conversation in a group chat with my friends about sexbots and some of the areas wherein they can be harmful in a grander scheme, buuuuuuuut this did not go very far as nobody responded to the articles I sent about the destroyed sexbot at a convention and following comments I made (Whoops, complaining about being ignored in my review, this is neither the time nor the place, Lisa!). But anyways, there is some interplay between the concept of these realistic robots and the features that are allowed, versus how this may affect real life or lead to dissatisfaction and a need for new advancements or perhaps even violence in the real world, etc. A interesting topic for sure, and one that perhaps we aren’t even aware of what the repercussions will be at this moment.

And yet, despite the inclusion and presentation of a number of topics that got me thinking, it was almost a little too much at times, and I found one of the most important ones (prison labour) almost being forgotten near the end, despite being so crucial to the setup of the novel and how things progress. But more than anything, I found that some of the themes were really overshadowed for me by the main characters who I did not care for. I mean, it’s not as if I can’t be interested in unlikable characters, but here I found there wasn’t enough to them: the grumpy husband who wants his wife to be more into sex, the wife who just wants to live a happy and picket-fence life  (okay this one I maybe related to a bit in her insistence to pretend like not everything is terrible all the time), the manipulative outsmarting bitch, the guy who just can’t stop cheating on his wife because of a sex addiction, the disfigured woman who just wants to be loved no matter what, the ceo who always gets what he wants no matter the cost. It felt pretty stock and while there were some moments that hinted at something more, it wasn’t enough. The characters didn’t feel real enough for me to empathize with them or even to understand their motivations. Pair that with a somewhat over-the-top story, and it started to run away from me pretty quick in the second half of the novel.

That said, the premise and overall idea of The Heart Goes Last had potential, and some strong themes therein, however a lot of this got overshadowed by a few too many twists that really weren’t that shocking at all. The characters seemed like they were just along for the ride and not in control of anything. Which…. Okay, so maybe that is kind of the point to the whole thing, in relation to the themes of having your role and life decided for you in order to fit into a picture-perfect puzzle with every cog in place. But uuuuh, it wasn’t clear. Maybe I just need some more time to reflect on this. And the pacing of the plot did keep me wanting to know what happens next, I just found it maybe to be a little too forced feeling? Hm. I just don’t know anymore. Things definitely got a bit convoluted in how everything played out in this one, so I guess at the end of the day, it really boils down to a little too much going on in the plot and action, with too little happening in the characters. If only there was a way to pare down one while bumping up the other. All in all, though, not a bad read, just not one that I found to be particularly great.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Friday, December 1, 2017

#CBR9 Review #25: Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

(Book #2 in the Stormlight Archive series)

I have been working on this book for about 2 months now: I mostly read at work and it has been busier, also it’s so long, but now I only have one book left for my half-cannonball goal! The next book in the Stormlight Archive series just came out and my cousin actually gave his copy to me for me to read after this one but uuuh…. seeing as it’s page count comes in at 1200+ pages (Words of Radiance at 1087), there’s no way I’ll make it by the end of the year, so it will have to wait until I finish my goal. This preface being said, let’s get on with the book and stop my rambling. (Just kidding, it will continue throughout the review as always! Beep beep!)

Words of Radiance is the second novel in Brandon Sanderson’s expansive Stormlight Archive series, focusing on a number of major characters including Kaladin, Shallan, Dalinar, and Adolin. While the previous novel included a lot of flashbacks and information on Kaladin, this book features more about Shallan and her life leading to the present story being told. While previously these major characters (with the exception of Dalinar and Adolin) had been separate, the end of the first book began to move them together and all their stories, though still with their individual storylines and conflicts, begin to converge directly. It makes things a little easier to follow and see the affects on one another, but the world doesn’t seem any less small than previously.

The beginning of this novel (not unlike the previous one establishing context and backstory) starts a little slow as new roles and dynamics and the affect of the previous novel are settled into. Kaladin begins a new role in the King’s guard, Dalinar faces uniting a torn kingdom after the betrayal of another highprince, and Shallan begins to learn about her abilities as a radiant all while travelling to the wars on the shattered plains to meet up with Jasnah’s royal family. Fortunately, the pace picks up quite a bit until the ultimate climax near the end of the novel, and indeed gets very exciting. There’s a lot going on overall, and the book is fully fleshed out in terms of plot and characters, and I am always astounded at the intricacies and just absolute breadth that Sanderson brings to his stories and world: there’s just so much to it!

I found Words of Radiance to be once again a long but good read with plenty of twists, intrigue, adventure, and just enough magic thrown in there too. I just have a couple of complaints, which basically mirror the exact same issues I had with the previous novel, Way of Kings. They are minor, however, and didn’t really affect my overall enjoyment of the novel, they just made me pause a few times or roll my eyes before getting over it and moving along.

The first issue is that, while impressive, the scope of the novel is really huge. The main characters and plots are honestly enough, and while I sometimes forget the odd name or role of a person or two (such as I do in any epic fantasy like this), it’s not really enough to cause any issue. I do however, find that some parts with minor characters are extraneous. Well, actually, it’s mostly that the book is divided into different “parts” and after each one is an “interlude” with other characters. Some of these are interesting and do tie in quite directly with the overall story, such as the inclusion of Sveth the assassin and Eshonai in the parshendi army. Others, however, at this point have nothing to do with anything: why am I supposed to care about these characters? Maybe they will play a role way later on, but honestly I don’t think I will remember them by then. I know that it’s to show that the world presented is bigger than that which centers on the main characters, and like I said, it is very inventive and impressive, but we already know that the world is larger than these areas and that these actions have a farther reach: we see glimmers of that in the major plots and in countries of origin, etc. These interludes always occur right after something exciting happens in the novel too, not unlike the end of a weekly tv show that wants to keep you hanging on until next week. But is that really necessary in a book to space it out? I read some kind of chapter-ending-cliff-hanger and I want to keep going right now! Don’t make me waste time in what is already a book with a ton of pages that now has even more about things that aren’t per say necessary! (But then, I do know that some people really enjoy these little blips or short story-like things of something different, so who is to say I’m right in complaining about it!).

The other issue I had also comes in the form of world building, and it’s veeeeery minor but still made me stop a couple of times. It’s more or less the seeming arbitrariness of some of the customs and rules at given times. Sure, we are in a different universe and people do things differently all over the world, but sometimes it seemed like these little blips were put in there for no reason than just because. The one that kept coming up repeatedly was the thing about “safehands” for certain women, covering one of their hands at all times after they reach a certain age as a form of modesty. It just kept being mentioned and I was wondering if there was really a purpose to it or would it end up playing a part later? Apparently, not yet. I mean, I could see this as a commentary on certain arbitrary rules we have in our own society in regards to the bodies of men vs. women, ie that male breasts and seen as fine but after a certain age women need to cover theirs even though they have a function of feeding the young. But they even mention women’s breasts and modesty in one part of the novel (an interlude!) so I don’t really know if I can make that claim that it’s a commentary on this: it would make sense but as of now it doesn’t read like it, it just keeps getting mentioned like “don’t forget this is a rule here!” without any payoff so far. I don’t know, but every time I just stopped for a second.

Speaking of arbitrary, sometimes the way certain people act/give orders/act insolent to royalty and get away with it or not doesn’t seem to follow a specific pattern. I mean, this book is largely serious and not goofy like Merlin where his seeming insolence doesn’t really have too many serious effects, but here I feel like Kaladin gets away with a LOT. And yes, he is respected for saving the highprinces but there is still a hierarchy that is brought up a lot, and roles and status are really respected in this world so it almost seems random or out of place at times? Again, this might just be me.

But again, these issues I have are minor compared to the overall flow and enjoyment of this novel, no matter how long it may have taken me to get through. There were little hints coming up in the later parts of Words of Radiance that may indicate an upcoming love triangle, which I am 100% not here for, but we shall see how this is handled and plays out (if at all, though I can for sure smell it in the air). In any case, I will likely kick off next year’s CBR with the 3rd novel in this series, Oathbringer, as I definitely need to find out what happens to the world now, after the daunting conclusion I just finished with.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Monday, November 13, 2017

#CBR9 Review #23-24: Sweet Tooth, Books 2 & 3 by Jeff Lemire

The final 2/3 of the Sweet Tooth series by Jeff Lemire, which started off gloomy but promising: a dark, post-apocalyptic story about a disease that wiped out most of the population, leaving few humans behind, along with all new babies born with animal features. The remainder of the series aims to answer some of the questions posed by the beginning of the series, all while continuing with the grim mood, with glimpses of hope splashed within.

The 2nd book collecting story arcs “Animal Armies” and “Endangered Species”, with the 3rd and final book containing arcs “Unnatural Habitats” and “Wild Game”. We catch up here with the young deer boy, Gus, along with some other hybrid children in captivity after the man, Jeppard, brought him to the military compound. The children attempt to escape, while Jeppard struggles with what he has done to Gus. We also see the scientists trying desperately to find out why the disease began, and what Gus may have to do with it beginning.

The plot that follows is reasonably predictable if you’ve watched/read any post-apocalyptic stories before, but there are still some twists to be found in this story. There is also the inclusion of some religious iconography and Native American spirituality, which takes an interesting turn in revealing the source of the disease. It’s maybe a little fantastical, but there are animal-human hybrids running around, so I like to not be so choosy. There isn’t really a full mapped-out explanation as to what exactly happened and the progression of what happened with the rest of the country at this point, but it’s enough to satisfy and feel like there really is a reason. The big reveal, however, comes pretty early in book 3, so the rest of the story is a pretty predictable showdown and then extensive denouement which maybe lays out the ending a little too perfectly and nicely. I don’t want to say it’s preachy or has a really forced “message” but it almost veers into that territory. Gave me some Jean Valjean vibes in the end there, honestly... but I digress. I do like the expansion on the future world, however, and the hopeful, rebuilding that is presented for this new world emerging due to the events of the series.  I also liked how as the series grew on, the children became more and more capable themselves: sure, they still had help during the major events of the novel, but in the end they needed to make their own choices for how the future would go, as we see in the last few segments of the final book.

I’m still not 100% sure the art style is for me, but it is visceral and gloomy enough to suit the overarching tone of the books. Some of the cover pages for issues included inside, however, as well as different versions added to the ends of the books, are pretty neat. I love all the different takes and styles people will use for the same stories.

Overall, this is an interesting and enjoyable series, if you’re into post-apocalyptic tales, though it may be a little predictable at times. That predictable or typical nature didn’t stop me from zooming through them all pretty quickly though!

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

#CBR9 Review #22: Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman

Where to begin with this one? In anticipation for the film adaptation of Call Me By Your Name coming out later this year, I chose to read André Aciman’s novel on which it is based. Well, actually, it’s not so simple as that: I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see the film at all, for some reason that I can’t really explain. And so, for some reason, I figured that reading this book first would tell me if I wanted to see the movie? I don’t know, it doesn’t entirely make sense, but what I do know is that I did find something here: connections and feeling that I am all to familiar with, yet weren’t so overtly tragic or following the typical “coming-of-age-coming-out” formula that I’ve seen so often. It’s more than anything else, an examination of desire, and how it can affect us so deeply.

The story of Call Me By Your Name is about a young boy named Elio, and the relationship he forms with Oliver, the summer guest of his family’s home in Italy. Elio is immediately drawn to Oliver, but has difficulty expressing this as he is unsure of how Oliver feels about him: he often comes across as cold and distant, and Elio hopes to feign indifference as well, though ultimately their facades start to crack and we see the two grow close. But it’s just for the summer, so what should they make of it, if anything at all?

Overall the plot is pretty minimal here: the book is more introspective, getting all of Elio’s slightest thoughts and daydreams. This works to a great degree in really setting the tone and establishing the idea of what we desire and how we think and how it affects how we relate to others being unsure of what they are feeling as we grapple with our own. It does make certain parts feel a little sluggish, and gets pretty abstract at times, but overall this introspective feel works well. It does also lead to a lot of buildup and tension, which honestly is where the book shone for me: sure, nothing is really “happening” but we get such a close and intimate look into Elio and his desires, and you get a true sense of fear and longing. This is where we encounter such a confusing and yearning back-and-forth between Elio and Oliver: do they like each other? Do they not? Are they indifferent? It may seem like they are just willy nilly playing hot-and-cold, but it’s something that happens so often and I just really connected with the whole thing: those feelings of not being sure what to make of someone or what they make of you, so you feign like it doesn’t matter when it matters more than anything to you. Honestly, the amount of times I leaned back and groaned in pain and recognition of what was happening was a LOT reading this. I often joke with my friends about how I get so frustrated watching movies or reading books where people won’t just admit that they have feelings for each other and pine pine pine, all while I do the exact same thing and when I do actually see the people I have feelings for I just give them finger guns like “hey there demon, it’s me, ya girl!”

Once Elio and Oliver do realize their feelings, there is still a bit of a tug-of-war in wondering if or what they should do. And honestly, them making the most of their time together is beautiful, but I did find that it ran slightly hollow with me, and I would have liked a bit more dialogue between them. Sure, there are unspoken moments, and intimacy that is so telling, but a lot of their interaction does revolve around sexual activity (I mean, I did say that desire is the main point of the novel), and this is even the case with Elio and his female friend Marzia as well. I sometimes would like, okay, now what else? That is not to say that these characters do not care for each other (in fact, Elio makes a point that in their actions he feels as though no one has ever cared for him in the same way, and they truly are intimate together), but I guess a major complaint I have about a lot of media is that it’s hyper-sexualized. Although, given the overall tone of the novel, I’m not surprised, nor is it unfitting, and that’s just a minor personal complaint. But still, I do wish there was perhaps a bit more dialogue or way for us to truly see what was going on with not just Elio, but Oliver as well, and their connection together. When they do speak, there is still something so coded in their language: they are expressing their feelings without really saying it, and they understand each other, but every now and then I don’t quite get what they are saying or getting at. It all adds to the personal and intimate mood, but I did feel out of the loop at one point or another. (Saying something without truly saying it, huh? Reading between the lines… so what did my friend really mean when he drunkenly told me he really needed me to name all of Simon & Garfunkel’s albums for him? Hmmm…)

This little dialogue almost led to what I felt like an inevitable conclusion as the summer ended. But again, that’s kind of the point of them not delving right into it: they knew from the beginning that it was just for the summer and thought maybe they shouldn’t dive in at all. They didn’t want to hurt as much and only focused on the now, not looking to the future. Would they ever really reveal their relationship to others? Likely not, given the circumstance. And so, once again, this wanting to be so close yet still holding at a distance occurs and just adds to the overall aching and yearning quality that really struck me.

At first, I was unhappy, and felt like the whole thing fell apart after all the intense and emotive buildup: and yet, thinking about it more, and coming to try and express my thoughts about it, I get it. I totally get it, and honestly this book had such a soft, but searching feeling resonated in me. I’m a sucker for romance and pining, something I wouldn’t have admitted to myself a while ago. And honestly, it’s been a long time since I’ve stayed up late, knowing I should go to sleep but just wanting to take in more and more of a book, just because of what it stirred in me. And so, minor complaints aside, and after some initial hesitation and distaste for how it all played out in the end (to be fair, I once convinced myself that a book “didn’t make sense” with how it ended just because it was sad and I didn’t like how it happened), I did really enjoy this novel. And will I now see the movie? Yeah, I definitely will. Even if Armie Hammer looks older than his character which makes the dynamic appear more skewed, and even if using a Sufjan Stevens song in the trailer is manipulative in how it pulls at my soft little heartstrings.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Thursday, October 12, 2017

#CBR9 Review #21: Sweet Tooth, Book #1 by Jeff Lemire

Sometimes, at comic expos I decide that I can wear these deer antlers I have for no reason other than I feel like it. I usually pair this up with my regular everyday clothes (normally some kind of plaid flannel) and on my way I go! The last few times, however, I noticed for sale a comic series by the name of Sweet Tooth featuring a boy with deer antlers wearing a plaid shirt. And I think, "whoa, I unintentionally cosplayed!" Oh hey, I'm actually in that getup in my avatar at the moment, too, go figure! And so, after a long period of time sitting on my wish/to-read list, I finally dive into the first book of the series, by Canadian author Jeff Lemire.

This first book joins together volumes 1 and 2 of Sweet Tooth, with story arcs respectively titled "Out of the Deep Woods" and "In Captivity". The story takes place in a rural, post-apocalyptic America, after an illness has wiped out most of the population, mostly all at once but people continue to get sick as time goes on. The only ones that seem to be immune to the illness are children born after the illness first occurred, but these children all also feature another side-effect which is that they have animal features: some are more animal than human, but they are all human-like creatures with either fur, tails, animal faces, etc. Our story focuses on one young boy named Gus, whose appearance is mostly that of a boy, with deer antlers protruding from his head. Gus lives secluded in the woods with his father, who has taught him how to grow food, tend to medical needs, and essentially survive. His father also has a strong religious bent to him, and this is also reflected in his view about the way the illness has affected the earth, which he has passed on to Gus, and fold him that beyond their woods is nothing but fire and sinners. Gus loves his father, but knows that he will one day be alone, and wants to go out from his woods to see the world beyond. After the inevitable death of his father, the story really begins as Gus is forced to face the world alone, or at least, with the first man who comes along to find him and promises that there is something better out there for young animal children.

The world presented by Lemire is dark and brutal, like many post-apocalyptic stories. While there are the odd little sparks of light, this doesn't do much to balance the overall gloomy feel of the whole thing. There isn't much hope here, or if there is, you can't help but wonder if what is to come will really be much better. Normally too much doom-and-gloom turns me off of things, but there is something so endearing about this small, innocent boy that makes me care for him and want to know more. There is something special about him, and I am sincerely hoping that all the questions that have so far bubbled up in the series get answered at some point later on. Will there be a pay-off in the end? Honestly, what I've read so far has been interesting enough to make me want to continue in order to find out.

I'm not entirely sure if I am a fan of Lemire's overall art style yet, however. Some images I adore, but others I do not. It's a mixed bag, but also not enough to entirely turn me off from the series. The mood of the images does definitely reflect the overall tone of the story, though, so that really works in favor of creating a tense and serious mood to the whole thing.

In any case, I do think I'll continue with this story to dig a little deeper into the mystery of the animal children and the case of Gus in particular. If nothing else, it was a very fast read, and not likely to make me think I wasted my time. It's definitely a different spin on the ever-used post-apocalyptic theme, right now, and it's enough to keep me interested!

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Thursday, September 28, 2017

#CBR9 Review #20: Holes by Louis Sachar

I remember first reading Holes when I was in the 5th grade; it was always taken out of the library and I had to put myself on the waiting list to check it out. And I absolutely loved it back then. A while after this, the movie adaptation came out, and since then I’ve watched it about a million times (give or take). So I thought, hey, why not revisit it now, after just finishing a different novel, which was so long and detailed? A nice little palate cleanser. And honestly, it’s almost word-for-word exactly the same as the movie, with just a few slight changes. Have you seen or read it? I was shocked to find out that the cousin I work with had no idea what this story was even about! But maybe I was just the right age at the right time when the book/movie came out. Because really, it is more of a book for children or youth, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still valuable.

Holes is about a teenager named Stanley Yelnats IV who is being sent to a reform camp for young boys convicted of crimes; Stanley has been charged with a theft that he didn’t actually commit, he just happened to end up in possession of the stolen items through circumstance. His family always seems to have bad luck, which they chalk up to being due to a family curse placed on them generations before. In any case, Stanley must go to this camp in the middle of a Texas desert, where young boys are told they will build character and learn a lesson through digging a hole in the hot sun every day: five feet diameter, by five feet deep. But that’s just the story on the surface, because of course adventure ensues when a bunch of boys get together, and when Stanley considers that perhaps they aren’t just digging to build character, but to find something lost in time.

We see Stanley grow to form a bond with these misfit, lonely boys, and how people put together in hardship can form strong bonds no matter their differences. We see how the past can affect the future, and how there may be an interconnectedness to everything. Because apart from the present-day story presented, there are two main subplots involving Stanley’s ancestors and the curse that is put upon them, as well as a tragic origin story of a historic outlaw in the area known as Kissin’ Kate Barlow. Seriously, that flashback part in the movie with Patricia Arquette and Dulé Hill always messed me up: “I can fix that,” says Sam the onion man, but can he fiX THIS HOLE IN MY HEART?

Overall, the story of Holes unfolds pretty quickly with just enough detail to paint a visual picture, but nothing too extraneous. The writing is extremely straightforward and blunt at times, and while I understand that it’s a children’s story, it definitely made me zip through bits just because the pacing is so fast. But there is a lot to be said about the themes, if only given a little space to breathe and take time to really consider them, which the pace maybe doesn’t allow without forcing yourself to kind of slow down at times. Two major themes are the importance of friendship and keeping promises, which were the main things I noticed reading this as a child, but there are also deeper implications within the story as well; racism, sexism, criminal justice, poverty and how this can affect every aspect of your life, children getting lost in the system, not knowing the traumas other people have experienced in their lives, and even something seemingly simple but incredibly concerning in regards to people in positions of care that really don’t care at all.

I really do love this story, and perhaps it’s my nostalgia and already present enjoyment of it that made me love zipping through it again now. The only thing I would really want to know more about is what happened to some of the other boys of the camp after the end of the story: what happened to them? Did they just end up back in the system or back into a cycle of crime because of how hard it is to return to a normal life after being branded as a criminal? Apparently there is a sequel novel that features a few of the boys from Stanley’s tent after the events of Holes, which honestly I might be inclined to check out, just because of my curiosity. But in the meantime, maybe it’s time for me to watch this movie again. I mean… Sigourney Weaver’s sassy “Excuse Me?” is pretty iconic.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

#CBR9 Review #19: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

Coming in at 1001 pages (before the appendix of magic theory and other information, of course), The Way of Kings may well be the longest individual novel that I’ve ever read. But it’s just the first in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series. Which is apparently also tied together with the worlds of Sanderson’s other series (including the Mistborn universe, the first trilogy of which I read earlier this year and loved). And honestly? That’s… a lot. It seems pretty complex and while you don’t necessarily need to read all the series and know all the connections in order to enjoy the series, I just can’t even fathom how one would begin to create such an expansive universe with so many connections and the theories behind it all. That’s super impressive! But, let’s just focus on this one novel here, shall we?

The Way of Kings introduces us to the world of this epic fantasy, which has within it what appears to be the two main factors of any epic fantasy: focusing largely on three major characters, as well as many many minor ones. The three major characters’ lives are connected in some way or another, though not necessarily directly, but I’m sure they will all converge at some point in later novels:

First we have Dalinar Kholin, High Prince of Alekthar, a nation which is warring against a people known as the Parshendi, after the assassination of Dalinar’s brother who had had an interest in the Parshendi people. Dalinar is facing what many think to be a deteriorating mind, but really it is that he is having visions from some kind of mythical being. Dalinar seeks to join the other high princes to work together in the war against the Parshendi, yet has great difficulty doing so and fears betrayal from one camp or another.

Secondly, we have Kaladin, who had once been a solider in the Alethi wars, but was betrayed and made into a slave. He now lives as a bridgeman, who are essentially seen as disposable men within the war, forced to run bridges across plateaus and face the first arrows of any siege. Most bridgemen don’t last long, but Kaladin is touched by something special (and with the help of a little Spren/fae friend) finds the strength to join his bridge crew together into a group of men who want to do more than just survive from day to day or bridge-run to bridge-run.

Finally, we have Shallan, who is not directly related to the wars, but seeks to study with a noted scholar named Jasnah, who is a niece of Dalinar. Shallan does yearn to be a scholar, along with her natural talents with art, but is also on a mission for her family, to steal what is known as a soulcaster from Jasnah: soulcasters are just one of the magical elements in this universe, which are able to transmute one substance into another. Yet while Shallan studies, she comes intertwined with the politics surrounding Jasnah, and also begins to uncover power of her own and senses the coming of something dark. Shallan’s role in this first novel is not as major as the other two, but I can see her coming to play a much bigger role later on, as she uncovers more information about the strange figures and beings she seems to sense all around her, an omen of coming dread and danger in the land.

Much like in Sanderson’s Mistborn universe, there is magic and fantastical elements, but there is also a set of rules and logic to the magic that makes it seem very well thought out and makes sense. I didn’t quite understand everything, but it was logical enough to not get too caught up in it or confused. That’s kind of my feeling about the entire world presented here, actually: there’s a lot going on, so it definitely feels like a full and complete world, but it’s not super bloated to the point of confusion. I mean, there were some names and places I didn’t remember from time to time, as it is indeed a lot of content and very expansive, but I wasn’t quite as lost as I get in some other epic fantasy worlds. The only nitpick I may have about this is that there were some “intermission” parts between main sections of the book that had different characters and locations, some of which were interesting and seemingly important, but others seemed to be quite extraneous. I understand that it’s a part of the worldbuilding, but they still came across as just filler that wasn’t necessary, and in a book this long, well, maybe they really didn’t need to be included at all at the risk of overstuffing the novel’s contents.

Overall, I did quite enjoy this first novel in the series. I may take a little break before hopping right into the next one, as it did take me quite a while to finish and it felt like I was dragging along throughout the middle sections (I did in fact read and finish something else while still in the midst of this one), but ultimately it was an intriguing read that left enough unsolved and set up for the next installment that I am interested to continue.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Saturday, September 9, 2017

#CBR9 Review #18: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

Just what I needed to take a little break from the lengthy and detailed epic fantasy book I’ve been working on for the past month or do: a sweet and slightly wonky adventure! I just heard of this novel recently, and upon reading Narfna’s positive review of it, I knew it would be great for a little breathing room after reading a couple of more dragging and heavy things as of late. And it was absolutely delightful! Not a masterpiece by any means, but light and fun, and just generally feel-good.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is a YA novel, focused on an 18th century English boy of noble birth named Henry “Monty” Montague. The story centers on the “tour of Europe” he and his biracial friend, Percy (loosely inspired by Dido Elizabeth Belle) go on during their last summer together. Along for the ride is also Monty’s tenacious young sister, Felicity. But of course it’s not such a straightforward trip, as havoc ensues and quite the adventure befalls these three companions, leading them into mystery, politics, and danger. It’s not all adventure though, as a large part of this novel is also based on a fluffy, pining romance. And is there really anything better than a fluffy, adorable little love story? I always joke about being so disinterested in love and how it’s a conspiracy, but I think we all know I absolutely live for romantic nonsense and was positively beaming at parts of this story. My heart… it’s been conned!

The adventures had here are wacky and fun, but that’s not what really makes the book. The thing that first and foremost made it enjoyable were the characters throughout, including some wonderful helpers who come in and out of the story along the way. Though really, the 3 main characters at the core of the action are the heart and soul of the whole thing, each of them tying more serious topics into the forefront, which ultimately affect the plot and provide some historical context to the book. It is what I would consider historical fiction, after all, with facts intertwining into a more complete fictional story, though there was a bit of a fantasy/fantastical element at one part that I was a little curious about and not really sure if it completely fit with the rest of the novel. But that little blip didn’t ruin anything for me! Because as I said, it’s the characters which really bring everything to life. So let me gush about each of them for a hot minute! Unnecessary, I know, but, I just adore them:

First and foremost, we have Monty, our fabulous, dapper boy who loves to have fun, get wild, and get into bed with anyone who takes a fancy to him. Which, being a charming lad, is apparently a lot. A lot of the time these dandy-type characters I find in novels (Brideshead Revisited comes to mind) come across as selfish, hedonistic, and reckless. I often wonder if they are indeed just interested in their own lives without a care in the world, or if there is something deeply wrong that no one wants to crack into or help. They hurt people along the way, but are in pain themselves. I found that having Monty as the protagonist had the great effect of balancing his outlandish personality with showing the internal conflict, as well as having people that clearly do care about him but don’t know how to help (or that he doesn’t want to show his suffering to). There is a selfishness to Monty, but also a growth and awareness, in particular in terms of how he has an effect on people: none more so than Percy, for whom Monty has been harbouring romantic feelings for for years on end. But he feels that this is unreciprocated, and so the soft, sad pining commences. It also brings into play the fact that history was gayer than we have all been led to believe: queer people have existed throughout history but it has been so shoved under the rug with the excuse of “they didn’t have a concept for that back then”. Hmm, maybe they didn’t have the same words as we do now to call Monty bisexual or pansexual, but you can best be assured that such people did indeed exist throughout history. And as such, we get a little taste of queer history and law from this time period.

Speaking of Percy, what a beautiful, lovely soul. The one who has put up with Monty’s nonsense over the years, trying to help him as best he can while his friend is clearly struggling. We get to see how you can love someone, but not agree with everything they do: how you can put up with only so much until you need to draw a line in the sand. And honestly, what a lad he is to be so kind and gentle as he is, bringing out the best in Monty as well as everyone else around him. Though Percy not everything about Percy has to do with Monty; he has his own struggles that he keeps hidden, for not wanting to burden others with them (can you say, relatable?) Not to mention his place in society as a high-born biracial individual. Here we are allowed to see some of the racial relations of the time period, and how they both influence the story as well as history.

Lastly, we have Monty’s younger sister Felicity, whose nose is always stuck in a book, and who I hear is getting her own sequel novel in the future? Sign me up! A scrappy young woman, always with her nose in a book, the sensible offset to Monty’s wild and impulsive ways. She rejects the prescribed course of womanhood that society has set out for her (can you once again say, relatable?), and through her we see just how woman are treated regardless of how they look and dress,  as well as the politics of the time which stifled the interests and careers of many women. Just imagine how much further scientific study and research could have progressed if women had been “allowed” or encouraged to engage in it all along!

So all of this is to say, that while this novel is a bit fluffy and fun and free, that is not to say that there are not deeper and more meaningful themes at times. Do things kind of work out in a miraculous way during certain spots? Perhaps. But I didn’t find this distracting at all. The characters are engaging, and there is just enough action to keep it exciting and interesting. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and may indeed come back to it again in the future when I want to just enjoy something without thinking too hard.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Monday, September 4, 2017

#CBR9 Review #17: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

How many books do you try out from an author before deciding whether you like them or not? This is my third book by Murakami, and before this I just wasn’t 100% sure how I felt about his work. After this one, I’m thinking he might just not be for me. For a few reasons that this book really highlighted for me, and I will of course lay that down later in this review.

But in the meantime: Kafka on the Shore incorporates two stories in alternating chapters, which ultimately tie together. One follows a teenage boy who goes by Kafka, as we runs away from home and ends up living in a library, all while wondering if he may encounter his mother and young sister who left at a young age may be. The other follows an old gentleman named Nakata who had experienced a strange trauma at a young age and now does not think the same way as others do: though he does have strange abilities such as talking to cats, and embarks on a journey wherein he isn’t quite sure of the way or goal, just that he will know when he gets there.

I was really enjoying this novel to begin with, as it’s a bit whimsical and quirky (much like the other Murakami books I have read), and he really has a beautiful and poetic way of speaking. I sometimes get a little annoyed because characters will go off on strange tangents or discussions just to drop pearls of wisdom, and I think, “people don’t talk like this”. It seems unnatural, yet I let these things slide because it really is a pretty way with words. A little before half way through the novel, however, I started to get a little weary and distanced as things went a bit off the rails.

Up until that point, I was really curious by the strange, twisting tale unfolding before me: how would these things connect? What was the greater meaning or concept at play? But as things got stranger and more abstract, I found myself almost feeling like nothing was going to be explained. Now, I understand that not everything always has to be spelled out, and reading between the lines can actually lead to a great reading experience, but there’s a difference between abstract representations/metaphors and just plain absurdity, which I’m afraid I found this novel falling into. That’s not to say I don’t like things that are bizarre and absurd: I thoroughly enjoyed David Wong’s John Dies at the End, but that was almost set up to be bizarre and unexplainable by nature, while Kafka on the Shore seemed to be trying to set up some sense or relation to the real world with an “explanation” or “connection” at the end which didn’t really come into fruition. “It’s hard to explain”, okay but can you at least try? I just needed one more piece of information. Just one. That’s all I ask. I was so confused as to what the point of the whole trudging thing was.

My other major issue with this novel, in relation to the confusion, was how extraneous certain things seemed to be. Things would happen, characters would show up, and time and detail would be spent on them just for it to not really relate in the end, or truly connect in any meaningful way to the overall story. In particular, however, I realized that I have an issue with extraneous aspects of Murakami’s stories when it comes to sexual relations and depictions/descriptions of women (spoilers ahead). There’s a preoccupation with using such a male gaze to describe how women look, always making sure to let us know how attractive the main characters find the women, and how their clothes cling to their breasts, etc. And of course, having a teenage boy as the protagonist of Kafka on the Shore makes it seem reasonable that he’d be full of hormones and interested in how women look, but it happens all the time in other novels too. And was it necessary to have Kafka experience such a Oedipus complex of having sex with the woman who he thought may be his mother? They could have bonded in so many other ways, and this did indeed occur without the sex so I really don’t know why that was needed. Was it necessary to have a young girl who was just helping him give him a handjob, and to have this act brought up time and time again? What was the point of having him dream about raping this girl who he thought of as a sister? (it literally added nothing to the book in my opinion?) Was it necessary for Nakata’s young travelling partner to go off on a side-journey wherein he has sex with a “knockout” of a prostitute, only to repeatedly bring this up again as well? I would think not. Because seriously, I get it. You got off three times with a gorgeous woman and there was really no need to have that in the story as it didn’t have any implication on the plot or the character’s side-quest at all.

All this of course is presented in a gentle and poetic way, and I sometimes get by with reading these things without thinking much of it. But coupled with the confusion and need to be so fantastical while still somehow expecting me to understand with nothing but abstraction leads me to have a bitter taste in my mouth. So many pages and so much meandering about. What was the purpose of it all.

And so, while I was very engaged and curious by the beginning of Kafka on the Shore, ultimately, my curiosity led me nowhere. Nothing made sense to me, and I was left feeling unfulfilled and a little weirded out by how critically some aspects of the novel were looked at (ie; music and it’s way of communicating to people, which truly is a remarkable thing), but not others (ie; sexual relations and the power dynamics therein). Some things I just couldn’t gloss over, and I’m thinking maybe it’s time for me to shelf Murakami as an author for a little while.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

#CBR9 Review #16: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

“The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame.” – pg 161

Aaaaah, my dramatic boy Oscar Wilde did cause a stir, didn’t he? And it’s kind of ironic that this line was included in a book that then faced so much controversy and was considered immoral, huh? But there are indeed some psychological truths to be found in this novel, even after all this time. I first read this novel a few years ago and enjoyed it then, but upon rereading it now after even just a little bit of time and growth, I came to notice more things than I did upon my first read, and different aspects resonated with me this time. I love it when that happens! And I really do like this book, even if I maybe don’t entirely follow all the rants and theories the characters go off on. It’s a lot. They’re really dramatic. And I live for the drama. In fact, it’s kind of funny to me that all the iterations and adaptations of the character of Dorian Gray that I’ve seen in various things, he’s always so dark and brooding to reflect his evil nature, but that’s not it at all! Sure, he does suspect things, but the whole point is that he looks like a sweet cherub, and is basically just charming everyone and giving them the ol’ razzle dazzle the whole time! I find that all the characters are actually quite theatrical in their manner of being and speaking, but none so much as Dorian and his friend Henry from whom he learns to question and look at the world in a different way. But let’s talk about the actual character and plot, which I’m sure most people are at the very least, vaguely aware of:

The Picture of Dorian Gray centers on the life of a young man named Dorian Gray (quell surprise!) who is a beautiful and somewhat naive young man that draws the charm of everyone he meets. A close friend who is enraptured by Dorian, named Basil, creates a stunning masterpiece of young Dorian, which Dorian grows envious of as it will always stay in it's youthful state, while he must grow old over time. This envious wish is somehow granted, and as Dorian moves through life, he finds himself never growing old, while the painting begins to bear all the tarnished aspects of his soul, as he comes to be friends with a man named Henry, who teaches Dorian to examine the world with different eyes: Dorian's life soon becomes a feast of searching for new and exciting pleasures to the senses, and in fact becoming quite a scandalous young man through the sake of his own selfish experiences. Yet, everyone remains charmed by him, despite the lack of grace he may show in life, or despite all the scandal that surrounds him, which allows Dorian to get away with more and more unsavoury behaviour in his life, all while the only evidence of this marring of his character lays within the portrait that Dorian keeps hidden from any eyes but his own.

At times I find the lengthy descriptions and ramblings of these high-society men to be a little taxing and overdone, but this really plays into the overall sense of the dramatic, aesthetic-loving, sense-aware world that is created in the novel: enjoying beauty for beauty’s sake. And this concept of what is beautiful and what is the soul really comes into play when seeing people’s reactions to Dorian. It’s so important that he be super charming and beautiful and innocent looking, despite the way he lives his life, because it is for this reason that no one believes he could ever do the tasteless and horrible things he does. It really is a reflection of our own society (showing the world one of its shames?) in how you can find some studies that show that people who are considered “beautiful” are often thought to be more intelligent or trustworthy by people who don’t really know the person and are just judging this idea based on looks. How often do we see a pretty smile and think that this must mean the person is fun or nice? I’ve definitely caught myself thinking like that and getting strong first impressions of people that turn out to be totally wrong.

What I love about this book the most though, is just the excessive styling of everything to give it a really grand, melodramatic, but rich feel. Everything from the descriptions (which can be a little much at times, as I said earlier) to everyone’s manner of acting and speaking: these guys like to cause a scene, and I find it so amusing and hilarious, but also really sad in a way when looking at the characters, their lives, and how they search for meaning for themselves. While this intense styling could easily become a soapy parody of itself, there is an examination of values, the human psyche, and the concept of the soul intrinsically mixed in with the plot. What really ties it together is the ending wherein Dorian begins to wonder if he can reverse some of the effects he has made in his life by becoming good again: can we really heal our souls and repair damage caused, or is this all just a selfish pursuit to feel better about the self in the end? Hard to say, hard to say…

Overall, I found myself enjoying this book during its second read, and definitely picked up on more than I did the first time. But what really stuck out to me for some reason is a line right near the end which reads, “The curves of your lips rewrite history.” I mean, it’s kind of out of the blue but man… that line got me feeling some kind of way. And I feel like I’ll remember it for a long time. Just as people have latched onto this novel over time and you will often find references to it, or to the painting that ages instead of the man. It’s a reasonably simple plot that has lasted over the years, and I think this is largely to do with all the examinations and intricacies of human nature that swirl around the seemingly straightforward action.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]