Thursday, February 22, 2018

#CBR10 Review #07: They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

What would you do if you were informed that you had less than a day to live? This is a rhetorical question you may have heard at some point (or many) in your life, whether just posed as a discussion topic or perhaps something to truly face in the circumstances of life. In They Both Die at the End, Adam Silvera explores this question through the eyes of two teenage boys, in a world wherein a new system called "Death Cast" will at midnight predict everyone who will die within the next 24 hours, and alerts these individuals of their upcoming passing: the how, where, or why, however, is not known, just that it will occur at some point during the day before the clock once again strikes midnight. This whole situation and story could very well play out in a Final Destination, horror-trope way, and while the protagonists are obviously anxious about things happening, Silvera opts for a more internal, empathetic approach, in examining ideas of identity, possibilities, and how humanity may change in the face of new knowledge or circumstances. 

The two main protagonists of this tale are Rufus and Mateo, two boys of 17 and 18 years of age (respectively) who each receive the call not long after midnight that this will be their last day to live. "We are sorry to lose you." Both boys have friends in their lives, though family is sparse, and circumstances stop them from really getting a chance to spend their last day with those closest to them. And so, the boys' paths cross when they both sign up on an app that will connect people with a "Last Friend" on the day that they are meant to die. Mateo and Rufus go about their day together, learning to connect with someone in what will likely be the last time ever. Along with these two protagonists, other characters in their lives or people they run into during the day have their points of view peppered into the story, which makes for a more rounded feeling to the whole thing: we get a better sense of what life and the world really feels like when this knowledge of a last day is given to people, and how interacting with others, knowing they won't be around much longer can affect an individual. 

There is a little bit of a checklist-type feel at times in the way the novel progresses, in that certain moments and things need to happen, like crossing off bits on a list of going here then there then here then there. But ultimately this doesn't take away from the story: both Rufus and Mateo have regrets in different ways, but are ultimately compelling characters in the fact that they come across as the kind of kids who care about others. I was having this discussion with my friend lately, as I tried to watch Altered Carbon but just couldn't do it because the protagonist was so flat and seemingly emotionless to me: I crave empathetic or interesting characters, ones who seem like they are really feeling something!

Ultimately, however, because of growing so fond of these characters, it was hard for me not to be sad at the end of this novel. It plays out just as you'd expect, the inevitability of fate coming together. But along the way, there is a subtle but great exploration here of a few different themes and the concept of life itself. Like, how would wars and history and even just general day-to-day risk-taking take shape knowing that today is or is not the day you die? How does it differ knowing you have longer vs. less time? Dow knowing inevitably lead someone down a self-fulfilling path that they wouldn't have otherwise followed had they not known? There are so many questions and unknowns (such as in life right now) but makes for a different sort of context and idea about how to live your life and how society treats those around them. 

In the end, They Both Die at the End is a simple story over the course of one day, of two souls coming together. It's bittersweet, and maybe has some slightly clunky dialogue at times, but really made me think about a lot of things too, you know? Sombre but touching.

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

Sunday, February 18, 2018

#CBR10 Review #06: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

First and foremost I will say that this is the first Rainbow Rowell novel I have read: I know she’s been pretty popular around here the past few years and always meant to pick up one of her books, but just never did for some reason. Until my friend gave me Carry On as a gift, thinking that it looked very Lisa. And you know what? She was right! I loved this book! I mean, it’s a little corny at times, don’t get me wrong, but it’s got just the right amount of fun balanced with seriousness. Also having not read any books by Rowell before, I was not aware until after I finished and read the author’s note about the context/background of the characters coming from one of her previous novels, Fangirl, so in this instance I had no previous notions, ideas, or opinions going into it.

Carry On is centered on a teenage boy named Simon, orphaned at a young age, but later discovered to be an exceptionally powerful wizard/mage, and taken in by The Mage, who is the leader of the magical world, but also the headmaster of a private magical boarding school for magical children. Simon is considered to be “the chosen one” to save the magical world from an insidious being sucking magic out of the world, known as The Humdrum. But it’s not so simple a story in that there are magical politics based on race (ie, vampires, pixies, etc), social and economic class, and of course, Simon’s roommate named Baz, who has been Simon’s nemesis since they first began at school, based on the notion that during the class war and war against the humdrum brewing in the magical world, Simon or Baz would one day need to fight and kill each other. But, you know, you spend a lot of time with someone and develop sympathy, and hey maybe one day one of them needs the help of the other with an issue which ends up tying into the whole overarching story of the humdrum and saving the magical world and… well, you see where this is going?

I can say that some of the twists and turns took me for a loop, though a few of them I did call pretty early on in the novel and every new piece of information just confirmed my theories. But! That’s not necessarily a bad thing: I wasn’t disappointed at all by not being surprised at certain points. In fact, I kept tingling like, “ooooh I’ve got a feeling about this!” before everything came together. Because while I do love surprises, sometimes they seem thrown in there as if an author is going “aha! I fooled you!” even though there wasn’t really anything leading up to it to begin with. And when that happens I get annoyed. But what I’m trying to say here is that there were some fun surprises, but I didn’t feel like Rowell was trying to trick me at any point. There is an awareness here that really works. Because the whole thing plays out like an homage to Harry Potter (it’s hard to not make comparisons) or like those other YA “chosen one” stories, but with a little playfulness there that doesn’t per say rip on the genre, but definitely plays around with it in a way. In particular with the faith in authority figures like that of the Mage, as well as the fact that these different subcultures of magical beings don’t need to be so strict and separate from the normal world: it can also come into play with spells, references, and the like.

The most important thing about Carry On, however, is how much I enjoyed the characters. And okay, the drawings of Baz and Simon on the cover reminded me of Ezra Miller and American Ice Dancer (and all -round cutie) Joe Johnson respectively, so that was in my mind the whole time and definitely helped paint a nice picture.But apart from them, we also have Simon’s best friend Penelope and her lively family, kicking ass all in their own ways. I also liked the point of view presented by Simon’s girlfriend and classmate, Agatha, who is expected to follow a certain path in life that she desperately wants to escape.

But of course, our two mains in Simon and Baz on whom the story rotates, really bring the whole thing to life: their perceived destiny and also wanting to escape it like Agatha, but in a different way as they want to fulfill their roles and stay in the magical world, but also don’t want doing so to be their end. And now we are getting into mild spoiler territory, but I know some might say that their relationship really follows a common fanfic trope of enemies to friends to lovers. But what’s wrong with that? Frankly, I love it. And you know, I see this in particular with a lot of young women/girls who are attracted to women: we are pit against one another or don’t consider that our fascination with other women is actual attraction so then it turns into a strange fixation and competitiveness.  At least, in my experience I’ve seen this. And so, while the relationship between Simon and Baz may seem a little hokey, I get it. You don’t want to feel what you feel so it turns to antagonizing and competition, and just add to that the political issues due to the boys’ familial allegiances and what do you get? Years of focusing on one another but misplacing those feelings or believing them to be something they are not. So what I’m getting at here in many many unnecessary words is that I like how this was handled. They clearly care about one another and notice one another’s presence as they’ve influenced each others’ lives for so many years, so this really works for me.

But lets’ be real: this novel may not be everyone’s cup of tea, as with anything. But it was pretty fantastic for me, and the only nitpicks I personally have weren’t enough to ever really pull me out of being so transfixed by it throughout reading. Maybe the climactic resolution seemed a little quick, and all the political issues seemed to resolve pretty simply, and I got tired of Baz being described as “sneering” constantly but ultimately, I think the biggest thing for me was that I just wanted more. I want to know more about this world and the families and the history and the characters. I’ve heard a lot of people in the past say about books that they love, that the worst part was when it ended, and you know what? That’s what I’m feeling right now.

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

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

#CBR10 Review #05: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

I’ve definitely seen Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda reviewed a number of times by Cannonballers in the past few years, and was always interested to read it but for some reason never did. Enter my best friend who surprised me with an early birthday present of some books, with this among them. And immediately after receiving it we went to a movie and what do we see? A preview for the upcoming movie adaptation called Love, Simon. Talk about coincidence, especially since I was insanely enamored by the cuteness that appeared in the preview. But did that apparent sweetness also come through in the novel source material? Sure did! And my heart is warm after reading. Because as much as I complain about love and romance, we all know that I am just goofy and really am a romantic at heart and just love a little feel-good fluff, but not without some hearty themes in there, of course!

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is from the point of view of a teenager named Simon, who is gay but hasn’t told anyone in his life yet. After seeing an anonymous post from a fellow gay student at his school who goes by “Blue”, he began emailing back and forth with a similarly anonymous identity. And all is well and the two are cute and getting to know each other nicely, but everything goes helter-skelter in Simon’s life when his emails are discovered by a fellow student, who then attempts to blackmail Simon with this information into letting him get close to Simon’s cute friend, Abby. And so… what’s a nervous boy to do? Because no matter how well you think people might take a coming-out, it’s always awkward and never really a thing people get excited about. At least, for me it hasn’t been, and so in certain parts of this novel my heart just squeezed into a little ball of anxiety, because I felt for Simon: you really come to care about him. He feels like a real teenager with complex emotions, and learning that Becky Albertalli has worked with a lot of young people and gender non-conforming youth really made sense to me as you can tell that she worked hard to make at least Simon feel like a true person that isn’t just the caricature of a teenager as adults often see them.

There are a lot of familiar young adult themes in this novel (friendship, relationships, identity, etc), and I have read a number of LGBT+ novels in the past to make these coming-out story tropes all the more familiar. But what struck me as a good addition to this was the anger at being “outed” before ready by someone else: how the intent may not be necessarily bed, but it still takes something away from a person. I haven’t really seen that as articulated in a novel before, but it is definitely a subject with which I am familiar and I feel a lot of people can relate to. And also the concept of continual coming-out: it’s not just a one-off thing, it’s a moment you calculate in your mind with everyone you meet, as a continual process with continual questions as to who and why and how and when. It doesn’t matter how easily you think someone will take it, you never know how a dynamic will change, and I think this is articularted very well within the novel.
 “I don’t know how to tell them something like this and still come out of it feeling like Simon. Because if Leah and Nick don’t recognize me, I don’t even recognize myself anymore.” – pg. 133

Something that I also thought about a lot while reading this novel was the idea of selfishness in youth. I remember a conversation with my friend who said she disliked the film The Edge of Seventeen because the protagonist was so “whiny and selfish”. And I thought, well yes, that’s what it’s like to be a teenager: you think so much from your limited view point, and also the girl in that movie was clearly in pain and no one seemed to be noticing that? I don’t know but that comment seemed so devoid of understanding of the point. And so I think about the teen protagonists of other novels and how many of them balance a fine line between sympathetic and just plain annoying. I think Simon, here, strikes a good combination of showing that somewhat self-centered nature that most of us have in our young years, but also with a caring nature about him, as well as a sympathetic turn in that a lot of his self-centered nature deals with a big issue that he doesn’t know how to talk about with others and so causes him to close off to those around him a bit. But he also get’s called out for some of the things he does, and has to face the reality that he’s not the only one struggling, and that his actions do affect the people around him, such as not taking his friend Abby’s feelings into account when dealing with his blackmail situation. But it also really shows how his friends don't fully get how his experience of being closeted is so hard for him, because they themselves haven't experienced it themselves. So, all of this is to say, I think Albertalli dealt with what could have easily been portrayed as just another whiny “why-me?” teen, and taken it to a more real-feeling and complex level. Because teenagers may be children, but that doesn’t mean they don’t understand the world and don’t have complicated emotions and deal with complicated things! I think a lot of people brush off youth as being dumb, reckless, and egocentric, but there’s so much to more them than that, and I always appreciate a nice portrayal of this in fiction. Why as we grow older, do we suddenly want to distance ourselves from formative and growing years? Why do we not want to even associate with younger generations, which so often contain a lot of awesome young people with big dreams, bug hearts, and great ideas?

But with all these good aspects, there was still something stopping me from truly loving it and giving it a full five stars: really it comes down to just a bit of a disconnect for me in some areas. One of these aspects is just that the language used made me cringe in some parts, especially in the email-correspondence or Simon’s inner narration: little phrases or references which obviously are pretty recent and relevant but boy did the make me cringe at times. Do teens really talk like that? I guess it’s been a while since I’ve been one or really interacted with them in a larger capacity so who is to say! Still, it just felt a little awkward in terms of the flow of the writing at times. I also always feel a bit of a disconnect with YA novels too whenever they describe some dynamics and groups at high school. This one didn’t have quite the same disparity from my own experience, as people from different “groups” still interact and know each other from classes or clubs, etc, in this novel, but I always hit a bit of a wall with these things since my experience with high school was never quite like how all the movies and books like to portray it. Or maybe I just wasn’t involved in any of the right clubs or groups or enough stuff in general (I mean, its not like anyone ever came to watch our games when I played for the High School Curling team…)

Finally, the one other nitpick I might have with this novel is that some of the side characters felt a little one-note. I mean, the story is about Simon more than anyone, but there is always a little more for more dimensionality in side-characters to better understand them and how they fit into the protagonist’s life, right? But then again, there are only so many pages in a book before it ends, and there are other emotional aspects to fill it with. And I DID say that maybe Simon was a little self-focused throughout the novel (I mean given what he was struggling with I don’t entirely blame him), but it still felt maybe a little too trope-y for my taste. Like they were all trying to break out of the pre-designed simple shell of stock characters, but only a slight few actually made it out.

That said, I did find Simon to be an engaging and sympathetic character. And not just because from time to time he said things that sound like they came directly out of my own mouth. Well, alright, that definitely helped me fall in love with him all the more quickly. I mean, his friends all poke fun at him for being such a mushy romantic at one point, despite trying to be all cynical about relationships all the time, which is 100% a conversation my friends and I have had, always making fun of me for being a total sucker for a cute love story all while claiming love is a sham (but also, how would I know). At one point the he also says:
“Cranking Sufjan Stevens at top volume doesn’t solve anything, which is probably why people don’t crank Sufjan Stevens.” – pg. 260
And I mean wow, if that ain’t something that I would have said in my teen years. Or every year after that. Or last week even. Shhhh, don’t worry about it. Oh, and I also cracked up at the moment where Simon says:
“I’m just so sick of straight people who can’t get their shit together.” – pg. 189
Because yeah, I’ve definitely mentioned that things were “straight people nonsense” a time or two around my friends. All in good sport, all in good sport! But also with some minor shade.

But anyways, as always I’ve gone on for far far too long. And so I bid thee adieu with my parting thoughts: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is a lovely novel and I absolutely zoomed through it. I definitely recommend it for both young adults and YA-loving adults alike. Is it revolutionary? Maybe not. But it sure is a lovely ride. I held my breath in a few spots and my heart skipped a few beats, and I just let myself get wrapped up in the overall gentle nature of it. But not without some serious sting at times too! My romantic little heart does indeed approve of this message, and I will absolutely see the upcoming film version at some point when it comes out (no pun intended) later this year.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]
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Thursday, February 8, 2018

#CBR10 Review #04: Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

A magical little journey that was delightful but also didn't quite have the teeth for me to really sink in with it. I am of course familiar with Hayao Miyazaki's movie version of Howl's Moving Castle, but heard that the novel was quite different. And it is in some ways, but also follows a similar plot in others. It really is fun and delightful, and not too serious which was great for me to read through at work while in the midst of some personal issues. But there was something missing here which prevented me from truly loving it...

Howl's Moving Castle deals with a young woman named Sophie, who has conceded that as the eldest of three daughters, her life is not meant to be special, as based on some strange idea or old-wives-tale perpetuated where she is from (at least, I have never heard of this before?). But of course, a curse from a witch leads her to suddenly become an old woman, and she decides that it's a great time to leave her life behind, and perhaps find some help through a wizard named Howl, whose castle travels along the edge of her small town. From there she becomes a staple part of the life of Howl, his young apprentice named Michael, and a fire demon who wants to strike a deal with her named Calcifer. Over time, these individuals grown fond of one another, and Sophie learns about the magic and curses surrounding Howl, as well as the rumors and other twists of magic developing in the lives of her sisters.

The story itself is full of fun and magic, and made especially funny by the interactions between characters. I found it particularly humorous how Sophie is so resigned to her life that basically whenever something wacky happens she just rolls with it. She also takes to the role of curmudgeonly old woman quite quickly after changing into an old lady. But this is also a bit of a detriment in that things happen wherein a real human would react or it seems like things are just far too easily accepted and taken at face value: sure this is a world of magic but where's the conflict? And speaking of conflict, quite an interesting and engaging tale is built up surrounding the witches and wizards of the land, but ultimately things fall flat in how they play out so simply and almost with an ease of everything falling into place. There is so much build up for a very quick resolution in my opinion. There was also a bit of a mismatch in my brain regarding the manner of writing: so straightforward and easy to follow when suddenly it wasn't, and there were cryptic messages and riddles in there about curses on various characters that I'm not entirely sure I understand even now finishing the novel. But, maybe I just didn't pay enough attention? I thought I was following along just fine.

In any case, Howl's Moving Castle is sweet, fun, and easy to read. I don't know that it is something that will entirely stick with me, though I do have a fondness in my heart for the film adaptation. So it's a weird little dichotomy going on in my brain right now. Definitely worth a read, but sadly just fluttered on by without holding me after I finished the last page.

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

Sunday, February 4, 2018

#CBR10 Review #3: Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson

The third book in Brandon Sanderson’s epic fantasy series, The Stormlight Archive, hit a bit of a slower pace for me than the previous two instalments. Which is not to say that it’s bad, it is still very detailed and impressive and engaging! Just, a little bit of a different mood here. There are a lot more politics involved with different nations which sometimes went over my head, and I found that the pacing was quite slow until the last 200 pages or so, where it finally exploded into fast-paced action.

Oathbringer begins right where the previous novel, Words of Radiance, leaves off, as the people of Alethar have been transported to the lost city of Urithiru: a new storm threatens the land, and the nations need to figure out how to survive this new natural threat, as well as the new army of Parshendi people who had previously been slaves of humans. Basically, everything is a mess, so it makes sense that there would be a lot of nitty gritty details and governance that needs to occur now. And really, the length with which Sanderson goes into determining these details really makes the world feel rich and complete. Again, the scope of this story and the world created is truly outstanding! But also, takes a bit to get through, and with most of the action in this one occurring in such a quick spurt at the end made the leadup seem like it dragged a bit more than the last two before the pace started to pick up. I always enjoy these novels but this one, really felt a little bit like work to get through. Though, it doesn’t help that I was in fact also reading it while at my place of work.

So first, some good things: first and foremost, one of my complaints for the previous two novels were the interludes between bigger sections of the novel, always dealing with smaller, different characters and often in different lands. I always found these a little disjointed from the rest of the novel, and soon forgot about them, but in this case they worked well with the progress of the story, were shorter, and didn’t feel as out of place. I was also worried that there were the brewings of a love-triangle that was going to drag on for books and books with little progress or reason, but that was dealt with nicely (and SPOILERS: didn’t end with someone dying or doing something inexcusable so the decision was essentially made for the person in the middle without them actually sitting down and making the choice, which always seems to happen, at least in most of the books that I’ve read). Additionally, there were added roles and points of view given for more strong characters, which I think added to the story overall, such as Navani, Jasnah, and Teft. However, I do worry any more additions to points of view during the “main character sections” may start to bog the whole thing down a bit more.

But of course, being myself, there are also some things that I need to nitpick about. The first is that, while not always bad I do find some of the gendering or attempts to write differences between genders as based on this society’s culture to be… let’s say, a little awkward. Or seemingly meaningless besides the fact to remind us that this is a different world, which, yes obviously we know that. I don’t know, maybe that’s just me. The other biggest thing is that while the previous two novels each had a focus on the background and history of either Kaladin or Shallan, this novel focused more on Dalinar, and I have to say I didn’t find it as engaging as the previous two major characters’ backstories. I think a lot of this has to do with how much Dalinar’s focused on old, long-gone, battles of conquest, and they all sort of blurred together or I couldn’t follow exactly. I typically find Sanderson’s writing of action sequences and battles to be very exciting and engaging but for some reason these ones lacked something for me. Not only that, but a lot of Dalinar’s backstory presented here focused on his wife and her role in his life before she died and I honestly found her character to be quite one-note: so soft and delicate and a pacifist and also somewhat exotique™ because she’s from a different country and had a different culture and way of seeing things. I don’t know, but it annoyed me. But maybe that’s also because I’ve been getting annoyed with all the movies/shows/books I’m consuming that have a female characters whose sole existence is to die and therefore progress the story of the man. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good revenge thriller from time to time, but it’s just been a lot and so often these women seem like all they do is whimper and make the man sad because of something they did. This is not to say that Evi, Dalinar’s wife, is not a good character, but so little was done with her beyond having children and making Dalinar sad because of what happened to her (which of course he feels guilt for, as they always do in these kinds of tales). But I’m rambling now, time to get to the end of this

All that said, I am still enjoying this series, and Oathbringer is a solid addition to it, despite maybe being a little tougher to get through than the previous two novels. Though, that may also have a little to do with the fact that I haven't really read any epic fantasies on such a large scale before. There are good things and not so great things here, but overall this is a good series and I will indeed continue with it. Hopefully I don’t forget a lot of major details that end up being important before the new book comes out though!

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