Thursday, March 29, 2018

#CBR10 Review #14: The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli

After having read Becky Albertalli's novel Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda earlier this year (which I LOVED also with the super sweet film adaptation Love, Simon which left my heart full of warm fuzzies), I decided to pick up this companion novel, The Upside of Unrequited. And boy, I must say, that just like in my previous Albertalli read, she sure has a knack for personally calling me out through these relatable characters, feelings, and emotions: I swear, a lot of the lines she writes are things that have literally come out of my own mouth, or it wouldn't be a surprise in the least to hear me say.
The Upside of Unrequited is told from the perspective of a teenage girl named Molly, who considers herself the unattractive, fat sister compared to her twin, Cassie, as Cassie has no problem finding herself girls to hook up with. Molly, however, is a master at developing crushes on people and then not doing anything about them. That is until she finds things changing in her once super close relationship with her sister, after Cassie finds herself a serious girlfriend. So maybe it's time for Molly to put herself out there with a cute boy who happens upon her way through mutual friends, but you know, there's also this cute boy at work and... well... what does the heart want, girl?

I must say, this novel does play out in a pretty predictable manner, but that didn't ruin my enjoyment of it, because of all the very relatable emotions and situations presented therein, that I know all too well: feeling your friends and siblings drift away as your lives change or people develop other relationships, not wanting to put yourself out there with anyone for fear of breaking your own heart, and then waiting so long to actually be in a relationship that you wonder if there's something wrong with you that people don't like? I myself guard my heart pretty intensely, and never think anyone I like could possibly return those feelings, so I feel you, Molly, I really do. And the relationship with Molly and Cassie within this novel really does feel natural and real to me, and was one of the most interesting aspects of it for me, as I find myself sometimes at odds with my sister one moment but then thick as thieves the next, all while still being able to acknowledge that things aren't per say the way they always have been or how they always will be.

But the problem with being a companion novel is that a comparison to the novel to which it pairs is inevitable. And I must say, I did enjoy Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda more than this novel. I think this mainly is personal in a way, but The Upside of Unrequited just didn't grab me emotionally in the same way, which may have to do with how much closer I am holding issues of my own sexuality at this time versus issues with unrequited feelings. Because I've definitely felt both, but here I was just lacking that little tug on my heart. It may also be that some major chunks of dialogue and interaction between characters occurred through text message; while I know that everyone has a different way that they write and thereby text, it just never held me or I didn't really feel that locked in when reading any of these parts, at least, not in the same way that I found the more extended expression of the emails in Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda to convey a bit more to me (but you know me, I love to be extra wordy in not just my reviews here, but also my text messages: just ask my poor friends who end up reading novels worth of writing all the time). There is also the factor that while I adore the characters Albertalli creates, there are a lot of cringey little lines and nuances that don't always land when the teenage characters are speaking or narrating. Sign of the times, y'all, I'm getting old I guess, but every now and again I can't help but think, "that's not really how teenagers talk, is it?" 

That said, The Upside of Unrequited was again a very sweet novel, that I definitely found some serious moments of relation to at times. I maybe didn't love it, but I enjoyed it enough to want to later read Albertalli's next novel, Leah on the Offbeat (yet another in this same universe of novels). I really like the easy breezy style and how such real feelings and moments are so easily woven in.

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

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

#CBR10 Review #13: History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

I have previously read Adam Silvera’s two other novels, More Happy Than Not and They Both Die at the End, and found them both to be quite enjoyable and touching to read. So obviously there is some skill there, but I found that with this new novel, I just couldn’t get into it as much as I would have liked.

History is All You Left Me follows a teenager named Griffin as he mourns the death of his ex-boyfriend and best friend, Theo. The two had been friends for a long time along with their other friend in their little squad of 3, Wade, but eventually Theo and Griffin started dating. After Theo left for college, the two grew apart, Theo found someone new in a boy named Jackson, and the three former best friends found themselves crumbling within this new structure. The story now focuses on Griffin and his grieving process, showing both present day where Griffin learns all about who Theo became with his new boyfriend, but also switching back to show the history and past parts of their relationship that Griffin holds on to.

There are some great subjects and explorations in this novel regarding grief, how we can become selfish and angry and not want to accept that other people lost someone just like we did. There is also a major aspect of Griffin’s personality tied up in some serious compulsions that limit his life in some ways, and we see how his grief can cause this to spiral, or to cause him to make decisions that hurt both himself and others.

But here’s the thing: at one point in the novel, some of Jackson’s friends are recounting meeting Theo for the first time, claiming that it was like nothing but inside jokes between the two of them that they couldn’t penetrate into or become a part of. As I read this part, I realized that that was exactly how I was feeling reading the entire novel. There are also a ton of pop-culture references thrown in there, and while I understood all of them, it felt so corny and again, like these things meant more to the characters in a way that I couldn’t fully grasp. It’s all just moments that are close to Griffin but never feel like we are entirely let into, especially since a lot of the narration occurs as conversations between Griffin and the idea of Theo in his mind after Theo’s death. Griffin teases things that happened only to half-explain them, or not explain them until far later at a point where it doesn’t feel as poignant. I also had trouble connecting with Griffin as a character, due to a lot of his decisions and understanding of situations not feeling natural or making sense to me. I do chalk a lot of this up to his grief making him view things differently or being so self-focused in a way that he may not otherwise be, but I found it to be a bit much in the end, and lacking in ways to make everything connect or feel like real resolutions or changes. I don’t know, it just wasn’t working for me.

History is All You Left Me had a lot of potential in its subject matter focused on grief, which is always a tricky thing to handle, to be fair. And as I mentioned previously, I have enjoyed Adam Silvera’s other two novels to date. But this time, because of what felt like impenetrable characters and relationships, the whole thing fell a lot shorter than my expectations.

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

Friday, March 23, 2018

#CBR10 Review #12: V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

I know that I have read V for Vendetta before, and yet I really didn't remember it at all? Was it so long ago and was I just too young to really grasp it at that time? Who knows, but now I feel like it is a pretty striking time for a re-read, given everything happening in the world today (though to be fair this has been happening in so many places for so long). I guess the last number of years have just really done a number on us all.

I'm sure by now most are aware of the general gist of this graphic novel which I've often heard to referred to as a "classic", but in any case: V for Vendetta captures an image of dystopian England in the late 1990s (though at the time of publication, it was deemed to be a "near future" England) wherein a neo-fascist regime now has a hold on the nation, after the chaos of a nuclear war during the 1980s. But the mysterious V who was once a prisoner at a death-camp and experimented on has other ideas for trying to wake the public up and try to regain their freedoms.

These themes of people rallying behind a figure in times of chaos or perceived crisis, only to find that this soon turns on many and restricts freedom is all too telling today, the rise of past ideals of discrimination taking the forefront and governments seizing control in the name of "order". Of course the first to go are the ones who deviate from the norm, and these marginalized groups are also often pit against one another, for if they were to join they may actually rise up. And this is what V is all about: getting people's attention, becoming an idea to follow and letting them know that their leaders are indeed destructible and that the people hold more power than they think. Though are all of V's method's good? I wouldn't say so, in particular with his treatment of Evey, but isn't that the truth about most figures: we want to see them as perfect, when the reality is that everyone is capable of doing terrible things. But we always have a choice, don't we?

"Everybody is special. Everybody. Everybody is a hero, a lover, a fool, a villain. Everybody. Everybody has their story to tell."

This book is full of striking themes, but here's the big problem: I may have forgotten a lot about reading this book previously not just because it was so long ago and I was so young, but also because I found it very confusing at times. This is from a combination of many of the characters working in office and/or their significant others drifting in and out with little more than a name and position, as well as the fact that a lot of them looked so similar I couldn't keep straight who was who or working with which organization. I like to think that I pay attention to things when I read, but this was very difficult for me to keep straight in terms of the sub-plots which all weave together. And I do think that there is a significant mood and presence to be found in the artwork of David Lloyd, and a lot of the images to be found are quite dynamic, but it really isn't my style, and I did find pieces difficult to understand what exactly was happening as the visuals weren't always that clear.

Ultimately, however, V for Vendetta is a dark, often times upsetting, but powerful piece of work, flaws and all (like our heros, indeed). I think about our history and our world today and I know exactly how we got where we are, and I see resistance happening and just hope that it doesn't let up, because as soon as we become complacent or turn our backs to what is happening, it can all slip away so fast. As said by Valerie, one of my favourite lines in this novel goes as such:

"I still don't understand it, why they hate us so much."

Fascist governments hate everyone who is different because they are afraid: they are afraid because they know that they are outnumbered, and if only we realized this, we could band together and bring everything down. And it's time to continue doing exactly that, before we find ourselves somewhere we never expected. Art can be powerful, and this graphic novel makes me believe that. 

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

#CBR10 Review #11: One of Us is Lying by Karen M McManus

Adding myself to the list of fellow Cannonballers who have already reviewed One of Us is Lying recently (a few of said reviews made me want to push it further up my to-read pile!) and I must say, it was quite enjoyable! A little mystery involving a setup of various high school students from different groups all ending up in detention together, when suddenly one of them dies and the rest are now suspects in his apparent murder. Right from the start you get a sense that something is fishy about all this, and that those 4 other students in detention don't actually have anything to do with it, but that perhaps they have other secrets of their own that they don't want to get out. Because of course the one who dies is running a popular but nasty blog of secrets that has info on all of the suspects which was about to be released. So what really happened?

Being a YA novel, you get some similar tropes of characters as are found in others, but I really did come to like all of these characters by the end and found them to have a few different layers than just being completely stock and therefore predictable. And unlike something like The Breakfast Club (the setup alludes to it before going off on it's own path) wherein the kids in detention bond or become friends but really only for a day, this one showed how experiencing a trauma or facing difficult circumstances can really make or break relationships: you find out who your friends are when shit hits the fan, or so some might say. 

I will admit that a lot of these kids' secrets and how the plot was going to unravel, I was able to guess as the clues were pretty glaring, though this didn't diminish the fun I had in trying to figure it all out or see where it went. Because there were still some surprises to be found, in particular with some of the subjects that were brought up that I wasn't really expecting. One of these involved a plotline of excessive control in relationships, which I think is important as sometimes this possessiveness is shown in a positive light ("he just cares so much about you") when really it should be raising red flags. Yet another subject that wasn't per-say delved into too deeply, but was definitely brought up made me pause, as I find it is really topical at this time: that is, the idea of radicalization and/or the rise of "red-piller" and "incel" types via online groups. It's something that I've been seeing more of lately and in particular with some people close to me, though in a slightly different vein of joining up with some pretty sour echo-chambers of thought online in regards to others and I just can't stand it. So obviously I would have liked more exploration in the novel there, but even just having it mentioned was a surprise that I appreciated and think is pretty poignant to include in what could have been nothing more than a kooky high school mystery.

Also this is not the first novel I've read this year that involves a local/high school gossip blog that is out to ruin people or start rumors (that are usually true). Was Gossip Girl ahead of it's time? Because I am fortunate enough to say that I never ran into something like that in my high school days, the most we had was that popular widget to put on your Facebook where people could leave anonymous messages or confessions to you... which people hardly did anyways. 

Ultimately, One of Us is Lying was a fun read that I absolutely cruised through. Like I said, it did leave some pretty big clues lying around as to the ultimate outcome, but I still enjoyed reading it regardless.

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

Friday, March 16, 2018

#CBR10 Review #10: Edgedancer by Brandon Sanderson

Edgedancer is a small novella about the character Lift from Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight Archive series, wherein we get a little more exposition regarding her character and how she falls into her role in Oathbringer, after first being introduced via a small interlude section in Words of Radiance. As far as the book goes, it is a quick and fun little adventure that fits easily within the already established story. It does, however, also serve (as mentioned in the post-notes) to solve a few problems and continuity issues within the main Stormlight Archive series. Normally, I would be annoyed by this, as I hate having to do extra work and research to understand a series and what's happening (sort of how I feel like I have to see every Marvel movie even about characters I don't particularly care about in order to follow the overall character arcs of others), but given the huge scope of Sanderson's works, I will let it go. And I really didn't notice any issues within the series so far so, que sera sera. 

The plot of Edgedancer is really about Lift as she learns a little more about her powers and comes to speak more oaths through her adventures alone in a city, following a figure known as The Darkness who was hunting her down when we first saw her. This all occurs during the coming of the first Everstorm. There isn't much to the story that changes anything beyond a little more knowledge of how Lift came to speak her oaths, although there are hints about how she tried to make a deal with the Nightwatcher in order to stay young forever which had some implications with her mother's life. I would have actually liked to know more about this, but it never was more than the odd line here or there in Lift's mind. 

I mean, there isn't really much to say here beyond that if you are reading the Stormlight Archive series, it is a fun little addition to get a little more of this character who (as of now) has not been all that involved, though I feel she will become more important as the series goes on. It is a little awkward having some of the lines from Lift's POV come through in the narration at times, but otherwise smooth writing with a quick pace to get through this little side-adventure in little more than 200 pages (once you get through the original interlude where we met Lift presented as a prologue again). Lift is a fun character who I was curious to know more about: I still don't have all the info I was searching for, but at least there is a little more that came through in this book. 

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

Monday, March 12, 2018

#CBR10 Review #09: The Vintner's Luck by Elizabeth Knox

Upon reading the premise of this novel, I was immediately drawn in: it's like someone rooted around in my brain and picked out the exact kind of story I wanted to write. But the actual writing and way things played out, I can't say that I enjoyed. All the ingredients are there to make a compelling read, but ultimately didn't come together quite so easily. To be fair, the timeline of the book spans quite a number of decades, but perhaps addressing all that time in such a manner was per say necessary. 

The Vintner's Luck follows the life of a man named Sobran Jodeau, a son of a wine maker in France during the 1800s. We begin the story when he is just a teenager, drunk and filled with sorrow about unrequited love. One night, Sobran meets and angel named Xas, who gives Sobran some advice on his love life, and says that he will return in a year to see how things go for Sobran. From here, the two make a promise to continue to meet on the same night every year, and become quick confidants and friends. The story progresses across the years of the two and their loving relationship with one another, also tying in with Sobran's life as a wine maker, with his family and wife Celeste, and with a family friend and mistress Aurora, until Sobran's ultimate death at an elderly age. 

I find that I am sometimes drawn to stories with motifs of angels and celestial beings: I am fascinated by them, but also by how authors will weave different beliefs and systems of logic to them in order to allow them to exist within the story they are telling. In this case, there are discussions of heaven and hell, as well as issues of the soul and morality presented, etc, though some of the discussions seem a little shoehorned in out of nowhere and become a little awkward given the rest of the discussion being had at the time. I do, however, think that something that works very well with Sobran and Xas and their yearly meetings, is that for the most part (and especially in the earlier portions of Sobran's life) they reflect the importance and intimacy that can be had with friends who you don't see very often, but are also so close when you do. It reminded me of a school friend of mine who I usually meet for hours at a time, but only once a year or so, and it never feels odd or like we aren't friends; we just pick up exactly where we left off and get each other up to speed on our lives before diving into all kinds of conversations. I think that when Elizabeth Knox has portions like this in her novel, it works well, though perhaps skims through a little too quickly. 

This brings me to one of the biggest complaints that I have with the novel, which is the pacing. The parts that work well skim by too quickly, and the parts that don't slog on for what seems like ages. There is so much time to get through that both the beginning and end portions of the novel seem like they are slipping by, and in particular this seemed off to me in the early portions of the novel where Sobran is establishing his relationship with Xas, as well as his life as a vintner through the help and advice of his angelic friend: this would be what I consider the most important aspect of the novel, but this as well as some serious character conflict whizzes past without much regard for how it will affect the rest of the novel: I was barely one-third of the way through the book and realized that already so much of Sobran's life had gone by, I couldn't understand how the rest of the story would be filled. But then there is a plodding middle section later in Sobran's life, which to be fair includes some big moments, but also focuses much more intimately on pieces that previously didn't seem to be much matter, only to then continue on and not matter much in the end anyways. There is such a scope of time to cross, but it feels like it wasn't handled that well. Perhaps I have been spoiled as the last book I completed was Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing, which managed to cover hundreds of years of history in just 300 pages but never felt like the pacing was wrong or like the story was incomplete.

In a way, there is a strange sense in The Vintner's Luck of presenting new information and new plotlines that would be very interesting to explore, only to shuffle them off to the sidelines and have them ultimately not really mean anything. In particular, Sobran's relationship with his family, brother, wife, and the local murders of the town are introduced, only to be neatly but inconsequentially explained away in order to tie up loose ends. There are so many children and grandchildren in the story that are just briefly mentioned that they feel like no more than a name, and I had no sense of so when things happened around them I hardly knew who they were or why I should care beyond knowing that Sobran would be upset (But would he really? We barely see him interact with these people at all).

And more than anyone else, I felt like such a disservice was being done with Sobran's wife, Celeste: she exist to be a catalyst for the story to begin and to really solidify the relationship between Xas and Sobran, but then becomes little more than a baby machine, who is known as being "crazy" in the town but it is never explained why or what she does to make it so, and there is also a plotline of Celeste's relationship with Sobran's brother but this is really glossed over as well, only with a tiny note at the end to make sure there is an explanation, though at that point it seemed like just an extra thought added to the end which didn't per say need to be there. 

Ultimately all the relationships on which the novel hinges don't appear to be that developed or presented in a way that made me care at all; I didn't understand the connection between a lot of the characters. Even the most developed of Xas and Sobran experienced such shifts of coming together and leaving and love and anger and flip-flopping about that I couldn't fully grasp why these changes occurred in such a manner as they did (well, I sometimes did, but a lot of the time it felt so contrived). There is such an attempt to show the real life and work put into making the wineries but ultimately the lives and relationships of these people didn't feel real at all.

At the end of the day, The Vintner's Luck has an interesting premise with which a lot could be done, and perhaps others may find it better than I did. But being that it's not truly that long of a book, it seemed to drag and not ever fully connect with me. I've seen other reviews claiming it to be deeply emotional, but at no point did I feel this myself.

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

Saturday, March 3, 2018

#CBR10 Review #08: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

And in my village we have a saying about separated sisters. They are like a woman and her reflection, doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond.”
I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that has managed to stuff so much history, trauma, heartbreak, love, hardship, and resilience into so few pages. At just 300 pages, Yaa Gyasi manages to weave a rich web of connecting stories, spanning hundreds of years in history over 7 generations. We begin with two sisters, Effia and Esi, separated at birth in their home country of Africa, and subsequent generations after them which grow further and further apart, as one sister remains in Africa married to a British officer, and the other is sold to slavery across the Atlantic ocean (the pond, in this case). There is so much to cover here, following 14 main characters in what come across as separate short stories that intrinsically connect through direct descendants.

I will admit that I found the characters in the first half were drawing me in more, and though all the stories included had profound moments and themes, the latter half started to drag a little for me. Then again, the later chapters are also a little more connected to the previous ones, with some characters overlapping more than previously (also a product of the history therein). I don’t know, I just liked the way that the initial portions were handled more than the latter, and I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe it was that I started to get a sense of where it was going to wrap up in the later portrions, but even that didn't really detract too much for the ultimate result.

Overall, however, this book took my breath away. The characters, the themes, and just the ambition of following so much time to present so many issues is astounding. We hit on issues of slavery and the involvement of both the British and African civil unrest, familial ties both pride and resentment, racial identity, segregation, the value placed on female bodies, child raising, and so much more. It’s a lot, but it also works so well together, and isn’t overwhelming. And this is Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, so you can tell she put a ton of thought into the whole thing. I would definitely recommend giving it a read.

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