Saturday, November 07, 2015

Book Review - After Alice

Gregory Maguire's latest twist on classic literature comes in After Alice, the story of Alice in Wonderland from an entirely different point of view. In this book, Alice barely makes an appearance. Instead we get to see what happened up in Oxford during Alice's trip to Wonderland as well as a new perspective on Wonderland as Alice's minor friend Ada accidentally tumbles down the rabbit hole and spends her time trying to catch up with Alice.

Ada is a neighbor who lives down the lane from Alice and has been sent to take some marmalade to Alice's family and potentially spend time with Alice. Due to some physical limitations, Ada wears a back/body/leg brace to help her move about and she has been entrusted to a governess. In a bout of impatience and (seemingly) uncharacteristic impetuosity, Ada gets far ahead of her governess and ends up tumbling down the rabbit hole to Wonderland. Ada's governess, Miss Armstrong, frantically searches for Ada and meets up with Alice's teenage sister Lydia. Miss Armstrong and Lydia spend the day searching Oxford (both alone and occasionally paired up) for Ada and Alice...more on them in a moment.

As Ada is introduced and even more once she arrives in Wonderland, it is clear that where Alice is imagination and curiosity personified, Ada is Alice's grounded realist foil. Where Alice had stars in her eyes and her head in the clouds, Ada was more of a naturalist, taking the world at face value and seeking for understanding while straining to grow her youthful desire for playfulness. Ada seems to have a knowledge and a perceptiveness beyond her young years but is still a bit oblivious to the nature of the world around her. Her trip to Wonderland is suited to be a great opportunity for her to open her eyes to new increase her own imagination and cultivate a sense of curiosity and wonder. Initially she is sure she is falling into Hell, based partly on her recent glances at Dante's Inferno. This notion seems to stick in the back of her mind as we catch subtle references later on. As she progresses through Wonderland, meeting various inhabitants and experiencing some of its craziness she remains focused squarely on finding Alice. As such, her plentiful opportunities for imaginative growth seem to fall flat. And yet, she does have some insights into herself and her surroundings which have an impact on her and give some growth to her character. I was excited to see a wide variety of characters and experiences from Wonderland that strayed beyond the simple and most popular/famous elements known by casual readers. These were fun additions and made me want to re-read the original Alice books. Still, I was left a bit disappointed with the presentation of some of these characters. It felt like they were trying too hard to straddle the fence between their original self and the message that Maguire was trying to present and as a result they tripped and fell over that fence they were straddling.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Book Review - The One and Only Ivan

I remember a lot of excitement around The One and Only Ivan when it was released and later won the Newbery Medal (along with numerous other awards). As a result, it made it on my "to read" just took me a while to get around to it.

From a high level, there's an element of being "based on a true story" in that there was a real Gorilla on a billboard and in a less than happy zoo-life in an mall. There some opportunities for editorializing as we learn about the hunting and capture of animals and of the treatment of some animals...but mostly this is definitely a fictional account. That said, there are elements that are harshly real and could certainly trouble young readers (even though it is geared towards younger readers).

Part of the hook, as you'll find early on, is that the book is narrated by Ivan, the gorilla. Ivan is a gorilla who was captured young and has virtually no memory of life outside of captivity. Through Ivan's eyes we see his understanding of himself and his world increase as he interacts with and observes friends/neighbors (an old elephant named Stella, a stray dog named Bob, a baby elephant named Ruby and the humans outside his enclosure). Ivan has a very unique voice that is sometimes heart wrenching, some times frustrating and often endearing. The author creates a wonderful voice of innocence, simplicity and curiosity.

Books Read in 2015

For the past few years (2014, 20132012, 2011, 2010, 2009) I've had a goal to read and review a bunch of books over the course of each year.

My goal had been to average a book per week and end up with 50 books read and reviewed at the end of the year. I usually don't include smaller books (early middle grade, picture books, etc) unless I feel really strongly about them. For the past couple of years I've dropped well below my 50 and I'm starting off 2015 already a couple of months behind. Still, I'm going to try and catch up and at least get some books read and reviewed in coming weeks/months.

  1. Dauntless
  2. The Darkling Child
  3. Trouble is a Friend of Mine
  4. Finn: A Novel
  5. The One and Only Ivan
  6. After Alice

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Book Review - Finn: A Novel

I fell in love with the writing of Mark Twain in Junior High and High School. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was always one of my favorites, not only because of the fun adventures and outrageously ridiculous humor but also because of the great depth and thought of the story filled with so many layers and nuances of historical social dynamics and beliefs. As a result very naturally intrigued by Finn: A Novel, a new novel telling the story of Huck's father "Pap" Finn.

The book follows the life of Pap Finn (mostly just called "Finn" in the book as he never receives a true first name). There are a few scenes and recollections about his youth but mostly the novel focuses on his adult life in the time leading up to Huck's birth and the years that follow until the ultimate discovery of his death as outlined in the original novel by Twain. The organization of the chapters was occasionally disorienting with limited indication of timing since from one chapter to another we may jump forward or backward in time by a handful of years. It was only significantly disorienting once or twice but when it did happen I wondered as to the intent of such jumps other than perhaps to help the reader feel as unsteady and flailing as Finn was in his own life.

The tone, language and literary styling of the novel are impressive. The book is well written. In some regard there seems to be a desire to imitate Twain's rhetoric and uphold the 19th century language of the previous novel. But the tone and content of this book necessarily result in stylistic differences that make this a much darker novel even in the moments of levity. 'Finn' has some scenes which are indeed laughable but the tone makes them tragically funny as opposed to the laugh-out-loud humor of 'Huckleberry.'

We are given scenes outlining the strained relationship between Finn and his family members. Finn's father looks at Finn with absolute disgust and hatred that has gone on for years. Finn's brother provides token olive branches where he can but is limited by a need to remain in the good graces of his father and society. As a result, Finn is left to his own devices. His broken family life sends him into the world with a spiteful attitude and a feeling that everyone is out to get him and that the only person he can count on is himself. Fortunately Finn is capable enough to find odd jobs and thus scrapes to stay alive...but only barely so. And as his vices increase, his ability to survive diminishes.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Book Review - Trouble is a Friend of Mine

This book was initially pitched to me as a cross between Veronica Mars and the BBC series Sherlock. Enjoying both shows, it sounded fun and requested the book. As the title "Trouble is a Friend of Mine" suggests, the narrator (a teenage girl named Zoe) has a tendency to get into trouble. More to the point, "Trouble" truly does become one of her friends in the character Digsby. He becomes the literal representation of Trouble popping up in her life.

The book starts with a few paragraphs of flash-forward of Zoe in front of a house filled with explosives and her conflict about whether to run back inside and help Digsby or run to safety. The book then flashes back to the moment she first met Digsby and explains how they get to know one another and the various forms of Trouble and mystery they uncover and stumble upon.

From the initial meeting between Digsby and Zoe I had to wonder about Zoe's character. She's skipping school one day and Digsby shows up on her doorstep with very cryptic comments that come off as stalker-like and definitely creepy. Instead of being totally freaked out and calling the cops or talking to her mom, Zoe feels a little confused but largely shrugs it off and then just sort of accepts that Digsby is becoming part of her life as he shows up time and again. Granted, Zoe has a troubled relationship with her mother but she's a smart girl with normal nervous tendencies so it felt odd that she didn't even mention Digsby to anyone.