young adult

Genre: Asian-American YA?

Because I apparently didn’t learn from last time‘s mistake, I once again succumbed to the siren song of the Bestseller. This time it was the Summer trilogy by Jenny Han.

The names of the books should have let me know what I was getting into- The Summer I Turned Pretty, It’s Not Summer Without You, We’ll Always Have Summer. (Followed by I Know What You Did Last Summer?)

The main character is Belly Conklin, a teenaged girl who has spent most summers at a holiday home belonging to her mother’s best friend. With her mother, brother, and the sons of her mother’s friends. One summer, she turns pretty. I’m not sure how exactly this happens, but it’s acknowledged by everyone that Belly is now Hot. Of course, the boys, Conrad and Jeremiah, are both immediately in love with her. Which one will she choose? It takes 3 books to find out.

Apart from the slightly worrisome fact that Belly is involved with two brothers, there were many things I disliked about these books. Firstly, the writing is very simplistic but at the same time, vaguely nostalgic and dramatic. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but it was annoying. “I decided to get a strawberry milkshake instead of vanilla. Little did I know it, but everything was about to change, irretrievably and all at once.”

All in all, a coming-of-age story set in a culture and environment that’s utterly strange to me. Vacation homes? Getting married in college? Being hot? Nope.

A very generous 1/5 from me.

Addendum:

I am incorrigible,  I also read To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. This is the first novel of another trilogy by Jenny Han. The protagonist of this one, Lara Jean Song, writes secret letters to the boys she falls out of love with- what happens when *gasp* someone sends them out? This is not a terrible beginning, but Lara Jean is all of sixteen, which makes me skeptical that she was ever really in love in the first place. Oh, and one of the boys is her sister’s boyfriend. Much like Belly, Lara Jean is childish and self-centred – I don’t recall being that immature at sixteen. Sex is a big part of it- somehow Lara Jean is young enough to be shocked by it, yet old enough to do it? Maybe it’s a cultural thing that I missed.

 

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Nostalgia in a book

I’ve been laid up with a recurring infection that has put me behind on my reviews. Not to mention my reading, though that has been on the back burner for years now.

This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki is an award-winning graphic novel published as recently as 2015. Rose is twelve, and is spending the summer in her family’s cottage in Awago with her parents. She is reunited with her younger friend Windy for a couple of months of swimming and midday candy.

But twelve is that awkward age when one is old enough to notice adult things happening, but still too young to understand them. Rose’s mother is behaving strangely, and her parents are arguing. She notices an older boy, and toys with the idea of ‘like liking’ him. She watches an older girl struggle with a difficult decision.

All the events are very relatable, and the illustrations are lovely. It’s just the extreme awkwardness that put me off this book. I basically walked (hopped?) around with my foot in my mouth during my teens, and it’s still a struggle to not be a self-obsessed, pretentious a**hat. But Rose is really awful at saying the right thing, or being perceptive. She accidentally insults Windy (who’s the adopted child of lesbians) multiple times, slut-shames a girl with no guilt, and has no sympathy for an upset family member. It’s a bit cringeworthy.

All in all, this is a very realistic depiction of an uneventful summer through the eyes of a girl who has just begun to grow up. It’s a short read, and I would recommend it if you are a female who likes graphic novels. 2/5 from me.

You’ve been warned

This is my review of the short story anthology Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman.

One notable thing about today’s children’s/YA authors is that they’re approachable, and celebrities in their own right. John Green has a vlog and is active on social media, JK Rowling expresses her political opinions freely on Twitter, and Neil Gaiman- Neil Gaiman is basically the hero that my emo, pretentious, teenaged self needed but did not deserve. He is unabashedly geeky and frequently drops nuggets of inspiration that probably keep tired young writers plugging along for an extra edit, or a few hundred more words.

The reason this stands out to me is that many classic children’s authors took a very different stance- they tried to teach us lessons or preach morality. Enid Blyton got a lot of criticism for her depiction of naughty black golliwogs, since the original toys were overtly racist. I’m inclined to see this as a sign of the times, rather than deliberate spite towards people of colour. I’ve read conspiracy theories on homosexual undertones in Noddy and Big Ears’ relationship, but that’s unlikely. CS Lewis intended his Narnia books to be a religious allegory, with Aslan representing Jesus, but the metaphor flew over my preteen head. Herge’s Tintin in America has several pages that so offensive to Native Americans that the book was not published for several decades. It was re-released in the 2000s with a disclaimer, and I was shocked to see panels of ‘foolish’ brown natives worshipping Tintin as a god.

With all these precedents, I’m glad to see authors being more responsible about the influence they wield over young minds.

Trigger Warning refers to the warning (D’oh) on content that may be frightening or emotionally disturbing to people who have experienced trauma, or who are sensitive to gore or violence. Say, PTSD sufferers or rape victims. Gaiman points out that very often, literature is meant to take us out of our comfort zone. The experience is not always pleasant, but almost always educational.

Funnily enough, Gaiman himself does not venture far out of his writing comfort zone. He sticks to urban fantasy for the most part. I found that after a point, the stories sort of blended together until I felt like I was slogging through the same twists again and again- not an accurate impression, but one that I just couldn’t shake off.

There are some gems in there- The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury hit me right in the feels. For best effect, listen to the audio version. There’s an interesting take on Sherlock Holmes and his bee-keeping efforts (remember, after he retires he takes up bee keeping in the country!). There’s an interesting Doctor Who story as well. But most of the rest of them were Gaiman’s usual fairytales. The book starts off with a sort of meta-description of how he developed the ideas for each of the stories. This little peephole into his brain is sure to delight any wannabe writers. As a casual reader, however, I found that it disrupted my reading experience since I couldn’t map the anecdotes to the right story and had to keep flipping back and forth.

Or maybe I’ve just outgrown his writing (the horror!)

I would still recommend this if you’re a fan of urban fantasy, or you want some short stories to dip into from time to time. 3.5/5

Fan Fiction vs Canon

This is my review of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by JK Rowling. Well, the script at least, I haven’t had the good fortune of seeing the play live yet. Someday…

I’ll start off with a spoiler-free review first:

This is a next-gen story, focusing on Harry & Ginny’s youngest son, Albus Severus Potter. If you recall, the epilogue of Deathly Hallows saw young Albus was worrying that he’d be sorted into Slytherin. Well, he is! This, of course, is not a good thing to happen in the Potter-Weasley clan. Cue family drama and rebellious escapades.

What I found exceptionally interesting was the short length and lack of narrative. Instead of a ginormous 900-page tome, we get a one hour long script. Dumbledore can no longer ‘twinkle wisely’; for a writer like JKR, who relies on the generous use of adverbs (sometimes entirely too many!), this had to have been a huge limitation. The result is a deftly paced self-contained plot, with much more prosaic themes.

She can’t resist her usual comedy though, and we get some entertaining lines from Ron and Scorpius Malfoy. In all, this would make for a very interesting TV show. The relationship between Harry and Albus is realistic and (luckily) free of the overdone teenage angst that made The Order of the Phoenix such a drag.

Funnily enough, JKR has stuck to many plot points that are widely accepted amongst the fanfiction community- thus making them canon!

I’d give this a 4.5/5, because it is a bite-size chunk of nostalgia with a satisfying plot.

Now for some minor spoilers:

Once again, an important theme is that one’s choices are more important than anything else. Albus and Scorpius are Slytherins, and they’re undoubtedly the heroes of the story.

There is a generous amount of time travel in the story, enough to remind me of the wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey approach of Doctor Who. Some of the jumps are not very convincingly explained, but, hey, it’s fantasy.

 

Another shoutout to fan fiction is the Scorpius+Rose pairing that is much beloved by the HPFF community.

Wonder

This is a review of Wonder by R J Palacio.

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August Pullman is not ordinary. He was born with a facial deformity. He has been home schooled till now, owing to the numerous surgeries that he needed. But now he’s about to attend fifth grade in a school near his home. He’s nervous because he knows that he’s not ordinary, at all.

Wonder is narrated by Auggie, his friends, his sister Olivia, and her friends. Each has a slightly different style of narration, believable and authentic. Auggie is smart, kind, and understands that he stands out in a crowd. He’s pragmatic and doesn’t seek to play the victim card, ever. His sister, as a teenager, is also incredibly supportive (but also acts her age, to balance out the halo on her head). His parents are god sends – perfect.

Auggie is intelligent and is a loner. He gets good grades and makes few friends because he’s not very popular. The school bully (and most popular kid), though, dislikes him, and keeps trying to pull him down. He also gets the kids to play horrible games on Auggie. August, though, does have a couple of friends who stand up for him. They simply believe that it’s the right thing to do, not brave or kind, but just right.

The book is warm. For a protagonist like August, who has to deal with insensitive bullies, the book could have been made more mushy. But it’s not. You don’t feel bad for Auggie. He also tells you, subtly, that you don’t get a pretty ribbon or badge for being nice to people with deformities (or disabilities, I might add); you only don’t get called an arsehole.

It’s not really a book for adults. But I know a lot of adults who can learn a lesson or two from it. Anyway, Wonder is my book recommendation for young adults and children. 4/5.

Greek mythology for the mortals

This is a review of the Percy Jackson books, by Rick Riordan.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians is a set of 5 fantastic books based on Greek Mythology, which one will learn is no myth, but reality set in The USA today. The Greek mythology is fun. Obviously. After all, many human years ago it was part of a religion which, anthropologists like Malinowski believed, held societies together. Despite being as larger than life, the inspiration that the books draw from Greek Mythology is just right.

Percy Jackson is a dyslexic 12 year old when we meet him. He cannot seem to keep a seat in a school for longer than a year, because he always causes some inexplicable problems that get him expelled. He and his lone friend, Grover, join the school trip in which Percy is attacked by the former math teacher, Mrs Dodds, current monstrous bird-like thing that tries to kill Percy. With the help of his Latin teacher, Chiron, who lends him a ballpoint-pen-turned-sword at the right moment, Percy valorously, and to his own surprise, defeats the monster. However, after he does, noone around him seems to remember a Mrs Dodd, never mind the attack that Percy survived. We soon learn that the memories of the mortals (humans) was altered by the Mist (a spell of sorts that alters memories and imagery). As one can guess, Grover and Chiron, are not human – and were, in fact, protecting Percy from the monsters. After this incident and a bunch near-fatal meetings with more monsters, he, his mother and Grover drive to the Half-blood Hill, where other children like Percy live.

At camp, Percy learns that he is the son of Poseidon, the god of seas; one of the Big Three (the other two being Zeus and Hades), and a “mistake” in the sense that despite the gods’ oaths not to sire children with humans, Poseidon did (although Zeus did it first, but his child almost, sort of, did not really survive). Our protagonist is hence no more a dyslexic and lost little lad, but one of the most powerful 12 year olds alive.

The books of the pentalogy are strung together by the doings of the gods, some prophecies and the heroism of Percy and co. They track Percy’s adventures as he first tries to stop a war from occurring, then tries to restore the health of the camp which loses its protective properties due to sabotage of its border forces. In the third book, Percy and his friends try to safeguard other half-bloods, and in the bargain, he loses and gains friends. In the fourth part, Percy and friends try to safeguard the camp, which they believe is compromised due to a labyrinth underneath. The last part is the culmination of the series, where the games played by Kronos (the Titan lord – very important and dangerous) is drawn to the close as he attempts to destroy Olympus (which is situated in New York, by the way), the house of the gods.

The series is short and fast paced. It has no unnecessary descriptions of scenery, for instance. It throws up some perfunctory surprises and twists to keep it going; some enrich the reading, some turn things upside down, and some are very predictable. You’d enjoy the series like I did, if you like the idea of gods roaming in running clothes, driving a Maserati, a Harley Davidson, wearing beach wear and the like. There’s almost never a dull moment. The funniest bit for me was when Percy and his friend (and daughter of Athena), Annabeth, try to enter the Underworld, Hades’s abode. Watch out for the three-headed dog, Cerebus.

What I felt was a bummer was the repetitive nature of the adventures, and the lack of maturity of the characters despite the years. Percy is perceptually confused and surprised at his own abilities. I had to keep reminding myself that he’s only a little boy (um, who saves the world!). Also, he’s too noble. Bah. That apart, as a Potterhead, I came across somethings that sounded too familiar. In Percy Jackson, as in Harry Potter, there’s a prophesy which might fit the protagonist (including the apparent confusion about the subject of the prophesy – Harry or Neville; Percy or ). The villain of the story is almost dead, but not quite, and is trying to rise once again. This guy first tries to steal an instrument that will hasten his resurrection (philosopher’s stone, the golden fleece) before he goes full mental and uses the services of his cowardly loyal followers. In one of the books, there’s a maze with monsters littered all over it (remind you of the third task in the triwizard tournament?).

While the books were good company, their brilliance dulled towards the end (the final book tries too hard to be funny, and is condensible to half its length). But to be fair, the monsters and other creatures throughout the series are entertaining and slightly adorable scary. For instance, there’s a cow-like sea creature which says ‘Moo’.

For making a comedy out of those witless gods, here’s to you, Rick Riordan!

3/5

Do gamers dream of virtual reality?

This is my review of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.

This is an acclaimed (by the Internet, but that counts, doesn’t it?) YA sci-fi dystopian novel. Possibly the only novel fitting these criteria that I hadn’t read yet. And it didn’t let me down!

Wade Owen Watts is a child of the future, who was (almost literally) raised by the Internet. In this new world, house rents are dependent on Wi-Fi availability, and free education is available for all children via virtual reality. Meanwhile, a wealthy, eccentric, videogame maker has left a challenge to children everywhere. I don’t recall what the reward was, but this is basically Charlie and the Chocolate Factory‘s ‘golden ticket’.

Our hero’s only way out of his gloomy urban slum is winning this challenge, and he has dedicated years of his life to studying 80s geek culture in search of clues- much like thousands of other teens all over the globe. The plot is cliched, but definitely not boring. You can see the ending from hundreds of pages away, but that doesn’t make the story any less enjoyable.

Master list of cliches and/or stereotypes in this book:

  1. Hero gets the girl in the end
  2. Japanese kids are hardworking and intense
  3. Token racial minority in America
  4. Reference to white trash culture because hero has to be white
  5. Reminder that people fake their identities on the Internet
  6. Geeks are unattractive, but can undergo quick transformation to get aforementioned girl
  7. One or more of the token racial minorities will die
  8. Technology giant built from humble beginnings by pair of hardworking youngsters in their garage
  9. Eccentric millionaire
  10. Friendship ends because of a fight over a girl

This list is not exhaustive (or well-formatted), but this site, TV Tropes does a good job of describing common tropes in TV and movies.

The writing style of this book is slightly confusing. It reads like a YA action novel but is littered with 80’s geek culture references. I’m a bit too old for YA myself, but wasn’t even around in the 80s, let alone playing videogames. 99% of the pop culture references went over my head, but luckily they did not have much relevance to the plot.

4/5 from me. Recommended for anyone who enjoys fast paced stories without too many subtleties.

More YA.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson – John Green and David Levithan

This book revolves around two high school guys who share a name- Will Grayson – but have nothing else in common. The interesting thing about this book is that the authors (this is a collaboration) contributed alternate chapters, each writing from the point of view of one of the main characters. The not-so-interesting thing about this book is that it seems to lack a plotline.

Will Grayson is a typical John Green creation- smart, witty and slightly geeky. He claims that his rules for getting through life are 1) Don’t care too much, and 2) Shut up. He proceeds to break both rules repeatedly through the course of the book. will grayson (note the absence of capitalization) seems to have a bit more depth. He has a difficult home situation and struggles with depression. He’s also gay, and has doesn’t have many friends at school. They meet one day in an unlikely setting and this sets off a chain of events…

That are fairly predictable. There are four main characters in the book: A straight guy, a straight girl, and two gay guys. Do the math.

Despite its flaws, this book has some redeeming qualities: it handles the subjects of mental illness and teen homosexuality very well. It shows a society where people (or at least high schoolers) are quick to accept gay people without judgement. will’s depression is shown as an illness that is unfortunate but manageable with medication and support from his family. There’s also a ‘very large, very gay’ musical that provides a few laughs.

I would recommend this book only if you’re a big fan of John Green and/or the Young Adult genre. 2/5