Friday, February 28, 2014

Unreliable Narrators


When we pick up a novel and immerse ourselves into the lives, stories and adventures of the characters there, we also let them into our own. We form our own opinions of them, theorize on the outcomes of different events, and sacrifice the hours we're supposed to spend sleeping to find out how close we came to the mark. But within this beautiful symbiosis of the reader giving the characters life in her mind and the characters stimulating the reader's imagination, sometimes a conflict arises: can the reader trust what the characters are telling him? Or are they just as unreliable as anyone else? Just as capable of fooling us or leading us on, be it intentional or not? 

This list of literature's most unreliable narrators points out the details of perspective that can change the way we think about what certain characters are telling us. You may have already questioned how honest some of them are, or even if they've just deluded themselves, or maybe you'll want to re-read some of the stories to gain a new perspective! Either way, we as readers have the privilege of deciding for ourselves which side of the story to take to heart.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Book Review: "Scintillate" by Tracy Clark

Maybe it's the winter, but I've found myself reading some fairly heavy books lately. The Secret of Raven Point and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry come immediately to mind. My natural literary tastes run along some pretty dark themes, but every now and then I just have to pick up something that I'll take a little less seriously. Scintillate is the first novel in Tracy Clark's Light Key Trilogy, and since she received an SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) grant to complete it, I was interested enough to pick it up.

Cora ends up mysteriously ill in the hospital one night, and once she comes home to her dad and step-mom she's still not convinced that she's recovered: she can see colorful halos of light around every person, full of changing colors. But when she tells her father about it he dismisses it, and Cora is led to believe that it has something to do with her mother, Grace, who disappeared in Ireland before Cora's dad moved them to California. She begins to look for clues, unraveling the mystery that connects her own strange vision to her missing mother. What she discovers is that these same abilities are what might have put Grace in danger, and that further answers lie back in Ireland, where Cora grew up.

But Cora's abilities are about to put her in danger too. While other people have colored auras that change with their moods, Cora's is a bright silver. She's seen a man chasing her, someone with a pure white aura, and there's nobody to whom she can turn for answers. So with the help of her two best friends, Cora makes her escape alone to Ireland to search for answers about her mother and also herself.

Sounds like an interesting story, right? Innovative combinations of Irish folklore and aural powers, adventure and magic. I'm sorry to say that the promising premise was lost and confused under the weight of bad execution and enough hormonal teenage drama to choke a yak. Everything that Cora does and discovers is overshadowed by a reciprocal obsession between herself and an Irish exchange student, Finn. Yes, it's high school and hormones are raging. Drama and emotional roller coasters are to be expected. But I haven't read a relationship this unhealthy since Twilight. There turns out to be a deeper reason for the obsession, but that doesn't turn up until near the end, and in the mean time all sorts of red flags were popping up in my mind.

There were also an incredible number of seemingly important details that were never explained or even addressed. We don't know what about Cora's sudden illness triggered her abilities, and random tattoos start appearing on her whenever she reads the memories from an object. But the biggest one that sticks out for me is the key that she uncovers. The entire trilogy is centered around a "Light Key," and it features prominently on the cover. But aside from being dug up and mysteriously tattooed on Cora's arm, the key features not at all in the story. She wears it around her neck, and it gets taken from her. That's it. Its presence or symbolism is never explained or even hinted at, which strikes me as a big flaw in a trilogy that seemingly centers around it. As a reader, I was given no real reason to care about it.

In the midst of the muck though, there were a couple of things that I appreciated in the story. Duncan, Cora's best guy friend, made me giggle with his Irish-themed teasing about Finn. It wasn't very imaginative, but it really was amusing. And Cora is, from what I managed to gather, supposed to be fat. There are a few passing moments in the book that refer to tight jeans making her thighs look awful, or taking after her Chilean dad's "empanada-eating" side of the family. Finn's mother even takes a jab at her for it. But this quality that sets her apart from a lot of stereotypical female protagonists in the genre isn't ever really addressed beyond these occasional comments that imply a body type that's not a size 2. Cora might gain a little more depth as a character if the author were to bring that aspect of the story more into focus.

Of course, if Clark were to do that, she'd have to get rid of some other subjects that are cluttering up the story. Missing mother, overprotective dad, romantic drama, mysterious memories and tattoos, attempted murder, kidnapping, madness, mysterious deaths, and.....dark energy? Yup. It's revealed that some of what's going on is, according to Cora's father, a result of unbalanced dark energy. As I've mentioned before, I'm a little bit of a science junkie, so I get a little judgmental when authors don't give what I think is an accurate representation for something like dark energy. Adding that on top of a mountain of folklore, elusive first peoples and auras makes my head spin. There's just too much going on here, and the result seems to be that none of it gets covered sufficiently.

I can safely say that I'm not going to read the other two books in the Light Key Trilogy. But if you liked anything by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes or the YA paranormal romance Blood and Chocolate, you may appreciate Scintillate by Tracy Clark more than I did. You can find it now at your favorite local indie bookstore.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Village Books: The 'Heart of the District'

The following article excerpt was originally featured in the February 5th edition of Shelf Awareness, an E-newsletter for the bookselling industry. The original interview was conducted on WhatcomTalk. If you read this blog with any regularity, you know how much I love books and working in the book industry. My hope is that this brief article will help illustrate how this isn't just a job for many of us; it's a true community.

Village Books: The 'Heart of the District'

"The mission of the business is to build community," Chuck Robinson, co-owner--with his wife, Dee--of Village Books and Paper Dreams in the Fairhaven section of Bellingham, Wash., told WhatcomTalk, which profiled the shop in a piece headlined "Whatcom County's Book-Buying Destination Is the Heart of Fairhaven."

"Obviously, we have to make a living for the people who work here and business has to be profitable to be able to stay around, but we've tried to build something that's as much a community center as a place that sells stuff," he added.

Noting the Robinsons "dreamed up Village Books while driving around the country in a motor home at the tail end of 1979," WhatcomTalk wrote that the business "continues to thrive by doing what so many independent bookstores have not: grow, innovate, and remain a central part of its surrounding community, while continuing to welcome book-buyers through their doors year after year."

What has been their key to success? "The main key is we've been willing to change," said Chuck. "A lot of people who closed their stores didn't fail at their business, they just decided that that wasn't the business they wanted to be in--they didn't want to make those changes."

Those changes include the early decision in 1982 to open Paper Dreams, the greeting card and gift store. "Most of the bookstores that have thrived have increased the percentage of non-books that they're selling in the stores, because there's a much better margin."

"People talk about separating their work life from their home life, but we've never tried to do that," Chuck observed. "I kind of think, well, you live one life and Village Books is just a part of ours."

Monday, February 17, 2014

Book Review: "The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry" by Gabrielle Zevin

If ever there were a novel written specifically for book people, this is it: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. Embittered, socially inept and self-destructive since the death of his wife Nic, A.J. Fikry runs a dying bookstore on Alice Island, on the New England coast. It's a small community, difficult to reach from urban hubs like Boston, and A.J.'s only plan is to run his business till it dies, then sell his first-edition copy of Edgar Allen Poe's Tamerlane and retire on the proceeds.

But his sad little life changes one night when, while A.J. is passed out at his kitchen table, Tamerlane is stolen. Shortly thereafter, A.J. finds a toddler left in the store's children's section with a note pinned to her coat: her name is Maya, she's exceptionally smart, and her mother can no longer take care of her. Maya should grow up somewhere that will stimulate her intellect, support and encourage her, and so she has been left here at the bookstore for A.J. to care for.

A.J., who had never planned on being a father, initially decides to turn Maya over to the State for foster care and hopefully adoption. But after a few days spent in Maya's company waiting for a case worker to come out to Alice Island (and a lot of Googling things like "what to feed a 25-month-old") he changes his mind and Maya stays at Island Books. She is the catalyst for the many changes that take place on Alice Island. They are small at first, not even really quantifiable, but they initiate a change from "bookstore" to "book community" that is simple, beautiful, and utterly complete. A favorite quote from The Velveteen Rabbit comes to mind: "Once you are real, you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always."

Just as the entire community becomes linked with the bookstore, Maya links all of the main characters with one another. A.J.'s sister-in-law, her philandering author husband, the local police chief, Maya's mother, and a publishing rep who loves all things yellow all have different but immensely important roles to play in the story of A.J. and Maya's lives together. And author Zevin brings them together perfectly, drawing the lines that connect them at the perfect speed to reveal the connections between them at just the right times. But the new developments felt very organic as I read them, and instead of producing a sense of shock they made me think "ooh, that makes so much sense!" Even what happened to A.J. at the end of the book, which was thoroughly heartbreaking, happened in the most twistedly poetic way possible. I can't remember the last time a book really made me cry, but I was bawling my eyes out when I read the last few pages.

Initially I didn't understand A.J.'s little short story commentaries scattered between sections of the book. But as the symbolism of the short story format became clearer through the book's progress, and the entries became more personal, each one gained a wider context. The message that A.J. is struggling to communicate at the end is revealed to the reader, but we don't know if he was able to make Maya and Amy understand. We have to either assume that they never understood or that they knew A.J. well enough to perceive what he was trying to say even when he could no longer communicate it.

This is one of the most beautiful books I've ever read. The people and the plot make it that way, yes, but more than that it comes down to the way in which the story is put together. If you like Under the Tuscan Sun or The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow, or are passionate about books and reading communities, mark The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin in BIG, BOLD LETTERS on your to-read list. It comes out in April, and you can pre-order it now at your neighborhood indie bookstore.

Photo is loading

Friday, February 14, 2014

Strong Women in Fantasy Novels:

Jadis - jadis-queen-of-narnia Photo

As someone who reads a fair share of fantasy novels, I get tired sometimes of seeing weak female characters who need to be rescued by their handsome, charming male counterparts. Sure, everyone needs rescuing sometimes. But does it always have to be by a guy? And in the mean time, isn't there something a distressed princess or captive rogue can do to help herself to some extent?

Paul Goat Allen on the Barnes & Noble book blog helped to restore some of my faith in the genre by putting together this list of pretty badass women in fantasy novels. He makes what I think is an important point by including both heroes and villains in this list: that strength can be used for good or evil in female characters just as easily as in male characters. Regardless of their spot on the spectrum, every woman on this list is undeniably powerful. Even if it's in a terrifying or utterly cruel sort of way.

And if you're interested in the story collection that Allen mentions at the beginning, check it out here.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Book Review: "An Abundance of Katherines" by John Green

John Green has been getting renewed attention as a Young Adult author since his latest work, The Fault in our Stars, hit the bestseller list. On June 6th of this year the movie will be released, and in the mean time more people than ever are rushing to their favorite bookstores to pick up copies of Green's books. I thought I'd take advantage of reader interest in The Fault in our Stars to bring attention to another one of his fantastic novels, An Abundance of Katherines.

This is not a new release. In fact, it first came out in 2006. I recently re-read it, and wanted to share it with you. Like Green's other novels, An Abundance of Katherines follows an awkward but lovable teenage boy with a lot to learn about himself and where he fits into the world. Colin was a child prodigy, but now that he's finishing high school, can he somehow achieve his full potential to become a true genius? Someone who makes breakthroughs instead of just memorizing and applying the revelations of others? His track record with girls doesn't help, either: all nineteen relationships he's had have been with girls named Katherine, and they've all dumped him.

Trying to alleviate the pain of his breakup with K19, Colin and his best friend Hassan take a road trip and wind up in Gutshot, TN, while following the trail of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. While there they stumble into Lindsey, a smart girl with no plans to leave her hometown, and somehow find themselves with summer jobs recording the stories of the small town's factory workers. In a desperate attempt to make his mark on the world, Colin decides to come up with the Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability, by which the arc of a relationship can be predicted, by using data from his own experiences.

Green always writes a certain type of main character: awkward, smart but confused, endearingly dorky teenage boys. But while they all follow this same basic outline, the personality quirks that each has are unique to the book. For example, Colin only dates girls named Katherine, can't tell a story without going on a billion brainy tangents, and compulsively anagrams words and phrases. Hassan is his perfect counterpart, with a very different worldview, religious affiliation, and a social adeptness that has always eluded Colin. These issues lead to a few fights, yes, but it's obvious to the reader (and to both of them, really) that they do need one another, despite the issues that sometimes get in the way of their friendship.

Another signature of Green's work is the inclusion of some situations that are just so hilariously improbable, they become totally believable with the help of his great writing. (If you ever read his book Paper Towns, which you should, look for the scene with the cow and the minivan.) In An Abundance of Katherines, I particularly enjoyed the scenes where Colin and Hassan are pretending to be French exchange students, and where they go on a feral pig hunt with some of their new acquaintances in Gutshot. I quite literally laughed until my stomach hurt, couldn't read more than a line at a time because it was just too funny. The situational humor that Green uses, combined with his memorable and relatable characters, is really a potent combination.

Colin's big existential revelation at the end of the book wasn't much of a surprise to me. But then again, it wasn't much of a surprise to Hassan or Lindsey either. It would have seemed a little too corny for me if I as a reader was supposed to gasp and have this mind-blowing realization with Colin, because let's face it, I figured that one out on my own crazy teenage adventures. But the fact that Green made it a big deal to Colin, and emphasized that it was just Colin's "eureka moment" (even excluding the other two characters present) helped to avoid feelings of disappointment for me. Sometimes participating in someone else's journey toward revelation, even if it's just by reading  a book about them, can be just as rewarding as being there for the real thing.

In addition to An Abundance of Katherines, Paper Towns, and The Fault in our Stars, Green has also written Looking for Alaska (which won a Printz Award) and co-wrote Will Grayson, Will Grayson with David Levithan. You should read all of them. No joke. And your local, independent bookstore can help you with that. You should also check out the Vlogbrothers, a YouTube channel of wit an hilarity, run by John Green and his brother Hank. One of John's videos even features the time that he came to visit my workplace in Bellingham. Watch, read, and enjoy!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Famous Last Words

Famous Authors' Last Words: On his death bed, Anton Chekhov requested morphine and champagne from his doctor right before he passed away.

Pictured here is famous author Anton Chekhov, along with his last words. Well-known writers, sometimes due to their penchant for substance abuse, have given us some strange, hilarious, and ironic last words. Check out some of the more unique ones I've come across here

Monday, February 3, 2014

Book Review: "The Secret of Raven Point" by Jennifer Vanderbes

Wartime suspense, tragedy, and community are brought together into a story that struck me as both beautiful and horrifying in its parallels to true accounts. This historical fiction novel follows Juliet, a WWII US Army nurse, in Italy. She enlists after she receives a final, cryptic and lost-sounding letter from her brother Tuck, who then goes MIA. And while her true underlying goal in Italy is to find Tuck and bring him home, her life in the Army takes her on a roundabout route through terror, love, mortality, ethics, and what it takes to put the pieces of humanity back together, mind as well as body.

Juliet, the shy and socially awkward girl who loved chemistry and her brother above all else in their small southern town of Charlesport, is transformed by the war into a respected figure of medical talent and stoicism, but few know of her search for the missing Tuck. Her chance to find answers arrives in the form of Barnaby, a soldier from Tuck's unit suffering from battle fatigue and a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head. With the help of a psychiatrist, a monk-turned-chaplain, and her own grit, Juliet makes it her duty to save Barnaby. In doing so, she may finally get the answers about her brother that she came to the front to find.

This was very much a character-driven novel, with much of the war action coming in the form of stories from the soldiers in the hospital tent. From the head nurse "Mother Hen" to Juliet's friend Glenda, even the seemingly inconsequential characters really came to life. I was sad when one by one, they split off and moved away on different currents of wartime events, but this movement and shuffling of characters is what really propelled the story forward. And even though the story starts out as Juliet searching for Tuck, her duties don't allow her to go wandering around Italy looking for him. So even though she never forgets her true purpose for being there, Juliet finds other profound meaning in her work as a talented nurse. That work is ultimately what leads her to the answers that she finds.

Historically speaking, Vanderbes's story is quite accurate. She lists an impressive number of sources in her acknowledgements, and the details that she includes give a very visceral feeling to Juliet's everyday life in the hospital. Sometimes it can be awfully gruesome (some passages about amputated arms and legs come to mind) but not overly gory, and in looking at all this battlefield horror I forgot sometimes that Juliet was only 17. Of course I was reminded by her age sometimes when her awkwardness or innocence popped up, making me cringe more than once, but this only helped to underscore the fact that she was still just a little girl in the middle of a battlefield, aged beyond her years by what she was seeing and doing every day.

I was a little bit confused and let down by the suspense that was implied in both the title and the blurb on The Secret of Raven Point. While I think I figured out the secret to which the title refers, it's not really anything concrete; more of a feeling than a single, shining truth. And while still extremely moving as well as haunting in places, Juliet's position as an Army nurse came to focus on everyday Army life rather than the search for her brother. While this is more realistic than any alternative that comes to my mind, it was a bit of a letdown after the puzzle in Tuck's last letter and the sense I got that Juliet was going to unravel that mystery. While it was still a great read, I wasn't sure that it was accurately represented by the implication of suspense and rescue.

If you liked Ian Mcewan's Atonement or the medical and psychological aspects of warfare, add The Secret of Raven Point by Jennifer Vanderbes to your list of books to read. And if you're looking for more history about WWII nurses, their bravery and selflessness, check out Pure Grit: How American WWII Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific by Mary Cronk Farrell and Diane Carlson Evans. You can find both of these great reads and many more at your local, independent bookstore.