Book Review: Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta

Saving FrancescaSaving Francesca by Melina Marchetta

My rating: ★★★★★

I don’t remember the last time anyone looked me in the eye to speak to me. I’m frightened to look at myself in the mirror because maybe nothing’s there.

I miss the Stella girls telling me what I am. That I’m sweet and placid and accommodating and loyal and nonthreatening and good to have around. And Mia. I want her to say, “Frankie, you’re silly, you’re lazy, you’re talented, you’re passionate, you’re restrained, you’re blossoming, you’re contrary.”

I want to be an adjective again.
But I’m a noun.
A nothing. A nobody. A no one.

If I could admit to having read a shelf full of Melina Marchetta books, then I would happily name her as my new favorite author. That’s how confident I am in her writing, because after reading her second published novel, Saving Francesca, it’s nearly impossible to imagine any one of her books disappointing me. Saving Francesca is a charmer, and an addicting one at that. Not since my love affair with Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina, and books like Between Shades of Gray, have I felt so drawn to a character that I sacrifice an entire night of sleep. With Marchetta’s novel, however, it’s not merely the main character that hooks me into the story. Just like the aforementioned titles, it’s everything these pages offer. It’s the characters, their relationships and stories, and the palpable world they live in.

Lucky Francesca Spinelli, for she is one of thirty girls attending St. Sebastian’s—only Francesca and her fellow female peers aren’t so lucky. Formerly an all-boys school, St. Sebastian’s has only recently opened as co-ed. What might appear as a paradise for teenage girls is anything but, as Sebastian’s becomes a breeding ground for sexism. The girls, if not ignored, are treated like inferiors and often seen as dolled-up eye-candy. The boys are far from suave, romanticized sex gods, but rather offensive with only a few male students who show redeeming qualities. A lonely, cruel place, Francesca must feel that Sebastian’s is a punishing institution worthy to be deemed a nightmare.

As Francesca’s old St. Stella’s clique attend a different school, she feels her closest friends slipping away. But were they ever her friends when they discourage the very essence that makes Francesca likeable? If they never call or invite her out? Hanging around such a scrutinizing bunch didn’t exactly ring Francesca dry of her buoyant personality, but she did bury it beneath an instinct to blend in. It’s a misfortunate characteristic to learn, and feeling friendless and miserable and confused over her mother’s sudden depression doesn’t make life at Sebastian’s easier.

“Tell me the story about when I almost drowned?” I ask her, so then she can be the hero and it’ll make her feel better. But she says nothing and I switch on the television and I pretend that what we’re watching is funny. It’s a sitcom about a family, two kids, a mum, and a dad. Their idea of tension is an argument about who gets the cottage out back. At the end, everyone’s happy because that’s what happens in television land. Things get solved in thirty minutes.

God, I want to live there.

But splitting up with “the Stella girls” is one of the best things that can happen to Francesca, because who needs judgmental “friends”? Slowly and surely, Francesca’s old friends are replaced by new ones: Tara Finke, the feminist, or simply the ‘Speak Your Mind About Anything-ist’; Justine Kalinsky, the solid and dependable accordion geek; and Siobhan Sullivan, reportedly “the Slut of St. Stella’s” and Francesca’s long-time-ago best friend. Then, by some shock and surprise, even a few boys turn up: Jimmy Hailler, who wouldn’t want to be anywhere else than at a Spinelli dinner; Thomas Mackee, always plugged into his Discman; and finally Will Trombal, Francesca’s giant crush.

“Forget it,” he says, walking away angrily.

“And what’s the name for people who kiss other people when they’ve got a girlfriend?”

He stops and turns around, looking me straight in the eye.

“A weak, spineless prick.”

Oh great, I think. Take the right to call you names right off me, you… weak, spineless prick.

Marchetta’s strength resides in her characters and her ability to write life. Her characters are perfect in the ways they are imperfect, not only likeable but relatable. They feel as real as you or me, because I believe—without a moment’s hesitation—that somewhere out there in the world is a Francesca Spinelli, a Will Trombal, and a Tara Finke and Thomas Mackee. Marchetta writes with depth, lighting up every crevice of their personalities. These are fully rounded characters, each and every one. Not even secondary characters can avoid this writer’s prowess—even if they are mentioned once never to be heard from again. As real as I believe these characters to be, however, I also recognize their own strengths.

I know from experience that high school isn’t easy, and it can be a challenging place to tackle. Feeling alone and unattached, having no group to belong to, doesn’t make it any more inspiring. Throw depression into the mix, and it all as well might seem hopeless. Depression itself is a bleak situation of its own, affecting not only the person who suffers from it, but those around the depressed individual. When depression strikes Francesca’s mother, it nearly rips the Spinelli family apart, but Francesca is stronger than she thinks—and so is her mother.

Saving Francesca isn’t a book about ideals, as the characters and their problems are far from that. What this book does have is sensibility and a resounding support system that fills me with envy. As Francesca’s mismatched group comes to accept each other, they display resourcefulness to help themselves and support their friends. They accept each other, flaws and all, with such genuine care and love that I find it difficult not to feel affected.

“I was born seventeen years ago,” I tell him. “Do you think people have noticed that I’m around?”

“I notice when you’re not. Does that count?”

Saving Francesca has more to it than the typical young adult contemporary novel, and I believe this has much to do with how realistically Marchetta writes from the teenage perspective. This is a book about moms and daughters, platonic love, and finding your spot among a crazy, intimidating herd. This is Francesca Spinelli’s story toward finding her own strength—strength to save and free herself, to let go of inhibitions—just as much as it is about personal growth. Equally heart-wrenching as it is heart-warming, Saving Francesca is peppered in pure, sincere emotion with delightful humor. It’s a book that will make you laugh and spill tears, and I am betting that it will be a book you’ll want to read all over again.

A great feeling comes over me. Because for a moment, I kind of like who I am.

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ARC Book Review: Peregrine Harker & the Black Death by Luke Hollands

Peregrine Harker and the Black DeathPeregrine Harker & The Black Death by Luke Hollands
Release date: June 3rd, 2013
e-book ISBN: 9781907230493
My rating: ★★☆☆☆

*This is a review of an uncorrected proof, and quotes/excerpts may therefore differ from the final copy.

One glance at the ratings I have given books since January tells you that I’m either a stingy reader or 2013 is not my year for good books. I don’t seek out books I know I won’t enjoy, because reading a book I dislike is anything but pleasant. It’s frustrating, and it robs me the experience of getting lost in the wonder of someone’s fantastical creation. I don’t find myself absorbed into a character’s life, devouring pages at rapid pace and oblivious to the world around me. No, I find that I’m painfully aware of my surroundings, and even more aware of the book in front me. I’m aware of the regret I feel and the restlessness nearly bursting out, wanting to finish this story as soon as possible and move on. Preferably, I will go on to meet a better book. A book that I’ll adore. I want to read a book that will have me so entrenched that I won’t realize how swiftly I’m plowing through it.

It had been my hope that Peregrine Harker & the Black Death would be that book: a beacon of dazzling promise over an ocean full of disappointment and flimsy plotlines. Instead, Peregrine Harker is another character I’m happy to forget and have since shoved overboard into murky water. It’s not that Luke Hollands’ story is an especially terrible catastrophe, but it is nothing near what I had hoped it would be. At a surface glance, Peregrine Harker & the Black Death promises nothing short of a light-hearted, adventurous novel where danger threatens to jump out at every turn. When I first discovered Hollands’ book, I swore it to be a likable escapade pinched in good fun. For all I know, that might have been Hollands’ intent when he set out to write Peregrine’s adventure, because it sounds exciting:

It’s the year 1908, and expert tall-tale journalist, Peregrine Harker, finds himself in a squeeze: get to the bottom of the spike in tea prices and report the truth or wave his job goodbye. What ensues, however, is a tall tale of its own, beginning as a simple job that soon takes a risky turn into investigative journalism. It’s a story filled with murder, explosions, hot pursuits, spies, and most of all: betrayal and revenge. When Peregrine is sent to meet with tea trader Sir Magnus Clayton, he instantly—and by accident—becomes mixed up in a mystery that goes beyond the cost of tea. After discovering two dead bodies, it becomes apparent that The Black Death has Peregrine Harker pinned as their new target. Rescued by Clayton’s butler, Mr. Woolf, Peregrine swears to help Clayton demystify the perplexing tea issue. Warned not to trust Clayton, however, the tea trader may not appear to be who he says he is. When Clayton’s leads direct Harker straight into unfriendly territory, who is left to trust when punches and lies creep out from all corners?

The exaggeration over the rising price of tea, I must admit, bothers me. This isn’t any Boston Tea Party, so how ridiculous is it to assume immediate uproar?

“If you were to deny the humble British labourer his morning cup there would be riots on the streets of every major city from here to Rangoon; and, in a few months, I believe that very tragedy is about to happen. There’s trouble brewing and no mistake.”

I chuckled at what I thought was a joke, but Challock’s face remained serious.

“This is no laughing matter, Harker. You see, during the past few weeks, the keen-eyed of us, have been noticing tea prices shooting sky-high. If they continue to rise at this rate it won’t be long before the tea pots of the British Empire are dry.”

I couldn’t help but feel that this is tapping into a British stereotype, inflating the idea that everyone lives for their daily tea. I could equate this to asking, “What will the Americans do now that their beloved Hostess has fallen?!” Oh my Ho-Hos! I am willing to accept that I might be overly critical, but this is merely one of several aspects that I find unbelievable. 1908 or not, how likely is it for a newspaper to hire a fifteen year old journalist—a fibbing one at that—and maintain credibility? Forgive me, because I can’t say I’m familiar with the workforce and cultural norms of London’s early 1900s. For the time being, however, I don’t accept Peregrine’s way of living as realistic.

Because Peregrine Harker & the Black Death is a middle-grade novel, I sense that the author is not just aiming for an action-packed adventure story. This is a book whose roots grow from unlimited imagination that is somewhat based in reality. For all intents and purposes, a silly little novel is perfectly right by me. As a kid who started out reading Amelia Bedelia, Junie B. Jones, and Encyclopedia Brown, and then later on to Harry Potter and Anne of Green Gables, I was a reader who reveled in imagination. I still am, in fact. My childhood was spent getting lost in books and creating stories, sometimes pretending I was a journalist—like Harker—who wrote passionate “Dolphins are friends; not food!” articles. Granted, my feet are now planted in reality, but that doesn’t mean I have forgotten what it’s like to be a ten year old with boundless imagination. I remember how exciting it felt to read books that were just as wild, if not crazier, than my own fancies.

So if you read this review and shake your head at what a pernickety killjoy I am, the lack of plausibility in Peregrine Harker is only part of my problem. (You might groan or roll your eyes at this point, but that’s okay. I can take it.)

Any reader will notice the short chapter lengths instantly. If the writing proves strong and has quality, the length of a chapter—let alone an entire book—doesn’t trouble me. It’s when the writing suffers, and notably so, that I feel frustrated or let down by an author. In particular, Peregrine Harker & the Black Death doesn’t allow readers to experience the story first-hand. Rather than feeling like a participant, Hollands pulls a chair aside and tells you to sit and listen. The reader becomes the listener, not even an observer, of Peregrine’s account.

“So there you go,” said Louisa. “It’s all quite simple really, and if you think about it rationally, it’s very lucky for you I was there.” She was sitting by a roaring fire in my rooms at Broad Street, a steaming mug of cocoa in her hand. We had both thawed a bit, in temperature and emotion. My admiration for her had not just been increased by a change in lighting but rather by the brave tale she had just told me. It went something like this.

I note that the reader is not a witness to anything because the novel consists of Peregrine’s recitation in summarized description. This habit of briefly over-viewing events became a huge problem as I read, because I’m a reader who thrives on falling into details and playing the novel out in my mind. Everything from dialogue to events is largely skimmed over by the main character, which is unfortunate. Most imagery is lost and character conversations turn dull in consequence, and what should be a thrilling story is no more than a lifeless read. I feel that readers are not only deprived of the experience, but that it is difficult make a connection and escape into the story.

The characters present a different problem, bundling my issues of believability and an inability to enjoy the plot. In some way, each character feels solid and present, yet in a limited condition. This has much to do with the writing technique and manner of speech shown in dialogue. While everyone is exhibited with their own individual personalities, I believe Hollands’ mistake is allowing his characters to sound alike in their speech. Smashing pip pip cheerio and a right ho! language bruise the text. I have a difficult time differentiating if this is intended to poke good fun at British prose and lighten the mood or not. Either way, I can’t say I enjoy it, as I find it much too excessive. Even so, I speculate that the target audience might take greater satisfaction out of this than me.

“Well, if it isn’t my dear old pal, Peregrine Harker. How the devil are you, old love?”

I took his hand as briefly as possible, but only for appearances. If Clayton hadn’t been there I probably would have punched the fiend.

“When Clayton told me he was meeting you for a toot, I just couldn’t resist a reunion. I do, however, have to dash, my dear old thing; but it was most pleasant to meet you again, if only briefly.”

My little boat sails onward, still in search of that one story to break this glum reading spell. I realize that Peregrine Harker & the Black Death could not have been that special book for me, which is a shame, but you can’t blame a hopeful reader for trying.

Thank you to Netgalley and Sparkling Books for providing a free copy of Peregrine Harker & the Black Death in exchange for my honest review.

ARC Book Review: The Waiting Tree by Lindsay Moynihan

The Waiting TreeThe Waiting Tree by Lindsay Moynihan
Release date: May 14th, 2013
My rating: ★☆☆☆☆

*This is a review of an uncorrected proof, and quotes/excerpts may therefore differ from the final copy.

There is never a time when I feel happy about reviewing a one-star rating, or even a two-star rating for that matter. Granted, if a book thoroughly upsets me enough, discussing how and why the story disappoints me can feel therapeutic. It’s venting in written form, and although I am pleased and eager to move on, the prospect of beginning a negative review feels daunting. It intimidates me, sometimes more so trying to convince others of a five-star rating. What I would prefer to do is forget the book that left me in such a frustrated state in the first place. Forget and move on to a better story, so why don’t I? Why bother writing a negative review? The answer to that question is a nothing but long, and one that I could turn into a lengthy essay. In short, there are certain books I agree to read and make it my goal to review, and I review honestly.

Although Simon is gay, The Waiting Tree is not a book about being gay. Rather, it focuses on some of life’s unfair and ugly aspects—a few of which stem from Simon’s sexual orientation. Caught with his boyfriend, Stephen, Simon finds himself alone and an outcast in his church community. With Stephen sent away to ‘make-the-gay-go-away’ Waverly Christian Center, Simon fears he’s lost the one person who accepted him without judgment. As his presence hardly seems tolerated, and Simon can’t bring himself to face Stephen’s parents, he stops attending church. These, however, are the least of Simon’s worries.

After his parents died in a car accident, Paul—Simon’s oldest brother—assumes head role in the family. Meanwhile, Simon has dropped out of high school to begin work at Stop ‘n Save to add to the family income. As the Peters household try to cope with new roles and responsibilities, caring after Jude becomes Simon’s ‘second job.’ Mute at birth, Jude is perhaps the most peculiar among the brothers. With a gentle disposition, Jude is an easy target for bullying, yet through his dependent nature, he is all-consuming. Stuck in a town that, by vast majority, will not accept him, there can be nothing better for Simon than to move forward in his life. But how can he when the two people he loves the most need him? No one but Simon knows how to care for Jude, and as the clock ticks, Stephen withers away.

Through circumstance, I can relate to Simon’s situation: putting the needs of another above your own. I have found myself in that same predicament where the one thing I need most is to think of my future, but how can a person carry on like that when someone else needs help? And what does a person do when caring for that someone is preventing, or hindering, the option to move forward? A person might feel guilty or selfish, frustrated by the conditions, or all-caring and devoted. The Waiting Tree, unfortunately, fails to explore not just the answers, but the depth of the situation. Upon reaching the last page, I don’t think I could have felt more bothered. For a minute I sat there, staring, and I may or may not have screamed my frustrations out-loud at the entire book. I shouted, How can it end this way?! and there a frown and bunched eyebrows marred my face. How can I call this book’s ending a conclusion when it feels like nothing is resolved? What an annoyance!

What happens at the end felt more appropriate to occur earlier on, as the events that take place between the first and last pages hardly deserve to be called events. What I find between the covers of The Waiting Tree is stupidity mingled in stagnancy and the dry sort of text that’s mind-numbingly dull. I’ll explain:

Simon faces several issues, and many of these problems pin him down into a daily routine that will never lead to a greener field. This doesn’t mean Simon is super-glued into this monotonous, disconsolate lifestyle—if only he would take action! What Simon opts for instead is nothing, unless you consider lots of wishful inaction progressive. By the time I neared the halfway point in the book, the plot had developed by a shocking zero percent. If Simon doesn’t commentate on the hot weather, he narrates his walk to work, daydreams about Stephen, grouches about his drug-dealing neighbor, or worries over Jude. When a reader works through a story and this is all that the protagonist feels content on doing with his life, I wonder what the point is—if there is, indeed, a point. Why continue reading if Simon invests more in telling the audience what his family eats than fighting back against his worries?

I laughed and gave him a little push into the house. ‘Well, don’t you have more important things to worry about than my shoes?’ I joked.

Once inside, I grabbed eight pieces of bread so that we could each have two sandwiches. I bought green bananas every Monday so they’d be ripe by Friday. Everyone in the house knew not to eat those bananas.

Jude placed the sandwiches on two dinner plates, and I got out drinks. We sat at the kitchen table eating our lunch, Jude finished quickly and went to the sink to wash off his plate.

A violent urge to reach my hands into the pages and pluck Simon out before he could finish another food description pulsed within me, because all I wanted was to slap some sense into him. Yes, I wanted to slap him, and I wanted to slap him hard in the face.

By the time Simon does choose to stop squirming in an anxiety puddle, the story is half over. In the very least I had hoped this course of action would not just move the story forward, but that Simon would begin sorting priorities. Oh, the let-down I felt was tremendous, because nothing comes of it. Simon settles back into a hapless life, and the story drives toward a dead-end once again. The one thing—or person, I should say—that holds Simon back is Jude, but Jude is not the problem. The issue of a Simon-dependent Jude is a result the family’s inability to work together, and this remains one of the weaker points in Lindsay Moynihan’s writing.

While I understand Simon’s reasons for concerning himself over Stephen, he needs to move one step beyond assessing his situation. He needs to face the draw-backs head-on, crash through these road blocks, and pummel on down the street. The question remains, still: how can Simon do anything for himself when he has Jude to look after? Allowing Jude to discover independence to a certain degree, or learn how to function without Simon, is what Moynihan needed to focus on. Only when this aspect of the story found a solution could the other problems find closure, or be addressed.

Although Simon is, at best, unmotivated, and I find the plot stale, these are only part of my problem. When I look at the characters overall, each one comes across as flat and without range. Through first-person narrative, Simon is granted a spectrum of thoughts and emotions that readers can see; albeit, the spectrum is limited. Paul, however, never steps foot outside of short-temperedness. Luke is always the jokester and Tina never moves beyond this troubled, “bad-girl” stereotype. Needless to say: did I feel surprised to discover that no character growth happens? No, but it didn’t stop me from wishing otherwise.

I could say that Simon disappointed me, yet it’s Moynihan’s craft—or lack thereof—that fails to thrive. In terms of characters with quality, Simon has little going for him. What irked me the most, aside from his nearly-absent determination, is how Stephen—or reveries of Stephen—consume large chunks of Simon’s days. At some point or another, I couldn’t help but groan, because he doesn’t seem capable of being in charge of his own self.

Losing Stephen made being stuck in Waynesboro even more of a nightmare. There was nobody I could talk to, much less fool around with. It was just me and my hard-on. But more than that, it felt like someone had ripped me into two pieces and hid the other half. I didn’t know how to be me without Stephen. I’d never had to try.

The feeling I get when I meet people who aren’t self-aware can’t compare to too many things. It’s a trait I seek not only in fictional characters, but in people I meet in real life. It’s simply easier to enjoy another’s company if that person doesn’t need guidance to explore his or her own likes and dislikes. Granted, Stephen was Simon’s guide. However, if Simon could stop thinking of him—or Jude—for five seconds, I would like Simon to discuss getting his GED, applying for college, and moving out on his own. Above all, I wanted to see Simon form a legitimate plan that would help him move on in life. I wanted his situation to improve. But of course, there is Jude to care for.

No one handles the “Jude issue,” least of all Moynihan. What should have been considered is Jude’s well-being, and the well-being of those who care for him. The manner in which Moynihan takes care of Jude and gives Simon his freedom is a cop-out. I can’t think of a better word to describe it, and the circumstance surrounding Jude’s removal feels wrong. Is it fair to sacrifice the weaker person so that the caregiver can go back to his or her life? Is it fair to anyone, even if the dependent individual says it’s okay? These are questions I’ve asked myself before, and I found myself asking them again. It’s not fair and it’s not okay, and things don’t always work out justly in the real world. There is, however, a huge difference between finding another caregiver versus the vulnerable person landing a jail booking.

By writing this book, the author had a good opportunity to explore family dynamics and deal with problems any breathing person can bump into. Unfortunately, Lindsay Moynihan doesn’t grapple with any of the book’s conflicts, because the way issues are handled feels like evasion. It’s the act of skirting around the problems that disappoint me the most. Dry text and fizzed-out characters fail to entertain, but an unresolved and eventless plot nose-dives straight down toward unwelcome depths of disappointment.

Thank you to Netgalley and Amazon Children’s Publishing for providing a free copy of The Waiting Tree in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone (Harry Potter #1) by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter & The Sorcerer's StoneHarry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

My rating: ★★★★☆

I remember the first time I picked up a Harry Potter book, and how quickly it sucked me into Harry’s world. I recall the late nights I spent reading about The Boy Who Lived and traveling on all of his escapades, how fun and exciting I found it. The text on each page enchanted me, as I vividly envisioned everything — from the pig’s tail sprouting out of Dudley’s backside to Fred and George pummeling Voldemort in the face with snowballs, and—of course—Dumbledore and his wisdom, the lurking danger of Death Eaters, and friendships that last lifetimes.

The one word that best describes this experience is magical, because if it were not for J.K. Rowling, I shudder to think how long it would have taken me—if at all—to become the book-obsessed nerd I am today. It was J.K. Rowling who first showed me that incredible window of escape and gently nudged my arm as if to say, “All you need to get lost are the pages of a good book.” I imagine she added a wink, too.

Life can be great sometimes, it really can, but how marvelous it is to discover the wonders in a million lives that, if you dared not to read them, would otherwise never experience. The instant I opened the pages to that first Harry Potter book—which, believe it or not, was not Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone—marked the beginnings of a new relationship.

Unbeknownst to ten-year-old me, the Harry Potter franchise would consume the next ten to eleven years of my life. Everything from my pre-awkward pre-teen years through my high school experience, Harry Potter remained a significant part of my world. Harry Potter was my childhood, and I couldn’t have felt more crushed when I realized the adventure was finally over.

“This is the end. This story is kaput. Goodbye,” it said.

My theatrical self equated this as “what was one a perfect marriage just erupted into a one-sided divorce.” Mentally I shouted at Rowling, and at Harry. “I picked you up. I chose you, and now you are dumping me?” Life was never going to be the same, I could tell.

To this day, I still obsess over Rowling’s creation, for the Harry Potter universe populated my childhood with enough fond memories to last a hundred lifetimes. Harry and I were the same age when the first film was released, and from thereon it was like growing up with a best friend. The hours I spent daydreaming that somewhere on this planet was a gateway into a magical realm seems endless. How many of us have sat back after reading a Harry Potter book and inserted ourselves into Harry’s world? I have walked the grounds of Hogwarts, drank tea with Hagrid, jinxed Crabbe and Goyle (I like Draco too much to cause him any harm), and chased Ron around with a love potion. I’ll be one of the first to admit to how occupied I can become with these books, and if you tell me you’ve done no such a thing, you’re a filthy liar.

After all I have said, however, comes the part where I drop a bomb and everything erupts into chaos. I have a secret to tell you. It’s not a dark secret full of juicy detail you can spend hours gossiping about, however. All the same, I feel downright ashamed, because—and here it is—I don’t like the Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone!

Okay, no, that came out wrong. I like year one, I do, but not nearly as much as I wish I did. Why is that?

To start, I admit to harboring a greater love for the film adaption. It is my honest, desperate wish that Chris Columbus had directed all eight Harry Potter films. I feel that Columbus’ movies stayed the truest to the books out of all the films in the series. His adaptions catch a beautiful sense of excitement and adventure that feels just as magical as they are cinematically engaging. I can speak every character line before the characters say the lines themselves. Like a memorized play, I have committed the movie to heart from beginning to end. But can I say the same is true for this book? I can’t, as much as I hate to admit it. In a way, the film does for what the book doesn’t: it breathes life into the story, and in vivid, sparkling detail.

This doesn’t mean I find the book dull in comparison, but there are contributing factors that feed my dissatisfaction. As I said, Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone is not the first book I read. In fact, it was closer to one of the last books I covered in the series, and you can bet I watched the movie before exploring year one in text. Back then in 2001, finally reading the first book post-film, I didn’t have any quarrels. I sped through it more quickly than I had with any other Potter book, and by the time I finished I was a ball of tears and frustration because who wants to wait on the next installment of your favorite series?! No one, that’s who.

Now that the series is officially done, here I am once again—more than ten years later—re-visiting a childhood favorite. Unlike my younger self, I didn’t read through Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone with instant love. I had to work through the first several chapters, because not only did I bump into a slow start, it felt less than exciting. I felt… bored! I want to clarify here and now that J.K. Rowling spends time familiarizing her magical world to the reader. Year one in the Harry Potter series is an introduction for most of what will occur in this book as well as the others, and this was my problem.

By nature and to a point of fault, I am an impatient person. When I read books, especially series, there is nothing I skim faster than recaps. Although Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone is the first book, and therefore doesn’t recap anything, I am already familiar with the setting. What I felt most anxious to read pertained to adventure, and danger loiters and waits to show up. By the time readers approach the halfway mark, Harry is merely getting settled into Hogwarts. Well, it’s about time! Now can we please find the creepy Unicorn blood-sucker in the Forbidden Forest? Please?

You see, I told you I’m impatient.

The “slow start,” as I call it, serves its job well: acquainting readers with these strange wizards and witches, with Harry, and more importantly, Harry’s past. I fell in love with these characters—and loathed a few—all over again, which is a thrilling event of its own. If I had to choose, I might say one of the main reasons I adore the film adaption is because I get to see Harry find his place. The same holds true for the book as well. From the Little Boy Who Lives Under the Cupboard to Wizard-In-Training, I couldn’t ask for a better hero. Although we see his prejudices form in later books, Harry is a kind, loyal friend and brave to a point of detriment.

In the end, impatience and all, I must correct my theatric self, because that girl equated wrong. Harry didn’t toss her to the curb; she abandoned him. Back then it felt like the end-all of everything, but just because the story ends doesn’t mean I can’t revisit it. And so that is what I’ll do, again and again and again, no matter how many pages I must read through before I end up in the Forbidden Forest.

Book Review + Giveaway: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

My rating: ★★★★★

If you think The Fault in Our Stars is the hottest cancer book on the market (I beg to differ, but I digress), I may assume you haven’t met the emotional terror of A Monster Calls.

A monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.

Once the quiet still of night settles, an ancient and dangerous monster comes for Conor O’Malley at seven after midnight. For Conor, however, this is not the monster he expects. A nightmare of true horrors, filled with darkness and screaming, is one that wrecks Conor into paralyzing fear. The nightmare, the true monster, began its torment after Conor’s mom started receiving cancer treatments. But this monster—the one that has come walking— is different. A wild and powerful creature, it doesn’t haunt or frighten, but what it seeks is something Conor refuses to speak. It seeks the truth.

Who am I? the monster repeated, still roaring. I am the spine that the mountains hang upon! I am the tears that the rivers cry! I am the lungs that breathe the wind! I am the wolf that kills the stag, the hawk that kills the mouse, the spider that kills the fly! I am the stag, the mouse, and the fly that are eaten! I am the snake of the world devouring its tail! I am everything untamed and untameable! It brought Conor up close to its eye. I am this wild earth, come for you, Conor O’Malley.

As his mother battles against uncertain but looming death, Conor is also coping with a father who’s moved a continent away to be with his new family. At school, he has grown used to daily beatings from his bully, Harry, while the rest of his classmates no longer acknowledge him. Back into family dynamics, Conor is also butting heads and biting tongue with his grandmother—a terse and full force of a woman. Conor only wants his life to return to the way it used to be. He wants to be left alone, but he doesn’t want to be invisible either. He wants his mother to be healthy again, and for his grandmother to exit the picture. What Conor wants, unfortunately, is not the reality he must cope with and learn to face.

The number of times I have read A Monster Calls are uncountable, but one thing is certain: no matter how many times I read this, it digs its claws in deep—slashing and ripping me into terrible and weepy little pieces. I have read this book from front to back, pouring over every word on each page, memorizing its text and illustrations that I can only describe as spellbinding with effusive wonder. But all the words in my vocabulary cannot express what this book means to me, or how deeply my affection goes for it—and this is my problem. For all of the moments it has torn me apart, I have found myself staring at a blank page an equal number of times. I felt uncertain. How do I review a masterpiece? Words fail me. Again and again, my mind stutters and nothing comes.

I have yet to lose a friend or close family member to cancer, but I am aware of loss. I am all too familiar with grief and coping. Most of all, I know the experience of bouncing back and forth in what seems like a never-ending cycle of acceptance and denial; relief and guilt. At times I have felt so defeated that hope becomes blotted out and all that’s left is a tired surrender or rumbling anger. Some of these are old wounds and others are more fresh and current—one in particular, even, is very much alive and festering—and they don’t heal, not fully. They scar and may fade, and I can bury them as deep as I like, but what I’ve come to learn is how memories all too easily surface.

This book, this beautiful book, does a hurtful thing. I mentioned how memories surface, which A Monster Calls certainly trudges up and out of their cobwebbed caskets, but it does much more than that. It reminds the reader of his or her own tragic encounters with loss, and then the story goes one step further and makes the reader feel. It is a rare event to find a book that reduces me to tears, and even more unlikely to find me reading that same book over and over again. So why should you want to read a book that holds the ability to make you re-live some of your most painful moments? Why do I read a book—repeatedly—that scalpels my insides? Because although A Monster Calls is about the pain of losing and letting go, it never fails to comfort me.

Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for believing both.

It provides the security a parent gives by wrapping a hurt child into a warm hug. I am that child, red-eyed and sobbing, and the book is here to tell me it’s all right. Everything will be all right, and I am okay. Conor’s truth, then, which the monster is so eager to pull out from him, is the strongest aspect that attracts me. A Monster Calls readers may interpret the truth a little differently from each other, given our own unique backgrounds. For me, the truth is feeling that the situation which has been dealt is a nightmare. The truth is a contradiction of wanting the ordeal to be over yet finding myself reluctant to let go.

Like Conor, I have felt desperate for an alternate reality where everything is okay and “normal,” or as normal as normal can be. When someone is ill, or injured, and that person is dying, the truth is that this is the reality. An alternate is not an option, sadly. But it is okay to wish for one, it’s okay that I want it to end, and it’s okay that I feel scared and don’t want to release my grip. My thoughts and feelings are important, yes, but what holds more weight is what I do. In realizing this, and all because of this one book, I can find closure and the power to heal.

“Son,” his father said, leaning forward. “Stories don’t always have happy endings.”

The honesty in this book, I must mention, cannot be appreciated enough. All too often I find a pool of falsity driving the plot, humor overtaking grief, or a contrived happy end that deprives me of a truly authentic reading experience. What Conor O’Malley goes through feels genuine, and it feels believable. Journeys like Conor’s are difficult paths to go down, and no one walks it willingly.

Patrick Ness has developed a story, inspired by Siobhan Dowd’s original idea, and paired it with Jim Kay’s stunning artwork to produce a book that touches the heart. Not only that, but A Monster Calls is a book for all ages, young and old and smack-dab in-between. Although cancer has a claim on Conor’s mother, this is not strictly “a cancer book.” By the nature of this novel, the story opens itself wide for anyone who is—and isn’t—familiar with losing a loved one. This is the kind of book that, even if a reader hasn’t been touched by death in some way, allows sadness to seep from its pages. Oh, sorrow will be felt, but I believe the book will become something of a sentimental treasure for those of us who’ve gone through the process. In this way, the lessons Dowd and Ness tell are likely valued on a deeper level of understanding.

And his mother was screaming.
And she was slipping.
It was so hard to hold on to her.

{Book giveaway…}
›› A Monster Calls: inspired by Siobhan Dowd’s idea, written by Patrick Ness, & illustrated by Jim Kay

A Monster Calls GiveawayRules & Conditions:

  • This is an international giveaway!
  • Reblog this post in order to enter OR comment on this review
  • You may reblog or comment as often as you like, but you will only be entered once
  • You do not need to be a follower, although it is much appreciated
  • Giveaway ends on May 26th. The winner will be contacted the following day.
  • Winner is selected through a random online generator
  • A new winner will be selected if the original winner does not respond within 48 hours
  • If you choose to comment on this post, provide an e-mail address so that I can contact you
  • You must feel comfortable providing an address at which you can receive the book

If you have any questions pertaining to the giveaway, feel free to contact me.

›› Because not all of my subscribers have a Tumblr account, and I want to make this giveaway available to everyone, you can still enter simply by commenting on this review. To make it fair between my Tumblr and Midnight Coffee Monster readers, I am only allowing one entry per person. This means that you can either comment here OR reblog as many times as you like, but you will be entered only once.

Raya
xo

The giveaway closed as of May 26th, 2013 at 11:59 PM PST. I extend a big thank you to all who participated and a congratulations toward the winner!

Book Review: Showtime (Marvelle Circus #1) by Chloe Kayne

Showtime by Chloe KayneShowtime by Chloe Kayne

My rating: ★★☆☆☆

If there is one thing that frustrates me to the point of hair-pulling as a reader, it’s spotting a book’s potential. More specifically, it’s when I clearly see what needs editing and revising in order for the story to improve. In some instances, I have discovered books that are enjoyable yet leave room for more development. Books where the backdrop is solid, writing is fluid, the plot is well-crafted, and characters have layers to peel. The stories and their characters show believability as the writing displays cohesiveness, nicely bundled for readers to delight in. They may not display tact and skill of literary prowess, but they are well-written and—as they should be— gratifying. Showtime, unfortunately, is not one of these books. It’s an immense disappointment in need of hefty revision if Chloe Kayne wishes to show respectable writing.

Self-published or not, a book’s presentation speaks volumes about the author. I’m not talking about the cover design or any aesthetic appeal; I’m talking about mechanics. While typing errors happen, even to the best of writers, one missed mishap cannot compare to a stream of improper grammar and punctuation. Proofread! This is where editors can make and suggest great changes, and if a writer is capable, the story can alter drastically—and for the better. When dealing with the final product, the story should be polished and developed. What Kayne has to offer her readers, however, more closely resembles a draft. I have laid down my technical complaints, but my real issue takes root in Chloe Kayne’s method and approach.

Showtime follows Laila Vilonia as she leaves behind a grim life and unpromising future by beginning anew at Marvelle Circus. In exchange for food, clothes, and a place to call home, Laila starts her new life as a Marvelle laundress, eventually finding her spot among friends and the circus hierarchy. What lacks is a plot, and I wonder what kind of story the author wants to convey. Without any build-up or climax and scant conflict, Showtime readers sit through teen gossip and melodrama between Laila and her friends. As a result, the entire story suffers as small issues become drawn out and each chapter lags. When conflict does arise, it is often insignificant and squashed down almost as quickly as it appears.

As much as the failed direction of Showtime’s course disappoints me, Mary Sue-like elements baffle and bore me. Laila Vilonia is not without personality flaws, yet her mistakes are always forgiven and her faults feel superficially explored. I cannot believe the guilt that plagues Laila for leaving her mother, because I see no authenticity in her character. Miss Vilonia leaps out from Going Nowheresville to become a sought-after leading star, and I question: why? She encounters few obstacles to overcome, and what struggles she does face—both internal and external forces—are pardoned or swatted down like pesky gnats. The “problems,” then, aren’t really problems, and they don’t aid story development or character growth. No growth, in fact, sprouts from Laila’s “journey,” and I feel the prominent lack of true conflict and resolution are culprits.

I also must question the purpose of several characters and their relation to Kayne’s protagonist. Like Sean, for example: the boy from chapter one who holds a “surprising amount of concern” in his voice for Laila. Or Ryan, Dex’s roommate? I don’t see a need for their introduction, or at least for the amount of detail regarding an attraction for the main character if it leads nowhere. Not only does she have several boys pining, but Laila’s talents catch the eyes of enemies. I must say, the villains prove unconvincing in their villain-esque roles. Benelli and his men—part of a rival circus—feel exploited in their immoral traits and thus fail to bring a real sense of danger. Laila’s circus rival, on the other hand, is nothing more than a Queen Bee with nasty tricks up her sleeve. She, too, poses no threat.

After trudging through every page, this is not a book I recommend. That does not make Showtime something you crumple in your hands, toss it on the ground and grind it into cement with the heel of your shoe. It needs refinement and research, but it’s not trash. For goodness sake: I see the faintest inkling of potential in Chloe Kayne’s words. Although mingled in errors, ill-choice diction, and clunky adjective-abuse, there are some pleasant lines that show me the author is capable. A few pretty lines, unfortunately, are not enough to make up for a whole story’s worth of lackluster plot and flat characters.

Thank you to the author, Chloe Kayne, who provided me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. HydeThe Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

My rating: ★★★☆☆

Behold: the regal and mystery that is The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, if only I found it regaling and mysterious. A notable classic whose references still hold widely popular, the mystery has been stripped away—even for someone such as myself, who has never watched a film adaption. I am, however, familiar with the story and duality Jekyll and Hyde represent. Although far from a purely angelic being, Jekyll is neither good nor bad. What Dr. Jekyll equates to is an ambitious scientist who incidentally unleashes an evil from within himself. Now released, to be contained and muted beneath Jekyll’s morals and persona doesn’t appeal to the conscienceless Mr. Hyde. Confined in one body, a great struggle for dominance between two entities ensues, and what Jekyll might’ve hoped would be his success threatens his very life and reputation.

My devil had long been caged, he came out roaring.

This much I knew, as should everyone else. The puzzle piece is continually exploited and its references bomb pop culture. The mystery, then, is no longer a mystery. The shock value is nulled, but I didn’t read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde to hitch a ride on supposed thrill. Of course I liked the idea of knocking out another classic from my to-read list, but I also sought horror and hoped to be a first-hand witness to Jekyll’s torment. What I read, unfortunately, does not match up to what I had hoped to read. Where is the fright? The anguish in Jekyll’s eyes? Hyde’s fear and pursuit for control?

I found that it’s impossible to observe any of this because Stevenson denies his readers access. Some may disagree with my statement, but we—the readers—find ourselves strapped to Mr. Utterson’s side, hearing the story mostly through his account. (And in past tense no less.) Trapped in an outsider’s perspective, I, too—like Mr. Utterson—become a third party to the events of Jekyll and Hyde. I cannot observe the one most intriguing aspect, and everything I looked forward to reading about was crushed by Robert Louis Stevenson. Or, depending on how you look at it, Hollywood excelled in raising the standards of my expectations.

Mr. Hyde, as it turns out, is not the monster I expected. Stevenson only provides rare glimpses of the man, which does nothing to indulge my fantasy of an incorrigible evil that stalks nighttime streets. More importantly: rather than the individual of Jekyll or Hyde, what gives this novella power is the interrelationship between the two forces. Hyde begins as a dormant entity that emerges as a ruthless tyrant, growing to completely replace Dr. Jekyll. I am left in a disappointed state, because I believe the split individual(s)—the doctor and his freed cruelty—deserves spotlight. Had Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde differently, the duality of human nature could have been more deeply explored.

This is not to say I don’t enjoy or appreciate the theme. I did, in fact, take pleasure in reading this despite frustrations. The idea that people contain an alter ego, or two opposite forces, skulking beneath the public display of themselves is an interesting thought to tamper with. Although I had obvious disappointment—almost an anticlimactic experience—this literary work is long-standing and continues to see success. It remains a classic, and I feel that its references in popular culture will outlive many of us, which I think is enough reason to read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde at least once. I certainly don’t regret the short little while it took me to finish Stevenson’s story, and I’m quite glad I set aside the time.

This, as I take it, was because all human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil: and Edward Hyde, alone in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil.