Never underestimate the power of an alchemist’s drive and his balanthast.

 

The AlchemistThe Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi
My rating: ★★★★

In all my reading, I do my best not to compare books unless they are written by the same author. Despite mentally bludgeoning my brain with punches, I couldn’t help it. The fact that I took to reading this book within minutes after finishing a novel that left me disappointed, Bacigalupi’s The Alchemist unexpectedly lifted my mood. I was charmed by the contrast in plot, characters, and writing style—so much so that I might suggest you consider the influence this has over my four-star rating. (Although I assert indifference, I secretly harbor waves of emotion that occasionally reach the surface. Ergo: If I go on a date with a man whose bad behavior tops Charlie Sheen (i.e., the disappointing novel), I just might mistake my next date for Ewan McGregor (because no one can break my McGregor love) when he’s really just another, though not-as-bad, Sheen (i.e., The Alchemist). In other words: do I honestly think this is a good book, or am I on a high because my previous read left me flirting with the idea of breaking its spine?)

So I read it a second time.

And then I read it a third time, at which point I decided, “Yes. This is good.”

Truthfully, I did not expect much from a book only 95 pages long. That said, I’m impressed by what Bacigalupi’s writing manages to accomplish in such short length. Through the entirety of this story, not only can I solidly grasp the characters—their relationships, emotions, behaviors, surroundings—but there are quite a few passages that I find impressionable. The story begins:

It’s difficult to sell your last bed to a neighbor. More difficult still when your only child clings like a spider monkey to its frame, and screams as if you were chopping off her arms with an axe every time you try to remove her.

And just a couple more examples:

It’s easy to fail yourself, but failing before another, one who has watched you wager so much and so mightily on an uncertain future—well, that is too much shame to bear.

I held up my torch, staring. Even at the perimeter of the balanthast’s destruction, the bramble growth hung limp like rags. I stepped forward, cautious. Struck a damaged plant with a gloved hand. Its vines sizzled with escaping sap, and collapsed.

While I read, I pictured everything vividly (minus the device used to kill bramble, I’ll admit) like a movie playing out in my head. There are parts that I feel occur almost too suddenly, such as how the relationship between Jeoz and Pila strides onto a new level within a mere sentence or two. This is, however, a short, short story—not a novel that spends time elaborating and exploring its characters. (I won’t deny that I did enjoy imagining this as film, picturing various character relationships and events play out as the plot trots along, unfolding.) Although brief, Bacigalupi provides you with enough detail to visualize and understand without scarring the story with poor or choppy execution.

The Alchemist was recommended to me over the summer, yet it took five months to get around to the part in which I actually read it. This is a shame, really, only because I could have taken delight in experiencing this book—which I describe as captivating and equally engaging—sooner. All in all, I am rapt by lure of this book. If your local library has it, check it out; if your favorite bookstore has it, buy it. You shouldn’t feel disappointed. I’m rather picky about which books I purchase, and I would not mind this little gem sitting on my shelf.

For a more concise, short review on what this story is about (without divulging too much), I direct you here.

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Boy Meets Boy meets Raya

Boy Meets BoyBoy Meets Boy by David Levithan
My rating: ★★

In the words of Tony: “I honestly couldn’t believe that someone like you could exist, or even a town like yours could entirely exist.” If I pretend this is written in the present tense then I can say that I wholeheartedly agree. Reading this felt too out of touch with any kind of reality I’m familiar with for me to completely buy into Paul’s story, but this is not to say that Boy Meets Boy isn’t likable. I can easily point out that Paul lives in a peculiar town where gay teens seem to outnumber the straight kids, where tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality and cross-dressing are part of the norm, where the star quarterback is also the homecoming queen–the list goes on. And wouldn’t it be great if we did live in a world where society didn’t judge or treat people differently based on their sexual orientation? Or their preference of dress (drag queen Infinite Darlene, for example)? So I can understand why some people, especially LGBT teens, might enjoy escaping into such a story.

And in any case, isn’t escapism a reason to read? I love shoving my face into pages of good books and enveloping myself in the lives of characters. But I won’t lie: it is difficult to ground myself in Paul’s world because I find the amount of approval regarding sexuality overwhelmingly different from what I see and expect in real life. Everything struck me as simple and thus not quite believable. However, there are other aspects to this story that placed a question mark above my head–not out of confusion, but out of “in what instance would this actually happen?” moments.

Regardless how minor (supportive secondary role) her character is, there’s Darlene:

Infinite Darlene doesn’t have it easy. Being both star quarterback and homecoming queen has its conflicts. And sometimes it’s hard for her to fit in.

I can entirely see why Infinite Darlene would have trouble fitting in, and for a multitudes of reasons… and none of those reasons are why Infinite Darlene has issues fitting in. The narration continues:

The other drag queens in our school rarely sit with her at lunch; they say she doesn’t take good enough care of her nails, and that she looks a little too buff in a tank top. The football players are a little more accepting, although there was a spot of trouble a year ago when Chuck, the second-string quarterback, fell in love with her and got depressed when she said he wasn’t her type.

(If “drag queens” were removed, the first half sounds like usual back talk I’d hear roaming the halls between girls in my grade school years.)

It took me a little by surprise. Needless to say, no school in which I attended or knew of in grades K-12 had a drag queen posse. Say if I had known or attended one that did, the group would have most likely faced incessant bullying and harassment by some students. I first thought Infinite Darlene’s misfit issues would be centered around her high testosterone-filled football team. How well would they accept a drag queen as a member on their team? Instead, she strolls through halls like a Queen Bee of Gossip and still holds down star quarterback position. If anything, it is her alpha-female, catty qualities and flair for drama that are more likely to make people fume.

As a side note: I think it’s great that Darlene is accepted for who she is. My thoughts and expectations surrounding how she might be received outside of Paul’s far-from-ordinary town, if anything, reflect my views of modern society.

Oh, and then this happens:

The gymnasium doors open and the cheerleaders come riding in on their Harleys. The crowd goes wild.

We are, I believe, the only high school in America with a biker cheerleading team. But I could be wrong. A few years ago, it was decided that having a posse of motorcycles gun around the fields and courts was a much bigger cheer-inducer than any pom-pom routine.

Paul carries on to describe the motorcycles forming into pyramid formation, etc. So how big is your school’s budget, Paul? Or were the parents so enthusiastic about their daughters pulling vehicle stunts that they rallied for the school board’s approval and paid for the bikes themselves? See, Levithan lost me here, because the environment threw me off. Is this realistic, even slightly? Not in my opinion, but on to topics that actually pertain more to the actual theme:

I’ve always known I was gay, but it wasn’t confirmed until I was in kindergarten.

It was my teacher who said so. It was right there on my kindergarten report card: PAUL IS DEFINITELY GAY AND HAS VERY GOOD SENSE OF SELF.

What is the likelihood of a teacher commenting on a student’s sexual orientation? Genuine curiosity, and I imagine the probability might vary from region to region? My elementary teachers limited their focus on classroom behavior and personality quirks. “Raya is a very quiet child,” “she is depriving the classroom of insight,” “speak more,” “diligent,” and so on with the usual, “attend class more often, please.” But never anything regarding “RAYA IS DEFINITELY STRAIGHT” or “SHE SHOWS NO INTEREST IN EITHER GENDER ON A ROMANTIC LEVEL.” Although.

I recall an odd instance in which my step-brother’s kindergarten teacher felt it necessary to inform my dad on how his step-son announced that he and another boy student were getting married. Nothing else–no hand-holding, no pecks on the cheek or hugging. Just a comment he made. Would she have called my dad if my step-brother had said he was marrying a female student? Unless a teacher is concerned about inappropriate behavior, I doubt it. So in short, I suppose this part struck me as unlikely but in the realm of possibility? I also don’t think a kid’s sexual preference is a teacher’s business to report on, so…

From there on in it was smooth ‘coming-out’ transition for Paul. His parents are supportive, he has (had?) a fantastic best friend who defends him at will, and lives–as said–in a generally welcoming community. While I think it’s great for a character to feel comfortable and so sure of who he is, I wonder how relatable this makes him. And it’s not like all book’s characters have similar accepting environments and confidence. Kyle, Paul’s ex-boyfriend, is utterly confused about what and who he likes while Tony (Paul’s gay BFF) is the child of religious parents and feels his ‘true self’ caged by his family’s intolerance. In a way, due to inferred inner (and outer) conflicts, I think Kyle and Tony would have made a more interesting couple than Paul and Noah.

When I take a look at the book overall, it is difficult for me to not compare it to real life, to society’s norms, and especially when gay marriage has been a hot topic for discussion in the U.S. At the same time, Levithan manages to accomplish what I think this book is meant to (for the most part). I don’t think Levithan wrote it with the intention of involving the negative beliefs regarding homosexuality that many people still hold. Rather, it’s a simple, sweet story about finding your first love and experiencing the bumpy ups and downs of high school life. Yes, the clash between the book’s environment versus real life issues catches my attention, but I mostly find Boy Meets Boy lackluster.

I didn’t feel too involved with the characters or particularly attached to Paul, and that’s what I often seek in books. Paul’s troubles are understandable although simple: he develops instant feelings for Noah that eventually grow, but then complications ensue for a short while as Kyle re-emerges into Paul’s life. In the mean time, his best friend Joni has decided that her new boyfriend is the best thing in existence and has left Paul feeling abandoned. It’s easy to spot the precursors that ultimately call for the “Everybody Freaks Out” chapter, which leaves Paul in a “My life’s in shambles!” sort of state. How is he going sort it all out? I’ll leave that mini-adventure for other readers to journey on, though I must say: I am disappointed, once again, by the lack of depth.

What I am pleased about, however, is that not everything and everyone end on perfect terms. Well, not entirely, anyway. In honesty, things still ended a little too hunky-dory for my taste, but they aren’t perfect–just on the road to “things are 95% decent and still headed upward,” I suppose. One thing that does (intensely) bother me: Joni. She is/was such a large portion of Paul’s life, so I feel like her and Paul needed to end on some kind of definitive terms (good or bad). Instead, despite that Joni does show up for Tony, I’m still left wondering what her feelings and thoughts are on de-friending Paul. I know this book isn’t focused on Paul and Joni’s relationship alone, but she is part of his life and thus deserved more recognition (or so I feel).

If a layer or two of depth had been added to the characters and their interactions, this book would have been more engaging to read.

Lola & the Boy Next Door: disgruntling my inner-romantic one page at a time.

Lola and the Boy Next DoorLola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins
My rating: ★

It’s fun to write a review if you hate the movie.

Switch “movie” to “book” and the quote says it all, only I don’t exactly hate Lola and the Boy Next Door. Suffice it to say that my (repressed) inner romantic was dragged through a 338-page dullfest journey about teenage idealism of romance and true love. In other words: “boredom” is a more suitable word than “hate.” For a living definition of the ‘aromantic’ that I am, somewhere deep inside resides this uncharacteristic inner girly-girl, which is exactly how I found my nose stuffed in a book like this. Unfortunately for the half of me that pines for dramatic cheese ball novels, it was equally disappointed as my inner-critic upon reaching the end of Lola’s story.

I first read Perkins’ Anna and the French Kiss. Likable book, I’ll say, that accomplishes exactly what it should for its genre, but I was not expecting Anna and her own boyfriend to play a part in Lola’s life. And really! I, as a reader, could have done without images of their post high school relationship. Anna, Lola’s favorite co-worker (naturally, of course—who would have guessed?!), is never to be seen without our magnifique St. Clair. As if the aforementioned couple’s own novel wasn’t enough, I was witness to such behavior:

Anna smiles. “We keep missing each other in the dorm. It’s nice to finally meet you.”

“Likewise,” Cricket says. “I’ve heard nothing but good things. In fact, if I weren’t standing next to your boyfriend, I’d be tempted to ask you out myself.”

She blushes, and St. Clair bounds inside the box office and wrestles her into a hug. “Miiiiiiiiine!” he says.

Gross. Mental disgust manifested into physical unease as my body wrenched. There are few things on this planet that I hate more than being stuck in a room with clingy couples who feel it necessary to (consistently) express their non-cute tendencies. This passage (among others, particularly those between the ever-so inseparable Anna & St. Clair) clutched my cynic, my overbearing hag-like quirks—whatever you want to deem it—and ripped it out in full force. I could not stand it and thus often found myself snorting… scornfully, and not in a bitter way. In a way that says, “Please, stop. You are not going to die if your mouth separates from your partner’s for longer than two seconds.” But no worries—Anna and St. Clair weren’t present just to have me almost keel over from the bat held by said Super!Duo’s nauseating relationship. They were there to help guide (among others) clueless Lola in a proper direction toward “the one.” I mean, I understand dear Lo’s predicament: the super sexy (and slightly super older) but boorish asshat Max or the somewhat confusing yet sweet neighbor boy Cricket? Tough choice, Lola; I feel your agony.

Okay, in all fairness to this character and actual people alike: I am not like Lola, and I can’t find a compassionate response to such a problem that does not involve eye-rolling on my behalf. I’m sorry (kind of, but mostly sorry that I made myself read through this entire book). This is exactly why I will most likely be found—years from now—living in small apartment, my only companions being that of five cats, or perhaps I will find that a parrot will do nicely instead. I expect all chick lit lovers to dislike me now.

There are no spoilers to dangle in the eyes of prospective readers, either, because the title alone should give it away. Lola—seventeen year old Lola—and her twenty-two year old boyfriend (who is not “the boy next door,” ahem)… Well, what to say? Starting on page one, anyone with a quarter of a brain can guess that Rock God Max teeters, totters, and eventually falls out of the plot due to Lola’s affection for Cricket—the boy next door. See, I told you. The title says it all.

You can guarantee, however, that I will undoubtedly read Perkins’ next YA chick lit novel. I learn no lessons here. I only ask not to find Lola taking role in the next main character’s life—or worse, Lola and Anna. Enough said.