Thursday, August 29, 2013

More than your "Bunny Rabbit"

The summer before sophomore year at her elite boarding school, Frankie Landau-Banks blossomed. She went from being an awkward girl to a fully-fledged beautiful woman. Her transformation turns the head of Matthew Livingston, a popular and good-looking senior, who she soon starts dating. Frankie, however, is much more than a pretty face and the little girl her family nicknamed "Bunny Rabbit". Behind those beautiful eyes lives a clever, devious, and underestimated intelligence, one that will one day make her head of the CIA, Secretary of State, or the next great American writer. When Matthew keeps secrets from Frankie about a secret society, Frankie decides to show him and his friends that she is more than worthy to be a part of their club and their world. What follows is a story of pranks, deception, and longing to be recognized in E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks.

Recently my friend and I discussed an article about strong female characters. This is a bit off topic, but the article basically talks about how a strong female character is annoying and too boxed in. Male characters are never called strong male characters, but a strong female character puts an exact picture in your head of a bad ass, emotionless (other than anger), beautiful woman. We want 3D women who can be realistic. Back to Frankie, Frankie is a great example of a multi-dimensional character. She’s insecure, massively intelligent, inventive, beautiful, athletic, worried, brave, unsure, and still figuring herself out. I truly enjoyed her even when she thought about impressing her boyfriend a bit too much. This is what we do. We want someone we really like to think we’re astonishingly wonderful, and in Frankie’s case, what she did sure was astonishing.

From the dust jacket, I expected Frankie to be a confidant and already snarky, devious minded lady, but this is her story of becoming that girl. I looked forward to snuggling up with this book and reading about Frankie’s plotting. My biggest complaint is that there isn't a sequel. I enjoyed the novel. It was easy to read, thought provoking, and introduced a fresh character.

Here’s some other titles you might enjoy:
  • Into the Wild Nerd Yonder by Julie Halpern. Jessie is trying to figure out which group she belongs in. Everyone seems to be changing ship, so where does she belong?
  • Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork. Marcelo is autistic and always attended a special school where he was understood. This summer, however, he must work at his dad’s law firm meets several new friends and experiences what the “real world” is like.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Servants' Perspective

The Bicentenary Challenge has led me to read more Jane Austen fan fiction than I ever thought I’d be reading. Although most of it is quite lovely, a lot of it is just copies of Jane Austen. However, Longbourn by Jo Baker is standalone literature.

Jo Baker takes on the behind the scenes aspect of Pride and Prejudice to show what life is like below stairs in the Bennet household. The book is about a young servant, Sarah, and her desire to have a bigger life, while also following Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, and James, the new manservant. The book is not just another fan fiction, this is literature that just happens to encapsulate Miss Austen's masterpiece.

Sarah talks about events around the house and we hear off hand, what is happening in the story of Pride and Prejudice in so far as how it affects the servants. The Gardeners have come to stay, meaning more laundry. The ladies want to go visiting, thus James must be dispatched to take them in the carriage. It is realistic and although the tasks may be mundane, the audience never feels lacking for material.

Every time I picked this novel up, I got wrapped up in the characters and setting. Baker is thorough, but not overly detailed, so the book continues to arrest your attention. Baker truly has a talent for storytelling. She twists her words into alluring sentences and, as is the way with a good storyteller, you forget you’re reading, but are instead locked in the narrative.

 If you enjoyed Downton Abbey, this book is for you. Here are some other stories you may enjoy:
  • The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. About an elderly butler who wants to be the best at what he does. This was also made into a movie.
  • A Spoonful of Sugar by Brenda Ashford is the autobiography of an English nanny who has  cared for children for over 60 years.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Angsty '80s First Love

My coworkers sung the praises of the book Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell. It took each of them a night to finish it and they kept talking about all the cute and memorable things that happen throughout the book. Since I trust their opinions, I decided I needed to see what all the hype was about. Eleanor and Park was worth reading and I must say, my coworkers picked a good one.

1986, Omaha. Eleanor is the new girl at her high school and nothing is worse than trying to find a seat on the bus. She ends up next to Park, a cute, nerdy guy and this is where our tale begins. Through day after day of terrible bus rides, Eleanor and Park begin an awkward, angst filled teenage relationship. Eleanor finds solace in reading Park’s comic books over his shoulder and slowly they begin sharing comic books and music. This is the story of first love, a girl with a broken family, and a relationship that will change both characters forever.

I started this book and couldn't put it down. It’s an addicting and fresh young adult novel. It felt like you were back in a high school relationship where you weren't sure what to do, if you were dating, or how to communicate. Rowell was spot on with her descriptions of those awkward teenage years and you couldn't help but get addicted, cringe, and giggle uncontrollably. Eleanor is this young woman who has a terrible home life, is insecure, but brave and fierce. Park is a good guy who is seeking approval. The story goes back and forth between Eleanor and Park seamlessly. I will warn you that there are some cuss words, so if you’re choosing this for a young teen/tween, just be aware.

Although the ending was not as fulfilling as I hoped, this was still an excellent novel that will have you thinking of classic teenage ‘80s films and remembering your own insecure, unsure first love.

If you are a fan of John Green, I would certainly say that Eleanor and Park is right up your alley.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

And Then There Were None

Agatha Christie is the mama of mystery. She created the “closed door” mystery and wrote memorable characters like Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Her mysteries are complex, but “cozy” in the sense that the audience does not read about the death as it is happening and most of her mysteries take place with middle class society in quaint locations. Christie is also known for stories that are solvable by the reader prior to getting to the end. On top of all this, she is the most translated author, outside of religious texts.

Although I know about her celebrated novels and my parents quite enjoy watching Poirot mysteries on Masterpiece Theatre, I've never read an Agatha Christie novel. Feeling it my duty to read the classics and expand my knowledge, I picked up perhaps her most famous work, And Then There Were None (or Ten Little Indians if you’re not worried about being politically correct).

Christie sets up her story with ten characters all traveling to an island off of England. None of them know one another, but all are connected in what will become a deathly visit. All of the men and women on the island are accused of a crime and from here, they begin to die off. With each death, a little soldier figurine goes missing and the guests get more and more frantic. Is there some lunatic on the island exacting revenge, or is it one of their own?

Christie’s characters all have a back story. Some of them are somewhat one dimensional, but then again, they don’t last long enough to become fully formed. The characters that last until the near end have stories and personalities that leave you wondering…could he/she be a criminal and killer. The setting was perfect: a mansion on a lonely rock in the middle of nothing. While reading, I could see the ocean and smell the salt air. I felt the anxiety the characters felt and mentally told them not to go off alone. Although, as in most mysteries, I just wanted to know who the damn killer was along with the why and how, I found myself eagerly anticipating the next action and trying to deduce who it might be. I thought I knew, then it couldn't be that character, and I would reformulate. That is half the fun with Christie’s novel. On top of that the explanation at the end was complex and rewarding.

I don’t always read mysteries, because instead of concentrating on the journey, I find myself concentrating on the ending. Miss Christie was a truly enjoyable author to read, however. Although she wrote her books in the 1920s and ‘30s, they still remain fun reads today. If you haven’t tried her works yet, give them a shot! They’re not terribly long and they are diverting. In my opinion, this is a classic worth reading.

Since she has been around for a while, a lot of people have imitated her style. Here are some authors who write stories like Agatha Christie.

  • M.C. Beaton. Much like Christie, Beaton has created memorable characters in the form of Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth. These are also puzzle mysteries, so the reader can try to solve it before the detectives.
  • Louise Penny. This Canadian mystery writer focuses on Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, who has high morals and a big appetite. These are more leisurely paced mysteries and feature quirky secondary characters on top of intriguing crimes.
  • Ngaio Mars. Cozy mysteries set during “the Golden Age of Crime” are also like Christie in the sense that they don’t contain graphic violence and follow one inspector around.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Though She Be Small...

Jeannette Walls is known for Half-Broke Horses and The Glass Castle, two books about the author and her family. In Walls new book, the audience meets Bean and Liz, two girls with a neglectful mother, who make their way across the country to find family.

In 1970, Bean, the youngest, and Liz, the eldest daughter of Charlotte, an aspiring singer/actress, leave their house when police arrive to check in on them. Their mother isn't around much and often leaves them at home to go to L.A. The girls don’t want to end up in the system, so they hop a bus to Virginia, their mother’s original home, and meet their uncle. The mansion that the family lived in is now decaying and neglected, and Uncle Tinsley does not have the time or resources to fix it up. Although he is a good and loving man, the girls feel they need to help out financially, so they get jobs with Jerry Maddox, the foreman at the local mill. The girls don’t know about the history between this man and their uncle along with the problems that Maddox creates in town. Unfortunately, Liz is embroiled in an incident that turns her life upside down and Bean, the optimist, will do anything to get her sister justice. This is a story of courage and family.

Bean is a fierce, funny, sweet girl who wants to protect her family. Although she is younger than Liz, she is wise beyond her years and loyal. Liz is a brilliant girl. She is talented and witty, but becomes withdrawn in her new setting. They make a good team and Walls does a wonderful job of illustrating the sisterly bond. Charlotte, their mother, is a frustrating, pathetic character. Throughout the book, I just wanted to slap her. She claims that her girls are her world, but will abandon them and her responsibility for weeks at a time because she either has a “job” or needs space. Her behavior when she is around is manic and insecure. It seems she is the child in their trifecta, rather than Bean and Liz. Some people aren't meant to have children and Charlotte is a one of them. Then we have Uncle Tinsley, a loving man who hasn't done much since the mill his family owned was sold. Most of the adults in this novel all have some sort of deficit, which seems to be a theme in Walls writing. The one adult who seems to be without fault is Bean's aunt who works hard to provide for her family on a meager income and loves them fiercely. 

I enjoyed this story, but I didn't feel satisfied in the end. The big plot point wrapped up, but we’re still left questioning what will happen with the family and the girls down the road. I wanted the story to dig deeper and although it hit on some hard points, I wish Walls would keep going. School integration, neglect, and misuse of the law are some of the mentioned themes that could be further explored. There was a lot to be examined in these pages and I felt it was not satisfyingly done. The characters were fleshed out beautifully, but the plot needed more exploration.

If you are a fan of Jeannette Walls and The Silver Star then here are some other titles that may interest you.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Walls mentions Lee’s novel in The Silver Star and there are similar themes of injustice, racism, and creative, sharp young girls.
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith is a coming of age story about a young girl growing up with a poor, but tight knit family in the slums of Brooklyn.
  • Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. Like The Silver Star, this is a coming of age story and a book marketed to adults, but easily transferable to young adults. It’s about a young girl who recently lost her uncle, the only person she could relate to, and how she deals with that.