On “Royals” by Rachel Hawkins

Image result for royals rachel hawkinsRachel Hawkins’ latest novel is another young adult addition to the spate of royal wedding literature that burst onto the scene in 2011 after Kate and William’s nuptials. Royals, it seems, came just in time for another such highly publicized event. I think we all know what I’m referring to there…No? Congrats on finding a hole deep enough on this earth where even those wedding bells couldn’t reach you. Despite my general disinterest in the royals and their weddings, the fiction that publishing companies fling in front of us can be delightfully readable. Such is the case with Hawkins’ latest.

In this sweet little page turner, the eccentric 17-year-old, Daisy Winters, is grudgingly thrust into the spotlight when her older sister, Ellie, gets engaged to the crown prince of Scotland. (Yes–the fictional, kilt-wearing, haggis-eating counterparts of those posers in the south). After spending her entire life under the radar, Daisy finds herself the subject of tabloid gossip columns, many speculating that she’ll end up with the crown prince’s supremely eligible younger brother, Sebastian.

Meanwhile, Daisy just wants to fit in and act the right way without making a scene. Ellie already disapproves of nearly everything she does. But dodging tabloid rumors and the hell-on-wheels shit show that is Sebastian while pleasing the entire royal family (most notably the ice queen who sits on Scotland’s throne) isn’t an easy task. Ellie and her fiance Alex appoint Seb’s school friend, Miles, to be Daisy’s de facto tutor in all things royal. Of course they immediately dislike each other. Miles thinks Daisy is after money and fame; Daisy thinks Miles is a jerk. (Rightfully, I might add).

Hawkins crafts every scene with the ease that only the best writers can. Humor and calamity dovetail into a perfectly paced comedy of manners. Reading Royals has me on the hunt for more wedding mayhem, but I doubt I’ll find anything as well crafted. But Hawkins has her readers covered. Royals is only book one…

Jeanne McCulloch’s Riveting Debut ‘All Happy Families’ Hits Home

all happy familiesThis paid review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Jeanne McCulloch‘s poignant debut memoir, All Happy Families, examines the precarious nature of familial life and love in the wake of her father’s fatal stroke on the eve of her 1983 wedding. The family’s excitement suddenly shifts into a haze of shock and numbness, but there is never any question about the wedding continuing as planned. Jeanne’s imperious mother, Pat, has only one instruction for the hospital on the morning of August 13: “If anything happens to my husband this evening, do not call this house. We cannot be disturbed…We are having a party.”

McCulloch hones in on dialogue like this and connects it to past and future moments throughout the narrative, deftly exploring the incidents that stem from that day in August. She chronicles the ripple effect of her father’s death without judgment, moving from her childhood on Park Avenue and her father’s descent into alcoholism to the courtship between her and her husband, Dean, and the tentative position she holds within his family.

If McCulloch’s memoir could be defined by any one line or moment, it would come from something her mother says during a hurricane season while the family is living in their Hamptons vacation home — a place that exists as its own character in the narrative. She says: “We live on such a perilous dune. All of this could just go, like that.”

Not only does Pat’s simple observation pinpoint the all-encompassing fact of our transience as human beings, but also the small ways in which love and the halcyon days of youth morph over time.  McCulloch points to the happy moments of her childhood when her father, John — an immensely wealthy hyperpolyglot — would take his daughters on trips all over the world, a chance for him to practice one of his many languages; or days after school when she and her sisters would style his hair into outrageous designs while watching sitcoms that would make him snort with laughter.

Looking back, though, McCulloch recognizes that her father was at the beginning of a steady decline as his dependence on alcohol worsens. Even the childhood stories John made up for his children featured an octopus named Franklin who frequents a bar and orders drinks for all eight tentacles. Nevertheless, the lucidity and precision with which the author recollects her past and deconstructs the multiple perspectives that layer each remembered encounter successfully avoids the hyper-sentimentality that often accompanies similar stories.

Yet it isn’t entirely clinical, either. There are moments when I wonder what she’s thinking or how she manages to keep herself together or she’s communicating with her husband during certain scenes since she positions herself as an observer in almost all situations, but she never dips into self-indulgence — everything pieces into the atmospheric and thematic prose that she’s weaved together. Best of all, the text never lacks for humor and grace in the midst of bad circumstance.

With spare and economical writing, she elucidates the ways in which the “perilous dune” crumbles. Whether we want it to or not. The point — which she gets at without making too much of a fuss–is that people go on anyway. Because that’s what life is.

Stephanie Perkins Unleashes Children of the Corn Horror in ‘There’s Someone Inside Your House’

51FsqF3IkgL__SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

This book was unexpected. Most readers know Stephanie Perkins from her funny young adult romances like Anna and the French Kiss. To say that There’s Someone Inside Your House is something of a departure would be the understatement of the century.

Perkins’ latest novel falls squarely in the domain of “slasher” horror–not so much a Stephen King novel for young adults as a salute to the great horror movies of our time. It’s Halloween meets Friday the 13th with a hint of the Children of the Corn vibe that marks most all Midwestern misadventures. The body count is high, and the pages marked by buckets of gore. Horror in young adult literature has yet to be explored in any real depth, so it looks like Perkins is determined to pave the way.

Not to say that your traditional YA tropes don’t fall into place in this novel; they’re just slightly rearranged to fit into the tense plot as it builds to its most destructive levels. The story is told from the perspective of Makani Young–the new girl in town. Something happened to her in her home state of Hawaii that becomes one of the novel’s “big secrets,” and she is sent to live with her grandmother in Nebraska. Makani drops hints of what happened–likely a crime she committed–so that the reader sees the extent of her guilt and how it affects her outlook on the crimes coming to light in Osborne.

Like any YA novel worth its salt, there is a romance. Makani finds herself attracted to Ollie Larsson, the school outcast, complete with a skeletal appearance, a lip ring, and bright pink hair. They hookup during the summer leading up to the novel’s events, but fall out of touch because of that classic teen power struggle we all know and love, the sizing up that occurs when two people who hang out in private come face-to-face in public for the first time, tacitly seeking the answer to the question of whether or not the other person wants to be seen with you in public. On the first day back to school, Makani feels that Ollie doesn’t want to pursue anything with her and that what they had was just a summer fling.

When Halloween rolls around (because, of course, the murders take place around Halloween), the town is turned upside down. Makani’s classmates—the best and brightest—are killed in gruesome fashion. One after the other, they get taken down by someone with a sadistic penchant for messing with the victims before they are brutalized in unspeakable ways. No one feels safe, and no one really knows who’s next.

Ollie and Makani are inevitably drawn back together as they attempt to find a pattern to the killings, much to the distrust of Makani’s friends Alex and Darby who feel that Ollie just might be involved. Or is Makani somehow involved? As the details of her past come to light, the reader finds out that the nature of her offense in Hawaii was violent in some way. She feels guilt, yes…but also something akin to understanding as the nature of Osborne’s murders become public.

Throughout the course of the novel, it’s clear that Perkins is a proper horror fan. All the plot devices are there: a protagonist with a secret, love interest that borders on danger, a pattern of crime that slowly reveals itself over time. Horror narratives that are told from the perspective of a potentially unreliable narrator are the best ones, and Perkins deftly weaves the elements of Makani’s guilt, paranoia, and rage into the unfolding of these murders.

The central narrative told from Makani’s point-of-view is interspersed with chapters told from the perspective of the murder victims. We know they’re going to die, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. Those chapters take on a cinematic quality that makes the reader’s heart pound (mine did anyway) knowing that the inevitable is going to take its course.

While I was left a little unsatisfied with the ultimate discovery of who was behind the crimes–and why that person did what they did–the book was such an engrossing page-turner that I would recommend it to anyone who has a mild interest in the macabre. Just make sure all the lights in your house are on…

Becky Albertalli’s “Leah on the Offbeat” Misses the Mark

Image result for leah on the offbeatBecky Albertalli’s Creekwood novels thrive on the concept of inclusivity and diversity. Many varied shades of sexuality, gender fluidity, racism, and working-class struggle are integral themes in Albertalli’s books, which is admiral. But I found myself unable to connect with the story’s protagonist or any of the other components that I believe Albertalli included, like bait, to pull readers into the narrative.

It could very well be that I read this book at the wrong time. I have not read Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens, the first installment of Albertalli’s Creekwood series, nor have I seen the film. It took me several chapters to get everyone’s name straight, and even then I got characters confused.

Also–and perhaps more importantly–I’m very old. At the ripe age of twenty-four, I no longer have the capacity to feel empathy for the overly emotional complications that appear everywhere in poorly executed young adult literature. Writers like John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Gayle Forman consistently and successfully avoid these sorts of overwrought cliche.

Albertalli–bless her–attempts to flirt with these staples of high school literature and film while simultaneously refuting them. For example: Leah hates prom. She ends up going anyway and gets got caught in a public display of affection with the girl of her dreams. There’s also a dance sequence, which is probably meant to be ironic, but isn’t…

My issues with the book run deeper than the cliches that come along with most high school stories. Truth be told, I really hated Leah. It’s a qualified hatred–but an insurmountable one, nonetheless. A lot of her introspective moments, ones in which she contemplates why she shuts down when things go badly for her, are interesting and relatable.

That being said, Leah’s personality is beyond grating. I think there’s a cultural and (slight) generational divide that makes it difficult for me to comprehend her behavior. From my perspective, Albertalli masquerades outright rudeness as a valuable plainspoken attitude. At times, the author attempts to show how this behavior can be a bad thing, i.e. the way she treats her mother, and those moments when she asks herself why she’s so mean. But Leah’s relationship with her mother (ugh) was already incomprehensible to me–more of a friendship than a mother/daughter relationship (which I think is pathetic and detrimental)–so my opinion of Leah was not swayed through this tactic.

Also–and here’s where the cultural divide comes into play–if I had said anything Leah says to her mother to my own mother, or my mother had overheard me speaking that way to someone else–she would have slit my throat. At the very least, she would have punched me in the face…But I understand this is a failing of my own in a lot of ways. I have to comprehend that other people are raised (very) differently, and I find myself finding that concept intolerable. (Yes, I have turned into my mother.)

Anyway–I digress.

Leah is a difficult character with which to muddle through this book. Perhaps that’s the point. I don’t think I’m the only reader who takes issue with the characterization of the Creekwood posse in this novel, though. Several Goodreads users commented on the fact that many of these characters become one-dimensional in the transition from Simon vs the Homo Sapiens to Leah on the Offbeat.

Maybe the future Creekwood novels will all have the same issue, because it seems Simon’s story was the one that needed to be told. Everyone else is just jumping on the bandwagon.

On “An Education” by Lynn Barber

Image result for an education bookYes–I’m writing this today because of Lone Scherfig’s lovely film. I saw it twice without knowing anything about the source material, or that Nick Hornby wrote the screenplay. Alas, it took a few more viewings before I googled the title and found that Hornby adapted his screenplay from a memoir of the same name by the English journalist, Lynn Barber.

Barber, who began her career at Penthouse magazine, went on to write for The Sunday Express, The Independent, and The Observer, with bylines in institutions such as Vanity Fair, The Sunday Times, and The Daily Telegraph. In addition to her memoir, Barber has published two books of interviews titled Mostly Men and Demon Barber (derived from her nickname as a deadly interviewer), a sex book titled How to Improve Your Man in Bed, and, interestingly, a survey of Victorian natural history writers titled The Heydey of Natural History–an ambitious feat, she admits in the memoir; one that took four years and extensive research to complete.

An Education is a slim volume that manages to span the length of Barber’s life via the medium of anecdotal vignettes. Each chapter highlights an important part of the author’s life, from her earliest years to her time at Oxford and Penthouse. We meet a dizzying array of notable figures who Barber interviewed over the course of her career, ranging from her first boss, Bob Guccione to Nick Nolte and scores of others.

Most of her stories are thoroughly entertaining and serve to highlight a golden era of journalism in which the boundaries of form were pushed beyond what had been seen and heard from previous generations. Barber certainly made a name for herself as a no-holds-barred sort of interviewer who pulled no punches when it came to getting to the heart of a narrative or profile.

She is unsentimental to the extreme. Nothing obfuscates her recollection of the past, and she is fairly open about her own shortcomings as a writer, a wife, a daughter, and a mother. For the greater portion of the memoir, such bluntness serves Barber well. But in the moments when she attempts to convey strong emotion–such as the events leading up to her husband’s death–she falters a bit. The strength of her plain dealing earlier in the book needs a softer hand towards the end, and I’m not sure she has the capacity to carry it off.

Fans of the Scherfig film will likely enjoy the memoir as a whole, but they might be surprised, as I was, to find that the source material on which the movie is based comes from just one chapter of the book. Silly me–I thought the entire memoir would be devoted to the Lynn (Jenny)/Simon (David) affair. Fortunately, the best details of the film are present in the memoir, and I found it amusing to see how they were adapted. But the complex relationship that develops between Barber and her parents is not something I think is properly conveyed.

Other than that, it’s a highly readable, funny and quick read for those looking for some light summer reading.

A House of Mirrors: On Jane Delury’s ‘The Balcony’

balconyThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Jane Delury‘s debut collection of short stories is a heady, atmospheric exploration of the comings and goings of a manor house in the French countryside. Set in the fictional town of Benneville, The Balcony weaves together the lives of those connected to the fabled Lèger mansion and its spectral grounds. Delury’s stories are not ghost stories, but they concern the lives of ghosts. From the Belle Époque to the present day, those who have touched the house remain tied to it in often inexplicable ways.

Each of the stories in this collection moves back and forth through time, but are placed in such a way that the reader discovers new information as they read; threads fall into place connecting people and places from one tale to the next. Some of the events that take place in Benneville and the mansion connect to larger tragedies–World War II and the Holocaust, the stigma of unwed motherhood, a sunken oil tanker in the Bay of Biscay.

But Delury’s finest exhibitions of craft exist in her depiction of the small tragedies within that broad scope: The lady of the house, once renowned for her sensuality and beauty, jumps from her balcony, making one last show for the young worker who is enamored with her; the sidelong glances that almost lead to affairs; the playing ground of young lovers.

Delury makes an admirable attempt to string the details of each story into a sustainable whole, and while many of The Balcony’s moments are beautifully done, the finished product doesn’t live up to the book’s ambitions.

The most important elements of the short story rely on what isn’t said — not so much a painting as a piece of wood whittled down to its most essential parts. Thematically, the book is cohesive: often dark in tone, its characters usually out of place or maladjusted in some way. Everyone has one foot firmly stuck in Benneville, and I think this conceit is what puts me off as a reader. I kicked this year off by reading Maryse Meijer‘s Heartbreaker, and it ultimately spoiled me on the short story front. Each story in that collection was fundamentally different from the next, but the sweeping darkness and yearning of the work as a whole made it completely unforgettable.

Delury relies much too heavily on the manor house and Benneville as connective tissue. There are hints of the fantastic, as in “Eclipse” when the story of a character’s suicide ends with her husband wandering the manor’s grounds during a solar eclipse. But the imagery that accompanies it does little to suit the potential richness of such a plot device, a recurring pitfall. She writes,

He called out again for his wife, louder this time, and continued through the courtyard, past the topiary, toward the rose garden. Something sharp grazed his heel. He cursed but didn’t stop. Behind the pergola, a wall of bushes grew at his side, barbed and shapeless, as if they had never been trimmed.

That is how “Eclipse” ends. This type of heavy-handed metaphor appears fairly frequently, but Delury sprinkles enough pretty lines throughout the book that the reader can sometimes forget that the prose too often plods along. The stories would have come across better had the writing been sharper across the board, but I suspect this is a matter of personal preference. I, for one, need good sentences to go along with my broody characters and French manor houses.

A collection of short stories that has the type of conceit that The Balcony does should delve more deeply into the unknown, touching on more than the varying shapes of tragedy. Delury hints at the unknown, occasionally building the sinister into the details of the house and its grounds, but it isn’t enough to mark the book as a worthwhile achievement. Quite simply, I wanted more.

All in all, reading The Balcony was an okay experience. I don’t believe it accomplishes what it sets out to do, but it is generally entertaining and quick to read. It will also help you brush up on your elementary school French, which could be a win for those of us who actually speak a lick of it. A.k.a., not me.

 

On “The Young Elites” by Marie Lu

Image result for the young elitesA friend recommended The Young Elites to me at least a year ago, and I just got around to reading it the other day. I wish I hadn’t waited so long. It’s one of the strongest YA series I’ve read in a long time–up there with the work of Sarah J. Maas and Maureen Johnson, partially because of her fantastic world-building, but mostly because of the strength of her writing.

The snappy clip of Lu’s plotting, much like Maas’ and Johnson’s, keeps the reader hooked from the beginning. There isn’t a moment when I thought a section was boring, or misplaced in the greater scheme of the narrative, which attests to the author’s crucial choices about how to present this unusual story.

The Young Elites–the first novel in Lu’s Young Elites trilogy–introduces the readers to a world that resembles Italy in the 1400s at a time when a generation of “malfetto” children is reaching maturity. Some years prior to the events of the novel, a blood fever tore through the world, leaving many dead; the few who survived were left with permanent markings.

Some of these “malfettos”–as they are derisively called–have developed special powers, and a special legion controlled by the throne, known as the Inquisition Axis, is determined to root them out of society through the passage of harsh laws and, increasingly, through state-sanctioned murder.

The story focuses on sixteen-year-old Adelina Amouteru who flees home after accidentally murdering her father with her powers. She is spared from capital punishment at the hands of the Inquisition Axis by a group of vigilante malfettos known as the Young Elites.

As she slowly joins their ranks, she learns that their ultimate goal is to overthrow the king and queen in order to finally undo the unjust system oppressing people like them. Adelina believes in their mission, but it becomes clear that there is something dark wedged deep into her soul.

Through deft characterization, Lu develops a compelling anti-hero–a protagonist who is, essentially, a villain–but who blurs the lines between good and evil in the most fascinating ways. She is joined by a series of similarly scarred Young Elites who are driven towards the same goals, but some of whom distrust Adelina.

When I reached the end of the first book, I found myself so immersed in the Young Elite world and Adelina’s fall from grace–that I know Lu had created a truly compelling piece of fiction.