Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The School of Good and Evil Review

Entertainment Weekly just wrote a review of The School of Good and Evil (linked below) and raved about the book even for adults. It's the first of a trilogy, with books two and three coming out in 2014 and 2015 (all summer releases). Universal also just picked up the rights to develop movies out of the plot (see article below).

Anyway, this novel is seriously adorable in a Harry Potter meets Once Upon a Time kind of way. The story is a bit predictable, but it has a good message.

The School of Good and Evil tells the story of Sophie and Agatha, two girls from a small village on the edge of the woods who are complete opposites. Sophie is the classic fairy tale princess, the daughter of a widower, beautiful, blonde, good singing voice, who spends all her time doing good deeds. Her best friend, Agatha, on the other hand, lives in a cemetery and resembles an evil witch: lank, greasy hair, bulging eyes, bad manners. She's like Snape as a girl.

Sophie initially befriended Agatha as a Good Deed, but the girls grew on one another so that they are friends when the novel opens. In the village, every four years a mysterious being called the School Master arrives and steals two children, one good, one evil, for a school hidden somewhere in the woods. These children never return. But periodically new story books are brought to the village and the illustrations in them sometimes resemble the missing children from the last two hundred years. No one knows where these stories come from or if the school is real but the adults freak out every four years and try to protect their children from the School Master.

Sophie, of course, is dying to go to the school to achieve her true destiny as a fairy tale princess. Agatha, on the other hand, doesn't believe in the school, but wants to protect her best friend. The girls' true colors are hinted at quite early on. Sophie is selfish and her Good Deeds are really quite ridiculous (like making face cream for orphans), whereas Agatha is truly good and will put herself in danger to save her friend. When the School Master shows up to take Sophie away, Agatha gets herself taken too and the two girls are off to The School of Good and Evil... where everything goes terribly wrong.

The girls are dropped off at the "wrong" castles: Agatha to Good with a myriad of vapid princesses and muscled princes while Sophie is stuck in a dank tower with horribly evil children. Of course all she wants to do is get to Good, while all Agatha wants is for the two of them to go home.

Neither girl will get what she wants and along the way, they both discover that it's not what is on the outside that counts; what's inside is more important. Agatha and Sophie take fascinating journeys in the book as they discover their inner good and evil sides. The story itself is a bit Harry Potter light. While Harry Potter never skimps on details (well most details. How many damn kids go to Hogwarts?! Who are Hermoine's other two mystery roommates?), The School of Good and Evil is a bit vague in terms of the actual school The teachers are barely fully formed presences (no McGonagall or Flitwick here) and the buildings themselves aren't very well described. However, the overall message is a good one. And the story is entertaining. The ending left a lot of places for the author to go. Will the next book follow Agatha and Sophie? Or two other children from their village? Or some of their classmates? It's a mystery, but one I will definitely check out next summer!

Book website

Book trailer

Entertainment Weekly Review

Article about the movie

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Monday, May 27, 2013

The Position Review

Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings is one of the hot releases of the spring (along with Reconstructing Amelia and The Woman Upstairs). I've been seeing it everywhere and started looking into Wolitzer's other books. Three of them were available for the kindle for under $4 and since all the plots sounded interesting, I grabbed all three. Wolitzer, like Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides, writes literature, although as a woman she sometimes get unfairly categorized as a "chick lit" writer when her focus is on sprawling family epics much like Franzen and Eugenides.

This also means that the writing can be a bit heavy handed. Sometimes I think "literary" authors lose the joy in their writing for the sake of crafting a novel that gets glowing reviews. If the author is trying too hard to make an impression, I lose interest in the story, which is why I often find YA books more entertaining (less of a challenge to read but infinitely more fun). I remember slogging through The Marriage Plot - finding it a bit boring in all honesty. And frankly, I could tell from the first chapter of The Position that I might have the same reaction.

The basic plot concerns the four Mellow children - Holly, Michael, Dashiell and Claudia - and their discovery of Pleasuring, a sex book that their parents Paul and Roz wrote. After Michael's initial reveal of the book to his siblings, the book moves forward to the now adult children and how their lives were impacted from the book.

Michael works for a computer company and is involved in an relationship with an actress but struggles with depression, which effects his sex life. Holly has completely removed herself from the family, living across the country with her husband and infant son. Dashiell is a gay Republican working for the campaign of a senator with his long term boyfriend. Claudia, the youngest, is adrift at 34, with no real career or long lasting relationship.

Turns out that not long after Pleasuring came out, the Mellow parents separated. The reason why is filled in during flashbacks told from Roz's perspective. Not much happens in this novel, really, although the action is driven behind a proposed thirtieth anniversary release of Pleasuring, which Roz really wants and Paul does not. Each chapter is narrated from a different member of the family. During those chapters we learn more about each child's youth and how they grew up to be the person they are during the present time. We also learn about how Paul and Roz first met and how they decided to write their book.

And really, despite me saying that not much happens, at the end of the novel when all of the characters (except one) are in one place, there is definite growth. Wolitzer pulled me along through the book and without even realizing it, I became invested in the characters and where they would end up. The ending is bittersweet but really well written, which reflects the novel as a whole.

This is literature at its finest. While I don't think I'll dive into the other Wolitzer books I bought right away, I'm glad I have them. She's a talented writer who definitely deserves a spot among the best novelists out there now. Even though The Position isn't her newest book, I do recommend it.

Buy it at amazon and Barnes & Noble

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

I watched the movie Hugo a few months ago and enjoyed it so much that I immediately went to find the book only to learn that it wasn't available on the kindle. I posted something about that on facebook and a lot of people told me that the book was so special because it is mostly illustrated so I had to get a hard copy. Luckily one of my students was able to lend it to me. It's a super quick read since it is mostly illustrations but the book is pretty thick so I waited until I was home last week on bed rest for a couple days at which point I tore through it super quickly.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is the story of a young boy who lives within the walls of a train station in Paris. His uncle, who has disappeared, was the keeper of the clocks in the station who was in charge of cleaning, winding and maintaining all of the timepieces. Hugo's father (another clock maker) died in a fire at a museum, leaving behind only one automaton that they had found in the attic of the museum. Hugo wants to repair the old automaton with the skills he learned from his father but he also has to spend every day caring for the clocks and avoiding the station master. He also needs to survive. While he tries not to steal, he does need to eat and has to take some food from the different vendors in the station to live.

Eventually, he is caught stealing a small wind up mouse from a man named Georges who runs a small toy shop in the station, which brings Hugo into the larger story. What is Georges' past? Why does his goddaughter, Isabella, wear a key around her neck that looks like it would wind up the automaton? What will the automaton write when it comes to life? How does the magic of the early film industry fit into any of this?

Do yourself a favor and read this magical book, even if you don't have a child to read it to. It's a lovely story, which actually includes pictures from early filmmakers like Georges Melies. And as I said earlier, it's a very quick read - perfect for a rainy day. I really loved it!

Book website

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Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Perks of Being a Wallflower Review

The Perks of Being a Wallflower came out when I was a senior in college so it wasn't on my radar for a long time. I don't know when I started to hear about it but it seemed to be one of those seminal coming of age books that people love. It wasn't until I started seeing movie reviews that I even really thought about it. And then over mini-term, I bonded with two of my eighth graders who both love reading and who now spend tons of time at my desk having our own little book club. Both girls recommended that I read The Perks of Being a Wallflower (and a couple other recommendations as well).

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an epistolary novel. The main character, Charlie, writes to an anonymous person he refers to only as "Dear Friend". Charlie is a freshmen in high school, still coping with the death of his Aunt Helen at the age of 7 and the suicide of his friend Michael which happened a year or so beforehand. Since their deaths, Charlie has felt very alone. He is incredibly smart but does not have friends. Early in the book, in shop class, he meets Patrick and later Patrick's stepsister, Sam, who Charlie is immediately drawn to. Both are seniors but they take Charlie under their wing and give him a group to belong to.

Charlie, the titular wallflower, lives a very internal life. He just wants friends and he wants those friends to be happy. He is the youngest child of a family is clearly loves him but is not very demonstrative. He is highly sensitive and cries frequently but for the most part he is deeply invested in feeling and observing. One of his teachers tells him to participate in life, which he starts to do with Sam and Patrick's group. Sam dates an older boy, who is out of high school, while Patrick is in a closeted relationship with the quarterback of the school's football team, Brad.

Throughout the year, Charlie experiences more and more things. He drinks and begins smoking both pot and cigarettes. He spends almost every Friday night watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which his friends act in. Along the way, he meditates about family, novels (his English teacher keeps giving him books to read outside of the normal curriculum from The Catcher in the Rye to The Fountainhead) and his friends. He  deals with abortion, his first girlfriend, school dances, lunchroom fights, detention and all of his friends graduating from high school). Along the way he learns a lot about himself. At the end of the novel, Sam tells him that he needs to be less passive. He needs to stop being the wallflower and learn how to engage with people in a meaningful way instead of letting them do whatever they want in order to be happy even if it doesn't make him happy. Eventually he comes to terms with trauma in his own past and in acknowledging that, it seems that he will hopefully have a happier, more participatory future.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is completely beloved and also spent about ten years on the American Library Association's list of 100 most banned books. It's probably still on the list in fact. A lot of people have compared the novel to The Catcher in the Rye, which I personally did not like when I had to read it in 9th grade (I didn't like whiny teenagers when I was a whiny teenager), but I did like this novel. Interestingly, Charlie's narrative voice reminded me a lot of Pat Peeples' voice in The Silver Linings Playbook. Both are epistolary novels featuring damaged and depressed characters trying to find some semblance of normality in a chaotic world. And I think both are certainly worth reading.

Buy it at amazon and Barnes & Noble

Never Coming Back Review

Never Coming Back is another Swedish thriller export just like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The novel opens with a seemingly unconnected murder of a man and then switches to a wealthy tycoon who is obsessed with his childhood tormentors who he refers to as the Gang of Four. All of this appears unrelated to the main story, which follows Mike, his wife Ylva and their daughter Sanna. Mike and Ylva are recovering from an affair that she had a year ago so there is still some suspicion on Mike's part when Ylva goes out with friends on evening and does not come home.

Mike does not want to appear needy but eventually he calls her friends and finally the police, who definitely start eyeing him with suspicion. For many months he is the subject of scrutiny as he tries to pick up the pieces of his life and raise his young daughter as they both reel from the disappearance of Ylva.

Meanwhile, the reader knows exactly what happens to her. In the beginning, she decides to head home instead of getting a drink with friends. On her way to the bus station, she is approached by an older couple who she recognizes (although how is not revealed yet) who offer her a life. She really doesn't want to take it but winds up getting in the car with them. Turns out they just moved in across the street from her home. And they've built a sound proof music studio in the basement. But when the husband tasers Ylva, she realizes that she is in serious trouble as they lock her in the soundproof room of the basement (not quite a music room after all) where she is expected to service the husband and do chores in retribution for an unexplained crime.

There are hints throughout the book as to what the couple are seeking revenge for but it isn't until the final chapter that the full story is revealed. Poor Ylva, resourceful though she is, has to spend almost two years in that basement, where a video feed shows her what is happening at home with her husband and child as they try to move on without her. The tycoon from the beginning and his friend, a journalist, start to put the pieces together about how the Gang of Four relates to a series of death and disappearances. But the question is, will they figure out what's going on and convince someone to listen to them before it's too late?

The story was definitely thrilling and very fast paced. There's something stilted about reading translated novels but the plot here was so engaging that it was easy to move past that. Anyone who likes thrillers, especially those of you who enjoyed The Millennium Trilogy, will also like this!

The Independent Review

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