Monday, November 30, 2015

Paper Towns by John Green

Reviewed by Ambrea

Quentin Jacobsen fell in love with Margo when they were both nine years old, and he has spent an entire lifetime loving from afar the magnificent and adventurous girl known as Margo Roth Spiegelman.  Then, one night, Margo appears at his window.  Dressed like a ninja and harboring a rather inspired plan for vengeance, Margo pulls Quentin into an adventure the likes of which he’s never experienced—a night that he’ll never soon forget.

When Quentin arrives at school the next morning, he finds that Margo has disappeared:  she loved mysteries so much, she finally became one.  But Quentin learns that Margo left clues behind—a poster in her window, a highlighted passage in a poem, a vinyl record—which leads him down a winding path to graduation and beyond, a path that will ultimately lead him to an answer he didn’t foresee.

I liked Paper Towns, and I absolutely loved Quentin.

Quentin is a good person:  he tries his best at school, he has a good group of friends, he has a great relationship with his parents, and he has plans for his future.  And I like him precisely because he is a good person.  Granted, he’s not infallible and he certainly isn’t perfect, but he’s a good person and he’s trying his hardest to be a good friend.

Quentin also has a unique voice.  Like all narrators in John Green’s books—Miles in Looking for Alaska, Hazel from The Fault in Our Stars, Colin from An Abundance of Katherines—Quentin is a gifted storyteller and narrator.  He’s smart and thoughtful, making connections and finding clues from Margo that no one else managed to find, let alone decipher, and he’s an enjoyable narrator.  He’s intelligent and introspective; he’s precise and clear.

He is the type of narrator who manages to ensnare me in his story, precisely because he knows how to tell his story.  He knows how to keep me involved in the journey—and I was enthralled the entire time.

However, I found I was considerably disappointed with Margo Roth Spiegelman.  Although my impression of Margo was colored by Quentin’s adoration , I had a sinking suspicion as I read Paper Towns that she was not the wild, adventurous and amazing girl he—and, well, everyone else—considered her to be.

And, unfortunately, I was right.

I know why Quentin had to pursue Margo:  it was a personal journey, a quest for self-discovery.  I also know why Quentin had to destroy his image of Margo by finally meeting the real Margo.  Margo on paper is much different than Margo in real life, and Quentin had to have that misconception destroyed—like us, like the readers.

But I found the conclusion of Paper Towns was a bit more anticlimactic than I expected.  I mean, perhaps I had unrealistic expectations, like Quentin did, or perhaps I’ve been corrupted by traditional literature which allows for such unrealistic expectations.  Regardless, I was slightly disappointed.

I understand why John Green concluded Paper Towns as he did.  I see why he had to destroy Quentin’s—and, by proxy, my—understanding of and expectations for Margo.  She became a mirror, like Quentin discovers, reflecting the thoughts and ideas and feelings of all those who knew her (including readers), and Green had to shatter that mirror in order for us to see the real Margo.

I understand; however, I could have finished Green’s novel without ever finding out what really happened to Margo Roth Spiegelman.  It would have spared me the heartache.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

How to Say No by Connie Hatch and Patti Breitman

Reviewed by Jeanne

While I was at a meeting, a friend said he had just finished a book that was making life easier:  How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty by Connie Hatch and Patti Breitman.  When he offered to let me read it, I just couldn’t say no. 

Obviously, I needed this book.

And I did.  I often feel I need to accommodate others even when it’s inconvenient.  I end up with too much to do and I’m cranky and a bit resentful.  The authors understand that and gently talked me through it. The book is plainly written and a quick read, but still manages to make the reader consider the whole process from different angles.  The most important thing, they say, is to buy time when faced with a request and offer suggestions as to how to do that.  I’ve been rehearsing my lines.  “I think I have plans, why?” is probably the one I really need to work on.  That was one of the book’s strengths for me: making specific suggestions of things to say in response.

Another thing I really liked about the book is that it made me think about both sides of the question.  Would someone who asked me to go white water rafting in December really want me to be miserable or is that person asking because he just wants me to feel included?  Maybe he’d be just as relieved not to have a novice—a grey-faced, terrified novice!— go along.  The authors also offer advice on making alternate suggestions of activities, compromises, or the like in order to lessen possible feelings of rejection.  After all, that’s why we have trouble saying “no” in the first place.  

They point out that honesty is important on both sides of the question.  Sometimes a “no” can actually improve a relationship. 

What if someone you know is always hitting you up for money? (One of my favorite suggested responses:  “Wow, that’s a coincidence.  I was just about to ask you for the $5 you borrowed from me last week.”) Or you’ve been asked to be a bridesmaid for the fourth time this year?  How do you say no to your child? They cover all these scenarios and more. 

However, it’s not all about “No.”  The authors also encourage you to think about the offer before offering an automatic refusal.  What are the reasons to say no?  What are the reasons to say yes? Maybe you should move out of your comfort zone and try something new. 

Like reading this book, for example.  I’m very glad I did! 

Flora, Queen of "No."

Monday, November 23, 2015

Death by Tiara by Laura Levine

Reviewed by Jeanne

Death by Tiara finds the ever-employment challenged Jaine embarking on a new job.  This time she’s writing song lyrics for a contestant in the Miss Teen Queen America pageant.  To be more accurate, she’s  writing the song for the contestant’s mother who is determined that her daughter should pull off the win and seeks to ensure the same by pulling out all the stops.  Daughter Taylor is less than enthused, but quickly forms a bond with Jaine—mostly a bond based on Jaine supplying Taylor with chocolate. 

It soon becomes apparent that the pageant isn’t quite as glamorous as TV would have us believe.  The hotel is a dump, Candace the pageant director would be quite at home as a drill sergeant, and there isn’t anyone deserving of the Miss Congeniality title, to put it mildly.

Things really become nasty after Candace’s assistant ends up dead, beaten to death with—you guessed it—a tiara. 

On a brighter note, Jaine’s relationship with new boyfriend Scott is progressing nicely.  At least until he decides she should meet his parents.  Let’s just say that it does not go well.

No Jaine Austen tale would be complete without dueling (and funny!) emails from her parents, each giving one side of the Great Golf Cart saga, and the appearance of  Prozac, Jaine’s feline diva who makes the beauty contestants look like rank amateurs in comparison.

We have reviewed some earlier titles in this series (Killing Cupid, Pampered to Death).   I enjoyed this one more, either because I was in a mood for funny or because I just knew more of what to expect.  These are fast, funny reads with a feisty heroine.  What makes this series stand out a bit more for me is Jaine’s confidence in herself.  Oh, she may complain about putting on few pounds or not being stylish, but when push comes to shove, Jaine isn’t afraid to stand up for herself.  

If you’re in the market for a madcap, over the top mystery, this is a series to try.  Have a box of chocolates to hand but be careful—it’s easy to get choked when you’re laughing.

(Note: I'm one of those who reads the Author Notes, Prefaces, etc.  and saw that she thanked her agent, Evan Marshall.  I found this interesting since I'd just read one of Marshall's own books, Toasting Tina. I may have imagined it, but it seemed to me there was a similar sense of humor in the books, though Levine's is more exaggerated.)

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Reviewed by Ambrea

Victoria Jones has spent her entire life bouncing between foster homes, cultivating solitude and growing mistrust—and, more notably, memorizing the meanings of flowers.  At eighteen, homeless and penniless, Victoria discovers she has a unique gift as a florist and, as her talents grow, she realizes that the flowers she chooses for her bouquets are able to help people and give them what they most want, like honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love.  But after a chance encounter at the flower market with a man from her past, Victoria must confront some of her most painful secrets if she wishes to protect her present and ensure her future.

For the most part, I enjoyed The Language of Flowers.  Vanessa Diffenbaugh combines esoteric knowledge of flowers, the Victorian language of flowers, with the modern plight of a young girl trapped within the foster care system.  I liked that Diffenbaugh took the time and effort to show her readers the meanings of flowers and plants:  moss for motherhood, ferns for secrecy, daisies for innocence, honeysuckle for devotion, turnips for charity, sage for good health.  I was surprised to learn that sunflowers mean “false riches,” and yellow roses represent “infidelity.”  And I was especially interested in the combinations of flowers which Victoria used to communicate.  It gives the story a subtlety, gives Victoria a guarded quality, that made The Language of Flowers a unique tone.

Likewise, I liked being able to see the world from Victoria’s perspective, to witness her struggle to find normalcy and stability in a system that’s anything but.  I was intrigued by the glimpses Diffenbaugh gave into Victoria’s life—into the life of a foster child, into the life of a young homeless woman struggling to find her place in the world—and I was shocked by what I found.  As the parent of a foster child, Diffenbaugh has had an inside view on the types of struggles that foster and adoptive children endure as they transition to a new home—or fall back into the system.  She knows the difficulties these children face; moreover, I think she does fairly well at illuminating these issues in Victoria’s story.

However, I didn’t feel like I could properly relate to Victoria.  Something about the way she was characterizing, or the way she tells her story, made it difficult for me to become attached to her as a narrator, to really sink into her story.  I was eager to reach some kind of happy ending, but I wasn’t nearly as invested in her story as I could have been.  I think I would have understood Victoria better if I had read Diffenbaugh’s explanation of her character, which she gave in the back of the book in an interview:

“The hardest part of writing [The Language of Flowers] was finding the right balance in Victoria’s character.  I wanted her to be tough, distrustful, and full of anger:  all characteristics that would be true to her history of being abandoned at birth and never knowing love.  But I also wanted the reader to root for her—to understand her capacity to be gentle and loving, even before Victoria understands it herself.  So in the first fifty pages of the novel, she spends much of her time nurturing plants:  smoothing petals, checking moisture, and cradling shocked roots.  This felt like the perfect way to show both sides of her character, long before it would have been possible for me to describe her displaying affection or kindness toward another human being.”

Personally, I think I would have better understood her emotional state—her desperation, her doubt and fear, her distrust and anger and hatred toward others—better if I’d had the opportunity to read the author’s interpretation of Victoria.  For that reason, I think The Language of Flowers may be worth a second attempt at reading.  I think I better understand Victoria, and I think I could better appreciate Diffenbaugh’s novel after having the chance to see the author’s personal thoughts and gather my own insights into the novel.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Nevermore: Mystery, History, Detroit, and Women in Science

Reported by Ambrea

Our Nevermore readers started the meeting with an international mystery:  Six and a Half Deadly Sins by Colin Cotterill.  Cotterill, who now lives in Chumphon, Thailand, begins his story in Laos in 1979.  Dr. Siri Paiboun is a retired coroner who receives an unexpected gift in the mail—a handwoven pha sin, a colorful skirt traditionally worn in northern Laos, with a severed finger stitched into the lining.  Paiboun is suddenly roped into a deadly scavenger hunt, a mystery leading to a tragic series of murders and a dangerous border skirmish in the north.  Our reader said he enjoyed Six and a Half Deadly Sins immensely.  Gifted with a grim sense of humor, Cotterill’s novel offers an intimate look at Laos in a time of turmoil and a man able to seek justice through the secrets he knows and the people he knows how to manipulate.

Our readers continued in the vein of mystery with The Lost Detective:  Becoming Dashiell Hammett by Nathan Ward.  Hammett, an ex-soldier and former agent for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, became a mystery writer in the late 1920s.  He wrote a number of short stories and novels, including The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man.  But after 1934, he suddenly stopped writing, becoming an elusive figure in modern mystery writing.  Full with insightful information into one of America’s earliest detective writers and packed to the gills with original research accumulated from across the country, The Lost Detective was an interesting glimpse into Dashiell Hammett’s life and career.  Our Nevermore reader was fascinated and, moreover, glad to see author Nathan Ward pull Hammett out of obscurity.

Next, our readers followed with The Only Woman in the Room:  Why Science is Still a Boy’s Club by Eileen Pollack.  Pollack, who was one of the first women to graduate from Yale with a bachelor of science in physics, became a successful fiction writer rather than pursuing a career related to her degree.  Like many women in STEM fields, Pollack was isolated in her studies and rarely encouraged to show an interest in science.  Her book, The Only Woman in the Room, explores the suggestion that men and women have a differing aptitude concerning mathematics and science—and, more importantly, explores the frequent social and institutional difficulties that women confront when studying the hard sciences.  Our Nevermore reader said Pollack, given her experiences as a fiction author, writes beautifully and shares her findings (as well as her experiences) in a way that informs and enchants.  Our reader also said The Only Woman in the Room would be an excellent resource for mothers of daughters who are scientifically inclined, because it would give incredible insight.

Our readers also looked at Orson Welles’s Last Movie:  The Making of the Other Side of the Wind by Josh Karp.  Orson Welles, who is famously remembered for his 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and Hollywood films, such as Citizen Kane, began a special endeavor in 1970 with a new movie (which Welles swore was not autobiographical):  The Other Side of the Wind, which featured a legendary but self-destructive director who returns to Hollywood after a self-imposed exile in Europe.  Although the movie was funded by the brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran and slated for only eight weeks of filming, it took twelve years to complete—and remains unreleased to the public.  In Orson Welles’s Last Movie, Karp offers readers an opportunity to see behind-the-scenes of one of Welles’s most bizarre and remarkable films.  While our reader hasn’t had the opportunity to finish Karp’s work, she said Orson Welles’s Last Movie was interesting nonetheless and she hopes to find out whether or not Welles was really the genius so many have believed him to be.

Last, our Nevermore readers looked at Detroit:  An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff.  LeDuff, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, returns to Detroit to uncover why his beloved hometown has become one of the poorest cities in the nation.  Interviewing everyone he can find—union bosses, homeless squatters, ordinary people on the street, businessmen, and homeowners struggling to keep their homes—to find out what happened to his city, and what can be done to save it.  Our reader said Detroit was an exceptional book to read, giving it four-and-a-half stars out of five.  “It was so distressing to look at Detroit [now]…because it was a beautiful place at one time,” she said.  But, she continued, it was an enlightening look at Detroit and how its citizens are working to hold their beloved city together.