Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda
by Becky Albertalli
Listening to this book was a bit like watching a John Hughes movie… actually, it was a lot like watching a John Hughes movie. It is kind of sweet, there might be some heart-breaking moments, some misunderstandings, some bullying, but definitely a lot of friendship, quite a bit of sweet-loving, and totally easy to get hooked on and want to know more and want everything to work out at the end — and boy did EVERYTHING get worked out! Mostly believably so but definitely veering toward the hyper-optimistic end of possibilities: which, we all need from time to time!
I was a little sad that once Simon & “Blue” met up in real life, the author pretty much stopped giving us their exchanges of ideas: no more interesting emails to read of their views on the world around them or the quirky questions and answers. In the last part of the book, the readers are left with just observing their physical (sweet) contacts and first explorations: as if all those emails were just a precursor to what REALLY matters: kissing and other physical relationships… It would have been more fulfilling an emotional journey for me as a reader if both physical and intellectual aspects of their relationship had been more equally represented during the last part of the story.
(And a potential quibble: I am still baffled why the characters refer to Tumblr as “the Tumblr” — was it that the author does not understand the teen-lingo these days or that it is THAT specific Tumblr page reserved for the kids in that particular town/high school — thus the article?)
I Crawl Through It by A.S. King
It was an intriguing and entertaining read — although using the word “entertaining” to describe my reading experience with a book dealing with mental illnesses, abuse, and traumatic events in teens feels a little crass. Nonetheless, I felt that King, as a writer, really revels in designing and playing “games” with her readers. Mind games, for sure!
Do we really know what actually happened to each of the four main characters? What’s with the man behind the bush? What’s with the invisible (or real?) helicopter? Nothing was really certain — not during and not after reading the book. And I’m quite alright with that much ambiguity — I only wish that I had liked and/or could have felt more empathetic toward any of the characters. Because of the stylistic choice and the hyper-reality setting, the main characters all seem to be more guinea pigs in a giant game of maze on stage, masterminded and controlled by the author for the amusement and perhaps even edification of the audience. Even the cover design with the standardized test answering sheet reminds me of some sort of “whack a mole” holes in an arcade…
Anyway — to sum up — I admired the workmanship and enjoyed the weirdness but never quite got caught up enough to care about any of the characters or how “the story” was going to end.
Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead
How does an author who already won so many accolades to continue pushing herself for such new heights?
This book has no surprising twist ending: magical or SciFi-esque; it has no flashy mystery elements; it is set in an ordinary school with ordinary middle school students — but yet, one cannot stop reading it because we as readers care so much about the interior lives of the characters (three “main” plus the supporting cast). It makes one feel compassion and empathy towards all who behave “well” and who might have some questionable motivation. It also makes readers marvel at the author’s ability to write a “quiet” book that speaks so loudly on the reality of being a young teen who must navigate the treacherous waters of friendship, social dynamics, and power-structure.
The story about a chubby 5th grade boy who is grappling with being the unathletic one in the class is told with a very light and gentle touch: he’s never so troubled by it to be sad, his best friends (who are all fast runners) are all supportive, his teachers do not put him down, even when they try to help him build up his stamina. And his relationship with his parents is loving, albeit full of little conflicts due to his very active mind that is constantly wondering about the world around him and coming up with out-of-the-box ideas.
This is the first of the Rainbow Crow set of high quality contemporary children’s books from China (by the 21st Century publishing company) that I have read and I am definitely impressed: by the author’s understanding of young people’s mindset, by the excellence of the production/design value, and by the publisher’s insistence of offering current stories by Chinese authors to young readers.
Colorful Ravens* “Original Stories in Chinese”* series of 20 titles were published in 2012. I obtained four copies and will report on all of them as soon as I finish each. To read the bilingual plot summary that I made for this book please head over to the Goodreads page.
*My translations for the series names were different from the publisher’s. Corrected on 8/18/2015.
The Truth Commission
by Susan Juby
Reminiscent of but less cynical than The Year of Secret Assignments (or Finding Cassie Crazy,) The Truth Commission explores the meaning of “truth” and the effects of truth-telling vs lying with a plot that started off deceptively breezy and quirky but progressively gaining weight as the readers realize that the tale is a lot more than presenting some artsy high schoolers’ (and the author’s) mercurial whims. I definitely got hooked about half way through the story once the successful older sister’s dark secrets start spilling out, and totally appreciated the twists and the examination of unreliable narrative devices. A memorable read.
- I don’t understand why the school’s mission in multiple languages would be printed in both Mandarin and Cantonese, since for the most part Mandarin and Cantonese are the same in written form, unless one (like some publications in Hong Kong) tries to mimic the colloquial usages (like in online discourses and tabloids). Its usage has been limited mostly to Hong Kong and even though has gained some popularity, is still definitely not the practice in official documents. Since one of the main characters is half Korean, it is evident that the author is aware of the existence of other Asian cultures. So, why not Japanese, Korean, or Hindi? Is this a deliberate choice by the author to show the supreme quirkiness of the school or is it really the practice of that specific Canadian region? (Is it set in British Columbia?)
- I also wonder about the portrayal of Dusk’s half Korean and half Jewish family background. She is described as rebelling against a family of doctors and her “tiger” parents’ expectations. It did make me cringe a little, even if I am quite aware of how this is the reality of many young people.
The Marvels by Brian Selznick
In this third installment of a loosely connected (by form, by theme, and by narrative progression) literary trilogy, following the previous two marvelous titles: The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck, Brian Selznick once again pours his artist’s soul and a writer’s heart into the tome and brings readers a moving tale. Much like the other two picture-novels, The Marvels features instant and fast friendship among two young characters, a cross-generational relationship that grows from suspicion and uneasiness to faithful loyalty, and the deep and palpable connection a person can have with history.
I had a grand time looking through the pictures and reading the story and was unbelievably moved (to a whole lot of tears) as the truth of the story of the Marvels family was revealed. And also by the fact that Brian’s portrayal of the gay characters is without additional fanfare: subtle and yet you can’t misinterpret.
I imagine the book an instant hit with all my students when it’s published on September 15! Can’t wait to hear their reactions!
Winner’s Crime by Marie Rutkoski
I enjoyed the first installment quite a lot but this second volume left me frustrated and annoyed every few chapters. Even when I genuinely want to see what happens next and how Kestrel and Arin’s torturous love affair pans out, I am fatigued by these two high position political figures acting so impulsively on their “love” for each other and by their constant misunderstanding of each other. They put themselves and everyone around them at huge risks: which is convenient for plot-advancement but inconsistent to the characters’ traits and talents at being sophisticated gamers (as laid out in the first book.) I also simply could not buy all their sneaking about, being so readily aided by the servants when neither Kestrel nor Arin are being portrayed as having gained any loyal followers by their talents in winning trust or sympathy.
The “games” element that were the breath of fresh air and made the tale stand out in the first volume (Winner’s Curse) were also woefully lacking in this one.
The ending, though, was a well-placed fruit, just out of reach, and enticing enough for me to read the final book when it comes out next year.