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.
X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz & Kekla Magoon
So many of my esteemed colleagues have reviewed this book extremely favorably and some of them told me exactly why they love this book. They cite the energy in the narrative, the honesty in the young man’s anger, and the eventual growth and redemption of this lost soul.
So I feel like walking on thin ice to say that I didn’t find the novel or the protagonist quite compelling all the way through. I found the beginning of the narrative strong and powerful. I was moved by Red’s emotional ties to his mother and siblings; I was convinced that he would find justification of he must steal. His slow realization of his “place” in the world saddened me. The refrain of “Just a n****r” is both chilling and makes my blood boil! And one cannot easily forget his witnessing a lynched body and the connection to the song “Strange Fruit.”
But then… we have 200 pages more of Malcolm engaged in various illegal activities, and continuously excusing himself because of his sorrowful past, family situation, societal reality, etc. I understand that all of these are based on real events, family stories, and Malcolm’s own words. I can only speak for myself as a reader how after a while it felt more tedious than compelling. The pacing went from tight to sloppy. I got quite impatient and did not feel empathy or sympathy toward him. Perhaps that’s not the intent of the author but it was difficult for me to want to follow his next missteps since I stopped caring.
The final payoff of X’s enlightenment comes very late and lasts very briefly within the confine of this novel. The book ends before his important life’s work begins. For many who already know quite a bit about Malcolm X, his personal narrative, his rage, and his complex relationship with the Nation of Islam, the ending is but a beginning — we know what he would become. And the book includes extensive after matter to detail Malcolm X’s achievements. I just wonder what impression this “novel” of Malcolm X leaves a younger reader.
I also wonder how the pacing feels and my emotional engagement might have been different if the narrative voice had been a more universal third person, so that I could understand his internal struggle and also observe his external charms and charisma (and not just being told by the protagonist that “people seem to be drawn to me” or “girls like me.”)
The Alex Crow by Andrew Smith was a baffling read from the beginning to the very end. Baffling but fascinating, engaging, engrossing, moving, and thrilling. I didn’t know where the story was heading and in the end, I wasn’t quite sure where I have been: spanning time and space, from the icy pole in the 1800s to the summer heat of an American summer camp now (?) — encountering the Melting Man (literally,) the refugee boy, the eccentric scientists, the Dumpling Man, and many others. Or even where we eventually arrived — are we to be pleased with Ariel’s final situation, bonded with his adopted brother and their new found friend, no longer being closely monitored? Are we to continuously be paranoid of how our lives might be closely examined by unknown forces and crazy scientists? At least I know to unconditionally love Ariel for his intelligence and compassion.
Since earlier this year’s brouhaha about Andrew Smith’s “lacking” in inclusion of positive female characters in his work, I couldn’t help but noticing that in this book the readers only encounter two real life women: one is a completely ineffective mother figure and the other is a terrifying scientist whose goal is to eliminate all males from the human species. (I’m not counting the two imaginary women in the Melting Man’s schizophrenic head.)
Of course, introducing compassionate and caring characters (male or female) will result in a completely different story: one that simply wouldn’t have been as brutal to such extreme and thus wouldn’t have had the same level of impact. If the point is to portray a world for Ariel and his buddies to “survive” in without the physical or emotional support of kind souls, Smith succeeded brilliantly.
And I must mention his ability to effortlessly switch into drastically different narrative voices! A skilled writer, indeed!
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.
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.
Chew by John Layman, artwork by Rob Guillory
Not for the faint of heart or queasy of tummy. There are laugh-out-loud scenes and almost-puke-my-guts-out scenes. Definitely cannot read this and have a meal at the same time.
Since 2009, the series creative duo, Layman & Guillory, have brought us 50 installments and 10 collective volumes (August 2015) of this bizarre tale of a Chinese American FDA detective Tony Chu with a superhuman ability: Tony can bite into any once living organism and have vivid “recollection” of the scenes in that living organism’s life, including the circumstances surrounding its death. So, when he arrived on a murder scene, he is required to take a bite out of the corpse… But, wait, others also have strange abilities like, a food critic able to write reviews that make the readers actually “taste” the meal (including the terrible ones), a chocolate sculptor who can recreate any landmark in 100% accurate details, etc.
And then you have the U.S. Government’s top secret weapon, Poyo, a rooster with nuclear weapon power, other political conspiracies involving NASA and the aliens they deal with, and enough family and love drama to satisfy any soap opera aficionado. Yup. A crazy smorgasbord of gross but hilarious scenarios. I absolutely adore this series and can’t wait to read the rest of the collected volumes (planned 12, by mid-2016.)
One of the main reasons that I love Chew is my fondness of Guillory’s artistic style. And now I think of it, the series definitely fits #weneeddiversebooks movement very well — for older teens.
Meet the artist, Rob Guillory:
And Meet Tony Chu:
And see some of the unusual scenes for yourself: