A Ghost Story for Halloween – Review of “Rooms” by Lauren Oliver

Richard Walker has just died, and his estranged family comes back to the house to pack up his things. His alcoholic ex-wife Caroline and very troubled kids Minna, 28 (who has a daughter Amy), and 16-year-old Trenton are not alone in the house, however. Alice and Sandra, long-dead ghosts, also occupy the rooms, and have plenty to say about the family currently occupying them, as well as about their own secrets in the past.

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The narration goes back and forth between ghosts Alice and Sandra in the first person, and the living people in the third person, a sort of nice ironic touch. As the story continues, the secrets unfold of both the living and the dead, revealing why each of the characters is in need of some sort of closure.

Discussion: Not all the aspects of ghost-ness held together for me; a few of the premises seemed inconsistent. Moreover, some of the metaphors used to describe the sensations of the ghosts seemed a bit nonsensical to me, such as “Noon is the taste of sawdust, and the feel of a splinter under a nail. Morning is mud and crumbling caulk. Evening is the smell of cooked tomatoes and mildew.” That neither means anything to me, nor evokes anything identifiable to me. I also thought there were a few too many references (irrelevant, as far as I could tell) to the awareness of the ghosts to what people did in the bathroom. But most importantly, there isn’t really anyone remotely likable in the book with the possible exception of Trenton, who is, however, so (justifiably) miserable, that it was difficult to consider him a “bright spot” in the book.

Evaluation: This book didn’t work well for me, but I’m not such a fan of dysfunctional-family books at any rate.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2014

Review of “The Rosie Project” by Graeme Simsion

I was avoiding this book because of a oh-not-another-book-on-Asperger’s reaction. There have been quite a few lately. But a variety of bloggers pushed me on this one, and I’d glad they did so; it is delightful.

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The story is narrated by 39-year-old Don Tillman, a genetics professor in Melbourne, Australia who has Asperger’s syndrome. Right away Don establishes that Asperger’s should not be considered a “negative” – on the contrary, those who have Asperger’s just have differently configured brains:

It’s a variant. It’s potentially a major advantage. Asperger’s syndrome is associated with organization, focus, innovative thinking, and rational detachment.”

But most of the time, Don isn’t talking about the syndrome, he is evincing it. He decides he needs a partner, and embarks on The Wife Project, making up a questionnaire for potential mates. He hopes in this way to eliminate:

…the time wasters, the disorganized, the ice-cream discriminators, the visual-harassment complainers, the crystal gazers, the horoscope readers, the fashion obsessives, the religious fanatics, the vegans, the sports watchers, the creationists, the smokers, the scientifically illiterate, the homeopaths, leaving, ideally, the perfect partner or, realistically, a manageable short list of candidates.”

His criteria are fairly strict, however, and he doesn’t get many satisfactory responses, in spite of helpful input from his only two friends, his colleague Gene and Gene’s wife Claudia. Don ends up devoting his time instead to The Father Project – a quest by one of Don’s students, Rosie Jarman, to find out who her real father is. Since genetics is Don’s field, the project intrigues him. Certainly not Rosie herself – “the world’s most incompatible woman” and totally unsuitable as a partner according to Don’s criteria – and yet, he becomes irrationally committed to The Father Project, and maybe to Rosie as well.

Evaluation: Don’s literal-mindedness makes many of his thoughts and actions very, very funny, but the reader isn’t laughing at this very lovable protagonist, but with him, hoping he will beat the odds and find love, in spite of his devotion to rational systems. I certainly fell in love with him, and his story, right from the beginning.

Rating: 4/5

Note: The book has been optioned for a movie by Sony Pictures, and there is a sequel on the way.

Published by Simon & Schuster, 2013

Review of “The Gods of War” by Graham Brown & Spencer J. Andrews

This post-apocalyptic dystopia is set in 2137, when the leaders of Earth determine that the planet is about six months away from being totally uninhabitable. President Jackson Collins, with the cooperation of a politically powerful business cartel led by Lucien Rex, has been investing massive resources into terra-forming Mars with the goal of helping to feed the people of Earth, who will soon have to move underground in order to survive.

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As the story begins, Lucien presents the Cartel with a plan to depose Collins and take over Mars. Lucien does not want to use the resources of Mars to help all the people on earth. Rather, he proposes to abandon the masses, for whom he only has contempt. His plan entails moving the elite and their families to Mars and using the planet for themselves.

Lucien needs to eliminate not only President Collins but also his only surviving child, Major James Collins, 37, a military “lifer.” But the plot to kill James fails, and James is taken to Mars along with many “untouchables” to serve as slaves to get the planet ready for the elite.

On Mars, a couple of thugs working for Lucien but claiming to be acting for President Collins have taken over the planet and enacted harsh measures to get the population under control. But Doctor Hannah Ankaris, 31, is still loyal to President Collins, and moreover, used to be in a relationship with James. When she discovers James has been brought the colony, she knows what she has to do.

Evaluation: I enjoyed this book for the most part, except for the Prologue, which was awkwardly info-dump-ish. Once the actual story started, however, the book had a good storyline and a satisfying build-up of tension and suspense. As I find with much fiction, the “good” characters were better developed and had more nuance than the evil characters, who verged on cartoonish. Still, the “good guys” were sufficiently appealing to compensate.

While the book doesn’t end with it cliffhanger, it is clearly meant to continue, and I am interested in following up with the story.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Stealth Books, 2014

Review of “Crooked River” by Valerie Geary

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Sisters Sam and Ollie McAlister live with their bee-keeping father near the Crooked River in Oregon. Their mother died just four weeks earlier, and Ollie, 10 hasn’t spoken a word since. Sam, who is 15, is frustrated with Ollie’s reasons for not speaking, which has to do with Ollie claiming to see ghosts. As Ollie explains in the chapters she narrates (alternating with Sam):

As far back as I can remember I’ve seen them. In dim light, they seem almost solid. In bright light, barely visible. If I touch them, it’s ice and fire, energy burning. They are glints and specks, here and then gone. Shimmering. Like heat rising off pavement.”

What is worse for Ollie is that these ghosts try to speak through her. If she opens her mouth, she knows it is their words that will come out, not hers, so after someone dies, she doesn’t talk for a while.

Sam doesn’t believe in ghosts, angels, a soul, or any afterlife at all. She thinks Ollie is just being foolish, and constantly admonishes her to “stop being a baby.”

But Sam also loves Ollie, and now that their mom is gone, she tries to take care of her. Their dad, known as Bear, has been acting strange too. And when the girls find the body of a dead woman floating in the Crooked River, Sam is afraid that Bear is somehow involved. Sam isn’t the only one; before long, Bear is arrested.

Ollie knows something, but she is afraid to speak. Sam can’t believe Bear is a killer but the police claim they have a solid case. Sam is determined to get at the truth, even though no likely outcome is appealing. If Bear is guilty, Sam and Ollie are for all intensive purposes orphans and homeless, which would be bad enough. But if she’s right and Bear is innocent, then whoever did is still out there, and has a stake in making sure that no one casts doubt on Bear’s guilt.

Evaluation: This is an excellent story. I was reminded a bit of John Hart. The characters are well-written; one can’t help rooting for these two courageous and big-hearted girls who keep hope alive in the face of all they have suffered. The plot is imaginative and contains a great deal of suspense. And the reflections on family and love and trust turn this story into something much more than just a mystery.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by William Morrow, and imprint of HarperCollins, 2014

Review of “Blue Lily, Lily Blue” by Maggie Stiefvater

Note: This is Book Three of The Raven Cycle, so the review necessarily contains some spoilers for Books One and Two, but no significant spoilers for this book.

As this is Book Three of a four book series, it would be impossible to review this as a standalone book. As a continuance though, it does not disappoint. Stiefvater’s characters continue to unfold and evolve.

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Briefly, the story is about two “families” in Henrietta, Virginia who join forces to find the remains of Owen Glendower, a medieval Welsh noble who disappeared from Wales after fighting the English for Welsh freedom. They all have come to believe Glendower’s body was brought to this area of Virginia which is rich in “ley lines” or trackways emitting a special psychic or mystical energy.

One of these families belongs to Blue Sargent, 16, who lives in a matriarchal group of eccentric and lovable psychics, all of whom are convinced that if Blue kisses her first love, he will die. Blue doesn’t think she has any powers herself except to provide – somehow – amplification of the clairvoyant conversations the others in her family have on a regular basis. But she does believe it would be dangerous for her to fall in love.

In Book One, Blue begins an improbable friendship with four boys from the elite Aglionby Academy, known as Raven Boys after the Aglionby emblem. She is not only drawn to the boys, but also to their quest for Glendower. Her relationship with them is “blinding, deafening, maddening, quickening” and now that she experienced a friendship like this, she wouldn’t want any kind.

The four Raven Boys are as much a family as any forged by blood. Richard Gansey III (called Gansey by the others) is the leader of them all – driven by the desire to find Glendower; caring; nurturing; generous to the others; endearing and earnest.

Adam Parrish, bitter over his impoverished past and his abusive father, is envious of those – like Gansey – who came from privilege and who can make their way in the world with confident ease. But in this book Adam seems to mature a bit and is to be determined to be “Adam” rather than Adam-whose-behavior-is-a-function-of-a-bad-childhood. He strives to appreciate Gansey for being noble and kind, if oblivious and overly optimistic. Adam had thought he wanted Gansey to see how “filthy and violent, and profane, and unfair” the world was. But now, he feels protective of Gansey, thinking it would be preferable if Gansey could somehow keep his rose-colored vision of the world.

Ronan Lynch is as “sharp and dark and dissonant” as Gansey is “soft-edged and organic, faded and homogenous.” But Ronan has a heart as big as Gansey’s, even though he tries to cover up that aspect of himself. And most crucially, Ronan is The Greywaren, who can dream things into being.

Last but not least there is “smudgy” Noah Czerny, limited in what he can bring to the relationship but balancing it somehow.

The boys are endlessly interesting, and in Book Two, their struggles take over the plot, pushing Blue a bit into the background. Book Three, however, begins with Blue’s angst over the disappearance of her mother Maura more than a month earlier on a “mysterious personal quest.” Maura left only a cryptic note reading “Glendower is underground. So am I.”

Some new characters come into play in this book, all of them related in some way to the search for Glendower or The Greywaren. As most of these characters have ill intentions, the tension escalates, and the book ends with a cliffhanger.

Discussion: Stiefvater impresses as always with her flights of felicitous prose, capturing dreams and bringing them to life, in a no-doubt unconscious analogy to what Ronan can do in fantasy. She writes of Blue:

The stars moved slowly above her, an array of possibilities, and for the first time in a long time, she felt them mirrored in her heart.”

Sometimes her writing just pierces you with its evocative and lush imagery:

Yellow apples, bright as butter, peeked from trees on one side of the drive. Some sort of blue flower, improbable, dreamed, ran amok through the grass on the other side.”

This book should not be read on its own, but rather as part of the entire series. But Book Three will draw you even closer to the characters, and you will be eager to see what happens to them next.

Evaluation: Maggie Stiefvater is an engaging storyteller who clearly loves her characters. The protagonists combine – each in a uniquely different way – a welter of hopes, dreams, hurts, and love. They sometimes behave badly, but all have the capacity for heroic virtue. The relationships among them are richly textured and satisfying for their realism as well as the way they tug on your heart. The author is so smooth at investing the everyday with the fantastical that you hardly realize it is happening. It just seems to be the way things are, or perhaps, like just another way to perceive the quotidian.

Rating: 3.5/5 (more a reflection of the book’s middle status than of its likability)

Note: You can listen to music inspired by The Raven Boys series and written by the multi-talented author here. Need a recap of the first two books? Maggie Stiefvater provided one here.

Published by Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., 2014

Review of “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” by Karen Joy Fowler

This is a wonderful book about which I can say hardly anything, because it would be spoilery, although I can say that at the very beginning of the story, you learn that two of narrator’s siblings have left home. As the plot unfolds, you find out why they did so. This book won the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award, made the short list for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, and was named a Best of 2013 pick by a number of periodicals.

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It’s smart, poignant, and incredibly thought-provoking. At it’s basis, it’s a story about family: what comprises family, and what constitutes dysfunction in a family. But this is a not a family situation that will alienate you. These are well-meaning people with quintessentially human emotions, both good and bad.

As you learn the story of this family, you also are presented with the narrator Rosemary’s thoughts about science, language, memory, and of course, family.

Evaluation: This book affected me deeply, and would make an excellent choice for book clubs, because you will want to talk about it afterwards. On a personal note, I have worked in a place that enables me to say everything Rosemary’s brother says is absolutely and unfortunately true. Highly recommended!

Rating: 4/5

Published by Plume, an imprint of New American Library, a member of Penguin Group (USA), 2013

Kid Lit Review of “There” by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick

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This book seems like one of those that is only partially for kids, similar to the allegorical tales The Velveteen Rabbit or The Little Prince.

Told almost entirely in question form, a small girl is wondering when she will get there. How will she know? How long will it take? Will she never be silly again? Can she pick daisies? Will there be rainbows? Will she finally know everything – all the secrets? Can she change her mind and go Elsewhere instead?

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Finally, much like Scarlett O’Hara, she decides she has lots to do, and she’ll deal with the issue tomorrow.

The author is also the illustrator, using sweeping two-page paintings to show how wide the world is to this little girl, and perhaps how boundless the future possibilities for her.

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Evaluation: Adults may understand this book even better than the young audience to whom it is directed. But I think with guidance, children will get the message that they, too, have endless opportunities ahead of them.

Rating: 3.5/5

Note: This book won several awards for picture books.

A Neal Porter Book, published by Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings, 2009

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