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Book Review – Eleanor and Park

eleanorEleanor and Park — Rainbow Rowell

I have been known to feel apathy toward the plight of teenagers in love. But I’m not heartless. I can tolerate the occasional well-written and unsentimental adolescent love story. Eleanor and Park is that rare young adult novel featuring teens in love that, to quote Sideshow Bob, never made me want to retch. The simple reason is that the kids are goofy and awkward in an endearing way, and their story is a good one. The 80s setting initially caused me to think that teen readers would not understand many of the musical references. But then I remembered that even today’s teens who consider themselves to be misunderstood and also to have superior musical taste listen to New Order, The Cure, and The Smiths.

Unfortunately the book has one major strike against it. Eleanor has a one-dimensional evil stepfather. He’s not quite as evil as, say, Cinderella’s wicked stepmother. Nonetheless he is a completely soulless facsimile of a human being and therefore completely boring. Some terrible people exist in literature, but if they are to be believable, they must either show some glimpse of humanity or do terrible things in an interesting way. Stepdad meets neither of these criteria.

I listened to the audiobook, and I highly recommend it. The alternating male and female narrators are both excellent.

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Book Review – Fuse

fuseFuse — Julianna Baggott

I’ve never claimed to be an expert on the publishing industry. However, the process of acquiring blurbs from famous authors and reviews from famous publications is especially mysterious. I present Juliana Baggott’s Pure trilogy as a prime example. The first book, Pure , was critically adored following its publication in 2012. I read the novel because of that critical adoration. Baggott earned a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, a positive review from The New York Times Sunday Book Review, and blurbs from Justin Cronin, Aimee Bender, Robert Olen Butler, and others. Not too shabby. Amazon, on the product information page, also published an interview that Cronin conducted specifically for the site. I read Pure last spring, and I enjoyed it enough to look forward to its sequels. But when Fuse was published, I hardly heard a peep. The Amazon product page for Fuse lists exactly two editorial reviews. They come courtesy of those titans of media, Xpresso Reads and The Bookish Dame Reviews. If Fuse were a complete train wreck, I would understand this drop in media attention. Had Baggott left her publishing house and instead commissioned thousands of monks to hand print each copy, thereby raising the list price above the reach of normal readers, I would understand that too. But neither of those scenarios occurred. In fact, Amazon customer reviews rank the second book slightly higher than the first. So what gives? It would be great if I had an answer following that entire glorious preamble. But I don’t. Nor do I possess the gumption inherent in journalists that would compel me to find out. However, if someone happens to know, please do educate me.

How’s the book? Kind of like the first one. It’s very good, a standout of the genre. Honestly though, I could go another year without reading about a post-apocalypse, and I would not miss all of the dusty roads, cobbled together outfits, and evil masterminds who are usually Hitler-ish in their ambitious quests for genetic superiority. Like many middle volumes in a trilogy, Fuse takes the cast of characters assembled in book one, and then disperses them to new locations, pairing them off or stranding them alone. It all more or less works. My biggest problem is with a sentient computer character that discloses some information freely and requires other nuggets to be guessed or to have their revelations triggered by solving riddles. Why is this necessary when the thing can test someone’s DNA, thereby determining who the “true” recipients of the messages should be? I don’t know, and neither, apparently, does the author. Despite this, Fuse remains a good story and a more than adequate middle book in a trilogy.

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Book Review – Tell the Wolves I’m Home

tell the wolves i'm homeTell the Wolves I’m Home — Carol Rifka Brunt

I almost didn’t read Tell the Wolves I’m Home. When I first saw it, I liked the cover (judging books by their covers is the most accurate way for me to predict how much I’ll enjoy them). But at the time, the subject matter, namely AIDS in the 80s, didn’t strike me as the basis for the diverting read I was looking for. Then the year-end best-of lists were published. I love these lists, but each organization tends to get swept up in its own voting rubric. What I love even more are lists that compile lists. The site Metacritic does this (and excellently so) for movies, TV, video games, and music. It displays an average score for each title, and it also compiles year-end lists. I love it. Unfortunately, books are not included. Last year, I discovered the All the Best Books Compilation (ABBC) on a blog. It’s a handy-dandy spreadsheet ranking titles by the number of lists on which they are included. This year’s edition was late coming (it was only  published a couple of weeks ago), so I found this site to tide me over. And on these lists of lists, I found Tell the Wolves I’m Home. It’s easy to ignore one or two positive reviews, but I find it impossible to ignore critical consensus. And guess what? The critics are correct.

I’m thankful for the tireless efforts bloggers who toil away on these sorts of things because of their inherent nerdiness and desire for making order out of chaos. Tell the Wolves I’m Home is excellent, and I nearly missed it. It is a beautifully written, heartbreaking book. When so many literary fiction writers are content not to bother themselves with plot (see my review of NW next week), Tell the Wolves I’m Home features stuff that, God forbid, happens. Nothing that occurs is particularly shocking or unexpected, but it all plays out perfectly. The way that one incident follows logically into the next is both comforting and thrilling. The story is told by a teenage girl who has recently lost her uncle to AIDS. She must deal with this loss, as well as people’s reaction to the still misunderstood and mysterious disease. And that’s all you’re getting out of me. Read it.