Review: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

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I just meant that… I want to be the last person who ever kisses you too….That sounds bad, like a death threat or something. What I’m trying to say is, you’re it. This is it for me.

The story of Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell has all the elements of a typical YA realistic novel. An awkward teen, an alcoholic stepparent, bullying, and more. Nothing new, right?

Wrong. So wrong. So incredibly wrong that Eleanor would just roll her eyes and huff “God” right in your face.

Eleanor is an over-sized girl with extra-frizzy red hair and an eccentric wardrobe, all commingled to create a bully’s dream victim. Eleanor is harassed by the popular kids, by her step-father, and – worst of all – by herself. She questions how Park could like her, even stand her. She is continually shocked that, once again, a day passes without him being disgusted by her presence in his life. Eleanor is a sad, comfortless teen who holds the world at arms length, and my heart broke for her so often throughout the novel.

Thank God she couldn’t make her mouth work right now, because if she could, there’d be no end to the melodramatic garbage she’d say to him. She was pretty sure she’d thank him for saving her life….Which made her feel like the dumbest, weakest girl. If you couldn’t save your own life, was it even worth saving?

Park’s mother is Korean, and moved to America after his Soldier father swept her off her feet. Park is the only Asian kid in Omaha, not unpopular, well-liked, but a bit of a recluse choosing music and comic books over parties. His openness with Eleanor perfectly matched her restraint, making for many awkward moments.

Dumb. He should have gotten the pen. Jewelry was so public…and personal, which was why he’d bought it. He couldn’t buy Eleanor a pen. Or a bookmark. He didn’t have bookmarklike feelings for her.

Rainbow did such a thorough job of describing Eleanor, but I still don’t have a complete picture in my head of her face. I cannot decide if that is Rainbow’s fault or my own. I say my own because, well, the self-hatred that Eleanor has about her body sounds a lot like the self-hate I had for my own for the longest time. Still do occasionally. So maybe instead of seeing Eleanor’s face, I saw my own. Maybe that’s why I had the reaction I did upon finishing the novel.*

Luckily there are artists out there who cannot let another day go by without drawing their interpretation of their beloved characters. Here is one that Rainbow tweeted, from an artist named Simini Blocker:

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Eleanor & Park is a heartbreaking yet laugh-out-loud hilarious novel. Seriously…I haven’t had that many post-its in a book since college. The book is worth reading for many reasons, and Rainbow’s impeccable capturing of the sensitive, poetic, and exhilarating moments of love.

Recommended for:
Everyone. Everyone should read this book. Adults should read it to remember the inner struggle of being a teenager. Teens should read it to develop compassion for others – because a person’s exterior gives no clues as to what their personal life holds.

And you. You should read this book. It is real life. It is what love should look like, not the dramatic parts, but the giving, hopeful, and supportive parts.

Read-alikes:
This reminds me of The Big Crunch by Pete Hautman for its realistic look at young love, and Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler (ill. by Maira Kalman).

 

*I cried those silent, knowing tears of someone who remembers. Someone who is thankful it’s not her, but who empathizes with the person and people that it is a reality for.

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Review: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Seraphina

That’s the secret to performance: conviction. The right note played tentatively still misses its mark, but play boldly and no one will question you. If one believes there is truth in art – and I do – then it’s troubling how similar the skill of performing is to lying. Maybe lying is itself a kind of art. I think about that more than I should.

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman is the story of assistant music director and musical prodigy Seraphina. Residing in the Castle Orison with other court employees as well as the royal family, Seraphina is complacent with her simple though solitary life. But Seraphina should not exist.

Seraphina Dombegh is a grotesque, a human-dragon hybrid. As far as the Queen – and entire land of Goredd – is convinced, abominations such as Seraphina do not exist. Cannot exist. But Seraphina is a human girl with dragon scales around her forearm and her belly, hidden away by layers of sleeves and invisible walls. She lets no one in, for fear of unveiling her dark, forbidden secret. But when she hears news of an impending attack against the royal family and dragon leader Comonot, Seraphina struggles with hiding her own secret and exposing the one that will destroy the world she as she knows it.

Seraphina employs head of the royal guard Prince Lucian to aid her in her attempt to thwart the assassination of Comonot. Yet as their relationship grows, she reveals more of herself that she ever expected. She is deeply torn between lying to maintain the life she knows, or revealing all so she can be done with the heavy burden the lie imposes on her.

The attraction between Kiggs – Prince Lucian – and Seraphina is an avalanche, starting small and friendly, but growing into something reckless and intense. Seraphina and Kiggs dance at the Treaty Eve ball, where Seraphina begins to let her guard down.

A feeling rose in me, and I just let it, because what harm could it do? It only had another thirty-two adagio bars of life in this world. Twenty-four. Sixteen. Eight more bars in which I love you. Three. Two. One.

 Their attraction, and the action of hunting the rogue dragon, keep the plot of this fantasy novel going. But the smattering of religious and musical details construct a thorough, almost contemporary world. Despite the existance of dragons and the other-worldly setting, the world of Goredd is believe. The reader has heard such prejudiced and intolerant language, albiet directed at humans and not dragons. Hartman’s commentary on acceptance  – both societal and self – is powerful.

Recommended for:
I had not even listened to 3 (of 11) discs before I was recommending it to my sister, coworkers, and library patrons. The audiobook, read by Mandy Williams, is a very appropriate way to read this novel. Williams’ not-quite-placeable accent lends a lot to the fantasy world created by Hartman. I believe any reader can and will fall in love with this book, but the elements of romance, poor body esteem (the girl has scales…you’d be cranky, too), and family situation may resonate more with teenaged girls and woman.

Read-alikes:
Full disclosure: I don’t read a lot of fantasy. But of the books I am familiar with, might I recommend Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. Both female protagonists are content with the status-quo…that is, until the day they aren’t any longer. Taylor’s creation of Eretz.

Review: How to Lead a Life of Crime by Kirstin Miller

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I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I judge books by their covers.* This book drew me in on cover alone. Then I read the front flap:

“Meth dealer. Prostitute. Serial killer.
Anywhere else, they’d be vermin. At the Mandel Academy, they’re called prodigies.”

How to Lead a Life of Crime by Kirsten Miller is the story of teenage runaway Flick, who finds himself enrolled in the Mandel Academy. The academy is led by heir of the Mandel fortune, Lucian Mandel, a man who has a not-so-ethical interest in the school’s students. Flick, in his attempt to unveil his (alumni) father’s dark past, becomes top student, and therefore top victim. But rising to the top of his class has nothing to do with English an arithmetic. No, Flick and his classmates are lectured about assassination techniques, cyber surveillance, an chemistry (the art of drug-making). An excerpt from the course catalog:

Waste Management: Polluting for Profit

The world’s companies produce over 400 metric tons of hazardous waste every year. Environmentally safe disposal of these materials can be costly. Fortunately there are much cheaper alternatives. This course will teach you how, when, an where to dump everything from radioactive substances to use batteries.

Flick uses cunning wit to get him out of life-threatening situations, and his quips are hilarious. Miller created a multi-layered character out of Flick; a cut-throat, violent boy who the reader just has to root for. Her other characters are just as engrossing and quixotic – Flick (and readers) are unsure of how he should feel about them. A couple of them come into their own a bit late in the book, which I felt wrapped up a bit too quickly and neat. I wish Miller had dedicated more pages to the high-impact conclusion, though it fit the rest of the book well in that it kept moving and moving. The plot never stopped, which I found surprising in a 434 page novel.

I cannot wait to recommend this book to teenage male readers, and girls that like fast-paced thrillers. Young boys will like the grit. There is an element of romance, but it never overtakes the main theme: revenge. Don’t let the size of the brick (er, I mean book) deter you from picking it up or recommending it. The story is well worth staying up late to finish.

Read Alikes:

I am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells has similar gore and action, but with a solo character, where Miller’s has a whole cast.

Devil in the White City by Erik Larsen would be a fantastic non-fiction follow-up read to How to Lead a Life of Crime. Larsen’s detailed descriptions of H.H. Holmes’ criminal exploits is an appropriate jump from the fictional blue-collar crime described in the Mandel Academy Course Catalog.

[…and I just realized that at no point did the students mention a library. With all of the great crime fiction out there – not to mention the memoirs and biographies of criminals – I highly doubt that the Mandel Academy, were it a real place, wouldn’t have had a library.]

*I encourage readers of all ages to do so (with new materials…classics don’t count), because if a publisher doesn’t put any thought or care into the cover, I assume they likely didn’t put much care into what went inside of the cover.

Book 9: The Talk-Funny Girl by Roland Merullo

Seventeen year old Marjorie, or the slurred Majie from her parent’s lips, lives in an old factory town in New Hampshire with her physically and emotionally abusive parents, attends a church led by a similarly abusive preacher, and attends a school where she is known as the “talk funny girl” because of her use of a mountain dialect impressed upon her by her uneducated father. Marjorie’s entire life has been suffering, worrying, and hiding…but one day she is offered an stonemason’s apprenticeship that helps her grow stronger alongside the cathedral she is building.

This story is wrenching and even unbelievable at times; how could someone endure all of that (probably illegal) treatment from her parents, and never run away or ask for help? Is fear that crippling? Or did she never seek a way out because she didn’t think herself worthy of a better life?

Awfully tiresome at times, Merullo goes on and on and on when one or two pages could have sufficed. This book had little dialogue, and therefore relied on Marjorie’s narration to pull the story ahead, which was dull at times. But when the narrator is so introspective…it is difficult to skip a passage just to get through the chapter. So you find yourself re-reading what you essentially read a few chapters back, because you’re afraid you’ll miss a new revelation that pops up in the middle of a paragraph and sinks away as quickly as it came up. (Which I did a couple times. Silly me, forgetting my New Years Resolution of reading more thoroughly…)

I am glad I read The Talk-Funny Girl. I doubt I will recommend this to any teens, despite it being a 2012 Alex Award Winner (an award for adult books that appeal to teen readers). But I will advise it to adults, especially the ones who don’t need dialogue to enjoy a book, and who can endure dull spots to find the shining ones.