Reading Looking For Alaska by John Green

Disclaimer: I reached the end of the blog post before I realised it’s not a review; so here’s a warning, this is not a review. In fact, I may have forgotten to write about the book entirely, as in its plot or themes or characters. Goodreads can help you there. Let’s call it what it is – It’s a rant. 

Disclaimer 2 – I also quote myself a bit; not being self-indulgent here, just lazy.

Have you read The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett? It is this tiny little book which poses and answers a question: what would happen if the Queen became a reader? Among other lovely things, there’s a scene in the book when the Queen invites all these writers she’s newly discovered to a dinner of some sort. And at that dinner, she discovers something that all readers eventually learn: the writers are not their books. She’s disappointed.

Ever since I read that book, I mentally put authors I read to the “uncommon reader test” – do I like them as much as I like their books? Stephen King and Sir Terry Pratchett are the only two writers to pass that test unequivocally, for me.

Over the last few weeks, I have been binge-watching old vlogbrothers videos from back when I actually followed vlogbrothers videos. I’ve also been wondering why I stopped following them because I absolutely ADORE John Green. Yet I haven’t read much by him. I’ve said this before on the blog in my Turtles All The Way Down review; but I feel like he’s one of those people who – when he writes, he becomes unstuck in time and is a teenager himself – the effortless points of view, the angst and rebellion – only to come back to his adult self when structuring his stories.

He just does teenage well; without that internal lack of structure and self-awareness that a real teenage point of view would have. He knows when to start and stop being his characters, you know? He also gets storytelling more than many writers that fall hopelessly into that young adult books’ club.

So, Looking For Alaska. This is the third book of his that I have read, and the first he has written. I did not like A Fault In Our Stars, the infamous tear-jerker. I LOVED Turtles All The Way Down. And now, Looking For Alaska completes the set by falling somewhere in the middle. Green certainly has a ‘type’ of plot, he has his own set of tropes… and I don’t know if his books spawned the many similar others, or he just followed someone else’s worn path.

But you have the school setting; the misfits who ‘fit in’ more than you’d think; that one English Lit/Arts teacher who is just a cool teenager in sheep’s clothing; the endless quoting of music and writing that, let’s face it, couldn’t possibly be so popular among real-life teens [I’m thinking of the likes of Faulkner and Maugham, and correct me if I’m wrong about this], not to mention, abysmal parenting that is taken in a stride by all the adult characters. Young adult tropes abound.

But so do the more-than-occasional delicious turns of phrase; the warmth emanating from every page; the depth of feeling and that kind of untamed teenage energy… Turtles All The Way Down had a lot more of it in my view, but this book does too. A few years ago, I wrote this about teenagers in an unrelated post on another blog. Kind of fitting to add it here –

As annoying as teenagers are, they kinda make me nostalgic. I mean, when else would you be so lost in your own little technicolor bubble as when you’re in your teenages, when the whole of life and creation is spread out before you and you’re this tiny speck floating around aimlessly in the wide universe, and yet somehow you picture yourself in the centre of the whole damn mess. You never get to be as beautifully self involved as when you’re sixteen, not before nor after.

Looking for Alaska is that – self involved, but beautifully so. I have got around to it rather late too. As it turns out, this was published in 2005 – when I was 13. How weird is that. I probably would not have liked it back then. I was busy playing very own young adult trope of being too “grown up” for certain books, you know, and judging them too harshly. Young Priya would have been wrong. I read the book rather quickly but it was an evening well spent. A whole three stars’ worth.

Do you read young adult books? What do you think of Green’s writing? And what about your “uncommon” writers – do your authors live up to their books?

Turtles All The Way Down by John Green

I was not about to write a review of Turtles All The Way Down by John Green, until I was asked by a student to explain the main character’s point of view. And that led to a long internal monologue, and as I revisited the pages in my memory, I felt this post coming on. John Green does teenages as well as Rowling does middle grade and Enid Blyton childhood. It’s as if when he writes, for long moments, he becomes unstuck from adulthood and is a teenager himself – the effortless points of view, the angst and rebellion – only to come back to his adult self when structuring his stories. Turtles All the Way Down is a brilliant, if a little esoteric, view at a number of common and uncommon teenage struggles. 

Inside a Compulsive Mind… Aza Holmes is a sixteen year old and an awkward choice for a protagonist of a story. She is the best friend and self-professed sidekick of one Daisy Ramirez, a bubbly girl who writes Star Wars fan-fiction, and aspiring artist Mychal Turner. But Aza is not just any teenager; she suffers from multiple anxiety disorders – and from the very first page, John Green thrusts us right into the complexities of her mind. 

Aza’s main anxiety has to do with human microbiome, the colonies of micro-organisms which reside in our body, and a better part of her life is spent worrying about the many infections she might contract. Aza has this nervous tick where she repeatedly scratches a callus on her finger, rinses it with soap and re-bandages it, only to scratch it open again… never allowing it to fully heal. The tragedy of her troubles is that Aza often seems too self-centered to her only friend Daisy; and this is the most worrisome fact... that we live in so oblivious a culture as to mistake chronic obsession for selfishness.
One is hardly shocked to discover that Green himself has battled obsessive compulsive disorder and it’s not the first time that he has revealed his insights into this struggle. In a number of Youtube videos, Green talks about what it is like to live with OCD.
The “Absent” Parent… The story kicks off when Aza and her friends learn that Russell Pickett, a billionaire businessman, has gone missing and there is a big reward to find him. And it so happens that Aza went to camp with Pickett’s son, Davis. Daisy is eager to use this connection to find out more about the disappearance. And Aza reluctantly agrees to rekindle a friendship with the boy. It doesn’t help that her name is, literally, Holmes. An amateur attempt at sleuthing runs awry as Daisy and Aza walk right into a dangerous mystery.

The cheesiness of the absent dad stereotype is not lost on us, but Green manages to flesh out a run-off-the-mill framework into something substantial. Davis Pickett has lost his mother three years before the story. And he has an odd relationship with his father, the missing billionaire. A part of him is convinced that his father has run off to avoid the many fraud investigations pinned against him; and another part, the little boy inside if you will, imagines the worst and pleads for a miracle. Davis’s younger brother is not as conflicted. Convinced that his father would never leave them, the younger of the two brothers has fallen much farther into a state of depression at his absence. 

Davis struggles with his own feelings while becoming the responsible elder for his brother… all expressed with the restraint that would be typical of a teenage boy dealing with “big” problems – that pressure to seem mature, the anxiety of responsibility, the ever-present rebel, the constant inner struggle, and the finding of comfort in online anonymity… 

Internet… I feel old as I write this, and a little bit of a hypocrite, but the internet is a kicking and screaming entity, a living creature, in the lives of today’s teenagers. Sure, I started a blog when I was seventeen and granted, I “spoke” to more people online than in real life; but I was an exception, not a rule. Today, most kids can’t imagine a life without Youtube and Snapchat and Instagram, it’s weird how strange the children in my class find that Youtube is only as old as them. In this day and age, it is perfect that the better part of the discussions and conflicts in the book stems from Aza online-stalking her boyfriend, someone subtly referencing their girlfriend in a blog, or serious Star Wars fan fiction! It gives this throbbing lifelike quality to the book and goes with the age. Today’s teen is much more connected with the world around him, today’s teen can put up modern art displays in secret underground galleries and we take it in a stride. The oldie that I am notices it, a kid won’t. 

Stuff John Green does… John Green is two people in my head, the author and the youtube guy. John Green the author seems to have become synonymous with “teen tearjerker books” and I expected something of the sort from Turtles All The Way Down. I’m stunned by what I got instead. I was hardly the biggest fan of The Fault in our Stars, a good book, but in this he has definitely taken my expectations by the scruff and carried them all the way to the stars. A stunning book that kills as many tropes as it espouses.

One of the things I love about Green the online persona is that he can talk about anything under the sun and often talks about things I love. People in the book bloggy world talk about a “John Green effect” on teenagers; when John Green recommends something, the interest in said thing skyrockets. I was more than happy to find some of my less common favourite authors and ideas referenced in this book… Terry Pratchett the foremost. Let there be light. 

Lastly, if you’re wondering about the title… it’s a reference to an old joke. So, Bertrand Russell was giving a lecture on astronomy when a woman in the audience accused him of telling lies. The lady said that the world was no sphere, but rather a flat disc resting on the back of a turtle (think Discworld + old Hindu myths apparently) And what was the turtle resting on? This the accuser found funny, and replied, “it was turtles all the way down.”

The fact that we find it laughably impossible that the world may be resting on an endless tower of turtles attests to the fact that we might have no conception of how insane the world can be. Stranger things have happened. And this title brings us to the last thing that Green attempts to ask and answer; or perhaps the first thing; that existential crisis that grips us in our teenages, the question which is Aza’s daily struggle, our place in it all: what’s the point?

One of the best books I read in 2017. Go buy it! I leave you with a quote..

“One of the challenges with pain–physical or psychic–is that we can really only approach it through metaphor. It can’t be represented the way table or a body can. In some ways, pain is the opposite of language. And we’re such language-based creatures that to some extent we cannot know what we cannot name. And so we assume it isn’t real. We refer to it with catch-all terms, like crazy or chronic pain, terms that both ostracise and minimise. The term chronic pain captures nothing of the grinding, constant, ceaseless, inescapable hurt. And the term crazy arrives at us with none of the terror and worry you live with.”

Buy this book on Amazon! 

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

“I’m not saying the kids were doing this in a mean way. They were just being normal dumb kids. I know that. I kind of wanted to tell them that. Like, it’s okay, I know I’m weird looking, take a look, I don’t bite. Hey, the truth is, if a Wookiee started going to the school all of a sudden, I’d be curious, I’d probably stare a bit! And if I was walking with Jack or Summer, I’d probably whisper to them: Hey, there’s the Wookiee. And if the Wookiee caught me saying that, he’d know I wasn’t trying to be mean. I was just pointing out the fact that he’s a Wookiee. It took about one week for the kids in my class to get used to my face.”
– August Pullman, age 10. 
You know, it’s not easy being a high school teacher. It’s nightmarish to be an adult in a child’s world – the gossip, the bullying, the high school politics, the raging hormones, the insecurities and ego surges; when you’re a kid, you think the adults just don’t “get it.” But that’s not it. I get it, I just know that there’s little I can do about it. It’s all so sensitive and difficult. Wonder by R.J. Palacio taught me a lot about teenagers, in fact I borrowed it from one of my students. The book, and the fact that a bunch of teens in my class love it, has made me delve deeper into the teen psyche than ever before. You see, this book is not about a single experience, not about one child having a series of problems, or another creating a series. It’s told from the points of view of many children, different perspectives on the same experience, and it’s about how they all come together to weave that web of nastiness that is any school.
It all begins with August Pullman, a boy born with a facial malformation, called a “mandibulofacial dysostosis” and described as much more drastic in appearance than a cleft palate. August opens the book with narration of his life story with a chilling matter-of-factly tone. Auggie is used to people being frightened of his face, he describes that reaction that people have, of shock and derision, often leading to pity, when people see him for the first time. He knows that some people can never look him in the eye, ever. He knows it, and he says it like he’s accepted it… almost.
August has been home-schooled till Grade 4, when his parents decide it’s time for him to get a taste of the real world, with all its joys and difficulties. They enrol him into a private school, much to August’s dismay. The director of the school, a nice ol’ man comically named Mr. Tushman arranges for a visit to the school for August during the summer holidays. He recruits three prospective classmates to show him around the school. This is where August gets his first nasty surprise. The boys, who are absolutely sweet in the presence of the adults, commence casual snide remarks when alone with August – sample: referring to him as Darth Sidious with his burnt face. 
August is stunned, hurt. But he decides to go to school anyhow, because he likes it, and perhaps because he wants to face that challenge. The first day is no different from what you’d expect. August makes no friends, and the few he does make seem to be talking to him out of some sort of obligation. The meanest of the boys is this popular kid who should have no reason to pick on anyone, seeing as he is already on the highest rung of the social ladder. But somehow, he takes the keenest interest in making Auggie’s life miserable. Come lunch break, when Auggie feels he is about to spend all of the school year alone, one girl, one of the “popular” ones comes up to his table and sits with him. And that makes him survive school for just that much longer.
As August settles in, we take departure from his perspective and flit to his sister, Olivia. Olivia adores August, he is her everything. But it’s hard having a younger sibling who has always been so sick, always been in and out of surgeries. Olivia has had to give up on her childhood quite young, and there is a certain apprehension caused by this, if not resentment. But her relationship with Auggie exudes warmth and she’s fiercely protective of him, sometimes a little too motherly in her worry. You see, for all of August’s troubles, he is not a special needs kid. He is just like a normal child, and quite a bright one at that, so he doesn’t always need the coddling that Olivia imposes on him. Throughout the book, the brother-sister relationship develops in the most natural and beautiful of ways.
We see other points of view as well. We see the story from Summer’s point of view, that one popular girl who befriends August. And Jack, another of his friends. We meet Olivia’s friends and her boyfriend. And in a special chapter at the end of the book, Palacio offers us a glimpse into the deep recesses of Julian’s brain, August’s greatest bully. Why do teenagers act the way they do – enough with the angst, damn it! Why do kids “hate”? How do children perceive loss – how do kids grieve? Can we focus on how deeply rooted peer pressure is? Do you become a bully by accident? Are bullies really also victims – as simple as that? Is it all hormones or do kids have problems as real as ours? If school is a test run for life, does that mean people never change – are we just a bunch of over-sized teenagers, just as mean, forever – no? ever met an angry gossipy parent? 
Now, the book doesn’t give you answers to all these questions. But it damn well comes close. It provides much needed insight into the inner workings of different minds – many rights and wrongs. It readjusts your view on life, by giving you ten others. It tells you somehow that it’s okay to not always be right, and not always be good, but we must keep trying to be both. No one is perfect, but that shouldn’t be our cue to give up on ourselves. It’s GUTTING but it’s also heart-warming. So, after all the struggle and perseverance and the trials and tribunals of school, August, his friends and his enemies do make it through to the light at the end of the tunnel. As we all eventually do. So you might ask, that’s it? Happy ending schmappy ending? Well, it’s not a the-end-will-shock-you type of book, not some mystery that keeps you on the edge of your seat. It’s the journey that matters. And the book takes us on a hell of a ride. 
Can we set aside a moment to appreciate how every teenage coming-of-age story has a teacher figure who majorly influences the main characters? Can I bask in how it’s almost always the English teacher? I guess it’s because we’re not burdened with actual content to teach and can basically just come up with our own. It’s also probably because writers tend to temp as English teachers and that could be where the bias forms. Anyhow, August has an interesting, if a little eccentric, character for an English teacher – Mr. Browne, who, among other things, makes it a point to start every month with a “precept” that he gives the students. Words to live by… These make for some interesting quotes. But what’s more is, he asks the students to write their own precepts and as a finishing touch to this book, Palacio has given us the different precepts handed in by our characters at the end of the year. Yummy.
I don’t know what my students took away from the story. I don’t know how much seeped in. I don’t know if the story will change how they look at someone just a little more timid, a little more whimsical, a little more different. I can only hope that they will try on the boots of the August or Jack or Miranda or Olivia of their class and walk a mile. I can only hope that tomorrow, they will be a little less selfish, a little less ignorant, a little less resentful, a little less impatient – and the world will be a kinder place. 
“But in another book by J. M. Barrie called The Little White Bird … he writes …” He started flipping through a small book on the podium until he found the page he was looking for, and then he put on his reading glasses. “ ‘Shall we make a new rule of life … always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary?’ ” Here Mr. Tushman looked up at the audience. “Kinder than is necessary,” he repeated. “What a marvelous line, isn’t it? Kinder than is necessary. Because it’s not enough to be kind. One should be kinder than needed.”

Un Lun Dun by China Mieville

“…where’s the skill in being a hero if you were always destined to do it?”

Un Lun Dun. Say it quickly, in one go. UnLunDun. Does it make sense? That’s it. UnLondon. Un-London. Un Lun Dun is a Young Adult Fantasy book by China Mieville, an English writer of weird fantasy.

Un Lun Dun is set in the fantasy world of UnLondon, a city which lies on the brink of London, formed out of the debris of the city, where anything or anyone that is obsolete within London is transported and takes on a life of its own. Every city in the world has one such Un-city or abcity. Paris has Parisn’t, Rome has Romeless and Helsinki has Helsunki. An UnSun shaped like a loop shines its light on UnLondon and at night, the white Loon smiles down on the abcity. Cutting the city cleanly in two parts, the Smeath flows through UnLondon, and its skyline is dotted by many iconic structures, the best amongst them perhaps the Webminster Abbey. It’s a treat for any London-lover and a testament to the bizarreness of the city.
Zanna is a young girl living in London. She’s been having some weird experiences lately, strange people recognize her on the street, animals seem to be staring at her funny and once, her friend Deeba saw a cloud shaped like Zanna’s face. Following her around, whispered in corners and graffiti-ed on walls is a word – “choisi” or “Schwazzy” – French for chosen” as she is called. That’s what she is – the chosen one, but chosen for what? Zanna travels to UnLondon to find out what destiny has in store for her, and she takes her friend Deeba along with her on what turns out to be the most twisted adventure ever.

The Smog has started to take over the city of UnLondon. It is a shapeless entity comprising all the smoke and pollution emitted across the twin abcities of London and UnLondon. It’s a sentient smog, and it is angry, hidden away after being vanquished from London by what was rumoured to be a band of magicians. The Smog is now secretly planning to overthrow the existing powers in UnLondon and take over the world. A prophecy in UnLondon says that no one can stop the Smog, except the chosen one. But when Zanna reaches UnLondon, the UnLonders hopes wane, because the Chosen One is just a clueless young girl, easily squashed by the mighty Smog. What will happen when the Smog defeats Zanna?

Un Lun Dun is a Young-Adult book through and through. It is fast, it is witty in that dry teenagerey way and it has a lot of excitement without the need for explanation and a healthy dose of puns and wordsmithery. It is a plot-driven book which works because its characters are utterly likeable. The main character, Deeba, initially thought to be a sidekick of the chosen one, comes through to be our hero of the book. The book keeps surprising you at every turn of events – the story is nowhere near linear… halfway through the book, you wonder what could happen next, because the resolution seems right around the corner. And bang, you end up in the middle of an all new adventure before you can bid goodbye to the first. An excellent quick read for the bored you.

It is an emotional ride as well, the book takes on all your typical fantasy tropes – hero, sidekick, destiny, prophecies, Chosen Ones and tasks and treasures – and turns them on their head. He surprises you with a depth that you unfairly would not expect from a children’s book. It talks about family also, and friends, and how fickle relationships can be. It shows you the practical problems of being a hero in a fantasy story and in the most fascinating way, shows you how the problems can be done away with. The book knows when not to tug at your heart strings also, and prefers sweet subtleties over maudlin displays. It’s quite an experience, one I would rather not spoil with over-analysis. I recommend this book heartily to lovers of fantasy, magic, urban fantasy, alternate worlds..

Un Lun Dun has the most ridiculous cast of characters – a book of prophecies which is quite opinionated indeed, Propheseers who read the book and generally philosophize on people’s destinies, a man who can control umbrellas, a half-ghost half-human boy, a milk carton which has a life of its own, and armed dustbins called the Binja who are a security force. Some people populating UnLondon are those who were of no use to London, and slipped through the worlds – they are as M.O.I.L, that is, Mostly Obsolete in London…which is why UnLondon has, among its residents, quite a large population of bus conductors and librarians!
A few months ago, I was on a trip to London and got lost underground on the very first day, stranded at Leicester Square with a suitcase and painfully without my passport, money or travel card. It was one of the craziest nights, I ended up in the control room with a bunch of guards trying to call different stations on the Piccadilly line to find my mother, who happened to be on the tube! It was a very Neverwhere thing to happen. I hadn’t read Un Lun Dun at the time, but that night I was pretty much M.O.I.L. myself… mostly obsolete. I just wish I could have ended up in UnLondon. Now that would have been something.

Buy this book on Amazon!

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

I’d say I don’t remember the last time I read a young-adult book, only I do. Just the other day: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. I liked it, maybe a little more than I’d expected, enough to read in one sitting. So I read a book by an author who so often gets mentioned in the same breath as John Green. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell is another YA book that comes highly recommended. And this, I loved!
Summary: (from Amazon) Eleanor is the new girl in town, and she’s never felt more alone. All mismatched clothes, mad red hair and chaotic home life, she couldn’t stick out more if she tried. Then she takes the seat on the bus next to Park. Quiet, careful and, in Eleanor’s eyes, impossibly cool, Park’s worked out that flying under the radar is the best way to get by. Slowly, steadily, through late-night conversations and an ever-growing stack of mix tapes, Eleanor and Park fall in love. Set over the course of one school year in 1986, this is the story of two star-crossed misfits: smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.
Rating: 3.5/5 – I only do ratings when the review is kind of a rant, and doesn’t really make it clear just how exactly much I liked the book.

Bono met his wife in high school, Park says. 
So did Jerry Lee Lewis, Eleanor answers. 
I’m not kidding, he says
You should be, she says, we’re 16. 
What about Romeo and Juliet? 
Shallow, confused, then dead. 
I love you, Park says. 
Wherefore art thou, Eleanor answers. 
I’m not kidding, he says. 
You should be.

My thoughts: The story is so cheesy. I know: it’s got two misfits falling in love over a bunch of 80’s songs, which they can’t help quoting from every three seconds. There’s a lot of gooey dialogue that made me roll my eyes for being just so… teen. Of course, my teenage years were some of the most ridiculous times of my life, where I did and said the craziest things and had high school smack me in the face a lot, so there were times when I felt the characters in the book just needed to grow up, already. All their immaturities and insecurities are frustrating and maudlin. But then that’s the point, Eleanor & Park captures exactly what it is to be a teenager. Illogical and overloaded on touchy-feelies; even the smart kid sometimes thinks the stupidest things, the usually no-nonsense girl acts all silly around the boy she likes, even the biggest bully can abruptly turn nice. Anyone who asks for explanations has forgotten what it’s like to be sixteen. 
Eleanor’s real problems – her creepy step-dad, her abused careless mother, her must-wear-mens’-clothes poverty – and Park’s troubles with his dad, who finds him too girly, are frequently taken somewhat casually. But it was this subtlety that I actually liked, the writer has this almost lighthearted way of dealing with and writing about big issues. I mean all the concerns stared me right in face. But I felt like Eleanor was doing the best she could when she sneaked out to meet Park in the middle of the night risking so much, because if it’s ever justified to do something shallow, it’s when you’re a smitten sixteen-year old. I didn’t expect Park to understand Eleanor’s broken family or realize the extent of her troubles, because to him family meant something simpler; he had parents who were completely in love with other. Making rash decisions, not giving every action a thought is what kept them innocent teenagers, and Rowell lets them live in their little bubble, if only for a while. This makes their breakthrough moments even sweeter. A well written book manages to be dead serious without monologues of philosophizing. I think Rowell pulls it off.
The sentences are crisp, the dialogue snippy and the narration flits between Park and Eleanor. There are times when the point of view changes thrice on the same page, which is distracting and a little lazy, not much effort goes into seamlessly moving from scene to scene. Rowell does have an eye for detail and is a good describer, but she is awfully repetitive. (Red hair, red hair, freckles, big, Eleanor = not conventionally pretty.) It’s a YA novel and probably couldn’t resist its few typical gimmicks. Basically, I suppose it’s no great work of literature (although, what is?, really) but it’s a charming book. Worth a shot, at least.
A couple of favourite quotes (descriptions) that aren’t snappy chit chat:
When Eleanor was a little girl, she’d thought her mom looked like a queen, like the star of some fairy tale. Not a princess – princesses are just pretty. Eleanor’s mother was beautiful. She was tall and stately, with broad shoulders and an elegant waist. All of her bones seemed more purposeful than other people’s. Like they weren’t just there to hold her up, they were there to make a point.
Eleanor looked a lot like her. But not enough.
Eleanor looked like her mother through a fish tank. Rounder and softer. Slurred. Where her mother was statuesque, Eleanor was heavy. Where her mother was finely drawn, Eleanor was smudged.

(Eleanor, on herself)
But Park didn’t have any luck – or status – to spare on that dumb redhead. He had just enough to keep himself out of trouble. And he knew it was crappy, but he was kind of grateful that people like that girl existed. Because people like Steve and Mikey and Tina existed, too, and they needed to be fed. If it wasn’t that redhead, it was going to be somebody else. And if it wasn’t somebody else, it was going to be Park.

(Park, initially, on being nice to Eleanor)

P.S. Here’s a link to John Green’s review of Eleanor & Park. Interesting, huh? Do you read any author reviews of books? I only trust recommendations that I find on Neil Gaiman’s blog.

Love and Lokpal by Pooja Wanpal

After a very unwanted two-week break from blogging, this week will be flooded with reviews. Some time last week, this book finally arrived on my doorstep (there were some issues, I live in an annoyingly inconspicuous neighbourhood, that no one ever finds.) I finished Love and Lokpal in one swift sitting, and if not anything else, it certainly made for a well spent afternoon! Love and Lokpal by Pooja Wanpal has a pretty self-explanatory title. That’s just what the book is about: it is a college romance with the whole frenzied Lokpal Bill movement as its backdrop.

Summary: Shlok Kulkarni, an architect by day and an Assassin’s creed
junkie by night is being bombarded with eligible girls by his matchmaking mama.
In a bid to escape her and maybe check out a few hot girls while he’s at it,
Shlok flees to Delhi, where a massive protest for the Lokpal Bill has been
building up. Kaveri Gokhale has been searching for a cause her whole
life. When the winds of the Lokpal blow through the country, she eagerly catches
the next train to Delhi to witness history. When Shlok runs into Kaveri at Jantar Mantar, the sparks are
undeniable. As their relationship blossoms, Kaveri discovers a dark secret that
leaves her devastated… and endangers the fate of billion others. Will
Shlok and Kaveri’s love wither or will it withstand the uncertainties of the
corrupt politics? Can love truly conquer all ideologies?

My thoughts: I have mixed views about this one. The one question I ask myself when I am on the fence about a book is if it has a point. When it comes to Love and Lokpal; for all the minor irritants, the book is hardly pointless.

What I liked: You know how some books have like a wide, epic-sy scope? This book has the exact opposite, and that is a good thing. Having our heroine fight for an apparently huge, inspiring cause while still bristling over boyfriend troubles has an incredibly homey feel to it. The story sticks, mostly, to the every day reality of a young Indian. The characters are lovable stereotypes and the situations they’re put in are quite easy to imagine and relate to, from the college politics and twenty-something colleagues with their crazy boss, to a typical mother trying to trick her son into an arranged marriage. The relationship between Shlok and his sister has a cozy, personal quality that suggests some (welcomed) borrowing from reality, as do the college friendships. 

If the writing weren’t as funny, I have to say, the book would have been dull. The language is at once mature and quirky, the descriptions are vivid and detailed. The protest in Delhi is described with much fervour and it has that ounce of dramatic passion that characterizes Kaveri. You can tell the author has done her research, without there being any unwanted information dumps. The love story itself is sweet and never overly mushy. And the point of the book? The answer to the question posed on the back cover, “Can love truly conquer all ideologies?” That’s something I’d rather not spoil; except perhaps to say that the story concludes on a nicely re-conciliatory note rather than pushing any sort of agenda. 

What I didn’t like: The biggest problem I have with the book is that it just doesn’t manage to fully explore any of the issues it so promisingly brings forth. It is just too short a story, wrapped up much too quickly, before it even has a chance to really begin! As a consequence, the relationships between many of those admittedly nice characters haven’t been allowed to flesh out either. Carrying the story a little further, and stretching out the beginning would have made the plot a lot smoother, the ending a lot less abrupt. There are few editorial errors, but the tenses frequently go kind of wonky and the switching narratives seem a bit repetitive and unnecessary – I think the book could have worked just as well with a single third person perspective.

Overall, if you were a part of or religiously followed the whole Lokpal protest movement business (which is more than I can say for myself), you would find heaps to relate to. If you like cutesy college romances, this one is perfect. For me, the fact that Love and Lokpal by Pooja Wanpal reads like a debut is a teeny bit of a problem. She should write another book, and I have a feeling I’d like the next one more.

Nightmares of Caitlin Lockyer (Nightmares, #1) by Demelza Carlton

This review is a part of a reviews only book tour hosted by Irresistible Reads Book Tours. Visit the Tour Page for more reviews!

This is not my usual kind of read: but it was a good getaway from the routine. Nightmares of Caitlin Lockyer is an odd story, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s very unique. I would probably have liked it a lot more at thirteen, but I’m glad I read the book anyway.

About the book:  There are real monsters out there. The worst part is that
they’re human.
“Nathan Miller.”
“What happened?
“I was shot.”
“Her name?”
“Caitlin Lockyer.”
“What happened to her?”
“Looks like someone tried to kill her.”
Nathan found a girl lying on a beach covered in blood.
Saving her life was just the start. Now he’s the prime suspect and he has to
find out who’s really responsible. Both of their lives depend on it.
Who hurt her?
Why was he shot?
 What did he promise?
Why doesn’t his story add up?
 Who was the dead man
on the beach?
What will she remember when she wakes up?

My thoughts: The first page throws you right into the very middle of the action. A man wakes up in a hospital asking after a girl, Caitlin. The story unravels slowly and you learn in the first fifth of the book that Nathan Miller has rescued the girl, after she had been repeatedly raped and dumped on a beach, where he happened to be. Even as you discover this, you know there are things Nathan isn’t telling. There are references to conversations about protecting Caitlin and finding the bad guys. For the longest while, it is difficult to judge Nathan, to guess if he actually is a good guy. Meanwhile, Caitlin Lockyer has been through too much, has dropped into unconsciousness and is riddled by vivid nightmares; which we get glimpses of in alternating chapters.

I don’t want to say how the story progresses after Caitlin wakes, far be it from me to spoil the book for you. But there’s one thing that I really love: the story keeps you guessing and it turns out that your guesses are invariably wrong. It’s intriguing and the suspense keeps you on the edge of your seat. The characters are fully fleshed out, hardly black and white; though the dialogue sometimes lacks ease. One thing which wholly lacks credibility is the slack hospital they’re in, but you just have to go with it. While not the perfect book, it is a lovely, emotional, even romantic break from reality. It certainly makes you appreciate your reality a lot more than you usually tend to. Mostly, Nightmares of Caitlin Lockyer deals with a not-so-delicate, kind-of-disturbing topic with surprising subtlety.

The book does leave you with questions, which I have to admit is an annoying tactic to get people to read the sequel: The Necessary Evil of Nathan Miller. However, in spite of myself, I do want to read it! I am very curious to know the story from Caitlin’s point of view and I have a feeling I will enjoy it. Why don’t you to see for yourself? You can buy Nightmares of Caitlin Lockyer by Demelza Carlon here on Amazon.

Rating: 3/5

About the author: Demelza Carlton has always loved the ocean, but on her first
snorkelling trip she found she was afraid of fish.

She has since swum with sea lions, sharks and sea cucumbers
and stood on spray drenched cliffs over a seething sea as a seven-metre
cyclonic swell surged in, shattering a shipwreck below.
Sensationalist spin? Hardly. She takes a camera with her to
photograph such things to share later. She asserts that sharks are camera shy.
Demelza now lives in Perth, Western Australia, the shark
attack capital of the world.
The Ocean’s Gift series was her first foray into fiction,
followed by her Nightmares trilogy.

Erebos by Ursula Poznanski

“I withdraw my consent from reality. I deny it my
assistance. I dedicate myself to the temptations of escapism, and throw myself
wholeheartedly into the endlessness of unreality.”

Ursula Poznanski is an Austrian author, who mainly writes children’s books. Erebos is a young-adult science fiction thriller set in London. It is about a computer role-play game that is more than just a game! The book is translated into English by Judith Pattinson.

The kids in sixteen year old Nick’s school are all into some sort of game, passing DVDs around in secret and he is desperate to find out what it is. When he finally gets the white square package from Brynne, he is intrigued by its rules. Always play alone, never talk about the game, and never tell anyone your player name. Erebos is a multi-player computer game and Nick’s character is a dark elf called Sarius. The characters have to fight battles and earn points and find wish crystals and all that sort of gamey stuff I understand little about; the ultimate goal of every character is to reach the Inner Circle of five champions who will fight the final battle against Ortolan, the enemy. But Erebos is no ordinary game. It is complex and intelligent and leaks suspiciously into reality; the players are assigned tasks that they need to carry out in real life, the game can tell when they’re lying. No one can cheat the game nor hack into it or try to modify it. Most importantly, the game is manipulative; and the few kids who refuse to play have to pay the price. When Nick is sent on a deadly assignment, he has to choose between fantasy and reality. 
The book is as engaging as the game. I read it in one happy sitting. The descriptions of the game are delightfully vivid. When Nick is playing the game, Sarius takes over the narration and we can easily put ourselves in his shoes! The game draws from Greek mythology and that makes the imagery all the more intriguing. For the longest time, Erebos sounded a lot to me like Cetebos; but of course, that has nothing to do with it. Erebos is the God of Darkness and makes a wonderful name for this dark game. The game isn’t so much scary as wicked and it seems to relish the havoc it creates in the schools, the people who are kicked out show signs of withdrawal, becoming mysteriously weak and ill; those who don’t participate are goaded by the game and its players to join in the fun, or threatened if they still refuse!

When Nick joins his once-best-now-estranged friends to defeat the game, we meet the lovable Viktor, the twenty something gaming expert, who, in the face of bad news, looks like a troubled teddy bear. The romance between Nick and Emily is just gooey enough to not be overdone. And the ending is at once happy, sad and well plotted. I have to say, though, the stereotypes are annoying: the oriental boy, the fat anti-social girl and the shrill girly-girl to name a few. But you’d be crazy not to expect that from school kids and the fact is, when at the end, the authors reveals who each game character was in real life, she does shatter quite a few of the cliches!

Like I said, for a young-adult novel, this is pretty enjoyable. The translation is somewhat clumsy, I have to say, no one talks like that (do they? in London?) and there are some German words and phrases that are oddly out of place in that setting. That being said, though, I like Poznanski’s writing and am eager to try her adult (I think?) mystery Fünf, which unfortunately is yet to be translated. I would never have read this book had it not been for The German Literature Month. The light and entertaining story was a nice interruption to the the literary writings I usually read this time of the year.

Lizzy Speare and the Cursed Tomb by Ally Malinenko

I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Summary: Meet Lizzy Speare…

…a normal twelve year old girl with a talent for writing, who has a very not
normal family secret. And when Lizzy’s father vanishes, that secret will change
her life in ways unimagined. (Spoiler Alert! It turns out that Lizzy, or
Elizabeth S. Speare, is the last living descendant of William Shakespeare.
Shhh! Don’t tell anybody!)

Then Lizzy and her best friend Sammy are kidnapped, awakening in the faraway
land of Manhattan. Their host is Jonathan Muse, whose job is to protect Lizzy
from becoming the latest victim in a family feud nearly five hundred years old.
Could that be why the mysterious, eye patch-wearing Dmitri Marlowe is after
her? (Spoiler Alert 2—he’s the last living descendant of Christopher Marlowe, a
friend and rival of Shakespeare’s. But keep it to yourself!) Is Marlowe after
Lizzy’s family fortune rumored to be kept in Shakespeare’s tomb? Does he seek
artistic immortality? Or Revenge (with a capital R) for a death long, long ago?

In a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse, Lizzy and Sammy are thrust into the realm
of the mythical and fantastic—from satyrs and Cyclopses to Middle Eastern cab
drivers and Brooklyn hipsters—in what is truly “an improbable fiction” as the
Bard himself once wrote.

My thoughts: What a book. I wish I could just say, “The book is amazing.” and be done with it. I have to admit, I wasn’t sure I would like the book quite so much. One the one hand, the fact that the summary mentioned Shakespeare and Marlowe was enough to convince my literature student self that that was the book for me. On the other hand, the title is a bit cheesy-sounding and the cover made me wonder if it would turn out to be a little too teenagery for me. But it was great – very imaginative, funny and so very unique! It was… delicious… is it alright to call a book that? 

I am not exactly a Shakespeare fanatic, mostly because it hasn’t been very long since I started reading him and I’m far from done. One fine day it suddenly occurred to me that I had never read any of his plays, so I went on a sort of ‘Bard(ing) spree’ when I read all my now-favourites. It must be very hard to have real authors as characters in your book (like Dickens in Pratchett’s Dodger) and Ally has done a wonderful job incorporating Shakespeare and all the secrecy surrounding him into her story. I would recommend this book to all middle grade readers / teenagers, if not anything else, it would certainly be a good, unlikely introduction to a great writer.

It is such a charming concept and the fast paced plot makes it all the more enjoyable! The book was bigger than most middle grade fiction I’ve read in a while and I do admit, there were parts that could be called unnecessary. The book could have been shortened, if that’s ideal for the intended readers, but somehow I still found it to be a quick, breezy read.

The characters are quite Harry Potter-esque (which, coming from me, is a huge compliment) – people you instantly identify yourself with, or better yet, characters who are bookish doppelgangers of people you know in real life! Lizzy is an endearingly spirited character, bold and funny, a little headstrong and very literary. Sammy is great too and Jonathan, well, he’s something else. I think it’s best to discover them all on your own and I suggest you go grab yourself a copy of this book right now, right here!

(Coming up soon: A featured post by Ally Malinenko about none other than the Bard himself.)