THE TESTING by Joelle Charbonneau

“All leaders have to live with disappointment at some point or another. If I have to learn that lesson early, I won’t enjoy it, but I will do my best not to let you down.” 
― Joelle Charbonneau, The Testing

I’m over halfway through The Testing; They have finally gotten to the 4th Test (where they are thrown 700 miles outside of town and asked to find their way back) and suddenly I just couldn’t care less what happens.

I enjoyed the beginning… the farming colony, the family, and the first three tests (sort of SAT tests with violent shenanigans) but now that we are down to the two main characters out in the wild… ugh… they are so boring, I can barely stand it. Cia and Tomas. Gag. They have zero personality… they don’t flirt, they don’t joke, they don’t ponder serious things (or anything) or have mental hysterics about being locked in metal boxes or having their legs nearly blown off at fake-watering holes. And this story apparently goes on through three more books.

The society structure makes no sense – it doesn’t seem evil at all, in fact it seems to be benefiting most people… so the “Let’s gather the smartest kids together and kill off most of them” plotline defies reason. Some books start bad, while others wait to turn on you halfway through… oh well. I glanced over a few reviews to make sure I wasn’t just hitting a slow spot… giggled over this review “If you like constantly being told where you are, who is saying what, and the internal conflict of being in love with a lifeless pillow while trying not to get killed for no apparent reason, than this is the book for you” and thought… yeah… I think I’ve had enough.

Next! (unless one of you has read it and convinces me it gets better, that is… anyone? anyone?)

RATING: DNF

Title: The Testing
Author: Joelle Charbonneau
Originally published: June 4, 2013
Genre: Fiction, Dystopian

A LITTLE LIFE by Hanya Yanagihara

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The majority of this review will be in the spoiler section – down below – because I need to talk about this book, ramble and rave and rant.

Without spoilers – let me say this book is excellent. It’s thick, but it manages to flow smoothly from one section to the next.

There is a hook that will dig pretty deep into your subconscious, the mysterious past of one of the main characters, that will gently pull you, then drag you, then rip you out of the water as you struggle to regain your sense of reality. This mystery – and my burning need to KNOW WHAT HAPPENED, even as I knew that it would be awful and make me cry and I might regret finding out – is what truly made this book stand out from the crowd.

Like all the characters in the book, who also don’t know the secret the one guy keeps buried, but also got hints, that dared to imagine yet couldn’t quite ask outright, you are deeply, deeply compelled to reveal this mystery – even as you subconsciously shield yourself from it. There must be some psychology about this reflex – the need to know mixed with the instinct to remain ignorant. The reason we can’t help but look at car crashes, the ways it plays with our minds, the ways tragedy changes our view of things. It’s such a push and pull.

This book is a car crash you can not look away from.

And like a car crash, you will be forced to reflect on your life as you witness the decimation of others. Even though you most likely don’t know them – even though it doesn’t touch you directly – it is a shared fragility, our humanity. And how we think depends on where we are in the equation. Who are you in the scenario – The one driving the crashed car? The one driving by the scene? The one at fault in the accident? The one who walked away? The one would couldn’t? The one brought in to clean up the mess? The one who tries to get everyone around it moving again? The one who will report it? The one to examine the corpses? Inform the families? Cry at the funeral? The one who will remember that once they knew that person and now they are gone and be shaken by it? The one who will turn over to find an empty bed because of it? The one who will defend the guilty party in court? The one who will judge them? The one who will see only a singular mistake that cost so much or the one who will see only a slaughter that deserves retribution? And even as this web of interconnections spreads out and unites us all – it also thins out and we know the scene will be cleared, the departed put to rest, the fates of those affected will be altered but continue on, to new fates. And we will never forget. Or often forget. Or forget immediately. And all of those responses are correct.

This book is not, mind you, about a car crash. I mean it is. But it’s not.

This is a book about people. And how we are nothing to almost everyone, and yet how we are everything to ourselves and the few people whose lives intimately touch ours. It’s about how we get to know people and how we are never known. It’s sad and beautiful, because we are all such complicated messes. Our insecurities are deep and profound and stick with us throughout life, like a deep layer of skin we can never shed. It doesn’t matter how our personal insecurities compare to others – whether they are warranted, earned, deserved, or simply there. They are huge and they dictate our lives and are the shadow our bright suns fall into and escape from each day.

If you haven’t read it – well, you may not want to. Look at the cover. If that cover appeals to you – then you should read it. If you look at that face and think, “My God, what is this the cover image?” then perhaps it’s not. The book cover is perfect – a handsome face contorted in pleasure or in pain? Is that beautiful? Is that ugly? We always smile for pictures – or at least try to look attractively neutral. We are composed and presented – but we really can’t see what others see – what we look like when we’re caught in a moment. We don’t see ourselves when we’re lost in thought or crying or laughing or staring at a computer screen. So many things shape who we are. Our bodies. Our genetics. Our upbringing. Our experiences. We are inside and out, always.

Rating: 5 Stars.

So – let’s just… ditch the metaphors and get right into the mess.

Follow me to spoiler land…

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WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS by Terry Tempest Williams

here on earth: when women were birds

Here on Earth: When Women Were Birds by Beth Conklin

I recently read “When Women Were Birds” and it’s superb. The book starts out with the death of her mother – who bequeaths her collected journals – only the daughter finds the journals are all blank. Every page, shockingly empty. From there she contemplates her mother’s life – her words, spoken and unspoken. It’s not a connected story, but small gathered thoughts and memories and personal reflections on the women in her life – her mother, her grandmother, teachers, women in the church – and also on women in general – the voice of women. It’s very powerful and thought provoking and hauntingly moving… apt for Mother’s Day. It has an intimacy in its honest portrayal of women, their secret lives, their silences, their many voices.  Like a cacophony of birds, it’s unified in that it’s loud and a thousand cries into the sky but not necessarily melodious. Don’t go into this book expecting a unified plotline, it’s more of a unified theme.

Tempest was raised Mormon in Utah – her mother and grandmother both lost to cancer caused by the nuclear testing in the 50’s – something the government didn’t own up to until the 80’s. It’s a unique book in which you can tell the author took pains to express some of the most difficult emotions. I admire anyone willing to dig so deep. 

Anyways, I loved it. But like bird song, I don’t treasure it. It felt universally beautiful but did not connect with me personally. 

When Women Were Birds : NPR

RATING: FOUR STARS

Title: When Women Were Birds
Author: Terry Tempest Williams
Originally published: April 10, 2012
Genres: Biography, Autobiography

HALF BAD by Sally Green

“Later I remember what I could do. It’s easy. I could kill them all.” 
― Sally Green, Half Lost

Just finished Half Bad, by Sally Green. Hm… well, it was pretty good for a YA novel with a male protagonist. Very gritty – lots of violence and push ups and such. I’m not entirely sold on the entire set up: White Witches and Black Witches are at war for various reasons? Why again? Whatever… most YA novels don’t worry too much about plotholes, they are largely character driven. And the characters are pretty good.

Our hero, Nathan, is a half breed (white and black witch). Raised by White Witches who hate and fear him, (cause of his baddie daddy) and, uh, keep him in a cage – he eventually comes into his own and is currently deciding which team to play for, if any. Ironically (or not), he is also caught in a love triangle between his childhood sweetheart Annalise and his new roommate, Gabriel. Huh. I’ll probably read the next book since I brought it home… kinda curious now. I’m a sucker for the queerbaiting.

UPDATE: I finished this series today – the first book was decent, the second book was tolerable and the third, officially, was garbage that basically destroys my mild enjoyment of the first two books. I literally threw it. The ending sucked! It was absurd! I hated it. And honestly, I usually don’t bother reviewing books at all if I don’t like them… but whatever. I’m sticking to my guns and taking this series out.

RATING (Books 1-3 average): TWO STARS

Title: Half Bad, Half Wild, Half Lost
Author: Sally Green
Originally published: March 3, 2014
Series: The Half Bad trilogy
Genre: Young adult fiction, Fantasy, Horror

 

 

 

SKY WITHOUT STARS by Jessica Brody and Joanne Rendell

Sky Without Stars (System Divine Book 1) – an amazing science fiction reimaging of the famous class struggle epic Les Miserables, cowritten by Jessica Brody and Joanne Rendell. Who would have thought, eh? But it works.

This is book one in what I hope will be at least a three book series. Humans have populated a new star system with twelve habitable planets. All of the action of book one takes place on Laterre, a rain-soaked planet where the ruling class keeps the vast majority of the people in dire poverty. The three main characters are modeled after Cosette (Aloutte, raised protected in a secret library), Marius (Marcellous, grandson of the highest ranking military officer), and Eponine (Chatine/Theo, a street rat who understands the system better than anyone – and has lost all hope). The planet is on the verge of revolution as the tension between the classes rise. There are secret societies and spies and prisons on the moon. And bringing it all together, outstanding prose… “The rich traded goods and extravagances. While the poor traded dreams and ideas.”

It’s vastly different from the origin story – but the basic plot points are woven in with clever sci fi twists and if you’re a fan of the original story, you’ll find yourself smiling when you run into them, thinking, “Oh, nice touch! Bravo, mademoiselle authors!”

Just… wow. Definitely a solid four star book – though I would recommend maybe waiting until the sequel comes out to read it, cause the end leaves you dangling and tense.

RATING: FOUR STARS

Title: Sky Without Stars (System Divine Book 1)
Authors: Jessica Brody, Joanne Rendell
Originally published: March 26, 2019
Genres: Science Fiction, Young adult fiction

Review – He Is Psychometric

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He is Psychometric is half romance, half murder-mystery. Korean dramas are especially talented at mixing dark subject matter with light humor and adorable romance. The lead actor in this series, played by Jin Young, is psychometric – which is the ability to see the memories of people and, baffling, objects. He gained this strange ability after a childhood tragedy that claimed the lives of both of his parents. I’m unfamiliar with Jin Young, but must admit he was a strong enough actor to carry the leading role. His smile is infectious, and he had great chemistry with both his adopted older brother and his love interest.

He is Psychometric': The all-new supernatural K-Drama starring GOT ...

His love interest is played by Shin Ye-Eun, a whipsmart young woman whose life was also altered forever by a childhood tragedy. The same tragedy (obviously) that took the life of our psychometric’s parents. She’s smart and he’s dumb. She’s a hard worker and he’s a bit of a lazy screw up. She’s serious and he’s carefree. They were an adorable odd couple that really warmed my heart and I loved watching them fall for each other.

The side characters were memorable and enjoyable to watch. Though a bit heavy handed with characterization, I still enjoyed following the lives of all the friends, family, and coworkers that inhabited this story. In particular, the determined female cop played by Kim Da-Som who acts as both a role model and older sister to the young couple. In many ways, this lady stole the show as she seemed to be the most capable actor in the series – and thus naturally inhabiting her role.

Kim Da-som | KdramaDaily

He is Psychometric follows the recent trend of dramas that would have been stellar had they been about 10-12 episodes instead of 16 – or if they’d developed side characters further to fill out the gaps in the script.  Even in the first episode there was an unnecessary amount of flashbacks to things that literally happened only a few minutes before. There isn’t a great deal of tension trying to figure out “who did it,” due to some heavy handed visual clues and tropes – though perhaps if you haven’t seen a billion dramas like me this may not be as obvious. Had the last four to six episodes been condensed to one or two, this might have stood up better to other dark themed dramas with soft cores, such as Pinocchio, While You Were Sleeping, or Hello Monster. As it is, the last few episodes dragged around long after the initial excitement and tension had  faded. Still, I enjoyed it overall.

Overall Rating – 8/10.  An Average Tale About A Supernatural Ability.

CALL DOWN THE HAWK by Maggie Stiefvater

Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater – the first book in the new trilogy about Ronan Lynch, the boy who could bring his dreams to life in The Raven Boys.

My thoughts: Ronan remains super cool though I did feel the author told us how cool he was more than was necessary (we know, Maggie). His relationship with Adam, now king of the gay nerds at Harvard, was realistically strained as their lives move in different directions. Declan Lynch, the uptight oldest brother who constantly cleans up after his younger siblings, finally got a story line and it was deeply satisfying. We meet a new dreamer who is half crazed from trying to keep herself awake, fighting off a repeating nightmare. And we meet some Visionaries – time travelers, of a sort, whose shifts through the time line are as destructive as the messages they carry. Throw in a secret black market, a global assassins guild hunting down paranormals, a shit ton of references to artists (art majors will be delighted by the name dropping in this), a painting that makes you dream of the sea, a forest filled with trees that speak in Latin, and one very very chatty ethereal voice who likes to give cryptic speeches while our hero dreams and you’ve got yourself a pretty cool book.

It wasn’t as good as The Raven Boys. Could anything ever be as good as that piece of perfection? I loved all four of those boys and Blue and her entire family by the end of the first book in that series. I felt deeply connected to their stories. This is not to say that Call Down the Hawk isn’t good – cause it’s good. But I am really only invested in one of the new characters and mildly curious about the rest. Thankfully it’s got the solid foundation of the Lynch boys to carry it’s narrative and it’s more than enough to provide readers with a fun, wonky, dangerous and romantic (I am so on board with Declan’s slowly melting icy heart) adventure.

Rating: Four Stars.

Now… if you want to get into spoiler territory… we can further discuss….

 

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THE STARLESS SEA by Erin Morgenstern

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern…

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which was so good it’s almost painful. I will not be able to properly express how much I loved this book and why. It’s a daunting task, like trying to explain… “What does sunlight feel like when you’re in the shade?” So I will do what most people do when trying to describe an abstraction like love and attempt the delicate process of comparison.

In many ways The Starless Sea reminded me of Galilee (or even The Great & Secret Show or Imajica or Weaveworld) by Clive Barker – full of twisted myths and terribly beautiful otherworlds, immortal heartbreak and observation, the spark of love making everything new again. It’s lighter than Barker’s work, though – filled with young people hunting old legends, like The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater. Secret libraries like The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Sly cats keeping secrets and hidden doors and transformative magic, like The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle.

It’s like all my favorite books in one book.

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JUST KIDS by Patti Smith

When I finished Just Kids by Patti Smith, I started crying. For Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS, for Sam, his patron and lover who also died of AIDS. For all the artists and patrons before them, who lived and worked restlessly, many of which walking the same streets, living in the same building, drinking coffees in the same cafes. William S. Burroughs, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Allan Ginsburg, Jim Carroll, Lou Reed. The misfit icons and legends, their stories mixed in with those who did not become famous – but whose lives were just as bright, just as fleeting. The hazy storm of memory always breaks into bright points of precision – lightning strikes of details – moments burned into your mind.

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Reading of Patti’s Smith youth – of the sharp, wild years of her late teens and early twenties – I felt as if I’d fallen into the past. A world of second hand stores and records, of poverty and purpose, of obsessions and confusion. The struggle to find authenticity against the reflections of others, if I am not this then perhaps I am that. Drastic actions and bold decisions made in an instant, real fear something only known through abstraction. Nothing can really touch you when you have your hands full of everything within reach. And every song and work of art is a special message written just for you.

I’ve been thinking a lot about impermanence lately. The passage of time, of human lives always rising up and ebbing out, over and over. I’ve finally entered into the comfortable stage of life, my once frantic mind now more of a slow but steady churn. Sometimes I feel a deeper understanding and other times I feel as if meaning is too elusive a goal.

I don’t read many autobiographies because, honestly, I prefer the cryptic autobiographies of fiction. By that I mean that all storytellers reveal themselves through the stories they tell, and I prefer the charade of costumes and imagined characters. Dozens of imagined lives stemming from one. Autobiographies always strike me as somewhat arrogant, for who can really remember their lives accurately, let alone the details of others? Still, some people have a gift for it. And some lives are practically theater already, their experiences and situations so far from the norm you can’t help but separate them into a fantasy genre all their own. Artist with a capital A and the like.  Even if you discover Andy Warhol ate the same breakfast cereal you do, you’ll never quite feel connected with him, you know? But now I feel a connection to Patti… and to Robert Mapplethorpe.

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Robert Mapplethorpe & Patti Smith

Patti Smith’s book makes you feel young again. She’s brought the stars down from the sky and blown on them, revealing dusty, pock-marked rocks in her hands. They were beautiful in the blinding light of fame, but she revels in showing the reader how desperately fragile, how flawed and horribly delicate their hearts were.

I read this book and spent hours looking at pictures of the old Chelsea Hotel in its decades of decline and decadence. I listened to Patti Smith songs, now feeling the life behind her wispy voice and the strong spirit behind her thin frame.  I was already familiar with Robert’s work – but now I saw the sensitivity behind the photos, felt the pacing self-inspection of each piece, caught meaning in details that before meant nothing to me – the feathers and beads, the religious iconography, the small smile.  This book has brought these two artists closer to me – made their strange lives more accessible. Small vignettes of other artists, writers, and performers I was already familiar with now got caught in a wider web – the human one – showing how people come and go, sometimes only for a instant, into others lives. A sandwich, a kind word, a bet, a dare, a jealous contempt or sincere admiration. Big pictures became smaller, and small moments became as wide as the sky, the colors changing depending on where you stand.

Highly recommended.

Rating: Five Stars.

Originally published: January 19, 2010
Author: Patti Smith
Title: Just Kids
Page count: 278
Genre: Biography
Awards: National Book Award for Nonfiction
Nominations: Goodreads Choice Awards Best Memoir & Autobiography

THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS by Michel Faber

I finished Michel Faber’s novel about a British pastor who leaves his wife behind to spread the gospel on a distant planet, Oasis. Though it is a book about aliens and their reception of The Book of Strange New Things (what they call The Bible), it is ultimately a story about human relationships. About the complexities of human nature, our beliefs and drives, and our delicate bonds with each other. The pastor’s wife Beatrice writes him letters of support – which quickly turn in tone as the world around her drastically changes in his absence.

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Though the plot revolves around this deeply religious couple, it is not slanted towards endorsement of Christian doctrine nor against it… it simply was a part of how these two people experienced the world, deeply wound around their faith, as much a part of their experience in life as their race and culture. It’s a strange, infectious story that defies your expectations of what should happen with the premise of a foreign missionary – using the tension of our expectations to build the action in the plot. It’s hard to explain, honestly, without spoilers – and so I will just leave you to muse on this idea.

Highly recommended for readers looking for an usual story. The actual book was four stars. But the lingering impressions and explorations it invites you to take on your own are five stars.

Rating: 5 stars.

Now… if you’ve read it… or you don’t mind spoilers… follow me…

 

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