Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive

Luckiest Girl AliveI’m sick of things being labeled “the next Gone Girl.” Maybe because I didn’t love Gone Girl (I know, blasphemy, right?) or maybe because of half of the books with that label are absolutely nothing like it. Like Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive.

Ani FaNelli seemingly has it all – good looks, a glamorous NYC job, and a filthy rich fiance. But a dark secret from her past haunts her, threatening all she’s worked to achieve. When a documentary crew seeks to reveal the truth behind a terrible incident that occurred when she was a teen at the prestigious Bradley School, will it ruin her perfect life or will it set her free at last?

(Spoilers ahead)

In addition to having the worst fictional name ever, (Tif)Ani FaNelli is no Amy Dunne – I admit Amy was creepy brilliant, even if I couldn’t stand reading her voice, but being in Ani’s head is mostly dull. She tries too hard at being bitchy, at being cool, at being anything but the bland needy crazypants she is. I understand that her childhood trauma has screwed her up, but unfortunately I can’t feel that bad for her because she’s so awful to nearly everyone in her life and, until basically the last few pages, has had no character growth over the last 15 years.

The pacing is off throughout the story. It was so slow to get into, especially with chapters shifting between the past and the present, and there’s like 0% twist. Painful hidden past, yes – Ani was drugged and raped as a fourteen year-old, which partially led to a series of incidents that culminated in a school shooting. This is all terrible, but not terribly surprising as it’s heavily foreshadowed. I thought the twist would be that Ani had something to do with the massacre as retribution on her the popular kids who assaulted and bullied her, but she only thought about revenge and didn’t actually do anything wrong except killing her ex-friend (one of the shooters) in self-defense.

With no compelling characters (though snaps to Mr. Larson for mostly not being a pervy teacher!), no shocking plot points, and after all the millennial bride-angst, not even a wedding (!!), I can’t give this book anything but a mediocre rating.

3 Stars

 

Brock Clarke’s The Happiest People in the World

The Happiest People in the World: A NovelBrock Clarke’s The Happiest People in the World has been on my to-read list for awhile, so I was thrilled when (for once) our book club picked something that I meant to get around to.

Denmark, home of the happiest people in the world – and to second-rate cartoonist Jens, who takes on the task of drawing a cartoon depicting the controversy over the recently-published caricature of Mohammed. After he is attacked by angsty teenage wannabe-extremists, the CIA fakes his death and moves him to Broomeville, a small town in upstate New York, where he is to serve as the new high school guidance counselor. With no experience in that field, he blunders into a love affair with the principal’s ex-wife and a minefield of new enemies even as the people from his past track him down to destroy his future.

The pop art cover pretty adequately reflects the story being told. It’s as cartoonish as the subject that catalyzes the action, and all the characters come across as caricatures. A few characters were tolerable, like Jens himself and principal’s kid Kurt, but CIA agent Locks and principal Matty were frankly irritating. In addition, the majority of the rest of the town are also CIA operatives, who are incredibly incompetent at their jobs in a twist that proves more ridiculous than humorous. When you hate half the characters, you know the book isn’t quite for you.

The writing style jumps to and from these various characters’ points of view, so brace yourself for the sections with characters who you dislike. Despite being in each of their heads, they all have the same voices and think in lengthy and repititive run-on sentences. It makes for confusing reading at times, resulting in our half-serious conclusion that the mounted moose head at the bar serves as the primary narrator for the story. Like the sentence structures, the plot flow also meanders without ever building to an exciting climax – rather, it falters and ends with a whimper instead of a bang, despite the (spoiler alert) multiple deaths by shootout.

Ironically, our discussion proved to be funnier than the actual content of the book as we vented our varied frustrations. It’s not a book that stirs any of your emotions, even humor, as it always seems to be circling around a moral point carefully while failing to exploit either satiric or tragic potential to expose that point. Incidentally, no one in the book seemed particularly happy nor was I reading it.

2.5 Stars

Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia

Bellweather RhapsodyA few reviewers have called Kate Racculia’s Bellweather Rhapsody a cross between Glee and The Shining – so how could I resist?!

Twins, shy Rabbit and diva Alice, arrive at the crumbling Bellweather Hotel for a high school music festival that could make or break their dreams. Escorting them is slightly alcoholic failed musician turned high school teacher Natalie, who is wrestling with her own demons, including sociopathic Viola, the scheming new head of the festival. But can the music go on when a young music prodigy disappears from her hotel room, one that is haunted by a murder/suicide of a newly married couple years prior?

This Clue-like plot rivets the reader, but unfortunately there’s too many side plots and sprawling characters that take up valuable written real estate. Minnie, who witnessed the tragedy as a young child and is returning to the scene of the crime as a dysfunctional adult to help herself recover from the trauma, and Alice seem to be the only ones who care about Jill, the flute phenom who disappeared after Alice reports seeing her hanging. Jill’s mother Viola simply seems intent on striking terror into the hearts of the attendees, including Natalie, while the other ostensible chaperone is seven-fingered conductor Fisher, who is his own brand of crazy. Rabbit is distracted by his struggles to come out to his sister and his impending basoon solo, while the hoteliers seem to be largely ignoring the chaos. It takes a few hundred pages and more death for the police to arrive.

By the climax, most of these threads come together, yet I found them to be a distraction from the mystery I really cared about. Agatha Christie it isn’t. The ending was twisted, in an entirely good way, except for the fact that the why of the murder/suicide was unexplained. For some reason, this really bugged me even though it really didn’t matter that much to the story.

It’s a quick, most likeable read, but the jumble kept me from loving it. Good for those who enjoy dark humor and with a macabre spirit, but not nearly as great as it aspires to be.

3 Stars

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour BookstoreDear God, do I love books about books! What bookworm doesn’t? And Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan is one of the best out there.

Clay Jannon fell victim to the recession, losing his job as a web designer for a startup in San Francisco. In desperation, he stumbles across Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore – hiring now. Compelled by Penumbra’s stocking his obscure childhood-favorite fantasy series, Clay takes a job as the night clerk with all its weird quirks, including the odd assortment of characters that appear at all hours. As Clay discovers the bookstore’s secrets with the help of his artistic roommate Mat, his Googler love interest Kat, and his nerdy millionaire best friend Neel, he realizes there’s more to Penumbra, and to the bookstore, than meets the eye.

Sorry, y’all, I know that’s a pretty terrible book summary – the book encompasses so much more (even books within books!) but it’s so hard to describe succinctly. It’s an epic quest filled with mystery and fantasy, and a love-song to both typography (Gerritszoon) and technology (Gerritszoon on Macs!). The conflict between the past and the future is present throughout the narrative, lending a heavier weight to Clay’s adventure as he confronts the moral and intellectual quandaries that all of us face in the new digital age.

I wasn’t too fond of Clay at first, thinking him a dull, one-dimensional creature in comparison to the fun oddball assortment of characters surrounding him. But as the story continued, his everyman persona helped me the reader adjust to and engage in the puzzle-solving, especially as the titular Mr. Penumbra remains almost mythological. Without a doubt though, my favorite character remains Clay’s childhood best friend Neel who, from his genius money-making breast simulation company to his enthusiasm for Dungeons & Dragons, is completely adorkable.

There’s a lot of 21st-century product placement here, particularly heavy-headed sections about Google with trips to Mountain View and homages to their book scanner. I love Google but I was kind of excited to see Google lose for once, and the underdog (i.e. old fashioned “technology”) to win. I guess in that respect, I’m more similar to the villain of the piece than Kat, especially as this book has made me more than a little suspicious of the evil genius lurking in the depths of Google. At least Kat demonstrated a strong feminist figure as an expert programmer and ambitious leader within Google, though she channeled a snotty teenage Voldemort with her obsession with immortality and technological fanaticism.

The denouement was disappointing and unclear, with Sloan having slowed down the plot pace significantly but still rushing to weave together all the threads. I found myself so annoyed by the ease of Clay’s ingenuity in solving the mystery and his extraordinary luck in having a veritable guild of skilled sidekicks that this was one conclusion I would’ve liked to be less definitive and more difficult. It was dispiriting all in all. For those reasons, I can’t quite give it 5 Stars, though the charm of the middle convinced me I would.

4.5 Stars

Raoul Wientzen’s The Assembler of Parts

The Assembler of Parts: A NovelI can’t believe I neglected to review this for so long! The Assembler of Parts was our book club’s pick way back in March – the author Raoul Wientzen, a sweet older gentleman, is one of our most spirited members and we were all eager to see how his own book would hold up to the criticism. Well, it was awesome, and I’m not just saying that because I like him as a person or because I was dazzled by the star-spangled plot-relevant cover.

(Spoilers ahead)

Eight year old Jess, born missing thirteen body parts, is reviewing the story of her existence under the watch of a deity she calls the Assembler of Parts. Though at first she blames him for painstakingly putting her together, soon she begins to understand the repercussions of her disability on the people in her life – including her guilt-ridden grandmother, alcoholic family friend Cassidy, and team of doctors – whom she heals through her very imperfections. But when her family and medical team are thrust under suspicion of neglect after her death, the true purpose of her life finally becomes apparent.

Even for someone who’s not a super fan of children, a child’s death is terribly sad, and Jess’ equanimity in the face of it is humbling. During her short life, she suffered from Hilgar’s syndrome, which has rendered her thumbless, deaf, with holes in her heart, and a myriad of other symptoms. Yet, she was keenly intelligent and inquisitive as well as kind. For example, the cover comes from her love of constellations, which she uses to bond with her initially-distant father and later to overcome jealously for her normal younger sister. I normally have a tough time with child protagonists, but Jess defied my expectations.

One of my favorite things about this book was it’s examination of spirituality versus religion. There’s a few humorous incidents where Jess stirs up trouble by asking “inappropriate” questions to the priests and nuns at her church. Though they can’t see it, she has a strong faith that defies their conception of God but is no less fervent. As much of a non-believer as I am, I was inspired by Jess, who was so grateful for her life even though the Assembler (to go with Jess’ name for God) dealt her such a tough hand. Other things I loved included the well-rounded supporting cast, who all had dynamic growth arcs through the narrative, particularly Jess’ father, grandmother, and pseudo-godfather Cassidy. Because of Raoul’s background as a doctor, he does an excellent job not only with building realistically complex characters, but also delving into the medical intricacies, along with detailing a medical malpractice lawsuit and child services investigations in the second half of the story.

The first and second parts seem like completely different stories, though they’re obviously connected by the thread of Jess’ observances. The first half is Jess looking back on her life from conception to death, and remembering and forgiving every little event that shaped her. The second half devolves into almost an episode of Law & Order, when a child services investigation launches a criminal suit, causing the motivations and regrets of each character to be examined. Some members were more partial to the first half, but I actually think I preferred the second half because of its faster-paced action orientation.

The only criticisms I had were related to the plot structure – the abovementioned divisiveness between the style of the halves and the framework of Jess reviewing her life as videos in heaven, a device that seemed forced and out of place at times. Especially for a first-time novelist, this book is a beautifully-written, highly-compelling work, although insanely heart-wrenching. I recommend it to fans of the vein of The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time or The Five People You Meet in Heaven as a thought-provoking look at love and loss.

4.5 Stars

Amy Zhang’s Falling Into Place

Falling into PlaceMy library’s website actually brought Amy Zhang’s Falling Into Place to my attention. It popped up on the homepage as a newly published must-read and, trusting the librarians, so I did.

Meridian High’s most popular junior Liz Emerson is a bitch. And she knows it but karma hasn’t quite caught up to her. So on the day they studied Newton’s Laws of Motion, she decides to put them into practice by running her Mercedes off the road. To others, it looks like an accident – they mourn and gossip at the hospital as Liz clings onto life. But the reader, by way of an unexpected narrator, is taken on a ride through the pieces of Liz’s life to discover how humans impact each other, how little incidents cause large effects, and how everyday actions can chip away at someone on the inside, even someone who seems like they have it all.

(Spoilers ahead)

At first I’m thinking, no way in hell am I going to feel bad for a girl like Liz. Knowing that she hates herself for everything that she has done, from enabling her best friend Julia’s drug addiction to humiliating her admirer Liam Carrie-like in front of the whole school at Homecoming, still didn’t redeem her to me. Even though she was depressed by her bullying, she kept making the same dumb mistakes. However, I did think she was fixable and apparently she had given up hope of that herself. The saddest part though was that despite her nastiness, people still loved her and I think she failed to completely take into account the even more harmful effect that her death would have on them than her life did. Seeing her mother, her friends, and her secret admirer react to the news of her crash and maintaining hope as she lingered in a coma was heart-wrenching.

The narration was odd, skipping around between people and from first-to-third person, though necessary for the disjointed vignettes and time-traveling plot to work cohesively together. I tried guessing at his identity and my guess (her dad) was incorrect, but I still maintain that would’ve been more poignant! I think it was a cop-out that it was an imaginary friend, yet the tragic fact that her playing with this imaginary friend inadvertently led to her father’s death was surprisingly insightful into Liz’s character, if inexcusable as a motive for her future mean-girl transformation.

But it’s the writing that really makes this book – raw and honest enough to feel authentic but not veering too far into teen dramatics, even though there was plenty of sex, alcohol, and rock’n’roll. I was so shocked to learn that Zhang wrote this in high school! She’s got a bright future ahead of her, brighter than her characters definitely.

What mostly kept this from being higher rated was the conclusion, where we’re left to wonder if Liz changes or continues living her life as bitchily as she had before the accident. I understand that perhaps the author wanted to keep it open-ended as life is, but for me that negates the whole point of us (and her) reexamining her life and choices. Although it is implied in her choice to live that she still has hope of redemption, that doesn’t suffice for me to be emotionally positive at the conclusion. It just left me with an unsatisfied feeling.

A cross between Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall, which I liked, and Gayle Forman’s If I Stay, which I disliked, it also somewhat reminded me of Matthew Quick’s The Good Luck of Right Now in it’s focus on action/reaction and human inter-connectivity. I think this would be an inspiring read particularly for older teens, though I would recommend it to any fan of contemporary YA.

3.5 Stars

Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain

The Art of Racing in the RainGarth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain isn’t at all my usual kind of book being a family-drama oriented contemplative contemporary, but I do adore dogs and I was oddly in the mood for something deep. Besides, doesn’t Enzo look so cute on the cover?

Enzo isn’t your average dog – self-educated by watching television while his human Denny Swift is at work, he considers himself to be a philosopher and an insightful observer of the human condition albeit with a slight obsession with opposable thumbs. As death comes for him and he yearns to be reincarnated as a human, Enzo muses on his life with up-and-coming race car driver Denny, who has taught him so much about family, love, loyalty, and racing in the rain.

You’ll be glad of those opposable thumbs when you’re reaching for the Kleenex! This book manages to be both sharply perceptive and casually moving. You would think it’s weird being in the head of a dog, but Enzo comes across as relatably human-like while still possessing the loveable dog-like qualities. He can go from musing about reincarnation to playing fetch in the turn of a page.

As for his best friend, I wasn’t sure I liked Denny at first – having lived in Daytona Beach has turned me off of Nascar and I couldn’t fathom his and Enzo’s enthusiasm for the sport or enjoy the endless discussion of racing. But he is sincerely a good man trying to make the best life he could for his family, and I sympathized with him because of his bravery and perseverance despite all he endured. Thankfully after much devastation, the ending was feel-good and satisfying, with happiness found for both Denny and Enzo.

All in all, a beautifully-written, original work that reminded me of Where the Red Fern Grows and Homeward Bound.

4 Stars