Sunday, August 2, 2015

Book Review: Fangirl

Rainbow Rowell is a popular name in YA fiction circles. The author of the highly-acclaimed novel, Eleanor and Park, she captures a significant level of readership. Personally, even though I thought Eleanor and Park was well-written, I didn't care for it as much as the masses. I recall it was full of expletives and teens behaving badly (similar to John Green's characters in his highly-acclaimed novel, Paper Towns). It feels like today's YA authors feel they have to appeal to the lowest common denominator and present teens in what they view to be "realistic" scenarios. I find it thoroughly discouraging.

Thus, when I selected this audio version of Rowell's novel Fangirl, I was unsure whether I would like the novel or not. For the first half of the novel, I was still skeptical, but by the end, I was sold and decided it is, indeed, well-worth the read. There were still things I didn't care for, but the writing was solid and the characters fully engaging. Mostly, I was impressed with the way Rowell manages to evoke such intense emotion and empathy in the reader. I felt the agony of abandonment right alongside Cath. I wanted desperately to reach into the novel and fix the relationship with her twin sister. And, since the novel is focused entirely on a girl who wishes to reach inside someone else's novel and manipulate the characters within it, it felt totally appropriate.

Cath Avery and her twin sister, Wren, are thoroughly caught up in the world of Simon Snow (a Harry Potter-esque series). Cath is so caught up that she writes fan fiction, creating her own alternate world with the author's characters. Plus, she's really good at it. She has a following of tens of thousands of readers (pretty impressive for a girl who is geeky and shy and just starting out timidly in her freshman year of college). But now, Cath has a new obstacle in her way: getting through her first year of school. While Wren is anxious to walk into the brave new world alone for a change (insisting that they not even room together), Cath is fearful and apprehensive of leaving their father alone in their absence. The girl's mother left the scene many years ago, when the girls were eight, saying that she just wasn't cut out for the mothering gig.

There is so much going on inside Cath's little world. Estrangement from her sister (who has always been her best friend). Loss of a comfortable boyfriend as he moves on at another college. A hostile roommate, Reagan, who really doesn't want a roommate at all and is constantly hosting her boyfriend, Levi, in their room. A highly demanding upper level fiction writing course. An attractive boy who wants to work on co-writing fiction together. A manic-depressive father who is on the verge of relapse into madness. A mother who wants to insinuate herself back into their lives.

I'll start with the things I didn't care for. I was not a big fan of the world of Simon Snow. It was too similar to Harry Potter. Moreover, the Simon Snow story wasn't even interesting. It just felt like a Harry Potter rip-off.  The real heart of the book was interrupted by the alternating passages from the official Simon Snow novels and from Cath's own fan fiction excerpts. In some ways the story did, indeed, mirror Cath's world, but this could have been accomplished with something other than a Harry Potter-wannabe story.

The whole fan fiction scenario rankled me. Cath takes Simon Snow's character and creates a homosexual relationship between Snow and his nemesis, Baz. I get why the author chose to do this. She really wanted to show that fan fiction moves into the world of real fiction and alters that reality from its own perspective. But, it felt so overly-manipulative. It felt all wrong. I had to nod in agreement when Cath turns in an assignment featuring her version of Simon and Baz and receives the chastisement of her professor, who labels it "plagiarism." Cath feels that it is the only thing she does really well and that attempting to build her own world would be too hard. So, here's my dilemma. You couldn't really remove the whole fan fiction element from the novel, since that is the heart of the story, but it was the fan fiction element I struggled with the most in attempting to appreciate the novel.

My second big beef was with the casual approach to teenage sexuality. Even though the author has Cath struggle with the idea of becoming sexually involved with her boyfriend (mainly out of nervousness over her perceived performance), her final conclusion is that she should pursue sexual activity with him now because who knows whether or not she will end up with him in a marriage situation and she might overlook the one chance she has to experience that with him now. Say what? I can just see this reasoning taking hold of a whole generation of young readers who look to these YA authors for answers to life's questions and have now been reinforced to plunge into the world of sexuality so that they will not miss life's grand opportunities, instead of clarifying that taking a relationship into the sexual plane intensifies everything and should not be entered into in such a frivolous, I-might-miss-out manner.

The funny thing is that the author actually presented a valid argument but focused it on smiles instead of sexuality. Cath argues that her boyfriend hands out smiles to just anyone, so how is she to know that the smile he shares with her is really anything of significance. If only the author had continued that train of thought with regard to teenage sexuality, teens might have heard a message about the importance of spending their sexual currency wisely and saving it for the one you are sure you want to invest in with the whole of your life. Instead, the reader is left with the paradoxical idea that smiles shouldn't be handed out willy nilly, but sex should be indulged in so you don't miss out on opportunities for exploring an individual you like pretty well. Sex, in this world, promises the chance to bond with both the boyfriend and the twin sister when Wren begs Cath to share any info about her first sexual experience with the boyfriend.

Now, what did I like so much? I loved the characters. Cath and Wren, although identical in many ways and equally struggling with the abandonment of their mother, approach life in such diverse ways and struggle so genuinely to establish their own identity. I thought Reagan presented the perfect blend of feistiness and compassion. I liked the dad and his struggle with very realistic problems.

I loved the boyfriend relationship. I swooned when he looked at Cath and said, "I chose you over everyone else." Who wouldn't want to hear that from someone you deeply love? Even though they did end up in bed together, I appreciated his reluctance to pressure her for any form of physical manifestation of their feelings. He was so into her and they were so good for one another.

What writer doesn't love reading about a character who loves writing and reading? It was just up my alley! The bits about writing angst rang so true. The points about just spitting the words out and editing and refining later were dead on. It reinforced the tested and true method of writing every day as a way to stand grounded and rooted in the alternate world so thoroughly that you don't lose your train of thought or purpose in the writing. I loved embracing the world Cath lived in and the struggles she faced.

The writing was very well done. As I said, the author manages to evoke such an emotional response in the reader. I cried when the mother showed up at the hospital. I cried when Cath pushed her away. I cried when Cath and her boyfriend fought over her decision to pass up the opportunity to turn in her final project for the fiction writing class. I felt every sting of injustice with the writing partner situation.

In the end, after I got a good ways in, I really enjoyed this novel. Yes, it had some bad language. I even listened to it in the kitchen while washing dishes and the boys overheard and were shocked that I didn't turn it off. I think they were feeling giddy that I allowed such foulness to reach their ears. Yes, it had some teens behaving badly, but for the most part it didn't glorify those examples (if anything Wren serves as a cautionary tale and Cath was at least hesitant about entering into a sexual relationship). No, I didn't embrace the fan fiction or the casual attitude toward sex (I made sure to listen to the sex bits out of the boys' earshot), but it all moved me so significantly and I found myself sucked into the alternate reality to such an extent that I wanted the very best for these characters and I even wanted the story to go on at the end. That is a sure mark of success. Well done, Rainbow Rowell, well done!

Friday, July 31, 2015

Book Review: Sisters

Lately, it has seemed like everything I'm reading is focused on the relationship between sisters. Must just be a coincidental theme, since I didn't set out to find books about the sister relationship (my own sister relationship has been a rather conflicted journey). This follow-up book to Raina Telgemeier's Smile, is a cute little story about sibling rivalry and the bond sisters share.

Using the framework of a cross-country trip, the story of Raina's relationship with her younger sister unfolds with colorful drawings and predictable emotion. Once again, Telgemeier has captured the pre-teen perspective clearly and presents it with delightful illustrations. I'm not a big fan of graphic books, but can see how these books might appeal to adolescents.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Book Review: Vanishing Girls

I've only read one other Lauren Oliver book (and that was a middle grade one, The Spindlers) but have seen her name and heard the buzz for a while now. For our June young adult book club we were asked to enter the YA section and simply pick a book off the shelf to share at the meeting (a meeting I knew I would have to miss because of my time at music camp). I selected this one, Vanishing Girls, but failed to get to it until July.

Dara and Nick (Nicole) are two inseparable sisters, until their friendship with a neighbor boy alters their relationship. Parker is Nick's best friend, but when he and Dara begin dating, it causes a rift between the sisters. During an argument about the situation, while driving, Nick and Dara end up in an accident which permanently mars Dara's good looks.

The introductory blurb talks about a nine year old girl vanishing and then Dara supposedly goes missing, too, on her birthday. I guess I assumed the two disappearances were somehow connected. In the end, the story felt kind of like a bait and switch and I, as a reader, felt duped. The story is told in alternating points of view from Dara and Nick and I found that confusing. Moreover, the book jumps around in time frame willy nilly, which makes it difficult to keep a finger on the pulse of where things are heading. Dara didn't even disappear until almost the 200th page of the novel. I kept wondering, "so when is the second disappearance going to happen and how are they connected?" My final verdict? Meh. Not bad, but not one I would have felt bad about missing had I not read it. I did enjoy The Spindlers, however, so I'm not discounting this author entirely.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Book Review: Hallowed Halls

If I have a pet peeve about Christian fiction, it has to be that it so often uses story to hammer a message or preach a sermon. For some reason, this really rankles. I don't mind Christian fiction when the story carries a message, but when the message supersedes the story it bothers me. I am in full agreement with the message. It is not a matter of disagreeing with what is being presented. I simply cannot appreciate the idea that a writer sets out with an agenda and seeks a story to approach the goal.

Part of me feels ashamed of holding such a position. I mean, perhaps a non-believer really does come to Christian fiction and through the message conveyed finds the path to a real relationship with the Lord. But, another part of me says a non-Christian is probably going to feel manipulated by the anvil of the message. Do non-Christians even pick up Christian fiction? Do they set it down the minute they get to a passage which waxes moralistic and preachy?

Because the cover of Hannah Alexander's novel, Hallowed Halls, bears the label of a "Jerry B. Jenkins Select Book" and pegs Alexander as a "Christy Award Winning Author," I went in knowing it would be inspirational Christian fiction. The pitch on the back cover highlighted the key story hooks to rope me in. The story follows a tempestuous period in the life of a female doctor. Dr. Joy Gilbert has just been fired from her job and is headed for her hometown to check on her ailing mother, when her boss's daughter emerges from hiding in the back of her car. Further complicating matters, Joy bumps into her ex-fiance who never really quite explained why he called off the wedding. This was a sufficient teaser to pull me in. In fact, I picked up this book to read before selecting ones which are coming due soon.

The story didn't disappoint. The characters were well-drawn and believable. The conflicts were palpable and pressing. The plot kept things moving at a reasonable pace. By all counts, this was a story worth telling. I simply believe it could have been told with the story remaining in the foreground and the message subtly ringing out in the background. Sadly, the urge to proselytize overpowered the storytelling. Moreover, the images used (especially that of the vintner pruning the vines) felt cliche. The message came through loud and clear - "times of trial are simply methods God employs to bring forth greater fruit and maturity" and "you cannot judge Christianity by the hypocritical Christians you might come in contact with." Again, while I don't disagree with the message, I want the story to more subtly convey the message instead of paragraphs full of truth-telling.

If you enjoy Christian fiction and are not bothered in the slightest by use of a gavel, you will probably find this to be excellent Christian fiction. The writing is good. The characters learn and grow and redeem their disappointments. No doubt, you will find this story entirely uplifting and enjoyable. You might even want to continue with the series to find out what happens in the future with Dr. Joy Gilbert (the author is at work on a third book at this point). So, don't let my own pet-peeves hold you back, if Christian fiction is your thing. I enjoyed the story, as well. I just would have toned down the moralizing.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Anticipating Blessings at CBLI

It's almost here. Central Bible and Leadership Institute. Our annual Bible camp. Even though it spells the end of summer (as the boys go back to school a few days after we return home), we are getting thoroughly excited for our departure.

Click here for a promo video from last year (I'm even in the video at the 1:42 point).

We have learned a few things about what we can anticipate. First off, we are being housed in Sandpiper. Schew! That's a relief. No hassling with shared bathrooms or cots or cramped quarters. Really comfy beds. Perhaps we'll get even luckier and find that our friends, the Carrs, will be in Sandpiper, as well.

My boys are old enough this year that I will probably allow them to wander off for free time on their own. Hmmm - sounds like excellent reading/napping time for me! Two of the Carr boys are close in age to Trevor and Sean and they tend to enjoy hanging out together. (Here's a photo of the four of them together two years ago at CBLI:)

There's so much for them to do - fishing, air-hockey, zip-line, high-ropes, swimming, pontoon and paddle boating, archery, or hanging out at the snack shop.

The boys will both be in the CBLI Kids' Track (Trevor's last year as he will advance to the tween group once he is 11) and they received a letter indicating their theme will be Super Secret Spy Academy. They don't seem too enthralled with the theme, but at least it sounds boy-friendly. The introductory letter included a coded message, which we happily deciphered together while on our ride to the Indiana Dunes this past weekend. They are hoping a lot of their regular CBLI friends return again this year.

The special guests are British. I know, it is the little things in life that thrill me. I am looking forward to excellent teaching with the added plus of a British accent! Moreover, I thought Linda Himes was retiring from her stint as a Precept Bible teacher, but she is back again with another Bible class, so I am rejoicing (since I'm not really eager for leadership training - what used to be no problem for me causes anxiety issues now - it is nice to have a Bible class option available instead of the predominant leadership-oriented ones).

For musical entertainment, on Monday night there will be a concert performed by For King and Country, a highly popular Christian group. I am super stoked about this and sincerely hoping they sing one of my favorites: Shoulders.

I'm a little worried I won't secure a good seat, since I will have to drop the boys off at their class prior to the meeting's start and I'm sure there will be loads of people from the Chicago area who will drive up just for the concert, filling the chapel.

Ever since we moved to Indiana, it has been harder for John to come up to be with us for the final evening. This year, he has decided to brave the almost five hour trip and come up anyway. It will be so fun to have him with us for the completion of camp (this is when the boys get most anxious, missing him and wanting to head home to be with him).

I'm praying for good things to happen this year. I'm wanting my boys to receive further spiritual enrichment and solidification of their relationship with the Lord. I'm seeking a blessing for myself. I'm hoping we return refreshed and energized spiritually and ready to tackle another year of school.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Book Review: The Shallows

When I knew that my book club would be reading this book by Nicholas Carr called The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, I noticed another similar book in my library's recent acquisitions. Thus, I got my hands on the book Mind Change: How Digital Technologies are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains, by Susan Greenfield, prior to reading this Nicholas Carr book. Perhaps if I hadn't read that one first, I might not have had such a difficult time getting into Carr's book. Alas, it was a struggle to keep with it and if it hadn't been for the book club, I certainly would have been tempted to toss it aside.

Nicholas Carr advances the same theory, that our persistent use of the Internet is altering our brains. Because of the brain's plasticity, it is rewiring all the time based on how we use it and our use of the Internet tends to lead to brief, intense, shallow surfing. Carr bemoans the fact that he can no longer sit down with a book and process it deeply (yet he is asking his readers to cast aside this affect of the Internet on attention spans by presenting a treatise full of references to great thinkers, society-changers, and pundits).

I, too, found it difficult to remain focused on his argument. It had a rambling manner which delved into all sorts of tangents and anecdotes. Some of the information was interesting. I loved learning about the use of "commonplace books"  - a notebook of memorable quotations -to retain information for later cogitation. This is a practice I love to employ; indeed, I think of my blog as a repository of concepts, ideas, and quotes I glean from the books I read. Yet, somehow, my mind had a hard time focusing in on his arguments. I don't know if I just wasn't in the mood for digesting the material or if the material was simply too full of quotes and historical tales used to support his argument.

I found Greenfield's book more accessible than this one. The author, a neuroscientist, presented her perspective in clear language, with a persuasive tone, and effective structure. Carr seemed intent upon impressing the reader with how much he had researched the ideas behind the book. For whatever reason, my final analysis is that I enjoyed the Mind Change book more than The Shallows.

Since I tend to read extensively, I don't feel a sense of danger in my own use of the Internet. I would say I use it minimally. I log on for an hour in the morning to check mail, Facebook, and news. I might write a blog post later on in the day and check Facebook again, but that is pretty much the extent of it. In fact, my husband recently bought me a phone with more capabilities than I could ever figure out how to use. While it was a godsend during my time at camp, enabling me to check my mail, forward information on to Bryce about scholarship requirements, and browse Facebook, I wasn't tied to it as some people are with their phones.

Yet, even with a limited use of the computer, I do fear the results I see in my boys who are so easily bored and often eschew genuinely fun activity in favor of sitting around on their devices (I took them to Sky Zone this week and had to cajole Sean to keep going when all he wanted to do was go home and get back on his I-pod). I observe their need for instant answers, quick-paced presentation of ideas, and the feedback of others on things they post to Instagram. They are clearly the product of their technological environment. They are fully "digital natives," while I will always be a "digital immigrant." Other parents suffer from similar dilemmas (my friend Amy linked to this mother's lament on summer and it gave me a good-natured, empathetic laugh, especially the line "Netflix ... isn't going to binge-watch itself").

I can only make a stand for myself and say that I will continue to read bound books, I will continue to write letters from time to time, and I will continue to seek balance in my life when it comes to today's technology. I don't want to live in the shallows. I want to be able to read a book with depth of concentration and mental interaction.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Book Review: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

I thoroughly enjoyed The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, a little tale of orphans in a fix. The children triumph despite the odds. The atmosphere of the story is dark and foreboding, but the characters are bright and plucky. I appreciated the author's daughter's comments about the story at the beginning of the audio version, as well as her narration of the story.

Bonnie cannot wait for the arrival of her cousin Sylvia from London. She flies out with enthusiasm only to find that it is a governess, come to look after the girls in her parents' absence. Her parents are heading off on a sea voyage to a more pleasant climate in the hopes of restoring the health of Bonnie's mother. The governess, a Miss Slighcarp proves to be a nasty old woman with a sharp disposition and a sinister design. The children are thrust into immediate peril and must fight back with the aide of their little friend, Simon, and two loyal servants.

This was a story full of British flair, from grim orphanages to elaborate country estates, from evil governesses to doting maids. The threatening wolves serve to intensify the dangers and darken the atmosphere. Though recommended for listeners between the ages of 9 and 14, I think it will equally appeal to adults. I will have to look into the movie version to see if I can find it.