I’ll Give You the Sun (Book Review)

i'll give you the sun
This is the cover I have, but it is not the most common cover.

I’m on a roll! Every book I bought recently has been amazing. Usually I pick at least one dud. Way to go, self! Seriously, though. I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson is a bizarre, beautiful novel. I don’t really know how to start talking about it, because I’m not totally sure what exactly it was. It was possibly a romance, but more likely a family drama. It’s a story about siblings, jealousy, growing up, art, relationships, hate, fear, grief, and more. I’d probably categorize it as magical realism, but that’s a debatable label. There are ghosts, but it’s impossible to tell if they are actually there or if they’re just hallucinations resulting from grief. There’s an implication of destiny, but that too is impossible to pin down. As in real life, some people believe fully in destiny and others don’t. It’s a hard book to talk about, but it was an even harder book to put down. I wholeheartedly agree with the many accolades that were showered on I’ll Give You the Sun.

What’s it about?

The novel follows twins Jude and Noah over the course of a few years. Noah narrates the beginning of the story, and Jude takes over for the end. However, the two periods—and therefore the two narrators—are alternated so the reader is left guessing for much of the novel. How did NoahandJude get from one place to the other? The book has a lot going on, but in my opinion the heart of it is Noah and Jude’s family and the way it unintentionally pits them against each other. They end up competing against each other repeatedly: for their parents’ attention, to get into a prestigious art school, for friends. As it gets worse, it devolves into vindictiveness. Three years later, they’re both still reeling from the results of the year they fell out.

What did I think?

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Warcross (Book Review)

warcrossI bought Warcross impulsively for less-than-noble reasons: it was autographed. I had read Marie Lu before—I enjoyed her Legend trilogy, though it has been so long since I read it that I couldn’t tell you the first thing about it—but mostly I was entranced by the signature. There’s just something about autographs, you know? It would have been extra cool if Lu had actually been in the store signing, but my luck isn’t that good. The impulse paid off, though. I really enjoyed Warcross, and hope that the sequel comes out quickly because I’m pumped for it.

What’s it about?

Warcross follows Emika Chen, a hacker and bounty hunter, who gets hired by the young billionaire Hideo Tanaka—the inventor both of Warcross and of the brain/computer interface needed to play it—to join a huge Warcross tournament to find “Zero,” a hacker who has been messing with the game.

What’s the biggest problem with the book?

The main issue with Warcross the novel is Warcross the game. It doesn’t really make a lot of sense, and it is definitely underdeveloped. The game is popular all over the world, like football-in-Oklahoma popular (for those of you who aren’t aware, football is very big in Oklahoma. Like, some of the colleges cancel classes when the football team plays their rival). The tournament Emi joins is like the Superbowl plus the World Cup plus the Olympics. Everyone watches it. Everyone cares about it. Everyone adores it. Everyone low key wants to play in it. But it is a little bit hard to tell why. There aren’t really any established rules, and the only real objective is to grab a token from the other team. It seems like the best way to play would be to just brute strength whoever has the token. But apparently it is more elaborate than this. Everyone has their own specific role, even though it is not clear what the roles are. On Emi’s team, Hammie is the “thief,” Roshan is the “shield,” DJ Ren is the “fighter,” Ash is the captain (and possibly has another title to go along with that, but I don’t remember), and Emi is the “Architect.” But Hammie’s role of running around and stealing the power-ups is in no way specific only to her, since Ash specifically has Emi practice grabbing them as well. And since players regenerate, what exactly is the point of Roshan rescuing them? And why couldn’t someone else rescue them? And the description and name of Emi’s role is pretty much directly lifted from Inception. But whatever. The game is really just a backdrop to the rest of the story.

What did I actually think?

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The Upside of Unrequited (Book Review)

upsideI liked Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda so well that I wasted no time finding and reading Becky Albertalli’s other book, The Upside of Unrequited. Like Simon, it was a one-day read. Unlike Simon, I didn’t adore it.

I didn’t dislike it. I actually liked it a lot. I just didn’t love it. I probably would have liked it a little more if there had been a bit more distance from Simon, since the books do have a lot in common but I think overall the execution is better in SimonThe Upside of Unrequited is slightly cruder, slightly less innocent. Though the main character, Molly, is as unexperienced as Simon is (actually, I take that back; she’s more unexperienced, since Simon had girlfriends before his story starts and Molly has never dated or kissed anyone) but her friends are definitely not. They talk about hookups in specific detail, and repeatedly. It works for the story, as the discussions make Molly as uncomfortable as they made me, but still… I didn’t think that Molly needed to get stuck in quite so many awkward sex talks.

As with Simon, the central romance is cute. Reid, who wears nerdy fantasy t-shirts and has uncool white sneakers, is witty and awkwardly flirtatious. He’s a good match for Molly, who is artsy and insecure and prone to falling in love.

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Book Club: Dark Matter

Discussion Questions for Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

As usual, these discussion questions may have spoilers. Also, be sure to check out my actual review here.
dark matter

  1. There are a lot of Jasons in Dark Matter. Do you see any of the Jasons as the real one? Does the fact that one particular Jason narrates the novel help you to sympathize more towards him or to see him as the OG Jason? If so, what is the effect of that? Are you still able to treat the alternate Jasons as equally legitimate? How would the novel have changed if it were written in third person, or if we were not given one particular Jason to sympathize with? Overall, are we supposed to see our Jason (Jason9) as the novel’s hero or are we supposed to accept that all of the Jasons are, in fact, equally Jason and equally important?
  2. Discuss Daniela’s role in the novel. In what way is she a prize for Jason? In what way is she her own character? Discuss the fact that she is fridged not once, but twice. What did you think of Jason’s plan to hold a lottery with Daniela as the prize? What did you think of her response to the plan, specifically that it treats her as though she is “a fucking fruit basket” (314)? Does it bother you that Daniela is treated this way throughout the book, and is only able to defend her position as an object once despite being objectified throughout the novel? Discuss the fact that Jason’s response to rediscovering Daniela (both as himself and as Jason2) is to have sex with her.
    1. Discuss the fact that Daniela (and Charlie) are both perfectly willing to leave their whole lives behind at the end of the novel.
    2. Discuss the fact that, at certain points in the novel, Jason acts as though the various Danielas are interchangeable and at other times sees his Daniela as unique. He says that he is “hardwired to love and protect that woman” (205) when talking about an alternate Daniela, sleeps with an alternate Daniela, and considers murdering one of his other selves in order to take his life with yet another Daniela. Ultimately he says that he only really wants his wife. In what ways is she or is she not interchangeable with the other versions of herself?
      1. In what ways is Jason interchangeable or not interchangeable with his other selves? Consider Daniela’s belief that it is fate that Jason9, rather than any other Jason, found her. Do you believe that fate had a hand in it, or was it just a good way to get “our” Jason to win?
    3. Jason2 rationalizes his actions by reasoning that since he regretted leaving Daniela and that Jason9 (our Jason) regretted abandoning his research, they are actually both getting what they want by the switch. Why is this in inappropriate line of logic? Why is Jason2’s regret so much stronger than Jason9’s? Jason9 is presented as “the pinnacle of family life” and Jason2 as “the professional and creative apex” (227). Does Dark Matter therefore present the life as a spouse and a parent as the ideal of human existence? What do you think of this assessment?
      1. Consider the fact that Jason is a man. Is the family life > career judgment surprising for a male character? Discuss.
      2. If Jason2 and Jason9 are “opposite poles of the same man,” and yet are united by regret in their respective lives, is that an indication that regret is fundamental to the human experience (227)? Daniela also regrets missed opportunities. Are all people plagued by regret? Is it possible to escape regret by living your life a certain way, or is everyone doomed to suffer it? Why can Jason2 not manage his regret? Would other Jasons have attempted to swap lives if they had had the means to do so?
      3. Jason2 talks about wrong choices, and concludes that “we end up living in a state of perpetual regret” and that there is nothing worse (316). Daniela counters that you have to live with your choices and learn, and that cheating the system is not a viable solution. Discuss both perspectives. What, if anything, is worse than perpetual regret?
    4. Discuss the multi-verse. How does it work? How does it relate to Schrödinger’s cat? What kinds of decisions have you made that would vastly change your path? What things remain consistent across the multi-verse? What aspects of Jason are so fundamental that circumstances do not change them? Consider the fact that Jason is married to or has been married to Daniela in almost every dimension he goes through. Consider the fact that at the end of the novel some of the Jasons are willing to kill and others are not. Jason9 asks “what I would be willing to do to regain my life. Would I kill another version of me if it meant I could spend the rest of my days with Daniela? Would they?” (262). The ability and inclination to kill seems to be something fundamental to a person, and yet Jasons that are only a few weeks removed from Jason9 are able to do so when he is not. Discuss. Jason asks, “what are the core components that make me me?” (218). Discuss. What is consistent across all the Jasons? What might be able to change that? Is there anything core about a person, or are we formed entirely by the things that we experience and the choices that we make as a result of our circumstances?
    5. Discuss Jason’s “uncanny valley,” the idea of something that is close to reality, but just enough off that it is almost more frightening than something more alien (216). How do you feel that the family almost certainly drops their lives to go to an uncanny valley at the end of the novel?
    6. Before the multi-verse comes into play, Jason reflects that he is “great, but not exceptional” (28). Discuss the desire to be exceptional. How does Dark Matter treat the promise of exceptionalness? Is Jason better for giving up on his science? Is the world? What if Jason had invented something more useful and less mad-sciency? Is Jason’s choice of Daniela over science in any way selfish? Do exceptional people have a responsibility to make the world as a whole better? Was Jason’s choice of Daniela, as Ryan suggested, giving up (8)?
    7. Jason suggests that “humanity’s anthem” is that “All your life you’re told you’re unique. An individual. That no one on the planet is just like you” (299). Do you agree with his assessment of humanity? Do you agree that there is no one just like you? Consider also Jason’s next statement, that “that isn’t true for me anymore.” Is it true that there is no one like Jason? How different must someone be before they are seen as unique? None of the other Jasons have made exactly the same decisions as Jason9 has. Does that make them unique or are they still too similar to be considered individuals?
    8. What do you think might happen after the end of the novel? Are Jason9, Daneila, and Charlie stepping into a world that already has a version of them? And what is going to happen to the Chicago that is overrun by Jasons? What will the Jasons do with no Daniela to pursue? Who are they without her?
    9. What do you think about Jason’s brother? He is mentioned only a few times, once when the doctor asks Jason if they should call his brother, and later when Jason is having his life flash before his eyes. What is the point of mentioning a brother who never actually appears and who does not seem to ever contribute anything meaningful.
    10. Discuss Amanda. In what ways is she her own character? In what ways is she merely a vehicle for Jason’s escape and his character? Discuss the fact that Amanda is unable to return to her home. What do we know about Amanda aside from the fact that she is briefly an alternative romantic option for Jason, that she stands up for herself, and that she is a therapist?

Dark Matter (Book Review)

dark matterDark Matter by Blake Crouch is one of those weird books where I couldn’t quite tell if it was good or not. It is not one that I chose, or that there was any good chance of me choosing for myself. I read it for book club, and even though I was initially not all that excited to read it, I slowly got more and more enthusiastic as my coworkers read it and got back to me with high praise.

It’s strange. I certainly whipped through the book quickly, which is generally a good sign. But I really, truly can’t decide if I liked it or not. I can’t tell if I thought it was objectively good or not. I can’t tell if it actually had deep, nuanced ideas to address or if it just seemed like it did. I do know that it is not a bad book, and I did not dislike it. More than that, though, is hard to say.

What’s it about?

Dark Matter follows Jason Dessen, a family man who might have been a renowned scientist but wasn’t. He deeply loves his wife, Daniela, and his son, Charlie. And then one night he is abducted and forced into another timeline where he is an absolutely brilliant scientist who unlocked the multiverse. Unfortunately, he’s no longer married to Daniela and Charlie does not exist. Also, his coworkers are insane and violently protective of his work. Desperate to get back to his world, to his family, Jason escapes into the cube that allows him to move from one reality to another, desperately trying to find his Chicago and his home.

What did I think?

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Geekerella (Book Review)

geekerella
I love this adorable, specific cover.

I have been reading books about fangirls (and boys!) and fandom as much as possible, since it is really exciting to actually find stories with protagonists that I can really relate to. I am first and foremost a nerdy geek, so as much as I like witty heroes with groups of clever friends who save the world or enact huge societal change, it is nice read about characters a little more like me once in a while. Of course, fictional nerds are generally cooler than I am too, but whatever.

I hadn’t actually heard of Geekerella by Ashley Poston before stumbling across a couple of other book blogs that had positive things to say about it. Naturally, I found it as quickly as I could to add it to my collection of other fandom books (Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell; All the Feels by Danika Stone; Stranger than Fanfiction by Chris Colfer; Kill the Boy Band by Goldy Moldavsky; Scarlett Epstein Hates it Here by Anna Breslaw; The Geek’s Guide to Unrequited Love by Sarvenaz Tash; gena/finn by Hannah Moskowitz and Kat Helgeson).

What’s it about?

I really liked it. It was a one-day read, largely because nothing was going on. In normal circumstances I might not have torn through it quite as quickly, but it was definitely enjoyable. It is a retelling, obviously, of Cinderella, starring a geek named Danielle but called Elle. Elle is a big fan of an old TV show called Starfield. Elle and her late father shared Starfield, but now the show is off-air. She still runs a blog about the show, but no longer attends the Starfield con that her dad started. She lives with her evil stepmother and evil stepsisters (well, one is evil and one is passive), because this is Cinderella. Meanwhile, a soap opera star—Darien—is cast for the lead role of the Starfield reboot. He’s a huge fan, but the whole fandom writes him off because they assume that he’s just a pretty face and nice body (with insured abs). Like Elle, Darien doesn’t have a lot of friends—fame has isolated him—and so when he accidentally texts a fellow Starfield nerd who has no idea who he is (it’s Elle), he’s keen to develop the relationship.

What did I think?

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Illuminae (Book Review)

illuminaeWhat the heck did I just read? Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff is bizarre. On one hand, I’ve never read anything like it. On the other hand, it is pretty much how I imagine all zombie movies are. So I can’t decide if it is actually a remarkably creative novel, or if it just looks that way because of the format.

It’s a pretty fat book: 599 pages. Of course, most of those pages aren’t full pages. Some only have a few words on them. Most of them are basically instant messaging exchanges. There are also emails, countdowns, medical reports, casualty lists, and more. There are a few chapters (well, I call them chapters) that have a mostly straightforward narrative, but even those are colorful summaries taken from video footage, not traditional narration. A lot of the last part of the book is narrated by a potentially evil/insane computer that is slowly developing emotions and consciousness. Side note: Did anyone else notice that author Marie Lu (who is listed in the acknowledgements and quoted on the cover) starred in Super Turbo Awesome Team vs. Megapanda? I’m sure there were other cameos slipped in that I didn’t catch. Let me know if there were any you caught but I missed.

I felt the narrative rose and fell a few too many times. There were at least three sections that felt like climaxes, and the actual ending that feels a little tacked on like, “hey! There’s a sequel, so read it maybe!” That’s not to say I won’t read it, but… not for a while. There was something about this book—maybe the format, maybe creepy zombie virus, maybe something else entirely—that tired me out. I liked it, but I’m also kind of glad to be done with it.

What’s it about?

There are so many spoilers in this section because I wasn’t sure how to summarize all of it because of all the plots. I’m putting a read more thing so people who don’t want to get spoiled don’t accidentally get spoiled. 

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Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (Book Review)

simonI had never heard of Becky Albertalli of her book Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda until someone donated it to the library. It didn’t end up on the library shelves, but I eventually tracked it down and bought it for myself almost entirely due to the endorsement on the cover, which describes the book as “The love child of John Green and Rainbow Rowell.” I don’t think I have actually reviewed anything by Rainbow Rowell or John Green, but I have definitely read and loved everything they’ve ever written. If I made a list of my favorite authors, they’d both easily make the cut. Then there’s the fact that Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda has a humungously long list of awards and accolades.

Have you ever been on one of those reading dry spells where nothing you read gets you excited? I’ve been reading a lot lately, but most of the books have been just fine. I mean, some of them I even liked a lot, but I never got the must-keep-reading feeling. Sometimes it’s bad enough that I forget that I actually love reading, though admittedly I didn’t quite get to that point this time. Simon broke that awful streak. It is absolutely adorable, and I couldn’t put it down; it was a one-sitting read for me.

What’s it about?

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is about Simon Spier, a nerdy junior who has an emotional email relationship with another closeted boy called “Blue.” Blue is incredibly reserved, so the two boys don’t know each other’s real identities except to know that they attend the same school. The relationship, despite the anonymity, is going very well; Simon and Blue share their innermost thoughts (though are careful not to drop hints about their identities) and are well on the way to falling in love with each other when Simon logs into his email on a school computer and forgets to log out. A classmate, Martin, threatens to out Simon (and Blue) unless Simon helps him get to know Abby, a popular cheerleader who happens to be one of Simon’s best friends.

What did I think?

hearteyesIt’s hard to know where to start with this book, because there’s just so much that I love about it. The writing is breezy, but it still touches on the novel’s darker and deeper themes with finesse. There’s some tough stuff in this book: there is some bad bullying and Simon is basically held hostage by a blackmailer using his sexuality. But it is not a doom and gloom book. It manages to have its sad and difficult sections while keeping an overall funny and hopeful tone.

Simon is a charming protagonist. I’m a huge fan of lovable nerds, so Simon’s over-enthusiasm and hamminess for Harry Potter and theatre and Oreos absolutely endeared him to me. Aside from being charming, Simon is also very relatable. His worries about breaking out of the boxes that other people put him into really struck me:

But I’m tired of coming out. All I ever do is come out. I try not to change, but I keep changing, in all these tiny ways. I get a girlfriend. I have a beer. And every freaking time, I have to reintroduce myself to the universe all over again.

The book deals quite a bit with the boxes that people get put into, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and the pressures exerted to keep them there. Of course, part of Simon’s growth is coming out to his family as gay, but Simon’s being gay is not his only revelation. He discusses the way that people stand out whenever they do anything that is even slightly unexpected of them (like dressing up for a spirit day) and indirectly addresses the ways people can be stymied simply because they feel that they’re not allowed to change in any way without arousing overreactions.

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Apparently there’s going to be a movie version in 2018. Nice! Update: I finally saw the movie and I love it.

Simon has lovely, nuanced relationships with all sorts of different characters. His tentative, anonymous romance with Blue unfolds at just the right pace for me to get invested in it (the fact that Blue’s identity is not difficult to guess does not take away from the effect). His new friendship with the bubbly and charming Abby is completely different than the lifelong friendships he has with Leah and Nick. His interactions with his sisters are unique as well. A lot of stories flounder with relationships. A lot of the time, characters only interact with one or two others, or if they interact with more, their interactions all start to blend together. But Simon’s interactions with Blue are totally different than his interactions with Leah, or with Nick, or Martin, or Alice, or Nora, or anyone else. Best of all, every single one of Simon’s relationships is treated with care. A common pitfall with romances is that platonic friendships often fall through the cracks, because apparently it’s hard to write a character with both a best friend and a boyfriend. Becky Albertalli manages it wonderfully.

Even the minor characters are well drawn. I don’t want to blab on too long and spoil everything, so I’ll just say that even characters who are only mentioned a few times  have full lives just under the surface. It’s wonderful.

What’s the verdict?

This is an absolutely adorable book. I’m not usually a romance fan, but this is easily one of the best books that I’ve read this year. It is funny and smart and I walked away with it with all sorts of warm fuzzy feelings. The strength is in the characters and their relationships, and if that’s something that’s important to you (I am 100% a character person) I would absolutely recommend Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Book Review)

20k leagues.jpegTwenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne may be the most profoundly disappointing book I’ve ever read, and I went into it expecting not to like it. I am not a huge math or science person, and I don’t usually read a lot of science fiction so I knew it wasn’t the kind of book I’m naturally attracted to. I usually appreciate classics, though. I can generally see the merit even in the ones that I do not personally care for. I actually think that this book was subpar, though. I’m pretty sure the only reason it’s a classic is because Verne was ahead of the power curve with his descriptions of the mighty submarine. That being said, I was bored senseless. I expected a scifi story. What I got was a poorly disguised textbook about sealife classification, with about twenty pages of hunting and revenge tossed in for good measure. It wasn’t what I’d signed up for.

The book follows M. Arronax, his servant Conseil, and a Canadian harpooner called Ned Land. They join a voyage to rid the world of a dangerous, mysterious entity that keeps destroying ships. M. Arronax thinks it must be a gigantic narwhal. It’s not. It’s a submarine called the Nautilus, captained by Captain Nemo. While engaging the Nautilus in battle, the three are thrown overboard (well, Arronax and Ned are thrown overboard; Conseil jumps after Arronax because servanthood). Captain Nemo rescues and imprisons them. It seems like things will pick up once they get onboard the submarine. They are told in no uncertain terms that they will never be allowed to leave the ship and return to land. They are told that on some occasions, they will be required to hide in their rooms while the captain and his men carry out some secret task of which they must remain unaware. When these occasions actually arise, Arronax and his companions are drugged. The crew speaks a strange, made up language, and they and Captain Nemo have all sworn off land and civilization.

Ned Land (how about that unsubtle name?) is the only character who seems to care about the weirdness at all. He’s supposed to be stupid and disagreeable, because he doesn’t appreciate all the science around them and keeps making plans to escape, but he was my favorite character by a huge margin. If Ned was around, something might actually happen. If he wasn’t, everyone just talked about fish.

jimArronax, the narrator, is some kind of marine biology writer. He never seems to fully grasp that he has been imprisoned. At least, he doesn’t care. As soon as he learns that Captain Nemo carries his book, he is totally won over. He is completely enamored by the Nautilus and by Captain Nemo, and when he is not questioning the captain unceasingly about how much steel it took to build the submarine or about old shipwrecks, he is schooling Conseil—who, aside from the six or so sentences in which he interacts with Ned and is actually kind of fun, exists just to wait on Arronax hand and foot and give him someone to lecture to—about migration patterns and mollusks and seal ears. Or something like that. In all honestly, at a certain point it just started to go in one ear and out the other. If I wanted to read about fish genus and species, I wouldn’t have looked in the fiction section of the library. This was like reading Moby Dick all over again, except that Moby Dick at least had good writing in between whale facts, and did not often resort to explaining that things defied description.

Honestly, the best way to describe Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is provided by the book itself when Arronax says,

“To any other than myself, who have a passionate love for the sea, the hours must have seemed long and monotonous.”

I do not have a passionate love for the sea, and the hours spent reading this book were indeed very long and very monotonous. Someone who does love the sea or submarines might find Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea interesting, but anyone who doesn’t will likely respond as I did… by crying out not with Arronax’s “scientific ardor” (yes, that’s a direct quote) but with crippling boredom.

The very, very end of the book attempts to toss some story in. Apparently Captain Nemo is on a violent fevenge rampage against… someone for… some reason. That’s pretty much all Verne gives his readers, and it’s way too little, way too late.

If someone edited out all the bits of this book that would be more at home in a textbook than a novel, you’d be left with about thirty pages. And Ned Land would be the main character. And most of it would be that chapter when Ned goes hunting on dry land.

If you like science, science fiction, sealife, and Moby Dick, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is probably right up your alley. But it’s nowhere near my neighborhood.

 

gif source here

Carve the Mark (Book Review)

What’s it about?

carve the markCarve the Mark by Veronica Roth (who wrote Divergent) is the first book in a sci-fi series. It is about two opposing cultures on the icy planet Thuvhe: the recognized and therefore legitimate Thuvhesits and the scavengers turned warlords Shutet. In this universe, of which Thuvhe is only one of several planets, people’s lives are strongly affected by “the current,” a mysterious force inside every person. The Shotet people worship the current, but the Thuvhe are more focused on the “fate-favored.” These fate-favored people, including protagonists Cyra and Akos and villain Ryzek, have a fate that is set in stone. These fates are usually hidden, known only to a few oracles, but towards the start of Carve the Mark, the names and fates of the fate-favored are leaked, causing chaos. In an attempt to change his fate, which is to fall and therefore to fail to earn Shotet legitimacy , the warlord Ryzek Noavek captures a Thuvhe prophet, Eijeh, and his brother Akos. Akos wants desperately to escape, save his brother, and return home even though his fate is to die for the Noavek family. Akos is assigned to Ryzek’s sister Cyra, because his current gift is the only thing that can quell hers: she lives in constant agonizing pain and can spread the pain to another simply by touch.

Is it like Divergent?

divergentYes and no. There are definitely similarities. Both Divergent and Carve the Mark feature violent female protagonists, though Cyra is a far better developed character than Tris is. There are also factionlike elements to Carve the Mark. The different nations are somewhat simplified to a few defining traits: the Shotet are murderous religious fanatics and the Thuvhe are a gentle people whose livelihoods are tied to various mystical plants that can be made into drugs, tonics, and poisons. Individual characters have individual characteristics, of course, but there are definite generalizations. Funnily enough, the color associations from Divergent are largely the same. The good guys (the Thuvhe and Abnegation) are gray. The bad guys (the Shotet and the Erudite) are blue. Both stories have a subset of revolutionaries, and I also noticed that the narration style in Carve the Mark is the same as Roth used in Allegiant. Honestly I wasn’t a huge fan of it then either. The female lead’s chapters are narrated in first person, and the male lead’s are in third. It is not bad, necessarily, but as with Allegiant I think the story could have been told a little better in a slightly different way.

Overall, the writing and development in Carve the Mark is stronger than it was in the Divergent trilogy, particularly the latter two novels.

What did I think?

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Guy in Real Life (Book Review)

UntitledGuy in Real Life by Steve Brezenoff is an excellent example of why you should never judge a book by its cover. The cover is adorable. The book is terrible. Basically, it is about two terrible characters (Lesh—who is supposedly a musical aficionado despite rarely listening to music—and Svetlana—who embroiders her own clothes, loves D&D, and is horrible to her parents) that meet and supposedly change each other blah blah blah. Except they don’t change each other at all. Lesh is supposed to be a metalhead, but he actually spends more time gaming than Svetlana does, though his is online rather than tabletop. And they’re pretty much just as terrible at the end as they are at the beginning.

guyinreallife
But the cover is adorable

It’s supposed to be a cute romance story as far as I can tell, but it’s actually super creepy. Lesh makes a character that looks exactly like Svetlana and names her Svvetlana (with an extra v) and uses the character in his RPG. It’s creepily voyeuristic. He spends a lot of time lusting after Svvetlana (who, I reiterate, is a computer game character based off a girl he knows in real life) and imagining both Sv(v)etlanas in various states of undress. It’s gross. And then Brezenoff tries to play it off as something noble at the end by having Lesh wax poetic about how women are more virtuous and graceful than men and he just wanted to have that. The whole book buys into the Madonna-Whore Complex. At the last minute, Brezenoff tries to do something profound with gender roles. At least, I’m assuming that’s what was going on. The title of the book—“Guy in Real Life” –seems to indicate that Lesh’s desire to be a woman online but be a man offline is… I didn’t finish that sentence because I really don’t know what Lesh was trying to do. It wasn’t making a point about trans issues. It didn’t really address anything about gender except what I mentioned above. The fact that the title goes along with this theme puts extra emphasis on it, but for the large majority of the novel it is not even in the periphery.

That being said, I couldn’t actually tell you what the book is about. There are so many half-baked and poorly executed ideas in it that it’s hard to know where to start. Is it about gaming and gaming communities? If so, Brezenoff should have committed either to writing for the gaming community or to gaming noobs. Instead he stumbles around in a kind of no-man’s-land. Readers like me who aren’t gamers won’t get all the info they need to truly get all the gaming stuff. Gamers will have way more explained than they need. Is it about two very different people falling in love? If so, why weren’t Lesh and Svetlana more different? And why wasn’t the love story executed better? Was it about stalkers? Abraham, Fry, and Stebbins all stalk Svetlana to varying degrees. So does Lesh, but that parallel is never adequately drawn or dealt with. Honestly, that could have made it really good. If Brezenoff had had the guts to acknowledge that his leading man was really no better than the skeevy side characters, it might have opened up an interesting conversation about romance tropes and how a lot of fiction presents stalking in certain cases (basically, if the stalker is attractive) as acceptable.

There are also loose ends about the main characters’ strained relationships with their families, Lesh’s occasional drug/alcohol use and the bad crowd he hangs with (seriously, what was the point of Jelly? And what the heck kind of name is Jelly?), Svetlana’s episodes that seemed like a potential mental illness but ultimately went nowhere, etc., etc.

don't like it 2At times, the book referenced its own flaws, but made no attempt to fix any of the issues: Svetlana admits that she’s annoying and first-world-problemy with her whole ‘I hate my car’ thing and Lesh claims that when Svetlana takes off her helmet it’s not one of those immediate love situations. Except that Svetlana proceeds to complain about her car at length and Lesh is immediately drawn to Svetlana’s gorgeous hair even though he claims it’s matted when it comes out of the helmet. Mentioning that your characters are poorly written and petulant doesn’t keep them from being poorly written and petulant. It just makes them more petulant when they complain about how petulant they are. And yes, I realize that I’m being petulant in this review. Sorry. The difference is that Steve Brezenoff is a published writer with editors and publishers and a wide audience, and I’m a nobody with a laptop. Internet content hasn’t been vetted, and I expect more from actual books.

Overall I disliked this book and wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

Despite what it seems from this post, I really don’t like to be negative. It makes me sad. To end this post on a positive note, therefore, I’ll list a few amazing books that I recommend instead.

If you’re looking for an awesome YA fantasy, try The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black or Reckless by Cornelia Funke.

If you’re a mystery person who hasn’t read The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin or And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, what are you even doing?

Historical fiction? The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is brilliant.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell is my current favorite realistic fiction/romance YA, but Rowell’s other books are all phenomenal. John Green, Neal Shusterman, Liane Moriarty, and Patrick Ness are also consistantly wonderful.

 

 

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To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (Book Review)

I’m trying out a new review format since I wasn’t happy with the old one. I’ve thought about doing star ratings, but starring things stresses me out. What’s the star difference between a book that I loved and a book that I love so much that I bought it and reread it every few years? And saying something is a one-star book makes me feel mean, even if I hated the book. And sometimes I read a book at the wrong time in my life and hate it, only to come back and love it years later. Basically, I’m too indecisive for a logical rating system, so I’m trying something else out instead. So let’s see how this goes.

What’s it about?

tatbilb.jpgTo All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han is about Lara Jean, who is trying to fill the responsible, motherly shoes left by her sister Margot when Margot left for college. She struggles to provide her little sister Kitty with a steady, organized role model in Margot’s absence. She’s also dealing with the mess that results from the apparently accidental sending of love letters that she wrote as private, therapeutic exercises to get over the boys she once loved. There are five letters in all, but only two of them really matter. One goes to Josh, Margot’s ex-boyfriend who has been friends with the family for years, and who Lara Jean is still in love with. Another goes to Peter, the popular guy who was Lara Jean’s first kiss. To save face with Josh, Lara Jean starts fake dating Peter, who needs the fake relationship to make his ex-girlfriend jealous. Things don’t go as planned.

What did I think?

I was initially hesitant to read To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Well, I say “initially hesitant.” The truth is that I originally dismissed it out of hand. The title is not promising. It sounds like a cheesy, traditional YA love story, full of boringly hunky high school boys who are inexplicably but deeply in love with a one-dimensional awkward but beautiful girl. That sounds critical. I adore YA, generally. It’s just that YA clunkers are their own brand of bad. I will argue with anyone who tries to write YA off as a whole genre because they buy into the stereotype that all YA books are badly written romances, but there are some that created that stereotype. I was convinced that this would be one of them.

The point is, I’d made up my mind about this book. But then I saw several bloggers praising it, and there was an article about hot it’s awesome that a movie is going to be made of it because having three (half) Korean girls as protagonists would be a step in the right direction for the overly-white Hollywood. I often read books that get the cinematic treatment, not because I necessarily have plans to see the movie, but because the selection of a book for a movie indicates to me that there’s probably something about that book that makes it worth reading.

Now that I’ve finished the book, I lean a little more to the positive side, though I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend the book to someone who wasn’t already planning to read it. I liked all the broad strokes of the novel, though I had some quibbles with the execution. I liked that the title indicates that the book will primarily be about the boys in Lara Jean’s life, and specifically that that does not end up being entirely accurate. In a more important way, the book is about Lara Jean’s family, specifically the “Song Girls.” I wish that Han had backed off of the Peter/Lara Jean/Josh love triangle just a little more to let the juxtaposition between the title and the heart of the story shine just a little brighter.

Josh and Peter were both really well developed characters. Peter is not just the handsome bad boy. Josh is not just the boy next door. That, by itself, is a good thing. The problem is that I don’t think that Kitty got enough development. Wanting a dog is not a personality trait, and I liked Lara Jean’s relationship to Kitty more than I liked Kitty as an actual person. I also wanted more from Genevieve, who was just the template bitch cheerleader ex-girlfriend that pops up too many times in entertainment. I did really like Lara Jean, though. Anyone who bonds with people over Harry Potter and dresses up as (marginally) obscure characters gets a thumbs up from me (yes, I know, she chose Cho because Cho is Asian, but still… Cho is not a character casual HP fans can come up with off the top of their head). I found her terror of driving very relatable, and I really liked the way Han presented Lara Jean’s heritage. Being Korean was definitely a part of her (and the family as a whole) but it did not define her.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a solid YA romance. It does use a lot of the traditional tropes—love triangle, fake dating, the bitchy cheerleader, etc.—but it all felt fresh. This book probably won’t win any awards but it is a perfectly enjoyable read.

What’s the verdict?

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a pretty good read. It goes quickly, and the things that are done well are done very well. It’s not the pinnacle of YA by any means, and it isn’t one that I necessarily feel any need to pass along to friends or family, but it’s a good choice for anyone who really likes YA romance or would be interested in a book featuring a prominent non-white protagonist. Or anyone who wants to catch a movie in 2018.

Book Club: A Monster Calls

a monster callsA mini-review of A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (inspired by Siobhan Dowd) can be found included here. It may be the best book I’ve read this year, so if you haven’t read it… go do that. These questions include spoilers.

A Monster Calls Discussion Starters

  1. Conor’s nightmare is something that he vows never to share with anyone else, yet the monster encourages him to speak the truth despite how difficult it is. Should Conor have kept his nightmare a secret, or should he have shared it. If you think he ought to share it, to whom should he have been more truthful? Is it enough for him to have admitted the truth to himself, or should he have shared it with a third party?
  2. Conor suffers incredible guilt due to his nightmare and as a result goes out of his way to look for punishments (he welcomes Harry’s bullying, is relieved when he thinks he is being expelled, etc.). However, his circumstances prevent people from punishing him. Should Conor be held accountable for his actions despite his mother’s sickness? Is the lack of punishment, in a way, a punishment?
  3. Discuss Conor’s relationship with Lily. Whose fault is it that they fell out? Do you think that their friendship can survive the events of the novel? Why did Lily tell their classmates about Conor’s mom? Why didn’t Conor want them to know? Why did Conor allow Lily to be punished for sticking up for him? Is Conor’s refusal to let his friends close another part of his self-punishment?
  4. The novel is called A Monster Calls, but in the book itself the character is referred to as the monster. Discuss this change. Does the title refer to the yew tree monster? What other monsters are present in the novel that the title could refer to? Is it important that the yew tree monster says that Conor called it? If that is true, then what monster called, and whom did it call?
  5. Discuss Conor’s relationship with his father. Does his father’s absence and distance (via second family, Americanness) change Conor’s relationship with his mother? How might things be different if Conor’s father were dead rather than present but emotionally unavailable?
  6. Discuss Conor’s relationship with his grandmother. Does she, as Conor believes, treat Conor like a failed employee? What do you think about the grandmother’s insistence that Conor’s parents are doing him a disservice by giving him false hope? Do you think that Conor’s mother is enough of a common denominator for Conor and his grandmother to get along? How would things be different if she were a more traditional grandmother?
  7. Conor is the only one who sees the monster, even when it appears in front of other people. Do you think that the monster is literally there, or is it a figment of Conor’s imagination? If it is literally there, why was it invisible to Conor’s classmates, and why could Conor feel its destruction in his own hands? Consider the monster’s dialogue, which is placed in italics rather than in quotation marks.
  8. What did you think of the monster’s first story? Did you believe that the king’s second wife was the murderer? Did you, like Conor, misinterpret the monster’s words to confirm that bias? What do you think about the way that the story turned out, with the murderer successfully ruling for many years to come? Did the regent’s potential evil excuse the prince’s actions?
    1. The monster says, “There is not always a good guy. Nor is there always a bad one. Most people are somewhere in between… Many things that are true feel like a cheat” (64). Do you agree or disagree? What other truths are in the novel? Do they feel like cheats?
  9. What did you think of the monster’s second story? Should the monster have come walking for the apothecary or for the parson? Is it important that Conor never really seems to understand this story?
  10. What did you think of the monster’s third story? Why do you think that this story was less narrative than the others? Why do you think that the monster left out any specifics about the invisible man? Why does Conor feel invisible?
  11. Discuss the three stories that the monster tells. Why was each one important to Conor? Why was each one told when it was (consider that Conor had to wait for the second story until he was “ready”)? What do you think of the escalating violence (no damage, damage to grandmother’s room, damage to Harry)?
  12. Conor eventually admits that he wants it to be finished, and that he is tired of waiting for his mother to die because he knows it is going to happen and the waiting is exhausting. Were you surprised by this? What does this say about Conor as a person, if anything? Why was it important for Conor to admit this truth to himself?
  13. Did you think that the yew tree was going to heal Conor’s mother? Do you think that it succeeded in healing Conor?
  14. Discuss the monster’s quote on page 191: “…it does not matter what you think… because your mind will contradict itself a hundred times each day. You wanted her to go at the same time you were desperate for me to save her. Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for believing both.” The monster says that speaking the truth is the way to combat this. Do you agree? Should one combat this, or is it ever okay to let yourself believe comforting lies to avoid painful truths? How would things have been different if Conor had relinquished the comforting lies from the beginning?
  15. Conor is thirteen years old. Discuss his age and responsibilities. How would the story be different if he were older?
  16. Discuss the monster’s statement that “What you think is not important. It is only important what you do” (192). Is this true? If thinking does not matter, why must Conor address his nightmare, which is rooted in thoughts rather than actions?

Book Club: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

perksMy mini review of The Perks of Being a Wallflower (along with reviews of four other books) can be found here. As usual, these discussion questions are not spoiler-free.

Discussion Starters for The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

  1. Patrick describes Charlie as a wallflower, explaining that “You see things. You keep quiet about them. And you understand” (37). In what ways is this an appropriate description of Charlie? Is being a wallflower a good or a bad thing? What things does Charlie see and understand? What does he see but not understand? Is this understanding one of the “perks of being a wallflower?” What are some other ones? What other characters can be seen as “wallflowers?” In what ways are the main characters on the outskirts of society (Charlie is younger than his friends and suffers from some unspecified mental illness; Patrick is gay; Mary Elizabeth is a vocal feminist; etc.)?
  2. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an epistolary novel. To whom is Charlie writing? Considering that this “friend” is never named or identified in any way aside from the generic “you listen and understand and didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have” (2), why do you think Chbosky chose to write the novel in this way? Is Charlie’s (childish, naïve) voice important to understanding the novel and/or Charlie as a character? Is the “friend” meant to be understood as another wallflower like Charlie (see question #1), or is the reader supposed to see him/herself as Charlie’s anonymous “friend?”
  3. Sam tells Charlie that “it’s like you’re not even there sometimes. It’s great that you can listen and be a shoulder to someone, but what about when someone doesn’t need a shoulder. What if they need the arms or something like that? You can’t just sit there and put everybody’s lives ahead of yours and think that counts as love. You just can’t. You have to do things” (200). Do you agree with Sam’s assessment? Is Charlie a bad friend because he is so passive? Consider: “But you weren’t [being Patrick’s friend], Charlie. At those times, you weren’t being his friend at all. Because you weren’t honest with him” (201). Is it fair for Sam to complain about the way Charlie interacts? Do you think Charlie’s ‘being there’ for Patrick was helpful? Do you think that Charlie should have approached his relationships differently? Consider his relationships with Sam, Patrick, and Mary Elizabeth. Conversely, do you think Sam, Patrick, and Mary Elizabeth were good friends to Charlie/each other?
  4. Discuss the cycles of violence in the novel. How do/can people escape the violence of their past? Discuss Aunt Rebecca (who, like her mother, marries men who hit her), Aunt Helen (who was molested as a child, and in turn molested Charlie when he was a child), etc. What do you think about Charlie’s cousins, of whom he believes only one (the one good at sports) will be able to escape to a better life?
  5. Discuss the anonymity in the novel. Charlie keeps some characters completely anonymous (his brother, his sister, the boy who hits his sister, etc.) but others by “different” or “generic” names (Sam, Patrick, Aunt Helen, Charlie, Bill, etc.). Why are there some characters who are given names even when they are arguably less important than some who are not? Why does Michael Dobson get a surname when no one else does? Also discuss Patrick’s nickname ‘Nothing’ and Charlie’s rejection of the name ‘Nothing’ because Patrick “is how he introduced himself” (19).
  6. What do you think about the various characters’ approaches to love? Consider Bill’s assertion that “we accept the love we think we deserve” (24); Charlie’s sister’s response to the boy hitting her (11); Patrick’s theory that “girls like guys to be a challenge… the thing is some girls think they can actually change guys. And what’s funny is that if they actually did change them, they’d get bored. They’d have no challenge left” (23); Charlie’s mother’s command to never say that anyone is your whole world (25); Charlie’s observation that “I just think it’s bad when a boy looks at a girl and thinks that the way he sees the girl is better than the girl actually is” (48); Charlie’s remark that in families “everyone loves each other, but no one really likes each other” (56); etc. Does the novel present a single theory of what love is/should be? With which character does your opinion most closely align?
  7. At Secret Santa, Charlie says of Sam and Patrick, “Sam and Patrick looked at me. And I looked at them. And I think they knew. Not anything specific really. They just knew. And I think that’s all you can ever ask from a friend” (66). What do you ask of a friend? Discuss the friendship between Charlie, Sam, and Patrick. What is the dynamic between the three of them? What are the dynamics between the pairs? Consider that Charlie is in love with Sam, that Sam and Patrick are stepsiblings, and that Patrick is Charlie’s direct line to the group when he is cast out of it.
  8. Discuss Charlie’s innocence, and the juxtaposition of his childlikeness with the hard-partying, chain-smoking, drug-and-sex-infused group that he hangs out with. Is Charlie’s “participation” with Sam and Patrick’s group a good thing? How does Charlie maintain his innocence despite his actions, or does he?
  9. Discuss Charlie’s love of books and music. How does his reading/listening affect his real life? When he is urged to “participate,” is that a sign that being in the middle of things is preferable to sitting on the sideline? Similarly, does the dangerous reality of Sam and Patrick’s lifestyle advocate a balance between observing/understanding and doing/participating?
  10. Charlie is able to succeed in math when he stops asking why (165). Bill also mentions at one point that his best education comes from a school that did not offer grades. Why do you think that Chbosky included these bits?
  11. Pg 144: “I don’t know how much longer I can keep going without a friend. I used to be able to do it very easily, but that was before I knew what having a friend was like. It’s much easier not to know things sometimes.” Discuss.
  12. Pg 145: “It suddenly dawned on me that if Michael were still around, Susan probably wouldn’t be ‘going out’ with him anymore. Not because she’s a bad person or shallow or mean. But because things change. And friends leave. And life doesn’t stop for anybody.” Discuss.
  13. charlieDiscuss Aunt Helen. Why did it take Charlie so long to realize that his Aunt Helen molested him? In what ways, if any, did the molestation affect him? Compare this with the rape that Charlie witnesses at his brother’s party. Consider Charlie’s love for Aunt Helen and Sam’s assertion that it would be too hard to prove Dave’s rape because of the love between the couple involved. Mostly, consider Charlie’s very firm assertion that “I’m not the way I am because of what I dreamt and remembered about my aunt Helen. That’s what I figured out when things got quiet. And I think that’s very important to know. It made things feel clear and together. And I needed to remember it… I guess we are who we are for a lot of reasons. And maybe we’ll never know most of them. But even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from” (211).
  14. Pg 211: “I think that if I ever have kids, and they are upset, I won’t tell them that people are starving in China or anything like that because it wouldn’t change the fact that they were upset. And even if somebody else has it much worse, that doesn’t really change the fat that you have what you have. Good and bad.” Discuss.
  15. Throughout the novel, Charlie is in love with Sam. Near the end, the two kiss and are nearly intimate. Is this hookup a victory for Charlie? Was attaining Sam some sort of end goal for the character and for the novel? What does it mean that Charlie and Sam kiss right before Sam leaves for college?
  16. Arguably the most famous line in the novel is “And in that moment, I swear we were infinite” (39). What does Charlie mean by this? In what ways is it appropriate or not appropriate as a calling card for the novel as a whole?

A Thousand Splendid Suns (Book Review)

A-Thousand-Splendid-SunsI first read Khaled Hosseini my senior year of college, when I was assigned to read The Kite Runner. That is an amazing book. It was impossible to put down, and I’d never read anything like it. When I started A Thousand Splendid Suns, I kept thinking to myself, ‘why did it take me so long to read more of his books?’ By the time I finished, I knew the answer. Hosseini’s books are really, really good. But they are emotionally draining.

depressingA Thousand Splendid Suns is also excellent book, though I do prefer The Kite Runner. Hosseini’s writing is perfect for the stories he tells. It is exactly as harsh as it needs to be to convey the harshness of his subject matter, but it is somehow also gentle enough to work well describing a mother’s reaction to her newborn child. Make no mistake: this is a difficult book in terms of subject matter. It takes place in Afghanistan from the end of the 1900s to the early 2000s. In other words, it covers the Soviet invasion, the Taliban rule, and the aftermath of the Taliban rule. The active fighting by armies is horrific: one of the two protagonists literally sees her father’s head blown off. It’s horrific, and yet the home life is hardly better.

The novel follows two women, Mariam and Laila. Mariam is a bastard child who was raised by a sick, bitter mother. Her father was a rich man who pushed her aside, and when her mother committed suicide, her father sold her in marriage to a horrible shoemaker called Rasheed. Rasheed is one of the most despicable characters I’ve ever read about. I say ‘one of’ only because I’m sure there have been others. Right now, Rasheed blocks them all out in my memory. He beats Mariam unmercifully, particularly after she has seven miscarriages. The second woman, Laila, is almost twenty years Mariam’s junior. She is beautiful and intelligent and seems like she might have a good life. She falls in love with her best friend Tariq before he and his family flee Kabul, but her home is blown up before she and her parents are able to leave. She is forced to quickly marry Rasheed to cover up the fact that she is pregnant by Tariq.

The women start out as rivals, but eventually come together and attempt to make a livable life for themselves despite the husband that beats them and despite the fact that their home has become a hellscape, particularly for women. Their bond is wonderful. The way that Mariam becomes a second mother both to Laila and to Laila’s children is beautiful. What’s not beautiful is… everything else. There is no escape from the ugliness in this novel. At the risk of spoilers I don’t want to delve too deeply into the ending, but the fact that the only way for a relatively decent ending is more war and more killing is indicative of the bleakness of the novel as a whole.

That is not a criticism. Hosseini is writing about a horrific period of history, and if his book were anything but horrific it would not be real. The truth of the matter is that, like The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns is a novel about unthinkable horrors with only a few bright spots, bright spots so dim you have to squint to see them. Hosseini is a very, very good writer. He captures the period of time he is writing about as well as it is possible to capture something like that. I’m also really impressed by his ability to write about women and their systematic oppression, since that is not something that a lot of male writers excel at.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is an excellent book, but it is very, very hard to read. Every flip of the page brings a fresh horror, so you really need to be in the right frame of mind to read it. And have something light to turn to when you’re done.