Showing posts with label death. Show all posts
Showing posts with label death. Show all posts

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Glance Backward by Pierre Paquet

Title: A Glance Backward
Author: Pierre Paquet (no website found)
Publisher: Magnetic Press
Rating: WORTHY!

Illustrated on average by Tony Sandoval.

This graphic novel tells the story of an eleven year old boy evidently living in Europe who somehow manages to garner for himself a passage through a time warp into another realm. This is somewhat confusing at the beginning, but it makes rather startling sense at the end when we discover what the author's agenda was. I was quite taken with this, and was very pleasantly surprised and found that I liked it all the more for this revelation.

The bringing of hourglasses into the story for me recalled Sandman from the Spider-Man comics - the kid is even wearing a shirt reminiscent of the one which Sandman wore in the third of the initial Spider-man trilogy.

In this new realm in which the boy finds himself, there seems to be a series of mini-realms: this house has many mansions! The boy considers, since he feels he is inside a wall of his own home, that each realm is one of the bricks. This is how we know for certain that this is taking place in Europe rather than the USA - no one has brick walls in the US! Lol!

The boy discovers that he has super powers, after a fashion. At least, he can bust through what appear to be solid walls either with his head (accidentally!) or his fist (in desperation). Each time he breaks through, he finds a different kind of world. Some are all dark, and in more than one of these, he encounters a man carrying a candle, and wearing a hat and rain coat, rather like a private detective from popular fifties fiction. The man always quickly speeds away from the boy.

Other realms are different again. One is frozen, one contains some unspecified animal which seems to be hostile. Another is a gorgeous garden. Most of the realms are unpopulated, but in some the boys finds others people, but there is usually only one in any one realm. In one, he encounters a pleasant young woman waiting for a train. In another he finds African tribesmen dancing for rain. In another, there's a man reminiscent of Abe Lincoln who is all but bi-polar. None of these people seem able to help him, and some worlds are downright hostile towards him.

The question is, is this real or is the boy merely using his youthful imagination? Or is something else going on here? Or is it maybe a mix of all three possibilities? I recommend this graphic novel highly. It was touching and engaging, although I have to say that the artwork didn't appeal to me!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Undertaker's Daughter by Kate Mayfield

Title: The Undertaker's Daughter
Author: Kate Mayfield
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Rating: WORTHY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often enough reward aplenty!

If it's the 21st day of December, this this has to be a novel starting with 'U'!

Though the title sounds like one of those pretentious 'literary' works of fiction that medal mills love to lavish their trinkets upon, or perhaps the title of an Audrey Niffeneggar novel, unlike most of my reviews, this isn’t one of a fictional work. You could make a decent argument here that the author is subsuming herself under her father in titling it the way she does: making herself a sub-unit of her father rather than her own person. But the author gets to name their novel, so this is her choice - unless Big publishing™ stepped in and wrenched even those reins from her.

Talking of which, the names have been changed, as they say, in this story, but it is a true story of one woman's upbringing in a funeral home in the sixties and seventies. She was the first person in her family to be carried from the hospital where she had recently been born, directly into a funeral home - where her family lived, and where her life effectively and paradoxically began!

Once the family had moved to a new residence, where her father opened his own funeral parlor on the ground floor of his own home, life became interesting. Her father operated both the funeral home and an ambulance service - not unusual in those days - and they had multiple telephones; they could not afford to disrespectfully miss an important call about someone's dear departed or about someone who needed urgent delivery to the hospital.

It was just as well he didn't ignore the call from a mother-to-be, alone and about to give birth, on a day when the snowy weather was so atrocious that not even the police wouldn't respond! That was the day the undertaker not only made it out there to the house, but learned how to deliver a baby in a hearse, when the child decided it didn't want to wait for the hospital.

There were strict rules in place for conduct in the funeral home. When the funeral was in progress, life upstairs almost went into hibernation: the phones were muted, cooking was carefully monitored to avoid strong smells which might permeate downstairs, movement was reduced to tip-toeing, and conversation trimmed to a whisper, with TV and radio turned off.

The author had a rather strict upbringing, especially by modern standards, and her mother's intransigence and disciplinarian attitude eventually forced her into her spending more and more of her time in her father's funereal domain. It's strange to think of it like that, isn't it: to think that an environment can be so unappealing to you that you'd rather be in a funeral home?!

On that score, humor isn’t absent from this story. There are endless stories to be enjoyed here, and there's a sly (and occasionally not so sly) vein of humor running through them. The tone of the novel is perky and vibrant throughout. Curious asides about "the Egg Man" (long before The Beatles sang it!) and interesting phrases like "enough hairspray to kill a cat" abound making this a really engaging and interesting read.

The humor is matched equally with sadness, not just from the upset of people dying who were known to the family, and young children dying who were known personally to the author. There's also racism and the desegregation that really wasn't. On top of all that, there's a rivalry between her father's funeral services and those of the other guy in town. Note that this was not the guy who took care of black funerals, with whom her father got along famously, if secretly. No, this was rivalry with the guy who had the ear of the hospital's director, and some rich businessmen who had financial interests in burials for one reason or another.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading this. This book is very different form my usual fare, and it;s probably because of that that i enjoyed it so. I recommend this book as a good read, a trip through history, and a very personal account of life in the sixties and seventies.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Before I Die by Jenny Downham

Title: Before I Die
Author: Jenny Downham
Publisher: Random House
Rating: WARTY!

Tessa dies at the end. This novel isn't about whether she'll survive, but about what she does before she's no more. And I didn't find anything in it to like. Except maybe the cover! Yeah, I know I typically pan the cover (on those rare occasions when I have anything at all to say about it) because covers are rarely the work of the author, and they rarely have anything to do with the content of the novel, but in this case, surprisingly, the cover actually was appropriate.

I could see the model being Tess. You couldn't really see her hair, but it looked like it might be missing. Her face is in sharp relief against the out-of-focus background and it looks haunted and in pain. It's brilliant. That's obviously why Big Publishing$trade; decided to change it for one that has a fluffy dandelions on it, bless their little haute couture cotton socks.

Before I Die was Jenny Downham's debut novel. I read and really enjoyed You Against Me by this author (it was one of the very first books I reviewed on this blog), so I was curious to compare that with something else of hers, especially since it deals with a similar theme to two other novels I've reviewed recently: Virgin by Radhika Sanghani, and Unintentional Virgin by A J Bennett.

This novel is written in first person PoV which makes zero sense. The writer is dead. There is no mention of her keeping a journal, much less recording observations of her daily life down to exact conversations and, for example, every single thing she experienced while under the influence of mushrooms.

This was the first thing which turned me off of this novel, because it was so glaringly and patently fake from the outset. I could never believe it. Was I expected, for example, to accept that even when she was rotting in her bed, dying, incapable of moving or even speaking, that she was typing this out on her computer keyboard? I mean seriously, step back for once, and look at this from outside that cozy little make-believe box, and honestly see just how pathetic and absurd this truly is.

I know writers labor under the sad delusion that they're making it more immediate and more accessible when they put you right up there front and center, in the main character's shoes, but that doesn't work on me, especially when the character is supposed to die! It's a ridiculous conceit and it simply makes me laugh because it's so ludicrous, which I'm sure is the last emotion Downham wanted a reader to feel. Worse than that, this 1PoV approach makes it "all about me all the time", and that's the very last perspective to present for a character who was profoundly selfish and thoughtless to begin with.

Yes, Tessa, I'm talking about you. Tessa's desire to lose her virginity at least has some sort of rationale. Unlike the other two novels where it's the central theme, in this one it's only a small part of a larger picture. Tessa is dying of cancer. She's created a list of ten things (which expands to more) to do before she dies, and this is number one.

I found myself wondering why a young girl would make this particular item number one, but I found myself wondering more what the other things were. They turned out to be rather disappointing and she evidenced little interest and less effort in pursuing them, preferring instead to sit around either moping or lost in regretful thoughts that she wasn't going to get them done. Excuse me? How about getting off your idle ass and doing them instead of sitting around bemoaning your hopelessness? In the end she simply gave up on the list, revealing how fake and manufactured it had been all along.

One of the items was to try drugs, another was to break the law. I can see how a person in her position would not care too much about her future. Even if she died from a drug overdose, she wouldn't be losing very much, but if she broke the law and was imprisoned, that would make her last days rather stunted, wouldn't it? There seems to be less thought in the list than there does an author's need to be controversial and maybe win a book medal for it.

Indeed, a repeated theme in the novel was Tessa experiencing something she's never noticed before, and I could only think how pathetic, and limited, and blinkered she must have been to have gone through life without ever noticing how a tree trunk feels, how grass feels between your toes, how beautiful and fragile birds are. Seriously, did you never open your eyes once for your first twelve years, Tessa, because you've left it way too late if you're just now opening them.

Or does Downham think there's anything new in what she's writing here - something no one else but she has ever thought of or seen? Yes, that's how you win Newberry medals, by treating your readers like they're blind and clueless, but but I got news for writers like this: I do the things Tessa does, and I do them every day. It's wonderful, and it's not some magical secret only the dying can know. It's not as revelatory as Downham has evidently deluded herself into swallowing. She's not the first person ever to think about these things, much less to notice them. All anyone need do is open their eyes to what's around them.

Tessa's law-breaking venture turned out to be shoplifting, for which she got caught, but she was let go with a warning. She broke the law again later, taking her dad's car (without having a license to drive) to the beach where she went as a child. This a girl who claims she wants to take a train ride as part of her list, but instead she effectively steals her dad's car, inconveniencing and worrying the only person who truly cares about her and is actually busting his ass trying to help her. Stupid much, Tessa? The drugs came in the form of mushrooms collected by her neighbor, Adam, a young guy who's taking care of his mother, a woman who was debilitated by the loss of her husband in an accident. Keep her in mind for later and an astounding exhibition of pure selfishness on Tessa's part.

Adam is the trope male love interest, of course, so naturally he has a motorbike and leather jacket. Barf. Why not just name Tessa 'Eve' and have done with it? Her bucket list could be the temptation, and her death, the expulsion from Eden. Paradise Upchucked. It was a bit sad that even in a novel such as this, trope guy has to put in an appearance. Girls are useless without them, aren't they - at least, that's the vision of far too many YA authors, all of them female themselves, strangely enough. Thus is Tessa's family sold out for a stranger on the shore.

Then Tessa isn't a likable person. Not at all. She's selfish and manipulative. She's combative and mean. She uses and abuses people. She cares not a whit for the inconvenience or feelings of others, because it's all Tess all the time and nothing and no one else matters. There are no redeeming features in this character, no matter how much you think you can justify it by shamelessly brandishing the C card in front of your readers. Tess is an angry and resentful teenager who sees no reason to give life a break when it gave her none and who acts out accordingly and consequences be damned. Why should she care when it's others who must pay for her free ride?

Look at it this way: If this novel had been exactly the same, except that Tessa had not had cancer, but had died instead at the end in an accident, or from a drug overdose or by violence, would this novel have got anywhere near the tear-stained reviews it has? I submit that it most certainly would not, and that tells you all you need to know about it. Instead of being praised and cried over, she would have been denounced, and loudly.

Her problem really isn't so much that she's dying, it's that she doesn't know exactly how long she has. Even condemned prisoners know when their last day will be. Tessa doesn't and in this regard she's no different from a person who's lived to a ripe old age. They know death is right around a corner, they just don't know precisely around which corner it awaits them. We're actually all in that boat, but while most of us have hope of a long life before it happens, too many of us do not.

Tessa has the grave disadvantage of not having lived a long life before her number comes up, which makes me question her sorry habit of wasting so many of her days wallowing. Sadly, even when she wises up to this and decides to take the reins, she takes them only half-heartedly, and it by no means makes her a better person. All her relationships, particularly with her dad and her best friend Zoey, are roller-coaster, one day loving them, the next fighting them resentfully. He behavior towards her father is monstrous and inexcusable.

This is the guy who is taking care of her, as he has done for the last four years. He quit his job to do this (no explanation as to how the hell he manages to go for four years out of work and yet the family isn't even remotely in dire financial straits). Tessa's mom abandoned her when Tessa got sick, and now barely is involved in her life at all. Her mother is a loser and a useless appendage at best, and yet Tessa treats her with far more respect and regard than ever she gives her father. Tessa is, quite simply, a jerk.

So Tessa created this bucket list, but she seems less interested in doing things which are truly meaningful than she is in checking things off the list just for the sake of it, and just for shock value. Utility or real value doesn't enter into it. She shares this situation with Karma in Unintentional Virgin a little bit. Karma's list was fake, culled from the Internet, so she had as little invested in it as Tessa seems to.

When I had a good idea of how I was going to rate this, I read a bunch of reviews, pos and neg, just to see if I missed anything worth talking about, and I really had not, but I did notice one short review which berated this novel for being all about sex. I don't know which novel that reviewer read, but it was not this one! The "deflowering" occurs around page 24, and then there isn't another real visitation with sex for two hundred pages. Clearly that reviewer was delusional. If you're going to pan this, fine, but at least pan it for its failures, not for your own sheltered and prudish views.

The first sex episode was when Tessa and Zoey picked up two guys at random at a club, went back to their place and had sex. It wasn't anything at all, and it wasn't earth-moving, and it was dealt with simply and quickly and then it was over. Zoey continued to see her guy, but Tessa did not. Zoey became pregnant. This was nothing but pure and simple amateurish 'trite in the raw'. Oh, thinks newbie author, I'm killing off the main protag, therefore I should bring in a new baby and win a Newberry. Barf.

A classic example of how bad Tessa is - how bad this novel is - is when she gets a nose-bleed right before she's supposed to go on a date with Adam. Her mother is there that night, and is completely and utterly useless, but Tessa herself is also useless. Neither of them has any idea how to deal with the nose-bleed - and this includes the patient who has been touted to us hitherto as the expert on all things medical - because she has to be.

Never once do they think of calling an ambulance. In normal circumstances that would be entirely inappropriate, but here it would be the sensible thing to do. But why be sensible here when the rest of this novel isn't? Despite all of her thoughts being focused on Adam and on her date with him that night, never once does selfish Tessa think of calling or texting him and putting off the date, or of asking him to drive them to the hospital!

When he shows up at the door for his date, and does offer to drive them, this guy whom she supposedly loves is pushed away and turned out. And so much does he love Tessa that he never shows up at the hospital. Instead, this dickhead lards up Tessa's route home with banners bearing her name. This is not how you write realistic fiction, this is how you sell out your integrity to win a medal to get a movie made. This part made me truly sick and flushed away everything this author was purportedly trying to do here. This is when I honestly rated this novel warty.

When I decided to ditch it unfinished was the very next chapter, where Tessa demands from her father that Adam move in with her. Fuck Adam's mother who needs him, this is Tessa and her needs supersede anyone else's because she's the big T with the big C. Tessa herself says, "Every night he goes home to keep his mother safe. He sleeps just metres away from me...." That's how appallingly selfish she is. She already has him nearly all the time, and he lives literally next door, but that can't possibly be enough for Princess Tessa. When she can't get what she wants, she rushes off upstairs slamming doors like the total child that she is.

That was it for me. Check please I'm outta here. This novel was genital warty. I don't care what happens in the last 100 pages. You should ditch it too, and go read You Against Me instead. That's something I never would have done had I read this first.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The After Girls by Leah Konen

Title: The After Girls
Author: Leah Konen
Publisher: Adams Media Corporation
Rating: worthy!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of my reviews so far, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley, and is available now.

I am not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration of any kind for this review. Since this is a new novel, I don't feel comfortable going into anywhere near as much detail over it as I have with the older books I've been reviewing! I cannot rob the author of her story, so this is shorter, but most probably still be more detailed than you'll typically find elsewhere!

This novel is very well written, although there are a few technical glitches I've noticed, FYI the author and editor:

"There were a lot of places like around here" (p5) I suspect it should be "There were a lot of places like that around here".

There's a missed carriage-return between two speeches from different characters (p98).

"Just let me know I you need me" should be "Just let me know if you need me, presumably (p106).

"...looking at Ella friend in the mirror…" (p158) perhaps ought to be "...looking at her friend in the mirror...", maybe?

"The two of them tread quietly..." (p176) ought to be "The two of them trod quietly..." (wrong tense)?

"She'd thought that his flirtation was Ella was cute…" (p234) should be (I think) "She'd thought that his flirtation with Ella was cute…"

" "He's just such a dick", he said... " (p258) should be, I suspect, " "He's just such a dick", she said... "

"She looked read the words of her song…" (p259), maybe should read "She read the words of her song…"? (remove 'looked')

Other than that, it’s really well written. I liked the way I was pulled into the story, and seduced into caring about the characters, about who they are, what they're going through, how they came to be this way. There's no fakery here. Except for some small issues discussed later, you can believe these people are real, and accept that they feel as they do and behave as they will. It's hard to believe that I'm excited about reading what is, at heart, a depressing story! Nicely done!

The story begins when three friends, in the summer they have before they all go off to college, lose one of their number to suicide. Astrid apparently poisoned herself in the tiny one-room derelict cabin in the woods where the three of them used to meet. Ella found her, and she and Sydney are dealing with this horrific loss in strikingly different ways. The novel alternates between Ella's PoV and Sydney's PoV, but it's all told in third person. Ella is almost paralyzed by Astrid's death, not dealing with it at all well, seeing a cold, black hole everywhere in her life where Astrid should be, whereas Sydney is badly hurt by it, but trying to keep her life from sliding away because of it.

Both of them feel awful in that they think they should have seen this coming: that they should have detected signs; have been able to tell that things were wrong, and have been able to intercept this event and prevent it, and as it turns out, yes, they should have! Ella feels worse at least in part because she found the body. Sydney wasn't with her that day, and she feels bad about that. Ella is having bad dreams about Astrid. Both of them have family and boyfriends, but none of that seems to help; their boyfriends in particular are essentially blind to what they're going through, but the two young women don’t seem to be able to lean on each other, either.

Sydney is in a three-piece folk band, which gives her something to focus on. Ella, unfortunately, has to go back to work at the coffee shop owned by Astrid's mom, Grace, where she worked regularly with Astrid. Astrid's mom has pretty much shut down. She lost her husband some years before, and now Astrid, and it's looking like Grace has pretty much left, too. Her sister comes to stay for a while, and brings Astrid's cousin, Jake, who starts to become friends with Ella, but what gets really weird is when Ella leaves a message on Astrid's F-book page. She wanted to ask why this happened, but chickened out and instead posted "I miss you". The last thing she expected was for Astrid to reply in kind.

Ella is invited by Jake to come over and eat with Astrid's family. This highlights an interesting theme in this novel which is that it’s really about the young people. The adults are nothing but vaguely sketched background figures which is fine, normally, for a YA novel, but in this particular story, where someone has died and made a huge impact, I find Ella's mom's lack of engagement with Ella to be disturbing, especially in light of the fact that there is no hint of any counseling going on, or even being discussed. They're all out of school so a school counselor isn't obviously in the picture, but there's neither sign of such a person taking the initiative and contacting these young women, nor of any other kind of support system here at all, and Ella's mom seems really out of her life. Just saying! There;s also a notable lack of focus on Astrid;s mom, but I have no explanation for this, given what's going on with her.

Anyway, Ella inevitably ends up in Astrid's room and Grace finds her there and rather gracelessly loses it, essentially throwing Ella out of the house. Like a child, Ella runs off into the woods and goes into the cabin, where she finds photos of the three of them on the floor where Sydney left them, and it freaks her out. She hurries over to Sydney's place and tells her what's going on, so the next day they visit the cabin and all the photos are back up on the walls! This freaks out Ella even more, but not Sydney who thinks it’s a sick joke - the photos, the F-book comments, the phone calls - perpetrated by someone playing a trick on Ella, so Ella loses it with Sydney! Now that they're rather on the slide, Jake takes up the slack, inviting Ella to a concert, which she really enjoys. It's almost as if he planned it that way...!

So I have to wonder not only what cousin Jake is up to but also what mom Grace is up to. The pills Astrid used to kill herself were from Grace's large collection of anti-depressants. We've had it revealed that Grace was really, really strict with her - forbidding her to cut her hair, for example, and other eccentricities. Is it possible that Grace really isn’t the sweet second mom which Ella has always accepted her as? Is it possible she killed Astrid for some perceived infraction of her rules? I have to admit that this has crossed my mind! Is Astrid really communicating from the grave or is Sydney right about it all being a sick joke? What if Astrid was less of a victim than a victimizer? Or is Ella so far over the edge that she's doing all of this to herself? She has stolen Astrid's journal, after all.... These are a few of the wild thoughts which ran through my mind during my reading of this novel!

I have a bit of an issue with how the adults relate to the girls in this novel, particularly to Ella. She's talked to by her mom and by Grace and by Caroline (Grace's sister, Jake's mom) like she's a lot younger than 17! OTOH, Ella behaves as if she's a lot younger than 17! I don’t know if that's intentional, or if it's just inappropriately written, but I certainly wouldn’t like being called "sweetie" were I seventeen, male or female. Maybe that's just me!

Somehow Ella talks Sydney and Jake into having a séance at the cabin, and this novel takes a decidedly darker turn after that. There are surprising revelations about Astrid, missing pages from her journal, Sydney's change of heart about Ella's perspective. But what about Ella's shameful memory, after all her denials to herself that she had known anything was wrong, of a truly important interaction with Astrid that should have told her something? Sydney undergoes this same revelation - she should also have noticed something about Astrid given an interaction they had. Both Ella and Sydney had been blind, or distracted, or both, and when the final revelation comes, it’s almost as painful as anything else they've experienced.

I am going to recommend this one because of the quality of the writing and the characterizations; it's so well done that I was willing to forgive some loose ends and red herrings! Go ahead - give it a try and see what you think!