Tag Archives: social issues

More Happy Than Not

Author: Adam SilveraMore Happy than Not

My rating: 4.5 of 5

WARNING: MATURE AUDIENCE

Every life is a mixture of good stuff and bad stuff. Aaron Soto is no exception, and he tries to be happy with what he’s got. But sometimes it really seems the good just isn’t enough to make up for the bad. Sure, he’s got an incredible girlfriend, a job, a home–but he’s also got the memories of his father’s suicide, his own attempted suicide, poverty, friends who don’t really care. Sometimes it’s so overwhelming that the memory-altering procedure offered by the up-and-coming Leteo Institute really seems like a good option. But when Thomas comes into Aaron’s life, always knowing just what to say, things begin to change . . . for better or for worse.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up More Happy Than Not, and in a lot of senses, this isn’t a book I would usually read. But I have to admit, it pulled me in, right from the first few pages–and the great pacing and interesting story continued throughout. The writing style is very engaging, a personable first-person taste of Aaron. And while his story is certainly sad, it never gets depressing to the point that I didn’t want to continue reading–a balancing act that takes some talent to pull off. There are a lot of things about Aaron that I don’t really care for (like the way he can’t stay committed to a relationship), but the transparent depiction of the conflicts he goes through within himself are honest and moving. And the struggles he deals with in realizing and dealing with his sexuality in a number of senses is eye-opening. I do have to say, the cyberpunk Leteo thing threw me when it became a bigger part of Aaron’s story, although it had kind of been hinted at right from the beginning; I guess I’m just blind in that sense. And the ending really threw me, but at the same time, it works quite well. Finally a word of warning: this is an older YA book, and there is ample sex, drugs, language, violence, etc. But for a mature reader looking for an engaging but challenging story, I think More Happy Than Not is a great choice.

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When Marnie Was There

Studio GhibliWhen Marnie was There

Written by Keiko Niwa, Masashi Andō, & Hiromasa Yonebayashi/Produced by Yoshiaki Nishimura & Toshio Suzuki/Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi/Music by Takatsugu Muramatsu/Based on When Marnie Was There by Joan G. Robinson

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Anna very well understands the way the world works, the fact that some people are accepted and others are necessarily outsiders for whatever reason. She doesn’t question that she herself is an outsider, alone at school, ill-tempered at times, a worry to her foster parents. When her asthma causes the doctor to recommend she be sent away to get some fresh air away from the city though, things begin to change a bit. She stays with relatives (of her foster parents) on an out-of-the-way island where everything seems to be more laid back and she can spend time exploring and drawing alone without being fussed over so much. And in her explorations, Anna finds herself drawn to an old, abandoned manor house across the bay . . . . and it’s at that old manor that she meets Marnie, a girl who will change her life in all sorts of unexpected ways but also a girl who will baffle Anna in many ways.

Okay, before anything else, I’m just going to say that there are going to be spoilers here. Because I have no idea how to honestly review this movie without spoilers. Sorry. So . . . I truly enjoyed When Marnie Was There, although I was kind of baffled through most of the story. It was worth sitting through the confusion, because when everything was explained it was extremely moving to the point that I cried. The way the story develops is almost dreamlike at parts, or rather, it’s as though dreams are being woven throughout Anna’s reality. Or perhaps it’s more as though two disparate points in time are briefly connected. In any case, although at times confusing, the friendship that develops between Anna and Marnie is really sweet and cute. And this is where the spoilers come in: the story totally seems like it’s shoujo ai through most of the plot, but the end reveals something very unexpected and different and absolutely touching. All in all, it’s a sweet story that’s developed quite nicely with plenty of drama and mystery. I appreciate that it also delves into deep issues like child neglect and the insecurity that orphans can feel sometimes even in loving homes. And of course, being a Studio Ghibli film, the art is absolutely stunning; I always enjoy their attention to all the fine details that make the illustration not just nice but amazing. Essentially, I would recommend When Marnie Was There to pretty much anyone, although I will note that if you’re not comfortable with shoujo ai, you might find watching this a bit weird (even though it’s technically not).

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Three Quarters Dead

Author: Richard Peckthree quarters dead

My rating: 3.5 of 5

Life is officially over for Kerry when she is forced to transfer into a new school in the middle of high-school–of course everyone’s already made their friends, formed their cliques, so no one’s interested in hanging out with the new girls. At least, that’s what she thought, until she got an invitation to join the three coolest girls in the school: Natalie, Makenzie, and their queen Tanya. Never mind what they did or asked Kerry to do, of course she’d try to keep up. The three girls became her world. Until they smashed their car into a tree and left her behind . . . . Or did they?

Three Quarters Dead is Richard Peck’s own unique take on the now-popular paranormal genre, and it’s certainly eerie enough. It falls more along the lines of Are You in the House Alone than of his usual ghost stories, and I think that actually works in its favor. Just know, if you’re looking for his hilarious historical fiction, this isn’t the book for you. Kerry’s story is dark–really a ghost story even when everyone is alive. It’s actually pretty terrifying how her entire world shrinks to just Tanya’s group and her time with them. There’s practically no mention of family, hobbies, school–just lunches with the group, hanging on every word that drops from Tanya’s beautiful lips. But the really scary thing is how close Kerry’s situation is to the peer pressure, the necessity of fitting in, that faces kids all over today and the way kids can find themselves drawn so deeply into the situation. And then after the car crash, the way Peck handled the “ghosts” and Kerry’s reactions to them was even more eerie. Brrr. I didn’t love Three Quarters Dead–it’s not really the sort of book you’re supposed to love–but it did creep me out and make me think.

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The Ogre Downstairs

Author: Diana Wynne Jonesthe ogre downstairs

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Johnny, Caspar, and Gwinny are pretty much convinced that their new step-father is the worst thing that could have happened to him; he’s grumpy, demands quiet all the time, doesn’t understand children at all, and gets angry at the slightest things. The three siblings actually call him “the Ogre” when he’s not around to hear. The Ogre’s two sons, Douglas and Malcolm are fairly high on their “worst things” list as well–stuck up prigs that they are. But there’s nothing like a good distraction to keep your mind off your troubles, and the Ogre inadvertently provides the best distraction possible: two chemistry sets (one each for Johnny and Malcolm) that have some most unusual effects. Giving the ability to fly, just for instance. . . . Soon all five children are way out of their depth, experimenting with all sorts of combinations to see what magical effects they can achieve–and trying to clean up the unexpected results!

With her classic good sense and amazing writing, Diana Wynne Jones produces another magical (in all the best senses of the word) tale in The Ogre Downstairs. Although this is an older story (copyright 1974), it’s full of the excellent characterizations, beautifully accessible writing, incredible observation of people, and neverending sense of wonder and adventure that mark, well, all of her works that I’ve ever read. I found it intriguing that, in this story, rather than the usual buildup to a huge finish toward the end, the pacing is more gradual with more seeming to happen right from the start. It actually reminds me of an Edith Nesbit story somewhat, what with the magic chemistry set providing the catalyst for all sorts of rather episodic adventures. Everything ties together beautifully though, which is something I’ve always admired about Jones’ writing. And the characters are wonderful–the kids avoid being stereotypes and are people you can relate to easily, yet each of the five has an individual personality that is kept quite distinct. Very artistically done. My sole complaint, and the one reason this isn’t a 5-star read in my opinion, is that some of the Ogre’s actions were construed, in my mind at least, as being outright abusive–as opposed to a bit ornery and unaccustomed to children but generally well meaning, which I think was the intent. Part of that is the children’s perspective, part is that this is a 70’s story and things were seen differently then, and part is that I work with kids and am trained to be unnaturally sensitive to that sort of thing; however, even with those explanations, the situation was enough to bother me, especially with the ending being what it was. Still, on the whole, even considering that issue, I found The Ogre Downstairs to be a very enjoyable children’s fantasy that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys Jones’ books (or Edith Nesbit’s or Edward Eager’s, for that matter).

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Embroideries

Author/Illustrator: Marjane Satrapiembroideries

My rating: 3.5 of 5

WARNING: MATURE AUDIENCE

After dinner is finished and the men have gone off to nap or whatever, Marji and the other women present settle down over a samovar of tea to gossip. Naturally, in present company, the topic turns to men, sex, and the changing roles of women in Iran as the western world gains more influence on the younger generations. Each woman has her own unique story and perspective, and these nine women are more than ready to share.

Most of you know Marjane Satrapi as the author of the acclaimed PersepolisEmbroideries is a graphic novel that could really be considered a companion volume to Persepolis, being another memoir of the authors, of a sort, and using the same unique but enjoyable art style. It truly is interesting, being invited into an incredibly intimate setting to share in these women’s conversation, and the insight provided into the roles of women in Iran is truly eye-opening. But as I mentioned in the summary, a lot of the talk is about sex, so this is definitely an adult book–I’d say 18+, although most would probably rate it more like 16+. And I’d have to say that the intended audience is primarily female, although I guess some guys might find it interesting–usually probably more like embarrassing, though. I think I’d say that for adult women who enjoyed PersepolisEmbroideries might be an interesting graphic novel to try . . . but I really would limit it to basically that group of individuals.

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The Gift of Sarah Barker

Author: Jane YolenGift of Sarah Barker

My rating: 4 of 5

It is truly stifling to be a free spirit in a world bound up with rules and ceremony. So Sarah finds to be true living in a highly structured Shaker community where every action is watched and judged. Yet though the consequences may be severe if she’s caught, she still dares to slip away to be alone and delight in the birds and beauty surrounding their small community. Meanwhile, Abel finds himself questioning the same rigid Shaker rules, struggling to match them with both reason and with the rampaging thoughts and feelings that growing up is forcing him through. And when he encounters Sarah, when he truly notices her for the first time, something changes irrevocably in a way that would be direly condemned in their society that forbids nearly all interaction between men and women.

How should I say this . . . The Gift of Sarah Barker, based on its cover, is exactly the sort of book I hate: sordid romance made to seem more thrilling by the danger of a highly disapproving society. If it hadn’t been written by Jane Yolen, I would never have even tried reading it. I’m glad I got past the cover (gross misrepresentation, by the way) and gave the story a try. What I found within was an intriguing historical novel, told in two voices, revealing a fascinating view of a most unusual community. I found out things about the Shaker community in the 1850’s that I had never heard of before, so that was interesting. Moreover, Sarah and Abel are well developed individuals who struggle with all sorts of complex issues (ones that are actually applicable to normal people today) and who have characters that I truly enjoyed reading–not just love-struck obsessives. There is a love story involved, true, but it doesn’t take up nearly so much of the book as I had expected AND it’s actually dealt with realistically. I actually would really recommend The Gift of Sarah Barker, especially to young adult (and older) readers who enjoy historical fiction or are interested in this time period.

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Nimona

Author/Illustrator: Noelle Stevensonnimona

My rating: 5 of 5

Lord Ballister Blackheart has settled fairly comfortably into his role as villain and arch-nemesis to his former best friend Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin, enjoying some dabbling in scientific research on the side, when Nimona shows up. This young girl with her shaved head and radical ideas throws Blackheart’s routine all out of whack, claiming to be his new sidekick and quickly demonstrating that his version of villainy–one that is predictable and follows certain set guidelines–is not nearly as villainous as what she can cook up. And while not exactly willing to go along with Nimona’s crazy schemes, Blackheart does certainly find this vivacious young shapeshifter growing on him, making his life more interesting and his home less lonely. Because the truth is that Nimona might just be the most lonely one of all.

I was thrilled to accidentally discover Nimona at the library recently. This graphic novel (which gets bonus points for having started out as a webcomic) is a delight to read throughout. The style is dynamic and unique–I love the visual contrast of magical stuff, knights in armor, and such against science, explosions, and girls turning into sharks! And the characters are great, full of individuality and interesting to try to understand. The story is this great combination; it’s surprising, funny, and heartwarming, sometimes all at once. Theoretically, there’s supposed to be a lot of political/social symbolism and commentary mixed in; honestly, my brain’s too tired to really pick it all out, but it’s a great story even without all that. If you’re up for a graphic novel that’s a bit out of the ordinary in an awesome sort of way, I would definitely recommend Nimona as a great, fun read.

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