I can't review this book here because I'm under contract to review it elsewhere. So I will just say that I highly recommend Lev Grossman's The Magicians.
Click here to see what other authors have said about it (scroll down the page for blurbs and reviews).
Thursday, August 13, 2009
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
I've recently begun reviewing for SFReader.com, and my first two reviews for them appeared a few days ago. The books are Maledicte by Lane Robins (review here) and The Calling by David Mack (review here). I would also encourage you to check out the rest of the site: SFReader has a treasure trove of archived reviews, and they also have their SFWatcher movie reviews on the same site.
Thursday, July 2, 2009
Last week I saw My Sister's Keeper, starring Abigail Breslin, Cameron Diaz, Sofia Vassilieva, Jason Patric, and Alec Baldwin. The movie is based on the book of the same title by Jodi Picoult; it is considered by many to be her best work. I was slightly reluctant to see the movie, in part because I wasn't sure that the book's alternating first-person narration would translate well to the screen, and in part because I have been known to cry so hard during sad movies that I've given myself a migraine. (That actually happened to me when I saw Regarding Henry about a million years ago.)
Fortunately, I didn't quite give myself a migraine this time, although I did cry during this movie. A lot. The quick and dirty version is that a teenaged girl named Kate Fitzgerald is dying from a somewhat rare form of leukemia. Back when Kate was diagnosed as a little girl, the doctor suggested that her parents conceive a child specifically selected to be a perfect donor match for Kate. Hence Anna is born, and her cord blood and eventually her bone marrow help improve Kate's condition. Now, however, Kate has relapsed and has gone into kidney failure. Since Anna obviously has the perfect kidney for Kate, Kate's mother Sara assumes it's a done deal, until she is served with legal papers stating that Anna, at age thirteen (eleven in the movie), is suing her parents for the medical rights to her own body.
[Spoilers for both book and movie below.]
To go back to the source material, this was the first book by Jodi Picoult that I ever read. Although I don't normally read much mainstream fiction or "women's novels" (if that's an accurate description), I was so involved in the story that I stayed up until about three a.m. the first time I read it. I was also impressed by Picoult's skillful use of multiple first-person points of view. Every character except Kate speaks about how Kate's illness affects the entire family, and this technique allows the reader to seriously consider every angle of this very controversial subject. It was beautifully done.
However, the book also pulled a one-two punch in terms of the ending. The first whammy was that the real reason Anna instigated the lawsuit was because Kate had asked her to. Kate was ready to die, yet she knew her mother would never stop trying to force the doctors to take increasingly extraordinary measures to keep her alive, no matter how little quality of life remained, and no matter how it impacted Anna. I was floored when I read this, and moved by both Kate and Anna's bravery.
The second whammy was that Anna wins the case, the court grants her lawyer Campbell medical guardianship only Anna until she's a bit older, and then, on the way home from the trial (I cringe even to type that, because I know how ludicrous it sounds), they're in a car accident. Anna is declared brain dead, and Kate gets that kidney after all. Many readers were infuriated by this ending, which they saw as unrealistic and manipulative. I was shocked, and maybe a bit annoyed, but the ten-years-later epilogue, in which we hear Kate's voice for the first time, blew me away. Kate is an adult, miraculously in remission again but still deeply mourning Anna's death, and Anna turns out to be the sister whose death defines the family.
So for me, on the way in to see the movie, my questions were:
I realized pretty quickly that I probably didn't want them to change the ending. Whether people liked it or not, it was what it was. So back to the first question: how well did this book translate to the screen? Unfortunately, in spite of terrific acting by just about everyone -- and Joan Cusack needs a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role as the judge, by the way -- the movie just doesn't quite gel. It isn't terrible, and is in fact quite moving, but the alternating voice-over narration seems contrived rather than clever; each character's name is even flashed up on the screen the first time that character "talks", which is reminiscent of the book's chapter headings but just plain silly in this medium. The spoken narration also drives home how unrealistically deep and poetic each person's thoughts are, something that is much easier to overlook in the printed form.
Another issue is that Kate herself narrates large portions of the movie, taking away the book's brilliant construction, which showed how Kate's illness defines the family even when Kate herself is temporarily taken out of the equation. And finally, the movie has a confusing welter of lengthy flashbacks, including several clunky ones that literally happen mid-scene while the character gazes off into space, "thinking back." I almost expected the screen to go all wavy, like the TV sitcom cliché.
Before I go further, though, there are some things I think the movie does right. It wisely eliminates two of the book's subplots that would have overcrowded the film. Kate and Anna's brother Jesse, while still troubled and neglected, is no longer a serial arsonist. Campbell's love interest in the book, an old flame assigned by the court as an advocate for Anna, is completely absent from the movie, although Campbell's epilectic condition and his service dog remain. And I have to say, I think the casting was pretty inspired -- and I had been unsure about Cameron Diaz.
But. But but but but. For me, there is more wrong than right with this film, some of which has to do with the ending and some of which doesn't. I'm not without sympathy for the filmmakers, because that was quite a decision they had to make. Even if half of Picoult's readers loved the book's double-whammy ending, the other half probably hated it -- and any viewers who hadn't read the book probably would have stomped right out of the theater in disgust. So it doesn't surprise me at all that the filmmakers felt they had to change it. In the movie, then, Kate just dies, Anna then receives the now-moot winning verdict, and the whole family picks up and moves on. To be fair, it is revealed that Kate wanted Anna to bring the lawsuit, which is probably why the mother sorta kinda learns to let go, but in my opinion the revelation is clumsily handled and doesn't receive enough attention.
However, while the filmmakers' choice was not unexpected, it does surprise me that Picoult, according to her website, didn't have any control over it. I know perfectly well that 99 out of 100 authors have no hope of retaining any control over content when they sell the film rights to their work. But although I never would want to become a diva author, I know that if I had written that book, which was a bestseller, I sure as heck would have tried to retain some level of approval, because I would have known full well that any filmmakers would want to monkey with the ending. And since Picoult is a bestseller, she's got a lot better chance of calling the shots than do most writers. I'm dying to know if Picoult and her agent even tried, but of course that's their business, not mine.
In any case, what bothers me far more than the changed ending is the changed focus. This is not a movie about the rights of a child whom the parents have conceived for a particular purpose -- a purpose that might be physically and mentally detrimental to that child. Instead, it is a movie about a teenage girl dying from cancer, period. As such, it breaks no new ground. In fact, the review in People magazine states that "the movie wanders off track early, devoting too much time to an unlikely story line about the youngest child (Breslin) suing her parents for 'medical emancipation.'"
However unlikely that story line may be, it was the book's raison d'être. Which means that what I saw onscreen was not necessarily a bad movie, but it wasn't My Sister's Keeper.
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
There is so much that 19 Girls and Me gets right that I suspect I'm more disappointed than I otherwise would be with the one aspect I think it gets wrong. Nonetheless, this is a lovely children's book and one that I will consider giving as a gift.
Written by Darcy Pattison and illustrated by Steven Salerno, this picture book first grabbed my attention with its terrific eye-catching cover. The story follows new kindergartner John Hercules Po, who arrives on the first day of class to find that he is one boy among nineteen girls. His older brother warns him that all those girls will turn him into a sissy, but John learns that his new friends are just as imaginative and active as he is, and they add new elements to their play that he might not have thought of.
First what's right: The cover shows all twenty students, and I love that they're not monochromatic. Several ethnicities are represented, and I'm amazed how Salerno managed to create twenty distinct characters using very simple lines. Even better, all of the children appear on almost every page, and they each retain their distinct characteristics -- in fact, on repeat readings, it would be a fun game to have a child pick their favorite character on the cover and then find that character on each subsequent page. Aside from the characters, the rest of the illustrations are colorful, appealing, and even imaginative in the way they are positioned on the pages.
The text is also fun. There is just enough repetition that the phrase "nineteen girls and one lone boy" becomes familiar but not tedious. The children have lovely imaginative adventures, such as climbing Mount Everest, digging a tunnel to China, and floating down the Amazon River.
So what is my one quibble? Each day when the children go out for recess, John is the one to decide on the imaginative adventure of the day. Perhaps it could be argued that it's necessary for the repetitive structure of the story, and I do like the fact that once John has started the adventure, the girls add some new element to it. But couldn't this story have been told with a different child instigating the adventure each day? Is it really realistic that out of a group of nineteen little girls, not one of them would be outgoing enough to propose an adventure? Seriously, on the first day of kindergarten, would nineteen little girls allows one little boy to become the group's de facto leader? They do still contribute, and I don't want to be too hard on an author and artist who are clearly attempting to show that both sexes have value -- it's the point of the book, in fact. But I'm a little uncomfortable with it the way it is, and really would have loved it if a different child proposed the adventure each day.
This concern also extends to the illustrations, as much as I love them. When John proposes climbing Mount Everest, he is shown as the first up the ladder, with nineteen little girls following behind him. When they build a race car, John is shown driving it with nineteen little girls sitting behind him. To be fair, when the children reach the Great Wall of China, the children march along behind a Chinese soldier and John is third in line rather than first, and the Amazon and skyscraper/moon adventures are not so "ordered" that it's obvious that one child is leading. But the illustrations of John on the ladder and especially driving the race car really jumped out at me, in spite of the fact that I am usually not hyperaware of this kind of thing.
As I said, the book has far more going for it than not, and I truly do love the illustrations. I think, though, that I'd be much more comfortable giving this book to a little boy than a little girl. Overall it's a great message for boys -- it's not only okay, but often a lot of fun to play with girls. Better yet, they should be thought of as friends, not pointedly as girls. However, I'd be less likely to give this book to a little girl, because I wouldn't want her to absorb the message that the boys think up the ideas and the girls follow. On the one hand, I managed to grow up and be pretty assertive, even though I'm sure I digested lots of biased books and television shows in my childhood. On the other hand, studies have shown.... well, you know what studies have shown. Many little girls grow up unable to assert themselves.
In the end, in my opinion this is a very good book. It's just not quite great, which it could have been.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
I find it an interesting juxtaposition that my review of Jodi Picoult's Handle with Care comes right after my commentary on the Battlestar Galactica finale, for reasons I think will become obvious. Please note that there will be detailed spoilers after the cut, not only for Handle with Care, but also for Picoult's earlier novel, My Sister's Keeper, and for Battlestar Galactica.
Judging by the numbers on LibraryThing, I'm not the only one who thinks that My Sister's Keeper has been Jodi Picoult's most significant work to date. As of this writing, there are 7,357 copies of the book cataloged on Library Thing, with an average rating of 4.12 out of 5 stars. The next closest book is Nineteen Minutes with 3,531 copies and a 4.04 rating, which is quite a difference. Of course, Handle with Care has only been out a matter of weeks, so it can't fairly be compared on the numbers with My Sister's Keeper. But I can and will compare it in another way; the success or failure of its ending, and the trust that readers place in authors, or television show creators.
I hope you'll forgive me in advance, because this review is going to meander all over the place. I'll start with Battlestar Galactica, which just recently ended a four-year run with a the explanation that God was behind all the mysterious happenings and prophecies and unexplained phenomena. Viewers have been vigorously debating the ending ever since, because science fiction fans generally do not like divine explanations for their plots. Many have referenced the term deus ex machina, one meaning of which is a plot device that does not follow from before, but is rather whipped out by the author at the last minute in an effort to sew things up.
While I certainly prefer scientific explanations myself, and am in fact an atheist, I didn't feel "cheated" by Battlestar Galactica's ending, as so many fans did. I felt that the show's creators had made it pretty obvious all along that a divine explanation was a definite possibility, because the characters constantly expressed their thoughts and speculations as to whether or not God (or the gods) was interfering. To me, it was not a deus ex machina because it didn't come out of nowhere. I also didn't feel personally betrayed by the show's creators. It may not have been the story as I would have chosen to tell it, but I didn't feel as though I had been manipulated under false pretenses.
So how does this relate to Jodi Picoult? Well, even though My Sister's Keeper seems to be her most popular book, many readers felt cheated by the ending. Not in a deus ex machina way, exactly, but because they felt the ending was contrived, unrealistic, and emotionally manipulative.
My Sister's Keeper centers around Anna, a 12 or 13 year old (if I recall correctly) girl who knows she was conceived to provide stem cell donor material for her older sister Kate, who has leukemia. It didn't end there, however; Kate subsequently needed bone marrow from Anna, and now needs a kidney. But Anna engages a lawyer to sue for medical emancipation from her parents, so that she can make her own medical decisions. This type of premise is exactly where Jodi Picoult's strength lies: she chooses hot-button topics (other books have covered parental kidnapping, school shootings, and date rape), and she really makes the reader consider all possible sides of the story. She also creates beautifully layered characters, in this case by giving us first-person chapters by everyone except Kate. I was completely enthralled with this book.
And then came the ending. A nice twist that worked well was that Kate was the one who urged Anna to instigate the lawsuit in the first place. It was a little contrived that readers didn't learn this until the end of the trial, because Anna had been relating large parts of the story, and obviously she knew but conveniently didn't tell us. But that's not what readers objected to. Most readers probably expected, and would have been happy with the ending, if Anna won the lawsuit and then chose to donate a kidney to Kate. Instead, Anna wins the lawsuit and then is killed in a car crash on the way home from the trial. She arrives brain-dead at the hospital where Kate lays dying, and her lawyer, who now has the right to make medical decisions concerning Anna, gives permission for the doctors to give Anna's kidney to Kate.
This is extremely contrived. What are the odds that a young girl, who minutes before won the right to choose whether or not to be a living donor, would get killed in a car accident just then? And that she would be brain dead but with her organs perfectly intact? It's not only contrived, it's emotionally manipulative because the reader has already been through the wringer with this family. In a way, it's like the author saying "Ha! I still surprised you! You thought you were safe!"
But to be honest, I didn't really mind too much. While I absolutely recognized the contrivance, I loved the poignancy of Kate's epilogue several years later, which is the first time we hear her voice in the story. It let us see that Kate has survived into adulthood against the odds, and that she feels Anna's absence like a missing limb, even years later. In other words, I was willing to forgive Jodi Picoult for being so manipulative because I found a poetic symmetry and tragic beauty in what happened, and also because I knew Anna was selfless enough to want to give Kate her kidney. She just didn't want to be forced to do it against Kate's wishes.
And now we come to Handle with Care.
Part of the problem is that Picoult has found a formula that works for her, and she is duplicating it to the point that long-time Picoult readers can predict most of her books' endings with a great degree of accuracy. In Handle with Care, Charlotte sues her obstetrician -- who is also her best friend -- in a wrongful birth lawsuit, because her younger daughter, Willow, has osteogenesis imperfecta, which means a lifetime of disability, pain, and broken bones, with all the resulting medical bills. Charlotte is desperate for money to provide Willow with the ability to survive into adulthood with some quality of life, and if that means lying and saying she would have aborted the fetus if her obstetrician had recognized the condition, she'll do it.
There are many parallels to My Sister's Keeper. Two sisters, one healthy and one ill. The lengths to which a parent will go to protect a child. The effect of a child's serious illness on the other siblings. The strain on the marriage. Lots of unlikely coincidences that show up in the placement and dealings of minor characters. Chapters alternating by character viewpoint -- although in Handle with Care Picoult uses the odd convention of having each character addressing his/her words directly to Willow, to the point of saying when "you" did this and when "you" did that.
And the ultimate parallel: the contrived, manipulative ending. Things look like they'll be okay: Charlotte wins the lawsuit, even though her husband Sean testifies for the other side, because he can't bear to have it publicly stated that they'd be better off if Willow had never been born. They are awarded $8 million, Charlotte and Sean reconcile, Willow's older sister Amelia finally starts dealing with her bulimia and cutting, and the family now has a financial cushion for future medical needs, even though they haven't cashed the check yet. So what happens? Willow, who has always envied Amelia's ability to ice skate, crawls out on the frozen pond near their house, falls through, and drowns. You have got to be kidding me.
As with Kate in My Sister's Keeper, this is the first time we hear Willow's own voice, but it doesn't quite make sense in this case because she's alone when she dies, so who is recording these thoughts for us? I can overlook that, but I'm not sure I can forgive Picoult for choosing this ending in the first place. It's beautifully written, with Willow's metaphoric thoughts (ice breaking, instead of her bones this time) and lack of regret. But for me, there is no symmetry or necessity. All it does is heap further suffering on a family that has already been through so much, and on the reader who is experiencing it all vicariously.
And I don't find it at all realistic. Willow is six but reads voraciously, on a sixth-grade level. Did she really not know that the ice in ponds can break? I imagine we're supposed to believe that Willow was so limited in her activity that it never occurred to anyone to tell her the ice itself was treacherous, as opposed to her falling on ice and breaking her bones. What, did she never hear the parents tell Amelia not to skate on the pond unless they'd checked the ice first? I think we're also supposed to be touched that Charlotte tucks the $8 million check into the lining of Willow's casket without cashing it, because in her mind, that money was for Willow. Yes, poetic, Charlotte, but how about giving that money to the Osteogenesis Imperfecta Foundation? And again, how about some realism? Would the insurance company not wonder why the check wasn't cashed? They can reissue the check, so Charlotte's action isn't "final" anyway. Besides, an $8 million award doesn't mean an $8 million check -- the prosecuting law firm takes its cut out before the client sees anything. Yes, I'm nitpicking now, but that's how much Picoult annoyed me this time around. I mean, it's not as though we were expecting Willow to be cured by an act of God, or a televangelist! Can this writer give us anything?
OK, deep breath while I get a hold of myself. There is much more, good and bad, that can be said about Handle with Care, and it doesn't always have to be in comparison to My Sister's Keeper. For instance, I liked Willow as a character. I learned a lot about osteogenesis imperfecta. I saw many sides of the "wrongful birth" issue -- not the least of which is that others with the same disease felt as if they were being told they all should have been aborted. I was truly touched when Charlotte took Willow to an osteogenesis imperfecta convention and they interacted with others affected by this disease for the first time. I sympathized with Charlotte, and with Piper the obstetrician. I enjoyed the metaphorical use of recipes throughout the book -- before Willow, Charlotte was a pastry chef, and she equates many baking terms with what is happening in her life.
There were things I didn't like. As per the Picoult formula, Amelia goes on the stand in a "surprise" move for the "big reveal", which anticlimactically turns out to be that she overheard her mother say that she wouldn't have aborted Willow no matter what. I absolutely could have done without Amelia's bulimia and cutting, because there actually are some children and young adults who deal gracefully with ongoing, difficult situations. I didn't like the Piper's quirky new obsession with house renovation -- metaphors are great, but let's not beat them to death (no pun intended).
In the end, Picoult has the right to write the books she wants, and I as the reader have to decide if I will keep reading her books. I suspect I will, but for once I don't mind waiting a year or two before her next book comes out. And I'll continue to read them at the library first, and only buy the ones that engage me more than they annoy me (to date, I have only kept My Sister's Keeper and Vanishing Acts). After all, fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice.... And I do feel a bit fooled by Handle with Care, even though I didn't particularly feel that way for My Sister's Keeper. I'm not sure that's rational on my part, but there it is.
I feel better now.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
[Please be aware that there are massive spoilers behind the cut!]
In an effort to avoid posting spoilers, I didn't even title this post as I wanted to, which was:
"Why This Atheist is OK with Battlestar Galactica's Divine Explanation".
First, I have two caveats. The first is that I have a personal connection to this show, so I know I'm not completely objective. However, it had already been my favorite show before that connection was made, so I don't think this is just my bias talking. Secondly, all of this is just my opinion, and therefore doesn't mean squat. And I actually do agree with a lot of the criticism of the finale I've seen floating around.
Before I went to Clarion West in 2000, I read only science fiction. Hard or soft, technical or social, but it had to be science fiction. I had no patience at all for fantasy, because I had no interest in magic or supernatural explanations. I craved something that just maybe could really happen someday.
Thankfully, and largely because of Clarion West in 2000, I've since broadened my reading horizons, and have particularly enjoyed Glenda Larke's Isles of Glory trilogy, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, the Harry Potter books, several Patricia McKillip titles, and so on. Trust me, I still prefer science fiction, and I still get annoyed when a tale I'm enjoying as science fiction goes all religion on me in the end, which I experienced a bit with David Brin’s Kiln People, for instance.
So now that I do like fantasy, I can enjoy different kinds of fantasy –- and to me, that's just what religion is. Divine intervention is no different than magic in my mind, and I just don't believe it does or can happen. (I mean no offense to anyone who does have religious faith.) To me, then, the entire new Battlestar Galactica series (nuBSG) is fantasy. Science fantasy, to be sure, but fantasy. I don’t believe that the events in nuBSG could happen, just as I don't believe that the events in Lord of the Rings could happen, just as I . . . you get the drift.
I have to admit that I would have preferred some things to be a little different in nuBSG's season 4.5 and the finale:
BUT here’s what I’ve loved about this season and finale:
OK. All that said, I can see why many science fiction fans are infuriated at the divine intervention explanation. A friend said, and I agree, that we don’t like it when SF writers use divine intervention to “explain their way out of something they couldn't find a resolution for.”
But that’s not what happened here, in my opinion. They didn’t start a story about genetic engineering and cyborgs, and then say three seasons later “Crap! What’ll we do? I know, we’ll make it that it was God’s plan!” Rather, they planned to tell a God/gods story all along. I’m not sure I could fault a show for being about God when they were pretty upfront all along, saying, “hey, we're going to tell this story about God, and God's plan, and God's children, and their children, both real and artificially created, and....” Do people think the show was not upfront about that? Or is it possible that science fiction viewers deliberately overlooked the fact that the show was screaming "religion!", and went ahead and imposed their science fiction expectations on the show because it had spaceships and robots?
Even the original BSG show was based on the Mormons' 13 tribes -- which I didn't know when I was ten years old, of course. I just figured they picked the astrological signs because it was neat! For me, this is a bit similar to Buffy -- in many ways I disliked the whole heaven/hell schtick. And the fact that the Christian symbol of the cross really did ward off vampires kind of "validated", in the context of the show, that Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular were "right", which I don't believe. But it fit within the context of the show, and I could either accept that or not watch.
In nuBSG, that ending –- including Kara being an angel – fit within the context of the story they had been telling for four years. They chose a direction from the beginning –- not the direction I would have chosen -- and once they chose it they stuck with it.
I also note that they also happened to choose one of the most clichéd plots in all of genre fiction -- I have criticized new aspiring writers for this very same, lame Adam and Eve plot. But that's why the execution is the thing. And the overall execution of the story that they wanted to tell was, for me, gorgeous. It wasn't perfect. But three of my other in-genre favorites -- Next Gen, DS9, and Babylon 5 -- have episodes that I'm not sure you could pay me to sit through again. Firefly and nuBSG are the only shows for which I can't think of a single episode I would refuse to watch. Pound for pound, the new Battlestar Galactica is the best television show of any genre that I've ever seen.
Monday, February 2, 2009
[Due to a slight mix-up, this review did not appear in VOYA as it was supposed to, and therefore the editor has given me the go-ahead to post it here. We're limited to 250 words for VOYA reviews, and our reviews are written for the audience of librarians who work with young adults, so this will sound quite different than the reviews I usually post here. However, I wanted to go ahead because this book deserves all the positive attention it can get.]
In Venomous, Christopher Krovatin’s second novel, Locke Vinetti’s temper is so volatile that he calls it “the venom.” His mother, younger brother, and friend Randall are the only stabilizing influences in his life until Randall introduces Locke to the troubled but emotionally mature Renée. Equally important, Locke meets Casey, a gay teen whose own explosive anger allows him to truly understand Locke’s constant struggle.
Simply put, this book is a winner. Krovatin has infused a traditional full-length novel with graphic novel sensibilities, both in Locke’s tendency to identify with comic book heroes (and villains) and in the presentation itself, with occasional comic-style illustrations by Kelly Yates. As such, this book will appeal to both genders, and is a particularly good choice for reluctant male readers. Best of all, Venomous teases the reader into questioning, almost until the end, whether “the venom” is an actual supernatural phenomenon or a highly developed coping mechanism.
It should be noted that although Krovatin’s treatment of alcohol and drug use is somewhat casual, his exploration of sex and violence is anything but, tackling the associated emotions with honesty and depth. In addition, while Locke’s estranged father feels generic, Locke’s relationships with his mother and brother are beautifully drawn. The climax is slightly overdramatic, and forgiveness occurs more quickly than seems realistic, but these are minor quibbles. Librarians should be aware of the book’s graphic language and violence, but by all means should get this book into young adult hands.