Saturday, November 19, 2011


 Patrick's house was a ghost. Dust coated the windows, the petunias in the flower boxes bowed their heads, and spiderwebs clotted the eaves of the porch. Once I might have marveled at the webs – how delicate they were, how intricate – but today I saw ghastly silk ropes.

Patrick was found left for dead outside the Come 'n' Go where he works, with an anti-gay slur written on his bare chest. When the town sheriff doesn't seem to be inclined to find the real culprit, Cat Robinson, Patrick's former best friend, decides to start her own investigation even if it means knocking on the doors of people she hasn't talked to in years.

I usually don't read a lot of YA novels, mostly because as I'm difficult in my choice of books, I'm afraid they might not suit my reading expectations. So, either Lauren Myracle's novel, Shine (2011), is an exception or I'm actually missing something passing over YA fiction. Obviously, as I'm not an avid reader of this sort of books, I don't spend much time looking for them (usually I just wait for them to magically appear on my shelves). 

And I know they say to never judge a book by its cover, but if I found myself reading the synopsis of Shine, it was mainly because I found the cover art amazingly beautiful (it is a nice covert art, right?). But once the book is open, the colorful cover gives way to a dark page featuring a newspaper article. Believe me, there is no light shining through these first gloomy pages. 

The good part is that this article enables to introduce us to the main incident in the story: Patrick's aggression. As the story opens, we are left in the hands of sixteen-year-old Cat, who lives in Black Creek, a small and poor town in North Carolina inhabited by conservative and narrow-minded adults, and hopeless teenagers who take drugs in order to escape this messy reality. Cat's life isn't brighter than any other's. She lost her mother when she wasn't even old enough to remember her, and her father lives alone in a trailer in her backyard and overdoes alcohol.

I thought the most interesting thing about Myracle's novel is how she manages to intertwine the story of Black Creek's community with the detective plot. After all, the question Cat tries to find the answer to throughout the novel is: who is Patrick's aggressor? As we follow her from house to house in her quest to uncover the person who did it, we are introduced to the town inhabitants. Not only is Myracle's writing style very agreeable, but she handles the multiplicity of voices (and she does know how to reproduce teen slang) to the perfection. 

The flashbacks from Cat's memories constitute the core of the novel. They take us back in time and help us understand the different dynamics between the characters. Myracle brilliantly holds on to the detective aspect of the story so that you never quite know what to expect from the characters and while a minute ago you suspected them of the crime, you are immediately convinced of their innocence.

Shine is not just about discovering who is at the origin of the hate crime. It's also about self-discovery and acceptance of the past. Cat's need to find the culprit of the incident is what triggers her to stop hiding from others and accept the fact that, three years earlier, she was molested. In the end, what shines in Myracle's emotionally rich novel, is Cat's ability to slowly but surely overcome her fears and grow in confidence for the sake of her best friend.

Quote from the book: 
I loved everyone who said yes to the world and tried to make it better instead of worse, because so much in the world was ugly – and just about all the ugly parts were due to humans. I counted myself among those pitiful ranks. I didn't slam meth or get stinking drunk or go off and molest anyone, but that didn't let me off the hook. I hid in the shadows, but hiding had the power to hurt, too.”

About the publication: Amulet Books (USA), 2011.

About the cover art: Maria T. Middleton.

More about the author: Lauren Myracle

Sunday, November 06, 2011

The Magicians

Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed. They picked their way along the cold, uneven sidewalk together: James, Julia and Quentin. James and Julia held hands. That's how things were now. The sidewalk wasn't quite wide enough, so Quentin trailed after them, like a sulky child.

Quentin Coldwater is a high school senior sickened by his colorless life in Brooklyn, dwarfed by his friend James, and in love with a girl he can't have. His only way to escape boredom is to imagine living heroic adventures in Fillory, 'a magical land' depicted in Fillory and Further, 'a series of five novels published in England in the 1930s.' The book opens when Quentin arrives to an interview for Princeton, but things turn up a different way and he unexpectedly ends up in Brakebills, a secretive school of magic in Upstate New York.

I was very intrigued by Lev Grossman's The Magicians (2009) when I read comments that said it was a fantasy novel between Harry Potter and Narnia, but for adults. I have to admit that my first impression while reading this book was that of perplexity; mostly because of several elements that made me think of Harry Potter (and later in the book of Narnia). 

But after putting more thought into it, I think depreciating Grossman's book because of its thematic resemblance with other works is forgetting its obvious originality. In one of his articles in Time Magazine, Grossman wonders: 'Is art about making up new things or about transforming the raw material that's out there?' 

I think the answer is obvious. Every writer gets inspired by other works, be them books, news articles, pictures, paintings, songs, etc. Everyone, at one point, gets very sensitive to another person's work, gets inspired by it and feels like using this inspiration to create something else, with a new perspective. Grossman talks about '[c]utting, pasting, sampling, remixing and mashing up' what he calls the 'raw material' and I couldn't agree more. Grossman evidently got inspired by magical worlds previously invented and came up with the idea of Brakebills and Fillory. 

What is particularly interesting however is the perspective he has on these worlds. Don't expect to follow the adventures of boys and girls in their age of innocence. Life at Brakebills is not so different than life at any other real college. Quentin and his friends drink wine, smoke, get into fights and wonder about what they'll do after they graduate. 

Grossman's novel deals with situations other fantasy stories put aside: failure, mistakes, guilt and regret. He introduces us to believable characters whom any teenager can relate to. Quentin might be smart but inside he is unstable, lacks confidence and gets disillusioned very easily. 

The Magicians reconsiders the whole idea of magic. Quentin realizes once at Brakebills, that magic won't come to him 'magically': the only ones who can become real magicians are those who actually believe in Magic. And the only ones who will appreciate this book are those who still have that sparkle in their eyes when they hear the words 'magical realm'.

Quote from the book: 
    “I think that's a real bear!”
    “Let's buy it a beer,” Quentin said.
    “I think it's asleep. And anyway it doesn't look that friendly.”
    “Beer might help with that,” Quentin said. He felt punchy. “This could be the next clue. If it's a talking beer, I mean a talking bear, we could, you know, talk to it.”

About the publication: Plume, Penguin Group (USA), 2009.

About the cover: Didier Massard and Jaya Miceli.

More about the author: Lev Grossman

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Brooklyn Follies

I was looking for a quiet place to die.

All right! Here I am starting a blog and writing my first book review! And for this first review I'm going to be talking about Paul Auster's famous novel, The Brooklyn Follies (2005)

I was recommended this book a few months ago by a friend of mine who told me about its brilliant, imposing and original opening line: 'I was looking for a quiet place to die.' And for good reason, as soon as I read these first words, I immediately felt like discovering what was hidden behind the following pages. 

All right, I reckon that when I read this opening sentence, I didn't have a very good feeling about the narrator and I thought: 'Ok, I'm about to read a very pessimistic book with at its centre a character who seems to have suicidal tendencies...' But then I realised it had nothing to do with that. In fact, the context I was subsequently introduced to was completely different. 

Sixty-year old Nathan goes back to Brooklyn, the place where he'd spent the first years of his life, to 'end [his] sad and ridiculous life.' As I read on, I rapidly understood that this narrative was not about depicting the final aimless days of Nathan's life but that it was more about getting a fresh new start, and especially about having the guts to get it. 

Auster represents the following obvious and undeniable truth: each and every one of us are the heroes of our lives. Indeed, we common people don't spend our days saving the lives of other people, we don't restore peace on earth or put an end to poverty. But I felt like Auster wanted to remind us all the greatness and hope that exists in the simplicity of common people's lives. 

Of course we know that on a small scale we're to the universe just like what ants are to us: nothing. But if our lives don't have a lot of meaning to the world, they do mean something to us. And as a result, from time to time, we cross invisible doors we originally thought were sealed up, and we go up steps we originally thought were too high. 

Auster reveals an optimistic universe at the centre of most ordinary lives and proves that one can outlive cancer, that one can find the courage to cross the street and strike up a conversation with a stranger, or that one can considerably help his friends, but more than anything else, he proves that one can put the past aside and start something better, something truer. 

Auster also reminds the reader that to do so, one must have the will, the patience and a minimum of self-consciousness: 'As long as I was alive, I had to figure out a way to start living again, but even if I didn't live, I had to do more than just sit around and wait for the end.'

I think the reason why I particularly liked The Brooklyn Follies is because of the reality and truth that come out from it. While reading this book, I smiled a lot, I sympathised with the characters, I understood them and I was touched by the simple narrative of this ordinary man. I discovered in this novel characters more or less disoriented in a world where everything goes so fast. And still, they go on living at their pace, trying their best to spread love around them. I enjoyed being taken into Brooklyn and following Nathan and his friends into unknown streets. Even though I've never been to New York before, after reading that novel I felt like I'd been there! And if not physically then mentally. 

Quote from the book: 'When a person is lucky enough to live inside a story, to live an imaginary world, the pains of this world disappear. For as long as the story goes on, reality no longer exists.'

About the publication: Picador, USA, 2006.

About the front cover photography: Sean Bassett.
I thought the front cover photography perfectly reflected the atmosphere of the novel. I got the impression that the photograph started from a large panoramic view of Brooklyn and randomly zoomed in. 

The crossroad could represent the crossing of all these people's different lives. I couldn't help but make a parallel between my impression on these people then as a spectator and my impression on them if I had been myself in the picture, randomly walking in the street. I guess if I'd been one of them, I wouldn't have much cared about the people around and I would've walked past them without noticing them. 

However, when you look at this picture you are forced to consider these people and wonder: where does he come from? Where is she going? Why is she looking back? Is she waiting for someone? What is he doing in the middle of the street? And what is this old man doing staring in his shopping bag? Most importantly: who are these people? Well, they're just ordinary people living their lives. Just like you and me.