Meg Powers’ life is turned inside-out when her high-profile Senator mother decides she’s going to run for United States President—and it only gets harMeg Powers’ life is turned inside-out when her high-profile Senator mother decides she’s going to run for United States President—and it only gets harder when she wins. This first book in a series does an excellent job depicting the insecurities and trials of adolescence as they’re magnified by having to endure them under constant public scrutiny. Meg is charming and funny, and her relationship with her mother is complicated in a very natural way; White shifts constantly between showing us a normal (if wealthy and privileged) American family and the First Family of the United States. The characterization is superb, and I really warmed to Meg and her brothers.
I admit I wasn’t sure at first if I’d like this book. I really, really don’t like it when people with very young children run for high political office—mothers or fathers. And Meg’s brother Neal is very young. The scenes where we saw the effect his mother’s political career had on him broke my heart. While it’s true that families have to make decisions that sometimes mean hardship for some or all of their members, the nastiness that is high-level politics can be brutal on children, no matter how well-meaning their parents or what measures they take to minimize it, and to me politics isn’t nearly important enough to do that to your children. Despite the frequent comments about how honest and smart and qualified Meg’s mother is to be President, we never in this first book really see her do anything that proves the sacrifices her family has made, is making, are worth it. So this was hard for me to get past. What did work for me was how well-drawn the family interactions were, how Meg and her brothers related to each other and to their parents. Their transition to living in the White House felt very believable, their reactions to the constraints of their new lives funny and touching. The family dynamic kept me interested enough to accept the story on its own terms.
Though politics informs the entire story, and President Powers is a Democrat, White never uses this to lionize one party over another or flog any particular issue; the closest we get to a political issues speech is Meg telling people at her new school how public education should be handled. It keeps the book from being off-putting to half its potential audience, and I admire that. I’m a little less enamored of how all the other politicians Meg’s mother runs against are either thorough villains or caricatures. That she’s also presented as “too honest” and honorable and so forth I find slightly unbelievable. It’s a nice idea, and while I believe there are politicians who strive for that ideal, I think the dishonest ones eat them for lunch. I kept waiting for Meg to find out her mother wasn’t as honest as she’d claimed, because that would have felt more realistic. But the story isn’t really about the politics so much as it’s about Meg and her life and how she connects to her mother, so while I find it unrealistic, I also think having Meg’s conflicts with her mother be about her mother’s honesty would have been trite. Far better to have the President being caught up in her own issues about having lost her mother when she was very young, and have Meg’s natural insecurities and need for parental reassurance be complicated by her resemblance to her mother and the ways people expect her to behave because of it.
I’m really very captivated by the story and I’m going to have to go round up the rest of the series now. Naturally my library doesn’t have it, so it’s off to make the rounds of my favorite online booksellers....more
I remember now what my original reaction to this book was, years ago when I first read it:
WHY IS MARCO NOT IN JAIL HE SHOULD BE IN JAIL IZZY’S PARENTS SI remember now what my original reaction to this book was, years ago when I first read it:
WHY IS MARCO NOT IN JAIL HE SHOULD BE IN JAIL IZZY’S PARENTS SHOULD HAVE SUED THE HELL OUT OF HIM
Thank you. Now I will continue with the review.
Cynthia Voigt’s great skill at characterization comes through beautifully in this book, which is one long character piece about a girl who makes a stupid decision like so many other people have, but is unlucky enough for that decision to horribly, irreparably change her life. Izzy was nice, polite, friendly--unobjectionable, perhaps--and thought her life was perfect until a car accident WITH MARCO THE DRUNK DRIVING JERK caused her to have her right leg amputated below the knee. Izzy soon realizes that everything in her life has changed, not just the obvious physical challenges but her social life, her friendships, her relationship with her family, and her self-image. Through the course of the novel, she navigates these changes and--I can’t say she comes to terms with her new life, but by the end Izzy is certainly prepared to move forward.
A reader today coming to this for the first time can be forgiven for thinking Voigt is treading old, tired ground here, but I think it’s important to remember that the book is nearly thirty years old and at the time of its publication was a different kind of problem novel for teens. Izzy in particular is remarkable for not being remarkable--not incredibly beautiful, not incredibly smart, slightly popular, a cheerleader but not the captain, friendly to everyone but with only a few good friends. Voigt doesn’t create tragedy by striking down someone extraordinary; this is the story of a relatively small life that catastrophe forces to grow bigger. The structure is maybe a little obvious (people Izzy thought were friends are really shallow, odd girl turns out to be a real friend) but I think the point of the story would have been lost if Izzy’s old life hadn’t been completely altered, and that structure is part of that.
What I like about the book is how completely convincing everything is, particularly the moments after the crisis is long past and people have begun to move on, all except Izzy, who can’t just stop being an amputee. Izzy goes between wanting everything to be normal and being desperate to have her pain acknowledged. And I also like that the ending comes not when she’s completely reconciled to her fate, but when she realizes that she’s not half a person just because she only has one-and-a-half legs. She still has to deal with stares, and awkwardness, and physical challenges, but there’s going to be a day when people see her and not her handicap. It doesn’t feel neatly wrapped up, and I appreciate that because what it does feel like is acknowledgment of the struggle where a tidy ending would have felt like an insult. I can’t say this is my favorite Voigt novel, but it’s deeply satisfying. I like to imagine Izzy marrying Tony Marcel someday, and Rosamunde eventually going out with Izzy’s brother Jack, and all those people going on with their lives EXCEPT FOR MARCO WHO SHOULD BE IN JAIL....more
I am really conflicted about this book. It thoroughly satisfied the part of me that loves angst and melodrama and two people in love who keep missingI am really conflicted about this book. It thoroughly satisfied the part of me that loves angst and melodrama and two people in love who keep missing each other due to spectacular misunderstandings and bad timing. There’s so much of that here that if you’re not in it for the relationship, it’s just dumb; for example (view spoiler)[Arin conveniently overhears just enough of a conversation to believe Kestrel is a cold-hearted bitch, then doesn’t let her get a single word in to interrupt his tirade (hide spoiler)], but it works so well for creating that beautiful melodrama that I love it. A lot of the secondary characters are great, particularly the emperor, who is just scene-chewingly evil in the way that’s only possible for someone who can order everyone around him murdered in a gruesome fashion. Kestrel’s father also comes across as conflicted, though possibly not enough to justify the ending (view spoiler)[I don't know whether his hinting that he could be something other than the emperor's slave was enough to make it truly shocking that he could unexpectedly betray his daughter, but it's hard to tell because the fact that this is the middle of the trilogy meant it pretty much had to play out that way (hide spoiler)] but I liked seeing how much of Kestrel’s personality was shaped by her desire to live up to her father’s expectations.
I was particularly pleased that Arin and Kestrel’s misunderstandings are short-circuited rather than allowed to persist for the whole book: (view spoiler)[her for realizing that YES, it is IDIOTIC to make decisions for other people on the grounds that you know them better than they do, him for realizing that NO, people do NOT change that much and maybe you should use some other part of your body than your masculinity and hurt pride to make decisions (hide spoiler)] (of course, they’re almost immediately supplanted by more misunderstanding, this one so colossal you have to wonder if they can come back from it, which is GREAT because this is only the second book of the series and I’d have been annoyed if it was resolved so soon. I need my melodrama). Where most of the rest of the book comes off as a lot of moments in which the misunderstanding happens because of too-convenient events and fundamental stupidity, the ending really is worth it. (view spoiler)[Kestrel trying desperately to save herself and Arin and convey to him that yes, she did do it all for his sake and she does love him, all while her father is watching it from the secret room, feels very real to me, and very painful. (hide spoiler)]
I’m willing to accept coincidence and convenience for the sake of the emotional payoff—the point of melodrama, in my opinion, is to evoke that emotional reaction without descending to the level of manipulation, and that’s a really fine line to walk. I think this book manages it.
There are so many background problems that it was hard for me to really immerse myself in the world. Number one: Kestrel. She is not as smart as she’s said to be. For someone who is supposed to be a master of strategy and cunning, she makes a lot of mistakes and just happens to make those mistakes when they’ll provide the greatest amount of tension. I very nearly stopped reading at her first interaction with Arin, where the two of them were clearly only thinking with their gonads and might have gotten themselves killed because of it. I’d be willing to call her slip-ups reasonable failings on the part of a girl not yet eighteen, like early on when she witnesses torture for the first time, but if she can (view spoiler)[callously conclude that poisoning a vast herd of horses will cause less death than burning the grasslands (hide spoiler)] I think she ought not to so easily reveal her hand at other times, such as when she’s lying to Arin to save his life and when it’s therefore even more crucial that she be believed.
I’ve already said that I liked the emperor, in the sense that his character was crazy (yes, he’s crazy, more on this below) and therefore made everything more tense and terrifying for Kestrel and, to a lesser degree, all the other characters whose lives he affected. But as a ruler, he just doesn’t make sense. I do not for one minute believe that someone like him is capable of conquering and holding an empire that size. The Roman Empire, to take a not-totally-random example, stayed mostly together for a thousand years because of how they treated their conquered states, and they did not (view spoiler)[I’m sorry, but I can’t help myself—what in the hell is up with poisoning the water supply of an entire country just to teach the rest of the Empire the consequences of rebellion? Do you or do you not understand what tens of thousands of dead bodies will do to the ecosystem that you are so desperately interested in preserving to support your own country? The emperor’s crazy, so I’m not going to bother outlining the moral ramifications, but that’s just stupid. You can’t think like that and maintain an empire. (hide spoiler)]. At this point, I have to conclude either that Rutkoski doesn’t get politics on a global scale (the political maneuverings of the court are well-handled) or she wants to set up the Valorians as evil conquerors so the political situation is easy: the Valorians are rapacious villains, the Herrani are downtrodden but stubborn resisters, and the Dacrans are tough but outnumbered (view spoiler)[and in need of an outsider (Arin) to save them, which is just a teeny bit racist (hide spoiler)]. Much as I loved the first book, I still have to admit that the worldbuilding is—not shallow, because there’s plenty of detail about the cultures, but facile, as if the underlying structure is not sturdy enough to support it. There are smaller details that sound cool, but don’t hold up to analysis: (view spoiler)[Risha. A five-year-old assassin? Really? Have you ever met a five-year-old? I’d have believed nine or ten, but five...you’re lucky if a kid that age can remember instructions, let alone have the attention span to carry them out. Not to mention that if she doesn't get her opportunity quickly, she's going to lose her edge, because OF COURSE they're going to let her handle weapons. Though I was sort of hoping the book would end with her killing someone. I had bets on with myself as to who that person would be—could she be callous enough to kill Verex, whom she loves? But no. (hide spoiler)] And as much as the beautiful, tortured romance was carrying me along, I kept getting jerked out of the story too much to be happy.
I’ve been going back and forth over what rating I’d give this book—two stars, for the stuff that bugged me? Four stars, for the beautiful emotional torture? Split the difference, and be a coward? So I’ve decided I’m not going to give it a starred rating at all, which I rarely do, but which reflects the fact that I find it impossible to judge this book on only one metric. Instead, I’ll sum up: If you fell in love with Kestrel and Arin and their tortured romance in The Winner’s Curse, if it breaks your heart that they are kept apart by the world as well as by their own flaws, then I urge you to read this book. If you’re looking for a substantial story with a world built on strong underlying principles, in which men and women play politics for the fate of countries, look somewhere else.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Lucy is in love with Shadow, a talented graffiti artist—and a young man she’s never met. Ed’s always been interested in Lucy, even though she broke hiLucy is in love with Shadow, a talented graffiti artist—and a young man she’s never met. Ed’s always been interested in Lucy, even though she broke his nose once, and when he finds out she wants to meet Shadow, he’s torn—because he is Shadow, and he doesn’t know how to tell her, or even if he wants to. Over the course of one night, the two of them are thrown together, and each of them comes to learn truths about each other, and about themselves, that make them question what it is they really want.
I think I would have liked this better had I not read Saving Francesca and Okay for Now first. Both Graffiti Moon and Saving Francesca are by Australian authors, set in Australia, with very quirky characters, but what in Saving Francesca feels effortless, in Graffiti Moon feels as if Crowley had a list of features that make up interesting, cool characters and was just checking off the boxes. And when it comes to talented, artistic, potentially thuggish boys who can’t read, I far prefer Doug from Okay for Now to Ed—though because of the age difference, I wouldn’t have made that comparison at all if their primary characteristics weren’t virtually identical. So this book suffered by comparison to not one, but two others. I was annoyed by Leo, whose poor choices (view spoiler)[I don’t care how important it was that he take a poetry class—good for him—he was an idiot to borrow money on those terms and a jerk not to explain to his best friend why he was putting him in mortal danger (hide spoiler)] drove most of the action of the story, and annoyed further that I felt I was supposed to like him. Crowley’s writing is pretty, but I was constantly aware of that prettiness, and that was yet another annoyance.
The relationship between Ed and Lucy kept me going, mostly because I really did like Ed and had some sympathy for his position; he has good reason to keep silent about his alter ego at the beginning, and by the time he can tell Lucy the truth, the moment in which he should have done so is about two hours in the past. I liked that they had relationship within relationship, that they were still constrained by the initial misunderstanding that got Ed’s nose broken and that Ed does his best to be honorable about Shadow (even though the best really would have been to just suck it up, tell her the truth, and let her hate him). I felt optimistic at the end that Ed and Leo really had decided to change, Leo to finally grow up and Ed to finally grow…out, I think. To expand beyond the limits he’d caged himself in. Enjoyable, though I wouldn’t say it really pushes the boundaries of YA fiction.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
This was a fun little romp, but boy oh boy does L'Amour's style grate on me. And the romance was...well, you could see the girl falling in love, but tThis was a fun little romp, but boy oh boy does L'Amour's style grate on me. And the romance was...well, you could see the girl falling in love, but the guy seemed pretty indifferent right up until he wasn't. Still, very exciting action, and I loved the main character--she was tough but feminine and it really worked....more
This very short story about a fifth-grade girl who creates her own newspaper, starting a chain of events that nearly gets her teacher fired, has a lotThis very short story about a fifth-grade girl who creates her own newspaper, starting a chain of events that nearly gets her teacher fired, has a lot of heart. It’s slightly awkward in places, but it has a lot to say about First Amendment rights, the role of a newspaper in society, and balancing truth with mercy. Nobody in the story is truly a villain, though there are plenty of people (including the protagonists) who act out of selfish or vindictive motives, and I was particularly moved by how Clements addresses the issue of divorce and how it affects children. Not my favorite book by Clements, but enough to boost its 2.5 stars to a 3....more
Doug’s life isn’t going so well. His father is an abusive drunk, his brother is on the path to becoming a felon, his mother is out of her depth, and hDoug’s life isn’t going so well. His father is an abusive drunk, his brother is on the path to becoming a felon, his mother is out of her depth, and he’s just moved to a small upstate New York town where he knows no one. Worse, everyone looks at his brother and assumes Doug is just like him. But Doug is about to discover truths about himself that will change his life, and might just make a few other people change too.
I can’t say enough good about this book. Doug’s voice is strong and compelling and hooked me from the beginning. I really enjoyed The Wednesday Wars, but I think this book might be better in some ways, particularly the depiction of Doug’s family situation and the complexity of their relationships, Doug with his brothers, his father with his sons, his mother with all of them.
Schmidt doesn’t have to spell anything out, because Doug’s perspective as semi-reliable narrator reveals everything, even if not immediately. In fact, it’s this circling around truth that makes the book so remarkable, because Doug’s reluctance to speak openly about bad things seems perfectly natural and raises the tension in the story. I could really feel it whenever he would finally come to a point where he just couldn’t hide things any longer. (view spoiler)[Like when we finally find out why he won't take his shirt off in P.E. And I didn’t even realize Doug never refers to his jerk brother by his first name until he (Christopher) treats their wounded older brother Lucas with gentleness and respect! That takes half the book before it happens! And that’s how compelling Doug’s voice is. (hide spoiler)]
Some of what happens in the story is telegraphed openly. For example, Doug’s reluctance to enter the library, and then to admit to his love of Audubon’s bird illustrations, let me know he was going to turn out to be an artist (view spoiler)[and foreshadowed the revelation that he can’t read, though what’s interesting is that he never comes out and says he can’t read (hide spoiler)]. But it’s watching it all play out that makes it matter. Schmidt’s really good at investing small actions with significance--(view spoiler)[Lil having a stomachache in the library one day made me think something was wrong with her, though I didn’t guess cancer (hide spoiler)]--but without making it feel as if the book is just too obviously put together. But there is a really strong structure to it, centered on the bird illustrations that head the sections, which I thought was a nice touch because it let me see what Doug did. Those not only work as a focus for Doug’s artistic development, but also give him a goal, a quest even, that belongs to him and that he’s doing not to prove he’s better than everyone thinks, but because it’s right.
There are just so many little details I loved. Like Principal Peattie, who refers to himself in the third person until one perfect moment. Doug’s relationship with Lil, who’s funny and clever and sees things in him no one else does. The truth about the “birthday present” Doug’s father gave him for his twelfth birthday which made me hate the man more than ever. All the adults in Doug’s life and how they treat him, particularly the P.E. coach—that was unexpected.
There are a few things I’m not sure about, all of which have to go behind the spoiler curtain: (view spoiler)[Is Lil’s cancer too dramatic? I mean, it unfolds really well, we see how she and Doug have a wonderful friendship, but cancer is a pretty big thing. I didn’t think it was too much, personally, but I loved the book enough that I might not be rational about that. And I seriously doubt Doug’s father’s change of heart at the end of the story can be permanent. Just because he had a shred of decency buried inside, enough that he won’t let Christopher go to jail for something he didn’t do, doesn’t make him a good person. Nobody that abusive—especially after the tattoo—just turns into a good guy after one moment of conscience. (hide spoiler)] But what strikes me about the book is really the ending. Everything seems wrapped up too neatly, until you remember that one character’s fate is still uncertain, and Doug’s family situation is by no means resolved. They’re all still going to be moving on with life, and nothing will be perfect—I think the ending explains the title, because everything is only okay for now. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Sweet little story about a rural family of three children who, with their grandfather and aunt, experience the joys of the Chicago World's Fair. I’m aSweet little story about a rural family of three children who, with their grandfather and aunt, experience the joys of the Chicago World's Fair. I’m a little surprised that Richard Peck wrote this; it feels like the shadow of A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder. Interesting topic, but the characters aren’t as fully developed as I like and much of the plot hangs on coincidence. I liked it, but overall I’d call it weak....more
This feels like an extended meditation on summer, and vacations, and being young. Portia and her younger brother Foster always go to stay with their aThis feels like an extended meditation on summer, and vacations, and being young. Portia and her younger brother Foster always go to stay with their aunt and uncle and cousin Julian for three months in the summer. This year, Portia and Julian’s wanderings bring them to a lost holiday “colony” of houses that were once lovely homes along a lake shore, but when the lake dried up, everyone moved away. Now the only ones still there are an elderly brother and sister who grew up there as children and returned to settle into old age. Portia and Julian befriend them, and the settlement at Gone-Away Lake becomes a giant playhouse and park and wilderness preserve all in one.
Honestly, it’s just an incredibly placid novel (I don’t mean this in a bad way). I kept waiting for something to happen--not in the sense of being bored, just that I couldn’t believe their idyll could remain undisturbed. For example: Portia thinks a lot about Julian and how great he is on the train ride there, and I really thought it was leading up to him having changed and being "grown-up" and boring, but no, he's exactly as she remembers him. It’s a little like Swallows and Amazons, but less exciting and with more grownups.
I was a little frustrated with the children’s timidity, particularly the girls’, but it was written in 1957 and maybe that’s just how kids were back then (or, more accurately, that’s what adults thought kids were like back then, since Swallows and Amazons is about twenty years older and I think no one would call the Blackett girls timid). But the fun of exploring these closed-off houses, of setting up a clubhouse in the attic of one, of finally discovering the mysterious Villa Caprice--it made me wish, a little, that I could be that age again and have that opportunity....more
Weasel is a former pickpocket who’s been working as a clerk for Judge Holis for some time now. Judge Holis, though, is involved in more than just theWeasel is a former pickpocket who’s been working as a clerk for Judge Holis for some time now. Judge Holis, though, is involved in more than just the law; he’s part of a secret group intent on taking down the corrupt and greedy Regent. When their group is betrayed, Weasel sets off on a journey to free his master and keep him from being executed. He hopes to find the Falcon, a brigand who commands an army of bandits and is also opposed to the Regent, but tracking him down proves difficult, and Weasel has a deadline. With his unexpected companion Arisa, who has surprising talents and isn’t forthcoming about her past, he puts his less legal abilities to work, but nothing happens according to plan and Weasel’s straightforward assumptions are tested as the plot against the Regent comes to fruition.
This felt more like a middle grade fantasy than YA, at least in parts. Specifically, while the *content* was definitely YA (more graphically depicted violence, threats of sexual violence), the way the story was told felt...light. And I never had a sense of Weasel being as old as he was supposed to be, especially given his history. So although I did enjoy the book, some of what dissatisfied me was the disjunction between two age categories that I think made it less powerful than if it had been solidly one or the other.
Weasel as a character is a little uneven. He lived a life of crime until he was rescued from it by Judge Holis, whose pocket he tried to pick, and now he’s going straight, but he has moments of cynicism and moments of honor and moments in which he tries to convince himself that he should do the cynical thing and moments in which he changes his mind about what the honorable thing is, and this didn’t make him a nuanced character, it made him muddled. There were a couple of times when I (a true cynic) felt he was being soppy rather than honorable; war is not pretty, insurrection even less so, and even good people choose to do bad things and sacrifice their own honor for the sake of something bigger. There were other times where Weasel had to decide whether to be noble or be a weasel, and some of those simply made no sense; given what we’d already seen of his character, some of those choices shouldn’t have been hard at all. And Weasel’s moments of indecision always came at times that coincided with the plot ramping up, so once or twice I felt as if they were only moments of indecision because that made the story more exciting.
I found Arisa interesting because she’s the tough, skilled, sneaky fighter you’d normally expect to see as the hero of a story, and I loved the reveal of who she was (view spoiler)[daughter of the Falcon, who turns out to be a woman (hide spoiler)] and the reasons she gave for not telling Weasel sooner were perfect (view spoiler)[he’d been put in the cell with her for no reason, he kept talking about wanting to find the Falcon, and for all she knew he was going to lead the Regent’s men straight to her mother (hide spoiler)]. Her religious faith is a little hard to read, because it seems mostly wrapped up in her ability to read the cards (these were one of my favorite inventions of the story--very nice extrapolation from the traditional Tarot) but at times is more spiritual. She makes for a good foil for Weasel and is set up for some interesting changes in the next book in the trilogy.
The final conflict between the Regent, the Falcon’s men, and Judge Holis’s faction is satisfyingly complex, even if the coincidence (view spoiler)[of the old shield Weasel finds being the actual Shield they’ve all been looking for, though this was telegraphed pretty well; but honestly, I thought the Prince was faking it to give the good guys a better shot at winning (hide spoiler)] was a little too much to take, and the setup for Weasel’s importance in the overarching story was a little too standard a plot point. I think the sequel, if it really does follow the events described here, could be a very good political fantasy, with a lot of different sides all wanting power. It would also be interesting to see how the Prince develops as a character; he was the only one whose waffling made sense and helped define him as a weak-but-not-really-weak Prince who’s been under someone's thumb and whose efforts to break free are just what you’d expect someone with no real life experience to do.
It’s going to be hard to rate this one, because I’d really give it 3.5 stars, and I rarely give half-star ratings. But I’m going to round down simply because, even though I did enjoy it, it was with too many qualms for me to want to shelve it with my other four-star books. I liked it enough to want to read the rest of the trilogy. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Selwyn Academy is a school for artists of all kinds: visual, written, dance, theater, music. It’s also the basis for a popular reality show, For Art’sSelwyn Academy is a school for artists of all kinds: visual, written, dance, theater, music. It’s also the basis for a popular reality show, For Art’s Sake, in which students compete for a major scholarship. Everyone’s addicted to it, except Ethan, Luke, Jackson, and Elizabeth, who for various reasons think it’s degrading and a slap in the face to true art. It’s Luke who comes up with a plan for exposing the show for the cheap, sensationalist crap it is, but when an unexpected development ruins their plans, it’s the other three who have to prove what’s really going on at Selwyn Academy.
I’m not a fan of Ezra Pound, but I could appreciate the way his poetry framed the story. Hattemer weaves quotes from his Cantos into the story at just the right moments to make them part of the underlying structure. There’s a lot of balancing going on here, balancing the plot with the Cantos, the Cantos with the characters, the characters with each other, and I really admire the craft. It’s also funny at times, particularly if you like nerd humor (why is one guy’s code name Avogadro? Because he’s the mole. It’s really funny if you love chemistry, I promise, especially if it comes out of nowhere).
Ethan, the first-person narrator, has a really great, strong voice, and his three friends come across as unique individuals. The characterization skirts a little too close to stereotype, unfortunately; awkward Ethan has a huge crush on the beautiful and self-assured ballet dancer, Jackson the computer genius falls into geek-mode too often, and Elizabeth, who frankly gets too little screen time, is maybe a little too bold and fearless (though since I like bold and fearless female protagonists, I don’t actually care if this is stereotype). And I’m not sure what to make of Luke. Since we get everything through Ethan’s perspective, and Hattemer is good at handling her naïve narrator, Luke’s character development and the twist in the middle of the book seem reasonable. Almost. I was as surprised and horrified as the characters when (view spoiler)[Luke betrayed his supposed ideals to accept a role on the show (hide spoiler)], but I felt that some of that surprise and horror had been manufactured—that Ethan was possibly a little too naïve about his friend for the sake of that twist. Then I didn’t quite buy it when (view spoiler)[Luke comes back to the group in the end, humbled and wanting to be friends again. First he’s an idealistic radical, then he’s a sellout, then he’s a nice guy again—it looks like character complexity, but it felt like inconsistency. At the end, he acts (and his friends act) as if it was all just a big stupid mistake, that Luke had just gotten briefly greedy. But the disparity between his character at the beginning and what he turns into in the middle is so huge it really has to be fundamental; that greedy person is who he has to be inside. And I don’t buy that he can come back from that so easily. It would have helped if Ethan had noticed details about Luke’s reaction when they asked if he’d be trying out for the show that made no sense to him, but were revelatory to the reader. Which is, I think, what I mean when I say Ethan was maybe a little too naïve (hide spoiler)]. What I think worked well is that at the beginning, Jackson and Elizabeth sort of faded into the background because Luke is Ethan’s best friend; I noticed this, and was a little annoyed by it, until the middle of the book when the focus shifted and Ethan’s ties to his other friends became stronger. I think I would have preferred all four to be equally strong presences in the book, but as an aspect of Ethan’s characterization, I think it worked.
The reality show For Art’s Sake is what the plot revolves around, since it’s the friends’ effort to get rid of it that takes up most of the story, and the idea is really interesting, even if I think it’s unlikely (having had a child in an expensive private school once) that any private school full of kids whose parents are paying a ton of money to have them educated would want that education disrupted, even for fame and potential scholarships. It’s equally unlikely that the show would be so incredibly popular without the parents of those students, particularly those in the show, not being fully aware of how their kids are being portrayed. Pitting the four friends against the reality show, with its warping of the ideals of art, makes for a good story, but this book also comes across as an indictment of reality television separate from the concerns of the characters. Everyone involved with the show, with the possible exception of (view spoiler)[BradLee (hide spoiler)], is a caricature of venality, ignorance, and selfishness, just in case we didn’t get that For Art’s Sake is a Bad Thing. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to take on reality TV, just that this feels like one too many plots for a single book.
Despite all this, I did enjoy the book; I liked Ethan’s interactions with his triplet toddler sisters and what that meant for his position in his family. I liked Ethan despite his occasional gormlessness. It does feel like a first novel, but one that shows the author’s potential, and I’m interested in seeing what Hattemer writes next.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Written as an extended series of interviews with those who knew the brilliant artist Addison Stone, complete with photos and reproductions of her art,Written as an extended series of interviews with those who knew the brilliant artist Addison Stone, complete with photos and reproductions of her art, this book sketches out the life of a troubled genius whose death is ambiguous and whose life was as fractured as the book’s conceit. Griffin is good at evoking the different personalities and keeping their voices separate, and the whole thing feels very real, as if Addison Stone was a real person whose art you might be able to see in a museum, or in a YouTube video. I’m very impressed with the craft of this novel.
And I really, really disliked it.
If you liked this book, don’t read any further. There are so many good reviews by people who loved it; don’t waste your time reading this one. I’m not kidding. Normally I don’t make that explicit, but I have the feeling that this is the sort of book that will be very meaningful to some readers, and I don’t want to ruin that.
So—I admire the craft, and dislike the content. Some of that is my dislike of Addison Stone herself. For all the excellence of the characterization, this isn’t a book about people; it’s an extended musing on the nature of fame and how we feel about the Beautiful People in the world. It’s, as I wrote, well-crafted and interesting in structure, but all of that conceals the fact that this is not a novel, it is a Statement. To the extent that this is a novel, it's a story about a girl with tremendous talent who wasted her whole life, who was failed utterly by everyone in her life. That’s not laudable no matter how much talent she had or how pretty she was. And yet from the beginning we’re meant to see her life and death as tragic because she was pretty and talented and died young and was tormented. As if this makes her more important, more valued, than other young women who also die young but don’t happen to be cool and interesting.
Some of what I don’t like is the subtext (which is, again, brilliantly done) in which everyone who dislikes Addison does so out of petty reasons, jealousy or greed or thwarted love. But she’s not a very nice person, beneath the veneer; why shouldn’t some of these people have good reason to dislike her? Once again, I think we’re meant to see Addison as truly good and deserving of her accolades, and at this point I have to acknowledge, again, the complexity of the craft. The conceit is that the fictional Adele Griffin curating this collection of ephemera controls what goes into it, so the picture we get of Addison is one constructed by fictional-Griffin. But the novel is also written by real-world-Griffin, which is another layer of complexity, so which one is really controlling what the reader sees? Is real-world-Griffin constructing the fictional version of herself to be enamored of Addison, where she herself has a different opinion? This kind of question is where the novel succeeds for me, because I like complexity, but it’s not enough to make me happy with the story that unfolds.
Central to my discontent is the portrayal of mental illness, which for anyone who is not a fictional tortured genius is a serious, sometimes life-threatening problem that is neither interesting nor clever nor a mark of creativity. While there is some connection between the creative mind and mental illness, most creative people who suffer from it produce their greatest works despite their problems. That Addison’s schizophrenia is portrayed as somehow fuel for her creativity irritates me; it comes across as making her sound cool and tortured rather than seriously ill. But what really bothered me was the conclusion to the story of Addison’s delusions: (view spoiler)[At the end, Addison’s friend Lucy talks about how the imaginary Ida Grimes and Miss Cal turned out to be real people and shows a photo that pictures Ida in exactly the same pose as Addison had drawn her. What the hell? So Addison wasn’t really delusional, she was just a super creative psychic person whose mental illness made her capable of perceiving things beyond our reality? That’s a slap in the face to every single person who fought and clawed their way out of a nightmare world in which they literally can’t tell the difference between reality and fantasy. It leads directly to the poisonous idea that treatment, particularly in the form of medication, is bad because it suppresses the creative genius the illness really is. I give Griffin credit for accurately portraying Addison’s reaction to being medicated, but that ending ruins the whole plotline. (hide spoiler)]
Though I truly do admire Griffin’s skill as a writer, I found the “Author’s Note” at the end of the series of interviews (Adele Griffin as the fictional interviewer rather than as the real author of the novel) a little disturbing in its attempt to sum up the content of those interviews:
I hope this narrative has sparked an intimate sense of Addison’s life, filled with more scorching creativity than most of us will ever get to experience, even as we cherish, mourn, and remain riveted by her legacy.
Bad enough that I think this undermines the entire novel, which invites the reader to draw her own conclusions about Addison’s life, by essentially telling the reader what she is to take away from it; the implication here is that Addison’s creativity either excuses a multitude of sins or elevates creativity to a virtue the possession of which sets an artist apart from ordinary people. And what legacy, exactly, is it that we’re cherishing? Her art? Her mostly untreated schizophrenia? Her tumultuous love affairs (which, again, are portrayed as markers of what an interesting and complex person she was rather than as signs of a young woman who desperately needs help)? The title is wrong: Addison Stone’s life was finished when she died, because her legacy is not just that of a creative person, it’s of a creative person who was beautiful and exciting and flamboyantly interesting, and had she died at thirty, or fifty, all of that would have burned out and she would have been nothing but a formerly interesting person. Addison Stone is memorable because her life ended when it did. And that’s the real tragedy. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Francesca’s just started at a new school—formerly an all-boys’ school—where the only familiar faces are three girls she never had anything in common wFrancesca’s just started at a new school—formerly an all-boys’ school—where the only familiar faces are three girls she never had anything in common with at her old school. The boys of St. Sebastian’s aren’t very friendly, particularly William Trombal, who has it in for her since she embarrassed him in public. And her mother, her lively, brilliant, hard-to-live-with mother, won’t get out of bed. Adrift and alone for the first time, Francesca has to learn how to stand on her own and discover who she really is.
What interested me from the beginning is that Francesca wouldn’t be the hero in any other book. She used to be one of the popular girls, not popular in herself but a hanger-on, someone who went along with the crowd even when it meant giving up things she loved, like trying out for the school musical. It’s almost painful to watch her be sidelined by her former friends once she no longer attends the same school, because at that point Francesca’s lost so much of her identity that she doesn’t even realize they’re not her friends and never were. As she comes to know the other girls from her old school, St. Stella’s, she’s forced out of that unnatural state of being a sheep and it’s a delight to watch her discover who she is, or possibly who she used to be. Her mother used to try to prod her into action, saying she knew Francesca was actually outgoing and a joiner, and Francesca resented it, but by the end it’s clear her mother was right, at least a little.
Francesca’s friends are all so interesting in their own ways, not only the three girls but the boys who befriend her. In fact, I really enjoyed all the characters and the parts they played in the story, particularly the unexpected ones like Thomas Mackee, who is just a hoot. And Will Trombal—it’s clear from the start that he’s being set up to be the love interest, but I have to say I didn’t guess where that relationship was going. Francesca shows herself at her strongest around him, defying him, and I loved imagining his side of their interactions. It was a very satisfying relationship.
But the heart of the story is Francesca’s relationship with her mother, who’s present in the story both as her present, clinically depressed self, and as Francesca’s memories of her. It’s a complex portrait because Francesca both resents her mother and depends on her utterly, and while she needs her, it’s also because of her mother’s absence that she’s finally capable of becoming something more than a sheep. I’m a little conflicted about the depiction of mental illness here, because her mother’s depression is portrayed as having a concrete cause and easy-to-understand solution, and depression often has neither of those things. But I never really had the feeling that her situation was intended to make a general statement, and despite how neatly the story wraps up, the reasons behind her depression parallel the problems Francesca has very well, and I liked that neither of her parents comes off as very well-adjusted. I also liked the picture we got of her mother through her memories; she’s a fascinating woman and it was easy to see how her depression could throw the entire family into a tailspin.
Overall, this was an excellent book, and I intend to read more by this author. ...more