Stop that balloon! A review of “The Aeronaut’s Guide to Rapture” by Stuart Campbell

Another book review! What can I say? I’m on a roll here, guys.

I took some time off last week and took the opportunity to read another one of my holiday sale books, “The Aeronaut’s Guide to Rapture” by Scottish writer Stuart Campbell.

The story is definitely not your traditional beginning-middle-end type. It follows three characters in three different places: Ursule is in Paris in 1864, Dexter is mired in the Vietnam War in 1965, and Dante is a priest in modern-day Italy. They’re completely different people in completely different situations, united by two things – terror and a hot air balloon ride.

From the beginning, Campbell’s focus is the hot air balloon. The story starts out with him missing a hot air balloon ride that he had planned in order to inform his three stories. He believes that the ride will create a sense of rapture, a freeing sense of escape from the mundane world below.

Instead, he is forced to imagine what that rapture may feel like. Each story is an excerpt of what we, the readers, are led to believe is part of a larger novel that Campbell is writing. Each one ends with the air balloon landing…somewhere.

After each mini-story, Campbell laments his writing skills. He doesn’t like how he describes the experience of being in the hot air balloon, the feeling of escaping death by a hair in what he imagines is this fantastical mode of transport. The freedom of being in the air, the threat a tiny speck on the ground, is a sense he struggles to capture (or say he says. I thought he did a pretty good job.). All because he missed his flight.

I wonder if he got a refund, or do you pay when you board?

Anyway, the stories are engaging, and Campbell deftly creates three different worlds with ease and authenticity. But you’re left with that sense of incompleteness. What happens to Ursule when she lands in the middle of a war zone? Does Dante really die, or is he stalking the Italian countryside? We don’t know.

(Incidentally, Dante has by far the best escape: he grabs onto a giant balloon of the Virgin Mary and kicks her away from the platform she’s tied to.)

Ultimately, “The Aeronaut’s Guide to Rapture” is more a story about Campbell himself and his writing process than it is about any of the characters that occupy the pages. They are background figures to the real hero, Campbell, who struggles to achieve his purpose. In a way, it takes you out of the rapturous sense that he’s working so hard to create. But in another, it’s kind of like the balloon rides he describes: an uplifting sense of being in a new world, only to have it come to an abrupt end. In that sense, he’s achieved his purpose.

Goodbye cruel world! Wait, are we going down?

Too much bride, not enough Bollywood – A review of “The Bollywood Bride”

I took advantage of the holiday sales to buy a bunch of books from Kobo, an online store that specializes in e-reading. One of the books I purchased was “The Bollywood Bride” by Sonali Dev.


I’m about to tell you all about this book, but I want to start by saying that I came in super enthusiastic about this book. I am not Indian, but I have had many Indian friends over the years and that’s given me the opportunity to learn a little about Indian culture. I’m not an expert, obviously, which was part of why I was excited to read this book – given that it targets a non-Indian audience, I figured I’d learn more about India and Indian-American culture through the story. I was also excited because Sonali Dev is Indian – she grew up in India, traveled the world, and now lives in Chicago. I always get pumped for women telling their own stories, especially women of color. Here, I figured, was a chance to read a story of Indian-America through the eyes of someone who is actually Indian-American.

Spoilerwood, a love story

Without giving too much away, “The Bollywood Bride” is about an actress, Ria Parkar, whose family lives in Chicago. Ria was a frequent visitor as a child, but since achieving stardom over the course of a decade she has avoided returning to the U.S. As it turns out, there is a tragic backstory behind all this – she was forced to abandon the love of her life because she fears that she has inherited a serious mental disorder from her mother, whom she has secretly put up in an asylum in England.

Ria returns to the U.S. under duress to attend her cousin’s wedding, only to be reunited with her long-lost love. He is still bitter about her leaving him, and although admittedly she was pretty cold about it, this was 10 years ago. Get over it dude.

It’s clear from the outset that Ria and her love, Vikram, will end up together in the end. It is also clear that whatever fears she has about her mental health will be assuaged so that the happy couple can dance off into the sunset in true Bollywood fashion.

This is where the story starts to lose me. Personally, I don’t see why Vikram is so obsessed with Ria, other than that she was his first love. Ria is, of course, beautiful per her description, and she is depicted as polite and loving. She also has some artistic ability and talent as an actress. Beyond that, I’m not sure what the selling point is here. She has a tragic backstory, but that’s not exactly a personality trait.

(For the record, Vikram is also a little too perfect – fiery, passionate, but also kind, intelligent, and altruistic. In that sense, they’re a perfect match.)

I also don’t understand why Ria doesn’t at least try to seek treatment, to see what she can do about the illness she is convinced has been passed down to her. Her fear that she will inevitably end up like her mother, violent fits of psychosis included, is a driving force behind the story – it is the reason she leaves Vikram and the reason she resists his attempts to reconcile. And yet she does nothing to actually address it.

To her credit, Dev addresses this point. When word gets out in Bollywood that Ria has an “insane” mother, psychologists call on her by way of the press to receive treatment. They are clearly trying to get their 15 minutes of fame on the back of this most personal part of her life. However, it begs the question: why doesn’t she get treatment? I think this part of the story would have been better served if Dev had spent some time addressing this point. What kind of social stigma exists in India for those seeking mental health treatment, and how would that have impacted someone famous like Ria? What options are available to her? Could she seek treatment outside the country in secret? It would have been more satisfying, in my view, to have Ria struggling with trying to treat herself (doing research online, taking supplements, doing yoga, praying, paying a doctor exorbitant amounts of money to pretend she has a liver problem or something) than having her simply accepting her “fate” and making herself and everyone around her (Vikram included) miserable in the process.

Fortunately for Ria (and for me, because if I want to be depressed I’ll watch the news), there is a happy ending. When the Indian tabloids reach her family in America, Vikram jumps on a plane to see her, first going to Mumbai and then to England, where Ria is visiting her mother for the first time in a decade. Vikram assures her that he loves her no matter what, and that he’ll stand by her as she seeks treatment (finally!).

In the end, “The Bollywood Bride” is a cozy love story, but ultimately not a great way to learn about Indian culture. There is the wedding taking place in the background, and Ria’s interactions with her aunt and uncle in America, so it could prove interesting and educational for someone totally new to Indian culture. Dev’s other books, which are also set in an Indian-American context, promise a more in-depth look into the culture, so I’m looking forward to picking up another one soon.

Even in a galaxy far, far away, democracy doesn’t work: A review of Rogue One

I am not by any means a movie theater buff – more often than not, I’m perfectly happy for a movie to appear on television. But “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” was one that I had marked down to actually go see in a desperate attempt to avoid being spoiled to death. And I gotta say, I’m so happy I got to see it.

Spoilers III: The Force gives it away

“Rogue One” takes place immediately prior to the events of “A New Hope” and tells the story of how the Rebel Alliance was able to get its hands on the Death Star plans in the first place. The movie stars Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, the daughter of a rebellious Imperial scientist who also happens to be the brains behind the Death Star, Diego Luna as Rebel Alliance captian Cassian Andor, and Riz Ahmed as an Imperial pilot who is entrusted by the scientist (Galyn Erso, played by Mads Mikkelsen) to get the Death Star plans to the Alliance.

The movie plops us into the midst of the brutal war between the Empire and the Alliance. On Jedha, a planet that has a quasi-religious significance to believers of the Force, the Empire, the Alliance, and the militia forces of Saw Guerara (Forest Whitaker in a criminally small role) are in a stalled but bloody battle for control. The scenery, not surprisingly, is reminiscent of war-torn Iraq, complete with domed buildings and a Middle Eastern-style bazaar. Even the name “Jedha,” presumably a play on Jedi, sounds and looks a lot like the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah which, incidentally, is very close to the Islamic Holy City of Makkah. Saw Guerara himself reads clearly as a vicious warlord.

(Did you know that Tataouine, Luke Skywalker’s home planet, is the name of a real city in Tunisia? Lots of Middle Eastern inspiration in Star Wars. Not that we get any credit.)

But I digress. The plot, essentially, is this: Cassian’s mission is to use Jyn and Bodhi to find her father and kill him in the hopes that his death will put an end to the Death Star. Bodhi, meanwhile, partners up with Galyn to give the Alliance a desperately needed weapon against the Death Star: a small but deadly flaw that Galyn has purposefully built into the machine. (He is not rewarded for his efforts, just FYI.)

And Jyn? Well, I found Jyn to be less than impressive. She is essentially a hostage, first of the Empire and then of the Alliance, and spends the first part of the movie making half-hearted attempts at escape before miraculously transforming into an inspiring leader who brings the rebels into the heart of the Empire’s infrastructure.

That brings us to the important part: once the Rebel Alliance gets news of the Death Star, they just…fall apart. They bicker about whether this is a real thing, if they can trust Jyn and her father, and what they should do about it if it is. They spend a solid 10 minutes bickering over whether they should fight back or surrender and, of course, fail to reach a consensus, proving that democracy is terrible and people are the worst.

Oh Kent, you’re just a fountain of wisdom.

Fortunately, Cassian rallies a few of his friends who agree to join Jyn, Bodhi, K-2SO (think Marvin the Paranoid Android but less depressed), and Chirut and Baze (Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang, respectively), two monks they rescued from Jedha. Together, they breach the Imperial stronghold that is the planet Scarif so they can steal the plans to the Death Star and find the flaw.

A bloody battle ensues as the Rebel fighters try to distract Stormtroopers from Jyn, Cassian, and K2SO, who are busy looking for the Death Star plans in the ridiculously manual and yet believably futuristic Imperial Archives. Here, the scenery evokes more of a Vietnam War feel, with rebels running through all manner of tropical shrubbery.

When the Alliance finds out that Cassian and others have gone to Scarif, they’re finally moved to mobilize to support their people. By the time they arrive, however, it’s too late: the Rebels have done some damage, but they are outgunned and outnumbered. Alliance jet fighters are only able to delay the inevitable, but that gives enough time for Jyn and Cassian to steal the plans and make a run for the nearest satellite communications tower. Meanwhile, Bodhi has managed to establish a signal with a Rebel commander to send the plans, giving him a brief moment of triumph before he’s blown up. Frustrated, the Empire turns its new death machine on itself, blowing up Scarif in an attempt to block the breach.

To fix a plot hole

So yeah, everyone dies. Most of our main characters die in some kind of fight, while Jyn and Cassian die in what is supposed to be a moving embrace as they watch the explosion that will kill them. When, why, and how they fell in love are questions “Rogue One” does not bother to answer. After all, where would the movie industry be without forced romances?

The standouts for me were Cassian and Bodhi. I personally think that either one of their backstories would be infinitely more interesting than Jyn’s, whose main thing is that she was left by her parents on a remote planet. (This appears to be the mandatory backstory for all Star Wars’ main characters). How did Bodhi, a cargo pilot, meet a top scientist? What was the nature of their relationship, and why did Galyn trust him to take his message to the Rebellion? Why would Bodhi leave what I imagine is a fairly low-key job with minimal murder and risk his life for this cause?

Or Cassian. What’s his deal? “Rogue One” gives us a glimpse into the brutality of his life as a rebel fighter in a confrontation with Jyn, and then again later when he rallies the troops. They have given too much of not just their blood and tears, but of their morality to the Alliance to give up now. What he did and why – what makes him so loyal to the Rebellion – are things I would love to learn more about.

“Rogue One” also did a great job with the tech. The original “Star Wars” movies are a product of their era and it shows in the technology, as futuristic as it’s supposed to be. “Rogue One” does a great job of matching up with the style of tech in the original trilogy: in one scene, Bodhi is running across the battlefield trying to connect a hose-like wire from the communications tower to his ship so that he can contact the Rebel fleet. In an experience that is quintessentially ’70s, the hose gets stuck on some equipment and stops just a few short feet away, much to Bodhi’s frustration.

Overall, “Rogue One” is a great movie both within the Star Wars universe and as a standalone production. It starts off a little bumpy, with scenes jumping from planet to planet seemingly at random, but overall the plot is solid. We also get a glimpse of C-3PO and R2D2, which let’s face it, is what we’re really here for, and even Princess Leia makes an appearance via the miracle of modern technology. Diego Luna and Donnie Yen are especially awesome, as are Riz Ahmed and Wen Jiang (Forest Whitaker is, as I said, unforgivably underused, and Felicity Jones is honestly a little wooden in places.). 10/10, would see again.

Gilmore Girls 10 years later: A reflection

Like a lot of people my age, I was incredibly excited when Netflix announced that they were rebooting “Gilmore Girls.” I’ve mentioned before that the 2000s were my pop culture heyday, and “Gilmore Girls” was the show around which all other shows revolved for me. As cliche as it sounds, I watched the show religiously – and it wasn’t just me, either. I would come to school and talk about the show in minuscule detail with my friends. Back then I watched everything as part of a group, a larger whole that provided reference to the culture I was imbibing, but that’s a post for another time. Let’s focus on the topic at hand.

So, I was super excited to hear that “Gilmore Girls” was coming back, but I was also kinda wary. I loved this show you guys, and to me, the season seven ending was honestly kinda perfect. Lorelai and Luke were clearly set, Rory finally dumped Logan, whom I’ve always hated (I’m #TeamJess all the way. They should get married, live in a loft in Queens, and run an indie publishing house together.), and it seemed like the Gilmore parents were going to be open to coming out of their New Haven den and joining the lesser mortals of Stars Hollow and the state of Connecticut at large. So I approached the Netflix reboot with some trepidation, hoping that it would, at minimum, not destroy the fondness I have for this show.

Let me say right now that it wasn’t a complete disaster, but it wasn’t what I hoped or imagined it would be. Part of the issue lies in me and my perceptions of the show. When I was watching the original “Gilmore Girls” back in middle school, I identified with Rory so strongly it was a honestly a little creepy. Rory embodied all the qualities I hoped to have: she was smart, well-read, a role model for her peers, and most of all, she was pursuing a journalism degree with genuine seriousness. In a world where smart girls went to med school and writing was a hobby for housewives, this was nothing short of revelatory. It’s no exaggeration to say that I not only saw myself in Rory Gilmore, I wanted to be Rory Gilmore.

Spoilers Hollow five miles ahead

Watching the reboot, I realized that once again, I see myself in Rory Gilmore. Wrestling with a career in writing, feeling aimless as she takes a stab at independence from the 9-to-5 world and tries to do her own thing (write a book, which, OMG, I’m also working on right now! Coincidence, or is Amy Sherman Palladino cyber-stalking me for inspiration? I’ll let you come to your own conclusions). The main difference is that I’m not 32. Not to be all judgey, but I don’t understand why Rory cannot, at her age, have the common sense to rent a place to at least store all her stuff in, especially when her solution involves sending at least a fifth of that stuff to another country. So yeah, this wasn’t the image I wanted to see, the image I wanted to project myself onto eight years from now.

It was disorienting. Or disappointing. A little of both. I wanted to see Rory successful and happy, partly so I that could believe that I too would be successful and happy. But I also wanted her to be happy because I really like Rory Gilmore. She feels so familiar, like an old outfit that doesn’t quite fit but you still wear it because you have so many fond memories of wearing it.

Instead Rory’s back in old, bad habits. Logan, whom I hate and have hated and will always hate, and the being the other woman thing that was terrible but forgivable when she was a naive virgin but is just mind-boggling now. The enforced homelessness is not as cute or endearing as it would have been if this had picked up from when Rory was just out of college. The friendships with Lane and Paris, which were the heart and soul of the show, for me at least, are rigid and stiff. What, no hug for your best friends of two decades after months apart? Jeez Rory, let’s at least try and fake some warmth here.

So yeah, it was disappointing. The Rory part, anyway. Thank God for Emily, Luke, Paris, and Michel. They made this show then and they make this show now. Paris and Michel are hilarious, dealing with their own major transitions – is anyone surprised that the Paris-Doyle union didn’t last? I’m honestly surprised Paris consented to having kids, although maybe she got one of her “top breeders” to carry them – and their freakouts about where life has placed them are sweet and understandable. Michel being nice to children is a moment that will live with me forever. Heck, Paris being nice to children, her children, is a moment that will live with me forever. Emily grieving over Richard (actor Edward Hermann died in 2014) broke my heart, and his death permeates the entire four-episode series.

But even in grief, Emily is the same sharp, witty, scheming woman she’s always been. Master of all that she sees, even when it’s not technically hers. She assumes everything will bend to her will and it does, all the way to the very end.

And Luke. Oh Luke. Lukey Luke Luke. He is the same as ever, and it is as comforting and warm as I imagine the food at his diner is. He is, in many ways, the character that represents the audience, watching the titular Gilmore girls barrel through their lives, making poor decisions and drinking lots and lots of coffee. And he is patient and supportive and loving even in the darkest times. And when he finally fights for Lorelai the way he did in the last season of the original, but then it was too late because Lorelai had already invited the devil indoors (yes, Christopher is the devil in all this). It was a perfect moment. It was what I had hoped that moment in season 7 would be.

If only there had been more Jess, or less Logan, or more Paris, or more Sookie, or less Taylor (what was with that weird musical storyline?), I would have come away feeling better about the reboot.

But there were a few shining moments that saved the whole thing for me. Jess telling Rory to write her story. Sookie’s triumphant return and Michel’s well-earned rant. Emily turning on the club. Emily and Lorelai in therapy, and I really wish we had spent more time there. Emily terrifying children in Nantucket. Paris terrifying children at Chilton. Hep Alien still rocking, and Paris just not getting it. Jess and Luke getting ready for the wedding. Lorelai telling Rory to go ahead and write the book. “Just Gilmore Girls. It’s cleaner.” Kirk getting something right for once. Emily finding peace in Nantucket. Luke and Lorelai finally getting married.

Overall, I’m glad I watched it. I wish Rory would make better decisions, but maybe it’s good for me to see her like this. At some point you have to accept that life isn’t and never will be perfect. People disappoint you. You disappoint yourself. Things don’t work out in your favor, and sometimes you self-sabotage a little bit. Any perfection life does hold is fleeting, so we should enjoy it for what it’s worth. You should be happy no matter what. And of course, I realize that I’m not the only fan, that some people are inexplicably #TeamLogan, and that it’s not the Palladinos’ fault that I project myself onto their fictional characters.

So here’s to next time, and you’d better believe there will be a next time, because no way are we ending there.

Nadia watches Netflix: Gotham Season 1

A couple weeks ago, I binged the entire first season of “Gotham” on Netflix. “Gotham,” for those of you who are unaware, is a prequel of the Batman lore and follows Jim Gordon and his budding police career. We also get to see a young Bruce Wayne as he copes with the aftermath of his parents’ murder.

I was intrigued by “Gotham” not because I’m a Batman aficionado (I watched the animated series as a kid, but that was about it), but because Gordon is played by none other than “The O.C.’s” Ryan Atwood, whose IRL name is, Wikipedia informs me, actually Ben McKenzie.

The 2000s was really my heyday in terms of pop culture awareness, so Ryan (that’s his name as far as I’m concerned) is one of a few select group of television stars that I recognize on sight (others include Rory and Lorelai from “Gilmore Girls” and Kristen Bell, who will forever be Veronica Mars in my eyes. You thought I was kidding when I said the 2000s were my heyday, didn’t you?).

Anyway, I wanted to see what Ryan was up to, and I sunk like a rock into the dark world that “Gotham” imagines. I got through the first season almost compulsively because nearly every episode ended on a cliffhanger and I had to see what happens next. But it’s also a very violent show, so I needed a break between seasons. In the meantime, I thought I’d summarize everything I liked and didn’t like about the first season. Fair warning, there are spoilers ahead:

I liked:

  • Jim Gordon: I like Ryan in this new role. I mean, Jim Gordon is essentially a grown-up version of Ryan Atwood, complete with “strong, silent type” demeanor and a predilection towards emotionally unstable blonde girls.
  • Baby Bruce Wayne: It’s actually kinda fun watching a teenage Bruce Wayne develop the skills that he would utilize as Batman later on. Plus the kid who plays him, David Mazouz, is a surprisingly good actor.
  • Alfred: is badass. Seriously, I don’t know how he got the job as the Wayne’s butler, but clearly they were anticipating needing more than just a guy who can answer a door because Alfred is one tough cookie.
  • Harvey Bullock: Donal Logue makes everything better. I just love him.

  • Fish Mooney: I don’t know why, but something about Jada Pinkett-Smith in this bizarre and overly dramatic role just speaks to me. Actually I do know why: it’s because I like watching a tiny lady stab giant men. I’m super bummed she was drowned(?).

  • Edward Nygma: His descent into madness will clearly be the highlight of the next season.

  • Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot: He gives the me the heebie-jeebies, but I kinda want him to see him become the ultimate mob boss. It’s that physically underwhelming guy being the one in control thing again.

I didn’t like:

  • Selina Kyle: For a street urchin, this girl is surprisingly well-groomed and well-dressed. I’m not buying it. Scruff her up a little!
  • Barbara Kean: I knew she was crazy the minute she came onscreen, because a) see predilection for unstable blonde chicks referenced above, and b) she basically didn’t have a personality at all until the last third of the season, and unfortunately when writers don’t know what to do with a character, they make end up making her crazy.

  • Leslie Thompkins: This character is played by the girl who was the barista with crazy eyes on “How I Met Your Mother,” and once you’ve seen crazy eyes on a person, it’s hard to unsee them.
  • The Dollmaker: This was a stupid subplot and a giant waste of time.
  • Victor Zsasz: I like the actor, but I don’t get the character. There are already enough visibly disturbed people on this show. What is he adding here? Not much from where I’m sitting.
  • The city itself: Are we even going to pretend that this isn’t actually New York City? Not gonna even try? No? Okay then. Seriously, it’s jarring to be sucked into the story only to have it interrupted by what is obviously the New York City skyline. I’ll pretend that “Gotham” takes places in an alternate universe where New York City just has a different name, but I won’t like it.

 

So much for man’s best friend: A review of “Fifteen Dogs” by Andre Alexis

Several months ago, a very dear friend of mine gave me the book “Fifteen Dogs” as a present. Unforgivably, I did not get around to reading it until fairly recently despite the fact that I was instantly intrigued by the book’s premise.

In “Fifteen Dogs,” Canadian writer Andre Alexis imagines a world where the Greek gods of old walk among us. Two, Apollo and Hermes (the god of music and poetry and the god of transitions and boundaries, respectfully), take an interest in fifteen dogs who have the extreme misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time – a veterinary clinic in Toronto. Apollo bets Hermes that dogs would be miserable if given human intelligence, while Hermes is convinced that at least one will die happy.

It’s a dog eat dog world

You can already guess that this does not go well for the dogs in question, who wake up in the middle of the night at the clinic and decide to escape their lives of servitude to carve out their own destinies. Over the course of the book, the dogs do what we humans did – develop a language, form a societal hierarchy and a culture, and, eventually, get into fights about what the language and culture should entail.

So far, so good. I mean, that’s how our species evolved, and look at us now! Sitting at the top of the food chain, lord of all that we see, unimaginable technology at our fingertips. Granted, we mostly use it to maim and/or kill each other and destroy the very environment from which we derive our needs, but let’s not get to bogged down in the details here.

Fairly quickly conflict arises, as some dogs seek to preserve their inherit “dog-ness” by refusing to acknowledge or develop the intelligence that was thrust upon them, while others want to see how far they can take it. One in particular, Prince, who develops poetry (it’s very nice, and believably doggish), quickly becomes a target of the top dog (hah!) and his allies. They are then forced to pursue alternative paths and find themselves unable to survive without the care of a pack or a human, and at the same time unable to ignore the new instincts that challenge and conflict with the lower status of pets.

I know humans suck, but still…

It’s not surprising that things go downhill so quickly. What is surprising is the way Alexis portrays dogs, even from the beginning, as being suspicious of and even hostile to humans. A few remain loyal to their current owners, and most of them have fond memories and a genuine love for their original owners, the ones they knew as puppies. There’s actually a very heartwarming scene towards the end where Hermes makes up partially for all the trouble he’s caused by rewarding one dog with a vision of the child he’d adored, but it stands in stark contrast to how dogs view humans in the rest of the book. At best, it seems, we are a necessary nuisance to dogs, performing the functions of the “alpha” of their pack, but not inspiring any more love than your average boss or teacher does. At worst we are vicious, cruel, unpredictable creatures who are best avoided.

Granted, that last sentence is a pretty apt description for humanity at large, but it was surprising to see it so clearly articulated from the dogs’ perspective. I expected more of the “man’s best friend” view of dogs, where their loyalty and sweetness is contrasted with our fickle nature. I’m not particularly fond of dogs myself – the small ones are adorable but I’m pretty sure that one day the bigger ones are going to turn on us and decide that fresh meat is better than packaged dog food – but even I was like “geez, I thought you liked us!”

Overall, I really enjoyed “Fifteen Dogs.” It’s well-written, it’s different, and it really makes you think about why we as humans use the gift of intelligence so cruelly. If you have a dog, however, you may find it very disconcerting. At a minimum, you’ll think twice before you ask your dog to roll over again.

Color, magic, love – “Furthermore” by Tahereh Mafi quashes it all

A few months ago I interviewed bestselling writer Tahereh Mafi for The Tempest, so I was really excited when her agent offered me a copy of her new book, “Furthermore,” for review.

I wasn’t completely sure what to make of the book at first. I haven’t done much fantasy reading outside of the Discworld series for a while now, and Furthermore is aimed at middle-school children, not adults. So I approached the book with a sense of trepidation.

A land of spoilers lies past this barrier…

The book follows 12-year-old Alice Queensmeadow and her frenemy Oliver Newbanks as they leave the magical but orderly land of Ferenwood to search for her father, who has been missing for three years. Oliver, who had been assigned to search for him, reveals that her father is trapped in the land of Furthermore, the dark, threatening sister land to Ferenwood.

We spend quite a bit of time in Ferenwood at the start of the book, with Tahereh really taking her time to build a beautiful world of color and magic. In Ferenwood, magic is an inherent characteristic, and the more color you have in your person – blue hair, brown skin, bright eyes – the more magic you have. This is a problem for Alice, who has no color. Of course, you an also purchase magic, but again, this is out of Alice’s reach. Meanwhile, the people around her, particularly Oliver and her father, have impressive powers.

Flowers, light, shiny bangles;  that’s the world we start out in in Ferenwood, and it stands in stark contrast to the much darker and chaotic world of Furthermore that Alice ventures into. As she and Oliver travel from village to village, trying (and often failing) to stay alive and unharmed as they search for her father, Tahereh unravels the inner workings of the preteen psyche.

It’s hard to be a teen

To me, the most poignant issue Alice faces is her insecurity about her relationship with her family. She believes her mother doesn’t love her, and her brothers are so unconnected to her they don’t even warrant names. This is what drives her to find her father – aside from her love for him, their loving relationship is essentially a relic from a happier time, childhood.

It’s a concept that resonates. Perhaps the most difficult thing about the transition from child to adult (i.e. adolescence) is the warping of the parent-child relationship. You want to be your own person, pushing against their definitions and expectations just because it comes from them (something Alice does with her father, but let’s not get into that here). At the same time, you want their approval, their love, their affection, but feel unable to ask for it. The relationship that came so easily and naturally at five, six, seven, eight, seems to disappear almost completely by 11 or 12. Replacing it with something new is probably the biggest challenge child and parent will ever face, and that is exactly what Alice is trying to do in Furthermore. 

This, to me, is where Tahereh really excels. As an adult, I know that despite everything, Alice’s mother does love her, and it’s important, particularly to the book’s intended audience, to really demonstrate that.

How dark is dark enough?

Aside from this underlying theme, I found Furthermore to be compellingly dark and yet somehow not completely satisfying. There’s so much buildup in the sense of danger that Tahereh builds. There’s the cannibalistic nature of Furthermore’s residents, the very real threat of imprisonment, the murky and mysterious “Elders” that seem to playing with the fates of Alice, Oliver, and possibly her father.

And yet, it doesn’t really pay off. As much danger as Alice and Oliver face, there’s never any question that they will find her father. At least not for me. For the story to have any emotional resonance, they have to find her father, otherwise why are we even here? I don’t know if this is just me and my expectations of plot development, but for me the question is never whether Alice will find her father, the question is whether or not they’ll be able to get out. In the end, though, that turns out to be incredibly easy. Frankly, a little too easy. Apparently no one in Furthermore has heard of the concept of prison guards, and those elders aren’t in as much control as certain mysterious creatures would like you to believe.

Ultimately, as much as I enjoyed Alice’s journey, I ended up finding myself more interested in Oliver and his first trip to Furthermore, or even that of Alice’s father when he was a kid. I get the sense that where the prospect of actual death never really looms over Alice and Oliver (in comparison to say, the final showdown between Harry Potter and Tom Riddle in Chamber of Secrets, as an age-appropriate example), it may have certainly loomed over a young boy entering a dangerous world for the first time with no supervision or help. Tahereh is clearly setting up for a sequel (rightly so, since I believe Furthermore will quickly become a bestseller), but what I’d really like to see is a prequel. Perhaps that’s something she’ll consider down the line as she further expands on the origins of her magical worlds.

Overall, I’m excited to see where Furthermore ends up, and I think that Tahereh has a winning formula here. It’s the kind of book that you can buy for your niece, read yourself, and then have some really interesting discussions about.

The truth is underrated: A review of “The White Lie” by Andrea Gillies

Some time ago I read a book called “The White Lie” by Scottish writer Andrea Gillies. I want to write about it because it was a very interesting, if not completely successful, book.

The thing that intrigued me about The White Lie is that it’s written from the perspective of a dead person, Michael, and spans decades and generations. The book actually starts with a family tree, and to me this is like a flashing neon sign that says “THIS BOOK WILL BE CONFUSING.” And it was – several people who are referenced are dead, and the family, a noble Scottish clan whose patriarch lives in a manor dating to, one assumes, medieval times, has a tendency to recycle names. Thus Ottilie is Michael’s mother and also his great-great-aunt, or possibly his great-grandmother (see what I mean?), but generally this doesn’t prevent you from following along.

Spoilers in wait beyond this point

The plot goes thusly (major spoiler alert!!!): Michael is killed by his aunt in a boat accident – she hits him with an oar and he drowns. (It’s not clear what’s going on with his aunt exactly. She’s very intelligent but lacks basic social skills and acts like a 10-year-old, so maybe something on the autism spectrum? We’re not told, and it seems the family has not tried to figure out exactly what it is). Anyway, the family, in an attempt to protect the aunt from prosecution and save themselves from scandal, tell a white lie – that Michael ran away from home. But Ghost!Michael can now see everything that has happened in and around the loch where he was killed; memories of ugly past events from his family’s unfortunate history. As it turns out, there is a long list of white lies and cover-ups and secrets that family members have been keeping from one another, and Ghost!Michael sinks into every one of them until you don’t know what’s true and what isn’t, until you wonder whether Michael was actually killed in the boat accident or if he survived that but died in some other way at some other time.

If you must haunt, this isn't a bad place to do it. Photo by Moyen Brenn via Flickr.
If you must haunt, this isn’t a bad place to do it. Photo by Moyen Brenn via Flickr.

That aspect of the book’s structure is really interesting and to me, quite unique – the book goes from a calm if depressing certainty, that Michael is dead and his aunt killed him, and becomes more and more uncertain until you reach a peak, a crescendo, where everything is true and everything is false and you start to doubt the basic premise of the story, that Michael is really dead. But as the story winds down things become more and more clear, and one incident in particular, the incident that Gillies certainly wants us to think of as the starting point, becomes exceedingly obvious. That’s part of the reason why I enjoyed the book – by the time Gillies is ready to reveal to us this major point, most readers will have already guessed it, so she doesn’t make a big deal out of it. She knows, we know, but it has to be said to break the hold it has over us as readers and over the family itself. This is where the book stumbles, because ultimately the family’s secret stays a secret to some of its own members, and so the pressure of the book is never fully released. It may be more realistic that some secrets are always kept, but it’s not as artistic.

Another point I didn’t like was that the Gillies, while otherwise successful at painting three-dimensional characters, resorts to a black-and-white characterization between Ottillie, Michael’s mother, and her twin sister Joan. Joan becomes a kind of evil twin to Ottillie despite the fact that Gillies recognizes Ottillie’s personal flaws. Yet Joan is portrayed as vindictive and mean-spirited in a way that Ottillie never is, even though, in my view, she is just as bad if less obvious. Perhaps it’s just that we cannot trust Michael’s narration – she is his mother after all, and he’s dead. But even so, Ottillie’s ultimate explanation for some of her choices, which I won’t share here, left me feeling disappointed in her character and even turned off by her. I felt that we were expected to buy into Joan being this bad person and Ottillie having somehow been the victim of her sister’s admittedly nasty attitude, but I just couldn’t accept that.

Ultimately, The White Lie is a book that feels familiar while at the same time going beyond conventional plot forms, and I greatly appreciated that. Definitely a great read and one I would recommend to those looking for something out of the box.