Leisure Literature: The Underground Railroad

When I can find extra moments, there is always a list of books I want to read. Some I anticipate for months, some for years before I find the time to get to them, and some of them live up to the hype and some don’t. Leisure Literature is a book review column that details my thoughts on my recent readings.

I saw someone reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead on the plane, and apparently I had unconsciously heard of it before. I put it on my Goodreads list and did some more research; apparently it was one of the big hits of 2016. By chance, I walked into my school library one morning and saw it on the featured shelf, so I checked it out. (Sidenote: The librarian told me I was the first one to do so, hooray.)

The initial “appeal point” of this book was supposed to be that the Underground Railroad is, in fact, a underground railroad. However, the book is much more than that. Cora, a slave on the extremist Randall plantation makes a harrowing escape through many different locations, experiencing basically everything America has to offer a black person during her time. Each place has a different lesson for her as she seeks freedom, all ultimately pointing to the fact that there may never be true freedom.

Somehow, I read this book at an extremely timely point during school and life in general; I am in both US and World history at school, and we were not only talking about the treatment of blacks, free and otherwise, in US history (N. Carolina), but also the Atlantic slave trade in World (S. Carolina). Even Mingo’s policy (Indiana) reminded me of Trump’s policy towards the refugee crisis. Even though The Underground Railroad is technically fiction, it really supplemented my history classes in school, and my history classes supplemented reading this book.

Some of my favorite things: the different perspectives (Stevens, Mabel, Ridgeway, etc.), the way Whitehead was able to write Ridgeway so dreadfully fearsome (I legitimately jumped each time he appeared), the wide range of characters and opinions, the difference between slow and fast and how it’s interesting regardless of pace, leaving parts of the story unexplained and coming back to it later, and how tactfully death and the gruesome are easy to read and passed over as nothing (because that’s all the room for sensitivity people had back then).

I think it’s an interesting side discussion to talk about whether historical books like this that truthfully document how racism has worked in the past contributes to the subconscious racism many Americans experience today, or if it is a necessary insight into our past. I don’t deny that it is important to learn how we used to be, but I wonder if that unintentionally contributes to how we are now (rather than its ‘intended effect’ of motivating us to be different than we were).

Overall, The Underground Railroad is really well-researched and touches on so many different aspects of the history of African Americans. I looked forward to reading this very much each night with my scant bit of spare time, which tells me that it is a good book (even though I can’t exactly pin my finger on why). I can sense that there is even more to glean from this book if I read it again.

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Leisure Literature: The Underground Railroad

Leisure Literature: Legend

When I can find extra moments, there is always a list of books I want to read. Some I anticipate for months, some for years before I find the time to get to them, and some of them live up to the hype and some don’t. Leisure Literature is a book review column that details my thoughts on my recent readings.

This year, I attended public school for the first time and was incredibly disappointed. We read a whopping total of four books throughout the entire year. In response, I have pledged to read fifty books of all varieties this summer. I have already been through a few, which I have chosen not to write about here, but Legend by Marie Lu was so good that I feel as if I have to record my feelings about it.

What made this book so great is its incredible character-driven nature, paired with a stunning plot. I knew it was going to be good when I was already asking lots of questions and in love with the characters by page 11. Day and June are both very clever, resourceful, and in the book’s own words, perceptive, and it’s such a pleasure to read. I enjoyed the fact that they never display a superiority complex or show any intention to suppress their cleverness’ full potential, but own the fact that they are smart and use it to their every advantage. As a result, throughout the book, they keep uncovering the things they don’t know, and the knowing reader is never waiting for Day or June to figure out ‘what’s next’. What astonished me is that the plot always kept going, even after they make the supposed biggest discovery at that plot point. This made the whole story very realistic and the characters more life-like, since they seem as intelligent as people are in real life.

Some high points:

  • Day is just straight-up flirtatious, which gives both him and the author an attractive boldness.
  • The moment and situation in which Day and June first meet was triumphantly impressive; it just made me feel very joyful.
  • Even though the protagonists are very smart, have many tools, and plenty of information, the antagonist still seems insurmountable. I think this is notable because it is often times the case in books of this type that the protagonists are disadvantaged in some way, which gives the antagonists their grip over the protagonists, but in Legend, they have the resources and the antagonists still feel impossible to get.
  • It made me cry! Physically cry–at a certain event occurring during the climax of the book. I think that’s impressive.

Some low points:

  • Some of it was predictable. I guessed three major reveals before they happened (which I will not detail for the sake of spoilers). Given, I didn’t guess all of it, but I could anticipate the general point.
  • I don’t know how to feel about intelligence and capability being measured in a test, and especially that a perfect score represents extraordinariness. At any rate, the author had to create some device to quantify this, and it did the job solidly.
  • Three tropes I didn’t enjoy were the Jameson character (especially the gender), the Kaede character, and the government/power factions and the question of the ambiguous goodness/evilness. This falls in with The Hunger Games, Divergent, Maze Runner, Red Queen, and so on, but at least this was a character-driven book, so the faults in the plot are outshined. The redeeming attribute of the factions is the apparent historical basis, which is intriguing, but was not discussed a lot in book one.
  • Although I understand their age for the sake of the points about their extreme intelligence, I think Day and June’s age dampens the realness of the romance in the book; they seem young.

A couple of personal notes:

  • Even though Day and June are both endearing, I was drawn to John the most and his older brotherly character. Perhaps I liked him that much only because his personality reminded me of a friend of mine with the same name, but altogether he was still my favorite.
  • There was a lot of physical wounding in the book, but to my surprise, it was effective and felt necessary to the setting. I like how the author didn’t leave it out for the sake of complications, yet didn’t add it in light-handedly or carelessly. It was a lot but it was handled well. The only thing is I’m unsure about the rate of healing that happens.

In all, Legend had me recommending it before I finished it, reading it straight through without stopping, and raving about how good it was afterwards. It is a captivating read and I highly recommend it.

Strangely enough, I’m still debating whether to continue reading the trilogy, since the first book is a lot to live up to, and the conflicts implied by the first book don’t seem as interesting, but at least Legend looks to be a bought-book on my shelf, a high honor.

Leisure Literature: Legend

Leisure Literature: All the Bright Places

When I can find extra moments, there is always a list of books I want to read. Some I anticipate for months, some for years before I find the time to get to them, and some of them live up to the hype and some don’t. Leisure Literature is a book review column that details my thoughts on my recent readings.

Another book recently topping the charts, All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven was the next story I decided to read recently. The story is centered around two high school seniors, one who is fascinated by death, and another who is trying to repair her emotional state after losing a loved one. The two meet each other for the first time on the top of the school bell tower, neither supposed to be there, both contemplating the jump.

Finch is a charismatic guy who thinks in a very unique way. Any ideas that flow out of his head go onto sticky notes and pasted up on his bedroom wall. Sometimes guitar compositions come out of nowhere. He enjoys thinking about death, but he swears to himself and the reader that he would never actually kill himself. He also flips personalities whenever he wants, changing into different versions of himself. Sometimes that version of him skives off school when he feels like it, with no regard to consequences. One version of him leads him to paint his bedroom walls a different color of his own volition.

Violet starts out far less strong than Finch. She has a cliche storyline that isn’t begun any better than normal; her sister has died and she’s trying to cope with it. As a result, she is very depressed. She has not been in a car since the accident, and she’s stopped writing (something she used to do with her sister and enjoyed very much).

Finch starts to fall for Violet, and she resists his incredibly flirty advances at first because she feels too broken and not repaired enough for someone else. This was also another huge cliche no-no; the guy tries to help repair and comfort her because he fell in love with her, and in the end that’s what pieces her back together. It was done realistically, but it didn’t completely convince me it was a cliche done well.

Although I didn’t relate to either Finch or Violet, their situations were conveyed well enough that I felt like I understood both of them. The one feeling I did share, though, was something Finch details as he starts to like Violet. He knows he’s been trying on all these different versions of Finch all the time, and they’re probably not the real him. But now, he doesn’t know what version of himself is the real version. This especially troubles him as he wonders if Violet likes the real him or just some version he has on that he doesn’t realize isn’t real. I can understand this feeling a lot.

The supporting cast in this book, including the parents, sisters, and school friends, were enjoyable. I appreciated that they were real people taking a normal, realistic role in a real story, rather than just side pieces, additional characters the author wanted to make up, or devices to the main characters’ stories. They had their own stories and those intersected with Finch and Violet’s stories the way they just happened to.

On the twist ending that I will not spoil: I personally did not see it coming, and I enjoyed that, because you hear the story from Finch’s head, his perception, and how he thinks about things, rather than a more objective outside reading on the situation. It really made me sympathize with Finch rather than expect any ending coming. I was rather oblivious to it, but perhaps that is just because of where I come from and what I am personally unfamiliar with.

On the flip side, because the author was cleverly hiding the ending from me the whole time, the middle went swimming and sagged a little bit. Since there wasn’t any apparent resolution or point to the events going on in the story in the middle, it became a little bit uninteresting. At one point it was very hard to continue on reading; I really had no idea there was going to be a resolving ending.

Other things: shoutout to bookmobiles, and the ending was eerily reminiscent of Paper Towns. I could call it out for copying, but it’s not copying; I guess I was just disappointed to read super similar plot points in different books.

Something super cool that I found–Violet and Eleanor’s website as described in the book was actually created to simulate it having actually happened and being “real”. Here it is. The posts stop just as abruptly as they were stopped in the story.

This book has a film adaptation coming out in 2017 starring Elle Fanning. Other than the director, further information has not been released. Niven will be writing the script, but otherwise we don’t know much about it yet. Perhaps this is just my muckraking paragraph since I really don’t believe in movies after books.

Leisure Literature: All the Bright Places

Leisure Literature: The School for Good and Evil

When I can find extra moments, there is always a list of books I want to read. Some I anticipate for months, some for years before I find the time to get to them, and some of them live up to the hype and some don’t. Leisure Literature is a book review column that details my thoughts on my recent readings.

I guess I follow New Leaf Literary in enough places to have their books and their promotions leaking through to me more frequently than others. So, I heard about The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani enough times that it sounded cool enough to read. The world is built around kids being taken away to school to graduate as either fairytale princesses and princes, or storybook villains.

One thing about this book is that the cover and the matter and a lot of how it is sold seems very MG. Perhaps the concepts in the book are MG, and you can argue the whole thing is MG, but the sophistication of writing and the overall style of the story felt more YA to me. I am technically “too old” for MG and me reading it would just be completely for fun, but this book wasn’t like that, I felt like it was worth it for me to read.

Probably the most attractive thing in this book is the worldbuilding–I love good worldbuilding. The idea of a school which trained kids to become people from fairy tales and legends sounded attractive enough to almost singlehandedly convince me to read the book and learn more about how the school worked. The mechanics of the architecture and the creatures of the world did turn out quite interesting.

I enjoyed that the author had a clear vision about the point of the story, where it was going, and the distinct personalities of the characters. It was exciting throughout and engaging, and felt worthwhile afterwards, although it lacked that inexplicable ‘wow’ factor at the end, nothing that really left me awed. The school was pretty cool, but it didn’t blow me away like I had hoped.

Each character was very well-implied; I got a very good sense of what they were supposed to be like and the important traits that defined them (and the details that went along with that personality). What they wanted was clearly defined, and there was a lot conveyed through how they interacted with other people. However, I never really got to know them on a personal level–this is okay, writing a story for the reader to spectate rather than get involved in, but of course, it’s less attaching.

Some things that didn’t work so well: Sophie was cast as a stereotypical blonde princess, but she started to get so stereotypical she nearly wasn’t an actual person; it would have been more believable if she was a really girly human rather than a idealism made to fit the stereotype. The first twist in the book is unfortunately a large selling point, so wherever you read a synopsis, or the book matter, it is already spoiled. Perhaps that is okay, to use it to capture attention, but then of course it no longer shocks you or has the same ‘ooh, twist!’ effect; it is instead an ‘I was sold this, now I’m expecting it’ plot point. There are also a couple other cliche twists that were added in the middle (which I won’t spoil), which weren’t done so well.

A random note: I really appreciated that the author of this book was a POC male. Perhaps this is some sort of non-equality-ist of me to differentiate based on race or gender but there truly aren’t a lot of writers like him in this grade level and genre. In the end, writing is writing no matter who the author is or what they are like, and he centered this story around girls’ perspectives without making me notice or complain. Well done, Mr. Chainani. Or if he or the reader wishes me to be more ‘PC’, no extra applause at all.

What was most important overall was that I enjoyed the story–the characters, the mechanics, the ending, the plot–and that it didn’t feel like it was for nothing (like Carry On did, for example). If you think you’d enjoy this genre, I would recommend it. I am going to be checking out the next books in the series soon and continuing to read this story.

Leisure Literature: The School for Good and Evil

Leisure Literature: Carry On

When I can find extra moments, there is always a list of books I want to read. Some I anticipate for months, some for years before I find the time to get to them, and some of them live up to the hype and some don’t. Leisure Literature is a book review column that details my thoughts on my recent readings.

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell follows Simon Snow in his last year at Watford, a school for magic. A vague, nondescript monster called the Insidious Humdrum is attacking the world, while warring ancient magic families have to be dealt with in the background.

I heard about this recent release sometime last year, pitched as Rowell’s take on the Harry Potter universe. There are some major base similarities between the worldbuilding, but the details get different. The world is also not the focus of the book, it is much more of a character-driven book.

Simon suffers from main character’s weakness, a dilemma I feel many writers (including me) suffer from. Simon lacks depth and connection that some of the other characters foster. It always feels easier to develop and pick out personality for the supporting cast, but it is a greater challenge to define the POV character to the same level.

The other characters are more defined, and therefore more real, yet I never got very invested in any of them. Agatha is not particularly endearing, Penelope is fun but a sort of required Hermione parallel, Baz is interesting technically but doesn’t have a ton of emotional depth.

Overall, the book is engaging, there’s no denying (I didn’t get bored or feel like I wanted to put it down); but it doesn’t seem significant or have a serious point, somewhat reminiscent of a TV drama. The book is enjoyable while you’re reading it, but not really past that.

Some things it does well includes laying out tons of string at the beginning and eventually tying it all together in a way unforeseeable at the beginning (a sensation I really enjoy and appreciate in a book). It also switches first-person point of view between at least 8 different characters, if not more, and does it quite well. I didn’t get too confused, although there were a lot. In general, Rowell really plays loosely with the format of the book and the writing itself, and gets away with all of it, which I find impressive and inspiring.

Another thing which I enjoyed was that there was never certainty as to who really were the ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’; the unreliability of the narrator is evident, but not telling. Following on that note, neither did the book try to convince you one side is good and then guessably shock you to the other side being good, which I appreciated.

Rowell also manages to do some crazy things with her plot and characters, and suspend belief. In retrospect, outside the book, I cannot believe I bought some of the plot points, so I congratulate Rowell on suspending my belief while inside the book.

The plot, on the other hand, while soap opera-level emotionally engaging, seems very melodramatic–designed to satisfy the fantasizing mind.The imagination is cool, but gets vague and a bit swimmy, especially towards the end of the book. I can understand, since my thoughts go there often, but that kind of imagination can really only be understood by its creator; once one tries to convey it to others, it becomes unclear. The ending of the book falls into a cliche category (I won’t mention which, no spoilers), which was disappointing it wasn’t more or something new or stunning, but I understand, the book just needed to end, and the number of things not already done are just getting fewer and fewer.

Overall, it was quite enjoyable, engaging, and fun while it lasted, if romance and fantasy-adventure is your genre. The moment it was over, however, it didn’t seem there was any main idea/takeaway or theme. If you’re just looking to enjoy yourself and lose yourself in a book world for a while, Carry On is that. It’s good and long, but it didn’t leave me feeling awed afterwards or in love with the story or thinking about it. So my recommendation is up to you–weigh whether not having any real gravity is worth the fun while inside the book.

Leisure Literature: Carry On

Leisure Literature: I’ll Give You The Sun

Pre-post notes: The next few posts (3 books and 1 baking) were all done by me well over a month ago. Unfortunately, I’m bad at writing so I did not complete these posts until now.

When I can find extra moments, there is always a list of books I want to read. Some I anticipate for months, some for years before I find the time to get to them, and some of them live up to the hype and some don’t. Leisure Literature is a book review column that details my thoughts on my recent readings.

I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson is a newer YA book that I decided to pick up simply due to the semi-popularity of it recently. So, yes, I was just opening it and seeing what it had to offer without any real expectation.

Boy, did it deliver. For some reason, after finishing the book, I couldn’t stop raving to myself about how magic the book was. I could not explain exactly how, but I really felt an element of emotion and connection beyond logic, stuff that books aren’t supposed to be powerful enough to make one feel.

Noah and Jude (cool names, guys) are pretty well-developed characters. They each have clear wants and personalities, and admirable attitudes and realistic reactions. Yet, I never felt invested in them as people. In addition, the plot, upon zooming out, is rather unordinary, and could be cliched. So if the book is not character driven or plot driven, why was it so magical?

I think it was because it was meaning driven and word driven. I didn’t find satisfaction in Noah’s drive or Jude’s passion, but in the way things were said. In the way Noah thought, the painting titles. The metaphors used. How Jude would explain how she felt about something. And if I didn’t relate to the words every time, I definitely felt connected to how it was said. My brain works like that. I must have said “yes, exactly!” to myself fifty times. What little thoughts or lines meant in a micro sense felt more important than the book overall. That much made me feel like I understood Noah and Jude very personally. After I closed the book, though, and forgot the tiny moments that happened line by line, I was like, what made me feel like I knew them? I’m not like them at all!

One larger plot point I related to was Noah and Jude’s sibling relationship. The feeling of drifting and not wanting to, yet not feeling in a place to fix it. Hating each other, yet knowing each other better than can be explained, and still working together.

Other things: I enjoyed Noah’s artistic mind and how he can paint anything in his head, and I loved how Jude’s belief in the spirits and supernatural was so integrated into her perspective of the world. The way it was presented kept the book out of fantasy and in the real world, yet somehow brought the fantasy to the real world. I personally don’t have any inkling of bringing up in anything remotely similar to what Jude believes, but this writing made me accept it and believe it for Jude.

A couple things I wish were different: Oscar was a little too storybook to be real, and sometimes broken love stories (Noah’s) are meant to stay broken. Happy endings are cool too, but I value realistic ones even more.

Personally, for me, this book was magic. The words spoke to me personally, and something in the story connected with me beyond explaination. This is definitely a will-buy-my-own-copy-for-my-own-bookshelf book. Of course I think it’s an amazing book–you should read it, but this review is more of a personal experience I had with this story that I’m not sure everyone will have. Yet, I’m pretty sure it’s a great read even if you don’t find the same magic I did.

Leisure Literature: I’ll Give You The Sun

Leisure Literature: Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda

When I can find extra moments, there is always a list of books I want to read. Some I anticipate for months, some for years before I find the time to get to them, and some of them live up to the hype and some don’t. Leisure Literature is a book review column that details my thoughts on my recent readings.

I heard multiple positive reviews about this new book over the past few months, and between how well-liked it seemed and the different type of themes it had, I figured I should put Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli on my queue.

For the author’s first book, it’s pretty awesome. Albertalli has a strong sense of voice and style, even if it isn’t particularly unique. And yes, this is definitely a pioneer book; there isn’t much YA out there, let alone general fiction that deals so closely and so mainly with LGBT characters. But other than being one of the first of its kind, this book was rather unordinary. There was little other than the normal high school drama spiced up with some risque borderline explicitness.

Quite unfortunately, every character but Simon rolled together into an indiscernible lump. It took forever to sort out who was who at Simon’s lunch table, his sisters were hard to tell apart at first, and nearly every girl was the same person (only towards the end of the book could I tell apart Taylor, Abby, and Leah). There also seemed to be quite a bit of trash littered around, not completely cleaned up. Theo, Alice’s boyfriend, served but one tiny purpose for a metaphor on how Alice needed to come out as straight, so many unnecessary people were introduced at theater who were never used, and extra names at the lunch table seemed to be nothing but extra names (and mystery solution possibilities).

There were also some unexplained niches that I wanted to know about–why Harry Potter was referenced so much (just an author’s obsession?), for example. Also, I think the author lost me in that I have personally never heard of the Homosexual Agenda, so I do not know what she references in the Homo Sapiens Agenda. Yet, it makes for a hooking title.

While I was still reading, I didn’t understand Martin–his motives were so simple they confused me. As I saw him repent, it didn’t seem anywhere near sincere enough; it didn’t seem like it would make up for anything, but you see him cry in some beautifully written imagery, continue living, completely defeated by his actions, and after the book was closed, I couldn’t help but feel so sorry for him. I guess it’s something strange I like to do, but I often like to envision books as plays or movies, and imagine playing each character. And undoubtedly, if Simon were a play, I would want to be Martin. I would like to pretend to be him, and see his grief from his point of view.

One problem I had with the whole thing with Blue was that Simon fell into every pitfall and trap of the internet and writing over the internet, and became far too blunt with his wishes and hopes to meet the real Blue. Additionally, it was very hard to connect the character of the writer of the emails with the IRL Blue. But I do say that through any number of legitimate and foamy devices, Albertalli is very convincing about the fact that Simon has fallen in love with Blue over email.

The worst thing about the end of the book is that there is no closure–we don’t find out what happens to Cal, or why in the world this strange band was formed as a plot point, or what Simon does in terms of Martin (I’m only left to assume Simon has no forgiveness left in his heart at all, something I disagree with). It almost is calling for a sequel itself, although it appears quite standalone.

Overall, Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda was a pretty good book, but wasn’t extraordinary. Eventually, its market will be saturated with other books like it, and the societal views about LGBT in this book will eventually become dated, but it will be known as one of the pioneers of its genre and theme. Read it anyway, for today.

Leisure Literature: Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda