BOOK REVIEW: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard BookThe Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book begins with a family being murdered by Jack, a cold-hearted killer – a family all save the infant. It’s readily apparent that this isn’t a random violent crime. For one thing, the fiend is far more concerned with finding the baby so as to complete his treacherous task than he is with absconding with loot or reveling in carnage. We don’t know why the family is killed or how a baby could possibly be a worthy target for an assassin, but it’s a mystery that will play out over the course of the book. What we do know is that the boy, Bod – short for Nobody [Owens] – crawled from his crib, out of the house, and into a graveyard that night and that he was taken in by the dead [and a vampiric guardian named Silas] and granted free access to the graveyard.

While the plot is about a killer on the loose intent on murdering Bod, a lot of the book deals with the boy’s challenges as the one living human among a community of the dead. Silas and his adoptive – if deceased – parents, the Owenses, are reluctant to let the boy out of the graveyard because they know he is in danger and they can protect him there were a different set of rules apply, but he has a desire to experience the world. An abortive experiment with going to school fails because Bod sticks up for bullied kids and can’t help but employ some of the skills he’s acquired as a denizen of the graveyard. In the graveyard, he is a living person among the dead, but he is no less the outsider among the living.

This is written for a young audience, and is therefore highly readable while avoiding all the gore that one might expect of a book that begins in murder. Gaiman masterfully creates the ghoulishness and suspense without being horror, per se. I’d recommend this book for readers of low (intrusion) fantasy works.

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BOOK REVIEW: Crazy for Alice by Alex Dunn

Crazy For AliceCrazy For Alice by Alex Dunn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Ben has a secret and keeping it sends him into a depressive spiral. He’d had almost everything going for him. With his high IQ, he was sailing through school on his way to a top-tier college. He was also an athlete of local renown on the swim team. The only source of consternation in his life was a deadbeat drunk of a father, and the fact that said father recently passed away. Ben was in the car accident with his father, and was the last one to see him alive. Fortunately, Ben has an older brother who’s a cop, Gavin, who looks out for him and tries to keep an overbearing mother at bay.

After an attempted suicide via wrist slashing, Ben is institutionalized. It’s during this time that he drops into a coma. While he’s not conscious of the real world, his consciousness takes up residence in a place he calls “Gray World.” Besides being monochrome, Gray World exhibits the characteristics of a dream. The laws of physics, cause & effect, and consistency of space and time are all freely violated. Ben soon meets a girl named Alice who is initially cautious about him. Over time, the two develop an increasingly close relationship. Then Ben comes out of his coma.

In the real world, Ben is obsessed with getting back to the Gray World to rescue Alice. It seems that all the residents of Gray World are individuals suffering severe depression. The problem is that Ben only has a first name and a probable city of residency. Of course, to his mother, brother, friends, and doctors, this obsession is a sign that Ben’s depression has migrated into a full-blown delusional psychosis. His mother, terrified of losing him, treats Ben as a prisoner. Gavin, while well-meaning, feels the need to prove that Alice was just a dream.

I enjoyed the story and also found it to be thought-provoking. The characters are well-developed enough to care about, and the reader can see how each of the key players is trapped in his or her behavior—behaviors that are sub-optimal. At one point, I thought that it strained credulity that Ben took so long to realize he needed to play along to get some space for his search. He kept being forthright about his intentions to find Alice, and this just made his mother more nervous and smothering–and made Gavin more insistent. But it occurred to me that Ben’s ego as a genius kept him in that state. He wasn’t used to being challenged in his understanding of the world, and reacted to it poorly. He had a need to be right that overrode his capacity to recognize what those around him wanted to hear. His mother was trapped by fear into an increasingly suffocating form of love. Gavin, the most emotionally stable of the trio, thinks he can force Ben to accept an understanding of reality through the brute force of reason—missing that being right might not be as important as being compassionate.

I’d recommend this book for fiction readers. It’s written for the YA (young adult) market, but is intriguing for adults as well.

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BOOK REVIEW: Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

Challenger DeepChallenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“Challenger Deep” is the story of a smart and artistically talented young man, Caden Bosch, who is afflicted with Schizophrenia. There are essentially two story lines being told in parallel. One is the real world, and in the chapters in this line we see Caden’s descent as it takes place. From references to past events, we gain insight into how Caden was before the disease. In the early part of the book, these chapters are set at school and at home, and then later at the mental hospital at which he’s admitted as a patient.

In the other story, Caden is on a sailing ship headed to the Challenger Deep—the deepest portion of the Marianas Trench at almost 7 miles down, and—symbolically—Caden’s rock-bottom . Shipboard life is Caden’s hallucinated experience of the mental hospital. Over time the reader begins to match up characters from the real world with those from the delusion—both patients and staff members. This is a mutinous vessel, and the tension reflects the pull between Caden’s desire to be well and the appeal of the world of delusion.

Over time the author shows key events in both lines and the reader can connect them up to interpret how delusional Caden experiences the world. The story isn’t strictly told in a chronological order, though the broad sweep of it is. The bits of disjoint create no confusion while helping to convey the nature of a fractured mind. This works, in part, because the book is told over 161 short chapters, and, because the chapters are so short, a diversion doesn’t take one far and it’s easy to show the match up of events. The book artfully conveys the bizarreness of a dreamlike world of delusion while remaining clear and readable. Any confusion in the early chapters becomes rectified as the author reveals how the delusional world and the real world zip together.

This book was imaginative, enjoyable to read, as well as allowing the reader insight into the nature of mental illness. Atypical of a work of fiction, there is a resources section that provides contact information for organizations that support mental health.

I’d highly recommend this book for fiction readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Million Shades of Gray by Cynthia Kadohata

A Million Shades of GrayA Million Shades of Gray by Cynthia Kadohata
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This young adult (YA) novel is set in the Central Highlands of Vietnam during the last few years of the war. The lead character, Y’tin, is an adolescent whose life ambition is to be an elephant handler, a dream which he’s well on the way to achieving and which he’d be a shoo-in for if he didn’t live in war-torn times. His life is complicated by the fact that his father has worked for the American Special Forces (as a tracker), and the war is turning in the favor of the North.

When US forces withdraw and South Vietnamese forces are overrun, Y’tin escapes into the jungle with a couple of other boys and their elephants. Almost immediately a fault line freezes out Y’tin. The three boys had been close friends in the village, but under the stress of jungle life, the other two resent that Y’tin’s father worked for US Special Forces and that Y’tin, himself, had once gone on mission with the Americans. They believe that this is what has brought the war to their village. On the other hand, they recognize that Y’tin is more gifted in jungle craft than they, especially tracking, because of the education of his father.

Because of these skills, Y’tin is chosen to go back on a mission to reconnoiter their village, and he finds it’s been bombed out and nobody is to be seen. This leaves it unclear how many of the villagers escaped versus being executed by the North Vietnamese forces—but he does know many were killed. [Incidentally, the title comes from Y’tin’s view of the jungle after seeing the remnants of his village—i.e. instead of being a million shades of green, all he can see is gray.]

Besides telling the story of Y’tin’s adventures in surviving the war, the novel pivots on Y’tin’s role as a mahout—and ultimately as a protector of the elephants. Y’tin finds himself in a position in which his dream is no longer tenable, and he must decide whether take a heroic risk to save the elephants or hold on to his dream in the face of unfavorable odds.

The book is only a little over 200 pages arranged into 14 chapters, and—as would be expected of YA fiction—is readable. The book’s strength is in building a lead character who’s interesting by virtue of his mix of worldly naiveté and jungle [local] wisdom and giving him intense challenges and dilemmas. Weakness? The strict chronological progression results in a slow start in which the author spends a chapter establishing that the lead character loves elephants without anything interesting happening. However, if one gives the book til the second chapter, things start happening.

I’d recommend this book for readers of fiction, and particularly those interested in YA fiction and stories of war.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The title of this novel about the doomed love affair of two cancer-riddled teens says a great deal, and—while lifted from Shakespeare–it’s well-chosen. The lead character is a sixteen-year-old girl named Hazel who has lungs that, as she puts it, “suck at being lungs.” She meets a boy, Augustus, at support group who is in remission, but who had a leg amputated in the process of achieving his momentary cancer-free status. Hazel takes an immediate liking to the handsome and charismatic Augustus (i.e. “Gus”), but remains standoffish because she is–to use her own words–“a grenade.” Meaning that she is going to die young, leaving her loved ones devastated. She has enough guilt about the fact that she will do this to her parents, but is unwilling to subject Gus to the same fate. Augustus, however, is an ardent and skillful wooer and eventually wears Hazel down with his winning ways and selfless acts.

This isn’t a typical read for me by a long shot. It’s written in the language of YA fiction, and it’s brutally depressing in places. Neither of the aforementioned characteristics usually draw me in. However, despite its sad subject matter, the book has a sense of humor that is essential to keep the story from crushing one’s will to continue reading. Of course, the fact that all the major young characters are dying is a cloud ever-present throughout the book. I will say it’s the most viscerally emotional novel I’ve read in some time. The only books this depressing that I’ve read recently were nonfiction works on Pol Pot era Cambodia and the Holocaust.

The strength of the book is its characters. They may be atypically intelligent, clever, and well-spoken teens, but they are intriguing, likable, and well-developed characters. Besides Hazel and Gus, there is a secondary character named Isaac who has a form of cancer that isn’t highly lethal but which does claim his eyes. Hazel and Gus are in one way polar opposites. Gus, the former star athlete, is ever concerned about his legacy, but the less ambitious Hazel believes that everyone fades into oblivion rapidly. These divergent perspectives of similarly doomed youths give one insight into the varied approaches to experiencing one’s mortality.

Another intriguing character is Peter Van Houten, a one-time American writer living in Amsterdam and the heir to a fortune off which he lives as a professional drunk. Van Houten wrote a single book about a person who dies young, which turns out to be based on his own child and is Hazel’s favorite book. Gus reads the book to please Hazel, but becomes genuinely intrigued with its ambiguous ending. Van Houten is an unpleasant character, but his book is a focal point of the storyline. The couple takes a trip to Amsterdam to try to get answers about the novel’s abrupt ending, and this experience proves to be the pivotal point in their relationship. Van Houten–jackass as he may be–does end up passing on some useful wisdom to Hazel and Gus.

I rate this book highly for being readable, captivating, and gripping. I would recommend it for those who don’t usually read YA, though the language and focus is decidedly geared toward a YA audience.

It should be noted that the film adaptation will come out this summer. For some reason they filmed it in Pittsburgh instead of the story’s real setting—and my one-time home—Indianapolis, Indiana. I’ll try not to hold this against it, too much.

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