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In Review: Bossypants

Author: Tina Fey
Year of publication: 2011

your brain on books rating: 4

Often when people chronicle their own lives, they hand-select the trials and tribulations that will best illustrate the awe-inspiring journeys they have undertaken in order to win the hearts of the reading and based-on-a-true-story watching public.  Tina Fey is not one of those people, because the test audiences for the biopic based on her bestselling book would be laughing too hard, and Lifetime would surrender their rights* to her story for fear that the film would be too…off-brand.  From awkward adolescent child to awkward Hollywood celebrity, Fey uses the pages of her memoir to give readers a guided tour of her life thus far with the brand of honest, unapologetic humor for which she is so well known.

Tina Fey: a comedian, a writer, an actress on a television show about a television show in which she portrays a comedic writer, a wife, a mother, a bossypants.  It turns out women really can have it all.

For readers who are familiar with Fey’s work on Saturday Night Live or 30 Rock, the sense of humor she brings to this recounting of her life won’t disappoint.  Fey lays it all on the table – for all of her successes, she doesn’t forget to include a failure or otherwise embarrassing moment.  No shame between friends, right, readers?  And even if there were, Fey’s audience is more likely to burst out in good-natured laughter at her witty prose than to pass judgment for the times in her life where her efforts fell short.  As such, Fey’s ability to keep a fairly even balance between the highs and the lows when telling readers about her life makes this book a hard one to put down.

However, as much as Fey keeps the good times rolling throughout most of her book, she forgets (or – perhaps in a more intriguing twist – chooses not) to keep it light at the end.  As readers can imagine, being a working mother is challenging, but being a 70-hour-a-week working mother upon whom many other people’s jobs depend can at times be a nightmare.  It’s a tough topic to joke about, and if Fey has even made an attempt, she has failed to do so successfully.  The placement of this particular discussion in the final chapters ends the memoir on a low note.  It might be more realistic, but it is not what most readers will expect they are getting themselves into; they went to Oz to see the wizard, but behind the curtain they will find a normal, human (wo)man.

All jokes aside, Bossypants is a must for Fey fans.

*Lifetime does not, to this writer’s knowledge, own the rights to Tina Fey’s life story.

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In Review: Brave Story

Author: Miyuki Miyabe (Translator: Alexander O. Smith)
Year of publication: 2009

your brain on books rating: 3

Wataru Mitani was rather surprised to discover that the abandoned building down the street from his family’s apartment houses a gateway to another world called Vision.  And he’s not the only one who knows about it; Mitsuru Ashikawa, one of Wataru’s classmates, has not only seen the gateway but stepped through it and has been granted Traveler status so he can move freely throughout Vision.  Wataru and Mitsuru have something else in common, too.  Their families have been torn apart – Mitsuru’s by murder, and Wataru’s by an impending divorce.  When Mitsuru visits Wataru in the middle of the night and hands him a Traveler’s token, Wataru leaves the real world for Vision, and the two boys begin separate quests to the Tower of Destiny in the hope that the Goddess will change their fates.

The problem is, their own destinies are not the only things hanging in the balance.  The very different paths that Wataru and Mitsuru walk on their way to the Tower have serious consequences for the world in which they are Travelers, and Vision may not survive their stay.

Miyabe’s greatest success is the degree to which her characters are well-crafted.  Wataru is believable not just as a young boy in unfamiliar surroundings, but also as the Brave (literally, this is the category of Traveler into which he falls) he turns out to be.  He experiences nearly every emotion during his journey across Vision, and he bears them all with the amount of grace possible for a person of his maturity in increasingly challenging situations.  Wataru’s traveling companions complement him; they are the humor to his sadness, the certainty to his indecisiveness, the fear to his courage.  In contrast, Mitsuru’s cool indifference to the moral conflicts he faces places him at the opposite end of the spectrum: a testament to Miyabe’s range.

Unfortunately, Miyabe’s efforts to write a story that will (or should) endure fall flat once readers look past her characterizations.  Though the plot is interesting, it is disappointingly unoriginal.  Vision is a realm created and influenced by the imaginations of humans who live in the real world.  Wataru is an ordinary boy who accidentally happens upon Vision and subsequently embarks on a quest to reach a distant, sacred tower where a goddess lives.  He wears a pendant that identifies him as one of the Goddess’s chosen and protected Travelers.  At one point, he passes through a region known as the Swamp of Grief.

Sound familiar?

You’re right – it’s The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende.  Wataru even manages to find himself a nice dragon friend to fly him around sometimes.  Each of these uncanny similarities to Ende’s revered contribution to the children’s literary canon detracts further from Miyabe’s work, until there is little left to applaud that wasn’t already written by Ende thirty years prior.

Readers with a taste for adventure should certainly give Brave Story a try, but they should measure their expectations; this story doesn’t test the borders of the map.

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In Review: Ready Player One

Author: Ernest Cline
Year of publication: 2012

your brain on books rating: 5

In 2044, the world has reached such a state of economic and environmental decline that those who can afford it choose to spend their time living in a virtual online world: the OASIS.  Wade Watts, better known to his online acquaintances by Parzival, the name of his OASIS avatar, is one such person.  The OASIS contains countless virtual planets and quests to occupy players’ time, but somewhere within its vast expanse also lie hidden clues to the fortune left behind by the OASIS’s creator, James Halliday.  Years after this contest was initially revealed upon Halliday’s death, players have yet to gain any ground in the hunt; that is, until Wade suddenly cracks the first clue and begins a dangerous race to the finish line.

As far as narrators go, Wade gets a high score for trustworthiness.  He knows how to take care of his readers by providing explanation of his actions or his world when needed, and we believe he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the 1980s trivia and video games around which Halliday framed the contest.  Using Wade as a knowledgeable mouthpiece, Cline details these movies, songs, and games so that readers unfamiliar with the pop culture of that particular decade will not just follow along, but become engaged in Wade’s quest for Halliday’s prize.

And what a quest it is.  With real and virtual danger around every corner, readers’ emotions will rapidly change from excited (with each of Wade’s breakthroughs) to anxious (with every setback as time runs short) and back again in a roller coaster that will leave them unsettled but absolutely sure of one thing: we all want Wade to win.  Whether he will actually make it to the top of the scoreboard is the question that will have readers reaching for this book whenever they have a spare moment.  There are no slow sections of this work, because whenever Wade leaves the virtual world, he has the real world to deal with.

Readers won’t just love this story for its ability to keep them guessing, but also for the strong feeling of nostalgia it leaves behind.  Compared to the harsh background of 2044, the 1980s embody a simplicity that Wade and his peers have never known.  Each plot point brings readers new factoids about a mecca of culture long past that, due to the international familiarity with Halliday’s contest, has practically become a collective memory for most of 2044 Earth.  Even readers who lived through the 1980s themselves will find a new respect for the decade’s pop culture.

Ready Player One is Cline’s first novel, and readers who race to the end along with Wade will find themselves eagerly anticipating the next work that this author might dish up.

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In Review: The Stolen Child

Author: Keith Donohue
Year of publication: 2007

your brain on books rating: 4

In 1949 a seven-year-old boy ran away from home, and a group of changelings watching from the nearby forest made sure that he didn’t find his way back.  One of the changelings assumed young Henry Day’s identity, while the human boy was transformed into a changeling and given the name Aniday.  Thirty years later, Henry Day and Aniday finally tell the story of how their lives unfolded since their switch, and how they struggled to come to terms with who – and what – they were and had become.

The Stolen Child is an interesting character study that delves deep into the emotions of its two protagonists, examining their pain resulting from the crimes they have suffered, and, in the changeling Henry Day’s case, the guilt from committing the same crime against another innocent in order to return to some semblance of the life that had been taken from him nearly a century before.  Donohue’s choice to have both protagonists recount their stories thirty years after they initially switched places is important to the overall tone of the work; because Henry Day and Aniday are both grown at this point in time, the novel takes on a mature, literary quality that would not have been possible if the beginning of Aniday’s narration came directly from his seven-year-old self.  Readers will quickly trust their narrators, as Henry Day and Aniday’s experiences are told in hindsight after plenty of time for reflection.

Still, the devil wants an advocate, and though Donohue’s decision to age the characters before beginning the novel makes both halves of the narration more cohesive, some readers might rather have experienced Aniday’s maturation first-hand as he comes to grips with the new life that has been forced upon him.  But, alas, that’s a book we don’t have, and the present work can easily stand on its own as is.

The novel’s structure greatly facilitates readers’ continued interest in the protagonists’ experiences. With each new chapter, the narration’s point of view switches from that of Henry Day to that of Aniday and back again.  Considering the fact that clear crimes were committed in the past to get the protagonists to where they are today, these switching viewpoints make it difficult for readers to decide whose side they’re supposed to be on, forcing them to question whether they should be taking sides at all.  This type of structure also keeps the story moving where the plot intensity is otherwise lacking; readers can’t tire with one protagonist because they never spend too long with him at once, and so the anticipation of the start of each chapter results in an inescapable excitement that propels the story forward.

By the novel’s conclusion, readers will feel extraordinarily close to both Henry Day and Aniday because not only will they know the protagonists’ fears and regrets, they will also know their small moments of triumph.  Donohue succeeds in engaging his readers with a tale of identity theft in its most legendary form.

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In Review: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

Author: Tom Franklin
Year of publication: 2010

your brain on books rating: 4

Larry Ott and Silas “32” Jones were friends, once upon a time.  But racial issues in rural Mississippi during the 1970s complicated their already strained friendship, so the two boys grew apart and grew up.  While Jones became a popular jock on the baseball team, Ott struggled to find a group of his own.  Then a local girl vanished when she was supposed to be at the drive-in with Ott, and he was never able to shake off the fingers that pointed in his direction.

Decades later, Jones is the town constable, and Ott is nearly a shut-in, only leaving his home and his beloved horror novels to work at his auto-repair shop where he never has any customers unless an out-of-towner who doesn’t know him happens to have some car trouble while passing through.  Ott learns to accept his alienation and his empty hours, but he finds himself thrown back into the spotlight when another girl goes missing and the rumors from his past make him the most likely suspect.  Now it’s up to Jones to separate the facts from the speculation, bringing him face-to-face with the man who was his best friend when he himself had nothing.

If readers weren’t already aware that Franklin’s novel is set in the South, it shouldn’t take them more than a chapter to figure it out; the narration of the story has a very relaxed pace – slow, but not so much as to be debilitating.  This pace assists the storytelling in two ways: 1) by making more authentic the experience of being in small-town Mississippi, and 2) by reinforcing the idea that things in some areas of the South don’t change quickly.  In this case, that slow-changing atmosphere includes people’s impressions of each other, and Ott’s pain is apparent because of it.  Just by browsing the back cover copy, readers will get the feeling that Ott may not be guilty of the crime of which others have accused him, so slow-moving decades of forced isolation make it easy to empathize with the poor, lonely bookworm.  Just go ahead and call him “Boo Radley.”

With readers already on Ott’s side, there’s one thing more pressing than the anguish over Ott spending all those lazy, hazy, crazy days of every single summer all by his lonesome: if Ott isn’t a murderer (and throughout the novel, however innocent Ott might seem, that’s still an “if”), who is?  Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is primarily a whodunit mystery, but the work’s greatest strength is the fact that the interpersonal relationships will become as important to readers as the anticipation of learning the killer’s identity.  Franklin works with a small cast of characters, which allows him to fully develop the relationships between each protagonist and the secondary characters that surround them, both during the 1970s and the story’s present.  Readers will have to juggle their feelings about Jones and Ott’s former friendship and actions since, all while trying to label one of the small town’s inhabitants a cold-blooded killer.  The fact that the townspeople are quick to blame Ott just adds another layer to an already captivating story – because guilt is assigned before the police even begin to collect evidence for the latest crime, readers will have an emotional investment in the outcome, not just a passive interest.

If there is one thing to say about Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, let it be this: there are good books that are plot-driven, and there are good books that are character-driven, but great books strike a balance between both elements.  Franklin has found that balance, and thus told a great story.

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