Book Review: Paper Towns by John Green

papertownsPaper Towns
by John Green
305 pages
Published 2008
Young Adult

So this is the last of John Green’s books that I hadn’t read. And it, like the others, boils down to much the same plot. Boy meets Girl, Girl affects Boy’s life in a profound way, Boy loses Girl and has to deal with the changes she’s wrought AND her absence. On one hand, I feel like Green needs to branch out and find a new plot, on the other hand, he writes this plot so well. And even within this plot he writes such different books. The Fault in Our Stars was slightly different, in that Girl lost Boy and had to deal with it. Unlike Looking For Alaska, in Paper Towns Girl didn’t die, but Boy still lost her nonetheless. In Will Grayson, Will Grayson, the plot was changed to “Boy meets Boy, Boy changes Boy’s world, Boy loses Boy and has to deal with the loss and the changes.” But in all four books the protagonist winds up dealing with something John Green has mentioned repeatedly in his vlogbrothers videos: imagining people complexly.

What does that mean?

It means not making preconceived notions of what people are or how they think. That woman who was rude to you yesterday, she’s a bitch, right? Instead of just deciding “well she’s rude and mean” imagine her complexly. Maybe she has a migraine, maybe she overslept and her entire morning was a cascade of failure. Maybe she has a sick kid and an out-of-work husband at home and they’re struggling to make ends meet on her minimum wage income. Imagine her complexly and you’ll realize that she has problems of her own, and maybe what you interpreted as a rude, mean-spirited remark was simply a tired tone of voice from a stressed-out woman. Maybe she was rude, maybe she looked at you as simply someone in her way because she didn’t imagine you complexly. Imagining people complexly is another way of saying “treat people like PEOPLE and not just bit players in your own little drama.” That can be a hard task when not everyone is doing it.

In Paper Towns, Margo Roth Spiegelman is an enigma, even to the boy who’s been her neighbor for sixteen years and from whose perspective the book is written. She’s been a different person to every person in high school, letting no one see the real Margo until she runs away and leaves a trail of clues for Quentin, her neighbor, to find. Quentin’s had a crush on her since he was ten, but it’s only in following her clues that he begins to see Margo as Margo, and not as the idea of Margo he had constructed.

It’s an important lesson, and maybe the reason it shows up in all of John Green’s books is because it is so incredibly important and yet so rare to find and so difficult to do. John talks about the concept in a speech he gave at the Alan Conference but the important part is here, I think:

“Let me tell you what is, in my opinion, the central problem of human existence: I am stuck in my body, in my consciousness, seeing out of my eyes. I am the only me I ever get to be, and so I am the only person I can imagine endlessly complexly. That’s not the problem, actually. The problem is you. You are so busy taking in your own wondrousness that you can’t be bothered to acknowledge mine.

When I was a kid, I believed in an embarrassingly total way that I was the only human being in the world and that all the other people, including my brother and parents and everybody, was in fact an alien, and that the aliens had created the entire world to do a series of controlled experiments on how a human child—me—would respond to various forms of trial and tribulation. And when I wasn’t around, they would take off their human costumes—the aliens had very advanced costuming technology, naturally—and they would do alien stuff. You know, go to the alien zoo and watch the alien local news and whatever else. I really believed this.

And obviously, on some level, this indicated the kind of massively narcissistic worldview that would later require decades of therapy to adjust. But in a way, I was right. I am the only person whose existence I can directly attest to. By the way, when I’ve talked about this in the past I’ve seen people nodding, like they also believed in their childhoods that they were the only real person in the world, and I would imagine that right now, some such people are probably feeling the comfort we feel when we learn that our delusions are shared, that we are not alone even in our darkest corners.

… I will acknowledge that you are all likely to be people. The probability that I am the only person in the world is extremely small—it is that number that infinitely approaches zero but isn’t zero. And yet. On some level, I have to take it on faith that you are as complex as I am, that your pain and joy and grief are as real and as meaningful as my own.”

The entire speech is very much worth reading. John Green is extremely eloquent (as good writers must be!) and his perspectives on things are usually worth reading.

From the back of Paper Towns:

Quentin Jacobsen has spent a lifetime loving the magnificently adventurous Margo Roth Spiegelman from afar. So when she cracks open a window and climbs back into his life – dressed like a ninja and summoning him for an ingenious campaign of revenge – he follows. 

After their all-nighter ends and a new day breaks, Q arrives at school to discover that Margo, always an enigma, has now become a mystery. But Q soon learns that there are clues – and they’re for him. Urged down a disconnected path, the closer he gets, the less Q sees the girl he thought he knew.

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Book Review: The Goddess Companion

goddesscompThe Goddess Companion: Daily Meditations on the Feminine Spirit
by Patricia Monaghan
400 pages
Published 1999
Pagan/Spirituality

This is one of the first pagan books I bought myself, and I absolutely love it. It has an entry for every day of the year, so you can read it daily as a meditation, or open it when you feel you need guidance.

An example of a day:

February 16

The flood receded, leaving swamps
where life emerged anew like seeds
sprouting in a mother’s womb.
It was just like spring, when peasants
overturn the soil to find a world
of creatures there, as though the earth
itself crept and wriggled and was alive.
Life begins in heat and water,
those apparent opposites that stir
creation. Thus the sun, rising on
the flooded earth, brought forth new life.
– Ovid, Metamorphoses
In the myths of many cultures, the earth is destroyed – often by a flood – and then reborn, re-made. So it was in Greek and Roman mythology, which told of a great flood that only the woman Pyrrha and her mate Deucalion survived. Told by an oracle that she would bear children from “the bones of her mother,” Pyrrha figured out that her mother being the earth, the bones would mean the rock skeleton of the planet. Throwing stones behind herself, Pyrrha produced an entire new race of humans to repopulate the earth.

After the destructive flood, the earth replenished itself anew. Such myths capture the special freshness of spring, when all seems reborn. In our own lives, too, we will find times when an order is overturned – a job or love lost, a home transformed – but new order emerges from the ruin. Trusting in such rebirth is difficult, but every spring reminds us that renewal is an inevitable part of life.

Each day in the book brings a quote from ancient poetry or song or religious text about some aspect of the goddess. Some days it’s Horace or Homer, some days it’s a Lithuanian Folk song, or an Indian prayer to Kali. I love how it draws from such widely different traditions to show different faces of the goddess.

It’s quite seasonal; it doesn’t have days of the week, but it does go by dates, so you’ll find things about spring in February, March, and April; entries about depression and the dark of winter in December and January; entries about death and ancestors in October.

I highly recommend this book; it is well-written, insightful, and well-researched. This is a book I crack open not-quite-daily, but at least once a week, and whenever I need a goddess fix. I used to have quotes from this book written out on paper and posted all over my house. I did not realize the author had written so many other books – she has about 20 listed on her Wikipedia page! I only own The Goddess Companion and The Goddess Path, but I think I’ll be looking up more of her work. Sadly, she died about a year ago, but she left behind a wonderful body of work. If you’re interested in reading about the divine feminine, this book is a great place to start.

Book Review: Her Sky Cowboy

herskycowboyHer Sky Cowboy
by Beth Ciotta
342 pages
Published 2012
Steampunk

This book is FANTASTIC. It’s the closest thing to a feminist, egalitarian romance I’ve seen in quite some time, and the romance subplot is expertly woven into the main treasure hunt plot. With it all set against the steampunk backdrop of a time-travel-altered Europe, this is a spectacularly fun read.

The book is set in 1887, 31 years after the “Peace Rebels” traveled back in time from 1969. They came back to warn the world of the dangers of technology – they had stories of Hiroshima, and the Holocaust, and the horrors visited on the human race by nuclear bombs and tear gas and pollution and other terrible things. Their travel had a consequence, though – they apparently came from another dimension. They’re still human, but when “Mods” have children with “Vics” (Moderns vs Victorians), their children then get labeled “Freaks.” Freaks have kaleidoscope eyes – they’re said to look like time travel, or what the Mods saw when they traveled back to 1887. And Freaks all have some sort of ability – the main Freak in the book is a healer. Others can read minds, or control weather. The danger of this is that no Freak is older than 31 years old; no one knows what they’re truly capable of, not even themselves.

Mods came back in time to warn of the dangers of technology, but at the same time, some of them couldn’t resist re-inventing some of the things they’d left behind. And spreading their knowledge. So the setting is Victorian Europe (Britain, mostly) but with varying amounts of steam power, electric power, gas power – dirigibles and air-cycles and the rumors of a lost time-machine.

Among all of this lies the Darcy family. The Darcys have a family connection to the man that built the first time machine, and as such are somewhat rejected from society, since a lot of people are not very happy with the sudden technology and blame them for bringing it upon them. Baron Darcy is an eccentric inventor who can never focus on one thing long enough to see it through. His three children, Amelia (the heroine of this book) and her twin brothers, Simon and Jules, are all equally brilliant, but it’s Amelia that’s taken after her father the most. She dreams of captaining her own airship someday. When Baron Darcy dies and leaves the family destitute, their only hope to regain the family fortune (and respect from their countrymen) is a contest for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. They each receive a personal invitation to join the hunt for “lost or legendary technological inventions of historical significance.” (Future books follow Simon and Jules’ adventures in this quest, and I WILL be looking for those!)

Amelia’s quest leads her to run into Tucker Gentry, a notorious ex-Air Marshal from America. Convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and sentenced to hang, his crew rescued him and ran to Europe. Amelia and Tucker immediately strike sparks on each other and soon fall in love. And their love story is one of the best I’ve read recently. It’s repeatedly noted that it’s her mind and personality that drives Tucker wild – her aptitude with aeronautics, her sass, her ability to do things for herself. It’s also repeatedly demonstrated that she CAN, indeed, take care of herself. She rebuilds her air-cycle on his ship – or almost does, until one of his crew members takes over and adds a bunch of new stuff to it as thanks for saving his life. When she’s abducted he finds her having dinner with her captor, bargaining for her own release. She’s the one that leads them to the treasure, putting together the clues and finding the secret cave. It’s that self-sufficient streak that really captures Tucker’s heart: “By marrying you, I’m gaining the wife of my dreams, a woman who’ll share the wheel with me, soar the skies, experience adventures.”

Looking back on it, there were a few times where Tucker soared to her rescue, but I never noticed it while I was reading. They were equals throughout the entire book, and that’s not something you see often in a book with a strong romantic sub-plot. Even in the sex scenes, of which there are two or three, she takes an equal, demanding role. I was extremely impressed, and I cannot WAIT to read more about “The Glorious Victorious Darcys,” as the series is called. This is one hell of a book, and if you like steampunk and don’t mind a romantic sub-plot, you should DEFINITELY pick this up.

So far there are two more in the series, His Clockwork Canary (Simon’s story) and His Broken Angel (a novella about Doc, the Freak from Her Sky Cowboy.)

From the back of Her Sky Cowboy:

Amelia Darcy has no interest in marrying well. Her heart belongs to the sky and the dirigibles of brass and steel that swoop over Victorian England. But when her father, an eccentric inventor, dies, the Darcy siblings are left with scrap metal—and not a penny to their names. Their only hope to save the family name and fortune is to embark on a contest to discover an invention of historical importance in honor of Queen Victoria.   
Armed with only her father’s stories of a forgotten da Vinci workshop, a mechanically enhanced falcon, and an Italian cook, Amelia takes flight for Florence, Italy. But her quest is altered when her kitecycle crashes into the air ship of ex–Air Marshal—and scandalous dime novel hero—Tucker Gentry. 
  
Challenged by political unrest, a devious sky pirate, and their own sizzling attraction, Amelia and Tuck are dragged into an international conspiracy that could change the course of history…again. 

Book Review: Hellbent by Cherie Priest

hellbentHellbent
by Cherie Priest
338 pages
Urban Fantasy

I picked up Hellbent for one sentence on the back cover. “Her Seattle home is already overrun by a band of misfits, including Ian Stott, a blind vampire, and Adrian deJesus, an ex-Navy SEAL/drag queen.” I mean, doesn’t that sound like fun to you? Hellbent is actually the second book in a series about Raylene Pendle, a vampire thief; Bloodshot being the first. I’ve not read Bloodshot, but I didn’t need to to follow the action in Hellbent.

Raylene is contracted to recover a box of bacula – penis bones. (Snicker.) Not just any penis bones, but penis bones of various supernatural species. Lycanthropes, Basilisk, Sasquatch, to name a few. Supernatural bacula have a lot of magical punch, and will sell for a few million dollars apiece in Raylene’s world. Along the way to recovering the bacula, Raylene also has to keep her blind vampire friend from getting dusted by his old House, and solve the mystery of his sire’s murder.

It’s a fun read, and Raylene is a sarcastic, intelligent protagonist. There’s an undercurrent of romance between Raylene and Ian, AND Raylene and Adrian, but it’s never overt or a main part of the plot. From a drag show to penis jokes to outrunning a tornado, Raylene the vampire thief sails through her problems, collecting stray people to her as she does so. I admit I would have liked to see more ass-kicking; there was only one real action scene in the book, and it was very short. I was also a little surprised at how quickly an enemy turned into a friend, that seemed a little sudden. Overall, a fun, light-hearted vampire romp that doesn’t get bogged down by too much romance or politicking.

From the back of Hellbent:

Vampire thief Raylene Pendle doesn’t need more complications in her life. Her Seattle home is already overrun by a band of misfits, including Ian Stott, a blind vampire, and Adrian deJesus, an ex-Navy SEAL/drag queen. But Raylene still can’t resist an old pal’s request: seek out and steal a bizarre set of artifacts. Also on the hunt is a brilliant but certifiably crazy sorceress determined to stomp anyone who gets in her way. But Raylene’s biggest problem is that the death of Ian’s vaunted patriarch appears to have made him the next target of some blood-sucking sociopaths.  Now Raylene must snatch up the potent relics, solve a murder, and keep Ian safe—all while fending off a psychotic sorceress. But at least she won’t be alone. A girl could do a lot worse for a partner than an ass-kicking drag queen—right?

Dark Angels by Karleen Koen

darkangelsDark Angels
by Karleen Koen
530 pages
Published 2006
Historical Fiction

I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but what I do read tends to be based on medieval-to-renaissance England and France. The era of Kings and Queens and courtiers and courtly intrigue. Dark Angels fits solidly into that framework. It’s actually the prequel to a previously published book, Through A Glass Darkly, which I haven’t read yet but definitely will now! Koen weaves a masterfully written tale of a maid of honor to King Charles II of England‘s queen. Alice Verney is incredibly intelligent, cunning, and ambitious. At the same time, she has friends, and she will go out of her way to protect them as long as they don’t betray her. When the Princess of England, her current Lady, falls ill and dies in France, Alice returns to England to a court she hasn’t been part of for two years. Some things have changed, some haven’t, and Alice must muddle her way through politics that have been shaped without her hand in order to find her footing again. Between the raising of a new King’s mistress, a sudden wedding, the murder of a notorious transgender Madam, and the possibility of war, the book is a volatile tale that drew me in and kept me there.

I wrote and scheduled two reviews for this blog, in order to give myself a couple of days to read this longer, more substantial book, and then promptly stayed up until 4 am to finish it in one go! The glittering court of Koen’s imagination held me spellbound from the first page until the last. I loved Alice, then hated her, then loved her again. Koen had me both laughing with Alice and crying with her when tragedy struck. Alice is, at turns, arrogant, vulnerable, jaded, and a girl in love. She is an enchanting protagonist and one I look forward to seeing more of.

If you enjoy historical fiction, if you enjoy reading about the royal courts of England and France, I highly recommend Dark Angels. Koen reminds me of Philippa Gregory, though more vibrant.

From the back of Dark Angels:

Alice Verney is a young woman intent on achieving her dreams. Having left Restoration England in the midst of a messy scandal, she has been living in Louis XIV’s Baroque, mannered France for two years. Now she is returning home to England and anxious to re-establish herself quickly. First, she will regain her former position as a maid of honor to Charles II’s queen. Then she will marry the most celebrated Duke of the Restoration, putting herself in a position to attain power she’s only dreamed of. As a duchess, Alice will be able to make or break her friends and enemies at will.

But all is not as it seems in the rowdy, merry court of Charles II. Since the Restoration, old political alliances have frayed, and there are whispers that the king is moving to divorce his barren queen, who some wouldn’t mind seeing dead.  But Alice, loyal only to a select few, is devoted to the queen, and so sets out to discover who might be making sinister plans, and if her own father is one of them. When a member of the royal family dies unexpectedly, and poison is suspected, the stakes are raised. Alice steps up her efforts to find out who is and isn’t true to the queen, learns of shocking betrayals throughout court, and meets a man that she may be falling in love with – and who will spoil all of her plans. With the suspected arrival of a known poison-maker, the atmosphere in the court electrifies, and suddenly the safety of the king himself seems uncertain. Secret plots are at play, and war is on the horizon – but will it be with the Dutch or the French? And has King Charles himself betrayed his country for greed?

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

terabithiaBridge to Terabithia
by Katherine Paterson
128 pages
Published 1977
Children’s/Young Adult

So let me just say up front: I’ve never read this book until today. I haven’t seen the movie. The little I knew about this book was “two children travel to a magical land and then something happens to one of them.” But my husband loved this book when he was young and kept pushing me to read it. I just did, and – it was not at all what I was expecting. I find it a little funny to say “it reminds me of Looking for Alaska,” when Looking for Alaska was written much later than Bridge to Terabithia. But I read LfA first. They do have some striking similarities. Boy meets Girl, Girl affects Boy’s life in a profound way, Boy loses Girl unexpectedly and has to deal with both losing her, and the changes she wrought in his life that can’t be undone. In Looking for Alaska, Miles went looking for his Great Perhaps and thought he’d found it in Alaska. In Bridge to Terabithia, Jess wasn’t looking until Leslie pushed herself into his world and brought that Great Perhaps with her.

Paterson paints a bleak picture of Jess’s life in the backwoods of somewhere-near-Washington DC. Surrounded by three sisters and his mother, while his father is gone all day working in DC, Jess appears neglected, stifled, and lonely. His family is very poor, but so are most of their neighbors. When Leslie and her parents move to the farm next door, tired of the big city and looking for a simpler life, Leslie brings Jess a window to the bigger world. Her parents tell him of things going on in far off places. And she takes him back into the dark woods behind their houses where they create an imaginary world called Terabithia. They reign as King and Queen of Terabithia, playing a game of pretend that starts as soon as they swing over the creek on a rope into a land that is solely theirs.

One thing that really stood out to me was Jess’s trip to the Smithsonian with his music teacher. Maybe it’s because I’m jaded, maybe it’s because the book was written in the 70s and it wasn’t considered a big thing, but – his young, pretty music teacher takes him, JUST him, to the Smithsonian museums. He’s 10, and has a bit of a crush on her as 10-year-olds are wont to do, so he’s constantly talking about her hair, her voice, the scent of her perfume – the whole scene was just creepy to me. A young female teacher taking a young boy on a solo trip? My husband said he didn’t notice anything wrong with the scene, but he was in 4th grade when he read the book! Nothing untoward actually happens between Jess and his music teacher, but the scene still just creeped me out.

Overall I can’t say I really have strong feelings about this book one way or another; it had a strong impact on my husband, but he read it when he was in the fourth grade. His comment was “the whole book is about being a child, and doing childish things, but not wanting adults to TREAT you like a child,” which does sound like something he dealt with, being an only child. Reading it as an adult just doesn’t have the same impact.

From the back of Bridge to Terabithia:

All summer, Jess pushed himself to be the fastest boy in the fifth grade, and when the year’s first school-yard race was run, he was going to win. But his victory was stolen by a newcomer, by a girl, one who didn’t even know enough to stay on the girls’ side of the playground. Then, unexpectedly, Jess finds himself sticking up for Leslie, for the girl who breaks rules and wins races. The friendship between the two grows as Jess guides the city girl through the pitfalls of life in their small, rural town, and Leslie draws him into the world of imagination – a world of magic and ceremony called Terabithia. Here, Leslie and Jess rule supreme among the oaks and evergreens, safe from the bullies and ridicule of the mundane world. Safe until an unforeseen tragedy forces Jess to reign in Terabithia alone, and both worlds are forever changed.