BONUS BOOK: Caraval by Stephanie Garber

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“It took seven years to get the letter right.”

Genre: Adventure, Fantasy, Romance, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: Scarlett Dragna has never left the tiny island where she and her sister, Tella, live with their powerful, and cruel, father. Now Scarlett’s father has arranged a marriage for her, and Scarlett thinks her dreams of seeing Caraval – the faraway, once-a-year performance where the audience participates in the show – are over. But this year, Scarlett’s long-dreamt-of invitation finally arrives. With the help of a mysterious sailor, Tella whisks Scarlett away to the show. Only, as soon as they arrive, Tella is kidnapped by Caraval’s mastermind organizer, Legend. It turns out that this season’s Caraval revolves around Tella, and whoever finds her first is the winner. Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. Nevertheless, she becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic. And whether Caraval is real or not, Scarlett must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over or a dangerous domino effect of consequences will be set of, and her beloved sister will disappear forever.”

Review: Apparently the “thing to do” these days is write about fantastical carnivals/magical competitions (see: The Night Circus, The Crown’s Game). And as much as this seems like something I would like, I’ve once again been disappointed. Caraval is my least favorite rendition so far. Like similar novels, Caraval did succeed in creating a really fun, fantastical world. I looked forward to Scarlett’s adventures out into the Caraval village each day, as she navigated through enchanted areas and visited magical bazaars. However, it quickly became apparent that although Garber was good at writing descriptors, she was unsuccessful at developing her characters. The prose was also chock full of odd metaphors.

“Somehow the battered space still managed to smell like Tella. Sharp molasses and wild dreams.”

I used to love this kind of writing growing up because it seemed creative and illustrious. But the more I encounter these metaphor-ridden books (see also The Star-Touched Queen, which is the most egregious example I’ve read to date), the less I enjoy the writing. What do wild dreams smell like? Scarlett was also constantly thinking, “I shouldn’t be doing _____, I should be trying to rescue Tella.” Literally every other thought she had revolved around how she wasn’t trying hard enough to find her sister. It became increasingly tedious throughout the novel. Lastly, I found the plot, particularly at the end, to be confusing and disjointed. It was hard to fully grasp the motives of the different characters, and many of them were added in last minute, which contributed to my growing confusion. I have no interest in reading the second novel in this series, which is set for release in 2018.

Rating:

Two_Star

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BONUS BOOK: The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary by Andrew Westoll

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“Sue Ellen sees me coming and presses her puckered lips up against the caging. I sit with her for awhile, coo a variety of meaningless, meaningful things into her Yoda ears.”

Genre: Nonfiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Fourteen years ago, a special family of chimpanzees was rescued from a research lab and sent to a rural sanctuary in Quebec where the animals could be cared for and loved. For the indomitable Gloria Grow, looking after thirteen great apes is like presiding over a maximum security prison, a Zen retreat, an old folks’ home, and a Montreal deli during the lunchtime rush. But she is first and foremost creating a refuge for her troubled charges, a place where they can recover and begin to trust humans again. Hoping to win some of this trust, journalist Andrew Westoll spent months at Fauna Sanctuary as a volunteer caregiver. Here he vividly recounts his adventures in the chimphouse and the heart-wrenching histories of its residents. He arrives with dreams of striking up an immediate friendship with the legendary Tom, a father figure to the rest of the chimps and Gloria’s greatest teacher. Instead, Tom haunts Westoll’s dreams. Gradually, though, the rest of the “troop” warm to Westoll. He befriends Binky, the resident practical joker; Sue Ellen, whose favorite fashion accessory is a beaded necklace; and Chance, who picks the hot peppers off her pizza. Through Westoll’s eyes, we witness the chimps’ remarkable recovery firsthand. Simple things like establishing friendships, nurturing alliances, grooming one another, and playing games of tickle-chase are all poignant testament to the capacity of these animals to heal and to learn how to be chimps again.”

Review: The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary is the best nonfiction I’ve read in awhile. Westoll somehow managed to perfectly balance his chapters, with appropriate time dedicated to the chimps themselves, their human caretakers, and the history and consequences of chimpanzee research. I had never really considered the ethical implications of biomedical research on chimpanzees before (in the sense that it’s never been on my radar), but it’s impossible not to after reading this book.

“Ask the experimenters why they experiment on animals, and the answer is: ‘Because the animals are like us.’ Ask the experimenters why it is morally OK to experiment on animals, and the answer is: ‘Because the animals are not like us.’ Animal experimentation rests on a logical contradiction.” – Charles R. Magel

While the scientist in me occasionally wished Westoll would include more concrete details about how chimpanzee biomedical research has rarely actually contributed to significant medical advancements, I recognize that the point of this book was more to tell the stories of Fauna Sanctuary’s inhabitants and less to provide a detailed background on the history of chimpanzee biomedical research. That being said, Westoll did an excellent job of giving the back stories of each chimp, coupled with the back stories of the human’s who forever altered their lives. I was fascinated by the role that James Mahoney – a chimpanzee veterinarian for the now-defunct Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP) – played in the saga. The way Westoll tells it, Mahoney gradually became disillusioned with how the chimps were treated and cared for at LEMSIP. Although he succeeded in making admirable changes to the program, it was not enough to overcome the guilt he felt. Eventually, Mahoney would become one of the chimps’ biggest assets when LEMSIP closed, as he worked to send them to sanctuaries like Fauna instead of to other research facilities.

“They have served and I think they damn well deserve a break.” – James Mahoney

In my opinion, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary is so impactful because it does not shy away from the ugly truth of what happened to these animals. Even in sanctuary, their lives are a slim facsimile of what they should have been. There are silver moments, like the unique relationship between Tom (a chimp) and Pat (one of the original sanctuary employees). But there are also devastating moments, like when Rachel self-mutilates her hands.

“To Gloria, the cheerful term ‘enrichment’ glosses over a very simple truth she wants everyone to understand – that the quality of life for the average animal in captivity is exceedingly dismal and that enrichment objects only serve to lessen, by a small margin, the profound impoverishment of the animal’s life.”

I fully concluded that The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary was a five star book after, ironically, becoming very angry with Westoll. Spoilers ahead! Towards the end of the book, Westoll received a call from Gloria saying that one of the chimps had died. All evidence leading up to this point suggested that it was Binky. However, it turned out that  Binky had managed to recover from his prolonged sickness. Instead, it was Tom, the heart of Fauna Sanctuary, who had suddenly passed away. I was momentarily furious with Westoll. It felt like emotional trickery on his end, spending hundreds of pages making me care about these chimpanzees, only to emotionally manipulate me at the very end. But I realized the only reason I was so frustrated with Westoll was because he had succeeded in making me care about what happened to these animals. That feat, in itself, is worth five stars.

“After months of wanting to connect with him, of wanting to lay my hands  on him, I have finally, it seems, come to an understanding with Tommie. I wasn’t here to touch him or even to tell his life story. I was here to meet the old guy and learn to live with his loss.

Rating:

Five_Star

BONUS BOOK: The Book Jumper by Mechthild Gläser

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“Words flexed and twisted apart to form bushes and foliage. And then they came pattering down like raindrops: a shower of words raining down on me.”

Genre: Fantasy, Adventure, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Amy Lennox doesn’t quite know what to expect when she and her mother pick up and leave Germany for Scotland, heading to Lennox House, her mother’s childhood home on the island of Stormsay. Amy’s grandmother, Lady Mairead, insists that Amy must read while she resides at Lennox House – but not in the usual way. Amy learns that she is a book jumper, able to leap into a story and interact with the world inside. As thrilling as Amy’s new power is, it also brings danger: someone is stealing from the books she visits, and that person may be after her life. Teaming up with fellow book jumper Will, Amy vows to get to the bottom of the thefts – at whatever cost.”

Review: Holy cow, this book. It’s been a long time since I rated a novel with only one star, but The Book Jumper is about to join those not-so-hallowed halls. Let’s be honest for a minute here: I didn’t have very high hopes for this book. It reeks of teeny-bopper-ness, but I couldn’t resist the allure of a story that is based on the dream of pretty much every serious book lover: to somehow enter and experience the stories we read. While most of this book is trash, in my humble opinion, Gläser did hit a few high notes. For example, I really liked how the book characters that we typically think of as villains, like Shere Khan of The Jungle Book, aren’t actually bad in The Book Jumper. Instead, all book characters are more like actors in a play; their roles within the stories do not define them, and when their “scenes” end, they often have completely different personalities from those they embody in their books.

“Stories about heroes, stories about people who were exactly the opposite. Stories about love. Stories about war. Exciting stories. Comforting stories. Sad stories. They clung to me and whispered to me how life should and shouldn’t be.”

But a few genuine ideas and nice moments of writing aside, The Book Jumper was pretty terrible. I take major issue with the main character and primary narrator, Amy, who has a shockingly stupid voice for someone who purportedly reads so much. Secondary character development was minuscule and one dimensional, and relationships that actually seemed interesting at the start of the book, like Amy’s dynamic with her mother, were discarded halfway through in favor of a lackluster romance and lazy writing. I was perpetually frustrated by the fact that all of Stormsay’s inhabitants claim to be book protectors, but literally no one cared when Amy started to realize that someone was stealing from the stories. There was a certain level of creativity in The Book Jumper, but I ultimately couldn’t stand the characters, plot, or writing…  hence the single star rating.

Rating:

One_Star

BONUS BOOK: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

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“Angela stood between her determined mother and her distraught partner, paralyzed by the burden of choice.”

Genre: Mystery, Adventure, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis:A bizarre chain of events begins when sixteen unlikely people gather for the reading of Samuel W. Westing’s will. And though no one knows why the eccentric, game-loving millionaire has chosen a virtual stranger – and a possible murderer – to inherit his vast fortune, one thing’s for sure: Sam Westing may be dead… but that won’t stop him from playing one last game!

Review: I was thrilled over summer break to find a gently used copy of The Westing Game on sale at my local library for a steep 50 cents.  I first read The Westing Game sometime in middle school, and hadn’t read it since then. It’s one of the first books that I remember truly loving. I couldn’t believe how skillfully Raskin tied together the different characters and storylines. Even now, rereading this book decades later, I still found myself missing some of her carefully placed clues! I think Raskin does an excellent job of showing that there is more to each character than first meets the eye. Turtle is hands down still my favorite character (which just goes to show that any book featuring a character named Turtle is bound to be great, given how much I loved Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven), but the supplementary cast is wonderful too. Even though I knew what happened to Samuel W. Westing this time around, there were a lot of major plot points and characters that I had forgotten about. It was honestly a great trip down memory lane and, now that I own a copy, I think I’ll start an annual tradition of rereading The Westing Game.

Rating:

Five_Star

BONUS BOOK: Dear Data by Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec

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“Dear Data – Week 07: A week of complaints and general grumpiness.”

Genre: Nonfiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Every week for a year, designers Giorgia and Stefanie sent each other postcards capturing information describing something different about the details of their daily lives, from their digital activities to their emotions. Things like: How often did you check the time this week? Make a list? Apologize? What music did you listen to? Where did you go? But they didn’t write it – they drew it. Containing each correspondent’s fifty-two cards, along with thoughts and ideas for drawing with data, Dear Data shows how information design can be an artistic expression and inspires us to capture hidden patterns and find creativity and beauty in even the smallest details of our lives.”

Review: I first picked up Dear Data at the library after being drawn to the cover (I read the “Giorgia version,” the left cover in the picture above). I had never heard of the Dear Data project before and thought the overall premise of the project and book sounded interesting. In a similar vein, I had never really thought about information design prior to reading this book, and think that Dear Data is an excellent primer to very a interesting field. Overall, I preferred Giorgia’s designs to Stefanie’s, but found that it was much easier to quickly read and understand Stefanie’s cards.

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I had to read Dear Data in spurts because it quickly became tedious to decipher the different drawings each week. Overall, I think that the content of Dear Data was better suited for the original digital installment form (where Stefanie and Giorgia uploaded their cards each week to the Dear Data website) than the print form, but it was nice to read a unique and graphical book for a change.

Rating: 

Three_Star

 

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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“Surely her cockiness, her optimism and energy, her pizzazz, will get her out of this. She will think of something. But I know this isn’t true. It is just passing the buck, as children do, to mothers.”

Genre: Dystopian, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now…”

Review: I wanted to read The Handmaid’s Tale because I was (naively) interested in watching the renowned Hulu TV show. I almost always prefer to read the book version prior to seeing a movie or TV show, and figured I could kill two birds with one stone by reading The Handmaid’s Tale (an often banned/challenged book). However, having now read The Handmaid’s Tale, I have no interest in watching the show. This book was disturbing and vivid enough through text alone that I know the TV show would be too disturbing for me. I’ve never read Atwood before, but found that I really enjoyed her writing style. It’s somewhat hard to describe, but she writes the way that I think (with long sentences and lots of commas). I found her style to be poetic and straightforward.

“Waiting is also a place: it is wherever you wait. For me it’s this room. I am a blank here, between parentheses. Between other people.”

Like many other readers, I found The Handmaid’s Tale to be a particularly challenging read because parts of it feel disturbingly relevant. Given the political climate in my home country, I can’t help but wonder if we’re at risk for certain Gilead-esque consequences.

“Others have thought such things, in bad times before this, and they were always right, they did get out one way or another, and it didn’t last forever. Although for them it may have lasted all the forever they had.”

I really liked trying to unravel the mysteries of Gilead through the windows provided by Offred, the reluctant narrator. My biggest complaint was that I wanted more from Atwood! I wanted more details, more history, more explanations. It’s a credit to her storytelling that I felt this way at the end of the novel, but I also think the book would have benefited from just a bit more detail. The epilogue helped fill in some of the blanks, but I’ll always wonder what happened to Offred and the other characters. Perhaps I need to watch the TV show after all…

Reason for Ban/Challenge: The Handmaid’s Tale has maintained a spot on the American Library Association’s list of most frequently banned and challenged books for multiple decades. It touches on a lot of hot-button topics, including sex, feminism, reproductive rights, religion, and equality. It’s also almost universally agreed upon that The Handmaid’s Tale is a disturbing (and terrifying) read, which has likely contributed to the many bans and challenges received over the years.

Rating:

Four_Star

BONUS BOOK: Stranded by Ben Mikaelsen

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“That’s what I want when I die. I want to be dumped out so the fish can nibble on me – give the ocean something back for all that I took from her.”

Genre: Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Nothing has been the same for Koby since she lost her foot in an accident four years ago. Between the smothering concern of her parents and the awkward glances from the kids at school, Koby can truly feel at home only when she is on the ocean in her dinghy, Titmouse. But tonight, when twelve-year-old Koby finds herself stranded in the middle of the dark ocean with two dying pilot whales and an aching “phantom” foot, she can do little more than tremble. The lives of the two whales are literally in Koby’s hands and her strength is weakening. There are no rescuers in sight. The ocean is the last place Koby wants to be.”

Review: I first read Stranded when I was in sixth grade and, unbeknownst to me at the time, this book would go on to play a pivotal role in my life. When people ask me how I first became interested in studying whales, my answer is threefold.

  1. I met a girl in sixth grade who wanted to be a marine biologist. She was the first person I’d ever personally known who (at the time) planned on making a career out of studying the ocean and its inhabitants.
  2. I saw a southern right whale photo series by National Geographic photographer, Brian Skerry, and was forever mesmerized by the images.
  3. I read Stranded, a story about a girl my age who rescued and befriended two injured pilot whales.

Perhaps if these three things hadn’t happened in the same year, my career goals would have been different. Ultimately, however, that pivotal year in sixth grade would go on to define every professional step I’ve taken since.

Ironically, despite my personal love for Stranded, it was widely ridiculed by most of my classmates. Any assigned reading in middle school is bound to be mocked to a certain extent, and Koby certainly didn’t win herself any points by frequently complaining about the “fleshy bulb” of her stump. Having reread the book now, it strikes me as a somewhat interesting choice for middle school reading lists. While Koby certainly does evolve as a protagonist throughout the novel, many of the supplementary characters seem incapable of change. I don’t remember disliking Koby’s parents when I first read Stranded, but this time around they were increasingly frustrating to read about. Perhaps Mikaelsen intended for readers to relate to Koby in her struggle for autonomy, but I think the novel could have benefited from better secondary character development. The best scenes were by far the ones where Koby interacted with the pilot whales and with head veterinarian, Tracy Michaels. Despite its flaws, I think the merit of this novel is that it tells an unconventional story.

Rating: Stranded is the third unrated book in the history of the Banned Book Brigade. I find it impossible to separate my personal gratitude to this book for the role it had in shaping me as a scientist from the actual merit of the writing.