Posted in Reading

Review: The Schwa Was Here

The Schwa Was Here
The Schwa Was Here by Neal Shusterman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m not sure why I avoided The Schwa Was Here for so long. (It sat on my bookcase at school for years without me reading it.) And it’s hard to say why I finally picked up the audio version at the library. To be honest, it’s kind of hard to pinpoint exactly why I liked it so much. (I just know that I did.)

If you’ve read Neal Shusterman’s middle grade novel, then you’re probably chuckling at my intro, because the story is about a kid you can’t quite put your finger on. He’s there, but he’s not. He’s standing right in front of you—maybe he’s even waving—but you can’t see him. Or you do see him, but when he’s gone you sort of forget he was there. He exists in your periphery, at the edge of your memory, and he’s convinced that someday he’ll disappear completely. They call him “The Schwa” when they remember to call him anything at all.

See? Already this book sounds interesting. Why did I never read it? I don’t know. But wait, there’s more. A lot more.

The Schwa is not even the main character. The story is told from the perspective of Anthony “Antsy” Banano (Is that a great name or what?) and he’s a lot of fun too. He’s a fully developed character, with a strong family dynamic, friend issues, problems of his own, and yes, even a love interest, who happens to be blind. (Hooray for #DiverseBooks!) Antsy is hilarious and has a great voice and, just for the record, so does the author. Shusterman narrates the audio book himself and does a FANTASTIC job. Now, whenever I’m reading a novel with a first person male narrator, I hear it in Neal’s voice. That includes my own novel draft, which is kind of weird.

But wait, there’s still more.

This book really kept me on my toes. When it started, I thought, Okay, so this is a story about a boy who no one sees and the problems and funny escapades that happen because of that. Cool! Then a couple of chapters later, I thought, Oh, that’s just one story line. The book is really about the bond that forms between Antsy and a grumpy old hermit who makes him walk his fourteen dogs, who are all named after the seven deadly sins and the seven heavenly virtues. Great! Then a couple of chapters later, I thought, OH! The book is REALLY about the love triangle that forms between Antsy, the Schwa, and the hermit’s blind granddaughter. Interesting! Then a couple of chapters later, I thought OH! The book is REALLY about… and so on.

There are so many little twists and turns in this book that I cannot imagine how many hairs Shusterman must have pulled out trying to write the one-page synopsis for it. I mean, this review is already a page long and I haven’t even gotten the chance to mention the Schwa’s awesome paperclip collection or the fact that the book begins with a group of boys trying to destroy a plastic mannequin named Manny Bullpucky.

There’s just too much good stuff to mention.

Despite the plot twists, everything flows together smoothly in The Schwa Was Here. The story is an easy, enjoyable read from start to finish. I liked it so much, I’m thinking about buying a paperback copy to put on my bookshelf again, just so I won’t forget about it. (You wouldn’t think I could forget such a good read, but the Schwa effect is a powerful force.)

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Review: Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the most confusing book review I’ve ever written.

Let me start by saying that I take the Goodreads rating system literally. If you hover your little mouse over the stars, it gives you the key. One star = did not like it. Two stars = it was ok. Three stars = I liked it. Four stars = I really liked it. Five stars = It was amazing.

I’ve heard people say things like, “I have to really hate a book to give it less than three stars,” and, “You only gave it three stars? Oh, I liked it.” These things confuse me. If I give a book three stars, then I liked it, plain and simple. My four and five star books have to earn their status.

But today, I’m having trouble with the star system, because I did not “like” Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Olive Kitteridge. I did not enjoy it. It did not make me happy. But it was an extremely well-written novel that provoked many emotions in me, and for that I commend Strout. If I could simultaneously give it 4 ½ stars for quality and 1 ½ stars for enjoyment, I would. Lacking that type of complicated system, I gave it a three.

Warning: A few small spoilers beyond this point.

Olive Kitteridge is a very depressing book. The story weighs heavy on my mind and my heart. I am certain that if I’d read it ten years ago (yes, I realize it wasn’t written then) I wouldn’t have made it past the point in the very first story where the young grieving widow accidentally runs over her new kitten. I’m not a fan of stories in which animals die; in fact, I avoid almost any book with a cat or a dog on the cover for that very reason.

I did make it past the poor kitten’s death (I guess I’m older and wiser and maybe my heart has toughened a bit), but I’m quite sure that if I’d been reading the print version of this novel, rather than listening to the audio book, I would’ve had to put it down somewhere around “A Little Burst” and read something else for awhile. There’s a good chance the break might have been permanent. But by listening to the stories with one ear while running errands, I was able to continue. (It also helped that when I got home I could read a happier book. If you’re going to start Olive Kitteridge, I recommend reading The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion simultaneously for emotional balance.)

Although the audio version of the book undoubtedly took some of the sting out of some of the stories (it’s hard to cry about a woman’s loneliness in the wake of her husband’s stroke while driving beneath a blue sky past fields of wildflowers), I still almost turned the thing off when I finished “Security.” The end of that story—the inability of a mother and her son to properly communicate, the upset that resulted, the way they left things—just broke my heart.

Heartbreak, though, is a powerful emotion; my need to punch my car stereo’s off button is evidence of Strout’s excellent writing. She gives life to every single character, paints a vivid picture of a small Maine town through snippets weaved through a dozen tales, and tackles the complexity of the human spirit with absolute fearlessness. For that, she deserves her prizes.

The thing is, in the end, I still enjoy a story with a little more light in it. A little more joy, a little more hope, a little more humor. If a a book is going to reduce me to tears, I want it to be done delicately, with the poetry of The Book Thief or the passion of The Fault in Our Stars. So I can’t, in good conscience, recommend Olive Kitteridge. It was good, but I didn’t like it.

A few final thoughts on Olive herself:

* I did not dislike Olive at any part of the book. Yes, she was moody and had a callous way of speaking and could be extremely stubborn. I’m not saying the woman had no faults; she had many. But I didn’t dislike her for them. Before reading the book, I heard from friends and strangers on Goodreads that the main character was not a likable person. For that reason alone, I feel a great sympathy for Olive. In some ways, she reminds me of myself. In my opinion, she’s got enough problems in her (fictional) life without having her readers judge her so harshly.

* One of the things that I loved about Olive was her relationship with her dog. The dog, as far as I can remember, was never given a name or a breed or even a color, but he was there, riding around in her car, shedding hair everywhere, sharing her donut holes, licking Henry’s hand in the nursing home. It would not be unusual for a woman as fastidious as Olive, who has such little patience for small children and such strong opinions about others’ homes, to also lack affection for pets. But there’s the dog, always with her, obviously loved. I’ve already mentioned my aversion to books where the pets die, so when this depressing novel introduced a beloved dog to the lonely old main character, I braced myself for its inevitable demise, expecting that the death, when it came, would be horrible. I waited and I waited and I wondered and I hypothesized, and what does Strout do? She never kills off the dog! Multiple deaths and funerals and suicides and emotional casualties in this book, but the damn dog lives. Rather than seeing this as a mercy on the part of the author, I instead view it as a new and unique form of torture.

* It is not fair for a book to mention donuts as much as this one did. I blame Olive Kitteridge for any weight I gained in the past two weeks.

[NOTE TO LOCAL READERS: Elizabeth Strout is coming to Book People this week! Tuesday, April 15th, 7pm. Click here for details.]

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Review: Queste

Queste by Angie Sage
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Queste is the fourth book in the Septimus Heap series by Angie Sage. The lighthearted fantasy series began in 2005 with Magyk, which I loved. The characters in the story immediately came to life for me, and the humor Sage threaded into their adventures often made me laugh out loud while reading. I read the next two books—Flyte and Physik—and enjoyed them too, although Magyk remained my favorite. (This is a pattern with me. I always like the first book in a series the best.)

When Queste came out in 2008, I started it, but then I put it down. I tried it again in 2009 and still only made it a couple of chapters before abandoning it once more. I wanted to read it and even had the next book in the series, Syren, ready to go, but for some reason I kept putting it off. This year, I checked the audio version of Queste out of the library and finally made it all the way through the book. (It was a little difficult, after my six year hiatus from the series, to remember who the characters were and what predicaments they were facing, but most of it came back to me as I listened to the story unfold.)

Queste wasn’t a bad book, but it was definitely my least favorite so far. It’s hard to pinpoint why it didn’t hold my attention. I think it just includes too much detail. The story is still good, but some scenes seem to drag on. And there are so many characters that there’s a lot for my brain to juggle. My husband is reading the Game of Thrones series and sometimes complains about needing a character guide to help him keep track of everyone. That’s sort of how I felt with Queste, which is unusual for a middle grade novel. I still want to finish the series, but taking on three more books (plus the extra novellas she’s written in between) feels like a somewhat daunting task. I think audio books is definitely the way to go in this case.

But wait! There’s more!

Even though Queste was not my favorite, even though the writing dragged in places, even if you have no interest in taking on this seven(+) book series, you still need to check Queste out of the library or pick up a used copy. Why? Because Chapter 3 alone is good enough to justify the money spent at Half Price Books or the time it takes to drive to the library, and it can be enjoyed without reading any more of the series.

The seventeen pages of Chapter 3 of Queste include, hands down, some of the best young adult horror ever written. Horror? Yes, horror. But also humor. This chapter, which in my opinion would make an excellent campfire tale or bedtime story for someone who you don’t exactly wish a restful night’s sleep, describes the book’s antagonist as he casts a “Darke” spell and summons a “Thing” to do his bidding. Only, things (no pun intended) don’t go exactly as planned, and the result, both gruesome and gory, is also devilishly delightful.

If you haven’t experienced any of Angie Sage’s Septimus Heap series, I suggest you read Magyk. It’s a good book, and you can decide from there if you want to continue the series or not. If you’ve read some of the series, but (like me) lost your motivation to continue, try the audio books. Queste was read by Gerald Doyle and was very well done. And if you’re not interested in this series at all, but you do enjoy a good spine-tingle now and then, pick up Queste just long enough to read Chapter 3 by candlelight. You won’t be disappointed.

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