Friday, November 22, 2013

The Never - Kristina Circelli

The NeverThe Never is supposed to be Peter Pan all grown up, with the main character Arianna serving as a modern, kick-ass Wendy.  She's a modern 26-year-old artist who is engaged to man named John, and takes medication to fight off what are thought of as delusions, but are actually real--memories of a place called The Never and the people and creatures who inhabit it.  However, she often forgets to take her medication, and when she does, The Never comes calling until she finally returns.

That's what the book is supposed to be about, and you can certainly read it in that way.  It's not a bad fantasy.  In its course, Arianna learns how to fly, fights with and against pirates, consorts with mermaids, and changes The Never forever.  But let's touch on a few points as to why I don't think it reads like that.

The first is Arianna herself, and also Malachi.  They're supposed to be adults, all grown up, and yet they're entirely obsessed with adventures and games.  They don't act like adults at all, and have absolutely no comprehension of the consequences of their actions.  They're selfish and cruel to everyone they love.  Arianna up and abandons her mother, her fiance, and her brand new puppy to go play Peter Pan somewhere.  It's completely ridiculous, and made me not like either of them at all.  Once Ari started trying to fix things, I regained a bit of respect for her, but I could never like Malachi, who hid things from her that ended up being disastrous, even though he knew they could end up being disastrous, because he was too wrapped up in his "games" to do otherwise.

My other big issue with this was Ari's medication.  She takes these little blue pills that apparently cut her off from The Never and anchor her on earth.  Which just seemed...weird?  Like, why would that exist?  They're apparently pills to combat mental illness, so why would they work against something that's actually real?  Why wouldn't they jumble up her thoughts and memories of earth as well as of The Never?  It doesn't make sense at all.  Which brings me to...

I absolutely could not read this as a full-fledged fantasy.  I just couldn't.  The medication thing completely screwed it up for me, and I ended up reading it as a beautifully-written story of mental illness, manipulation, and abuse instead.  That was fascinating.  The whole medication thing just didn't make sense to me, and so I had to twist the entire narrative so that it did.  Also, if Ari isn't actually visiting The Never, but is in fact just intensely delusional, it would also explain her selfish, erratic behavior.

Circelli's prose itself is absolutely lovely, and I think it's very well crafted in a word-smithing sort of way.  I could perfectly imagine The Never and the worlds around it, as well as all of the characters which inhabit it.  It was great.  I think she does a good job of spinning out the story and working in pertinent details at good points, rather than just dumping it all in your lap at one time.  And if you read it as I did, it's even more fabulous, because every single thing in The Never represents some part of Ari's life and why an active imagination might have been spurred on into full-blown delusions.  Still, I'm not sure that's how this book is meant to be read, so I'm not sure I can actually give Circelli credit for that.  Still, she's definitely a good writer, and I would be interested in reading more of her books.

3.5 stars out of 5.  This would probably be higher if I knew exactly how I was supposed to read it.  And if I liked Ari.

PS.  There's also a suggestion that John's (Ari's fiance) great-grandmother is the original Wendy of Peter Pan, which was cool and a clever little nod to the original story, if I do say so myself.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Cornerstone - Kelly Walker (Souls of the Stones #1)

Cornerstone (Souls of the Stones, #1)Cornerstone by Kelly Walker is a young-adult fantasy novel, and it's absolutely nothing to write home about.  While there's a bit of intrigue involved, it doesn't actually unravel until the very end, and the plot barely had enough to keep me going to get to that point.  The writing style also isn't all that great.  Walker absolutely does not have a clear grasp of how grammar works with dialogue.  In her non-dialogue sentences, it's fine, but when it comes to dialogue she seems to have no idea where periods, commas, and quotation marks go in relation to each other and to line breaks.  Some of this might be typos, and that's excusable to a point; even the most professionally-published books usually have a typo or two.  But these grammatical slip-ups were absolutely rampant in Cornerstone.  Also, within the first couple of chapters, Walker feels the need to dump absolutely everything you need to know about the Three Corners (the trio of realms in the book) right into your lap through boring political dialogue.  Yawn.

In addition to the info dumping, there was a ton of completely unnecessary description and prose in this book.  Honestly, I don't care if Emariya (the heroine; we'll get to her in a second) likes the feel of fur against her cheek if it doesn't have anything to do with her development as a character or the plot as a whole.  I don't care what color dress she was wearing while out traipsing around the countryside; in fact, being told that she was wearing a white dress after days on the road without a bath or any hope of one just made me wonder if she was completely moronic.  Like, I know it's a medieval fantasy-based world, but there were only two people around.  I'm pretty sure the girl could have worn pants, or at least a simpler dress.

Okay, let's get to the plot.  So, the story revolves around Emariya, who's the daughter of an important lord in the realm of Eltar.  Eltar is under attack by Sheas, another realm, and doesn't really have the weapons or manpower necessary to fight off the attackers.  In order to get weapons and supporting troops, she agrees to marry the prince of the third realm, the name of which I don't remember.  Anyway, the prince's name is Torian, and that's the important part.  Emariya doesn't actually set out to marry Torian until a good chunk into the book, and even then, not a hell of a lot happens.  There's a lot of walking, and riding, and talking, and it's very Lord Of The Rings-esque in that there are tons of descriptions of scenery but not much actually going on.  So, the Lord-Of-The-Rings thing isn't actually a compliment.  I hated Lord of the Rings.  Emariya is a completely boring heroine.  Totally insipid.  Absolutely no flavor to her at all.  She's generic in every way, shape, and form.  She's beautiful, everyone's in love with her, she has a hidden power and dead parents, she's being forced into an arranged marriage, blah blah blah.  Nothing original here, folks.  Also, absolutely everybody except her seems to know she's got hidden powers, but somehow she never got clued in.  What?  I mean, the maids who work in the kitchen and the peasants living in the countryside know she has magical abilities, but her?  Noooooo.  Of course not.

Torian was boring, as well.  He falls in love with Emariya the moment she sees him, and the feeling's mutual.  She struggles against it a bit, because she doesn't think it's real or whatever, but Walker never actually gives us a reason to doubt the sincerity of either of their feelings.  There's not real struggle, no heart-rending moment when you think things might not work out.  Instead, the two of them just go sailing off in their blissful little romance.  It wasn't badly-written, necessarily... In fact, there were a few very good kissing scenes.  But as a whole, their romance just doesn't do anything except have gushy lines like, "But no one loves the moon."  "I do."  So, yeah.  The romance was just meh.  Torian doesn't really have that much depth to him, either.  He's got some cool family issues that I think had a lot of potential to make him a much more complex character, but Walker never elaborated on them.  I honestly liked him better when I thought he was a complete bastard, because it would have given him a dimension other than the standard cookie-cutter hero.

And then there's Garith.  Oh, Garith.  Who has been friendzoned so hard and knows it but is still in love with Emariya, and actually loves her all the more for it, because "his love is all he can give her."  Gag me with a spoon.  I'm not a huge fan of love triangles, but at least if Garith had posed some competition to Torian, the whole Torian/Emariya thing might have been a bit more interesting.

Also, why the hell did Walker pick a name like Russell for one of the characters?  The rest of the world is filled with Jessas, Emariyas, Torians, Rinks, and Gariths, and yet Russell is the name of a villain?  I think not.  THIS is Russell:

Anyway, at the end of the book I felt like I was where I should have been 1/3 or 1/2 of the way through.  The characters are just on the verge of setting out to encounter conflict; no real conflict has actually occurred yet.  The whole book is just set-up for the next one, and it shouldn't be.  Books in a trilogy should all strengthen each other, and yet should be able to stand alone.  This doesn't.

2 stars out of 5.

Friday, November 15, 2013

What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures - Malcolm Gladwell

What the Dog Saw and Other AdventuresWhat the Dog Saw is a collection of essays by Malcom Gladwell, all of which were originally published in The New Yorker.  The essays are divided into three sections.  The first is about what Gladwell calls "obsessives and minor geniuses," the second is about theories, and the third is about predictions about people.  Now, because these latter two sections are themed so specifically...the book gets a bit repetitive.

The first section is great.  The stories are varied.  Every single one talks about a person in a different area of life, from a guy who sells kitchen gadgets to the Dog Whisperer to a person obsessed with making a ketchup better than Heinz.  I really did feel like I was reading a new "adventure" with every article.  In the second section, things started out well.  Soon, though, I started to feel like I was reading the same story over and over again.  This is party because of Gladwell's writing style and partly because of how the book is compiled.

Let's talk about the writing style first.  It's not dry, it's not boring, it's not badly-done.  On the contrary, it's quite good, which is what I would expect from someone who's written for The New Yorker for years.  The stories don't drag on; they focus on one topic, such as homelessness, but tackle it from different angles.  For example, in the story about the Dog Whisperer, entitled "What the Dog Saw," Gladwell talks not only about what Cesar Millan does with the dog, but how movement specialists examine his posture and gestures.  It's a different approach.  It lets Gladwell incorporate a lot of different stuff into one article, and it also lets him research a myriad of stuff and then break that stuff up into different articles where various sections of it might be relevant.

 But on the other hand, I got sick of reading about Enron, which comes up not only in its own story but in one or two others.  And the theories, while they were technically different, were all too closely-related for me to really enjoy that section.  Some of the stuff was awesome on its own.  The story about homelessness and the one about troublemakers were great.  But some of them just began to blur together and consequently weren't as interesting.  This is mainly because of how the book is constructed.  Articles just aren't written to be read en masse like this; they're meant to be read as stand-alone things, in the magazines or papers they were written for.  When you get a collection like this, there's bound to be some repetition.  That doesn't mean it's bad; it just means it's not a book that's meant to be read straight through.  I feel like it's more something that should be picked up every now and then to read one article, and then to be put back down for a while before being looked again.

At least, that's what I saw.

3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Book of Lost Things - John Connolly

The Book of Lost ThingsThe Book of Lost Things is for those who like their stories with a heavy dose of fantasy influence, with a few twists but nothing that makes the underlying stories completely unrecognizable.  The story revolves around David and his experiences following the death of his mother.  With only his overworked father for company, David takes to reading.  His father meets a new woman, Rose, who becomes pregnant.  David and his father move in with her in her old family home.  David's room is filled with the books of the former occupant, and David can hear them speaking.  Not only that, but he's started to have fainting fits, and when he wakes up he had memories of a different place.  Oh, and did I mention The Crooked Man, who looks like something out of a nightmare, is stalking him?

One night, David crawls through a hole in the garden wall and finds himself in a strange land that's infested with monsters and creatures of myth and fairy tale.  His only hope of getting home, he's told, is to go see the king.  The king has a mysterious book called The Book of Lost Things, and it might hold the answer to David's safe return to his family.

The strange world in this book is heavily influenced by fairy tales, which was very cool.  Connolly subtly modified all of them to make them fresh and foreboding, but they were still recognizable enough that I could feel I was "in" on the secrets of the world without actually being there.  Also, not only well-known fairy tales are used.  Sure, there are elements of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Little Red Riding Hood, but there is also The Goose Girl, The Three Army Surgeons, and a few things out of poetry and myth which haven't been as heavily represented in the current fad of retelling fairy tales.  The overall plot of the book isn't entirely ground-breaking; it's extremely reminiscent of the movie Labyrinth.  You know, the one with David Bowie as the Goblin King?

Yeah.  That one.  Anyway, The Book of Lost Things is definitely more about the journey than the destination, because honestly, I don't like the destination.  I don't like destinations like that in general, because, um...

That's why.  Awkward.  Also, some of the stuff in the book doesn't work the way it says it works, which was kind of weird.  Like the Loups.  Their presence is explained (via the Red Riding Hood story) but later on, they don't actually fit that story at all in their transformations.  It was kind of weird.  David's character seems kind of immature for his age, too; he's supposed to be around the age of twelve or thirteen, but he acts much longer.  I see this a lot in books; it's like authors have a couple of pre-conceived "child" characters and jump straight from the 8-year-old to the 17-year-old, with no shifts in behavior in between.  Still, though, a good read for the bulk of the book.  OH!  And it has this awesome section at the back where all of the "origin stories" of the fairy tales are laid out, so if you ever want to know more about one of the elements Connolly uses, he goes right on and tells you!  Very cool.  Kudos for that one.

Overall, good book.  I didn't like the ending, but I can forgive it because the body was so great.

4 out of 5 stars.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Blood of Flowers - Anita Amirrezvani

The Blood of Flowers
So, this is one of those books where the heroine never gets a name.  I've seen this before, most memorably in Daphne DeMaurier's Rebecca, but I don't particularly like it.  I know the book is written in first person, so we shouldn't really need that much of a name, but I still like knowing how to refer to the main character.  However, I didn't actually realize she doesn't have a name until I wrote this review.  Throughout the entire book, I did keep wondering what her name is, but I just presumed that it was mentioned and I forgot about it.  So I guess it works, as long as you don't really want to discuss the main character with anyone.

This is the second book of Amirrezvani's that I've read, the first being Equal of the Sun.  Honestly, I liked EotS better.  The main characters were far more engaging, the setting more entrancing, and the plot actually moved.  Most of The Blood of Flowers involves the heroine wanting to get married, making rugs, drawing pictures, and being subjected to the whims of her wicked aunt.  While this isn't a bad lifestyle (hey, I've said it before and I'll say it again: I would be perfectly fine being a 50s housewife) it's not exactly the most thrilling to read about.  Most of the intrigue comes from the heroine's relationships with other people, but even those peter out and aren't as artfully dramatic as they could be.

I was expecting more of this book.  The back promises that the heroine "blossoms as a brilliant designer of carpets."  She doesn't.  She makes one good design throughout the entire book, and can't even pull that off without copious amounts of work from her uncle.  While I appreciate that Amirrezvani wanted to show her heroine stumbling, making mistakes, and learning from them, I just felt like some awesome storyline was being missed out on.  Something about the heroine's genius rug designs and using them to gain influence and power or make political statements or something like that.  Something, I don't know...more Equal of the Sun-like.  This was a completely different premise than EotS, and I can respect that, but that doesn't mean I particularly liked it.  While the writing is generally good, it tends to telling more than showing in some places, and the story just isn't as engaging as it could be.

On the other hand, I did learn a lot about making rugs.  So there's that, I guess.

2.5 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Rape of Nanking - Iris Chang

The Rape of NankingThere's a saying that those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it.  There's also a saying that those who do study history are doomed to watch others repeat it.  Being a history major at a university that is very politically-focused, this is frequently made blatantly clear to me.  My politically-minded classmates wander about arguing foreign and domestic policy, spatting about how we should deal with Syria, or Egypt, or whatever crisis is in the news that day.  My historically-minded classmates and I wander about going, "But isn't it like when...?"  But it doesn't matter.  No matter how similar a situation is to the past, there will always be differences, and those differences will always stall action.  So, when dive into this book, let's keep a few things in mind, shall we?

-Iris Chang was not, by trade, a historian.  She was a journalist.  This means a few things.  Journalists, by nature of their work, can be very, very skilled at research, finding stories, and putting them together.  They're typically not so great at contextualizing those stories.  I'll talk more about this later.

-Chang was also the Chinese-American daughter of two Chinese immigrants who fled China during WWII with their families.

-Guilt is a slippery animal, and can't always be placed where we would like it.

-History is never one-sided, and in modern times, it is not written exclusively by the victors.

That all said, some people will not like what I have to say here, but I still feel a responsibility to say it in the interests of being as neutral as possible.

Okay, so, this is a good book for people who are not familiar with the Rape of Nanking and its place in WWII, but want to learn about it.  It's a narrative history, but not a terribly scholarly one; while there are notes included at the end of the book, there are no footnotes or endnote numbers directing you to those notes, and there's no way of knowing whether or not you'll be able to track down a reference for the piece of information that interested you.  This probably comes from Chang's journalistic, rather than historic, background.  That's not a bad thing.  "Popular history" books are all the rage these days, and I don't see anything wrong with that; they get people interested in history.  We just have to keep in mind that they're not as scholarly as some other books, and consequently don't usually analyze events as closely as they could.  For those wanting a quick overview of an event, this is fine.  For those hoping for a complete understanding, however, it can be problematic.  Chang's book is immensely readable, and I went through it in about two days.  It gives a quick history of what Chang apparently sees as the Japanese culture that led to the Rape, and then covers the lead-up to the Rape, the Rape itself, and the aftermath, as well as telling what foreign individuals did and what the rest of the world knew about the events as they were happening.  It's a good overview.  In the epilogue, though, it gets a bit preachy.  Chang talks about how Japan needs to sever ties with its past, acknowledge that the Rape was wrong, and embrace a new future.  She talks about that a lot.  And while she's not wrong, necessarily, she leaves out a lot of considerations.

First, as I mentioned above, we need to consider Chang's background.  She's Chinese-American and was raised in the Midwest of the USA, in the midst of an extremely individualistic culture.  Eastern cultures, such as China, Japan, and India, tend to be much more collectivistic than western ones.  That's not bad; it's just different.  It means their values are placed on the good of of the many, instead of the good of the few.  It's apparently worked for them for thousands of years, so I don't see a need to judge that.  What I do think we need to consider, though, is how something like the Rape of Nanking might be viewed in different cultures.  I'm not Japanese; I've never been to Japan.  I certainly can't speak for them.  However, as someone with a background in history, I have to say that when the Japanese say they saw what they did as necessary...well, they might not be lying, like Chang claims they are.  In hindsight, it's easy to see how horribly awry Japan's plans went.  But in the heat of the moment, it's also very easy to see how the Japanese army, massively outnumbered in most cases in Nanking, could have seen the situation as "them or us," and chosen, as most of us would, "us."  Chang mentions on repeated occasions that the Nanking natives, even unarmed, could have easily overwhelmed the Japanese through sheer numbers alone.  As horrible as the Japanese actions in Nanking were, and as reprehensible as they are from an outside perspective over half a century later, it's easy to see where, at the time, those actions might have seemed necessary for self-preservation.  (And let me clarify--I'm talking mostly about the killing, here.  The rampant raping and torture can't really be excused, but Chang does offer a pretty good psychological analysis for why this might have happened in the epilogue, so I'll let that speak for itself.)

Second, lets consider the aspect of guilt.  Who is guilty for the Rape of Nanking?  There are some easy to answers to that, and some not-so-easy ones.  It's hard to tell who knew what, who ordered what, who did what, especially when many documents have been destroyed and many victims refuse to speak.  There is definitely guilt to be laid out, those most of the people deserving of it are probably, by this point in time, dead.  Then there is the idea of collective guilt: that the youth of today's Japan are somehow responsible for the Rape of Nanking because they deny its reality and refuse to make reparations to the victims.  There's a whopping problem with this analysis, and that's that you can't hold Japan's youth responsible for denying the existence of something they don't know about.  I'm not sure how much has changed since Chang's book came out--it was published in 1997--but in the epilogue she talks at length about how the events of the Rape of Nanking have been censored from school curriculum, deleted from books, and shunned in the public sphere.  How are you supposed to correct something you don't know about?  Some people claim to have seen Bigfoot and to have evidence of his existence, but that doesn't mean I believe them.  While the Rape of Nanking isn't Bigfoot, and we know that objectively, it might be hard to comprehend in an environment where it has been treated as Bigfoot for decades.

My other main problem with this is that, well, Chang is American.  We Americans find it very easy to cast judgment against other peoples and refuse to do the same to ourselves.  Chang criticizes Japan for enshrining some of the people who are responsible for the Rape of Nanking and practically worshipping them.  I'm not going to get into the worshipping thing; that's a culture issue.  But the enshrinement of war criminals I'm not afraid to tackle.  Chang criticizes the emperor of Japan for knowing about the Rape and doing nothing about it--perhaps even approving of it.  Fine.  But if we're going to go down that path, we have to keep in mind that that's not just a Japanese trait.  In Washington DC, the Vietnam memorial contains the names of soldiers known to have committed atrocities in Asia, such as cutting off the ears of victims for trophies.  The Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb, is preserved as a national treasure at the National Air and Space Museum's annex.  We condemn Iranians for flooding to the street chanting against the USA, but when Osama bin Laden was killed, thousands flooded the National Mall, White House, and 9/11 Memorial Site chanting "USA, USA" in a way that is unnervingly similar--we were, after all, celebrating someone's death.  I am not saying that enshrining war criminals is worthy of praise.  But I am saying that those in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, and if you're going to write about history, even an isolated event such as the Rape of Nanking, you still have to consider its place--and your conclusions--in a larger context.

Chang's book is a good introduction to the Rape of Nanking, but it is weak in the historiographical elements and modern context that are vital to actually understanding historical events in their entirety.  I enjoyed reading it, but I am a bit worried about the message that it could leave someone who read only this book and considered it the "all you need to know about the Rape of Nanking" book.  That message seems to be that the Chinese are all that is good, the Japanese are all that is bad, and the current generation needs to pay for the sins of their forefathers in order to move forward to a better world.  But if we're hoping to move forward to a better world, wouldn't holding grudges not be the way to go?  Honestly, the Japanese government as a whole probably should make some sort of apology or reparation to remaining survivors or the families of victims of the Rape of Nanking--but I don't think we should make the leap that this would magically solve the problem, and to some degree that seems to be what Chang implies.

3 stars out of 5.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Tigers in Red Weather - Liza Klaussmann

Tigers in Red WeatherSo, this book isn't what I thought it would be.  The book jacket describes it as F. Scott Fitzgerald-like, and while I didn't particularly like The Great Gatsby as a book, it does have a lovely sense of atmosphere for the time period it's written in.  Oh, and there's that whole thing that popped up in past year or two about how "There ain't no party like a Gatsby party 'cause a Gatsby party don't stop until at least two people are dead and everyone is disillusioned with the Jazz Age as a whole."  I like that.  And to a degree, this did have that feel...but it still wasn't quite what I was looking for.

The book is about a pair of cousins, Nick and Helena, and their lives in the wake of World War II and the following decades.  Nick is married to a Navy man returning from the war; Helena's husband died early on in the war, and she is about to be remarried to a man from Hollywood.  Both cousins are leaving their wartime residence in Cambridge to meet up with their significant others and carry on with their lives.  Nick, however, isn't very happy in her new home in Florida and feels like her husband has changed drastically since he went to war--he isn't the man she married anymore.  As for Helena, her new husband isn't quite what he seemed when she married him, and her life in Hollywood quickly begins falling to pieces.

The story also introduces Nick's daughter Daisy and Helena's son Ed.  The book is broken up into five parts, each focusing on a different character.  The first four parts focus on Nick, Daisy, Helena, and Hughes, in that order, and are written in third person.  The last part is from Ed's perspective and is written in first person.  The sudden switch from third to first person was a bit jarring, and didn't really mesh well with me, though I could see the logical reasons why Klaussmann chose to use that style for the final part.  There isn't much retreading of plot in the parts--a few events are mentioned in more than one perspective, but for the most part we get new information in each part.  This is very much a character-driven novel, not a plot-driven one, except...

...except that Klaussmann tried to work a murder mystery in, too.  I don't know why.  While it provided a bit of intrigue for Daisy's part of the novel, it doesn't go much beyond that except in gossip, but it's still supposed to play a pivotal role in the overall plot as pertaining to the family.  It's just not explored enough to provide that forward motion, and when it finally is explored more, it's the end of the book and there isn't much more to be done with it.  This definitely could have been integrated more, had a larger impact on the lives of the characters, or else wise probably shouldn't have been included.

It's true that not much happens for a lot of this book.  It isn't very action-packed.  However, I didn't mind that at all.  The book's main goal seems to be to explore the characters and how they came to be who they are, and I think Klaussman does a good job with that for everyone except Ed, because with Ed it's just...uhm...well, let me put it this way: I'm not sure Klaussmann really knew how to get inside his head, and that's a good thing.

There are some loose ends that are never tied up, such as what happened to Helena's husband Avery, and I would have liked to see a bit beyond where the book ended--some sort of reveal to Daisy and Helena about what Ed did.  That didn't happen, and it was a bit disappointing, but not hugely detrimental to the overall quality of the book.

So, I liked it overall, for what it was: a good character sketch novel with a great atmosphere for the setting.  It wasn't what I was expecting--I was expecting a lot more drama and mystery--but I liked it all the same.

3 out of five stars.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Shorecliff - Ursula DeYoung

Honestly, I didn't really enjoy this much.  I've this out from the library for what seems like forever, because I just couldn't get into it.  It has something to do with the plot, something to do with the characters, and something to do with the writing style, which all combines to just make you go "bleh."

First, there are the characters.  The narrator, Richard Killing II, is a grown man talking about a summer he spent at his family's house in Maine, Shorecliff, with his extensive network of aunts, uncles, and cousins.  This extensive network is not good, because it means you have to keep up with upwards of twenty characters at any given time, and many of them are only distinguishable from each other by one particular trait.  For example, Isabelle is the gangly, awkward one, and Fisher is the one who likes birds, and Francesca is the beautiful one.  Lengthy physical descriptions of these characters are dumped in your lap during the first chapter, not in a very artful way, and then never mentioned again.  Their personalities and manners of speaking aren't very different from each other at all, and they tend to blur together and leave you wondering who exactly is doing what.  Also, Richard in the story is supposed to be 13 years old; he acts more like he's 8.  This might be because the book is set in 1928, but honestly there isn't much made of this setting and it's very easy to forget that the story doesn't take place in modern times, which leaves things a little squishy in your brain--and not in a good way.

Then there's the plot.  In the first chapter, one of the aunts--who are also apparently supposed to be indistinguishable from each other, for the most part--proclaims that Shorecliff is "ripe for incest."  This seems to be setting up the plot for the rest of the book, but really it isn't.  The plot is more along the lines of no plot at all; it's just a bunch of people rambling about in Maine during the summer and having issues with each other.  Sure, a couple of the cousins have things for each other or pretend to have things for each other, but none of it actually goes anywhere, and it seems like a huge potential conflict was left behind.  Narrator-Richard keeps talking about the "catastrophe" of the summer and DeYoung attempts to make it seem like all of the summer's events led up to that moment, but in reality it doesn't seem like they did.  The "catastrophe" was not a climax of events--it could have just as easily happened in the beginning of the book as the end, which doesn't make it seem very climatic at all.  The "mystery" of the loss of the family fortune also isn't very stunning, nor is Uncle Kurt, who's supposed to be a "mysterious" character.

The writing style is bland; there's a lot of telling and not a heck of a lot of showing, which is exasperating, and a ton of info-dumping that could have been done in a much more artful way.  Additionally, there's a ton of exposition at the end of the book, telling where each ended up and what they did for pretty much the rest of their lives.  That was boring, and for the most part unnecessary, because I didn't particularly care about these characters.  None of them were very lovable, and DeYoung didn't go out of her way to make me root for any of them.  They were just there, and I didn't care what happened to them in more than a, "Oh, that's vaguely interesting but I would have been just as happy not knowing" sort of way.

Overall, a pretty dull book that didn't get any better as it went on.

1.5 stars out of 5.