The Time Traveler’s Wife: A review

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey NiffeneggerIf I had to define The Time Traveler’s Wife (2004) by Audrey Niffenegger in two words they would be: poignant and excessive—two words that also illustrate my mixed feelings about Niffenegger’s first novel.

The Time Traveler’s Wife is about many things. Obviously time travel is an important feature, but this novel is also about librarians, artists, punk rock, and alcoholics. It’s also about love.

Henry meets his wife, Clare, for the first time when he is 28 and Clare is 20. Clare met Henry for the first time when she was six and Henry was 36. Henry is, literally, a time traveler—albeit not in any conventional sense. Henry has a disease: a cellular disorder that leaves him unglued in time, traveling at random to various points in the past and future of his own life and, inexplicably, to Clare’s childhood. Henry cannot hold onto any of his possessions when he time travels—no clothes, no food, no money—a fact that often has a disastrous effect on Henry’s life.

Throughout it all, Clare is at Henry’s side faithfully waiting for him to return to her and their life together. And that’s about it.

Niffenegger alternates viewpoints, narrating the story in both Henry’s and Clare’s voice. Despite giving the characters equal narration time, Clare remains painfully one-dimensional. She is defined by her love for Henry, her artistic career and, unfortunately, little else.

Thankfully, Henry is written much more fully. Working as a librarian at the Newberry in his present, Henry also has a complex life “out of time” that involves stealing, fighting, and never revealing too much about the future. He is also well-versed in the culture of drugs and drinking. Really, Henry is a mess is every sense of the word. Despite all of his problems, though, Henry remains redeemable. Throughout the novel he clings to a certain charm, a quality that makes it plausible to believe that Clare really did love him long before Henry first met her.

The novel jumps from past to present and back again while alternating between Henry and Clare’s voices as Niffenegger aptly examines at how Henry’s past intersects with his present and his future, and his evolving relationship with Clare. These examinations are a particular strength of the novel. Niffenegger manages to discuss events multiple times without being redundant. At the same time she creates a complex storyline without making it impossible to follow.

The Time Traveler’s Wife also provides an excellent discussion of the idea of determinism versus free will, a common theme in novels about time travel. This issue also proves crucial to the plot.

Given the non-linear nature of the novel, it would be impossible to discuss the plot in any comprehensive way. But we can talk about plot devices. As I mentioned, this novel is incredibly poignant. At points Niffenegger does create very compelling, vivid scenes.

Unfortunately, she does also falter. Most of the novel’s shortcomings stem from some kind of excess. First and foremost, it’s too long. (The hardcover edition runs 600 pages.) Particularly in the second half of the novel, it feels like Niffenegger takes on too much. There are too many characters to remember, too many events only tangentially relevant to the core plot. All things considered, the novel could easily have been at least a hundred pages shorter.

For this reason, the premise of the plot has some fundamental flaws—points that make no sense in relation to the rest of the narrative. On the whole, these blips are annoying but not damning (especially given the fact that the novel is marketed as general fiction as opposed to science fiction).

The Time Traveler’s Wife also veers dangerously close to melodrama, raining biblically disastrous situations on both Henry and Clare. Given the ending of the novel, one would think that merely being a time traveler would be enough bad luck to last both of their lifetimes. Aside from being plain old mean, this focus on events makes it difficult to develop the characters. Many interesting people walk in and out of Henry’s life, but few of them are adequately utilized in the book.

The scope of the narrative is vast and strongly cinematic, which leads me to two conclusions: One is that this story might have been better had someone else written it. The other is that the upcoming film adaptation will be better than the novel. Given the fascinating story and characters here, hopefully that will be the case.

Possible Pairings: I Remember You by Cathleen Davitt Bell, If I Stay by Gayle Forman, The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban. Hourglass by Myra McEntire, The Statistical Probability of True Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith, Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater, Time Between Us by Tamara Ireland Stone, Serendipity (movie)

Fire and Hemlock: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne JonesDiana Wynne Jones is at the top of my list of best fantasy writers for children and young adult fiction (along with Vivian Vande Velde and Garth Nix). Her books are well-crafted, rich enough that I’d say most could be crossover adult books, and truly original.

Fire and Hemlock (1970) (find it on Bookshop)  is one of my favorite books by Jones. It’s place as number one is rivaled only by Howl’s Moving Castle. Fire and Hemlock is a modern retelling of the ballads of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer–Scottish legends about woman wooed by a fairy man whom she has to hold onto through a variety of obstacles to save him from being a sacrifice in the fairy realm. Fire and Hemlock veers pretty far from that original premise so it isn’t necessary to be well-versed in the related lore to follow the story.

Polly seems to have a normal life. She is getting ready to return to college with her roommate, she has a boyfriend, her grandmother. All of the memories seem mundane. Yet, as Polly sits packing at home, she realizes that some of her memories don’t make sense. In fact, some of her memories don’t seem right at all.

It all started nine years ago when Polly walked in on a strange funeral at the mansion next door. After that Polly came into possession of an entrancing picture of burning bales of hay called “Fire and Hemlock.” Nine years ago was also when Polly began having adventures with Tom Lynn–a man she can barely remember in her “normal” memories.

Told in Polly’s present and flashbacks to her not normal memories, the novel follows Polly’s efforts to separate fact from fiction and discover why everything changed before it’s too late.

There is no gentle way to say this: the novel starts slow. Faithful readers will be rewarded once they get into the narrative, but that does take time since the story starts with Polly doing little more than packing her bags. The style is common as Jones blends elements of the modern world with old world elements (the Tam Lin lore here).

Polly and Tom’s interactions are the bread and butter of the story. The dialogue between them is vividly authentic and humorous. Tom Lynn is one of those dashing heroes that come up too rarely in contemporary fiction while Polly is a persistent, strong young woman who most parents would want their daughters to see as a role model.

The writing here is strong. Jones creates an interesting story. My only qualm is that the ending gets quite confusing, requiring several readings to make sense of exactly what happens. Despite that weakness, the book as a whole is amazing. It’s a fantasy without being too fantastic, a romance without being too mushy.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson, The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough, Entwined by Heather Dixon, The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Caraval by Stephanie Garber, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey, Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge, Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay, Salt & Storm by Kendall Kulper, Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, The Glass Casket by Templeman McCormick, Beauty by Robin McKinley, Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Angel Mage by Garth Nix, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab, The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, The New Policeman by Kate Thompson, Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin, The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

Getting dissed in the CR

I was in the children’s room today when one of my favorite child patrons, Max, came in. Max is exuberant, cute, funny and around eight years old.

After helping him several times, Max came up to me and asked if I had any good books to recommend. That can be a really broad term, especially given the different reading levels of children’s books. So, to narrow my answer, I asked Max what book he had read recently that he really liked. Max shook his head, saying, “Never mind,” and walked off in disgust. As much disgust as a child can have anyway. Or perhaps it was exasperation.

No worries, I redeemed myself later. Max came up to me asking if we had any books on spies or codes (real spies, not fiction). I was a little busy so I tried to search but it didn’t work right, so I sent him to the librarian. The librarian was busy with an extremely chatty patron. Max was waiting patiently to ask, but then I was freed up and found him a couple of books, which I pulled and gave to him to look at. I am happy to say that Max was still reading them when I left almost an hour later.

A day in the life

We have no water in my apartment building. We have not had any since last night and may not have any until tomorrow or later. It is profoundly annoying in a great variety of way.

I am sitting next to our uncovered air conditioner with freezing feet. The bedroom one is now winter-ready (covered), but only after Mom and myself beating the shit out of the cover so it would fit on our now-warped air conditioner (yay! construction–the construction workers somehow screwed up the air conditioners in some way while fixing our window ledges so the covers no longer fit properly). Neither of us had the energy to get the living room cover fitted in place, but I’m regretting it now. At least it’s not freezing cold today.

I’m taking a break from writing a paper on a Metropolitan Museum exhibit for an art history class. Footnotes are evil.

Little (Grrl) Lost: A (reactionary) Chick Lit Wednesday review

Little (Grrl) Lost by Charles de LintLittle (Grrl) Lost (2007) is Charles De Lint‘s latest novel set in the fictitious city of Newford, the setting for much of De Lint’s work that helped to establish the urban fantasy genre. The Blue Girl from 2006 is another novel set in Newford (Cliff note plot to that book: Punky teen Imogen wants to start fresh, and mistake-free, when her family moves to Newford. She makes friends with Maxine, straight-laced girl with an overprotective mother. As time passes the girls observe strange happenings at their school and wind up matching wits with some very mean fairies among other things.)

The story in Little (Grrl) Lost is refreshingly straightforward for a fantasy: Fourteen-year-old T.J. is furious when her family has to leave their farm and move to Newford. To makes matter worse, T.J. has to leave behind her horse, Red, and her best friend. T.J. has a hard time adjusting to city life and making new friends–until she meets Elizabeth: a punky teenager who lives with her family in the walls of T.J.’s house. Elizabeth is a Little by name. And literally, standing only six inches tall.

As time passes, the girls form an unlikely friendship and begin an even more surprising adventure as they navigate their way through Little-lore and the urban streets of Newford as T.J. tries to help Elizabeth find her way in the Big world (and maybe find her own place in Newford at the same time).

This novel is extremely complicated stylistically. The story is told in multiple points-of-view with varying narration styles. The amazing thing about this technique is that De Lint still manages to create a seamless narration. He transitions between sections easily without being redundant or leaving the reader at a loss.

In order to better establish the difference between the narrations, De Lint writes T.J.’s section using the traditional third-person, past tense narration (“Jane walked to the store.”) incorporating periods from Geoff or Jaime’s perspective to flesh out certain events. Elizabeth’s sections, on the other hand, are written in the first-person, present tense (“I walk to the store.”), a style that is becoming very common in contemporary novels. (This style is also what makes Elizabeth’s sections of the narration sound more like De Lint’s other YA Newford novel, The Blue Girl.)

Most of the novel is set in the course of two very eventful days for the girls. Nonetheless, the narrative feels expansive. De Lint takes his time, fleshing out the details of T.J. and Elizabeth’s adventures. The story is also fairly light, maintaining a generally upbeat feel.

The important thing to remember about the story is that T.J. is fourteen while Elizabeth is sixteen or seventeen. For this reason, T.J.’s sections of the story read younger than the rest. And rightly so. In addition to creating very individual “voices” for the protagonist’s, De Lint also makes their age difference (and personality differences) clear with the divergent focuses of their narrative segments. That’s really hard to do without making the characters seem exaggerated or flat.

Unfortunately, for prolific authors like De Lint comparisons become inevitable. The most obvious one being between Little (Grrl) Lost and The Blue Girl because the novels are both YA and close together in terms of publications. To be clear, this is not a fair comparison. The Blue Girl is longer which means it has more space to deal with plot issues, and the characters are older which means they are not going to sound like T.J. In fact, beyond being set in Newford, the books have nothing in common.

Little (Grrl) Lost does, however, have the same character types as The Blue Girl: punk “bad” girl (Elizabeth/Imogen) and normal “goody-two-shoes” girl (T.J./Maxine). The difference is that the “good girl” gets a chance to voice her own opinions instead of leaving all of the narration to her best friend. This narrative split does, of course, create a different kind of novel but it is used here to good effect.

Despite its relatively short length, Little (Grrl) Lost is rich with detail, but the narrative is never over the top with description or explanation. Even with its numerous narrative voices, the story is never redundant. Basically, Little (Grrl) Lost gets everything right in terms of writing conventions. De Lint once again brings Newford and his characters (Big or Little) to life in this vivid and magical novel.

Possible Pairings: Kiki Strike by Kirsten Miller, Vibes by Amy Kathleen Ryan, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde, Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee

“I could have been a sociopath”

Ralph and I and others were comparing Christmas decorations. Ralph posited that his childhood tree was superior to all of ours in that it was mounted on a revolving base that played *drum roll* “Jingle Bells.” He may have been right.

Ralph also mentioned the traditional glass ornaments that had an indent on one side like these:


Apparently Ralph spent his youth putting his thumb through these ornaments and hiding the remains from his mother.

Ralph’s post-revelation commentary: “I could have been a sociopath.”

Exclusive bonus content:

Ralph on furnishing his studio apartment: “It’s all to scale.”

Miss Print: “Like a doll house.”

Ralph: “No. To my scale.” (Ralph is 6′ 4″.)

Passing the buck

[Enter profoundly annoying patron (to explain her profound level of annoying-ness would take a whole other post. I can’t adequately articulate my dislike anyway, so just go with it). After checking in and out, blah blah blah, the patron decided to look at the booksale area (despite having no intention of buying. She happened to find a copy of Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabrial Garcia Marquez.]

Profoundly Annoying Patron: “Why are you selling this? It’s being made into a movie.”

Miss Print: “I don’t really know . . .”

PAP: “But why would you sell it? You should add it to the collection. It’s being made into a movie.”

Miss Print: “I’m not really sure. I’m not in charge of what gets put out.”

PAP: “But I just place an order for it. Why wouldn’t the library keep it.”

Miss Print: “I’m sorry, I don’t know. Maybe the library has enough copies–”

PAP: “No there were over 200 orders.”

Miss Print: “You could ask a librarian about it. We don’t handle the sale trucks.”

[Enter GC]

Miss Print (frantically): “GC! This woman wants to talk to you.”

[PAP proceeds to repeat her diatribe to GC]

Thinking I was done with her, I walked away only to have GC call me back into the conversation.

GC: “What would you do if I added this book to the collection?”

Miss Print (after getting my first look at the book): “Delete it.” (The book was dogeared and generally gross.)

PAP: “What did she say?”

GC: “She said to get rid of it. She’s in charge of those things.”

GC went on to explain (more patiently than I might have at this point) that had the book been in better shape he would have added it, but since it was foul he chose to sell it instead as some library users “might not even want to touch it.”

I am still amazed that after I tried to pass the problem to him, GC still managed to pin it back on me. This confirms previous suspicions that GC can give as good as he can get.

Injury inventory

I am done with resolutions to be more active/healthy because every damned time I think about it I end up falling and hurting myself so that it becomes a moot point anyway. (This is when I am not so sick I can’t even stand upright.)

I fell today. Again. On the subway steps this time. Second fall in two months. Not amused.

More tomorrow as I should already be in bed based on how I’m feeling.

Jinx: A quintessentially Chick Lit Wednesday review

Jinx by Meg CabotMeg Cabot is the author of the wildly popular “Princess Diaries” series (adapted into two Disney movies starring Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews), the “1-800-Where-R-You” books (loosely adapted into a short-lived series on Lifetime), “The Mediator” books (not yet adapted into anything), among a variety of other books for teens and adults.

Jinx (2007) is Meg Cabot‘s latest standalone teen novel.

As her nickname might suggest, it is not easy being Jinx. Jean Honeychurch has been unlucky since the day she was born, with her luck only getting worse from there. Jean was even unlucky with her name: not Jean Marie or Jeanette, just Jean (although her last name does hearken back to Lucy Honeychurch in Forster’s A Room With a View which is cool even though Cabot never mentions this fact in the story).

It is because of her bad luck that Jean has to leave her family and friends in Iowa to come and live with her aunt and uncle in New York City. Readers don’t learn exactly why Jean has come to New York until the middle of the novel. Until then Jean alludes to the reason she had to flee in annoying asides noting how no one knows the “full story.”

Jean had hoped to escape her bad luck in the big city, or at least dodge her reputation. But Jean’s glamorous and sophisticated cousin, Tory, has other plans. In fact, she has a lot of plans where Jean is concerned. After another of Jean’s unfortunate accidents, Tory realizes that Jean is magically gifted, which ties into an old family prophecy. Thrilled to have another witch in the house, Tory invites Jean to join her coven. But, for reasons that are revealed later in the story, Jean refuses. Family feuding and intrigue ensues.

I liked the story here. But I wanted to like it more than I did. It was funny and light, which is really hard to achieve in writing. But certain elements of the prose were quite annoying. Every time Jean alluded to the “full story” of her trip to New York, I had to fight a strong urge to skim ahead and see what she was talking about. That’s how long it took for Cabot to explain everything.

Allusions like that are fun to build up the story, unfortunately Cabot doesn’t use them very well in the narrative. Instead of creating tension the asides just make Jean seem like a pain for not explaining herself sooner. At the same time certain parts of the plot are predictable enough that it seems silly to build them up quite so much.

Jean is also an infuriating heroine. She is incredibly likable, but also painfully naive and gullible. Cabot seemed to take Jean’s “country fresh” personality way to far. Jean is so sweet that she is a veritable doormat to her less-than-loving cousin. Again and again Jean also shows herself to completely oblivious to what’s going on around her. This behavior might be sweet for a country girl, but it seems forced–even for a sixteen-year-old from Iowa who may not be as worldy as this semi-jaded city dweller.

This book wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad either. (If the plot sounds interesting, by all means give it a try.) I enjoyed reading it, but I expected more from the story and the characters.

Possible Pairings: A Room With a View by E. M. Forster, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, Swoon by Nina Malkin

The return of the cell phone charm and some self-promotion

It has been two years since I bought my cell contract from Verizon, which means that I got to upgrade my phone for free. It will be my third cell phone in six some odd years. I now am the proud owner of a red krazr which *drumroll* has a place to loop cell phone charms!!!!! Super exciting.

I am also successfully registered for my last semester as an undergrad student despite a certain level of drama that was reached on registration day. This is good news, of course, but also scary because it means graduation is that much closer. (The fact that I am ordering senior pictures and wearing my school ring also point to that conclusion.)

My mom pulled her back somehow earlier this week. It makes me sad to see her hobbling around. But we are done with Christmas decorations (yes, already) which means she can finally just relax. Anyone with the time should visit her website and consider buying something pretty to give a friend as a gift (or to cheer my mom up :D). You can, incidentally, also find her stuff on ebay. (In case you haven’t figured this out, I am the head of her marketing/publicity department.)