A Northern Light

A Northern Light by Jennifer DonnellyA Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly
Publisher: Harcourt
Number of pages:  383
My copy: paperback, Christmas gift from Aaron

Sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey has big dreams but little hope of seeing them come true. Desperate for money, she takes a job at the Glenmore, where hotel guest Grace Brown asks her to burn a bundle of secret letters. But when Grace’s drowned body is fished from the lake, Mattie discovers the letters reveal the grim truth behind a murder.

Set in 1906 against a backdrop of the murder that inspired Theodore Dreiser‘s An American Tragedy, this astonishing novel weaves romance, history, and a murder mystery into something moving, real, and wholly original.

* * *

I was never a big fan of historical novels because in my mind, they’re equivalent to classics: slow reading and oftentimes, hard to read. I tend to shy away from any novel set in any part of history that isn’t a classic because…well, classics are classics for a reason that’s why I feel the need to read them. Historicals are just that, and it doesn’t really call my name.

That’s just me being a book snob, excuse me there.

But the good reviews of Jennifer Donnelly’s books got me curious, so I had her books somewhere in my wish list, for possible future acquiring and reading. Fortunately, I didn’t have to buy any because I got her two YA novels as gifts last Christmas. Knowing myself, however, I was kind of sure those books would sit on my TBR pile for a while before I get to go through them. If I wasn’t crazy enough to set a mini-challenge for myself every month, I don’t think I would have picked up and discovered the beauty that is A Northern Light.

Mattie Gokey is working at Glenmore when the body of Grace Brown was found in the river. She remembers Grace very well — after all, she had asked Mattie to burn some letters for her just a few hours before she was found dead. Unable to sleep that night, Mattie decides to read the letters and finds that there was more to Grace Brown’s death than it looks.

At the same time that was happening, another story is told that accounts how Mattie got to the Glenmore in the first place. Sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey is a smart young lady who has big dreams of being a writer but is losing hope of them coming true. After their mother died and her older brother ran away, Mattie is left to help manage the Gokey household with her sullen father and three younger sisters. A lover of books and the written word, Mattie dreams of writing her own, too, but poverty, her family and a possible romance all comes to her, forcing her to decide if she should follow her dreams or stay and fulfill her promise to her dead mother.

The summaries I wrote there is not enough to do justice to the beauty of this book. A Northern Light turned out to be an easy read despite it being set in a time so far from what I know. The setting was vivid, and it reminded me of one of my favorite childhood reads, The Nickel-Plated Beauty by Patricia Beatty. I could just imagine the sprawling farm lands, the cows that they need to milk, the hotel, the Gokey home. Adding to the vivid scenery are the wonderfully drawn characters. Mattie’s voice rang clear and true, and all the people around her shone like little stars, too, shedding more light in the mystery and the story. Even the unnamed guests in the hotel felt like real people, and I can almost hear the noise of the guests eating as Mattie and her co-workers in Glenmore rush to and from the kitchen, picking up plates and serving dishes. The writing was simple yet poetic, immediately pulling me in without having to adjust to any odd language. Overall, the book just worked for me and it read almost like a contemporary YA novel, which I really liked.

The best part of the novel, the one that tickled my fancy so much, is the fact that Mattie loved words. My bookish self found a kindred spirit in Mattie and in her fascination with books. It was almost like A Northern Light was also a book for appreciating books and the power of words. I could definitely relate to Mattie in this particular scene when she saw her teacher’s massive library:

What I saw next stopped me dead in my tracks. Books. Not just one or two dozen, but hundreds of them. In crates. In piles on the floor. In bookcases that stretched from floor to ceiling and lined the entire room. I turned around and around in a slow circle, feeling as if I’d just stumbled into Ali Baba’s cave. I was breathless, close to tears, and positively dizzy with greed.

I get the exact same reaction when I’m in a bookstore. ;)

I also always loved those scenes when Mattie and her best friend Weaver would have a word duel, where they’d “shoot” each other with synonyms of a word that they set at the start of the game, and the one who fails to give the answer “dies”. This book gave importance to even the simplest of words, and to further stress that, chapters that narrate Mattie’s past before she got to Glenmore had headings of Mattie’s word of the day that somehow made its way into the story.

A Northern Light is a ultimately a story about following your dreams, but it also gracefully tackles other issues such as sex and racism. Sometime during reading this book, I got the good chills, and that just confirmed that how good this book was. I loved it, and I think people who appreciate the written word would like this book very much, too. I’m still not a big fan of historical fiction, but I will definitely read Jennifer Donnelly’s other books (in fact, I already have Revolution waiting for me). :)

Rating: [rating=5]

2011 Challenge Status:
Required Reading – March

Other reviews:
The Book Smugglers

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me GoNever Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Number of pages: 288
My copy: ebook, bought from Amazon Kindle Store

As a child, Kathy—now thirty-one years old—lived at Hailsham, a private school in the scenic English countryside where the children were sheltered from the outside world, brought up to believe that they were special and that their well-being was crucial not only for themselves but for the society they would eventually enter. Kathy had long ago put this idyllic past behind her, but when two of her Hailsham friends come back into her life, she stops resisting the pull of memory.

And so, as her friendship with Ruth is rekindled, and as the feelings that long ago fueled her adolescent crush on Tommy begin to deepen into love, Kathy recalls their years at Hailsham. She describes happy scenes of boys and girls growing up together, unperturbed–even comforted–by their isolation. But she describes other scenes as well: of discord and misunderstanding that hint at a dark secret behind Hailsham’s nurturing facade. With the dawning clarity of hindsight, the three friends are compelled to face the truth about their childhood—and about their lives now.

* * *

There are books that grab you by the collar from the very start and force you to pay attention to what you are reading. These books are typically the explosive, action-packed ones, ones that plunge you right into the action, leaving you breathless from the start all the way up to the last page. However, there are books that start off quiet, with barely a bang. You’re not quite sure what would happen with these books, but you allow yourself to be carried gently with the languid flow of the story. You think it wouldn’t really grip you so much as those action-packed books that you can put it down every now and then, reading at your own pace.

And then it proves you wrong. Somewhere in the story, the book grabs you by the hand and pulls you in, refusing to let go unless you get to the very last page, and you’re left even more breathless, wondering what just happened in the past pages and chapters.

That, my friends, is the kind of book Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is.

I’ve been seeing this book for a long time now, but I never thought of picking it up because I often confuse it with other books written by Japanese authors that I am not sure if I want to read. Even my friends reading it in my book club didn’t make me read it because by then, I was more into reading YA books, and I never thought it would be something I’d like to read, anyway. When I ran across its ebook on sale on Kindle, I finally surrendered and purchased it. If my other friends liked it, I probably would, too, right?

Never Let Me Go tells the story of friends Kathy H, Tommy D and Ruth, who all met and grew up in Hailsham, a private boarding school somewhere in England. Kathy, now 31 years old, narrates her memories of her life as a child and early teen there, the next years as she, Tommy and Ruth moved to the Cottages after their time in Hailsham and finally her years as a carer where she crosses paths with Tommy and Ruth again. The book is really a collection of Kathy’s memories, told almost out of chronological order but in a way of significance, all leading to the readers wondering who Kathy is, why there were in Hailsham and what they are up to in present time.

To say anything more would be a spoiler, so I will leave you at that. I was partially spoiled already as I read the book because of some reviews that I read even if it was clearly marked with a spoiler. However, that didn’t lessen the enjoyment of reading this wonderful piece of work. As I mentioned above, Never Let Me Go is a book that starts off very quiet, with hardly any bang. In fact, there isn’t really much excitement in the book, yet I never found it boring. Kathy’s voice rang clear all throughout the book. It almost felt like I was sitting with her in a shop and she was just telling me her life story, or perhaps I was sitting at the passenger seat of her car as she regaled to me their little misadventures in Hailsham.

Even if it was told in Kathy’s point of view, the other characters’ voices were distinct, too. Kathy tells her stories about her friends with little bias to herself, which allows us to see and forgive them for their own faults towards the heroine. For example, every time I would feel annoyed at Ruth for being so dominating, Kathy would say something to make me understand her in a way, or would convince me that somehow Kathy was also at fault. Perhaps it was written that way because these are Kathy’s recollections and at her age, she definitely knew better than she knew then. Tommy and Ruth felt as real as Kathy was, and I truly felt their importance in Kathy’s life.

The strength of the characters didn’t really water down the plot, so there is still much satisfaction as the secrets behind their existence and Hailsham were revealed. As these are Kathy’s memories, they tend to jump from one scene to another before going back to the original intent. It may take a bit to get used to that kind of narration and it may turn some people off. However, that is almost the same way as some Sarah Dessen novels are, so I’m fairly used to that. Everything is revealed gradually and there seemed to be a quiet acceptance to everything that’s happening that even I am convinced that it’s really just the way it is and there is no way out.

Perhaps that is the most striking thing about Never Let Me Go. Kathy tells her story as if there was no other alternative, that it is really the only way for her and her friends. There is a quiet resignation in Kathy that she was destined to do what she was made to do, that there was no other choice but that. It makes me wonder what I would have done if I grew up in Hailsham and I knew what I know as I read this book — would I accept my fate as Kathy did or will I rebel? Or what if I was a guardian — how can I face those kids everyday for the first thirteen years or so of their life knowing what awaits them sometime in their life? Can my conscience take it, even if it is all in the name of science and the progress of humanity?

A movie version of this book starring Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Kiera Knightley came out last year (in all other parts of the world, that is. It hasn’t been shown here yet). If you’re planning to read this, DO NOT watch the movie trailer if you don’t want to be spoiled. I haven’t watched the movie yet, so I don’t know the difference, but it is always wiser to read the book first before watching the movie. Even if you’re not much of a reader, Never Let Me Go is too good of a book to pass up for the movie version. Make it one of the few books that you’d read in your life, if you must.

Never Let Me Go is one book that truly did not let me go (no pun intended). It reeled me in with its simplicity and refused to let me move on long after I finished with the last page. Beautiful and haunting, this is definitely one of my best reads for this year.

Rating: [rating=5]

2011 Challenge Status:
2 of 20 in TwentyEleven Challenge (Will-Power? What Will-Power?)

Other reviews:
The Book Smugglers
The Perpetual Page-Turner

The Great Perhaps

Looking for Alaska by John GreenLooking for Alaska by John Green
Publisher: Puffin
Number of pages: 256
My copy: ebook, bought from Amazon Kindle Store

Before. Miles “Pudge” Halter is done with his safe life at home. His whole life has been one big non-event, and his obsession with famous last words has only made him crave “the Great Perhaps” even more (Francois Rabelais, poet). He heads off to the sometimes crazy and anything-but-boring world of Culver Creek Boarding School, and his life becomes the opposite of safe. Because down the hall is Alaska Young. The gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed up, and utterly fascinating Alaska Young. She is an event unto herself. She pulls Pudge into her world, launches him into the Great Perhaps, and steals his heart. Then . . . After. Nothing is ever the same.

* * *

I have been seeing John green’s novels for a while now, but I never had the time to pick them up. I think I saw Paper Towns first, but they reviews were saying that Looking for Alaska has more awards, so I was always on the lookout for it. Of course, I promptly forgot all about it, until I saw other book bloggers I am following posting reviews on his books. After one particularly boring night at work where I wrestled with the urge to buy a new book, I got this one, thinking his first novel should be a good place to discover if John Green is really as good as people say he is.

I guess I wasn’t sure what I was expecting in this novel, except maybe for a dorky guy character to fall in love with a cool but not exactly popular girl, and will turn his world upside down as he tries to get out of his shell to impress her. I can’t remember where I read this, but I hear John Green is the king of nerdy guys in contemporary YA. I have yet to prove that, but with Looking for Alaska, I was very surprised. I can’t say pleasantly, but I was surprised.

I won’t say much about the story, so as not to ruin a reading experience of those who haven’t read this yet. Looking for Alaska is about Miles “Pudge” Halter, who transfers to Culver Creek Boarding School in search of The Great Perhaps. Here he meets new friends Chip “The Colonel” Martin and Takumi, and Alaska Young, the girl across the hall that rocks Miles’ world and ultimately divides his world into a “Before” and “After”. I wasn’t sure about what “After” meant in the book until I got to it, and that was where I experienced John Green’s magic with words.

The question that readers will get here is the same question that Alaska and the other characters wrestled with: How will I get out of this labyrinth of suffering? I admit that it’s not a question that I would ask myself. I’m generally a cheerful and happy person, with random bursts of sentimentality and sadness every now and then. I can relate to Miles a lot in the sense that his life is generally okay: good parents, good school, and no big traumatic problems in his past. Save for the lack of a group of friends (or even just a single friend), we’re pretty much the same. I guess I can say his approach to the labyrinth would be essentially the same as mine: pretend it doesn’t exist, and live in a self-sufficient world. But one can only live like that for so long, until the suffocation of living on my own will crush me and break me, just as like those people who get lost in their own labyrinths. I don’t think there is ever one answer to this question, because I think every person has their own labyrinths, and it’s never the same with others. I thought that Miles’ answer to the question was brilliant, though, and it may be one of good exit plans that other people (myself included) use in their own labyrinths.

I don’t know if that paragraph made sense, but I hope it does when you decide to read this book. Looking for Alaska is more than your nerdy guy meets cool girl and things change story. This is a surprisingly heavy book that deals with a lot of growing up issues, yet John Green’s prose made it somewhat light and funny, and poignant all at the same time. This isn’t the same world I grew up in (with all the smoking and sex and all that going on. And by smoking, it’s real cigarettes and not the fake ones, so no one is wondering about the taste of an electronic cigarettes), but this world felt real and their situations were something that I know other teens can get into, and it’s something that I appreciate. John Green doesn’t sacrifice dialogue for it to sound real (one that I think Take Me There by Susane Colasanti kind of failed in), but instead makes use of the setting and the situations to bring us all into Miles’ world.

I think my favorite lesson in Looking for Alaska was how you never really own a person, regardless of your relation to him or her. I don’t know about you, but I know I have a tendency to feel like I own the person just because we’re friends, or because I like the person. It’s like their world should revolve around me, because my world can easily revolve around them — it’s just fair, right? But the truth is, we never own anyone, and there’s always something we don’t know about the other person even if we feel like we know them, like we’ve figured them out. We may be important to the other person, but that doesn’t mean they don’t think other people are also important, or that other people think the world of them like you do. The best thing we can do for the people that mean a lot to us is to love them and accept them and forgive them and be content at the fact that they will always surprise us. It may not always be in a good way, but it was what made Miles like, love and forgive Alaska for in the end.

This isn’t my favorite, but I liked Looking for Alaska. It’s left me hopeful and smiling and thinking of things that I have never really thought about, or at least, never really bothered to think about. I am definitely going to read the rest of John Green’s novels.

Rating: [rating=3]

2010 Challenge Status:
* Book # 71 out of 100 for 2010

My copy: ebook, Advanced Reading Copy from Netgalley

Cover & Blurb: Goodreads