Book Review: Give Me Everything You Have on Being Stalked by James Lasdun

When James Lasdun begins what he thinks is a benign email relationship with a former creative writing student, he has no idea how it will forever alter his life.  What begins as a cordial professional relationship sours when student “Nasreen” feels rebuffed by James.  In retaliation, she begins trolling him on the internet, leaving negative reviews and sending him (and his colleagues) increasingly hostile emails with insane accusations.  Unable to stop what Nasreen herself calls “verbal terrorism,” Lasdun falls into despair over what she could do to his reputation.

It’s always been a challenge for me to review non-fiction on the blog.  This is especially true here, as I’m not entirely sure how much of this novel can actually be classified as “non-fiction” so much as one person’s interpretation of emotionally charged events.  Originally read for my book club, I ended up with pages of handwritten notes by the time I completed the relatively short book.  I also did some digging and found some interesting pieces on Lasdun, and on the book that are worth a read if you’re familiar with this tale.

In all honesty, I have very few positive remarks to make about the memoir.  Lasdun is a competent writer who has a couple of good sentences in him.  There are moments in the book (I keep wanting to call it a novel because in my mind, this is his own fiction) where he makes some good points.  But the book is so uneven in its execution and so selective in its detailing of Nasreen’s “assault” on Lasdun that it’s hard to find much good here.

A large part of the problem is that Lasdun is so self-obsessed that it’s hard to get behind him.  He proclaims his innocence in the entire relationship throughout the novel, and he obsesses (there is a lot of obsessing done in this novel, both by Lasdun about his reputation and by Nasreen about Lasdun in general) over whether or not he led her on in some way.  But for all the navel-gazing Lasdun does, it is strange he doesn’t see what others might: he was attracted to Nasreen, and perhaps because of this, encouraged her in ways he doesn’t fully realize.

Near the beginning, Lasdun writes about critiquing Nasreen’s work in his class:

I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember a shift in the atmosphere as I spoke: an air of faintly sardonic attentiveness settling on the students as they sat listening to my words of praise.

His lack of awareness here casts his entire story in a different light to me as a reader.  He might never have carried on a physical affair with this woman, but he fixates on her looks and at times veers into creepy, totally racist exoticism (by the way, he makes several other weirdly racist remarks throughout the book).  That he’s a total creep never leaves your mind as you read it, even though you realize that Nasreen herself is a total creeper, too.

Perhaps my biggest issue with the book is the fact that Lasdun maintains a stance that Nasreen was in her right mind during her assault on him.  He goes so far as to say that admitting she might be mentally ill (despite the myriad evidence to support this idea) means that his book lacks meaning and that he might in fact have to feel uncomfortable with his decision to write it, include her correspondence, and essentially eviscerate her character in a published work.  Um, okay.  Whatever helps you sleep, buddy.

There are other, more nitpicky things that don’t work here, too.  Lasdun has a tendency to veer off into long-winded descriptions of things that have no bearing on the central story.  He makes connections to other literary works that seem pompous and tenuous in their links to his own story.  There’s an entire section of the book devoted to the Israeli-Palestinean conflict that seems completely inappropriate for the book, not to mention borderline offensive.

There is no doubt in my mind that the emails and internet stalking that Nasreen engaged in took a toll on Lasdun’s psyche.  While that is not nothing, it is the only thing that resulted from this experience.  As much as Lasdun OBSESSED about how his reputation would be tarnished or how he might lose out on paid writing jobs, neither of those worries came to fruition.  Lasdun has continued to teach and write and work, and he even got a book out of the ordeal.  And Nasreen?  Well, that remains to be seen.

Some critics have heaped praise on Lasdun for writing such a beautiful memoir, but I definitely don’t see it.  What I do see is a man so completely obsessed with his own image that he can’t actually see what is happening around him.  While that might be interesting, his complete and fundamental (and, I think, intentional) misunderstanding of mental illness renders this entire thing an exercise in futility.

They’re both crazy, but I ended up feeling worse for Nasreen than Lasdun.  And that really says something.

Give Me Everything You Have on Being Stalked by James Lasdun. Farrar, Starus, & Giroux: 2013. ILL’ed through my library system.

Book Review: Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige

Amy Gumm has never fit in.  Raised in a trailer park by a mother whose struggles with addiction have made her parenting sporadic at best, Amy has had to fend for herself.  So when a tornado hits her trailer and whisks her away to the land of Oz–no, seriously, that Oz–she can’t believe her eyes.  Only, this Oz isn’t like the one in the books.  Here, Dorothy has changed the land and has mined the magic to fulfill her own desires.  Now, the land of Oz is in trouble, and citizens of Oz want Amy to be their chance for freedom.  In order for that to happen, Dorothy must die.

Danielle Paige’s dystopian tale set in the familiar fantasy land of Oz is guaranteed to attract attention.  It’s the time for fractured fairy tales and their ilk, so it’s perfect timing for this novel to hit shelves.  This edgy take on The Wizard of Oz will probably work better for older teens, as it’s quite gory at times.

The problem is that as fun as Paige’s inventions are here in the world of Oz, they’re flashy additions that can’t wholly disguise the fact that there’s nothing new happening.  This is a standard dystopian romance that’s been set in place of a familiar fantasy landscape.  All the well-worn tropes are here, and while it might be fun to see Paige’s re-imagining of the Tin Man or Dorothy herself, at its core, this is kind of a disappointment.

It’s also overly long, despite the fact that once the novel gets going, it keeps going at a good pace.  There are more than a few gaps in the logic of the story and its characters, and this is likely to distract and frustrate readers who pay close enough attention.  The fact that the writing itself isn’t stellar and is at times quite clunky and awkward only adds to the unevenness of the novel.

Overall a disappointment, but it will probably work for fans of fractured fairy tales or fans of shows like Grim or Once Upon a Time.  There will be a sequel, because of course there will.

Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige. Harper Collins: 2014. Library copy.

 

Book Review: Royally Lost by Angie Stanton

When Becca’s family drags her on a trip to Europe, she’s hoping for nothing more than a fast trip so she can go home.  When she meets Nikolai, that changes.  Handsome, a little bit mysterious, and totally charming, she’s smitten immediately.  Little does she know, Nikolai is a prince on the run from his family’s suffocating expectations.  Together, the two embark on a trip neither will ever forget.

Readers looking for the lightest of reads might find something to like in Angie Stanton’s whirlwind romance offering, but they’re  going to need to suspend disbelief, accept the fact that this one is short on character development, and be okay with a great deal of predictability.  Very much like any of the in-love-with-a-prince movies that are out there but without the added effect of vivid visuals, Stanton’s contemporary royalty romance doesn’t have much to offer readers.

It’s innocuous enough, which might be enough for readers looking for a clean romance.  But there isn’t any substance whatsoever to give this book any weight. Becca is dealing with some very real issues: a blended family, growing up, questioning her choice to go to college right out of high school.  The problem is that all of it feels like padding to flesh out the romance of the story, which isn’t anything to write home about in and of itself.

Even the book’s other greatest attraction–exotic locales–leaves something to be desired, as the two main characters angst so much over when they will see each other again, it’s hard to be taken in by the settings.  Utterly forgettable and completely underwhelming, there are much stronger titles out there, even for readers looking for light romances.

Royally Lost by Angie Stanton. Harper Collins: 2014. Electronic galley accepted for review via Edelweiss.

 

Book Review: The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E. Smith

Lucy and Owen live in the same apartment building in the heart of New York City, but don’t meet until their elevator loses power in a city-wide blackout in the midst of a blisteringly hot summer.  After their rescue, they spend one perfect night together, sharing secrets and falling in love.  Reality sets in before long, and the two are separated.  After that, they mostly communicate through postcards and  a few emails until they finally have a chance to meet up in person again.  Will they be able to rediscover the magic of their first meeting?

In terms of the “meet-cute” trope, this book has it down pat.  Lucy and Owen are fated to meet because of the elevator, and the result of that is a magic, kismet evening in which they discover a mutual attraction for one another.  Readers looking for plausibility should look elsewhere, because Smith’s latest offering has much of what her previous books have: romance, angst, and the most unlikely of situations.  The problem is, that what felt incredibly fresh in her first, excellent The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight is starting to feel more than a little stale in this one, her third offering in as many years.

An inability to connect to either character, both of whom take turns narrating this tale, makes this a bit of slog to get through.  Lucy’s incredibly wealthy and privileged, living in a swank apartment and spending the majority of her time unsupervised, as her parents are always out of the country.  Implausible but not out of the realm of probability, this still feels more like a plot point than an actual feature of Lucy’s character and situation.  Owen’s mother is dead and he grapples with an emotionally absent grieving father, but again, this feels like a plot point rather than a whole character.

Too often, it feels as though Smith is moving the pieces around on the page to keep her characters longing for each other in a way that never fully makes sense.  It would take an extraordinary love–one which this reader did not see on the page–to make these two characters work so hard to stay in touch after they move away from each other.  The base of that relationship is never established, making this feel like a flimsy premise at best.

That’s not to say that readers won’t like this one.  There’s plenty here for readers who like their YA romance chaste and full of longing.  Armchair travelers won’t get a ton out of this one, but there are enough geographical locations mentioned to at least pique the interest of some.  Still, this is one that never fully connects with the reader and fades fast from the memory as soon as it’s done.  Disappointing all around.

The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E. Smith. Poppy: 2014. 

Book Review: The Museum of Intangible Things by Wendy Wunder

Hannah and Zoe are the best of friends, and completely inseparable.  They’ve always been there for one another, so when Zoe tells Hannah that it’s time to leave their po-dunk New Jersey town and see the world, the two embark on a crazy road trip adventure.  Along the way, Zoe tries to teach Hannah about the intangible things in life: like insouciance, audacity, and happiness.

Wendy Wunder’s sophomore novel has high aims and delivers on many of them.  This novel has much of what many readers of contemporary YA look for in their books: romance, independence, self-discovery, and a great deal of wit.  The result is a mixed bag, and while it will work for many readers, it didn’t completely gel for this one.

Because Zoe’s bi-polar disorder plays such a prominent role in the novel, it’s impossible to discuss the novel’s limitations without also touching on that.  Zoe has relied on Hannah to help her down from her episodes, and while it has worked in the past, the two girls find that it is harder and harder to self-medicate when it comes to Zoe’s increasing mania.  Therein lies the biggest issue for this reader when it comes to this book.

Without disputing the fact that bi-polar disorder is a very real thing that some teens face, there was something about the portrayal in this novel that didn’t sit right with this reader.  Too often, Zoe felt like a manic pixie dream girl, and while Wunder did try to showcase the other side of that coin, it felt oddly hollow.  Hannah shoulders a great deal of her best friend’s burden, but something about the story didn’t feel authentic.  Zoe has a support system in place at home, so it seemed odd that that support system would just allow the two girls to go off gallivanting.

So much time and energy is spent on describing Zoe’s zaniness and illness that it feels as though Hannah gets the short shrift often.  Unfortunately, this reader never connected to either character, making this harder to get through.  Lacking that connection to these girls made the stakes feel very low, even though that was clearly not Wunder’s intent.

That being said, the novel is–like her previous work–incredibly well-written.  There are some real gems of insight here, and there is a certain segment of the reading population that will love this one.  Wit and a certain rawness are present throughout the novel.  It just wasn’t enough to sustain the novel to its inevitable (and predictable) conclusion.

Also, the sudden veering into magical realism near the end felt like a way to add some safety netting to the conclusion, which harmed the emotional impact.  Not all readers will feel that way, though.

The Museum of Intangible Things by Wendy Wunder. Razorbill: 2014. 

Book Review: Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira

What begins as an assignment for English class spirals into something much more for Laurel.  She was supposed to write a letter to a dad person, and she ends up writing a ton of letters to a bunch of dead people.  She starts with Kurt Cobain, because her sister May loved him so much.  And they both died young, so it felt symmetrical.  But then Laurel starts writing to other people like Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, and Heath Ledger.  As she writes these letters, she spills her secrets, long kept to herself, about what happened the night May died.

An eye-catching cover, intriguing title, and interesting premise can’t save this book from its overwritten, uneven execution.  Epistolary novels are always difficult because they’re inherently one-sided.  An epistolary novel where the letter recipients can’t even write back because they are dead is decidedly even more one-sided.  While there is some good here: Laurel is an introspective girl who makes for a mostly-authentic narrator, the book gets bogged down in its own telling, making for a slog of a read.

The result is kind of boring, as much as it pains me to say it.  There’s something gimmicky about the execution of the book, too, although it’s hard to place what it is, exactly, that makes it feel this way.  Perhaps its the feeling of nostalgia that winds its way through the narrative?  It feels disingenuous?  Not all readers will pick up on this, but more will find themselves frustrated by how slowly Laurel reveals herself.

That is a large part of the book’s problem, too: Laurel is so slow to give readers a glimpse into her tragic past that by the time she arrives at the night May died, the ending of the book feels rushed.  It makes for a jarring end to a novel that is otherwise incredibly slow and deliberate.  Tighter editing would have helped with this; the book feels overly long at just over 300 pages.

Perhaps the most distracting aspect of this novel is how similar in tone and execution it is to Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  This is compounded by the fact that Chbosky blurbed this one.  It might find some readers who don’t mind the slow-as-molasses pace, but this is definitely not a stand-out.

Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: 2014. Electronic galley accepted for review via Netgalley.

 

Book Review: Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick

Seven stories, spanning years, intersect in this novel.  All seven stories–featuring all sorts of different characters, including a pilot, a painter, a ghost, a vampire, and a king–take place on a remote Scandinavian island called Blessed where there’s a mysterious plant resembling a dragon.  What do all these stories have in common?

Midwinterblood has received a great deal of press in the last year, and rightfully so.  It’s an ambitious novel, and it’s memorable, without a doubt.  Just trying to summarize the plot above was no easy feat.  Heaped with critical praise, this is going to be one that divides readers: they’re either going to “get” it, or they aren’t.

I fall into the latter category.  Try as I might, I never fully connected with this one.  It could be that the hype machine got to me and I was never going to love it as much as I felt like I should, or it could be that it simply didn’t work for me.  What I do know is this: the writing is impeccable, the characters are fascinating, and the premise itself is compelling.  But it never came together for me.

While the characters are definitely fascinating, the reader never spends enough time with any of them to fully grasp what is happening or what their motivations are.  There’s this creeping feeling throughout the novel, and while that in itself should keep the pages turning for most readers, there wasn’t enough substance here for me to walk away feeling sated.

That being said, the writing is excellent.  Sedgwick writes each section of the story with an intriguing, haunting prose that hooks the reader.  The creeping feeling of dread that permeates the pages is due in large part to his talent, and even the most skeptical reader will have a hard time overlooking that.

It might be that this is a novel that demands a second or third read-through, but for the time being, I’m left wondering, “Yeah, and?”

Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick. Roaring Brook Press: 2013. Library copy.