All posts by Jakob

About Jakob

Jakob is sixteen years old and is a writer, actor, photographer and compulsive reader. He is constantly around books, and he has developed quite an eclectic taste due to his mother being a teacher librarian. Jakob is in Year 11 at Concordia College and he tries to write and read as much as he can in his spare time (which is agonizingly thin). He recently finished writing a full-length novel and is looking to get it published some time soon. He is also a great lover of music, movies and art.

Huckleberry Finn

huck and tom

I’m aware that I’m reviewing a classic, so I’ll try to remain as objective as possible.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain probably has the biggest claim to being the Great American Novel. Intended at first as a simple story of a boy’s adventures in the Mississippi Valley – a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – the book quickly blooms under Twain’s hand into a work of immeasurable richness and complexity.

I haven’t read Tom Sawyer, but I think that I probably bet on the right horse when I chose Huckleberry Finn over it. I won’t deny it took me a while to get through, being much longer than Tom Sawyer, but personally I found it far more rewarding. Tom Sawyer (the main character, who also appears in Huckleberry Finn) is all fun and games, and of course there’s nothing wrong with that. However, Huck seems to be a more developed character, more concerned with doing the right thing. Huckleberry Finn tells the story of how Huck helps a runaway slave escape and become free, and throughout he weighs up his own morals against the morals of the society that he finds himself in. Twain satirises the topsy-turvy morals of the slavery-era south. His protagonists, Huck and Jim, are two people at the bottom rung of the social latter – a runaway slave and the son of the town drunk. Though they’re not valued by society, they turn out to be the two most honourable characters of the book.

I think, perhaps, the difference between Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer is that Huck tends to put more emphasis on the stakes of the situation. Huck isn’t subtle about anything; he’s honest and lets us know step-by-step what he’s thinking. Twain pulls off a wonderful twist near the end of the book: Sawyer suddenly reappears on the scene, pulling the same hijinks he always has, but now we see them through Huck’s and Jim’s eyes. Huck wants to find the most direct solution to the problem of freeing Jim, who’s been recaptured, but of course Tom wants to complicate things, as he always does. So rather than just pulling a loose board out and making off, Tom insists on digging under the wall, and loosing bugs into Jim’s prison so he can be properly ‘prisonerish’, and finally warning the family about the impending escape to make the whole thing more dangerous.

While Sawyer did horrible things in his own book – most notably faking his own death so his Aunt Polly could about die of sadness – we forgave him then because the book was a lark, told through his eyes, and we understood that it was all about fun. Twain takes a leap in Huck Finn, showing us an adult world and then showing us what real stakes look like when Tom Sawyer gets a hold of them, and it’s sad to watch Tom toy with Jim’s life this way. This radical flip elevates Huck Finn considerably.

I only really had one negative point, which was that Jim’s character didn’t really drive the plot very much. He never pushes anything forward himself. He’s certainly shown to be kind, and we’re allowed to see him weeping for his separated wife and children, and we get to see his heavily allegorical refusal to allow Tom to throw rattlesnakes into his prison to make it more realistic. We’re allowed into Jim’s humanity, yeah, but he never gets to drive the plot. At the end, when he realizes that he’d been a free man all along, and Huck didn’t know it but Tom did and Tom was just playing… I wanted a moment of anger from him, not just a constant passivity. Didn’t he deserve it? He’s been tortured by Tom’s manipulation for months on end. Shouldn’t Jim have had a moment when he said, ‘What about my wife and kids?’

All in all, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not one to be missed. The language is full and rich, and I don’t think I could ever get sick of listening to Huck’s voice. There’s something deliciously humble about the way that Twain paints him… I’m not really sure what it was, but it had a certain charm about it. A certain spirit that I found admirable. Some of the passages where he’s crafting opposing arguments in his head and working things through were some of my favourite parts, just because of the way they’re written. He’s honest, cheeky and believable, and is now one of my favourite fictional characters.

This is just a quick sidenote here, but I recently saw a movie called Mud starring Matthew McConaughey, and the plot was quite similar to Huckleberry Finn. The acting was superb, the direction very classy for a small-budget movie, and I highly recommend you watch it.

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Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Me and Earl

Please don’t throw things at me for saying this, but I normally hate ‘cancer books’. Or illness and dying books in general. I think it might be due to the My Sister’s Keeper incident of Year 10 English. I think maybe my problem with them is that they can get so hung up on leaving the reader with a beautiful message about life and/or death, so intent on making you cry and showing how a person can gain a new outlook on life from either having a terminal illness or being close to someone with a terminal illness, that they neglect the actual making-the-story-interesting-and-fun-to-read part. In real life, very few people are lucky enough to take something amazing away from an experience like this. Jesse Andrews, author of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, knows that, and he does such a great job of delivering a book that is hilarious with colourful characters, including a girl with cancer, but doesn’t strain itself to give us a life lesson.

What struck me about this one was its sheer realism. It’s not often you find a book that truly breaks the rules and structure of a bestseller (and this isn’t really a bestseller, but it sure does break the rules). The characters are hugely dynamic and Greg is a fantastic protagonist who is fleshed out and rounded. It’s also very funny – the jokes vary between witty sarcasm and ridiculous schoolboy humour. An even better thing is that Andrews doesn’t try to manipulate the reader’s emotions; I didn’t feel like I was being forced to cry or pity Rachel (the titular ‘dying girl’), and I appreciated the author’s message that sometimes bad things happen, things go wrong and people die, and we don’t necessarily learn anything useful from it other than the hard, cold truth that things can be ripped away from you in a split second.

Greg feels like he should be moved by Rachel’s illness, he feels like he should hang out with her, and yet Andrews allows him to acknowledge that he isn’t moved, he doesn’t really want to help out or get involved; in fact, he finds himself wishing he could ignore the whole situation, carry on with his life, and pretend it isn’t happening. Maybe you won’t appreciate this sentiment, but to me it felt a million times more honest and real than any other book about illness that I can remember.

I haven’t read The Fault in Our Stars, so I won’t bother comparing it to that because I don’t have much of an opinion. But, if you’re looking for a droll, honest novel with a great cast of characters, I’m confident Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is for you.

Hamlet: A Graphic Tale

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Hamlet, Shakespeare’s longest play, ventures into the themes of doubt, truth, fate, meaning, and the slipperiness of reality. Set in the corrupt Kingdom of Denmark, the play dramatizes the revenge Prince Hamlet exacts on his uncle Claudius for murdering King Hamlet, Claudius’ brother and Prince Hamlet’s father, and then succeeding to the throne and taking Prince Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, as his new wife and Queen.

In Nicki Greenberg’s graphic novel adaptation of Hamlet, the page layouts are based around the idea of a theatre stage, with full-on interlocking sets that echo the tone of the current scene. Each character is an inkblot with an interchangeable and removable mask. Greenberg incorporates the black space around the graphic frames as part of the novel to great effect; we are invited into the dark backstage of the play and allowed peek around the corner into a world we don’t deserve to see.

Greenberg, an Australian writer and illustrator, previously adapted F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby into a graphic novel (which, after reading her Hamlet, I immediately sought out and purchased). Gatsby is presented as a sepia photo album of sorts, with each photo conveying a few lines of dialogue or narration. Hamlet, on the other hand, is in full colour and is not confined to the borders of such a format. Instead, it plays with the borders themselves and takes full advantage of that experimentation.

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Each page is a work of art, from the starlit spookiness of the first ghost scene to the terrible, monochromatic carnage of the final battle. The flower-strewn pages of Ophelia’s madness, the colourful cog-churning interiors of the castle, Gertrude’s gauzy pink bedchamber, the sickly green rooms where Claudius plots and conspires, and the play-within-the-play are all in brilliant, sun-bright colour, and open up the flourishing world to its full extent.

At the end of each scene, we are presented with a chilling tableau of parallel events occurring behind the scenes of the novel itself. It’s bewilderingly clever, and at the end of the book the two realities collide in a surprising twist. Plays within plays within plays invite us to return to one of Hamlet’s fundamental questions: which side of the stage is real?

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The characters are moldable like clay – they stretch, splatter, melt, fuse together and assume strange and monstrous forms, which is delicious to lick up as a reader. The bodies of the characters/actors in the story are lifelike and engaging as they move about the page. Greenberg’s Hamlet is not a generically delicate study in melancholy, as he has been portrayed countless times, but leans more toward the muscular, playful, dangerous and charismatic. We are welcomed into a side of him that’s charming, damaged, tender in friendship and full-hearted in his all of his vices. Hamlet is a deliberately mysterious and ambiguous creature, and seeing him treated with care instead of shredded into fragments for analysis was refreshing.

Instead of using the intimacies of real theatre, Greenberg delves into a different type of toolbox in terms of how she conveys the characters’ emotions. She exploits the shape and layout of the page and the panels within it, the visual echoes and resonances of composition, different ways of timing the performance (such as the impact of the page-turn, which she goes into, among other elements of the novel, in surprising clarity in her interview about the novel), speech bubbles, and the ability of the graphic novel medium to bend the laws of biology and physics.

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The painted backgrounds and larger-than-life botanical ‘props’ also play a large role in the storytelling. The eight backgrounds, representing eight different locations in the castle of Elsinore, are designed to operate as surreal theatre sets, where perspective is fluid and ambiguous. The sets themselves can twist and fracture, grow eyes, breathe out ghosts and meld with their inky surrounds. The backstage sets, on the other hand, are collages constructed from old books, frayed ribbons, handmade paper, Folies Bergère albums from the 1920s and 30s, peacock feathers, silk scarves, old boxes and bottles of ink, nibs, dyes, labels, sequins etc. This gives a sense of bringing our imaginations back to a clothy reality after the twists and turns of the previous scene, and gives us reading glasses with different coloured lenses with which to use when poring over the split world of Hamlet.

The ‘to be, or not to be’ soliloquy – perhaps the most famous piece of dramatic speech in history – would have clearly been a challenge for Greenberg, but yet again she takes the play to a whole new level. It is at this point in the play where Hamlet removes his own face and strikes up a conversation with it as it taunts him from the end of his outstretched arm.

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For people unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s work, the text can be intimidating when encountered in great blocks, or even when spoken quickly on stage or screen. This novel, however, is a delight and can be explored and enjoyed with young children (especially those looking to discover new words) as well as adults, and provides an insight into the work of a great cultural icon of the English language.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Perks

After I saw the movie, I sought out the book and read it immediately. Twice.

I’d heard a little bit about it before I saw the movie, and after I watched the trailer on YouTube I kind of thought ‘I’ll watch the first ten minutes, and if I’m bored I’ll stop.’ I really did think that I would hate it, that it would be another clichéd coming-of-age growing-up story, and I had my doubts seeing Logan Lerman as the main character (after seeing Percy Jackson I didn’t think I could stand something else with him in it) but I really was pleasantly surprised by both his unique portrayal of the protagonist and his genuine acting ability. I also loved seeing Ezra Miller, Emma Watson, Joan Cusack and a refreshingly more-serious-for-once Paul Rudd illuminate their own characters and further amplify Lerman’s performance. Also, the fact that Stephen Chbosky, the author of the novel, actually directed the movie, just made it so much better.

Oh, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show was in it, so needless to say, I was glued to the screen.

Set in the early 90s, the story follows Charlie, who arrives at his new high school reeling from the suicide of his best friend. He is a wallflower – one who sees things and keeps quiet about them, but nevertheless fully understands what is going on. Charlie is evidently an introvert and is deep-thinking, talented and the sole inhabitant of a rich and consuming inner world, but it is clear that there is more at play here than simple shyness. While some of Charlie’s emotional state is explained at the end of the novel, there is definitely more to Charlie than Chbosky ever reveals, hinted at by the apparent naiveté of his fifteen/sixteen years, which as a reader is incredibly interesting to follow.

Because I am, in fact, fifteen, and Charlie’s character resonated quite deeply with me personally (except for perhaps the introvertedness) I found it easy to relate to the book. Charlie tells the story through writing a series of letters to his ‘friend’, whom we can imagine as ourselves, the readers, or someone different entirely. I would recommend it to anybody my age or above, and there are some beautiful insights that really can link with anyone who reads it, whether you’ve finished senior school or are just starting.

It is quite confronting and explicit in terms of sex, drugs and alcohol, but I really don’t want to go into that here. If you think you’re mature enough to read it, go ahead, but tread warily if you’re below fifteen. That’s all I’ll say about that.

I didn’t want to say much about the ending, but I will. It really did affect me more than I thought it would. And lots of people I’ve talked to about the movie said the ending was quite confusing for them, and the way the book paints the ending is even more so. If I didn’t know what was going on at the end before I read it on paper, I myself would have been confused. But it really did make me quite emotional and upset, and was one of the most heartbreaking endings to a story I’ve ever encountered.

I’ll end this review simply by saying that this book was a catalyst for me. It made me want to do things. It made me want to listen to old music and take photos and read and dance and do Secret Santa and eat grilled stickies and make mix tapes and drink milkshakes and feel infinite. I finished it in one day, that’s how gripping it was. It made me laugh out loud at times and feel a dull ache in my chest in other parts, but I think that anyone who reads this book can find something cherishable to stick with them for their entire lives.

I know I certainly did.

This is Shyness

This is Shyness COVERThis is Shyness by Leanne Hall is not for everyone. You have been warned.

However, I was pleasantly surprised reading it because it was very different to anything I’ve ever read before, and I often find that some of the best books I read are that way, so it gained points in that area.

But, to preserve integrity, I’m going to have to be brutally honest. The first few chapters bored me a little. We start off in a wacky alternate/future world, where a terrible and all-encompassing darkness has fallen on the suburb of Shyness in the town of Panwood. It’s a place that’s been abandoned by regular people and is now populated by weird individuals, renegades and creatures of the night. We begin with a girl and a boy meeting in a bar. She tells him that her name is Wildgirl, even though it’s not, and he introduces himself as Wolfboy. Oh, and he howls a lot through the book. Like, literally howls. And it’s a bit weird simply because he does all of this random stuff like that for no reason. Then again, everyone in this book does, but I don’t know. I just would have liked a bit of an explanation to certain things.

It was difficult to get orientated in this book. Some of the place names – Shyness, Panwood, Saturnalia Avenue, Orphanville, Plexus, The Commons – weren’t fully explained, and while being quite detailed and realistic, it was tricky trying to plot out a mental picture of the places they go. I think it would have been a lot better if there was a map or something in the front of the book. Don’t get me wrong; the sparseness worked for the streetscape, outlandish layout of the book, but I just couldn’t work out where anything was.

What brought me back were the characters. I loved Wolfboy – he was honest, compelling and driven, and I couldn’t wait to hear from his point of view. Once I did, I wasn’t disappointed. Unfortunately, the narrative kind of flip-flopped from Wolfboy’s to Wildgirl’s point of view without warning, and it was hard to work out who was speaking (because they pretty much spoke with the same voice).

Wildgirl, on the other hand, was a little annoying at times. We get the sense very quickly that both of them have a dark backstory that drives their actions in the present, but when I heard what hers was, I rolled my eyes about twenty times. Which was unfortunate again, because her character held so much promise. She was like Wolfboy’s more annoying twin sister. Plus they fall in love in the end. And I wanted them to! There were so many tense, Little-Mermaid-esque JUST KISS THE GIRL moments that stitched the story together quite nicely.

I kind of wanted to hear more about the other characters. Guadalupe, the kooky, kebab-cooking, van-driving, fortune-telling psychedelic witch-lady. Ortolan, the mysterious, shady woman from The Raven’s Wing, who dated Wolfboy’s brother. And the Kidds – sugar-crazed out of their brains, led by the Elf, a villain who I really wanted to know more about. There were others, too: the Dreamers and their funky, occult style of drug-induced sleep, Doctor Gregory, the insane psychiatrist that tries to create problems around Shyness just so that he can solve something, and all the creepy, devilish little interactions between the characters backstage. Sadly, however, we only got fed snippets of this awesomeness. I just got the sense that there wasn’t enough substance to fill in a lot of the nooks and crannies of the story.

I have to admit, it kind of felt like the author was writing without any clue where the story was going. I have no problem with people that write like this, but she could have tidied certain plot elements up so much better. The major twists and turns were driven often by pure pride or greed, such as Wildgirl stealing a bankcard and buying all this ridiculous crap with it for no reason, or her ambition to get Wolfboy’s stolen cigarette lighter back from the Kidds. Wildgirl wasn’t making much sense in her stubbornness; I couldn’t get why she was so adamant about putting herself into trouble. I can see her reasoning (spoiler-alert, just kidding, not really – it belonged to his dead brother) but getting the lighter back is the climax of the story. The Kidds steal it from him, Wildgirl gets shocked by the injustice even though he doesn’t really care, and she makes him go on a suicide mission to retrieve it from their suburb. Then, boom, the book ends. It just wasn’t exciting enough for me.

The book had so much potential and because it took place over the time-span of one night, it was slow in some areas and super ramped-up in others. What kind of irked me was that there were all these cool opportunities that the author created, but she didn’t use them. I just wanted more to happen. She didn’t have to confine herself to the span of a single night. I wanted to see what daytime was like, even though the world would still be shrouded in darkness.

Anyway. Enough negativity. The writing was certainly to be commended. Wolfboy and Wildgirl’s stories were well developed and they crackled with energy. I laughed out loud at times, I nearly tore out my hair in frustration at others, and I liked how intertwined with the story that made me. I felt really close to the book. And I know I’ve just rabbited on about how bad it was, but to be honest, it wasn’t really. There were just a few flaws that needed scrubbing up.

It’s a tale of warmth, sweetness and it gives you a cosy, friendly hug. And so I wont give it an obligatory blanket-recommendation, but I would say read it if you’re looking for a book to perk you up a little, make you look at the world one shade brighter and smooth off your rough edges (while you, paradoxically, hope to do exactly that to the book itself).

Thirteen Days to Midnight

Thirteen Days to MidnightDue to the intense pressure of NaNoWriMo, approaching exams and coffee-strained nights it’s been quite tricky to find the time for reading amongst my busy schedule, however there is one book in particular that I’ve been dying to write a review of for a long time. Thirteen Days to Midnight by Patrick Carman is one intense book. And without giving too much away about the plot (trust me, you’ll thank me for this later), I’ll give a quick summary about it.

Fifteen-year-old Jacob Fielding survives a chilling car accident with his foster parent, who dies in the crash as a result. Scarred, Jacob attempts to cope with the sudden loss by finding solace in the new and daring girl in town, Ophelia James, with whom a romantic relationship soon develops. Very soon, however, the ghosts of the accident begin to haunt Jacob as he discovers that he wields a dark power too dangerous to understand. He is indestructible – nothing can touch him, not even death. And as the plot thickens, Jacob, Ophelia and Jacob’s best friend Milo begin to test the limits of the power, but the enclosing shadows of death begin to pace a few steps closer, and the power begins to take on a very dark form.

All of the characters in the book were terrific. Jacob, our first-person narrator, is blunt and rapid but also sweet and spacey, which made him an interesting character to hear from. Carman also used a very effective technique of allowing the narrator to keep a few cards close to his chest; Jacob doesn’t tell the reader everything. We are left to guess, and that makes us flick through the pages faster and faster. We read something, and we say ‘What? You did this without telling me first!’ which was cheeky and suspenseful at the same time. Jacob plays with the reader.

Another point in the story which I found to be utterly terrific is how the characters actually went about testing the limits of the power. It was mesmerising watching Jacob, Milo and Ophelia get drowned, shot, burned, punched, crushed, stabbed, electrocuted – you name it – and seeing the results of no harm being done. It’s an uncanny concept but a clever one. And as we learn more about the rules of the power, we begin to question ourselves about what we would do in their position – would you use the power to save lives in need? Would you steal death away from people that deserve it? Mess with the powers of nature to sanctify what is right and what is wrong?

The book has a deliciously gloomy feel about it and there is a tremendous amount of action packed into the time span of thirteen days. As I neared the last few pages of the book, I was literally trembling with anticipation. It was a pleasure to read because of its pace; no time or words were wasted. The thematic complexity doesn’t hinder the thrill – rather, it amplifies it. The character of Ophelia was quirky and entertaining, and throughout the book she changes a lot, for the worse – and the way that Jacob deals with this was interesting as well. Jacob’s own character development was equally good; he is the owner of the power, he can do what he likes with it, but will he give into temptation or guilt as a result of not using it when he should?

The ending was just the right amount of confusing. The kind of confusing which leaves you pondering and not annoyed. The kind of confusing which makes you think, ‘Wow, that’s so clever!’ instead of, ‘Yeah, this is a clever book for dumb people.’ It was sad, beautiful, climactic and terrifying all at once (as was the entire book). I read this book again twice just so I could explore all of the cheeky nooks and crannies in the storyline.

Overall I give this book a 4.5/5, and I definitely recommend it. It is most definitely not a chore to get through; as clichéd as it sounds, you won’t be able to put it down. It was twisty, dark and atmospheric – it treats its scares like clues in a mystery. It wasn’t the kind of supernatural with sparkling vampires and two-dimensional characters. It had heart, audacity, tempo and tremendous power. Thirteen Days to Midnight is one that will stick with me for a very long time.