On Orphans: A review of Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline, and a meditation on why we read about orphans


Much Dickensian

Some redeeming elements; major hacking needed

Some redeeming elements; major hacking needed

What is it with me reading orphan books lately? In the past 6 months I’ve read: The Orphan Master’s Son, The Goldfinch, The Panopticon, The Cider House Rules, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Eva Luna, and now Orphan Train.

No doubt that “orphans” has long been a popular theme in literature: Jane Eyre, Anne of Green Gables, and, like, all of Dickens’ protagonists***.

(*** one or more of these books were referenced in almost all of the orphan-themed books I read in the last 6 months)

What is it about orphan tales? Is it that we feel instant empathy for an orphan character? Orphan tales are usually survival tales: does this feed in with our recent collective desire to read post-apocalyptic stories? Is Dickens now the new old thing? (see: newly published book Havisham. Maybe we’re moving on from Austen reworkings to Dickens). Are we nervous about our own survival? Do we identify with feeling alone in the world, even if we do have family and friends? I don’t know.

The thing with orphan stories, though, is that their built in pathos has to be dealt with delicately by the author. Orphan stories can quickly go maudlin, or become gratuitous in depictions of deprivation. Orphan stories a la Dickens often have outrageous coincidences, as if the orphan’s hard luck is being compensated by divine fate. And too often, orphan stories feature the cruelest of villains, their inward hatefulness reflected by the ugliest of physical features. I think in some ways that all orphan stories are at their heart fairy tales: the lost hero or heroine, the evil villain, the fairy godmother or -father, the magic of coincidence, the bag of gold at the end of the journey. It takes a gifted writer to write an orphan story that goes beyond this fairy tale trope, and beyond its own plot to tell a story that has a greater commentary on life and how we live it.

The Orphan Master’s Son, The Goldfinch, The Panopticon, The Cider House Rules, The Miseducation of Cameron Post,, and Eva Luna all pulled this off, especially the first three on this list. Orphan Master and Goldfinch  especially so, and I hurtled along with the story, gripped by the characters and what the story was trying to say, and almost didn’t notice the outrageous Dickensian coincidences. Maybe that’s because the characters felt real, three-dimensional, complicated, flawed. Maybe because the book did not feel like a plot delivery device, constructed by an author sitting at a table. I lived in those novels.

Not so with Orphan Train. (funny, I almost mistyped orphan as Oprah there…hmmm). Many of the good characters have golden hair and attractive features. The scenes of depravity feel out of tone with the rest of the book’s narrative style, as if the author is going for a modern edginess but is not really comfortable doing so. The narration flips between modern day third person and 1920s first person, both in the present tense, and this narrative choice especially did not work for me. The 1920s first person present narration was particularly weird: a nine year old girl narrating what is happening with the voice of her older self looking back, yet it is really meant to be present tense without the removal of time. The plot was wholly predictable, the orphan fairy tale structure from beginning to end.

It is not a “bad” book. The writing flows well, and you feel sympathy for the two main protagonists (how could you not? they’re orphans). But Orphan Train felt like a ride that you got on and knew exactly where it was going.

Review: Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson ~ My Fave of 2013 (so far)


The perfection of this cover isn’t evident until you read the book. Perfection!

No Hacking Needed <3

No Hacking Needed ❤

Verdict: An exhilarating mix of action, fantasy, technology, philosophy, love, politics, religion, metaphysics, and semiotics. Oh and also: genies.

Perfect for: On the back cover there are blurbs describing this book as “a multicultural Harry Potter for the digital age” and “A Golden Compass for the Arab Spring”. I feel like these comparisons are not particularly accurate, other than the fact that I think they are trying to get across that Alif is the kind of fantasy book that is rooted in the world we live in now and that wants to explore some serious issues all while providing the reader a riotous adventure. I also think these comparisons speak to the fact that both adults and teens can enjoy this book on many different levels.

Summary: [Disclaimer: I started reading this book without knowing anything about it, and it was really cool figuring out what was going on.

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Review: Gone Girl – by Gillian Flynn ~ Not too late in the summer for this fab beach read

Worthy Beach/Airplane Read

Only one element needs hacking

Verdict: Suspenseful page turner – great psychological thriller – totally entertaining.

Perfect for: While none of the characters are YA, people of all ages who like psychological thrillers or mysteries based on true crime will be sucked in by this book’s well-crafted plot and characters.

Summary: On their 5th wedding anniversary Nick’s wife Amy disappears. Soon the police – and public opinion – seem to believe that there has been foul play, and that Nick is responsible. Told in alternating chapters between Nick’s narration of ongoing events and Amy’s past diary entries, the book keeps readers in constant suspense: which spouse is to be believed? what happened to Amy? who is at fault? how could such a promising marriage go so wrong? why can’t I turn these pages fast enough to find out omg?????????

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Review: Between Gears – by Natalie Nourigat ~ autobio graphic novel goodness

Portrait of the Graphic Artist as a Young Woman – But not pretentious!

No Hacking Needed ♥

Verdict: Utterly charming graphic novel memoir.

Perfect for: High school students wondering what college might be like; college students wondering what other college students’ life is like; aspiring artists of any genre; lovers of comix memoirs; post-college peeps looking for a little nostalgia. So….pretty much everyone?

Summary: In 2009/2010 Natalie Nourigat chronicled her senior year at University of Oregon by drawing a one page comic for every day of her academic year. The title “Between Gears” refers to the sense of being in between two important stages of life. During the course of the year Natalie stresses about completing college and what to do with her life after graduation – all while balancing a full social life as well as her life as a graphic novel artist.

Find out how this book earned the coveted FIVE HEART rating