Thursday, February 21, 2013

Book review: Iced by Karen Marie Moning

Goodreads summary: Dani “Mega” O’Malley plays by her own set of rules—and in a world overrun by Dark Fae, her biggest rule is: Do what it takes to survive. Possessing rare talents and the all-powerful Sword of Light, Dani is more than equipped for the task. In fact, she’s one of the rare humans who can defend themselves against the Unseelie. But now, amid the pandemonium, her greatest gifts have turned into serious liabilities.

Dani’s ex–best friend, MacKayla Lane, wants her dead, the terrifying Unseelie princes have put a price on her head, and Inspector Jayne, the head of the police force, is after her sword and will stop at nothing to get it. What’s more, people are being mysteriously frozen to death all over the city, encased on the spot in sub-zero, icy tableaux. 

When Dublin’s most seductive nightclub gets blanketed in hoarfrost, Dani finds herself at the mercy of Ryodan, the club’s ruthless, immortal owner. He needs her quick wit and exceptional skill to figure out what’s freezing Fae and humans dead in their tracks—and Ryodan will do anything to ensure her compliance.

Dodging bullets, fangs, and fists, Dani must strike treacherous bargains and make desperate alliances to save her beloved Dublin—before everything and everyone in it gets iced.

I need to unpack a lot of conflicting feelings about this book. The first thing, off the top of my head, is that I’m definitely a Fever series fangirl, having absolutely devoured them for CBR4. Given that, I’m inclined to give any of these books the benefit of the doubt and then some. But there are just issues here that I can’t completely overlook, despite, again, finishing this in less than a day and being really engrossed in the proceedings.

For one — that summary up there? Sounds like a pretty normal, promising premise to a paranormal romance. Spunky heroine and rakish love interest are both introduced. Except here’s the thing: the spunky heroine, in this case, is 14 years old. Now, nothing happens happens in the book, but there are a lot of significant glances that are “misunderstood” by the young heroine, and some scenes where she is injured and is stripped to her underwear by one of the competing love interests (there are at least 3 that I can count) in order to heal her. Now, I’m not really a pearl-clutcher, generally speaking, nor am I the type to deny 14-year-olds their agency and burgeoning sexuality, but given the tone and content of the prior five books (hint: pretty fucking steamy) it squicks me just a little for the new protagonist to be jailbait. This isn’t exactly meant to be a YA series, and the prior books definitely weren’t. Furthermore, with regards to her agency, it would be one thing if she personally were displaying any kind of romantic notions toward anyone, but she’s not. Instead it’s like there are three guys kind of squabbling over her and her — oh god, I use this term all the time in pop culture criticism but again, I squick myself using it here because SHE’S FOURTEEN — magic vagina. I’m just going to stop there before Pedobear asks to take this review to his bunk.

Also, this sucker is 500+ pages, and honestly, I’d say it could be edited down by at about a third. I wouldn’t exactly say I was flat-out bored, clearly, given how quickly I went through the book; however, there are a lot of, frankly, really tedious scenes where Dani and Ryodan visit an “iced” site, wax Sherlockian about it, and then escape quickly without really learning anything new. I like mysteries and sleuthing stories to kind of drop some hints along the way, to build intrigue and build the case. In this instance, all of the sudden the knowledge-bomb is dropped right at the very end, and it’s not because of a lot of accumulated knowledge from the scenes — it’s because one character does some analysis he could have done at the beginning if he had only thought of it. In the prior five books, the paranormal mystery aspect of the plot was interspersed with the romantic element, and neither felt like they were dragging; here, since the romance has to be tempered because the romantic heroine is 14 years old, the mystery is put under more scrutiny and sometimes falls short.

Overall, since as I said I’m a fangirl, I probably won’t let these issues affect my enjoyment of the series too much, by which I mean, yes, I will unreservedly pick up the next installments and continue to fawn over the prior five. I will need KMM to tread carefully where the young protagonist is concerned, especially since two of her would-be suitors are older, and one considerably so (by which I mean immortal, but since jailbait rules don’t apply to inmortals, let’s say he’s probably meant to be about 30-ish in appearance.) So, in general, there was some definite weirdness afoot here that I wasn’t super satisfied with, but KMM did lay some good foundations for the upcoming novels. I’m categorizing this as 3 stars in wordpress since it’s part of Fever, but really, it’s probably a 2.5 as a standalone.

Book review: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson

Reminder for readers of my personal blog: all of my reviews are cross-posted from the Cannonball Read V group blog. Below is what I posted over there, since this book has been reviewed approximately a million times between this and the prior Cannonball. For everyone else who hasn't read all of those reviews, I'll include a Goodreads summary at the end.

So we don’t need to recap this one, right? Since this book has essentially become destined to be reviewed at least once a week? You reap what you sow, cannonballers! If everyone is going to talk about how great it is, the rest of us are going to want to read it!

Anyway, there can’t be much left to say about either the content or the quality of the book. It’s definitely funny, but there is a noticeably more raw quality to the humor and writing that I think is indicative of The Bloggess’ background (blogging, obviously, as opposed to “novelist.”) The humor here is pretty organic, derived from humorous situations, rather than constructed “jokes.” But as we all know, you still need the right wit and timing to re-tell a funny story and have it still be funny, as opposed to “I guess you had to be there,” so Lawson definitely succeeds on that front. You do get a lot of “And then I punched the dog in the face. Just kidding, that didn’t happen. But what actually happened is even worse. I bet you’re getting nervous, but that’s okay, because getting nervous burns calories. So really, you should be thanking me.” Personally, I respond really well to that in blogs, but it felt admittedly weird to be reading it in a hardbound book. I know that makes no sense, but it’s the truth. And since I still did laugh and grow really fond of everyone in the memoir, I’m not going to actually “penalize” the book for my own cognitive dissonance.

So, anyway, recommended, yadda yadda, in case you were waiting for my final say.

Goodreads summary: Jenny Lawson realized that the most mortifying moments of our lives—the ones we’d like to pretend never happened—are in fact the ones that define us. In the #1 New York Times bestseller, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Lawson takes readers on a hilarious journey recalling her bizarre upbringing in rural Texas, her devastatingly awkward high school years, and her relationship with her long-suffering husband, Victor. Chapters include: “Stanley the Magical, Talking Squirrel”; “A Series of Angry Post-It Notes to My Husband”; “My Vagina Is Fine. Thanks for Asking”; “And Then I Snuck a Dead Cuban Alligator on an Airplane.” Pictures with captions (no one would believe these things without proof) accompany the text.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Book review: The Magician King by Lev Grossman

Goodreads summary: Quentin and his friends are now the kings and queens of Fillory, but the days and nights of royal luxury are starting to pall. After a morning hunt takes a sinister turn, Quentin and his old friend Julia charter a magical sailing ship and set out on an errand to the wild outer reaches of their kingdom. Their pleasure cruise becomes an adventure when the two are unceremoniously dumped back into the last place Quentin ever wants to see: his parent’s house in Chesterton, Massachusetts. And only the black, twisted magic that Julia learned on the streets can save them.
The Magician King is a grand voyage into the dark, glittering heart of magic, an epic quest for the Harry Potter generation. It also introduces a powerful new voice, that of Julia, whose angry genius is thrilling.

I’ll start by saying I liked this sequel better than the first book, The Magicians. I found the pacing to be more consistent, which may be because less narrative ground is covered overall in this story. Chapters alternate between the present, in which Quentin and Julia try to get back to Fillory, and the past, which explain Julia’s backstory.

More importantly, The Magician King worked on redeeming Quentin in my eyes. He’s written here as still flawed, but not insufferable. A big change seems to be that in the first book, despite some moments of insecurity, he still more or less rests on his laurels of being a “genius” and a magician. He’s complacent and egotistical, and especially once he finds out he’s a magician, he flaunts a nauseating superiority complex. However, here in the sequel, as a king of Fillory, he seems to want to do more and prove himself. This change is evident fairly early on, when Quentin insists on embarking on a tax-collecting voyage that others point out doesn’t need to be undertaken by the king of Fillory. Despite their misgivings, Quentin senses an adventure calling to him, and his restlessness at sitting in the castle drives him toward the unexplored destination. When he is directly challenged, such as when he is confronted with Julia’s mastery of street sorcery, he sometimes reverts back to his superciliousness, but overall by the end I’d consider him much more humbled and respectful than he was at the end of the first novel.

The narrative chapters focusing on Julia herself were also an engaging, welcome addition. Her introduction and training in the world of magic is a fascinating — and sometimes devastating — counterpoint to Quentin’s (rather sterile in comparison) magical education at Brakebills. For all of the Brakebills graduates’ posturing about their magical superiority, the trials Julia faces in order to reach the upper echelons of street wizardry seem just as, if not more, challenging than those posed to Brakebills students throughout their education. And though during this go around, Quentin does seem to demonstrate himself as able to solve problems and conjure appropriate spells on his own, Julia demonstrates on numerous occasions that she is just as good, if not better, than he is. The catch, though, is that Julia has achieved all this at the price of part of her soul. She’s no perfect Mary Sue; she’s empathetic and intelligent, but deeply troubled on a level that the other characters don’t understand.

I wasn’t completely satisfied with the end of this book. As much as I rag on Quentin, what ended up happening to him seemed deeply unfair. Since this will allegedly be a trilogy though, I won’t harp too much on it. Overall, I’d say that while the premise and plotline set up in the first book (kid discovers he’s a magician! learns magic! finds new world!) is more immediately gripping than this one (king got shut out of his world and needs to get back! quest for magic artifacts that will let him do that!) the writing is a lot tighter here and the characters slightly more relate-able.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Book review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Goodreads summary: “Quentin Coldwater is brillant but miserable. He’s a senior in high school, and a certifiable genius, but he’s still secretly obsessed with a series of fantasy novels he read as a kid, about the adventures of five children in a magical land called Fillory. Compared to that, anything in his real life just seems gray and colorless.
Everything changes when Quentin finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York, where he receives a thorough and rigorous education in the practice of modern sorcery. He also discovers all the other things people learn in college: friendship, love, sex, booze, and boredom. But something is still missing. Magic doesn’t bring Quentin the happiness and adventure he though it would.

Then, after graduation, he and his friends make a stunning discovery: Fillory is real.”

I’m honestly pretty conflicted about this book, and conflicted about my reasons for being conflicted. (Does “conflicted” look like it’s not a real word yet?)

Let’s start with the good: world-building. Plot. Clever and sincere homage to its forebearers (Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia.) Interesting and important female characters (about whom Grossman achieves a successful distinction of how he feels versus how Quentin feels.) There’s a good mix of drama and light-heartedness, and enough intrigue to keep me moving through the story pretty quickly.

Now, onto my issues. First and foremost, I’ll start with the minor quibble that the pacing was sometimes weird. My understanding is that this series is meant to be a trilogy, and Grossman clearly has a lot of story he wants to pack in here, but the progression of time while Quentin was at Brakebills was sometimes disjointed and confusing. I can see that Grossman didn’t really intend for this to be a story about Quentin’s time in magic school, and that he wanted to focus more on what came after, but what we got were oddly focused chapters on minor events, such as a game of Brakebills’ version of Quidditch that none of the characters were even that interested in, and then two sentences to indicate that an entire semester had passed by.

Moving right along to my major issue: Quentin is probably the least likeable protagonist I’ve read in some time. And see, I’m not usually the kind of person that needs “likeable” characters in order to enjoy a story. In fact, I often come out in defense of unlikeable characters; I don’t need to love everyone, and oftentimes, the unlikeable people are pretty complex and interesting. But it was damn near impossible to empathize with Quentin, or even to really understand what his importance was. One of my main pet peeves in fiction is when there is a lot of exposition or dialogue between other characters that tells me what a character’s significant traits are rather than demonstrating that the character is those things through their words and actions. This pet peeve was provoked in a major way with Quentin. It’s beaten into our heads how brilliant he is, but all throughout the book he seems to achieve things mainly through luck or by being surrounded by a lot of other really brilliant people who seem to know much better than him what they’re doing. This would be one thing if Quentin were an unreliable narrator, calling himself brilliant, but when the omniscient narrator and all of Quentin’s extremely talented friends are saying so, it comes across as grating and discordant with what I’m actually reading. Don’t get me wrong; the kid certainly has “above average” intelligence, but there is a disconnect between the superlatives used to describe him and his actual presentation.

All of that alone I could accept, except that he’s also sullen, entitled, and even cruel at times. And although he seems to acknowledge his shortcomings, and the other characters sometimes call him out on his crap, it’s not enough to wink at the reader and say, “See? I know this kid is a little shit sometimes,” if he doesn’t ever seem to learn from his mistakes. I know people aren’t perfect, and that many of us like to make the same mistakes over and over again too, but I guess I like seeing a little growth in my fictional characters. It stops being compelling, after awhile, to read about someone who has experienced so many incredible things, with such highs and lows, but doesn’t really change because of them.

When all was said and done, this book was still an enjoyable entry in the urban/modern fantasy genre, and I quickly picked up the sequel as well (review on that forthcoming.) I’d recommend reading this, but with the caveat that you just might hate the protagonist.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Book review: Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich

Goodreads summary: “When Irene America discovers that her husband, Gil, has been reading her diary, she begins a secret Blue Notebook, stashed securely in a safe-deposit box. There she records the truth about her life and her marriage, while turning her Red Diary–hidden where Gil will find it–into a manipulative farce. Alternating between these two records, complemented by unflinching third-person narration, “Shadow Tag” is an eerily gripping read.
When the novel opens, Irene is resuming work on her doctoral thesis about George Catlin, the nineteenth-century painter whose Native American subjects often regarded his portraits with suspicious wonder. Gil, who gained notoriety as an artist through his emotionally revealing portraits of his wife–work that is adoring, sensual, and humiliating, even shocking–realizes that his fear of losing Irene may force him to create the defining work of his career.

Meanwhile, Irene and Gil fight to keep up appearances for their three children: fourteen-year-old genius Florian, who escapes his family’s unraveling with joints and a stolen bottle of wine; Riel, their only daughter, an eleven-year-old feverishly planning to preserve her family, no matter what disaster strikes; and sweet kindergartener Stoney, who was born, his parents come to realize, at the beginning of the end.”

I feel like I’ve read about several duplicitous diaries lately! Shadow Tag was a pretty uncompromising read with its depiction of alcoholism, abuse, negligence, and some sexual assault thrown in for good measure. Generally, I gravitate toward genre or high-concept books, so I don’t always have a lot to say about books like this, which throw reality in my face like a bucket of ice water. This is a definitely WYSIWYG novel; if the plot description above intrigues you, you’ll enjoy the way the story unfolds (if not the bleak content.) None of my waffling on this review should be taken as a negative assessment, though. I’m actually interested in checking out Erdrich’s other work, as this was really well-written, with evocative imagery and a sense of profundity without pompousness.

Altogether, I recommend this book. It’s a fairly short read, and even with the heavy themes, I got through it very quickly. This, it should be mentioned, is definite praise for Erdrich. Where often I can only handle so much of a sad story at a time, I actually had trouble putting Shadow Tag down. Despite the ominous feeling that it wasn’t going to end in happiness for Irene, I was drawn to her and felt compelled to stay with her, even through her manipulations. I admire the way that Erdrich fleshed out her characters (even the children) so thoroughly in fewer than 300 pages. As I said before, definitely pick this up if you’re in the mood.