Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Book review: Daughter of Smoke and Bone + Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor

Goodreads summary of “Daughter of Smoke and Bone”: Around the world, black handprints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky.
In a dark and dusty shop, a devil’s supply of human teeth grown dangerously low.

And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherworldly war.

Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real; she’s prone to disappearing on mysterious “errands”; she speaks many languages–not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she’s about to find out.

When one of the strangers–beautiful, haunted Akiva–fixes his fire-colored eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself?

I’m not going to summarize the plot at all for the second book, “Days of Blood and Starlight,” because that gets into spoiler territory, and this is one of those YA series where if you read the first book and like it, you’re probably going to read the whole series. So up there is the hook for “Smoke and Bone,” and I’ll just more generally opine on concepts and themes across the two for the rest of the review.

One of the first things I found myself quickly enjoying was the female friendship between Karou and Zuzana. There was an authenticity to it that struck me as somewhat unique for the genre. In my experience, a lot of the female protagonists from the ‘high-concept’ YA of late (I’m thinking about the various urban fantasy, dystopian, etc series that are ubiquitous now) are either lone-wolf types or their closest friend is a guy. And that shouldn’t be notable, except that it’s essentially a trope now that the closest-guy-friend is inevitably one of the points in the coming love triangle. Anyway, Karou is a would-be lone wolf: she literally leads a double-life, and since the hidden part of her life revolves around things of a supernatural nature, she isn’t exactly forthcoming to anyone, at first, with personal information. However, her strong-willed best friend Zuzana eventually becomes familiar with Karou’s secret life, and though Zuzana isn’t equipped to be an active participant in that world the way Karou is, she’s a great tether for Karou to the human world. These girls have a friendship based out of genuine mutual respect and fondness for each other, so their dialogue and banter seemed strikingly real and not always forced by a requirement to advance the plot.

As far as Karou herself: I like her, but I wouldn’t say she’s my new best friend. There’s no concrete reason for that, really. She’s got the qualities I like for a female protagonist in this genre: among other things, she’s capable, pragmatic, creative, thoughtful, brave, and a little sassy. It’s possible that how she develops as a character becomes a little too fantastical for me to relate to her, directly, but that’s fine. I don’t need to be drinking buddies with every heroine of every book.

Taylor’s writing is really descriptive and beautiful, so her world-building is pretty top notch. I liked that she used an unusual location like Prague as the backdrop for her story, as opposed to a more commonly selected city like London or New York. I’m definitely interested to check out other books of hers based on what I’ve read here. I think the weakest aspect of the story, for me, was actually the romance. It’s partly my bias as a reader, because I don’t always respond well to the star-crossed lovers narrative, and that’s what is happening here (with characters explicitly referencing “Romeo and Juliet” in case it wasn’t already obvious enough.) I like to read about love being built on something a little more than “He saw her across the square, and she was beautiful, and he was drawn to her in a cosmic way.” (That’s just me, not a quote from the book. Taylor did it better than that, I promise.) Even across two books, not much of a foundation for their One True Love is built, though at least in the second it’s arguable that they both influence the other’s actions for the better, so that’s something.

All together, this is another very fun YA urban fantasy series, and I’m looking forward to the next book/books. I have no idea how many books it’s going to be by the end, but it’s certainly not done at the end of Blood and Starlight. So overall this is recommended, especially if you are a high-concept YA lover like me.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Book review: The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

Goodreads summary: “The body you are wearing used to be mine.” So begins the letter Myfanwy Thomas is holding when she awakes in a London park surrounded by bodies all wearing latex gloves. With no recollection of who she is, Myfanwy must follow the instructions her former self left behind to discover her identity and track down the agents who want to destroy her. 
She soon learns that she is a Rook, a high-ranking member of a secret organization called the Chequy that battles the many supernatural forces at work in Britain. She also discovers that she possesses a rare, potentially deadly supernatural ability of her own. 

In her quest to uncover which member of the Chequy betrayed her and why, Myfanwy encounters a person with four bodies, an aristocratic woman who can enter her dreams, a secret training facility where children are transformed into deadly fighters, and a conspiracy more vast than she ever could have imagined.

Thank you so much to all of the Cannonballers who recommended this! This book was a joy to read. I loved the characterization, the world-building, the mystery, and the humor. Oh, the humor! Both Myfanwys (rhymes with Tiffany) are full of delightfully wry quips and keen observations, and some of the other characters — particularly Ingrid, Myfanwy’s assistant — get in some good lines as well.

To elaborate a bit on some of the broad categories I just threw out there: first off, the characterization of Old Myfanwy (the one in the letters) vs. New Myfanwy (the one we read about in the present) is pretty stellar. Though most of the side characters don’t realize that NM is basically a new person, waking up after having her memory completely wiped of everything, they know something is different about her. OM is described as very, very good at her work, but very passive, non-confrontational, shy, and kind of a pushover. NM, on the other hand, speaks her mind candidly and has no issue taking control. That said, we the readers, being privy both to NM’s internal monologue and OM’s letters to NM, can see that both of these seemingly opposite personalities do spring from the same inherent foundation. Both are witty, observant, creative, and opinionated; it’s just that only one of them actually says out loud what she’s thinking. It’s a fun way to deconstruct the dichotomy of stock characters — the shy one vs. the outgoing one — by making them the same person and highlighting their similarities as much as their differences.

The mystery, here, was revealed in kind of an interesting way. Traditionally, one expects a lot of red herrings before finally getting to the bottom of it. Here, even though the “suspects” are all introduced as such, there aren’t much in the way of diversions or red herrings. I’m trying to dance around spoilers here, so I’ll just say that the initial mystery is actually wrapped up quicker than I expected, and the book goes on to uncover Bigger Bads and also give Myfanwy more time to acclimate to her life. In a lot of books, this would seem like weird filler, but in this one, the concept of Myfanwy basically being a newborn (though imbued with at least an adult level of common sense and some sort of formal education, I guess) and needing to learn her way through her highly unusual job is clever and entertaining enough that I still enjoyed sticking with her. The only way, I think, in which this kind of dragged is that sometimes, a chapter with New Myfanwy would end in a cliffhanger, and the next chapter would be a letter from Old Myfanwy. The letters are always relevant to the portion of the story we’re reading, as the implication is that NM had read that letter and would therefore be prepared for whatever she’s facing by the contents of that letter. So it makes sense why they are there, but they’re a little bit of a cheat in setting up the backstory. In any case, most of the time I liked the letters because I liked OM’s narration, but when they get stuck after a cliffhanger, I got impatient. It’s kind of easily fixed, though, by going to the next chapter and then coming back to the letter. And I did want to go back to the letters, because they were interesting!

Overall, this is my favorite book I’ve read so far for the Cannonball. I don’t really have much more to say beyond that.

Book review: Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Goodreads summary: What if you only had one day to live? What would you do? Who would you kiss? And how far would you go to save your own life?

Samantha Kingston has it all: looks, popularity, the perfect boyfriend. Friday, February 12, should be just another day in her charmed life. Instead, it turns out to be her last.

The catch: Samantha still wakes up the next morning. Living the last day of her life seven times during one miraculous week, she will untangle the mystery surrounding her death–and discover the true value of everything she is in danger of losing.

There is another blog I read, Forever Young Adult, that is aimed at a crowd they call “a little more A than Y” and serves up (among other things) reviews of YA books. Despite their site slogan, they still have a category for books that fall into the inverse: “a little more Y than A.” That category is where I’d place Before I Fall.

This is not a bad book by any means. In fact, technically speaking, it’s pretty great; but, despite its Groundhog Day conceit and superb character arc, it was difficult for me to enjoy. This is, in part, due to the authenticity with which Oliver captures the adolescent voice, which is one of those technically-speaking “good things” I was talking about. To read such a voice now, though, without any of the trappings of dystopia or paranormal fantasy that so much of popular YA these days revels in, feels uncomfortable and un-relateable. At the beginning of the book, Sam is one of the Mean Girls. She and her three best friends aren’t Mary Sue popular girls who are pretty and smart and also nice — they’re bullies, and they lie, cheat, and steal. We aren’t supposed to like these girls, and Oliver candidly lays their nasty qualities out without any hint of apologia. It’s risky, because she risks alienating readers by giving us a purposefully shallow, vain, and unsympathetic protagonist. And I almost was alienated. Not only was I struggling through the earnestly presented “typical teen issues,” but I was also given a lead who was the kind of person I wouldn’t have cared to befriend, even as a teenager.

But then, somehow, throughout the book, she helps us understand the Mean Girls better. She doesn’t redeem them, per se, but Sam comes to see herself and her friends as others do (“I am a bitch,” she tells one of the girls they bullied, not looking for sympathy or forgiveness, just stating it as a fact.) Another interesting choice that gives the girls dimension is that Oliver fleshes out the quality of their friendships. Many times in the Mean Girls narrative (and indeed, in Mean Girls itself) there is the suggestion that the popular girls wouldn’t even be friends if they weren’t bound by their popularity. Oliver turns that on its head a bit and gives us some moments to suggest that there is real friendship there. Even at the end, when Sam is attempting to fix some of went wrong by way of her being a bitch, she doesn’t disavow her shallow, popular friends; rather, she states things she loves about them, but that she now sees the bad that comes with the good.

All of that is to say: I commend Lauren Oliver’s work here. Reading this was literally like tripping and falling back into high school. The characters and angst felt real, and the conclusion of the book was pretty emotional (I won’t admit to crying, but I was misty for sure.) The question for you, would-be reader, is: do you want to go back to high school? I was neither bullied horribly nor a textbook popular girl, and this was already a difficult enough mindset to get back into, so I can only imagine how it could be to relate to anyone on the extreme ends of the popularity spectrum as described here. The book is a quick read, but it’s an emotional investment.