Thursday, May 23, 2013

Book review: Close Your Eyes by Amanda Eyre Ward

Goodreads summary: “For most of her life, Lauren Mahdian has been certain of two things: that her mother is dead, and that her father is a murderer.
Before the horrific tragedy, Lauren led a sheltered life in a wealthy corner of America, in a town outside Manhattan on the banks of Long Island Sound, a haven of luxurious homes, manicured lawns, and seemingly perfect families. Here Lauren and her older brother, Alex, thought they were safe.
But one morning, six-year-old Lauren and eight-year-old Alex awoke after a night spent in their tree house to discover their mother’s body and their beloved father arrested for the murder.

Years later, Lauren is surrounded by uncertainty. Her one constant is Alex, always her protector, still trying to understand the unraveling of his idyllic childhood. But Lauren feels even more alone when Alex reveals that he’s been in contact over the years with their imprisoned father—and that he believes he and his sister have yet to learn the full story of their mother’s death.

Then Alex disappears. 

As Lauren is forced to peek under the floorboards of her carefully constructed memories, she comes to question the version of her history that she has clung to so fiercely. Lauren’s search for the truth about what happened on that fateful night so many years ago is a riveting tale that will keep readers feverishly turning pages.”

Well, there’s quite a lengthy summary! It just did most of my work for me. This book, though well-written and intriguing, left me a little cold. This is mainly because I had a hard time connecting with Lauren, which is fitting, because she puts up walls against everyone except her brother. I know that she does, as the reader, because I get her internal monologue, and yet, that wasn’t enough for me to feel emotionally on the same page with her.

The story unfolds a bit slowly — almost a bit too slowly, though, as it was frequently on the precipice of losing my interest. The “mystery” aspect (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Lauren’s father did not kill her mother, because Lauren’s “search for the truth” — as mentioned in the book description — basically indicates that he didn’t) is well-done, I think. There aren’t a ton of irritating red herrings, and the person responsible isn’t simply introduced at the very end as a “Who? Oh, okay I guess” scapegoat either. But the book wasn’t completely devoted to the mystery; there was also a lot to do with Lauren’s emotional coldness, such as her endlessly stringing along her would-be fiance, her discomfort with psychiatric therapy, and using her cynical detachment to assess couples coming to her — she’s a realtor — looking for homes. I understand that this was all intended to flesh out Lauren’s character, but ultimately it seemed like this book was having an identity crisis: is it a mystery, or is it a character study? The former, as I mentioned, is well done, but that element of the story altogether comprises fewer than 100 pages. As the latter, it’s also problematic, because everything wraps up too neatly without much of a conflict for Lauren herself. I’m not saying she needed to go on The Hero’s Journey, but her trajectory is basically “I’m numb and I hate my father” ==> “He didn’t do it so we can re-unite and now I’m happy again.” There is a happy ending, but as I said, it just left me cold.

2.5 stars overall.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Book review: Song of Scarabaeus by Sara Creasy

Goodreads summary: "Trained since childhood in advanced biocyph seed technology by the all-powerful Crib empire, Edie's mission is to terraform alien worlds while her masters bleed the outlawed Fringe populations dry. When renegade mercenaries kidnap Edie, she's not entirely sure it's a bad thing . . . until they leash her to a bodyguard, Finn—a former freedom fighter-turned-slave, beaten down but never broken. If Edie strays from Finn's side, he dies. If she doesn't cooperate, the pirates will kill them both.

But Edie's abilities far surpass anything her enemies imagine. And now, with Finn as her only ally as the merciless Crib closes in, she'll have to prove it or die on the site of her only failure . . . a world called Scarabaeus."

Last month's alt-pick for the Vaginal Fantasy Hangout, I enjoyed this a lot and immediately downloaded the sequel for Kindle. I mean -- space pirates! Slow-burn romance! Terraforming! A consolidated extra-terrestrial Empire vs. "Fringe" outer planets! Also, the heroine is an alien! Cool!

Edie, our protagonist, is a highly-skilled -- possibly the best in her field -- "cypherteck," so she's something of a hacker/repairperson/creator when it comes to data interfaces between hard technology and biological lifeforms. Creasy does not shy away from sci-fi technobabble, and it assists in drawing you into the world immediately, but readers who aren't regular readers of sci-fi may find the instant onslaught of jargon a little off-putting. Even as a fan of the genre, I did have to re-read some sections to further engrain what the terms all meant in my head. I ended up not having much of an issue doing this, in terms of enjoying the book and moving along at a good pace, but I do wish there was a little more backstory given to some of these things. There are many mentions of the Evil Empire (so to speak) and a very abbreviated story about a war between said Empire and the Fringe planets, but there isn't any information at all as to how the Empire was formed, or who or what it actually consists of. Similarly, though we are kind of able to piece together what all of the technology is through in media res descriptions of what Edie is doing, at no point is there any kind of background exposition of the history of this technology. I know that for some people this may not be necessary, but personally I enjoy a bit of history in my world-building.

The above is my main gripe with this book. Otherwise, I enjoyed the characterization and pacing in this novel, as well as the developing relationship between Edie and Finn. Their romance struck me as the right combination of respect and attraction, and I'll be interested to see where it goes in the sequel. I expect, based on the way things were here, that the two of them may take on an "us against the world" mentality, but if they don't, I'd like to see more development of Cat's character. Here, we learned that she's a good pilot, but that she can be fairly easily bought, even if she knows she isn't exactly doing the right thing. I'd like to know a little more about her, since Edie did show signs of interest in a friendship with her in the first book.

There are a lot of directions Creasy can take this series, and I'll definitely be following along.

Book review: Fragments by Dan Wells

Goodreads summary with spoilers for Partials removed:  “Kira has left East Meadow in a desperate search for clues to who she is… Her companions are Afa Demoux, an unhinged drifter and former employee of ParaGen, and Samm and Heron… the only ones who know her secret. But can she trust them?

Meanwhile, back on Long Island, what’s left of humanity is gearing up for war with the Partials, and Marcus knows his only hope is to delay them until Kira returns. But Kira’s journey will take her deep into the overgrown wasteland of postapocalyptic America, and Kira and Marcus both will discover that their greatest enemy may be one they didn’t even know existed.

The second installment in the pulse-pounding Partials saga is the story of the eleventh hour of humanity’s time on Earth, a journey deep into places unknown to discover the means–and even more important, a reason–for our survival.”

In case it wasn’t clear, this is the sequel to Partials, a book which I reviewed here for CBR4 and quite liked. I read Fragments fairly quickly, like I did Partials, but it was a little less engaging than the first. It suffers a bit from the sophomore slump: stuck between the opening novel that piques the imagination by introducing the world, characters, and story; and the finale, with its climax and resolution.

As you can see from the plot description, much of this novel is the main character and her companions traveling across the country, and though the landscape is fraught with peril and all that, stories just about journeys need to really be done well to be extremely compelling. This one wasn’t badly done, but it did lose steam and feel repetitive at times. Wells’ writing is sometimes a bit clinical, so even though I’m invested in the characters’ journeys simply because I find the plotline interesting, I haven’t really connected with any of them much emotionally, even after two books. The tepid emotional connection is especially apparent when Wells dances around the love triangle between Samm, Kira, and Marcus — I gathered that Kira and Samm were feeling increasing tension between each other not necessarily because it was written to express that tension, but, frankly, just because I expected it from the circumstances.

I think that the slight flatness of the writing may be what has prevented this series from being as well known as some of the other YA dystopias, but even with that said, I still do like the characters well enough as people and the world Wells has built well enough to finish the series. I also would like to give credit where it’s due to Wells for what I see as being pretty egalitarian writing when it comes to gender and race. The protagonist is a woman of color, and she’s not a token — there are lots of other important women and POC in the story. Overall, I think YA dystopia fans will enjoy this series, and I’ll be looking forward to the third novel.

"Do you know anything about the firecrackers going off a few nights ago?"

I had a lot of really exciting things planned recently. In April, as I do every year, I went to Coachella, which is something I look forward to basically all year, from the day that Coachella ends until the day it starts the following year. In fact, this year, I enjoyed it so much I went twice!

As if that wasn't enough, I went to Vegas the first weekend of May, for a friend's "Bachelorette 2.0" -- she's been married almost two years, but we decided just to theme the event for her anyway and buy a bunch of things shaped like penises. These weeks were a whirlwind for me of realizing I'm not that old yet, and I still have a lot of really poor choices pent up inside of me that I don't want to go to waste. Something has happened in the last few months, possibly since January, that has made me pretty manic all of the time. I'm crawling out of my skin trying to mainline new experiences, and having those big trips coming up right next to each other had me peaking with anticipation.

Those weekends were amazing. I can count the last five weeks as among the best of my life, post-traumatic immune response and all. But now that they are over, the mania hasn't died down. I'm vibrating at an impossible frequency, trying to stir up new crazy nights. Have you seen Crank? The movie where Jason Statham (basically playing himself, as one does) has to keep his heart rate up or he'll die, so he does insane shit like get into high speed car chases and have public sex? I'm not saying I'm getting into high speed car chases and having public sex, but I feel like I need to keep moving at a high velocity of insanity or else I'll crash and start feeling shitty again like I did nine months ago.

But this isn't supposed to be a sad post, and it's not, even if you're worried about my mental health (don't be, I'm being overdramatic for humorous effect, it's a literary device, LOOK IT UP) so let me just tell you about the event that spawned the title of this post, which was last weekend. As I've been saying frequently of late, at the top of my list of things to do when drunk are:
  1. Dance like a moron
  2. Go swimming/Jump in a body of water
I should also add somewhere in the top ten "set off fireworks" because this is now something that has happened several times in a state of intoxication. On Saturday, I went with my roommate to see Marina and the Diamonds. It was a fun albeit teenybopper-ass show, which I wasn't quite expecting, but afterward I had the hankering to hang out with some people of my own kind, by which I mean those of legal drinking age. I ended up dragging my very patient roommate to two separate bars, one by the concert and the other one closer to home, and when I finally made it back home I still felt that I hadn't had enough excitement. I found these mortar-style fireworks (read: not remotely legal in the state of CA and that video is why) and felt compelled to go down the street and light them off. Everything went well and there were no mishaps, but though I felt I was very sly and it would have been impossible to identify me as the perpetrator, it was about 4 in the morning and the loud noises woke up my building manager, who then heard the sound of my apartment door banging shut after a rather incriminating interval of time. She wasn't mad, but I definitely got called out. And what was I going to say? I owned up to my poor drunken decision making, but frankly it's not something I'm never likely to do again. Learning my lesson may have to come with another few years of maturity that I haven't acquired yet.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Book review: Pandemonium and Requiem by Lauren Oliver

The very short, spoiler-free version of this review is: you will want to read the sequels if you’ve read Delirium, because you’ll want to know how the story ends. For this reason, they are probably both worth reading. A lot of what made Delirium such a strong novel, though, is lost in Pandemonium and Requiem: the pacing gets kind of uneven, and Oliver’s prose — which I have praised before and is still very lush and almost musical — starts to overwhelm itself sometimes, especially in the scenes in the Wilds. Some of the scene-setting is abstract and convoluted, and I ended up having to re-read sections a couple of times to figure out what she was talking about.

Pandemonium has these issues, but at the end of the day I still ended up giving it four stars on Goodreads, which is clearly not a “bad” score. We got some nice development on Lena, our protagonist, as she learns to cope with her new situation, and there is a lot of fun action and twisted revelations. The end, though, was telegraphed a mile away, which took me out of my enjoyment (my reaction at the end: “Come on, really? I was expecting this and I wish you didn’t prove me right!”) After the jump is the rest of the review, because that exasperation that began at the end of Pandemonium and continued into Requiem is spoilery. So – henceforth, THERE BE SPOILERS.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Book review: Delirium by Lauren Oliver

Goodreads: “They say that the cure for Love will make me happy and safe forever.
And I’ve always believed them.

Until now.

Now everything has changed.

Now, I’d rather be infected with love for the tiniest sliver of a second than live a hundred years smothered by a lie.

Lena looks forward to receiving the government-mandated cure that prevents the delirium of love and leads to a safe, predictable, and happy life, until ninety-five days before her eighteenth birthday and her treatment, when she falls in love.”

I wanted to review Delirium, the first book of its trilogy, separately from the other two because I felt that this is a much stronger book than its sequels, so it deserves to be reviewed on its own merit.

There is a pretty implausible premise, here, that you just have to accept and move on if you’re going to enjoy this book. I’m pretty good at willing suspension of disbelief, so I dove right in and took Oliver at her word that in the future, we’ve decided that love — and the litter of hot-blooded emotions it inspires — is a disease that we can cure. The cure has resulted in a society that seems to be on its surface much more peaceful, efficient, productive, and obedient. Of course, we know that this can’t be true, because this is a dystopian novel, so early on we also learn that there are Uncureds and Invalids, or people who have been literally “invalidated” in society by refusing the cure. Furthermore, administration of the cure has been demonstrated to be unsafe before the age of 18, but anyone who has ever met a teenager knows that they are pretty good at falling in love or something like it before the age of 18. As such, there are many small acts of rebellion among the as-yet-uncured youth that need to be discovered and squashed by violent patrol groups of cured adults called Regulators. In case it’s not perfectly clear, the violence that these groups employ is evidence that simply “curing” love doesn’t stamp out our most base tendencies.

At its bare bones, this is a story about forbidden love: forbidden because love itself is, and because the boy Lena falls in love with is an Uncured, and the only way they could be together is if Lena rejects her arranged match and flees to the Wilds, territory that has been given up by the regulated society. The story is elevated, in my mind, firstly by Oliver’s prose, which is really beautiful and descriptive and appropriately fraught with teen anxiety (though it doesn’t come off as too whiny or excessively dramatic, just urgent.) She has a way of drawing me right into Lena’s thoughts such that I don’t feel like I’m just observing the action, but that I’m actually in it. Secondly, I think Oliver has written a love interest who is actually compelling beyond just being attractive: there is that tantalizing hint of danger to him, but Alex is also clever, respectful, and protective of Lena without being overbearing. He understands her and the peril she puts herself in simply by being with him, so he never tries to push her too far. He actually seems to love her back, rather than just trying to seduce her into his way of life. While in many other tortured love YA stories I’m just supposed to accept that this is deep, epic love for some reason, having Lena’s love seem real, justified, and reciprocated makes the decisions she makes more relate-able. Taken with Oliver’s engrossing prose, it really does have the effect of making you feel like you are the one falling in love.

The hardest thing about writing a review for this book is that I would really highly recommend it, except that you really can’t just read it on its own. It was written with the sequels in mind, and the sequels are, well, not bad, but just unsatisfying. I don’t want to doom anyone to that frustration, so I guess the best thing I can say is that for me, it was still worth it. If, even knowing how I would feel by the end of book 3, I got to go back and choose whether or not to read the Delirium series again, I would still do it for the thrall of this first book.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

"If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?"

The first post-puberty penis I ever saw in person -- because I'm not counting the times where we were young enough to play naked on the beach and I thought it was called a "peanut" -- was at an intimate dance performance at the Deaf West Theater in North Hollywood. It's a small space with limited stadium-style seating; most of the audience just sits cross-legged on the floor, or at least we did for this performance.

It was my sophomore year of high school. As part of our dance curriculum requirement, we were responsible for seeing one dance performance per semester and writing an essay about it. Our teachers usually got us together for group field-trips for these performances, but if we couldn't make it for whatever reason, we had to find a show on our own. When that was the case, if you're a high-school student with limited disposable income, as I was, your options tend to be limited to whatever the small, independent dance troupe is putting on at the theater around the corner. Often, these shows are really cool; equally often, they're fucking weird.

The show I attended included performances by two troupes, both of whom advertised themselves as "modern." After the performance by the first group, the Nesting Dolls, my friend and I, seated on the floor, were waiting to see the next group, named Steamroller. As this was awhile ago, I don't remember what specific details on the pamphlet had led us to be more excited about this group's work, but for whatever reason, we were particularly anticipating their half of the show.

The lights dimmed, and out walked the penis. More specifically, out walked a naked man, through the audience exit path, to the stage. He couldn't have been taller than about five-foot-two, and as my friend and I were sitting right next to the exit path, I turned my head as he walked out and found myself at eye level to, and sniffing distance from, his flaccid penis.

When he reached the stage, he began dancing. My memory of his actual dancing has been warped by time and by the shock I was experiencing at the time, but I choose to remember it as the kind of avant garde movement that would-be contestants sometimes try on "So You Think You Can Dance," to which the judges respond "I appreciate what you're doing, but it is not right for this show." The track he danced to was some kind of arthouse disco beat with a sample of a male voice saying "If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?" over and over again.

Sometimes you dig up something old from your grade-school days and you think, "Wow, I can't believe I kept this!" On the opposite track, I would give anything to find the essay I wrote on this performance.