Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Book review: Into the Still Blue (Under the Never Sky #3) by Veronica Rossi

Spoilers for the previous two books in the trilogy will follow in this Goodreads description:

"The race to the Still Blue has reached a stalemate. Aria and Perry are determined to find this last safe haven from the Aether storms before Sable and Hess do—and they are just as determined to stay together.

Within the confines of a cave they're using as a makeshift refuge, they struggle to reconcile their people, Dwellers and Outsiders, who are united only in their hatred of their desperate situation. Meanwhile, time is running out to rescue Cinder, who was abducted by Hess and Sable for his unique abilities. Then Roar arrives in a grief-stricken fury, endangering all with his need for revenge.

Out of options, Perry and Aria assemble an unlikely team for an impossible rescue mission. Cinder isn't just the key to unlocking the Still Blue and their only hope for survival--he's also their friend. And in a dying world, the bonds between people are what matter most."

In the third book of the Under the Never Sky trilogy, you get a rescue mission, a new world, an uprising, and a few other YA dystopian tropes that, despite being somewhat cliched, play out well, with suspense, intrigue, and catharsis.

The first portion of this book did drag, and I was concerned that I would be delving into yet another final book in a trilogy that was rushed and could have benefited from tighter plotting and editing. With so much ground to cover and loose threads to address, I felt a lot less time could have been spent in the first caper. Aria and Perr's rescue team, in an attempt to rescue Cinder from Sable's compound, are captured, and then they escape and are re-captured about 4-5 times before they finally escape for good. Building suspense is fine, and a foiled plan A is to be expected, but the seemingly endless failed attempts were unnecessary after a point and I just desperately wanted to move on to the next issue.

Fortunately, for me, the book did pick up after the team plus Cinder return to home base. The story takes a nice breath in the middle of the action to reconnect several of the characters and build some emotional stakes for the reader going into the climax of the conflict. Overall, I was satisfied with the way the conclusion played out. The showdown between Perry and Sable itself was a bit of a letdown for reasons that I might not be able to explain without getting into spoilers, but because the way it ended was inevitable anyway I wasn't disappointed in a way that detracted from the rest.

At the end of my review for Under the Never Sky, I said, "So do I recommend this book? Sure. If you're not already predisposed to give this genre a try, it probably won't change your mind, but even if you're like me and think you're kind of over it, you may find yourself relieved as I was that this wasn't too high of a concept to swallow." I stick by that initial assessment after rounding out the trilogy. If you're a fan of the genre, it's a fun and well-enough-written series with an ending that is thankfully NOT problematic and disappointing, so each of the books are actually worth reading.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Book review: Through the Ever Night (Under the Never Sky #2) by Veronica Rossi

Plot summary from Goodreads below. Beware spoilers for the first book in the series.

"It's been months since Aria learned of her mother's death.

Months since Perry became Blood Lord of the Tides, and months since Aria last saw him.

Now Aria and Perry are about to be reunited. It's a moment they've been longing for with countless expectations. And it's a moment that lives up to all of them. At least, at first.

Then it slips away. The Tides don't take kindly to former Dwellers like Aria. And the tribe is swirling out of Perry's control. With the Aether storms worsening every day, the only remaining hope for peace and safety is the Still Blue. But does this haven truly exist?

Threatened by false friends and powerful temptations, Aria and Perry wonder, Can their love survive through the ever night?"

Under the Never Sky introduced us to Aria, Perry, and a handful of secondary characters. It detailed the world that these characters live in, and established that there is, if not a full-on conflict, a lack of respect between Dwellers (the people who live in the pods) and Outsiders. In Through the Ever Night, we delve further into the psyches of our two leads, and get to spend more time getting to know some of the secondaries. This second book in the series also sets the stage for what will prove to be the true conflict: humans vs. humans.

It's frequently suggested that underneath all of the conceptual pageantry, dystopian novels aim to explore issues that are relevant to present circumstances or to ostensible future circumstances. These books are all about the division of resources: land, food, weaponry, technology -- who gets it and who doesn't? The pods had limited geographical space, so the number of the population who lived inside was regulated. Within, they were about to provide infinite necessary resources. Outside, everything is limited and getting worse as the Aether scorches more and more land and renders it un-useable. On a lark that there is another tribe leader who knows of a place called the Still Blue, where there is no Aether in the sky, Aria and her friend Roar (as Perry is occupied leading his tribe) venture to speak with said tribe leader, Sable. Suffice it to say that their meeting with Sable begins the impetus for upending the previous societal structure of Dwellers sequestered in their pods and tenuous peace between the tribes. There's a lot of backstory I'm glossing over, but I want to build on what I mentioned in my last review regarding Rossi handling the dystopian/post-apocalyptic human element in a realistic way. Her thesis in Under the Never Sky seems to be that humans have a survival instinct, and that manifests in some groups differently than others. Some will choose to create a new environment that mimics how they were previously comfortable, and some will adapt to their new surroundings. In Through the Ever Night, though the environment grows increasingly ominous, I appreciated the transition to human conflict and how the story is now more and more exploring the tension between groups that have evolved completely different lifestyles based on those survival instincts. This is exactly what we experience, on a far less dramatic scale, every day.

So far, these are two strong books that I have enjoyed a lot. They aren't perfect, but any issues I've had have been overshadowed by the tight plotting and solid characterization.

Book review: Under the Never Sky (Under the Never Sky #1) by Veronica Rossi

Goodreads: "Exiled from her home, the enclosed city of Reverie, Aria knows her chances of surviving in the outer wasteland--known as The Death Shop--are slim. If the cannibals don't get her, the violent, electrified energy storms will. She's been taught that the very air she breathes can kill her. Then Aria meets an Outsider named Perry. He's wild--a savage--and her only hope of staying alive. 

A hunter for his tribe in a merciless landscape, Perry views Aria as sheltered and fragile--everything he would expect from a Dweller. But he needs Aria's help too; she alone holds the key to his redemption. Opposites in nearly every way, Aria and Perry must accept each other to survive. Their unlikely alliance forges a bond that will determine the fate of all who live under the never sky."

I started this book with trepidation. The YA dystopian stuff hasn't really been grabbing me lately, and they often seem to tread on the same themes, tell more than they show, and exalt the importance main characters without really providing contextual evidence of why said characters are actually so awesome.

For the first hundred or so pages, I was annoyed at Under the Never Sky. I described it aloud as "stupid" when asked how I was liking it. It seemed to do little to separate itself from the endless pack of dystopian YA trilogies (because yes, it's a trilogy. Why have one of these books when you could have three?) But then, something changed. For one thing, Rossi's two leads, Aria and Perry, are good characters with great chemistry. They're still not particularly unique for the genre in terms of the archetypes they embody, but they're well-rounded and charismatic, and the respect and appreciation between them that grows into romance seems genuine and exciting.

The main thing that I realized over the course of reading that helped me grow to appreciate the book was that it wasn't based on some kind of far-fetched human societal thought experiment. Like how in the Divergent trilogy, society divided itself into factions based on personality types, or in the Matched trilogy, the Society picks your partner for you, or in an even further continuation of that, in Delirium, where love is a disease and everyone has to receive a cure. I thought Under the Never Sky was going in that direction, when it started in a pod where everyone wears the same color gray, has little to no experience with illness or physical distress, and spends the majority of their time in virtual Realms accessed through "Smarteye" patches (think Google Glass but bionic.)

The book wasted no time in doing away with that environment though, to my relief. Almost immediately, Aria is cast into the Outside, and the book transitions into more of a post-apocalyptic survival story than a "Evil Government" story. And although the reasoning behind the apocalypse is only loosely explained -- sudden rapid shifts in the Earth's polarity resulted in a substance called Aether infiltrating the atmosphere, and said substance causes random, catastrophic electrical storms that appear almost like tornadoes -- the "dystopian" aspect of having groups of people living in pods becomes very easily explained. It's harsh, of course, that only some people made it into the pods while others were left outside, but as a reader, I appreciated that there was a logical, necessary origin of the dystopia. 

As this is a trilogy, this, the first book, basically sets up the situation and character relationships. That doesn't mean that there isn't plenty of action, or that it's a lot of wasted exposition, because after my initial lukewarm reaction to the book, I actually devoured it once it picked up with Aria on the Outside. I was surprised at how much I ended up liking it, in fact, and started immediately on the sequel once I finished. So do I recommend this book? Sure. If you're not already predisposed to give this genre a try, it probably won't change your mind, but even if you're like me and think you're kind of over it, you may find yourself relieved as I was that this wasn't too high of a concept to swallow ("Something happened to the sky and now we have to survive" as opposed to "When you turn 16 the government turns you pretty".)

Monday, July 28, 2014

Book review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

From Goodreads: “Shadow gets out of prison early when his wife is killed in a car crash. At a loss, he takes up with a mysterious character called Wednesday, who is much more than he appears. In fact, Wednesday is an old god, once known as Odin the All-father, who is roaming America rounding up his forgotten fellows in preparation for an epic battle against the upstart deities of the Internet, credit cards, television, and all that is wired. Shadow agrees to help Wednesday, and they whirl through a psycho-spiritual storm that becomes all too real in its manifestations.”

I’ve literally had this on my bookshelf, wasting away in TBR limbo, for 2 years. Gods only know why I never got around to reading it until now, because this was a fantastic book that I enjoyed immensely. I’ve always been a fan of Gaiman’s writing, and how it feels grounded and human at the same time as being highly imaginative and whimsical. In American Gods, mythology is weaved with contemporary sociological commentary; it deconstructs belief and non-belief in gods and magic and contrasts that faith against our ‘worship’ of technology, something that seems so tangible and accessible but itself contains elements of the unknown. Each of the gods live in human form, in this story, with the ‘old gods’ becoming weak, irrelevant characters due to vanishingly small numbers of Americans worshipping them. Though we like to think of our reverence of technology as a belief and reliance on something real, with a tangible benefit, Gaiman cleverly constructs ‘new gods’ of technology, also in human form, and posits that our worship of the new gods is as subservient and blind as it ever was.

Shadow’s journey leaves him — and us — with a main takeaway, and that is that anything other than oneself is unpredictable, with its own ever-changing motivations and responses. The problem with obeying any god, old or new, is that god might not be looking out for you, and even if s/he is, s/he might be powerless to really do anything for you. It’s a humanist message, overall. We’re ultimately responsible for ourselves, since what we worship is only as strong as our worship itself, and we’re fickle beasts.

Book reviews for June and July

In further confirmation that I was just never meant to be a blogger, I haven't even been cross-posting book reviews for the last few months. Here's a masterpost for all of them.

Saga, Vol 1-3 by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples 4 stars
The Darkest Kiss by Gena Showalter 1 star
Lick (Stage Dive #1) and Play (Stage Dive #2) by Kylie Scott 3 stars, 4 stars
American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar 4 stars

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin 4 stars
A Duke Never Yields by Juliana Grey 2 stars
A Feast For Crows by George R. R. Martin 4 stars
War for the Oaks by Emma Bull 3 stars
Secrets of a Summer's Night (Wallflowers #1) and Devil in Winter (Wallflowers #3) by Lisa Kleypas Both 4 stars
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black 5 stars

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Book review: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

I want everyone to read you, Eleanor & Park!

I have so spoiled myself over the past few weeks, reading brilliant wordsmiths like Rainbow Rowell and Laini Taylor whose emotive descriptions are devastatingly apt. This book is ADORABLE. It seems like almost everyone I knew in high school fell in love exactly like this; teenagers have a way of each feeling uniquely disenfranchised, and meeting someone else who complements your weird and loneliness feels like finally the universe has done you a solid. Eleanor and Park aren’t, though, overwhelmingly privileged teens who create their own angst, as many of my peers were . Park is mixed-race and experiences racism and ignorance from his classmates and neighbors, and even though most of it isn’t violent or explicitly cruel, it leaves him feeling like an outcast. Eleanor is new at Park’s school, and comes from an abusive home, where she, her siblings, and her mother constantly navigate the whims of her alcoholic stepfather. On top of her home being dangerous, her family is also poor, so she doesn’t feel safe at school either, where her worn-out, unstylish, and ill-fitting clothes make her stand out against her classmates.

Their meet-cute isn’t much of one: Eleanor stands awkwardly at the front of the bus looking for a seat; Park, begrudgingly, almost angrily, allows her to take the seat next to him. Soon, though, as they’re sitting together, Park notices Eleanor reading his comics, and he takes to bringing some with him for her to read. Soon after, they’re sharing Walkman headphones. Then, mixtapes. As teens identify themselves so much by the stuff that they like, Eleanor and Park’s mutual interest in these things and the seeming intuition about what the other will like (because they, themselves like it) eventually grows into affection and then breathless, all-consuming young love.

Their love is an escape from a world that doesn’t understand them into one that does, but it also in small ways gives them more strength to survive the parts of their lives without each other. As much as they hate being apart, they take courage away from being together. Park, for instance, feels more comfortable expressing himself and starts wearing eyeliner simply because he likes it. Eleanor’s situation is different — she can’t undergo any kind of obvious transformation without rocking the boat with her stepfather, but the knowledge that she finally has a real support system in Park (and a growing one in his family) subconsciously empowers her to believe that she is loveable. It’s a more subtle transformation, but as she loves Park more, she needs him less.

I’m, again, so grateful to the Cannonball for introducing me to Rainbow Rowell. After two books, she’s immediately on the list of authors I will read, regardless of the description, because I now trust her to write a great book even if it’s not a plot that appears to immediately grab me. Attachments is now on my library list and I can’t wait for her next to be published later this year!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Book review: Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor

Though not really reflected in my earlier (rather superficial, in retrospect) review, I have had a whirlwind of emotions with this series. I wrote said prior review as one piece for both of the preceding novels, Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Days of Blood and Starlight probably to avoid spoilers but also because I read them literally back-to-back: I finished Smoke and Bone and began Blood and Starlight with the same breath. As such, it became difficult to separate them for the purposes of thematic or ‘first impression’ review — which, it seems, is what I did, reading it over — but as time had gone by, I began to remember S&B more favorably, overall, than B&S. I have no desire to review those two over again, but for the sake of recapping how I felt when I began Dreams of Gods and Monsters, I’ll just mention that while I was excited to be reintroduced to Taylor’s worlds and characters via her stunning prose, I remembered feeling fatigued by the number of words and pages it took in B&S for Taylor to state, more or less, that supernatural wars are scary and dangerous and they tear lovers apart. I was concerned, therefore, about how long G&M would take to get to where it was going, and whether that narrative would be gripping along the way, or if it would lazily meander around several tangents before getting to the point. It sounds harsh to say it that way, because Taylor’s writing is so uniquely lovely and the tangents are so artfully drawn, so scenes that beautiful shouldn’t feel extraneous, but they just sometimes do.

So, with all of that said, how did G&M do? Well, I liked it better than B&S but not as much, still, as S&B. Which is to say, in some aspects, my concerns were justified. A new main character was introduced in G&M that, within the context of G&M, created an interesting secondary plotline; however, it seemed to me that her part in the conclusion could have been fulfilled using existing characters and mythology that was established in the first two books. Instead, this new character is given an arch that, in and of itself, could have been an interesting standalone novel, but in this context it comes across as an overly convoluted backstory that’s hastily introduced into what otherwise is the climax and resolution of the primary narrative. Her arch does tie into the overall conclusion, but as I said, the purpose she served could have probably been achieved through means that didn’t distract from the main story and take time away from other characters whose stories were never fully resolved. There was also a little bit of an infodump at the end that was full of really epic consequences, and it was played as utterly devastating, but the way that the information was delivered took a bit of punch out of the reveal. This, again, was something that, had it unraveled more slowly over the course of the novel, might have built up mystery and stakes, but instead passages featuring the key players were shuffled in and out sporadically and with a very tenuous connection to the main stage that remained tenuous up until said infodump.

Despite the inconsistent pace and loose threads, though, I was pretty satisfied with G&M. The prose was as beautiful as ever, and she continued to respect the journeys of each of her main characters, giving them each something to contribute and underlining the necessary support system that they are for each other. I also never felt at any point like the end was being broadcast, or like the the story was taking predictable turns. I also, overall, appreciated the way that Taylor chose to end the book. It wasn’t all rainbows and roses, but things were generally looking up. Additionally, despite outing myself as someone who doesn’t really buy into the ‘star-crossed lovers’ narrative a lot of the time, the way that Karou and Akiva’s story played out had me on board by the end and even had me wanting much more for them in a potentially un-YA way. (It doesn’t hurt that the way that Laini Taylor writes love and longing reads like it’s the most important and essential thing in the history of the universe, and I’m not poking fun by putting it that way: THE FEELS ARE REAL, is what I’m saying.)

Dreams of Gods and Monsters was, for me, a solid 4.5 stars. Based on some of the “technical” complaints, I’d give it four, but it’s such a satisfying end to a well-written, unique, and quality series that I concede the extra nudge. For bringing me back around after the dull Blood and Starlight alone, G&M gets a merit award. Overall, I highly recommend the series and look forward to more from Laini Taylor. In particular, I’m curious of what a more straightforward PNR would look like from her, since she’s so talented and writes longing, desire, and UST so well.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Book review: This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don't Touch It (John Dies at the End #2) by David Wong

Goodreads has this PSA for you: “WARNING: You may have a huge, invisible spider living in your skull. THIS IS NOT A METAPHOR.

You will dismiss this as ridiculous fearmongering. Dismissing things as ridiculous fearmongering is, in fact, the first symptom of parasitic spider infection-the creature secretes a chemical into the brain to stimulate skepticism, in order to prevent you from seeking a cure. That’s just as well, since the “cure” involves learning what a chain saw tastes like.

You can’t feel the spider, because it controls your nerve endings. You can’t see it, because it decides what you see. You won’t even feel it when it breeds. And it will breed. So what happens when your family, friends, and neighbors get mind-controlling skull spiders? We’re all about to find out.”

Much like with John Dies at the End, the first book in this series, I was only about 85-90% sure of what was going on at any given point in time while reading this book. The prose here is lightning fast and wickedly quippy, and David Wong’s gift of gruesome detail — both metaphorical and not — cannot be understated. I liked this book a lot, with its hapless wannabe action hero protagonists who are only ever involved in these supernatural/alien doomsday scenarios because they have the misfortune of living in a town that’s basically Sunnydale and because they took a psychedelic drug called Soy Sauce one time that elevates the consciousness and perception to be able to see all of the creepy crawlies that regular humans can’t. As a twosome, John and Dave are sarcastic, horrible at planning, short-sighted, and immature, but they’re also weirdly experienced, very loyal, and above all, incredibly lucky. That Dave has a very smart girlfriend in Amy (and a dog named Molly with great timing) also doesn’t hurt.

Prior reviews have all mentioned that this book seamlessly blends horror, gore, and suspense with comedy, and I agree completely. Wong has also been described as a spiritual successor to Douglas Adams, and I agree with that as well. Certainly all fans of Hitchhiker’s Guide should read this series, as should anyone who just likes comedic books in general. I docked a star because I am being persnickety and I liked the overarching plot better in John Dies at the End than I did in Spiders, but this really was very good.

Book review: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Quickie summary: “In this classic story that inspired the hit movie by the same name, Charlie Gordon, a mentally disabled adult who cleans floors and toilets, becomes a genius through an experimental operation.”

I never read this in school, as I believe many did, so though I came to understand popular references to the book or film, I still felt like I was lacking in some collective education. One thought that continually ran through my mind as I was reading the story was the question I posed above: could this story be published today and achieve the same critical and cultural success? Keyes aptly (I believe) addresses the treatment of mentally challenged adults by critiquing through Charlie’s eyes both the overt maliciousness and teasing he experienced as well as the more subtle prejudice of the psychologists conducting the experiment, who often treated him more as a lab subject than a full human being, with or without his new “genuis.” Despite that sensitive and thought-provoking content, the beginning and (spoiler?) end of this book are written in the author’s idea of mentally disabled pidgin, and it’s uncomfortable to read, to say the least. Where in overall content and intent, Keyes seems to have hit the right notes, the “retarded” affect seems a bit like crip drag to me, though as I’m not mentally disabled it’s probably not my place to pretend to be an expert here.

The other element that dated the story actually came from Charlie’s “genius” end of the spectrum. Put bluntly, the ruminating he does on psychology and sexuality with his new-found intelligence absolutely SCREAMS 1960′s. In fact, many of these passages reminded me of the pompous blustering performed by Jubal Harshaw in Stranger in a Strange Land, another book where each woman is a different cardboard archetype and sex is a mystical and significant but also, like, totally normal thing, man. As interesting as it was to read along with Charlie as he reaches epiphanies about himself, his relation to others close and distant, and draw hypotheses about humanity as a whole, much of the discussion that didn’t cover Charlie’s direct progress and emotions felt like thinly veiled podiums for the author’s own pedantry.

I can see why this is read in many schools. There is a good message about treating others as you would like to be treated, and a nice cautionary tale about the importance of making sure science has rigorous checks and balances before human experimentation commences (seriously, a sample size of one successful rat does not a completed experiment make.) For me, it wasn’t the top-tier science fiction classic its often made out to be, but you know what they say about mileages varying and all that.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Book review: Ruins (The Partials Sequence #3) by Dan Wells

The first thing I will say is this: Ruins, despite its bleak title, had possibly the happiest ending in a YA dystopian trilogy that I remember reading in quite some time, and, admittedly, I was kind of relieved.

I was getting the sense that many YA authors have been under pressure from publishers — and their own ambition — to write ‘shocking’ or ‘original’ endings, so they’ve been steered away from neat resolution and feel-goods. But an ending can be positive without being trite, you know? And my feels can only take a beating for so long. So while I won’t get into specifics here, I’ll just re-iterate that it was bizarrely refreshing for Dan Wells to give us a hopeful ending in this trilogy; the main conflict seemed to be headed in a productive direction, and the love triangle (yes, of course) was resolved in as mature of a fashion as I’ve ever read.

I’ve always felt that “The Partials Sequence” has been an underrated YA trilogy. The world-building is solid and sits right in that neat pocket of believable near-future sci-fi that personally grabs me, and the characterization remained consistent across the trilogy — in a good way — these people weren’t static; their actions seemed in line with their motivations, personalities, and goals. The action and tension slowly and consistently ramped up but never became wildly unrealistic, and while Kira, as a heroine, suffers a little bit from a Messiah complex, the supporting characters are diverse enough to keep the story grounded.

While I liked the trilogy overall a lot and was satisfied with the final conclusion, I did have some issues with this particular book. It’s hard to discuss some of them without getting a bit specific, so if you’re wary of spoiling yourself avoid the rest of this paragraph. I briefly mentioned my first issue above, which is that Kira kind of consistently performs above her grade-level, so to speak? I have tried to pledge myself to never use the term Mary Sue (and there I’ve just invoked it, so ugh) because I think it’s so overused that it doesn’t mean anything at this point (see also: “hipster”), but it’s difficult to justify a teenager of above-average but not exceptional intelligence being able to solve two world-changing medical problems that have had preeminent experts scratching their heads for decades. Which isn’t to say that the problems were real stumpers, since as a reader I figured out at least the second one — the one that is solved in Ruins – ages before everyone else did, but still. One of the many geniuses in the book should have caught on before Kira did. Even that would have been easier to accept if she weren’t always on all of these “I’m the only one who can do this” missions, of which there are at least 2 in every standalone novel, I’m sure.

I also think that, in an issue nearly identical to one in probably every YA trilogy closer I’ve read in the last five years, this volume could have benefited from some editing. There are extended passages where Kira and/or other characters are wandering around some landscape feature, and while these journey sequences have compelling moments, they could have been clipped or condensed quite a bit without sacrificing the significance of the outcome.

All in all, those issues aside, I still thought this series collectively finishes on top of many of its more popular contemporaries, or at least many of the ones I’ve read. I’m not going to clamor for it to be optioned for a film because I think Hollywood definitely needs to stop banging on the corpse of YA dystopia for awhile, but the series is still certainly worth a read (the original entertainment!)

Monday, April 21, 2014

Book review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

To me, this book was perfect. Between Rowell’s flawless turns of phrase, her on-point descriptions of adapting to college, and her loving nods to fandom, I tore through this novel and loved every moment. The premise is this: Cath and her identical twin sister Wren had been, for most of their lives, mega-fans of the Simon Snow series (a Harry Potter analog.) Both were avid fanfiction writers and consumers, and they were also involved  with cosplay, creating and sharing fanart, the works. Upon entering college, though, Wren seems to be taking a step back from fandom and from Cath herself, leaving Cath feeling abandoned and confused. Initially, she dives deeper into completing her massive, ongoing Simon Snow fanfiction — a piece which has tens of thousands of adoring fans who know her pseudonym by name and has even spawned fanart of its own — but she finds it harder and harder to balance her updates online with various obligations at school. The other key players in Cath’s life become Reagan, her roommate; Levi, Reagan’s boyfriend; and Nick, a classmate from her advanced literature writing class.

I’ve seen criticism that Fangirl perpetuates the worst stereotypes about fangirls and fandom and gives lit-nerds “The Big Bang Theory” treatment (readers laugh at them, not with them,) but I just didn’t interpret the book this way at all. It’s true that Cath is painfully socially inept at times and she is also naive in a way that one wouldn’t necessarily expect from someone who writes “slash” fanfiction, especially when contrasted with her sophisticated, outgoing sister Wren. But even as someone who would rarely be described by anyone as introverted, I identified with Cath throughout the book, demonstrating that personality quirks aside, many human emotions and experiences are universal. Who hasn’t ever felt defensive about something they love in the fact of ridicule or even gentle teasing? Who hasn’t, at any point, ever misunderstood the intentions — platonic or romantic — of someone close to them? Hasn’t everyone had a time of feeling stressed and confused by someone in their life who they thought they knew acting wildly out of character? I didn’t see any of Cath’s personality elements as stereotypical flaws, but as genuine and understandable reactions to unfamiliar and jarring situations.

I could go on at length about so many other aspects of this book that I loved, but really I just recommend that everyone experience it for themselves. It’s really that good, and I can’t believe it took me so long to read Rainbow Rowell. I’m remedy-ing that as we speak!

Book review: A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin

And I’ve finally caught up to Season 3 of HBO’s series and, according to the showrunners, informed most of what’s going to happen in Season 4. Who gleefully anticipated the Purple Wedding, y’all? THIS GAL! There are possibly spoilers in the rest of the review, though I’ve tried not to refer to anything too specific.

Without a doubt, A Storm of Swords was my favorite so far of the ASOIAF series. Where, in the past, I frequently felt torn away from my favorite characters to return to others I cared less about, here I was engaged with nearly all of them (sorry, Bran, I can tell you’re very important to GRRM for whatever reason, but I like your sisters a lot better) and perceived a great deal more cohesiveness with regard to how all of the character POVs together advanced the whole narrative. When I reviewed A Clash of Kings awhile back and noted its dreary pace and how I felt the POVs fragmented the story rather than completing a full picture, a commenter/fellow reader here assured me that I’d find this book more enjoyable. Indeed, the slow building pace here ratcheted up tension and didn’t feel dull and dragging, and the different characters separated by leagues and kingdoms still seemed to be breathing the same breath and circling each others’ destinies slowly ever closer.

I love the development of Arya and Sansa. Everyone took to Arya from early on in A Game of Thrones, since it’s kind of easy to love a tomboyish girl who prefers swords to silk and bucks gender norms in a VERY normative society. Fans have been less kind to Sansa, who remains every bit the lady, even in the face of appalling adversity and horrendous treatment by her “guardians” in King’s Landing. For some, it seems, for having the gall to act feminine, Sansa deserves what she gets. This attitude disgusts me, and I hope, almost for more than anyone, that Sansa’s careful self-preservation while observing and digesting the politics at the Landing eventually leads her to a position where she can seek righteous retribution. I say that knowing that Martin doesn’t seem to have anything kindly in store for any of his characters, at least this far, but it remains a hope-against-hope that Sansa gets hers in the end. Less-than-positive comments: as much as I love Dany as a character, I am becoming increasingly uncomfortable with her white savior narrative. It’s not that she’s not good and not trying to do good, but this is just such a common trope and she’s so white and the perpetrators are so brown that it’s becoming very glaring, weird, squicky thing.

Overall, though, I re-iterate that this was the strongest in the series so far. There are absolute, harsh consequences and shocking sequences that occur here that kept this exciting as a standalone entry, but it also deftly laid groundwork for the upcoming novels and ensured that readers would be chomping at the bit to continue the saga. As for myself, I began the fourth book immediately after finishing this one — I was that hooked.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Book review: Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

I really enjoyed this novel, a character-driven SciFi story about Earth in the aftermath of its sudden enclosure within what became known as the Spin membrane. Inside the membrane, on Earth, time progresses as normal, while outside the membrane time advances as relativistic speeds — billions of years pass by in space over the span of a couple of decades on earth.

Our protagonist is Tyler Dupree, close childhood friend to siblings Jason and Diane Lawton. One night, the three are outside stargazing, when the sky suddenly goes pitch black — the stars and moon disappear and there is nothing left in the sky. As it progressively becomes more clear exactly what happened that night, the world grapples with the implications of being enclosed within the Spin membrane: namely, that while our lives on Earth continue at a languorous pace, our planet is in fact rapidly nearing its terminal condition of being enveloped by the expanding sun; furthermore, something out there placed the membrane over Earth, so who was it and why did they do it?

Our three characters react in different ways to the initial Blackout and eventual revelations that mark their forward paths into adulthood. Jason was marked by genius at a young age, much to the delight of his father, E.D., who plans from very early on to have Jason follow in his footsteps. As such, as E.D.’s protege, Jason builds a career at Perihelion Industries, a JPL/SpaceX analog on the east coast of the US, where his research covers a range of questions relating to the Spin membrane. Tyler goes to medical school and becomes a physician, but due to his friendship with Jason he is privy to more insider information than most. Diane was deeply affected by the Blackout on a spiritual level and turns to a number of religious cults that attempt to provide their own existential explanations for the Spin.

The three characters’ insight provides for very interesting human psychological and ideological ruminations that balance out the harder SciFi aspects of the plot. This is a perfect example of a SciFi novel that uses an extraordinary situation and/or SciFi backdrop to explore the human condition. The world-building and character profiles were all carefully constructed and engrossing, and the science was on point. I’d definitely recommend this one!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Winter 2014 Playlist

It's time again to post another playlist -- this one about wraps up what my favorite songs were this last winter. Again, these aren't *new* songs per se, just songs that I tended to have on repeat for whatever reason.

Winter 2014 by Amanda Crow on Grooveshark

I definitely had a major Phantogram moment, as evidenced by the inclusion of two songs here. I'd seen them back in September when they opened for m83 at the Hollywood Bowl, but though I enjoyed their set, I hadn't actually heard of them before at the time! Since I liked their show, I kept intending to go back and check out their stuff, but it wasn't until "Fall in Love" popped up on Spotify radio that I actually went back and did it. "Fall in Love" is probably still my favorite song of theirs (thanks Spotify!) but I had basically all of their albums on repeat listen for most of January. I was finally then able to see them again in February at the Palladium, which was a whole new experience then being familiar with their music. I danced my face off.

In other music news, Coachella (aka my mind palace) is next weekend. I can't even type out in words how I feel about this so I'll just leave this here:

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Book review: Burn (Pure #3) by Julianna Baggott

Goodreads summary: "Inside the Dome, Patridge has taken his father's place as leader of the Pures. His struggle has led him here, intent upon bringing down the Dome from the inside, with the help of a secret resistance force. But things are not as simple from his new position of power and he finds himself tempted by his father's words: perhaps if the world is to survive it needs the Dome - and Partridge - to rule it...

As Partridge's resolve weakens, Pressia and Bradwell continue piecing together the clues left to them from the time before the Detonations. It is their hope that they will be able to heal the Wretches, and free them from their monstrous fusings and the Dome's oppression once and for all. But everything depends, too, on Partridge. Separated by distance and history, can they still trust their friend and ally? Or is the world doomed to an eternity of war and hardship?"

Burn was a mediocre resolution to a series that, as I have said, was probably better than I gave it credit for, but ultimately failed to grab me. 

The key factors that left me unimpressed by the conclusion were a complete unraveling of Partridge's characterization and and ending that wasn't really, in my view, an ending. As the plot summary suggests, Partridge begins to feel concern and sympathy for the citizens inside the Dome, after two novels of nearly all of the primary characters despising them. Though the Pures were silently complicit in the massacre of human beings outside of the Dome by following the lead of Partridge's father, at this point they are weak, sheltered, and wholly unable to process the repercussions of the Detonations on life outside of the Dome. At Partridge's admonitions that they should accept their responsibility and assist those outside with rehabilitation and re-integration, many of the Pures go insane with guilt and begin committing suicide en masse. (This teetered on the edge of eye-rolling for me, but go with me here.) The point that Partridge was meant to gather is that it's not necessarily more good to sacrifice the lives and well-being of all of those in the Dome for the sake of bringing justice for those outside of it. This lesson is fair and warranted, but the way that Partridge steps into that role felt wholly unsatisfying. For one thing, he is essentially bullied and blackmailed into submission by a character who is still ostensibly evil, and there are no repercussions. For another, when he is reunited with Pressia under unseemly circumstances, he becomes defensive and antagonistic at Pressia's completely understandable negative reaction. Where the first two books pegged him as a rather empathetic, righteous character, here he is lost and confused and seems eventually to accept self-preservation above all other leadership tactics. If character assassination is what Baggott intended here, then fine, but I'm not sure that it was her goal.

The only character who really triumphs, here, is Lyda, which I was happy about. This all, though, came after a good 75% of the book had her frittered away in some locked room going all Yellow Wallpaper on herself. It's a fine bit of revenge to have her end up nearly exactly where she'd like to be, but the same 75% that wastes Lyda's talents also dolorously wade through a whole lot of useless talking, arguing, angst, and re-hashing of redundant character ideologies before finally making it to the final showdown. This showdown, then, at the very bitter end, is abruptly cut in half. I don't need bows and strings, but I would like a sense that the book or series ends somewhere differently from where it started, or, conversely, that the overarching lesson is perhaps that "things won't ever change" or some other similar platitude. Granted, literally speaking, this book ends in battle where the series started in restlessness, but as a reader I don't even have the luxury of making educated guesses or creating my own interpretations of how the story progresses after the conclusion because there are really no clues or platforms to build such theories on. I could just as convincingly argue that everyone is cured and made Pure as that everyone ends up dead.

Anyway, if you're out of the YA range, I'm not sure this one will really work for you. The angst and lovey sideplots might make for a bit of intrigue for younger readers but for me they were rote and strictly secondary to a primary plot that already wore thin.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Book review: Fuse (Pure #2) by Julianna Baggott

This is the second book in the Pure trilogy, so understand that this review and the following summary from Goodreads will have spoilers:

"We want our son returned. This girl is proof that we can save you all. If you ignore our plea, we will kill our hostages one at a time.

To be a Pure is to be perfect, untouched by Detonations that scarred the earth and sheltered inside the paradise that is the Dome. But Partridge escaped to the outside world, where Wretches struggle to survive amid smoke and ash. Now, at the command of Partridge’s father, the Dome is unleashing nightmare after nightmare upon the Wretches in an effort to get him back.

At Partridge’s side is a small band of those united against the Dome: Lyda, the warrior; Bradwell, the revolutionary; El Capitan, the guard; and Pressia, the young woman whose mysterious past ties her to Partridge in way she never could have imagined. Long ago a plan was hatched that could mean the earth’s ultimate doom. Now only Partridge and Pressia can set things right.

To save millions of innocent lives, Partridge must risk his own by returning to the Dome and facing his most terrifying challenge. And Pressia, armed only with a mysterious Black Box, containing a set of cryptic clues, must travel to the very ends of the earth, to a place where no map can guide her. If they succeed, the world will be saved. But should they fail, humankind will pay a terrible price..."

This may be a rare example of the YA trilogy where I liked either of the sequels better than the first. So often, it's the first that really grabs the imagination, but the second and third books in the series feel rushed and underwhelming. Since in the case of Pure I was underwhelmed by the opening novel, it was refreshing for Fuse to raise the stakes by moving the plot more quickly and placing the characters in situations that test their integrity, composure, and loyalty.

I loved the progression of the Lyda character from Pure to Fuse. She started out not having much direction and seemed to function basically as the unfortunate doormat that Partridge wiped his feet on, on his way outside of the Dome. Once she herself leaves the Dome, you expect her to flounder, but she immediately takes to the non-sanitized environment and comes into her own. She loves Partridge, but she doesn't sacrifice any part of her new empowerment for him or tether herself to him. She becomes much more self-possessed and in charge of her emotions and directions than even Pressia, who spends much of Fuse wrestling with her feelings for Bradwell. For her part, Pressia is less of a pawn here, too. She even gets the opportunity to do her own research and problem-solving, and proves to be much better suited to that than to physical combat or Survivorman-type scenarios. I still think the boys are a little underdeveloped, particularly Bradwell and El Capitan. Baggott is wrestling with several POV/main characters here, and she may have stretched herself a little thin, preferring to give the meat of characterization to Pressia, Partridge, and Lyda. Bradwell is the most disadvantaged since he doesn't have his own POV chapters and we only see him through others' eyes, but considering he's the main love interest, I'd love to know a little more about him other than that he's tough and kinda revenge-motivated. (That's not LITERALLY it, but he mostly boils down to that.)

Fuse saw Partridge enter a new stage of his development as well. Whereas before he was straightforward and guileless, he's now been asked to deceive and perform morally objectionable tasks in the name of The People. He thought what he knew about Dome leadership was bad before, but it's not until he finds out how deep the rabbit hole goes that he agrees to be a part of the plan. It's something he obviously struggles with, not only on the moral level that any human would, but because he can't help but be concerned that he will be transformed into the same kind of liar that he's fighting against.

Overall, Fuse got me interested in what the conclusion of this series would be. I'm in the middle of Burn, the final volume now, so I'll be reporting on that shortly.

Book review: Pure by Julianna Baggott

I believe I mentioned this before, probably recently, but I am pretty sure I have maxed-out, for awhile, my patience with post-apocalyptic/dystopian YA fiction. Pure might be an above-average entry to the genre (I say might because, genuinely, I can't tell anymore), but my overall interest while reading it was tepid at best. The scenario is this, according to Goodreads:

"Pressia barely remembers the Detonations or much about life during the Before. In her sleeping cabinet behind the rubble of an old barbershop where she lives with her grandfather, she thinks about what is lost-how the world went from amusement parks, movie theaters, birthday parties, fathers and mothers . . . to ash and dust, scars, permanent burns, and fused, damaged bodies. And now, at an age when everyone is required to turn themselves over to the militia to either be trained as a soldier or, if they are too damaged and weak, to be used as live targets, Pressia can no longer pretend to be small. Pressia is on the run.

There are those who escaped the apocalypse unmarked. Pures. They are tucked safely inside the Dome that protects their healthy, superior bodies. Yet Partridge, whose father is one of the most influential men in the Dome, feels isolated and lonely. Different. He thinks about loss-maybe just because his family is broken; his father is emotionally distant; his brother killed himself; and his mother never made it inside their shelter. Or maybe it's his claustrophobia: his feeling that this Dome has become a swaddling of intensely rigid order. So when a slipped phrase suggests his mother might still be alive, Partridge risks his life to leave the Dome to find her.

When Pressia meets Partridge, their worlds shatter all over again."

As someone who generally loves fantasy and science fiction and such reality-bending genres, I carry into every reading experience a healthy willingness -- desire, even -- to suspend disbelief. So when an author asks me to, initially, just accept that this world they have built exists, for whatever reason, I'll get on board. I expect, throughout the progression of the novel (or trilogy, because OF COURSE it's a trilogy,) for that reasoning to get fleshed out, and for a little backstory to be given. Pure does this successfully, I believe, since it employs the audience-learns-along-with-the-characters method of reconstructing the events that led up to the present day. 

All of that said, there are elements here that were too implausible even for me to accept. For instance, on multiple occasions, the protagonists battle literal monsters: Beasts are creatures created by the fusion of human beings with animals at the time of the Detonations, and Dusts are former humans fused with the earth itself. Both are alive, technically, but neither have retained the higher-order logical processing of human beings and are driven always to kill to feed. Pressia, herself, has one fist that is completely fused to a doll's head, and it's not "fused" in the way where the really high temperature from an explosion might have caused the plastic to burn and meld onto her skin; it's literally a part of her in that she can feel pain if she incurs an injury to the doll's head. 

Recounting those complaints, it seems like further evidence that I'm just fatigued by this genre rather than finding legitimate grievances. I mean, I'm not okay with fused bodies, but I am okay with the "genetically engineered" creatures in The Hunger Games or a society dividing itself into factions as in Divergent? (And, well, even then, by the time I got to the rationale for why that happened, I totally rolled my eyes at it.) 

Maybe it's that I wasn't that interested in the characters themselves? Pressia is something of an idealist and optimist, even in the face of destruction all around her. She seems to have a positive impact on the people around her, but I personally found her a little simplistic and I had a hard time understanding, frankly, how she survived as long as she did after the Detonations. Her co-conspirators, Bradwell and El Capitan -- neither of whom are mentioned in the Goodreads blurb above, but are no less important than either Pressia or Partridge -- each have distinct traits that have ensured their survival thus far. Pressia, herself, is determined and means well, but she seems to be always on the verge of being killed or captured (and is in fact captured outright several times) but escapes danger by luck or thanks to the skill of her friends. It's fine, but I wish she brought something to the table other than a chipper attitude.

I don't know. I thought a lot about how to be fair to this book before writing this review, because I suspect it's really not as troubled as I'm making it out to be, but the bottom line is that I had a hard time fully enjoying it. I'm going to complete the trilogy because that's just the kind of thing that I do, but I don't unreservedly recommend it.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Book review: Every Day by David Levithan

Every Day is about “A,” a quantum-leaper who, every day, inhabits a new body and peeks in the window of a new life. A doesn’t have a full name or a true identity, but s/he does have a basic code for living and a pretty healthy sense of empathy. There are a few rules to the “jumps” that A makes; namely, A only jumps into the bodies of geographically nearby people who are about the same age as A is (about sixteen), and the jump happens every night at midnight. When A inhabits a body, s/he access that person’s memories, but doesn’t necessarily know what that person’s personality is. So when A is in a body, that body has A’s personality for that day. A mostly maintains a very neutral, unassuming personality, or takes context cues based on the body’s personal affects, or how their friends act around them.

Having laid those ground-rules, there are two main aspects to the plot of Every Day. The first, primary, plot, is that A one day lands in a body named Justin, who is boyfriend to a girl named Rhiannon. A falls in love with Rhiannon, and also fairly quickly deduces that Justin isn’t actually that great of a boyfriend to her, but she stays with him out of comfort and that (very familiar, very teenaged) misguided belief that the power of her enduring love will bring him back to her. What follows in this plotline is, for me, a very uncomfortable tale of how A pursues Rhiannon in all manner of different bodies, therefore not only breaking his/her code of not interfering incredibly with the bodies’ usual routines, but also forcing Rhiannon into an awkward sort of relationship where Rhiannon acknowledges that she could love the person who A is, but she has an obviously difficult time accepting every new body. Now, I know there are a lot of people who love this book and find it very bittersweet, but this whole aspect of the story comes across to me as pretty stalkerish and light on regard for Rhiannon’s confusion. As much as A verbally says s/he understands how it’s difficult for Rhiannon, his/her continued pursuit of her is an uncomfortable mirror for real-life situations where so many girls and women are pursued by boys and men who are told to just keep trying and trying until she’s worn down. As much as A is supposed to be genderless, his/her behavior follows a very gendered pattern.

The second aspect of the plot is A’s cursory explorations of the bodies s/he is in. Of course, every body belongs to a person with a drastically different life situation, and Levithan uses this conceit to explore, in small vignettes, some of those tougher situations. At different points, A jumps into a hardcore drug addict, a morbidly obese person, and a suicidal person, among others. A describes how s/he feels in that body, and how the artifacts of that person’s life affect him/her, and also, when applicable, how the world at large reacts to that person and their body. This part of the book comes off a little after-school special and hamfisted to me, but I also appreciate what Levithan is trying to do, and I would hope that the younger readers of Every Day take the advantage they’re given here to consider other perspectives — especially since, for more privileged teenagers, it’s often very difficult to break out of their own self absorption (and I’m not throwing shade, more like speaking from experience.)

This is definitely a book that skews a little more Young than Adult, and as an adult I found it often tediously lacking in subtlety. I gave it three stars because I thought Levithan ended up giving the saga of Rhiannon and A a pretty fair conclusion, and despite the issues I discussed above — and logical inconsistencies that I didn’t really spend a lot of time talking about, because I didn’t want this to become a pedantic rant — I think the effort to write a more “conscious” novel is a commendable one.

Book review: The Duchess War by Courtney Milan

Goodreads summary: “Miss Minerva Lane is a quiet, bespectacled wallflower, and she wants to keep it that way. After all, the last time she was the center of attention, it ended badly–so badly that she changed her name to escape her scandalous past. Wallflowers may not be the prettiest of blooms, but at least they don’t get trampled. So when a handsome duke comes to town, the last thing she wants is his attention.

But that is precisely what she gets.

Because Robert Blaisdell, the Duke of Clermont, is not fooled. When Minnie figures out what he’s up to, he realizes there is more to than her spectacles and her quiet ways. And he’s determined to lay her every secret bare before she can discover his. But this time, one shy miss may prove to be more than his match…”

Listen: I raved about Milan not that long ago, and in that review, I touched upon my admiration of her skill with writing character psychology in a believable way. It’s one thing that elevates her romances above others, because a very florid and purple romance can be great fun indeed, but to so expertly blend fun and reality is an uncommon trait in the genre, IMO. Another thing I love about Milan is how almost every book bends (or breaks) convention in some way, but it’s never gauche or out of place; these characters and these current events could surely be real. This was particularly evident in Unclaimed, with its virgin male hero and rather experienced heroine — not to mention the hero’s whole manifesto about respecting women. The Duchess War has, for its part: two virgin leads, an accused atheist genetic theorist, a pro-union and workers’ rights sentiment, and actual PTSD/social anxiety disorder. From this, you could surmise correctly that there is a lot of plot here that isn’t just romance, and that’s what makes it so cool; in the context of everything else, the romance is still, well, romantic, and the leads are still very charming and charismatic together.

I don’t want to give too much away regarding the first love scene, other than that it’s utterly unique, very brave, and above all, completely real. For Milan not being one of those authors whose virgin heroine gushes the River Thames on her first outing, I am utterly appreciative.

I recall that not everyone was as thrilled about The Duchess War as I was; they didn’t think it was romantic enough or that the two leads had enough chemistry. This must be one of those complete YMMV situations, because I am really growing to love a romance that seems to be less about cosmic attractions defined by fate alone and more about two characters loving each other in a way that is borne out of respect. Needless to say, the latter is exactly what happened here, and I loved the book all the more for it. Now I am wrestling with whether I should get going reading the next two in the Brothers Sinister series — I would devour them, I fear — before the fourth comes out, or whether I should wait and space out my Milan and save them. Fortunately my to-read pile is large enough to maintain a modicum of self-control!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Book review: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Goodreads overview: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." So the second Mrs. Maxim de Winter remembered the chilling events that led her down the turning drive past the beeched, white and naked, to the isolated gray stone manse on the windswept Cornish coast. With a husband she barely knew, the young bride arrived at this immense estate, only to be inexorably drawn into the life of the first Mrs. de Winter, the beautiful Rebecca, dead but never forgotten... her suite of rooms never touched, her clothes ready to be worn, her servant - the sinister Mrs. Danvers - still loyal. And as an eerie presentiment of the evil tightened around her heart, the second Mrs. de Winter began her search for the real fate of Rebecca... for the secrets of Manderley.

Rebecca is a fantastic 'mood' novel: it's suspenseful and ensnaring without being obvious and brash. du Maurier adeptly chooses diction that conveys the tone and scene and draws the reader in, seductively but mysteriously, much like how the second Mrs. de Winter must have felt upon arriving at Manderley. It's a very easy book to get lost in. It's not a proper mystery, in the sense that there isn't a case laid out that requires solving, but our young protagonist does by necessity unravel the truth behind Rebecca's legacy and her marriage to her mercurial husband.

The second Mrs. de Winter is, literally, nameless, since her whole being becomes entangled with her husband and Manderley. She's a hopeless romantic -- young, naive, and eager to please. I don't recall her age ever being explicitly stated, but she is probably in her late teens. As romantic as this novel is in its idyllic descriptions of Manderley's gardens and great rooms, Maxim de Winter himself leaves a lot to be desired as a husband. du Maurier skillfully allows for the reader to recognize Mrs. de Winter's infatuation with the man as a hallmark of her youth and inexperience, even through her breathless adoration, for he really is quite sullen and condescending, and not the type that many young women would rush to marry were it not for the promise of the marriage plucking them out of some kind of dreadful current situation (as was the case with MdW2.)

Of course, such a marriage, even without the specter of a seemingly perfect dead first wife, will tend to change a person. Though MdW2 spends much of the novel feeling hopelessly gauche and undeserving of her husband's love, the secrets that are revealed to her cause her to grow and gain wisdom almost instantly. As such, I also relate to her loss of innocence directly correlating with her increase in confidence and, yes, maturity.

This is something of a classic and a novel that I'd definitely recommend to anyone, particularly those interested in historical fiction.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Book review: The Radleys by Matt Haig

The Radleys  is a vampire novel that isn't a vampire novel. The family are vampires, to be sure, but vampirism here is a metaphor for identity in general. The novel, then, explores the consequences of denying one's true self; the facade erected by the Radleys alienates the family members from each other, and the family unit from society at large, ironically, as the facade is constructed for the single purpose of fitting in.
The Radley parents, Peter and Helen, are abstaining vampires -- they don't drink blood. Physically, this makes them fragile and under-performing. Emotionally, it strains their marriage, as their whole relationship becomes centered around the sacrifice they make together. Their children, Rowan and Clara, don't even know that they are vampires; they only know that they are sickly, awkward outcasts. After a gruesome incident, though, the parents are forced to tell the children who they really are, and the fallout from discovering their true identities shakes the family's carefully constructed place in the social order. One of the children chooses instantly not to abstain, and the freedom in that decision further strains Peter and Helen's marriage, as Peter observes a happiness and confidence in his child that he and his wife haven't known in years. Throw Peter's brother Will in the mix -- he's a reckless, unabashed blood drinker who is nonetheless depressed over lost love and circling the drain -- the suddenly the Radleys have gone from the unassuming neighbors to the center of the spotlight.
I thought this book was creative and clever. It took a different tack to vampirism that's less sensational and paranormal, and more focused on the real-world consequences of what it means to be different. The writing was refreshingly uncomplicated and concise, and the chapters themselves were short and smoothly flowing. And let me stress again that this is more of a book about family relationships, love, secrets, betrayal, mending, and self-realization than it really is about vampires. There's enough urban fantasy to explore the more, well, fantastical side of vampires -- and lord knows I read it -- but this isn't that book. So if you have vampire fatigue, never fear. The Radleys isn't interested in another star-crossed, tortured YA romance between a hundred-year old vampire and a teenager. It's much more real, and resonant for that.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Book review: Unlocked by Courtney Milan

Historicals aren’t my go-to romance genre of choice, but I sure am drawn to the silk Courtney Milan is spinning. Unlocked is a novella in the Turner series (aka the BEST series) and it’s only tangentially related because some character is casually acquainted with one of the Turners, but no matter. It’s a great little I-hate-you-but-I-love-you story that transcends its somewhat cliched underpinnings due to the strength of Milan’s writing.

Plot-wise, it’s very simple: Lady Elaine was the subject of some pretty harsh Regency-era bullying (“Your mother is too academic and it’s embarrassing us!” among other nasty missives) before one of the Mean Girl ringleaders, Evan Carlton, Duke of Westfeld, takes off on some kind of Eat Pray Love find-himself journey. The bullying by Evan and his sister essentially made Lady Elaine a pariah, doomed to never marry. Upon his return to England, though, Evan has noticeably changed, particularly in his manners toward Lady Elaine. Will she ever forgive him? WHO KNOWS?

I can’t pretend to be a remotely credible source when it comes to critiquing writing skill, but in my estimation, Courtney Milan is a gem. Across several novels/novellas, I’ve been impressed by her research and accurate detail, by her on-point social commentary, and by the genuine romance and steaminess of her writing rather than cheesy purple prose. She also excels at character psychology, which seems like a weird thing to pick out of romance novels; however, when you consider that in a lot of these novels, one of the characters is often *damaged* and needs to be *repaired by love*, it actually is really important to make that recovery believable.

That element really came into play here. It’s not the first time she’s had one character harbor some kind of hatred, resentment, or disdain for the other (Unveiled and A Kiss for Midwinter come to mind as other examples) but I don’t think she’d dealt with active bullying before. It really shouldn’t have worked, having a woman fall in love with her tormentor, but Milan really did a bang-up job of redeeming Evan AND portraying Elaine’s slow rebuilding of trust based on actually trustworthy things — not just, like, “Trust me!” “Okay!” It might not still ever happen in the real world, but in the Fantasy World of Romance, Milan earns a few merit cookies for getting as close to reality as possible.

Also, the first scene that teased at a love scene was really suspenseful and sexy and well-done and I loved it. The first real love scene was pretty hot, too.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Book review: Vampire Academy 2-6 by Richelle Mead

The Vampire Academy series is as follows:

1. Vampire Academy
2. Frostbite
3. Shadow Kiss
4. Blood Promise
5. Spirit Bound
6. Last Sacrifice

These are pretty mediocre books. I read the whole series because I’m a completist (sadist?) and at this point I’d be hard-pressed to describe exactly where in the overall plot each book began and ended. The whole story goes something like this — and I’ll be as vague as I can to avoid specific spoilers — Rose is a half-vampire who has a Vampire Best Friend (VBF) and is training to be her best friend’s Guardian, as half-vampires are expected to do. Because she’s our protagonist, she’s exceptionally skilled at Guardian-type stuff, and she’s also extremely attractive/alluring to the men around her, be they human, vampire, or other halfies. She falls for another Guardian type, but theirs is a forbidden love. When they finally succumb to their desires and are prepared to go public, Something Bad happens. The next two books are spent trying to repair the Something Bad; meanwhile, VBF is dealing with the side effects of a particular gift she has called “spirit,” which is a rare and unusual specialty among vampires. It gives her the ability to perform a lot of mind-f*ck tricks on others but at the expense of her own sanity if not carefully monitored and managed. Also in the midst of the Something Bad, Rose develops a doomed-to-fail relationship with a Vampire Guy (VG) who loves her way more than she loves him because she’s still hung up on Something Bad Guy (SBG). Eventually the Something Bad is resolved, but the SBG has a lot of residual Feelings about it and continues to push Rose away, so Rose keeps leading on VG. Also, at some point, Rose is accused of high treason, so VBF and VG have to clear her name of that. Everyone lives happily ever after, except for VG, because duh.

If that sounds interesting to you and you don’t care about a pesky thing called “quality,” go for it. If you want to know more about the details of this “quality” thing, here are some:

Some of the most action-packed scenes throughout these books are, somehow, written kind of stiffly and blandly.

  • It is VERY easy to skim these books and not miss much.
  • If you look up a picture of “snarky” in the dictionary you’ll find Rose, which makes her fun to like at first. But over the course of the series, it becomes very tiresome to watch this naive, impetuous, and increasingly self-centered person continually get her way without much push-back from anyone.
  • I personally never cared that much for SBG, who didn’t strike me ever as having much of a personality beyond “silent but deadly Guardian.” The way that Mead describes Rose’s feelings toward him come off much more as kind of icky idol worship than love of another human (well, okay, half-human) being. Then again, sexy is in the eye of the beholder, so YMMV.
  • Another deus ex machina? 
    Not impressed.
  • VBF, aka Lissa, has the potential to be the most interesting character in the series. She’s given a pretty good amount of page time, but through this weird device (it has to do with spirit, her gift) that allows Rose to jump into her mind and experience what Lissa is experiencing. So though we follow Lissa, it’s always through Rose’s lens.
  • There are open endings, and then there are dangling threads on the unfinished hem of an unwieldy plot with too many characters. Guess which one this is. (Hint: Tim Gunn would not be impressed.)

Here’s the thing. I may sound like a twat calling out a YA vampire series for having too many deus ex machinas (for example,) but it’s one of a few elements in the series that contribute to an overall lack of suspense or tension as time goes on. Yes, the Something Bad happens, and it’s shocking when it does, but when it’s dragged out as long as it is, you know it’s because Mead is buying time until it’s resolved. Similarly, despite Guardianship being, allegedly, extremely dangerous — the body count is really high — Rose herself never really seems to be in that much danger. For instance, in the first book, she has an encounter with one of the bad vampires, who are super strong and fast and kill without thinking twice. After that moment, though, she bests seemingly every one she meets with what reads like very little effort. In a few months’ time, she goes from nearly being killed to being basically so much better than almost every other Guardian, most of whom have leagues more training and experience than her. It just reads as lazy.

Anyway, that’s all probably enough said about a series so fluffy that it will be forgotten by next week.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Book review: A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin

Ah, A Song of Ice and Fire... as I mentioned in my review of A Game of Thrones for CBR5, I'm doing that wholly non-Patrician thing where I read the books after enjoying the visual media. HBO's show is my favorite show currently in progress, and after a destructive internal war over whether or not I wanted to spoil myself, I decided I did. There is, in my mind, a huge difference between a spoiler that comes from some thoughtless dickhead on the internet, and a "spoiler" that I still discover for myself following an author or showrunner's careful storytelling and planning. Considering that I've voraciously consumed the Harry Potter and Hunger Games movies after knowing those stories like the back of my hand, why should the ASOIAF series be any different?

Anyway, all of that pondering doesn't have anything per se to do with this, my review of the second book in the ASOIAF series. I mention it because it's personally impossible for me to uncouple them. Part of that is natural and part of it is that I'm so excessively fond of the show and think it's a fantastic adaptation of what, two books in, is revealing itself to be incredibly dense, and occasionally convoluted, source material. I'll be honest: I didn't really enjoy reading A Clash of Kings very much. I appreciated its necessity in the series: if A Game of Thrones introduces the characters, scenarios, and backgrounds that will play out over the course of the series, A Clash of Kings primarily establishes the stakes. "When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die," the famous line goes, and A Clash of Kings lays out the large-scale consequences of that maxim: war, war, trickery, deceit, bloodshed, and more war. This sounds really epic and exciting, and it is, but in actually reading it a lot of the action takes place off-page (notable exception: the battle at Blackwater, which is as stunningly written as the scene was portrayed in the series) and the text can come across rather like your most pedantic friend's careful synopsis of that VERY serious game of Risk.

Because of GRRM's stylistic choice to not jump into many of the battle scenes in the first person, you get characters either talking about the action, or the first person POVs of characters with tangentially related perspectives working in the periphery. Some of these characters and their stories are more interesting than others, and this is -- I understand -- completely a matter of taste, but with so. many. characters. to check in on, it became occasionally infuriating to leave someone who you liked for someone who you don't.

I'm still looking forward to A Storm of Swords, because I'm excited to read about what I've watched. I have a little trepidation about the increasing length of the books as the series progresses since A Clash of Kings already dragged a little for me, but overall I'm still pleased with my decision to go ahead and tackle the source of my favorite show.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Book review:1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Where do I even begin to describe a book like 1Q84? This was my first Murakami novel, and though I felt, at times, that certain minutiae for which he is apparently infamous (food preparation, repetitive dialogue and re-iteration of expository detail) contributed unnecessary padding to the 1157 pages, overall I found myself quite swept away in the lyricism of the writing and the surreal but precise detail in observing the world of 1Q84.
The central characters are Tengo, a cram school (assuming this is an analog to American community college?) math teacher and aspiring novelist, and Aomame, a fitness instructor and occasional silent assassin of abusive men. Though their entry points are different, they are both drawn into 1Q84, a world that is nearly identical to that present in the year 1984 — when the novel takes place — but that is also governed by fantastical elements that are invisible to the majority of people still living in 1984. Throughout the considerable length of the novel, they are eventually drawn together, and though I hesitate to consider theirs a traditional love story in any sense, it’s undeniable that the Invisible Hand of 1Q84 pushes them together due to cosmic compatibility and shared human experiences.
No novel, and certainly not this one, is immune to criticism. But I find it very hard to even approach something like it with this book because I had an experience reading it much like the one I felt while watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Much as Murakami describes a distinctly different existence in the year 1Q84, I felt somewhat removed from the real world as I read the novel. Time bent; one hundred pages disappeared over the course of one bus commute home. I won’t be so pretentious as to suggest I was looking for glitches in the matrix everywhere as a result of finishing1Q84, but while I was reading I was certainly wholly enveloped in the book rather than in my own body.
Your mileage may vary. Some — many — have likened this book to an interminable wank. Meta-commentary from a book editor character regarding what makes a quality novel can either seem self-congratulatory or tongue-in-cheek, depending on your reading; I read it more as the latter, since throughout Murakami breaks the editor’s “rules” several times. I wouldn’t unreservedly recommend this to just anyone considering that it is a substantial time commitment. It is, though, a book that is sticking with me quite stubbornly since I’ve finished it in a really enjoyable way. I appreciated it immensely and rank it highly among anything I’ve read lately.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Book review: Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh

FROM THE AUTHOR: This is a book I wrote. Because I wrote it, I had to figure out what to put on the back cover to explain what it is. I tried to write a long, third-person summary that would imply how great the book is and also sound vaguely authoritative – like maybe someone who isn’t me wrote it – but I soon discovered that I’m not sneaky enough to pull it off convincingly. So I decided to just make a list of things that are in the book:
* Pictures
* Words
* Stories about things that happened to me
* Stories about things that happened to other people because of me
* Eight billion dollars*
* Stories about dogs
* The secret to eternal happiness*
*These are lies. Perhaps I have underestimated my sneakiness!
How do I review Hyperbole and a Half? The last time I reviewed a book-that-used-to-be-a-blog, it was Jenny Lawson’s, and I was not a regular reader of her blog, so I was able to treat the book like a standalone. In this case, I’ve been a loyal “Hyperbole” reader ever since I first read about the Alot in 2010 (spoiler alert: the Alot isn’t in this book, and it really should be, but on the other hand it’s accessible on the original blog always for my viewing pleasure, so there is a really simple solution to the problem) so I already knew I would love this book. I relate hugely to Allie Brosh’s sense of humor and find her rudimentary art to be rather succinct in its simplicity.
Classic favorites include both parts of Tales of Depression, Dogs Don’t Understand Simple Concepts Like Moving, This is Why I’ll Never be an Adult, and The God of Cake. My favorite new chapters, in terms of achieving that transcendent balance of relate-ability and humor at which she seems so adept, are the chapters about identity. She examines whether she is a fundamentally good or shitty person by questioning her motives whenever she does good things, and she discusses how she does this thing where she gets to call herself a good person just by thinking about a good thing that she might do. To write that down, as I’ve done here, and indeed as she notes in the book, seems like a really awful admission, but I wager that basically everyone does that kind of rationalization all the time, but Allie Brosh picks that uncomfortable truth out of the morass of conflicting thoughts in our minds and identifies it so keenly, and so humorously.
In short form, everyone should read Allie’s fabulous blog and fabulous book.