December 3, 2015

Stardate: This Is Fine -- A Book With A One-Word Title

I love graphic novels. I love graphic novels with cute art, snappy dialogue, and a great visual concept.

 I freaking love Nimona.
Nimona was apparently a webcomic before it was published into the book form that I found at the library and proceeded to read and then hug for a few hours after it was done. So maybe some of you are familiar with it. And you can cry with me over this graphic novel and how perfect it is.

Nimona is a shapeshifter. Ballister is a super villain. Nimona wants to be Ballister's sidekick. Ballister doesn't want a sidekick. He gets a sidekick anyway, who is sometimes, pointedly, a shark. And a fun-tastic time was had by all, except probably Ambrosius Goldenloin, who was cursed from birth not to have a good time because he'll always have that last name.

Noelle Stevenson is a genius with her art. It's simple and cute, and it'll have you rolling in stitches, but then it'll suddenly, treacherously fill up with this straightforward, heart-rending pathos, and you'll find your soul crying softly along with your eyes. The world - a sort of fantasy world with modern tech, a genius move - is perfectly suited to this style. "Sometimes loads of fun, sometimes numbingly tragic" could be the slogan for every part of Nimona.

It's really the relationships that make this story, though. The Nimona/Ballister dynamic is the centerpiece, and it's perfect - actually perfect. Ballister is the grumpy supervillain you always love to love, because they actually have a center of melted chocolate and broken promises, and Nimona... well, Nimona's characterization has to be seen to be believed. They work together with all the bickering and suppressed emotion that you could want.

I won't even get into Ballister and Ambrosius, and Ballister's backstory. And Nimona's backstory! And Ambrosious's role throughout the story as the designated hero! It's all ridiculously clever and surprisingly heavy for such a cutesy art style and I really don't want to review too much, just in case it takes anything away.

If you like graphic novels and great writing, read Nimona. You won't regret it.

Stardate: Comfortably Numb -- A Book With A Color In The Title

I saw the cover on the "New Arrivals" shelf at the library. I had to have it - that cover! Surely the story inside wouldn't be as beautiful as this Book With A Color In (Or As) The Title.

Would you believe that Vermillion actually is as awesome as that cover? Stop. Just look at it. Go to the Goodreads or Amazon page and look at it in full screen. Just look for a while.

Once you're done, you can rest assured in the knowledge that this book is as amazing as the cover. That dusky, starry, hand-scrawled feeling? Yeah, it's all there.

Vermillion is a sort of alternate-history kind of affair, a Western steampunk with added ghost-hunting and talking bears. It's got all manner of gender-bending excitement and understated romance, for one thing, all of which is almost flawlessly integrated into the actual, really exciting plot. Racial tensions, too? Yep. Flawless. Does the book actually get around to storytelling with all this diversity that Tanzer is throwing around? You'd better believe it.

Though all of that is present in Vermillion, the story and characters are always front and center. How's this for a hook: Lou Merriwether, a Chinese Stetson-wearing ghost-hunter, goes out west to find out why Chinese workers keep dying when they go to work at a mysterious sanatorium that claims to have the Fountain of Youth. Interested yet? If you're not, then you shouldn't read the book, because this is exactly the story you get, with an added metric crapton of character development and growth.

Lou is a fantastic main, for one thing. She's hardbitten and tough, but it's not that annoying kind of "I'm a Tough Girl (TM)" that gets thrown around. She's actually tough, but she's actually human, and these two things create conflict sometimes - but it also helps her get things done. She gets things done really well, too. She's sometimes hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking, but almost always 100% awesome.

This world is so fun, too! Tanzer incorporates Chinese ghost stories and creatures, which is especially fascinating for a story set in the 1800s. I'm still not sure why there are talking bears, but I just rolled with it, and it wasn't a big deal. And there are vampires, too. Probably some other creatures, but I forget just now.

It's an adult novel, so there are some adult themes. But if you're comfortable with that, and you need some rollicking Western steampunk with a great female lead? Vermillion is the book with a color in the title that you really, really need. Then you can sit with me in my prayer circle for a sequel.

Stardate: I Can Do This -- A Classic Romance

Some long years back, when I was around twelve or thirteen, I went on an airplane trip to Philadelphia. It was my first airplane ride ever. At the airport, I got the only book that didn't look scarily modern. I think I knew it was A Classic Romance, which was a draw, but, for some reason, I never read it.

It's probably good that I didn't, because Wuthering Heights is a complicated mess of terrible people and terrible actions, and I'm not sure if I would have understood it then. Maybe I would have, but I'm glad I didn't. 

I want to suggest that I might have fallen in love with Heathcliff, but I think even me at thirteen would have known better. Heathcliff is a creepy, creepy man.

From watching the Merle Oberon/Laurence Olivier movie, I thought I knew what the story was about. Little did I know that it was even more horrible than the movie! Like, ten times worse than the movie! How about that. It's true: everyone is terrible. Heathcliff is awful - at first, understandably so, but then he just goes off the rails and it's pathetic and a bit scary. (When did people start romanticizing him? I can understand some characters, but Heathcliff? His sad backstory is not nearly sad enough to warrant his later behavior.) Edgar? Kind of pathetic, but sweet... but also still a little creepy. Isabelle? Terrible. Joseph? TERRIBLE. Nelly is the only decent person in this novel, and even she has her moments of questionableness.
I had a whole essay on Cathy. Unfortunately, it's been a while since I read this (in August, ha) and I've forgotten most of it. Suffice it to say, Cathy is the most complex character in the novel, and while I still think she's an awful person - an awful, manipulative, petulant, selfish person - I also think there's a lot to explain it, more so than there is for Heathcliff. Cathy is a tragic figure, wild and untaught, and, ultimately, even if she sort of deserves what she gets, we still feel sad. Because she also sort of didn't.

All those names and family connections were a monster to get through, let me tell you. My southern skills at family trees should have made it easier, but it was really rough in the beginning. No one is judging if you have to map it out for yourself to remember, especially when children start getting named after the previous generation.

Is it worth it, for all the awfulness and the tangle of names? Absolutely. Brontë's language is intricate and descriptive, as plaintive and as wild as her most famous character. You'll be in for the long haul for this lengthy, dense book, but it's worth it. It's definitely worth it.

(If you don't put "Wuthering Heights" on after you finish this book, either the original Kate Bush version or a cover - my favorite is Hayley Westenra's - I will judge you. Hard.)

Stardate: I'm Okay, You're Okay -- A Book I Started But Never Finished

After The Hunger Games, I tried to do the whole "dystopian about a white girl who's special" thing that went around for a while like a weak, sniffelly cold. I remember picking up Matched after reading some great 2-star reviews, and being unable to get past fifty pages or so. This time, I was ready - ready to laugh, ready to tear things apart, ready to hammer another nail into YA dystopia's coffin.

It didn't work.

I mean, in my defense, it's not like it's my new favorite book or anything. I'm not going to go out of my way to defend Matched.

But I gave it three stars, which is more than I expected. Maybe it's because the last dystopia I read was Divergent, which I hated with most of the larger bones in my body. But that was a while back. Maybe it's because green is my favorite color.

Maybe because Ally Condie took a lackluster concept, gave it some lackluster prose and characterization, and somehow managed to... interest me?

Looking back, I'm not sure what I saw in Matched. It was entertaining. Moderately so, but still! Entertaining! 

This is what I said in my Goodreads review:

Things that both Matched and Divergent have (as most YA dystopias do):
--Incredibly flimsy "dystopian" government systems--Questionable writing styles/techniques--Way too many Capitalized Nouns 
What Matched does that Divergent doesn't, however, is have a heroine who isn't a ragefest of hypocrisy, bad decisions, and inconsistent behavior. Not saying that Cassia is a well-written heroine or anything - she's no Katniss. Just saying that, if there were a Battle of Tolerable Personality, Cassia would win, just for being bland and occasionally decent, as opposed to Tris and her gasket-blowing idiocy. 

And it's true. She wasn't dumb! I don't remember ever really getting angry at Cassia, either for a decision she made or because of something she thought. It could be because she's just a little bit too white-bread, but still - not being gif-inducingly stupid is a huge plus for me in the YA dystopian area. (And... if we're being honest... I really liked Ky. Xander was incredibly boring, but Ky was a sweetie. I like that guy. And I worry about him.)

Like I said, the world of Matched is ridiculous, ill-founded, and poorly supported by actual human nature. Most of them are. And seriously, can we get one dystopia that doesn't Capitalize all Important Nouns or sometimes Verbs? But if we're comparing - which isn't nice, but sometimes one has to, when they're deciding what to get at the library or bookstore - Matched is better than a few options I could mention. Not better than Hunger Games, but better than some others. That's about as good as I think we're getting for a while.

Stardate: My Wrist Hurts -- A Book A Friend Recommended

Over this summer, during the week of my birthday, I got a visit from one of my very best friends in the world. This friend had Recommended A Book long ages ago, and just prior to this visit, I had ordered the book. During the visit, I read the book. I'm very glad, but also a little unhappy, because ouch.

Teeth has teeth. Teeth in its prose, in its characterization, in its plot twists, in the way it bites your heart in half. It's that kind of book.

I can't figure out where to start. What about the characters? The characters who are desperately real, even though Mostkowitz's prose is that kind of pseudo magical realism that I tend to despise? They all have their own voices, their own stories, their own struggles, their own way of hurting you. Rudy? I frickin' loved the kid. Teeth? Let me take him home and care for him and help him. Diana? What a fascinating girl; I wish she'd had more page time, maybe her own novel. Rudy's relationship with his family is so important to the novel, too; it's not as important as that between Rudy and Teeth, but it's never shoved to the side. It's part of the situation and part of the conflict, and it's done incredibly.

The concept is as mythical as this gray, windy, stormy novel deserves. An island full of fish that magically make a sick person better? Well, why the heck not? Teeth isn't marketed as a modern-day fairytale, but it should be, because that's exactly the vibe that I get. A bloody, mature fairytale. (Could you find this in the YA section? Beware, because language and themes of sexual abuse abound.) A quasi-love story, the magic of the earth and of love. I'm speaking in metaphors because it's hard to talk about this book straight (haha) - it just sort of slips out of your hands. Like a little silver fish.

As much as her characters hurt me, I think it's Moskowitz's atmosphere that sticks with me most. How she maintains this consistency with the feeling of the island - the wind, the gray, the clouds, the thunderous ocean, the rocks, the sea spray, the cold sand, the dark, the damp - it's beautiful in a brutal way, and it's impossible not to remember it and to feel it. The screaming that she describes... haunting. Haunting, that's the right word.

Can you handle swearing and more mature subject content in your mermaid tales? Please read Teeth. It's worth the bite.

Stardate: Third Time's the Charm -- A Book Published This Year

While I had that little side challenge going with a newly-published book every month, I needed to save something special for this category. Something that I knew I'd love. Something like the sequel to Rachel Hartman's incredible debut Seraphina. 

Seraphina ended satisfactorily, but with plenty of room to expand, to take the story further, to press the boundaries of Hartman's lovely worldbuilding and character development. That's exactly what Shadow Scale did.

Seraphina and Co. travel a lot in Shadow Scale. It's not a boring story, though; Hartman knows how to use judiciously the "so we rode for a month and ended up dirty and hungry in an inn somewhere" trick of all fantasy writers everywhere. But she also sprinkles the travels with their own significances, something that keeps the book rolling at a quick but never hurried pace.

The mythology deepens beautifully in Shadow Scale, shedding light on dragons but also even more on the half-dragons that Seraphina knows exists with her. I absolutely love the half-dragons, by the way, and how they work. No half-dragon is the same, and some are humanoid while some are... well. I suggest reading. But they're all their own persons, and the journey to meet them was so much fun! Hartman manages to characterize these minor half-dragons, significant points in this particular story but rarely given so much space, briefly and potently so that you remember them all in between interacting with them again.

Speaking of deepening mythology - the religious system of Seraphina's world expands, too. Did it expand. Hartman gives  hints about what's going on, but it takes you the whole book to really get the whole picture. And the whole picture is amazing. I won't spoil a thing, because the way it's written is just really, really cool.

As I admitted in a previous review, I'm a character person, but the worldbuilding that went into Seraphina/Shadow Scale is mind-boggling. It might not be as detailed as some - stand down, LOTR fans, I know you're slavering at the jaws now - but Hartman gives the reader a spectacular feeling of realism that you just can't shake. Everything is consistent and lifelike, and all the senses are engaged. Taste? Smell? Sight? Feeling? Sound? All of them! Her style is amazing and I'm always a little bit jealous when I think about it.

While the ending was a bit rushed - a little more explanation and set-up would have been nice - I'm glad to say that Seraphina had a great conclusion in Shadow Scale. Rachel Hartman is a genuine talent and I can't wait to see what she does next.

Stardate: It's Not So Bad Yet -- A Book I Actually Did Read In School (And Many Times After)

Hey, guys. It's time for me to make an insufferable confession. I read every single book I was supposed to read in school. It's true. I'm an arrogant little nerd driven by perfectionism and a slightly obsessive need for completion. However, this is not to say that I enjoyed all or even most of them. Sadly, I hated most of them, or at least resented them for not being much fun. There is one, though, a Book That I Actually Did Read For School and have since come back to over and over and over.

Cyrano de Bergerac is a masterpiece. I really approach this review with fear and trembling because, of all books, Cyrano deserves a great review.

Cyrano de Bergerac, the character, is a magnetic character, a wonderful person who is simultaneously a fascinating, flawed character. How often do you see a character who is both good in the moral and the technical sense? I can probably count them on my fingers. He's brave, generous, selfless, loving, prideful, reckless, brilliant, melodramatic - and we can never forget his inferiority complex the size of France. I've read a couple translations of Cyrano at this point, and none of them ever disappoint in capturing Cyrano's voice, his mesmerizing, enchanting, blood-pounding voice. I don't think you can ruin Cyrano. He's too strong a presence for that.

The story is simple, straightforward - ugly boy loves a beautiful girl, beautiful girl loves a beautiful boy, ugly boy helps beautiful but rather slow boy woo the beautiful girl, girl and boy marry, ugly boy is, as usual, the dream wingman but ultimately left alone, romantically speaking. And then a bit more, but in case no one's read it yet, I won't say anymore.

I see a lot of people insulting Roxanne and Christian, but stop! Don't do that! Let the characters breathe. See them as people. Roxanne isn't vapid, shallow, selfish - she's a girl in love, a girl who also loves her cousin. Cyrano hides his love well! She couldn't know. She has beautiful lines, and she's no doormat love interest. That scene where she rides into the soldiers' camp to bring them food and cheer? She's incredible! And Christian - poor Christian. Maybe his speeches pale in comparison to Cyrano making up and reciting an impromptu poem at a stubborn actor, but stop comparing him. Listen to how honest he is. Do you ever doubt that he truly loves Roxanne? I can't. He's too straightforward, too sincere. And he's a sweetheart, and brave in his own way. (Also, the utter hilarity of his 'nose' scene when Cyrano's trying to tell a story. What a kid.)

The less we say about the final scene, the better. I don't have enough kleenex on hand to take care of the soppy, teary mess I'll become.

Cyrano de Bergerac is the kind of literature I'd call a gateway drug. Want to get someone into the classics? Bypass the 400-page Dickens and Austen novels, put down the Faulkner and - yes, though my heart breaks - even the Shakespeare. Give someone Cyrano (probably the Penguin edition - great readability). It's simple, brief, and beautiful - utterly beautiful. 

Stardate: Here We Go -- A Book That Became A Movie

I actually read this one way back when I was doing good on those deadlines and such. Then, as Yeats said, things fell apart. I had really wanted to actually watch the movie the book was based on before I reviewed it, so I could compare, but alas. All I have to give is a review of one Book That Became A Movie, Neil Gaiman's Stardust.

I have to rally my memory a bit to remember how I enjoyed this book, which is a pretty clear indicator on its own. I know, I know, this is Gaiman. Beloved by all. Stardust is one of his most popular, too (hence the movie, I suppose) and I really wanted to love it.

Going back over the brief Goodreads review I wrote for it, I recall that, though this is supposed to be a romantic novel - at least in some parts - I really didn't enjoy the romance at all. Tristan was kind of an ass, to be honest, in all but the most literal Narnian sense. Yvaine was a great character, I thought, but for her to like Tristan sort of bothered me.

I had the same problem with Stardust that I had with another of Gaiman's popular offerings, Neverwhere. The concept was nice - great, even - and there's nothing wrong with his prose at all. But I'm a character person, through and through, and Gaiman's style keeps the reader at such a distance. It's not necessarily a bad thing - obviously, enough people love it! - but it's something that pushes me away.

My favorite parts of the book were the bits about the ghost prince-brothers. Fantastic. It was clever enough to be entertaining throughout, and since they weren't the main focus of the novel, the aesthetic distance actually enhanced the comedy.

It's not like Stardust is a long book - far from it - but it's just so slow, and I can't remember anything that really happens, except a drawn-out beginning and Tristan and Yvaine running from things. I really wish I could remember more, but all that's there is a vague sense of entertainment and a much more concrete sense of being bored and slightly let down.

(Also, this is an offensively short review. Apologies.)

What more can I say about a book I can't remember after only a few months? Not much, I'm afraid. Sorry, Gaiman. But I still have American Gods on my to-read list - maybe his grittier stuff will be up my alley.

And we're back.

College is a disruptive part of life. Hence, my unannounced hiatus.

However, finals are upon us, and my workload is lessening drastically. Tomorrow's my last day of tutoring, and I only have two short essays to write by next Tuesday, which I've already started working on. I've got nothing much to do at the end of a busy but, for the most part, rewarding night.

Except catch up on reviews.

That's right! While I'm not sure if I can finish the "Read One Newly-Released Book For Each Month" challenge, I am still up and swinging at that "Review One Book A Week" challenge.  Over the past months, I've actually read enough books to fill in enough holes in my list to where I might be able to cram in the last handful - eight, to be precise - over Christmas break.

That's four more Wednesdays and two books to a Wednesday. Doable? Absolutely.

That's sixteen - count them, sixteen - that I could write tonight. Doable? I'll rev up the coffee machine and see.

Joyous reviewing!

July 9, 2015

7/1/15 - A Book From My Childhood

Wink, wink. That book I mentioned in the RYFBM? That's this one. The first day of July, and thus the first day of RYFBM, collided precipitously on the challenge of A Book From My Childhood, and thus I give you: Two Princesses of Bamarre, by Gail Carson Levine.

If you're a girl and of a certain age, there's a huge possibility that you've read at least one Levine book. She was the fairytale lady (at least until Shannon Hale came around and made it into the fairytale pack). Maybe, like me, you might have read many of her books. Most people get into Ella Enchanted first. Me, Bamarre was my first Levine experience.

Two Princesses is a simple, straightforward story: there's a sickness across all the land, the Gray Death. The eponymous princesses are polar opposites. Meryl is strong, foolhardy, a fighter in every sense of the word; Addie is timid, cowardly, and delicate, preferring needlepoint to swordpoint. Meryl wants to quest to find the Gray Death's cure; Addie wants her to stay at home, where Meryl will be safe with her.

Meryl gets the Gray Death. Addie goes on Meryl's quest, armed with fabric, shoes, and flowers. Not even being facetious.

It's a wonderful, precious little story. There are dragons! There are elves who tell tales! There's an Beowulf-ish sort of hero/origin epic that impacts the story in amazing ways! There's an adorable wizard love interest! There's sister bonding! Suck it, Frozen. (Just kidding. I love Frozen. So sue me.)

Levine's particular style of writing for this story is dead-on. Addie's perspective is unique, real, and heartfelt, a far cry from the brashly artificial Strong Female Charactery(TM) kind of heroes that get all the street cred. She grows in courage for her sister, and yet never gives up the things that make her Addie. I love Addie. I also love Meryl, and Rhys the young adorable wizard love. I even love Vollys, the dragon. 

And I love Drualt, that Beowulfy hero guy in the poem. That poem is great, too, by the way: Rise up, Bamarre! Go forth, Bamarre, the timid with the strong! I get goosebumps.

Quaint, precious, nearly perfect. If you ever need a good fairytale, read Two Princesses of Bamarre.

July 1 - RYFBM!

It's July 1st! (Pretend for my sake.) And we all know what that means - or, if we don't, we're about to find out!

My BFF Persy and I run a sort-of monthly review blog over at the Moonlit Library of the Underworld.  A while back, Persy started a tradition - Reread Your Favorite Books Month, every July! (It used to be something else when we were a little more innocent. It's RYFBM now.)

Anyway, it being July now, the tradition continues! It continues a little more slowly for me, since I have two challenges, a tower of library books, and three stacks of unread owned books, but continue it does.

Every week, along with my Challenge Book and occasionally the Month Book, I'll be rereading a favorite book or two. Sometimes these books might even be the Challenge Book! (Hint hint. Look out for the next review.)

It doesn't matter if all you read are old favorites this month, or if you're only able to get around to one or two. The idea is to have an excuse to enjoy your darlings all over again! Just have fun with it.

What books are you rereading for RYFBM?

Joyous Reading!

6/24/15 - April Book

Are you ready for a rant, kids? Because that's what we're getting for the April Book review!

I already wrote a full review on my Goodreads page, so I'm just going to give you a few of the highlights. If you want to read it, go check it out! (And friend me, too! I can never have too many reading buddies.)

Maybe it's because I'm a huge character person - I could not care less about plot as long as the characters are delightful - but nothing about these characters made me root for them. At all. Elias is a whiny, self-righteous pig 90% of the time and I have no idea who he's supposed to be the other 10% of the time; Laia is like a sheet of cheap watercolor paper that you accidentally sprayed too much water on and now your floor is wet and it's all disgusting and floppy and even when it looks right it looks... wrong, and when you try to paint on it to make it pretty, it looks like inappropriate body parts. Keenan - who the heck is Keenan? He has red hair, I can tell you that. And he's got some kind of pain. Because... ??????????????????? Helene was the best character in the entire book - a tough survivor with a general's brain, sort of like a leveled-up Annabeth Chase. But she still gets sidelined as the Incomprehensible Beautiful Single Female in a crowd of BOOOOYYYZZZZZZZZ and Tahir never. lets. us. forget. that. she. is. a. female. You would think Helene was a mop of shining beautiful curling silver-blond hair on a broomstick, from all her descriptions.

Helene's treatment makes me particularly angry. This is the closest thing to a real character that we have in the book - a good, well-rounded character, with thoughts and motivations of her own - and yet she is constantly downgraded to nothing but her gender. The flippant and casual threats of rape are tossed around her just as much as they are around Laia, a slave girl. One of her major conflicts is dealing with a psychotic rapist antagonist, and yet Helene - a girl literally raised for violence, courage, and hardness - is reduced to fear and cringing? BULLCRAP. Her "pretty blonde hair" makes her less intimidating when she's furious? BULLCRAP! She gets hormonally jealous of a slave girl when Elias is 20 years old and has probably been fooling around with slaves and prostitutes for years? 

It's all the same shtick we've been forcefed for 10+ years. It's the "I see sparks fly" line from the T-Swizzle song set on repeat for seven hours. For all the attempts that are made in the name of Beauty and the Beast, in the name of "love comes from the inside," all I hear is a lot about how beautiful Laia is (she has to cover herself up with a cloak or else she'll get raped) and about how strong Elias is. Laia can apparently see the "hard lines of Elias's stomach" even while he is clothed and "at a distance," presumably at night at a town festival of sorts. Anatomy, man. It's a conspiracy. 
Nothing ever comes of the mythological bent. Some wraiths are part of the Trials that Helene and Elias go through, but Elias doesn't fight them. It sounds like the Commandant (the kick-ass Main Villain who actually WORKS, God bless) has a business agreement with one of the creatures, but that's tacked into a verbal info-dump in the last 100 or so pages and promptly forgotten. And, most inexplicably, Laia is plagued by... fear wraiths? Anxiety wraiths? Guilt wraiths? I don't know. They're just there and they torment her until she just can't bear to hear... words. And she lays screaming on the ground or in corners. I don't know why. I mean, it's not like everyone else in this godforsaken world is free from guilt. Good grief, Laia's wraiths made me want to stab myself because it was so mind-bogglingly unimportant! Nothing came of those flipping wraiths! They made no difference - if you took them out the story would be the same - I'm so angry at those dumb wraiths for causing maybe twenty or thirty extra pages of USELESS ANGST for a character I couldn't care less about! In fact, the wraiths made me hate Laia even more. 


I stopped updating at about 70%. My will had left me. It probably goes without saying: I do not recommend this book.

6/22/15 - A Book With Nonhuman Characters

I admit it. I am a Loki fan. But wait, hear me out - before you peg me as a simple crying fangirl (which is hardly the whole truth), let me regale you with the hipster chorus of the centuries: I liked him before he was cool. Or at least before he was Tom Hiddleston (sigh of appreciation); I think Loki has always been cool at the mythological table in the reading cafeteria.

Anyway, a handful of years back, I was way into Norse mythology. I have a ton of books - both Eddas, Padraic Colum's retellings, Kevin Crossley-Holland's retellings, Roger Green's retellings... I was a fan. If there were any story that could make me laugh every time I read it, it was Thrym's Wedding. (Bruce Coville, Thor's Wedding Day. I have it.) I also read Runemarks, which is not a novelization of the web game, but Joanne Harris's middle-grade (but still hefty) story about the Norse gods in the present day. At least, I think it's present-day. Present-ish? Old but not ancient times? Anyway. Harris wrote Loki as a significant side character in that, and, as I recall, he was pretty brilliant.

So I was excited when I found out that Harris had a new, adult project coming out that focused primarily on the legendary trickster. With gods and strange Chaos-demons as the main characters, it well fit the category of A Book With Nonhuman Characters.

(If you can, get the first edition cover; it's much nicer than the one I got here in America at the library.)

As I said in the last review, expectation is a significant mood-killer when you're reading something that you've been dying to get your hands on (for over a year, in this particular instance). With The Gospel of Loki, I was expecting something along the lines of Runemarks - a new take on an old tale, a cool new adventure for the old gods. Something unexpected for my Loki passion to chew on for a while.
My experience with Norse retellings, however, came back to bite me. Harris retells the stories of the Norse pantheon from Loki's point of view... with almost no alterations. There is, of course, Loki's larger-than-life personality to account for it, and the look into his brain does cast some small original light onto the events. But, at the end of each chapter, it's just the stories that the Eddas have told and that the others have copied.

Don't get me wrong - Harris can write. And her Loki voice is nothing if not consistent, and consistently tricksterly. There's an amusing blend of archaic and modern, which I know grated on some Goodreads reviewers, but which I found suitable for a god telling his story in the modern day. The book was hardly a pain to read; I enjoyed it, sometimes quite a lot. (I still laughed at Harris's version of Thrym's Wedding.)

But it's a small book, not even 300 pages, and they're almost all dedicated to retellings. 

What I did appreciate was the ending, even if it did skim more than I would have liked. It finally, finally gets at Loki's psyche, the emotions behind his actions during Ragnarok. It was new, it was unique! And then the real ending - wow. That was a good ending, and more than made up for the lack of real punch in the previous chapters.

So, all in all, it's a recommendation. If you're for Norse mythology, have at it! If you're not so much for Norse mythology but want to attempt it, have at it; this is not the worst place to start. If you love Loki, have at it! Really, just have at it. Don't set your originality hopes too high, but otherwise, have at it.

6/18/15 - May Book

Due to complications with the reading schedule, you get the May Book review before you get the April Book review. Surprise!

Take a story with a fascinating premise, the promise of graphic novel panels as well as ordinary novel pages, and then give it a title like I Am Princess X, and you have instantly raised the expectations for your story.

Look at that cover! So modern, so in-your-face, so rad. I've heard of Cherie Priest, though I've not yet read any of her books. I'm working on that. I know she writes mainly for adults, so I'm holding out the hope that her adult work is better. Because, sadly, Princess X was a bit of a let-down.

I expected something QUIRKY with capital letters, something atmospheric and mysterious and engaging - something like a more polished version of The Kneebone Boy, maybe. If you don't know the gist of the story, you should check out Goodreads's summary. But, as it turns out, I Am Princess X is more like a simple mystery-slash-scavenger-hunt than a vaguely postmodern experimental story. Spoiler alert: there aren't even any supernatural/paranormal aspects to it! Sad day. 

Sometimes resisting the call of "supernatural explanation" is very, very good for stories. Dragging in the paranormal can easily turn into getting an easy out. But the thing is, I don't think it would have been, for this story. The graphic novel part of the book, the comics that the MC and her missing best friend, has an incredible dark fairytale feeling to it; the art is good, the storyline is better, and the elements of the tale are the best. Creative, striking the perfect balance between unique and traditional - I loved these sections of the story.

But none of the story actually translated to the real-world mystery, except in the most mundane of ways. That was the biggest letdown.

Maybe it's my fault that I didn't enjoy the story more. Expectation is often the biggest killer in a book-reader relationship. But something in me still says that the story could have been more. You know that feeling you get when you're watching The Wizard of Oz and they pull back the curtain, and there, instead of a GRAND AND MAGNIFICENT WIZARD, it's just a little old man in a phonebooth?

Yeah. I Am Princess X is that little old man. Read it for the graphic novel; leave the curtain untouched.

6/17/15 - A Book Over 500 Pages Long

I had planned on reading Les Miserables for this one, because that's the longest book I can see myself reading, even during the summer. My attention span is not what it used to be.

Then I picked up The Stand, which I had gotten at a charity booksale for 25 cents. Understandably for a 25-cent book, it's small - a cheap early 90s paperback of the variety you'd see in the FREE bin at the library instead of the sale shelves. I underestimated the sheer size of its contents.

My copy of The Stand is just over 800 pages long.

The Stand is, to me, a shining example of why the post-apocalyptic book scene - mostly in YA, since that's my corner, but probably in adult fiction, too - sucks. Okay? It does. It sucks. You wanna know why? Because no one wants to write good post-apocalyptic books. You wanna know why? Because they have to be 800 pages long. After they've been excised by publishers. 

And very few people want to write a 1,100-page book. You see 500-page books not infrequently - good gosh, I don't want to think about how bleeding long Divergent was - but that's pretty much the maximum. Five hundred pages are when all normal, healthy brains start smoking out and sending off "we need a climax" signals.

No one has ever said that Stephen King has a normal, healthy brain.

And that's good! Because The Stand is what we need. We need a good example of post-apocalyptic fiction done, in the most realistic way that post-apoc can be done when you add in supernatural dreams and a villain who's second-cousin to some kind of demons. 

I don't really feel qualified to judge The Stand. It's not contemporary, so it's hard to judge it by today's standards, even though, I believe, that it stands up fascinatingly well. (I saw a quote from this book on some pretentious Tumblr aesthetic blog the other day; at least some bits of the book have survived, even if they were taken brutally out of context. Par for the Tumblr aesthetic course.) Also, it's Stephen King. I have read so few King books, and there's such a reputation to get around.

Not to mention the book is so dang long. I forgot the details of the first 400 pages because I was too wrapped up in the last 400. And then I forgot most of those 400 pages. Oops.

There's also the matter of the ginormous cast of characters. I'd say about half of them end up very, very dead. (Including my favorite. Insert every single weeping gif.) None of the deaths are your everyday, run-of-the-mill meaningful deaths, that serve as closure for that character's arc. No. There is no closure. There are only corpses. It's brutal, and it makes it all the more shocking when some characters die - because nothing pointed to their death, because they're senseless. But this is post-apocalyptic spiritual warfare, and senseless is how the game is played.

It's a very serious book. Very heavy. I would recommend it wholeheartedly, though not to the faint of heart (or to those short on time). But if you want a King book that won't really scare you so much as make you know the meaning of dread, The Stand is a great place to start. 

6/3/15 - A Book at the Bottom of my To-Read List

We've a bit of catching up to do, haven't we?

In the same week that I read The Wind in the Willows, I also read a book by Vivian Vande Velde. This book has been in my stacks for at least a year and a half. I'd bought it on sale, because it was a Velde book - and Velde is awesome! - and also because it was Arthurian mythology. No ordinary Arthurian mythology, but about a villain. Yes, VVV wrote a book called The Book of Mordred.

Awesome! I'm into the whole uncovering-the-person-behind-the-villain craze - I was more excited about Maleficent than most tween girls, I'd wager - and while Mordred was written before it all really got into mainstream swing, it still counts.

Unfortunately, Mordred didn't pull me in. A lot of it was that Mordred was barely in Mordred at all. For all it's a book about telling Mordred's side of the story - which I desperately wanted to hear - Velde focused more on the three women who were telling snippets of Mordred's life.

Look... there are some things that a good author should not do to their readers when they've promised them a story about someone like Mordred. One of those things, at the very top of the list, is to sideline the promised character to allow three unrelated characters - two-thirds of them original characters! - the chance to... if not shine, then at least try to. It's not fair to the reader.

I mean, sure, Mordred was cool. Great. Cute, apparently. Okay. He also had some issues with his parentage. Understandable. But this is The Book of Mordred. I want to know him! I want to get into his head. Not three random women's heads. (Okay, Nimue isn't random. But she's not all that connected to Mordred. Why?)

Maybe I wouldn't have minded that much if the three MCs had been more interesting. Alas. Alayna is boring, with no depth or endearing qualities to make me glad that I was in her head instead of Mordred's. Nimue is a little more interesting, but Mordred only comes into her story when it's over halfway through, and she's not that interesting. Keira is that "spunky young female protagonist" that litters this kind of literature - in other words, she's dead boring.

Also, what happened to Velde's writing? She writes so well in other books (Well-Timed Enchantment, anyone?). But her prose her was stiff and just as numbing as her protagonists.

All in all, a disappointment. I'm sad now.

June 19, 2015

6/18/15 - A Trilogy

If you've known me long enough to have a conversation about literary disappoints, you've probably heard about Jason Lethcoe and his series, The Misadventures of Benjamin Bartholomew Piff. I found the first two books when I was about... eleven? The third came out when I was twelve, and I devoured it. It ended on a huge cliffhanger - a game-changer, for sure - and I waited with bated breath for the fourth book, Wish You Were Here.

I kept waiting. Eventually I had to breathe, but my metaphorical breath was still pent up.

I waited years.

It was a traumatic experience. I wasn't into Firefly soon enough to feel the sting of betrayal and unjust cancellation, but I can sympathize, because a series is sort of like a TV show, and my series was cruelly cut off.

This isn't about Benjamin Piff, but it is about Lethcoe. I finally let Lethcoe back into my life after he hurt me (probably unintentionally, I don't blame him). This time it was the mercifully completed series, The Mysterious Mr. Spines.

The Mysterious Mr. Spine's first book, Wings (not to be confused with Aprilynne Pike's awful anorexic plant-fairy story), was pretty similar to Benjamin Piff, to be honest: Edward McLeod is orphaned when his mother dies, and he's in a horrid orphanage, though this is in the 20s. There's an itch between his shoulders that he can't scratch. Meanwhile, a handful of magical people are searching for him - some who are benevolent, like Mr. Spines, a strange little spiked man, and some who aren't so benevolent, like Scruggs, a demonic whip-wielding "man." In the course of the very short book, Edward discovers the hard way that the itch in his shoulders is where his wings are growing.

I'll be frank - it's not the best writing on earth. (It's not as good as Benjamin Piff - but then, I'm biased.) The concept is not totally original but still untrod enough to be interesting: Mr. Spines and his apprentices are Guardians who "fell" from the "Higher Places." Yes, it's basically about Milton's angels and Dante's levels of heaven. The original faller was the Jackal, who busted up the bridges to the seven heavenly levels as he fell, and now the Guardians are awaiting the prophesied Builder, to fix the bridges and let them back up into the worlds.

Not much of this happens in Wings. It's mostly leadup into the next book - it deals with Edward growing his wings, meeting the Guardians, and finding out about the conflict between the Groundlings (fallen, corrupted Guardians) and the good guys. Also about Edward's mother, who was a glorious warrior against the Jackal before she died, and some unsubtle hinting about her relationship with Mr. Spines. Mostly, Edward runs and freaks out about the guys chasing him.

The highlight of the book is at the end, in the Woodbine (first level of Heaven), where all the dead mortals are stuck with the bridges broken. Edward ends up there and is rescued by Jack the Faun and a little man with big hairy feet called Tollers. LETHCOE, I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE.

Flight picks up about where Wings left off. Edward is in the Woodbine with his allies, trying to figure out what to do next.

Honestly, I expected more. These books are too short for anything nonessential to happen, but it feels like 80% of the book is filled with nonessentials. There's a lot of talk about the Bridges and the Jackal and the Builder, and getting Edward's mother back, but there's not a lot of doing about those things. Like Wings, a lot of it is taken up with running away from the bad guys, and Edward Eragoning it up when he miraculously uses a Word of Power he discovered through - luck? - that's too powerful for his strength.

This is, of course, the book where the familial relationships are cleared up. For some reason, there's not a lot of emotional fallout. There is a pretty sad moment when Edward loses a dear possession, but it's not... heartbreaking. Like I said, the book is just too short and shallow to really dive into the implications. I get that it's a middle-grade book, but I've read plenty of middle-grade books that really punched me in the gut. I don't get that from Flight.

But for those of you who were skeptical about coincidences surrounding the names and species of Jack the Faun and Tollers, the "supplemental materials" at the end of this book is a treatise on Mr. Spine's fall from the Higher Places, written by Jack the Faun. His full name? Jack C. Staples. YEAH YEAH YEAH.

Song finishes the story with a resounding... deus ex machina.

At least in the third and final book, we get a little action towards fulfilling the goals that have been in place since Chapter 2 or 3 of the first book. There's the assault on the Jackal's fortress with some questionable choice of companionship, and there are, to be fair, some pretty good scenes between Edward and Lucy, Jack the Faun's niece. Their little thing is pretty cute.

Edward's relationship with Mr. Spines is underwhelming. At first, Edward harbors some understandable resentment towards Mr. Spines, and it makes some amount of sense; it's not the best-written resentment, but it's still good. Then he does a 180, and his opinion of Mr. Spines just... miraculously clears. The end of the story would have been more poignant if the emotions had been more complex - and again, middle-grade fiction is not exempt from emotional complexity!

It ends with one of the most egregious uses of deus ex machina that I've ever read, which is sad because there was plenty of room to build up to this ending - so many ways to fix it so it would have felt organic, and not just an easy out. It made me sad. Lethcoe can do better than this.

It's a very short series - I probably read each one in about an hour or so - and if you have to choose between The Mysterious Mr. Spines and, say, Fallen, please go for Mr. Spines. At least there's Jack the Faun to chuckle over, and the Guardian world is really pretty interesting. (Not to mention Tabitha, a young Guardian who sort of reminds me visually of Pearl from Steven Universe, if Pearl had wings.) Lethcoe writes amusing supplemental material.

I don't know. I'm sorry, Lethcoe; it's not you, it's me.

6/3/15 - A Book Over 100 Years Old

I come to you bearing news of a story that most of us have probably only experienced through film: The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, published in 1908, which gives me just enough room to review it for the Book Over 100 Years Old challenge.

(Isn't that the most adorable cover? I want this edition.)

Like I said, most of us, at least the 'us' who are around my age, are probably more familiar with Ratty and Toad and Mole through the Disney double-feature, Ichabod and Mr. Toad. It's a wonderful little movie. I also saw some animated version of the whole book when I was very young, but it scared the crap out of me. Too realistic. I'd probably enjoy it now because it seemed more faithful to the book, which, as it turns out, is precious.

Wind&Willows is very much a product of its time. If you've never read any novels from around the turn of the century, this is a good one to start with. It's got animals doing human things (around and with humans, no less!) like a children's story, but it's also got some pretty beautiful scenes. The chapter entitled "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" is especially attention-grabbing. 

It's an easy book to read because it's so... well, charming. It's got a bit of everything. How do you not like a book where a Toad drives a motorcar like a maniac? Where, interspersed with Toad's drama, is an episodic unfolding of the idyllic life of a Mole and a Water Rat's friendship? What about a reenactment of Odysseus's return and subsequent routing of the suitors - when Odysseus is actually a delinquent and very naughty Toad?

Meanwhile, under the shenanigans and weasel-beating and the occasional comedy of animal manners, Grahame has a few nuggets of thought to pass on to the reader. What's the meaning of home? When's the time to leave home and when's the time to stay? How do nature and civilization play together? They're never stated outright, but the undercurrents of conflict and questioning are there. It's enhanced by the playfulness of the rest of the story. Somehow, these subtexts are easier to take - they're even lovely - when it's a Water Rat pondering them.

But on the whole, Wind&Willows is a delightful, lighthearted romp through some river country in England, played out by sophisticated animals who may sometimes have too much fun with motorcars and riverboats. 

June 1, 2015

5/28/15 - March Book

Three months late, I finally manage to find a decent-sounding book published in March by - as per the new rules of the Monthly Debut Challenge - an author I've never read. We'll see if we can get something for April and May eventually.

Let's just hope that it's better than Liars, Inc., though, because Liars was a pretty underwhelming offering.

Basically, what happens is that three kids decide that making a profit on lying for their school's high schooled population - forging signatures and such, ensuring that their generation of horny teenagers sleeps with enough of each other so that they won't be a laughingstock for the whole remaining six months of their high school existences - is a really good idea! Except one of the members, the son of a senator, soon vanishes, and because apparently the stupidity of the whole Lying At School, Inc. has rubbed off on the main character, Max Cantrell, he decides to lie to the FBI - the FBI - when they ask if Max knows what happened.

When your MC lies to the FBI because he thinks it might piss off his friend, you know that your MC has some priority issues. Or the story does.

After the painfully bad choice - I mean, this is an agonizingly misjudged, dude-decides-to-hit-himself-between-the-legs-with-a-baseball-bat-painful kind of choice - Max continues to make even worse choices! Running from the FBI? Check. Running from the FBI after firing at them even though you are totally innocent? Check. Trusting the shady privately-employed mercenaries instead of the FBI? Check, check. Max and his Mary Sue girlfriend, Parvati, are idiots. Idiots. As much as I applaud the attempt at adding a little diversity, all Parvati's biracial inheritance supplies is a lot of talk about almond-shaped eyes, ink-black hair, white saris, and a little guilt on this reviewer's part for criticizing her. Parvati is still a Mary Sue.

There's also the general shoddiness of the story. Nothing hangs together well - not the beginning, which is the only part which actually includes the titular organization, and certainly not the ending, which had me physically rolling my eyes. I won't spoil anyone who wants to read this for themselves, but... dear Lord. It was, in all honesty, awful.

If you must read a March 2015 book, go for another one. You're not missing anything, giving this one a pass.

5/26/15 - A Pulitzer Prize-winning Book

Can you believe that this is my first Toni Morrison book? And I call myself an English major.

Beloved is, unexpectedly for me, a ghost story. I never thought that was the kind of thing that Toni Morrison wrote. Then again, I was never really sure what Toni Morrison wrote, which says more about my sad lack of awareness than anything else. Still, that sad lack of awareness made for a very powerful, attention-grabbing experience with Beloved.

I said in my brief Goodreads review that I'm not sure if this is the kind of book that's appropriate to say you liked. How do you 'like' a book like Beloved? Does that mean you like books about racial violence, about the murder of children, about fragments of a fragment of a culture? Don't get me wrong - this is a good book. Beloved is a great book. Sethe is a modern-day mythic heroine somewhere on the level of Antigone or Penelope, while she at the same time is one of the most truly human protagonists I've ever read. The other characters, while never reaching Sethe's transcendent level, are engaging, mesmerizing in their strength and fragility: Denver, Paul D, Beloved of course, and the others.

But what these characters go through, and knowing how much of their story comes from history, makes it impossible to say that I like this book. It might be different if it were a speculative story, if the torture and the dehumanization were tools for the story goal to be pursued and gained, tools for character development. But this is a story about the slavery, the torture and the dehumanization, and while it is also about the people who struggled against and occasionally overcame that, it makes it difficult to really assess my reaction to it.

So I think the best way to assess my reaction to it is to take myself out of the equation completely and deal with the book itself. Beloved is a good book; it's a great book, about a worthwhile subject, told in the most masterfully controlled and yet rightly out-of-control emotion and passion of any author. Read it. It's difficult, but read it.

5/19/15 - A Book Written By Someone Under 30

This is the book I finished on the airplane ride home from Paris! I would say it has good associations now, but that was a nightmare of a homecoming, so... there are no good associations. Except for the delicious bagel I got the morning of the second day of flying, and even that is clouded over by the fact that the airport milk I got was bad... so disappointing. Thankfully, Alif the Unseen, the book for the Book Written By Someone Under 30 challenge, is good enough to provide plenty of good associations on its own.

Go read the Goodreads snippet, if you don't already know what the gist of the story is. Because I, for sure, cannot sum it up myself in a way that would do it any justice. Middle Eastern unrest, a clever yet impossibly lame hacker for an MC, something like One Thousand and One Nights, actual jinn and their supernatural habitat, the mingling of technology and magic! Not to mention fantastically drawn characters! What is there not to love about this story?

I gave it a solid 4.5 on Goodreads, which echoes another recent 4.5 - A Darker Shade of Magic. The two stories give me a lot of the same feelings - there wasn't the emotional depth that would have otherwise catapulted these two books into a full 5 stars, but they have everything else. The writing is not flowery or purple, but it's beautiful, expressive and magical without sacrificing coherency; the characters flow over their stereotypes to become heroes you really, really root for; both authors excel at mingling magic with a sense of the Real World. 

Alif comes with the added bonus of truly beautiful musings on religion. The religion of choice is, of course, Islam; however, like any story with a decent perspective on religion, there are moments specifically for adherents of Islam (a lot rests on the translation, or inability thereof, of the Qu'ran) and there are moments for everyone who believes in a higher spiritual power or deity. And what beautiful moments Wilson gives. They made my brain purr.

This is an adult book (often classified, mistakenly, as YA) and for that reason I would warn younger/more sensitive readers of some brief sensual scenes and strong language, but, seriously, if there's any chance of you not being disturbed by these things, read this book. If there's any more adulty book that you read, it should be this one. 

May 28, 2015

5/5/15 - An Author I Love

Jodi Lynn Anderson is the kind of author that I trust. While she has never done anything truly mindblowing on the level of, say, Markus Zusak, she writes well and consistently. My personal favorites were her middle-grade May Bird series, but there was also Tiger Lily which I have wanted to reread almost since I finished reading it the first time.

May Bird being other-world fantasy, and Tiger Lily being glorified Peter Pan fanfiction, these of Anderson's offerings made me used to her fantastical side. Peaches takes up on the more realistic side, though the peach orchard that the novel's three protagonists - Leeda, Birdie, and Murphy - inhabit for a while might be more magical than even Neverland. 

From the very first page, it's made apparent that Peaches is a novel for a slightly older teenage audience. The situations are more mature, but more than that, Anderson's style is more mature. It's solid and dependable with just the sweetest, slightest hint of magic - a lot like the story itself. Her characters are... they're basically flawless. I went from feeling meh about all three of them to rooting for them to live together forever, on the peach orchard, happily ever after, please.

It wasn't quite that simple, of course, but I still loved where the story went. It was meandering but not pointless, a little circumstantial but never in a way that made me want to suspend my suspension of disbelief. Anderson executed a balancing act that deserves applause and frequent return trips. And there are sequels!

4/29/15 - A Play/A Book That Made Me Cry

The reading history log for the last week or so of April and the first week or so of May is... patchy, to say the least. Sometimes I never even finished filling in my reading goals for the week all the way. The 23-29 week of April only has three books in it, and only two of those were read. Fortunately, those two were Challenge entries!

I used up another easy out that week - A Play. Plays are incredibly short, they should be easy to understand, and did I mention that they're short? Not to mention that The Children's Hour by Lillian Hellman was made into a movie starring Audrey Hepburn. My favorite actress ever. So I'd been meaning to read this one for a while.

The gist of the play is that a boarding-school brat starts a rumor that her two headmistresses are engaged in lesbian activity. In the... 40s? As you can imagine, it's not a happy play. 

It's an engaging one, though. The characters owned their voices, and while it takes a little while to distinguish the generic WWII women's names in your head, you get there eventually. It helps that Hellman manages suspense and especially dialogue really, really well. You love who you're supposed to love and you hate who you're supposed to hate, with equal and opposite passions. 

It makes the ending worse, being so fond of the characters. The whole play is suffused with a sort of sadness - which makes sense; it's a suitable sadness, which still doesn't take away from the effect it's supposed to have. 

Not a play for everyone - the ending is deeply disturbing - but a good one. If you can handle it, I'd recommend it. I know, now that it's been a few weeks, that I'm ready to watch the Hepburn movie.

And we have A Book That Made Me Cry. Is it cliché that this is one of my very favorite novels - possibly my favorite standalone story? If it is, I don't care. Faces is worth it.

If you don't know the story of Till We Have Faces, don't read a summary. Just go get it and read it. Don't even glance at the back blurb. Just read it. All you need to know is what's on the front cover: there is a lot about faces, it's a myth retelling, and C.S. Lewis wrote it.

But this is not the Lewis of Narnia; this is not the Lewis of Screwtape; this is not the Lewis of radio broadcasts about Christianity. This is a wholly separate Lewis, approaching the divine with nearer a divine sense than Aslan got in all seven books. (Not to disparage Narnia; I, like almost every other homeschooler, have a deep sycophantic love for Narnia. But Faces is different.)

Do you like flawlessly, lovingly crafted and handled female protagonists? Do you like tangles upon tangles of emotional, spiritual, and religious questions, woven and punched together until the mass is almost too heavy for your heart to bear? Do you like having your carefully cradled beliefs and notions about gods and humans pierced by arrow after unerring arrow of honesty and doubt? Do you like knowing that the divine is unknowable and that the fault is not in our stars but in our unimaginable smallness and unimportance? Do you like being told that despite our unimaginable smallness and unimportance that something too big for us to ever comprehend exists for us and watches over us in our unimaginable lives?

If so, read Till We Have Faces. If not, read Till We Have Faces. There's something unspeakably freeing about having your insignificance articulated in this way. It's cathartic. I recommend Faces every six months to deconstruct any sense of pride or bigness that you might think about cultivating - in case you make Orual's mistake of writing a book.

April 30, 2015

4/22/15 - A Book Based On Its Cover

I'm using up all of my "get out of limbo free" cards, but this one was definitely worth more than the last one!

Girls Like Us was more of a wild card than Guy In Real Life. The cover isn't that descriptive, and neither is the title. I'm still trying to figure out why I picked it up. Maybe because it was small.

It is a short, tidy little book that I read in a little over an hour, all told. It is not a tidy story, as I found out, and as you can find out with a quick glance at its Goodreads description.

Quincy and Biddy are both graduates of their high school’s special ed program, but they couldn’t be more different: suspicious Quincy faces the world with her fists up, while gentle Biddy is frightened to step outside her front door. When they’re thrown together as roommates in their first "real world" apartment, it initially seems to be an uneasy fit. But as Biddy’s past resurfaces and Quincy faces a harrowing experience that no one should have to go through alone, the two of them realize that they might have more in common than they thought — and more important, that they might be able to help each other move forward.

I've never had experience with the kind of situation that Giles describes from the perspectives of Biddy and Quincy, and I don't know of any first- or secondhand knowledge that Giles might have, so I don't know how much justice she does to this kind of story. But from a purely storytelling perspective, Giles does not do too badly. There's an interesting tension between the two leads, and there are enough divergences from cliche that made me keep reading when I might have gotten bored instead. There are plenty of conversations that highlight all sorts of social issues - race, class, education, even a couple gender conversations. Nothing felt overly heavy-handed (a little bit, but not overly), and the characters are well-drawn enough to make the conversations unbiased.

What isn't balanced or well-drawn is Giles's attempts at writing voice. As other reviewers have noted, Biddy and Quincy have almost exactly the same voice, especially at the beginning, when readers have to distinguish two first-person perspectives right off the bat. It's not just that they have the same sort of thoughts, it's that they have almost the same accents. Maybe that's how it works in Texas, but it seems unlikely. It's jarring sometimes and I often had to check back to chapter headings multiple times to remember who was talking.

Another warning: there are pretty intense and explicit descriptions of and conversations about rape/sexual abuse. Seriously. Young readers and people sensitive to this should probably not read Girls Like Us.

Flaws taken into account, I did enjoy Girls Like Us. It was, for all its bleak situations and character development, an oddly charming little story about three women coming together as the kind of family they need. I do recommend it, with significant reservations.

4/15/15 - An Author I've Never Read

Let's do the catch-up game one more time...

One admission out of the way: I am not a gamer. I am also not a not-gamer. I like games like some people like The Golden Girls. They're fun and have a limitless short-time obsession factor, but I'm not selling my soul to them, nor am I going to spend a lot of time on them after a month or two. Or money.

So this was a bit out of my range of experience. These aren't even my kinds of games - I'm an uber-lite gameplayer, along the lines of Zelda and Sonic. I've never played an MMORPG (unless DragonFable counts?) and I've always been terrified at the idea of participating in a game like D&D - too much passion and movement, too few guidelines. I like Mario Kart, where you have a designated track which you have to make your way around a set amount of times with what comes down ultimately as the most superior sense of efficiency. It's great. But I digress.

Actually, that's a sign. I'm way more into talking about how Mario Kart is exactly my type of game than I'm into talking about the book I'm supposed to be reviewing. It's not that Guy In Real Life is a bad book, per se. It's just... not a good one, either.

It's the classic story of "a guy and a girl from two very different lifestyles have a meet-cute(-but-awkward-too) and then end up falling in love through various quirky incidents that shift up and down the scale of believability." It's so classic that I was bored. It's a constant set-up of "obstacle - obstacle hurdled" repeated until the book ends, with a bizarre obstacle that was basically every 90s/early 2000s parent's worst chatroom nightmare.

Boy has a weird, not-very-friendly friend who's super into something the way Boy is into Girl? Check. Girl has a cast of cardboard, often pointless friends who don't like Boy? Check. Girl has another suitor who goes toe-to-toe with Boy? Check. It's all so generic. While Svetlana did have something of a unique voice, she came off a lot as obnoxious rather than individualistic, and I don't even know what was going on with Lesh.

I'm bored just talking about it. It's not as much rage-fuel as a John Green book but that just makes it drab to talk about. Two stars, find some other, actually quirky contemporary teen romance.

April 8, 2015

4/8/15 - A Memoir

This review is actually for last week's book, which I didn't get to because of extenuating circumstances. And that's my excuse for not having a review for this week - homework. Forgive me. Just when I was caught up, right? Oh, well. Summer break is coming.

But last week, I was successful, with both completing the book and enjoying it. Behold: my review of the inimitable Stephen King's On Writing.

Before I dive into the review, I should admit that I have only read one piece of King fiction before, and that's not even one of his horror ones: it was The Dark Tower, which I enjoyed greatly despite being really confused. I've read more Stephen Lawhead than Stephen King - perhaps a crime, perhaps not.

But I am a huge fan of King himself, and his attitude towards writing. He's hilarious, for one thing - don't let the horror thing scare you away. He's a witty guy. I had to put the book down a couple times to laugh (the poison ivy, oh my gosh).

But more than that, he's experienced. He's got a lot of disappointment and success and years under his belt. It doesn't matter that I don't gel with 100% of his opinions on writing and the writing process; I still have to respect them, because he has for sure been doing something right. He doesn't command respect, but you can't help but give it to him, reading this book.
He's also genuine. Any writer that doesn't let you in on the hardships that come with fiction-writing are selling you something, and King never does this. He's truthful, and his transparency makes this easy to read, both physically and spiritually, if that makes sense.

If you're a writer, please read this (unless language really bothers you/would distract from his message). Just to know the experiences of an author who's more experienced than 95% of us writers-to-be ever will. And if you're not a writer, why not read it anyway? It's relatively brief, and if you want some King context, it'll be fun. I don't know any reason (besides the language, for my more sensitive audiences) why I wouldn't recommend this to anyone. 

March 26, 2015

3/26/15 - Number In The Title/Banned Book

And I unexpectedly make up for the time I lost, aided (for once) by a college class!

This week I decided to read Boy21 by Matthew Quick for my Book With A Number In The Title challenge, but what I had forgotten was that back in 2014, I had chosen Brave New World for my Banned Book challenge. And as it turns out, Brave New World was this week's assignment for my Secondary Worlds course! So the week that I dropped will be rectified now.

Boy21 was an oddity for me, even more than All The Bright Places (gah, that title). For one thing, not only is it a contemporary fiction thing with an undoubtedly "quirky" premise (boy with problems makes friends with another boy with even worse problems), it takes place against a solid backdrop of sports. Gasps from the audience.

But I'd seen good reviews (not like there aren't good reviews for Paper Towns, Collin, geez), and I'm always up for a good bromance, so I tried it.

In short, it was good. It wasn't anything particularly groundbreaking, though it easily could have been. It could have been anything, and therein, I believe, lies its problem. It could have been anything and it couldn't decide what. A black/white racial critique? A black/Irish critique? A friendship story? A mob story? A psychological story? A romance? A coming-of-age?

And there's nothing at all wrong with trying to tackle more than one of these issues, even all of them. Boy21 had huge potential, and I think Quick could have done a lot with it if he had expanded the story by 150 or 200 pages. As it is, it's a very slim, large-printed book of 250 pages (50,000 words, perhaps) and it just doesn't get into anything very deeply.

The titular character, Boy21 (or Russ), alone has so much potential - murdered parents, an obsession with space, the insistence that he's from "the cosmos," his relationship with the narrator, Finley. But none of it is ever explored. It's just explained. Same with Finley's backstory; his issues are narrated mostly through voiceover and exposition, all at the very end of the story. His relationship with Erin is even more truncated; all of the relationships are, really. And so are the social issues - the racial and ethnic tensions, the urban commentary, the educational/sports problems. These things are introduced and then never quite developed.

It ends as obscurely as it begins, but less satisfactorily. It's enjoyable, and it's not that Quick can't write. The plot progression was just... less than stellar. Or maybe I was just expecting too much. As it is, Boy21 felt like a fragment more than a fully-realized story.

Brave New World marks my first foray into classic dystopia, which is really pretty scandalous. I wish I had liked Huxley's work more.

I have to get the positive out of the way first, though. It's an incredibly balanced viewpoint. What you get out of dystopias now - the subgenre of "white girl saves the world" stories - tend to have very firm ideas on What Society Should Be. And that's all well and good, but it makes dystopia lean more towards fantasy than social commentary, which seems to be how dystopia started. And I have to say that while I find absolutely no problem with genres changing and shifting over time according to what the authors want to write, I think I like the complexities of Brave New World over the more cut-and-dry worlds of whatever "stick it to the Man" stories end up on Books-a-Million front shelves.

And anyway, Alpha-Pluses are an absolute dream after mother-hugging Dauntless (excuse my French).

There are no good guys in Brave New World. John is set up as one but even he can't resist the effects of conditioning, even if his conditioning was self-inflicted and "alternative." Even Shakespeare (may he rest in highest peace) is not suitable for basing a morality system upon. Anyway, with no good guys, it's hard to say where Brave New World comes to in the end.

It's really a system that, as my lit professor said at the end of the class, is hard to object to, once you're in it. And that really makes it infinitely more terrifying than any Capitol or whoever the fudge was in charge of Chicago or any of the vaguely American hotspots in White Girl Saves The World stories.

I didn't like Brave New World. But I was impressed by it. It's a hard story to ignore. When you have a story where there are no good alternatives, just as there are no good characters, it makes you think a bit harder.