12.30.2011

A Monster Calls


The award for most heart wrenching read of 2011 (if only culled from the number I consumed this year) goes to A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.  Thankfully, this isn't simply a story that is engineered to rip at your heartstrings for the perverse glee of watching you sob (though you will sob).  The sadness in this tale comes with an attempt to help the protagonist understand and cope with terrible things happening around him.  It's an emotional lesson in grief and the fact that sometimes the thing we most fear will happen... and what is even harder is that we'll need to keep living after it does.

A Monster Calls is a story about a young boy visited one night by a monster after midnight... but this is not the monster he was expecting.  Conor is expecting the monster from his nightmare, but instead he's visited by something ancient and wild... something that will make him face far scarier things than anyone so young should ever have to face (which, incidentally, are part of his nightmares).  Conor's mother has been undergoing chemotherapy treatments and the latest round has taken a particular toll.  Conor's grandmother -- who, in his opinion, acts nothing like a real grandmother should act and who Conor dislikes intensely -- has come to look after Conor, though he is used to looking after himself and his mother, so he remains convinced that his grandmother's assistance is not needed.  Conor's father now lives in America with his new family and rarely sees his firstborn son, though it appears even Conor's father is coming to visit and that doesn't really bode well.  As his mother's condition worsens, Conor is repeatedly visited by the monster and while Conor might simply wish to dismiss this monster as a nightmare, he can't quite dismiss the rather tangible evidence that he is, in fact, not entirely dreaming it all up.  The boy who has had to grow up quite quickly and is so used to handling everything must find a way to survive the terrifying fact that his mother will die and he cannot do anything to change this.

If you are not in tears by the end of this book, then you must have a heart of stone.  I freely admit that I bawled and even now, recalling the novel, my eyes are misting.  The brilliance of the novel, though, is not in a sob-story.  It's in the inventive creation of a monster that provides Conor with other things to think about... that all end up tying back to the fact that Conor must deal with his grief.  There are many lessons that Conor learns from the monster... among which is the fact that it is okay for Conor to really feel whatever he's feeling... whether that's sadness or rage or selfishness or pure and simple sorrow.  For anyone who has lost a loved one, this book will hit home and hit hard.

As a final note, somewhat apart from the reading experience but still tied to the book, I suggest that you go and watch the book trailer for A Monster Calls, as it's quite possibly the best book trailer I have ever seen to date: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8-psqOON-Y

12.26.2011

The Girl of Fire and Thorns

I knew The Girl of Fire and Thorns was going to be fantastic the second I saw the Tamora Pierce praise on the cover. (Blurbs work, people, they really do.) I grew up reading and re-reading Tamora Pierce novels to the point where I had to put plastic laminate on my copies so the covers wouldn't fall off. Allow that particular tidbit of information to give proper weight to this statement: while I was reading Carson's novel, I felt a spark of that feeling I had so many years ago of reading Woman Who Rides Like a Man for the very first time. It was this quiet delight mixed with anxious desire that the story keep up with its fascinating arc and not take a turn for the predictable or tame -- and I was never once disappointed. There's an awareness that the culture and mythology presented here is new and not simply a recycled version of another novel; while Carson's writing might reveal echoes of something like Pierce's influence, she has her own brand of magic, religious twists, cultural depth, and intricate detail. All of this combines to make Rae Carson a wildly talented new voice in YA fiction that you should read straight away so you can experience her storytelling prowess for yourself.

Lucero-Elisa de Riqueza, Princess of Orovalle, is the chosen one. Every century, a person has been called to the service of God -- and when the princess was seven days old, God's light descended upon her during her dedication day ceremony and left the Godstone lodged in her navel. The Godstone is very real sign that she has been chosen for service, and Elisa has grown up with the burden of this knowledge physically lodged in her body. Unfortunately, Elisa also feels grossly incapable of doing anything noteworthy and struggles with the awareness that many also share this opinion, knowledge she gleans when she catches their silent stares of disbelief and disgust. Overweight and only truly committed to studying religious scriptures, Elena is not the usual candidate for service to God, despite her elevated royal status. The Girl of Fire and Thorns opens on Elisa's wedding day. A very rushed decision was made for Elisa to marry King Alejandro de Vega of Joya d'Arena, a northern ally of Orovalle. Deeply aware that she must have been the counteroffer to the idea of marriage to her beautiful and capable elder sister, Juana-Alodia, Elisa hopes that King Alejandro will be old and ugly so she is not such a disappointment to him. When King Alejandro turns out to be a quite handsome and charming widower, Elisa doesn't know what to think, though she's much relieved when he appears kind and doesn't seem put out at her request that they do not immediately become intimate. Instead, they talk and Elisa is uncertain what her feelings are towards her new husband when they set out for Joya d'Arena, leaving behind everyone and everything Elisa knows except for two trusted servants. The journey is dangerous and one of Elisa's servants dies along the way, fatally wounded while escaping a burning carriage that was set ablaze in an attack on their party. During that same attack, Elisa saves Alejandro's life and begins to understand that her Godstone goes ice cold when she is in serious danger. (Having been sheltered in the palace her whole life, Elisa assumes there will be a certain amount that she'll learn about the world, but she really has no idea just how shielded she has been.)

Upon arrival in Joya d'Arena, Elisa realizes that Alejandro is not ready to tell his people about his marriage, and so it is kept secret and she has to navigate the treacherous waters of court life without her secret husband's assistance. She makes an immediate enemy of a woman on the king's council that Elisa believes must be Alejandro's mistress, a woman who sends her personal maid, Cosmé,to assist Elisa (and, presumably, spy on her). Constantly watched and yet quite lonely, Elisa discovers that the only benefit to her arrival in Joya d'Arena is something she had never even suspected she had been without -- a whole world of information about the Chosen ones that Elisa had never known... and, indeed, information that was purposefully kept from her, not just by her father or sister or trusted servant but by her entire kingdom. The reader and Elisa both have even more questions as we go further down the rabbit hole. The Chosen ones might all have a destiny, but what happens if they die before fulfilling it? And how would they even know if their role was fulfilled? Does a great contribution have to be a large gesture or perhaps it's something small? And why do the enemies of her people command a powerful magic that no one else can seem to channel? How is Elisa ever to help her people triumph over such a fearsome foe? This is only the beginning of Elisa's story and the most dramatic action is to come as Elisa is kidnapped from the palace and marched across a vast desert so she, the Chosen one, might help a struggling people. The complications continue as she comes to understand that her kidnappers might not be the true enemy -- for there is one far more fearsome quickly crossing the desert to destroy all who oppose them. They wield dark magic, magic with a deep connection to Elisa and her godstone, and their victory would mean death to Joya d'Arena, Orovalle, and the world as Elisa knows it.

Things do not come easily to Elisa and for that, she's a heroine to be admired. Much of her life is dictated to her and she finds it hard to motivate herself to take action. That's most obvious when it comes to her weight, but is a common thread in her life as she spends more time reacting to events than taking action. When Elisa finally does take charge, the reader wants to cheer, having seen her grow and become more confident in herself, but it's not an easy journey. Be prepared to wade through the self-pity at the beginning of the novel -- I promise it serves a purpose -- so you can watch Elisa blossom in to a young woman who can wield real power. I despise the way so many books assume you'll take up the side of the main character simply because the author tells you to. In The Girl of Fire and Thorns, the reader comes to believe in Elisa... even before Elisa really believes in herself. Additionally, many novels feature a main character who is an outsider and is forced to quickly learn about a new place, but I appreciated the twist in Elisa's case: she's always been in the thick of things and yet was incredibly sheltered from so much knowledge. She and the reader learn about the history of other Bearers and there's no massive infodump. Learning about the world is another matter, though, as the reader gleans bits and pieces as the story progresses. It's not unpleasant and left me hungering for more, asking questions that were only tinged with curiosity and not impatience for deeper understanding. There is such rich material in this world that one feels as though Carson could spend volumes on the culture, religion, and history of Orovalle, Joya d'Arena, and its surrounding area.

For those wondering, while I think this novel is purposely focused on Elisa and her personal development (and I greatly appreciate this), there are romantic elements to this story. Undoubtedly, there will be a romantic story that comes more to the foreground, but I'm glad The Girl of Fire and Thorns keeps its real focus on Elisa as she develops her own self-reliance and determination. She might be aided by others, be they friends or those with the potential to be more, but Elisa is standing on her own two feet as she works through the problems she faces. I'm not dismissing the romantic developments within this novel -- Carson makes some brave moves and her characters are all the stronger for it, but we're still dealing with a teen novel and a teenage heroine, so it's only right that we have some heart-fluttering moments and questions. That said, you'll also note that I'm giving no hints here about any leading fellows. No characters are quite as fully developed as Elisa, who takes center stage throughout the story and I believe this is a deliberate move. The reader might come to identify a few favorites and we certainly come to appreciate other characters and their particular contributions to the story, but one has the constant feeling that we'll get to know the key players better as we continue through the series arc.

A final note to address, if only because it's a somewhat unique element of this story, is the religious storyline that runs throughout the novel. Elisa, given a destiny by God, finds her greatest solace in reading sacred texts and is almost constantly praying. People who have a huge problem with religion might be displeased with this book but despite the emphasis on "God," I think it's important to recognize that this is not Christian lit. (Not everything with one god qualifies as Christian, guys.) Elisa has faith in a God and this God is important and very very real in her life and the lives of the people of this world. (Aside from the whole godstone thing, there are facts hinted to in The Girl of Fire and Thorns and more fully noted in The Crown of Embers, the sequel, which discusses how Elisa's people were actually brought to this world from a dying planet by God.) The presence of this God ensures that we accept there's a higher plan at work here, even if it doesn't (often) lead to deus ex machina styled scenarios. (This is much more of a clockmaker God than one who takes an active role, despite having relocated a whole people to a new planet which is, admitted, very hands-on.) Religion can be a touchy subject, so it's often skirted in fantasy YA that isn't specifically trying to address it. Personally, I had no problem with the addition of a religion to the mythology of this world -- I even welcomed it as an intriguing aspect to the story. There's the possibility for things to stretch too far in to the "God has a plan" direction but I'm willing to see what Carson has in store for us with this. I have faith it will be somewhere fascinating.

So as you can see, I was a huge fan of The Girl of Fire and Thorns. I devoured the book and was immediately hungry for more. Carson can't write fast enough for my taste and I can't wait to find out what happens to Elisa and those supporting characters who will come to play larger roles in the series. One can already tell that strong personalities don't always lead to constant harmony and Elisa will have to step on even some familiar toes if she's to assume her destined role and continue to make tough devisions. I don't quite know where Carson will take us with this series, but I'm content to be swept away with the story. She's proven herself worthy of my literary trust and I hope she has the same impression on many, many readers.

Full disclosure: I do not work on this book, but it does factor in to my professional life. However, my review here expresses my own personal opinion.

12.25.2011

A Christmas Carol

The story of A Christmas Carol is one that most of us in the Western world know fairly well... in fact, I would wager that most children over the age of 7 in the US or UK could give a pretty good breakdown of the general plotpoints with ease. But did we actually read the Charles Dickens classic to gain this knowledge? Or is your understanding of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future the result of a film adaptation? I'm not railing against movie adaptations, as I think A Christmas Carol translates brilliantly to film... to the point where we might all know the plot of this particular story as a result of a movie that puts a twist on the original tale. My personal favorite is The Muppet Christmas Carol, though a close second is Scrooged.

My only previous read of the actual text of A Christmas Carol occurred back in sixth grade. It's a short little novella and was a good introduction to Dickens, as his other tomes seemed daunting to an eleven-year-old. One can easily breeze through A Christmas Carol in a single evening, curled up by the fire with Christmas lights twinkling and presents under the tree. That said, A Christmas Carol really isn't something I would opt to re-read year after year. Here's where those film adaptations become very, very useful. You watch the Muppets, Bill Murray, Ebbie, or Scrooge and you've had your yearly dose.

This year, I noticed an Audible performance of A Christmas Carol done by Tim Curry and it simply had to be purchased and immediately loaded on to my ipod. I listened to it over the course of three days, knitting a Christmas present on my commute to work. I was surprised at how few details slip through the cracks in various performances and I was comforted by how familiar the words were to the point where I could have recited many passages along with Curry. (And some of them were even ones I could do without Gonzo's voice.) The story is timeless and it's hard to imagine the holidays without this particular tale in existence, when in fact it was only published in 1843. This might be a bit blasphemous to say, but it's second only to the actual origin story of Christmas in terms of our association with this time of year. Beyond Christmas, think of the cultural contributions of this novel to our general lexicon. Think of such outstanding quotes as "Mankind was my business," "as solitary as an oyster," "there's more of gravy than of grave about you," and even "'Bah,' said Scrooge. 'Humbug!'" Tim Curry gives a fun reading with voices that are never too ridiculous. I'll admit that I hoped for a little bit more, though I'm not quite sure what. Some flash, a bit more panache, something. I've listened to Curry read the first in the Series of Unfortunate Events and that was pure magic. Here, it was certainly amusing enough but I didn't feel the same delight for which I had hoped. I'm not sure I could reconcile the visual of Tim Curry anywhere in the story but as a voice in your ear, it's a fine way to experience A Christmas Carol for the first time in its original form or as a re-telling that isn't brought out with the rest of the Christmas DVDs and tinsel each year.

So on this Christmas Day, I leave you with this, quoted from memory:

"And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any many alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, every one!"

12.18.2011

Last-Minute Knitted Gifts

This just goes to show that you can never be quite sure what I'll be reviewing here.
I don't often review knitting books, but Open Road put this up on NetGalley and one should always try to review what one requests. A pretty little book, Last-Minute Knitted Gifts by Joelle Hoverson delivers exactly what it promises -- a collection of patterns that take less time than you might otherwise think. The gifts that are truly short on time aren't necessarily something that serious knitters will be tempted by (and, let's face it, the "linen tassel" for a bookmark is a bit of a joke and doesn't quite belong here), but for those knitters who are just starting to stretch their legs, this might be a nice book to consult when you're looking to find something that knits up "quickly." Note that "quickly" is a somewhat relative term, as there are patterns for blankets and sweaters in here... they just happen to be somewhat simple ones. The book itself doesn't seem concerned that "last-minute" usually implies that most of these patterns should be for quickly knit items... not perhaps one-skein things, but at least things you could conceivably finish within a few days (where the entirety of that time isn't spent furiously knitting). Some of these are definitely "Oh dear, so-and-so's birthday is a month and a half away, what do I do?" kind of things, so take "last-minute" with a grain of salt. There are some particularly pleasing scarf patterns that provide some nice inspiration and there's a pretty set of hand/wrist warmers. I, for one, will be making ample use of the angora bootie pattern as I struggle to keep up with knitting some tiny-yet-heartfelt presents for pregnant co-workers.

12.16.2011

Abandon

Meg Cabot's latest series is a dip in to the supernatural and mythological. Abandon features a marketing tagline of "She knows what it's like to die. Now Death wants her back." It's... sort of accurate, but rather sounds like a horror movie rather than a supernatural romance, right?

With a new spin on the Persephone myth, Abandon moves the story of a young girl drawn in to a relationship with Death to the setting of modern-day Florida... specifically, to Isla Huesos (aka Island of Bones) where secrets (among other things) don't seem to stay buried. Seventeen-year-old Pierce Oliviera is a bit different from the average teenager. You might point to her family's incredible wealth (her father is CEO of a large, environment-damaging company) or her parents' messy divorce that has her mother dragging Pierce back to the mother's own family and hometown. But really, the main thing that separates Pierce from every other teen (or adult, for that matter) is that she's died and returned to life. She can patiently explain the scientific descriptions of her body's shut-down and revival or what studies say the often-reported bright light might mean... but she can't actually describe what happened to her or she'd be labeled as crazy. Crazy is exactly what most people thought when she came back to life and started talking about much more than a bright light: finding herself in a place where she was pushed into a line, this man on a giant horse who she'd met before as a child, her sudden removal to a very calm room with him before he talked about her staying there forever, and the moment when she threw tea in his face to escape...

But let's back up for a second here.

The story begins with all that death experience in the past and Pierce trying to start again as a normal teenager in this new town. Cabot chooses to reveal information about Pierce's past in flashbacks, often triggered by the sudden appearance of the dark and brooding lord of the underworld, who seems to lurk around town with alarming frequency... particularly when we go in to this bit about how there isn't just one underworld and this guy is actually not Hades or anything, he's just the designated overseer for this particular underworld entry point for this zone. Hm. I'll also note that Pierce's moments where she pauses to remember something aren't clear and obviously delineated from what's going on at the moment. They're really hazy and sketchy flashbacks that make the reader wish she'd be just a little clearer and just get it all out there already. Quite honestly, that's my big criticism of the book, so I might as well get it out there, too. If Cabot is trying to distract you from the fact that this is a story about a boy (whose name is John, btw) who wants a girl back and a girl who doesn't quite want to admit she wants the boy back... well, then at least she succeeded in confusing you for long stretches of time.

When you finally have all the puzzle pieces, the story is mildly intriguing -- Pierce, as a child, met a dark man in a cemetery as she waited for her mother and grandmother to finish dealing with the details of her grandfather's funeral. Years later, Pierce drowned in the swimming pool in a theoretical accident and met him once more. This time, he was very interested in keeping her with him, but she fled (which is somewhat uncharacteristically brave of Pierce) and now she's back in the real world... unable to separate her near-death experience from the rest of her life, no matter how hard she tries (which isn't very hard at all) as stalker-John keeps popping up.

Readers of Twilight might be particularly intrigued with Abandon as it had a similar feel of fated (yet founded on nothing substantial) love that the characters struggled against in a half-hearted way while darker forces lurk about. As a set-up to a series, Abandon doesn't quite feel complete enough on its own, so you should probably be willing to commit if you embark upon this one. It's not unpleasant, but Pierce wasn't exactly a strong heroine. She was, in fact, quite a dim bulb at times (example: trying to catch a lecherous teacher in the act but failing to have a camera or something stashed away? or a plan as to how to escape?). John always has to swoop in and save her and we then proceed with the inevitable descriptions of cosmic attraction.

Abandon is a quick read and will, I imagine, have some adult cross-over fans who appreciate a twist on Greek mythology and some steamy (yet still YA acceptable) romance. Rather than give this two stars, I yielded to the fact that I did fall in to the world quite quickly, though I think a large part of the interest was in untangling the narrative as it looped around on itself. As far as the Persephone stories for this year go, I preferred The Goddess Test, but I'll still be interested on seeing where Cabot takes this series arc, as I can't quite suss out exactly where this is headed while still sticking with the mythological angle.

12.15.2011

Shatter Me

My advice to you is this: if you are a YA fan and have not read (or, indeed, do not know anything about) Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, then don't read this review beyond the first paragraph. Go find yourself a copy but do not read the summary, do not look for anything online, just start reading. Let this utterly fascinating and completely riveting story engulf your senses and steal away with your afternoon. Bid it farewell with delight, for the hours spent reading at breakneck speed be well spent. Be warned, though -- if you read this on public transportation, you will miss your stop. If you try to read this while something is cooking, your food will burn. Attempting to only read part of this novel will be a very hard task, as it will set upon your attention like a terrier, refusing to relinquish its hold until you've read every last word. So just trust me and go.

I will assume the rest of you who are still reading have already (a) read the book or (b) at least read enough to know the general plotline. I'll confess that I knew nothing whatsoever about Shatter Me before reading it which might be surprising, since everyone around me was raving, but I absented myself from conversations that got too specific. I only knew that those people were being so complimentary and several of them were people whose opinions actually mattered in my estimation. Rather than trying to educate myself, I decided to just start the novel and I cannot begin to describe my delight in this experience as I was swept away in the strong current of Mafi's storytelling. The story is deceptively simple and, frankly, somewhat common in its basest form if one considers the large number of dystopian novels piling up on our shelves these days. Yet I feel as though Shatter Me is a unique and precious tale, made rich by an author who allows us to see with new eyes.

Our narrator, Juliette, has been locked up for 264 days, during which she hasn't spoken to or touched another living soul. The reason the whole "hasn't touched" part is important is because Juliette's touch is what landed her in this cell, a prisoner of the Reestablishment. By touching someone, Juliette can inflict pain and can even kill. It's unintentional; it just happens. She doesn't know how or why but the mere fact has made her a prisoner, someone far too dangerous to allow to remain uncontrolled, particularly when it seems the Reestablishment is having difficulty maintaining power. Much of the beginning of her story is told in crossed out lines -- journal confessions adjusted so that the reader knows the conflicting thoughts and feelings within Juliette, who's struggling with her own comprehension of her situation, not to mention her sanity.

Stuck within the confines of this cell, with only her own thoughts for company, it's no surprise that Juliette herself clings to language like a life preserver and while some might find the prose to be a bit much, I thought it was rather fitting for someone who has all the time in the world to turn thoughts over in her mind. She's a bit strange, but then, so would we all after 264 days without real contact from another living soul. It's no surprise, then, that the introduction of a cellmate throws Juliette's world in to total chaos... particularly when that cellmate is a young man and perhaps not a stranger.

I won't go any further than that, really, where it comes to specifics. Juliette does see the world outside of this prison and we come to understand that the world is in chaos and the Reestablishment is barely holding on to control. While Juliette might see herself as a monster, there is the undeniable fact that she is powerful... and Juliette needs to decide whether she'll become a weapon or a warrior in the fight that could see the Reestablishment firmly in control or completely overthrown. It cannot all happen in the course of one book, but we definitely see a set-up for Juliette that presents her with options for her own life, love, and purpose.

There appear to be two camps where Mafi's writing is concerned and I'm rather firmly in positive camp. There are moments when action or emotions could have been described more succinctly, but personally I was never truly displeased with the more elaborate style of communication that Mafi/Juliette adopts. The love triangle is both strange and a bit predictable. The obvious good choice is so very good and the obvious villain is perhaps even more appealing for sheer interest value. The dystopian society is intriguing enough for a first novel in a series where one knows the second will likely take us further in to the complications and details of conflict. As I mentioned before, it's not the world itself that is the most intriguing, but Juliette's perspective and journey. Great storytelling can come from a tale that everyone has heard as long as the story is told well and I feel that Shatter Me is very illustrative of this concept.

I know that Juliette's power is all very X-Men, so I have trouble pinpointing exactly why it still felt like a unique idea for a dystopian novel setting. I think my favorite parts were all a little twisted, so maybe that's where my X-Men affection comes in. We might think we know exactly who's good and who's bad, but I'm looking forward to learning more about what compels both sides. I have a feeling it's all more complicated than we think. And with so many dystopian novels out there, I'm really relying heavily on my connection with the characters to be what sees me through. The crumbling world isn't what kept me reading late in to the night... it was Juliette and watching her cope. Everyone else might be falling to pieces, but Juliette is just learning to build herself up in to something strong and fearsome because her power cannot be ignored. She is not normal and that isn't something for her to lament any longer. She has to embrace it if she's going to survive. Shatter Me features a female character who has to find her own strength and courage (sure, there's a cute boy around to help her do that, but the romance here can be quite fun, so I accepted it... harder to accept is the standard girl in a pretty dress on the cover but whatever) and I'm looking forward to the next stage in this series. I sure hope it keeps the momentum going because I was delighted with this and it deserves some fantastic follow-up.

Full disclosure: I don't work on this book, but it does factor in to my professional life. My review is my own personal opinion, though, so weight this knowledge as you see fit.

10.02.2011

Hark! A Vagrant

If you have not yet been exposed to harkavagrant.com then I can only surmise that all the time you've spent on the internet to date has been wasted. Go rectify the situation immediately and while you're at it, go buy Kate Beaton's first book Hark! A Vagrant, a compilation of comics from the site with some book-exclusive comics tossed in to the mix.

I first came to know Kate Beaton's work after discovering her "Dude Watchin' with the Brontes" strip, where Emily and Charlotte ogle assholes and when Anne identifies them as such, her sisters respond "No wonder nobody buys your books." This might be her most famous strip and it kicks off the collection, but all of her work is like this -- smart, funny, and rather irreverent. The subject of her comics usually find their origins in literature of history, even if the interactions shown here may not have actually happened. (Case in point, when Tycho Brache responds to Johannes Kepler's suggestion of the earth orbiting the sun with "What if your wife orbits my dick.") Beaton expects her audience to be educated and to pick up on her clues as she's not about to waste time and valuable comic-space explaining subtleties to you. There are the occasional themed strips -- such as her exercise in guessing the plots of novels with covers drawn by Edward Gorey or Nancy Drew novels based solely on the jacket art -- and certain characters will reappear, depending on their popularity with readers. Some of my favorites include Sherlock Holmes and his Watsons, pirate nemeses, and the various French Revolution figures. Because Beaton is a Canadian, folks from the US might do a terrier head-tilt of confusion at a few of the strips, but even those comics will usually result in a chuckled (and a quick trip to Wikipedia to learn something about Canadian history).

For those of you thinking, "I love Kate Beaton's online comics, but is this book full of new ones or couldn't I just read most of it online?" my honest answer is that there isn't a lot of new stuff and most of what's in the book is what you've seen before, but I still think you should buy the book. Tally up the amount of time and the intensity of laughter provoked by her webcomics and I think you'll find that the price of this book is actually quite a steal. I will happily give Kate Beaton money with the knowledge that it's going toward supporting such a fantastic cartoonist. Think of it as compensation for the great amount of amusement we've had as a result of reading comics on her site bundled with a down payment on future work that will be just as delightful. So I hope that if you've enjoyed Beaton's work as I have that you'll go support her and buy her book. Just think -- now Charles Dickens and his simpering heroine fetish will always be on your bookshelves for your reading delight. So hot.

9.21.2011

Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Go to your calendar and circle September 27th, 2011. Right now. Make whatever preparations you must to ensure that you have the day to yourself. I'm serious here. Take the day off from work or plan to be sick from school; buy groceries the night before or have take-out numbers handy. Trust me. This book is worth it and once you start reading, you will not want to set it down.

I was blown away by Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone. From cover to cover, I delighted in it all. The creative storyline, the fantastic characters, the clever writing. At BEA, I went to a YA panel where this book's editor spoke at (somewhat excessive) length about her adoration for this book, though she gave surprisingly few specific details about its general plot beyond what the tagline and backcover would indicate. I decided to take a chance and just read it -- and when I finished reading, I immediately wanted to start it all over again (and I haven't felt like that about a book since Anna and the French Kiss).

I now understand the editor's difficulty in summarizing, as general statements don't do justice to the fresh voice and wit that infuses what is absolutely one of the best YA reads published in 2011. There are hints of Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker (the Abarat series, not the horror adult stuff) and yet there's still the allure of a mystery novel coupled with romance and a strong heroine with whom one can identify. It all starts with these fantastically tantalizing lines:

"One upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well."


The novel opens with Karou, a blue-haired, teenage art student in Prague whose ex-boyfriend, Kazimir, is a jerk. A creative jerk, no less, and as such, Kazimir can find different self-centered ways of trying to make Karou want him again (read: make her life miserable, as she no longer wants him), like getting a gig as a nude model for her life drawing class to display (among other things) a newly acquired tattooed "K" over his heart. (Karou's friend, Zuzana, responds to this with, "Can you believe him? Does he think if he just dangles his boy bits at you like a cat toy you'll go scampering after him?") While many teenage girls might have insufferable ex-boyfriends in their pasts, Karou can do just a little more than others could about it... like make wishes and know they will come true... "Wishes, for example, for things like itches."

You see, the life she leads in Prague is only a small part of the world that Karou knows. Karou has a notebook filled with drawings of otherworldly things and while her friends wonder where she comes up with such fantastic creatures, Karou merely shrugs, because explaining that these chimaera, these devils, are the only family she's ever known... well, that could get awkward. Karou has been raised by Brimstone, the Wishmonger, and a handful of other chimaera. They might look like monsters, creatures cobbled together from pieces of animals and humans, and other things could never identify, but they are Karou's family and even when they've always been behind the door to the human world, they've raised her and loved her as their own. Following Karou's break-up with Kazimir, she was devastated and while every teenager finds a relationship conversation with an adult to be incredibly awkward, I found myself wishing I had such guidance as Brimstone quite bluntly offers:


"The Wishmonger's voice was so deep it seemed almost the shadow of sound: a dark sonance that lurked in the lowest register of hearing. 'I don't know many rules to live by,' he'd said. 'But here's one. It's simple. Don't put anything unnecessary into yourself. No poisons or chemicals, no fumes or smoke or alcohol, no sharp objects, no inessential needles--drugs or tattoo--and... no inessential penises, either.'
'Inessential penises?' Karou had repeated, delighted with the phrase in spite of her grief. 'Is there any such thing as an essential one?'
'When an essential one comes along, you'll know,' he replied. 'Stop squandering yourself, child. Wait for love.'
'Love.' Her delight evaporated. She'd thought that was love.
'It will come, and you will know it,' Brimstone had promised, and she so so wanted to believe him."


There are two doors in Brimstone's office and Karou is only allowed to use one of them (she's never seen the other one opened, in fact) which opens to any city one chooses (or at least any city where there's an accompanying magic door linked to it). Karou runs errands for Brimstone, occasionally (and far less than she'd like) earning wishes bigger than the measly old scuppies that created Kazimir's itch. More often than not, these errands involve fetching teeth, which Brimstone keeps in jars and Karou is not allowed to know what purpose they serve. And, as if this wasn't already odd enough, good teeth are getting harder and harder to find. Here's a selection from an errand scene:


"This errand turned out to be a black-market auction in a warehouse on the outskirts of Paris. Karou had attended several such, and they were always the same. Cash only, of course, and attended by sundry underworld types like exiled dictators and crime lords with pretentions to culture. The auction items were a mixed salad of stolen museum pieces--a Chagall drawing, the dried uvula of some beheaded saint, a matched set of tusks from a mature African bull elephant.
Yes. A matched set of tusks from a mature African bull elephant.
Karou signed whens he saw them. Brimstone hadn't told her what she was after, only that she would know it when she saw it, and she did. Oh, and wouldn't they be a delight to wrangle on public transportation?
Unlike the other bidders, she didn't have a long black car waiting, or a pair of thug bodyguards to do her heavy lifting. She had only a string of scuppies and her charm, neither of which proved sufficient to persuade a cab driver to hang seven-foot-long elephant tusks out the back of his taxi. So, grumbling, Karou had to drag them six blocks to the nearest Metro station, down the stairs, and through the turnstyle. They were wrapped in canvas and duct-taped, and when a street musician lowered his violin to inquire, 'Hey lovely, what you got there?' she said, 'Musicians who asked questions,' and kept on going."


Karou's life changes, though, the day she sees the angel, Akiva. On an errand for Brimstone, Karou is nearly killed by an angel and is just as strangely spared by him, as he hesitates long enough for Karou to be pulled through a doorway to safety... but safety is relative and it turns out that even while Karou knew more about the chimaera and their world, there is so much she does not know about the centuries-old battle they have fought against the angels... and there's even more she doesn't know about her own past.

The fascinating worlds conjured within these pages are dark and dangerous, but crisp in vivid details. Prague is made particularly magical and otherworldly, despite its existence in our own reality. It provides an excellent gateway to the lands of Taylor's imagination. The reader will have the sense again and again that one door is opened only to discover entirely new realities beyond, multiplied ad infinitum. Karou and her sharp sense of humor are immediate favorites with the reader. She has incredible strength and yet there's a guarded vulnerability to her, so keenly noted in her despair after her ill-fated romance with Kazimir and further illustrated within the drama of the novel. Her uniqueness is brought to light in a hundred ways, causing the reader to actually fall in love with her, rather than simply accept that as the heroine, we're on her side. Her own internal struggles and attempts to understand her place in the worlds feel incredibly real, particularly when her emotions are those which any teen might have. A need to be true to one's friends, an allegiance felt towards those who have sheltered one, and the exasperating desire for connection even while wishing for independence.


"Yearning for love made her feel like a cat that was always twining around ankles, meowing Pet me, pet me, look at me, love me.
Better to be the cat gazing coolly down from a high wall, its expression inscrutable. The cat that shunned petting, that needed no one. Why couldn't she be that cat?
Be that cat!!! she wrote, drawing it into the corner of her page, cool and aloof."


Just as Karou is a brilliant character, so are are Brimstone, Issa, Twiga, and Yasri. Taylor takes her storytelling time, easing us in to her creation, before we start to understand where the story is taking us. There's no need to learn everything at once and the reader will only be pulled deeper in to the story as truths dawn and one races to the finish to confirm if one's guesses are correct. I'll admit that I was a trifle concerned with the appearance of Akiva in his stony perfection at first, but he develops to have a beautiful depth as Karou and the reader learn more about the chimaera, the angels, their war, and that which the chimaera have sought to keep secret for centuries.

I'll stop there. Just go read. Laini Taylor has created something extraordinary here and the best news is... there's more. I honestly don't see how she could possibly top Daughter of Smoke and Bone but I'll be waiting on the edge of my seat to see her try with its sequel. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is full of magic, romance, mystery, and a rare creativity that I only hope is replicated and expounded upon in the next installment in what is sure to be a masterful series.

9.09.2011

The Iron Knight

The Iron Fey series is back with the final installment. (No, really, it's the FINAL one... until the next series starts up, that is.) If Julie Kagawa could have had her way, she probably would have opted to end the series on the wistful/slightly tragic note that The Iron Queen brings to the table, but no, she yielded to her begging publisher and fans... and so we have The Iron Knight. Those who haven't tackled any of the other books should definitely not start here, but fans of the series to date will inevitably be quite pleased with this storyline, as it tackles obvious problems and tosses in some fun twists in a truly Julie Kagawa style.

At the end of The Iron Queen, Meghan assumed leadership of the Iron Realm and, heartbreakingly, released Ash from his sworn vow to be her knight and protect her, as the fey cannot survive in her world of iron. Despite this, Ash promised that he would find a way to be with her or die trying, and The Iron Knight is that journey. His unlikely (slash way-obvious) companion on this journey is Puck, Ash's former best friend turned sworn enemy who Ash has pretty much stopped trying to kill since Puck lost out to Ash in the battle for Meghan's affection. (If you forgot, Ash and Puck's relationship went sour many years ago when Ash's girlfriend was killed and Ash blamed her death on Puck's actions. Ash swore that Puck would die at his hand, but the bros came to an unofficial truce.) Together with the cat Grimalkin, the three of them set forth to find the end of the Nevernever. There, Ash hopes to find the Testing Grounds at the End of the World, a place where Ash might be able to gain that which could allow him to survive in Meghan's court -- a mortal soul in exchange for his immortality. Consider what that would mean to Ash and Meghan's long-term relationship and you'll see why it's a big deal and he isn't too keen on voicing his plans aloud to anyone, even if they all understand what he's doing. Just the same, this is his quest and along the way, Ash, Puck, and Grimalkin pick up two surprising companions on their journey... one of whom is very shocking indeed.

I won't say any more in means of summary, because quite honestly, fans of the series will be reading this book without a review's encouragement. Those on Team Ash will swoon and those on Team Puck will see this as something to tide them over until Kagawa focuses her talents on crafting a novel solely for Robin Goodfellow. And even if you're on the fence about the series (as I was for the first two books), then you'll still probably read The Iron Knight simply because you're so close to finishing it all and you might as well just do it. It's certainly worth the read if the series gives you any pleasure, but it could never supplant The Iron Queen as the best book of the series.

Personally, I was rather pleased with Kagawa's twists, but ultimately found that one inparticular (involving the most surprising companion) didn't carry quite enough weight in the end and only fulfilled a minimal purpose to put certain issues to rest without much to keep the complication going. Once we get through the Nevernever to the End of the World, my favorite twist comes in to play, but things resolve with a disappointing predictability. The ending will be a shock to no one and should make fans who need a Happily Ever After (HEA) quite happy indeed, but one feels like Kagawa's heart isn't totally in the ending. Kagawa has confessed online that she's a bigger fan of the Ultimate Noble Sacrifice Ending as opposed to the HEA, and so one can almost hear her reluctant sigh, even if she is pleased with the level of fan devotion that all demanded a tidier end for Meghan and Ash. However, given that the whole book seems like a concession to fans, I have to give Kagawa props for coming up with the diverting ideas that she did. Now, folks, let's let her do a book with an UNS, because even if hearts break, I'll bet that it would be her best book of all.

Wiener Wolf

If you've ever loved a little dog that didn't believe he was all that little, then this is the book for you. Wiener Wolf by Jeff Crosby is a delightful picture book that explores the wild animal nature of a very domestic dog. Wiener Dog lives with Granny and wears a knit sweater, slowly dying of utter boredom until one day when adventure seizes him and he flees to the wild woods. There, he becomes WIENER WOLF, casting off his sweater to join a wolf pack and delight in his new undomesticated life... until things get a biiiit too scary. Suddenly a can of dog food doesn't look so bad and Wiener Dog high-tails it back to civilization and the loving arms of Granny. The moral of the experience seems to be that every life needs a little excitement to keep from getting in a rut, even if that's just with some new friends at the local dog park. With fantastic illustrations, Wiener Wolf is a must for dog-lovers -- and oh man, if you know families with dachshunds, then buy this book for them immediately before someone else discovers this gem and does it. This is also the perfect book for if you need to explain to a child why Fido really wouldn't want to be a wild wolf... (or, similarly, why Mrs. Whiskerson wouldn't do well as a warrior cat). Just one read will leave you utterly smitten with Wiener Wolf.

Also recommended for those of you with dachshunds is the best Halloween book EVER written... The Hallo-wiener.

9.08.2011

The Forest of Hands and Teeth

Just when you're convinced that the YA market has been flooded with vampires and fairies, something really interesting comes along... specifically, comes lumbering along looking for brains. The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan is the first in a postapocalyptic series where flesh-eating zombies have overrun the world.

Mary lives in a fenced-in town in what was formerly the Appalachian region of the United States of America, and the residents believe it might be the last hold-out against the zombies (known as the Unconsecrated). The town is overseen by the Sisterhood and the Sisters ensure for the well-being of the people while the Guardians (men only, btw) stand watch over the fences and, God-forbid, alert the town if there is ever a breach in the fortifications and the Unconsecrated enter. The fence is the most important thing in the world -- for it is the only thing that stands between a conscious, God-fearing individual and the damning fate that is an Unconsecrated's "existence." Unconsecrated never cease in their search for human flesh, even as their own flesh decays and rots from their bones, and one who was once a mother, father, brother, or wife... well, as soon as they turn, that former association and distinction no longer matters.

Everyone in the village seems to accept the lives that they have been given, because there's not really much to tempt them to dream of better things, but Mary wants more. She wants to see the ocean, this mythical body of water that Mary's mother would tell her stories about when she was a child. It's not like anyone has ever seen it -- people have been born and have died within the village walls for generations now and this "ocean" is dismissed as a myth, to the point where Mary seems to be the only one to think of it at all. There is only the Forest of Hands and Teeth outside the fence, and the death and damnation that comes with a bite from the Unconsecrated. Meanwhile, the sole thing within the village that Mary *does* seem to want is Travis -- but it appears as though Travis will marry her friend, Cassandra. Mary's only chance for marriage, if she's realistic about things, appears to be Travis's brother, Harry. It's not that there's anything wrong with Harry. He obviously likes her, as he's often watching her, but he's not Travis. Reconciling herself to this is difficult, but on the day that Harry comes to ask if Mary will go with him to the dance that starts the beginning of the official courtship festivities, tragedy strikes. Mary's mother, grieving the loss of her husband to the Unconsecrated some time ago, got too close to the fence and was bitten. Mary's mother is taken to the Sisters and now everyone must wait to see if Mary's mother will turn. When it's obvious she will, the Sisters (and, frankly, everyone else) hopes that Mary's mother will choose death rather than surrender her chance at salvation by turning (an odd twist now on what constitutes a mortal sin, really), but no... mom is released in to the forest and Mary is devastated. Believing that she could continue to live with her brother and his wife, Mary is further stricken to learn that he will not have her in his home and that since Harry has not asked for her (for he did not alert Mary's brother to the whole asking Mary to the dance thing), Mary is sent to join the Sisterhood.

Within the walls of the Sisterhood, Mary embarks upon a life that would be mind-numbing if Mary did as she was told, but instead, Mary continues to quietly rebel and sneak about (but not in a fun way, lest you think this story is in any way light). Indeed, she has to do this quietly, as she's forbidden to speak. The sneaking around thing comes in handy when her beloved Travis is brought in after an incident while he was on guard and he needs to be nursed back to health -- and Mary happens to be on hand. Mary tends to him night and day (or every chance the sisters give her) and, unsurprisingly, their quiet and strange relationship deepens, constantly shadowed by a number of factors that all add up to the painful truth -- Mary cannot hope to truly be with Travis without their destroying Cassandra and Harry. But before you get concerned that this book is just like every YA out there, obsessed with the romantic entanglements, I would like to point out the romance is an important plot point, and yet this isn't anything whatsoever like your standard YA romance (minus the teenage longing in the face of terrible odds). Travis isn't the only person that the Sisters bring in to their sanctuary -- Mary spies a stranger, which is utterly impossible... because this would mean that their village is NOT the only village still standing and there are other settlements, full of other people, fighting against the Unconsecrated. Mary's life grows more and more complicated until the inevitable happens: the Unconsecrated breach the wall. Bloody, action-packed, and horrifying, the village's fall involves death and destruction on an epic scale. Mary manages to escape with a handful of others (and just who these companions are is related to a crucial plot point that I won't give away) through a secret corridor of fenced-in protection from the Unconsecrated that was used by the Guardians, but their little survival party has an incredibly twisted dynamic as they flee the only home they've ever known, uncertain if they should return or forge on with the slim hope of encountering other villages or, just maybe, the mythical "ocean."

As I've already indicated, The Forest of Hands and Teeth is not your average YA novel in many ways. To begin with, zombies aren't sexy. Vampires, werewolves, fairies, mermaids, angels, demons, ghosts, dragons, whatever... you can make each and every one of those sexy and accessible for teens, but try as you might, I just don't think that a classic zombie can be sexy. (I'm sure someone has tried, but I don't think I want to read that story.) So there goes the whole angle of a girl who (a) falls in love with a paranormal creature or (b) is a paranormal creature and falls for someone outside her realm of "acceptable" choices that are part of her particular paranormal sect. Instead, we have the paranormal element being a real honest-to-goodness threat and our storyline is set in the midst of this terror and chaos. I mentioned a love story and teenage longing -- oh boy is there longing -- but be warned now: most of it is implied angst or one-sided. We get a lot of Mary's perspective on everything, so we know that she's in love with Travis and she feels bad about Harry being in love with her when she wants his brother, but this isn't a story where we'll have steamy scenes or deep conversations in popular YA style. This could be disappointing for some readers who need romance in their stories, but it's also somewhat refreshing to get a different angle, something that isn't simply a PG-13 version of a bodice-ripper. You might be driven mad by all that remains unsaid, but it's definitely different.

The overall tone of the story is incredibly bleak, but again, I found this to be a really interesting choice for a YA novel in today's market. I simply haven't come across anything like it. Even things like Hunger Games, which has the same realistic struggle elements to it, at least makes the characters more open and accessible. Here, the reader is isolated with Mary and there is no real relief in the form of a connection that isn't otherwise so complicated that it's impossible to say anything. There's a lot of time where people aren't talking and, indeed, the Most Frustrating Thing Ever in this book is the fact that no one can bring themselves to say what they feel for fear of disturbing the established order. It's almost British in the total lack of honest communication. It's a clear choice on the part of the author to do this, but it can prove to be somewhat taxing as you move along.

That said, I definitely recommend The Forest of Hands and Teeth for anyone who's a bit fed up with the current YA scene and needs something different. Its appeal is hardly limited to YA fans, though, as it doesn't really feel like YA, except for the teenage angst and longing. Carrie Ryan may not have been able to make zombies sexy, but she sure as heck created a fascinating and compelling world that will have you wondering until the end at what lies in store, even if you want to smack most everyone upside the head along the way. This is the first in a series, but it stands on its own quite capably. Even if you tear through this book, it will leave you thinking about it for weeks. You may not like Mary and you may be frustrated with her world, but it's impossible to forget either of them. I haven't yet read the other ones in this series, but I've already bought them and tucked them away for a rainy day when I can sit on the couch, bar the door in case of zombie attack, and settle down with a book that I know will be twisted, emotionally wrenching, and thoroughly riveting.

9.07.2011

The Mephisto Covenant


After a somewhat rocky start, The Mephisto Covenant by Trinity Faegan presents an intriguing world set-up where good and evil battle for the souls of the living in very real and complicated ways... and evidently with a somewhat low success rate as far as the good guys are concerned. I want to warn you up front that the main problem with this novel is that the first few chapters are infected with an acute case of info-dump, thus making it difficult to warm up to the story at first with all the dense explanations, which could potentially cause the reader to set the whole thing aside. If you can manage to wade through the info-dump, though, then you'll see that the story finds its own peculiar rhythm and presents some interesting moments, though there are still some distinct flaws.

Teenage Sasha lives with her mother in San Francisco, but she's not terribly interested in school this fall. This past year, Sasha's "accountant" father was murdered in a hotel room in Russia, an act that was dismissed as a random robbery gone wrong, but this explanation does not satisfy Sasha in the least bit. She's desperate to find out just what happened to her father and will go to any lengths to discover the truth... even if that means striking a deal with a rather shady fellow named Eryx whose name has been whispered about town as heading up a secret society called the Ravens. Those who join the Ravens have been granted a wish and everyone seems to swear that their wishes come true. When given the opportunity to join, Sasha decides to see what Eryx can tell her, but it doesn't quite get to that point as she quickly realizes she's been set up and the leader of this particular sect of the Ravens is a rather evil fellow that used to date Sasha's mother and wants to hand her over to Eryx. (It's a small, evil world in this novel.) Sasha is nearly killed by mom's ex and his minions but a mysterious young man appears, freezes time, rescues her, lets spill some crucial information, and then wipes her memory. (As you can imagine, for the sake of the narrative, a silly little memory wipe won't exactly keep Sasha from feeling like she's missing something once she returns to life after the Raven attack.) The young man who saves Sasha is named Jax and he's not exactly young, seeing as he's a few centuries old. He and his brothers (who follow on his heels to deal with the whole Ravens group) are sons of hell -- and weirdly enough, they're kind of the good guys but with a twist. The sons of hell are the children of Mephistopheles, fated to rid the world of those who have pledged their souls to Eryx, who is working on behalf of Satan. This doesn't mean the sons of hell kill these people, as that would send their souls to Satan and only strengthen him, but rather, Jax and his brothers keep these individuals forever trapped in "hell on earth," an (endless?) cavern where they will never die and never escape. The righteous task of the sons of hell is mitigated by their own dark desires (sex, violence, etc.). They are doomed to eventual damnation, despite their "good" work, though there is just one tiny loophole that could result in their redemption. "The Mephisto Covenant" was made between God and Mephistopheles -- if a son of hell finds and falls in love with an Anabo (a pure soul and essentially an angel on earth), then his soul can be saved. The appearance of an Anabo is an incredibly rare event (indeed, the sons of hell have only ever come across two in their centuries' old existence). When an Anabo appears on earth, she is fated to a particular son of Hell, who catches her "scent" when near her and who then has the opportunity to save his soul if their love is true.

If you haven't already guessed it, Sasha is an Anabo. As "a daughter of Eve," she doesn't feel the same pull towards evil that normal humans do, even in simple jealousies or petty angers, as her soul is totally without sin. (The idea here is that Adam and Eve had a daughter, Aurora, prior to their Fall and Anabos are somehow the legacy of this.) Sasha's being an Anabo is a huge problem for Eryx, because (1) an Anabo's love can redeem a son of hell as previously mentioned and (2) only then can the Anabo and son of hell come together to bear children, who will also fight against Eryx with the rest of the sons of hell. Once the eldest member of the sons of hell, Eryx is now on the side of evil and constantly works to damn his brothers, too. The Ravens are simply a cover for Eryx's attempts to recruit souls for Satan, and once sworn to him, they can never be returned, unless he releases that person from his or her contract... which essentially never happens. A soul lost is lost forever.

But back to Sasha and Jax. Basically, Jax is obsessed with Sasha from the moment he smells her. After he and his brothers take care of the Ravens, it's all he can do to not watch her 24/7. He knows this is his chance at redemption and he's desperate not to screw this up, but there's no precedent for a son of hell keeping his Anabo love safe from Eryx -- only one brother has ever found his Anabo... and she was brutally raped and killed by Eryx before she could be taken to safety. Yikes. The only thing this taught the sons of hell is that once an Anabo is marked (aka has sex), Eryx will know where she is the same way that *they* know where she is and unless it's within the safety of their stronghold, then she is in great danger. Oh, and there's also the fact that the more time an Anabo spends with a son of hell, the more she becomes like him and begins to feel negative emotions like anger. And some intense strength and speed.

Was this enough information for you? To toss at you in the first few chapters? You think? Oh man. Just wait. There's more.

Sasha returns home from her ordeal with the Ravens (fuzzy on the details between when they attacked her and when she woke up, alone, without a scratch on her) to find her home life in uproar. Her mother is going to be deported back to Russia and Sasha is being packed off to Colorado to live with an uncle she never knew about -- her father's sister's husband. Worse than this, it appears that bad blood between her father and his sister means that her new aunt loathes ever fiber of Sasha's being and would kick her out on the street if it wasn't for Sasha's uncle who's always had a thing for Sasha's mom. Sasha has two cousins -- teenage boys that are polar opposites; one of whom is obviously as evil as his mother and the other plays video games all day. I don't think I need to go on about how horrifying this general picture is for Sasha, do I? It sucks. Of course, there is one up side to Sasha's expulsion to Colorado -- she now finds herself in Telluride, which is conveniently the exact same place where the sons of hell make their home. Still, it's not like she's safe because even there, a branch of the Ravens is popping up and you can depend on a rather shocking body count before the book wraps up.

On the whole, there's a lot about this book that's kind of confusing. The incredibly dense explanations and set-up at the beginning of the book is a real turn-off and it takes a while before you feel like Faegan hits her stride. While I doubt that many teens have read JR Ward's "Black Dagger Brotherhood" romance novel series, I was very strongly reminded of it once we got all the set-up details out of the way here. Each JR Ward book features one of the Brothers (vampire warriors) and the woman who will ultimately become his mate. Lots of denial/drama, lots of sex, eventual happy ending. In that world, vampires are born, not made; Brothers mate for life and they all live in a compound where they fight evil, which threatens both their race and humanity in general. This book has a similar premise, where Jax (who is often seen as the leader in a fight) finds his Anabo and there's drama before the eventual coupling. Honestly, I find the whole Anabo concept to be a bit weak, as there's no established explanation for their presence or rarity. It's not like it's something passed on within a family or one Anabo every generation (despite the Aurora link), which might make some kind of sense, but nope. Granted, it's possible that many Anabo have lived and died without being identified by the sons of hell, but still, it's disappointing to not have any real example as to why Sasha has appeared and why others have not really come before her in larger numbers. (Particularly given the fact that I'd bet you the subsequent books follow the JR Ward format of giving each brother his Anabo love.)

Surprisingly, despite the whole idea that Sasha is destined for Jax, there isn't the same assurance that they will naturally fall in love and this is one thing I appreciated. Sasha and Jax were surprisingly realistic about the chances of real love, despite their attraction. It might not be a very teenager thing to do, but Sasha actually questioned whether or not her feelings for Jax were real and her own or if they had to do with the whole Anabo thing. Sasha is very concerned about her free will and ability to decide for herself in all this... and Jax is rather all or nothing -- he doesn't want Sasha to feel like she needs to stay with him if they're not in love. (Those qualms don't keep them from making out every five minutes, of course, whether that be on ski slopes, at school, or in Jax's bedroom, but still, it's nice to see teens thinking with things other than their hormones.) The whole storyline puts a great amount of emphasis on free will on both sides of this equation. Of course, the benefit of free will is somewhat painted in a negative light, given that it's what's keeping Sasha in the world's most unhealthy living environment for much longer than she should (though perhaps the home life is about on par with how utterly horrifying school becomes when disgusting rumors about Sasha are spread around). In this world, people are definitely free to make their own decisions, even if they're the wrong ones and they carry the consequences of losing one's soul on foolish wishes, however well-intentioned. Good people are damned in the course of the book and the author treats this with care -- acknowledging that people can make bad decisions which have catastrophic repercussions.

As a result of the complicated moral questions, the somewhat bleak outlook on humanity, and a WAY steamier sex scene than one usually finds in YA, I would suggest that the younger teen set steer clear of this one. Faegan doesn't shy away from crafting dreadful scenes at school and home for Sasha. Oddly enough, it never really has to do with drugs or alcohol, which generally receive a pass in YA fiction when used as an excuse for teaching kids lessons about those evils... here, everything that people do to each other stems entirely from their own evil desires and thoughts. Sure, negative wishes are magnified in to really evil things when a person pledges their soul to Satan, but it's still terrifying what people are capable of doing entirely of their own volition in this book. I'm not talking axe murderers or rape scenes, but I am talking about terrible gossip, sexual assault, domestic violence, epic peer pressure, betrayal, and layers and layers of lies. (I didn't even go in to the whole twisted scene that is Sasha's family history here.) That said, all of these things are what make this book kind of interesting. The wide expanse of moral gray areas are fascinating and, let's face it, the reader is pulling for Jax and Sasha to get together for their own reasons and not for some pact, even if it does save his soul. There's something very oddly compelling about this book once you've worked through and sorted out all its mythology, but even that isn't totally enough to redeem it. Sadly, I thought the ending was somewhat of a let-down, being too simplistic and somewhat undermining the complications of the world. At least there's a conclusion and it doesn't end on a cliffhanger, as one is very aware that this is the first book of a series (this one is subtitled "The Redemption of Ajax"). It wraps things up too tidily for something that's been reveling in difficult choices and judgments. It was disappointing to not be able to absolutely say that the book turned itself around once the labyrinthine explanations were done with. I so wanted it to end with a bang so one could simply say that beginnings just weren't Faegan's thing, but it turns out the same is true for endings. Ultimately, her strength is in the middle stuff -- having fully gotten in to the world, she can do interesting things and I guess you better enjoy it while it lasts because all too soon you'll be sighing over a rushed and predictable ending. Still, I was entertained enough while reading it to be compelled to finish it all in a day. I haven't mentally committed to the idea of reading the sequel until I get some kind of confirmation if Faegan is, indeed, going the JR Ward route with the new love story in each book, but I'll certainly keep an eye out for it when summaries pop up to see if I'm right.

I'm not exactly sure who to recommend this book to... fans of super-convoluted moral orders? Fans of hidden and twisted societies that hide from our own and live with their own rules and mythologies? (If it's the latter, then I'd suggest you go read Daughter of Smoke and Bone for something truly good.) It's not exactly for fans of the supernatural set or even for those who love YA about angels. I'll be curious to see who rallies around this one, as it's certainly a unique read. I didn't love it, but then... I spent a lot of time trying to explain and unravel it, so clearly Faegan crafted a world that caught my attention.

Note: I received an advanced review e-galley for the purpose of review from NetGalley.

9.06.2011

Sweet Venom

Greek mythology is finally making its way from Percy Jackson to the teen market -- and Sweet Venom is a charming new adaptation of an old myth with new tricks. Popular culture leaves most people with the awareness of Medusa was a woman/creature with snakes for hair and a stony gaze that could turn anyone who looked into her eyes into, well, stone. In Tera Lynn Childs's "Medusa Girls" series, this isn't quite the whole story, as Medusa (and her two sisters) got a bad rap from a jealous god. (Isn't it always the way?) This isn't to say that the reputation was entirely a bad thing in the end, as it shielded her descendants from scrutiny. These descendants follow in her footsteps, turning the "family business" into guardianship (they are called "huntresses"), and making it their life's work to protect the general human populace from beasties that slip through a crack between the worlds, a crack which happens to be located in San Francisco.

Of course, Grace knows nothing about this. She's lived in the middle of nowhere USA with her family and she thinks the big adventure of her life will be their relocation to San Francisco so she can take advantage of a scholarship at a prestigious high school. That's before Grace sees a minotaur (though she appears to be the only person startled by it)... and *then* sees someone who could be her double show up to fight it.

This is how Grace meets her long-lost-twin, Gretchen.

Gretchen is a huntress and a damn good one. (In my mind, I pictured Faith from Buffy before she went totally nutso.) Saved from living on the streets by a mentor who trained her to fight the monsters that it seemed like only Gretchen could see, Gretchen isn't scared of the monsters now... she's mostly just pissed that between monster hunting and homework, she barely gets any sleep. What *does* scare her is the fact that her mentor has gone MIA and Gretchen has no idea what's become of her. Now this whole identical twin thing pops up and Gretchen doesn't do well with the personal/emotional stuff.

Grace and Gretchen have to come to terms with this newfound relationship and it really isn't easy for either of them. Grace has a loving family (and a very protective brother, Thane, who might notice when a girl identical to his adopted sister is walking around school) whereas Gretchen only really trusts her mentor and this soft version of herself could only be deadweight. Grace has to decide if she wants to help Gretchen in her fight against the monsters (if Gretchen even lets her)... and even if they can find a way to come to terms with each other, well... the surprises aren't over for this pair.

If you're looking for a story with dark twists and turns, you'll have to hunt elsewhere, because Sweet Venom is quite sweet and light indeed, striking a charming note in the often quite-dark-indeed paranormal teen genre. I'll admit that I scooped up Sweet Venom with only the awareness that this was a Medusa story and so I didn't read much beyond that... and maybe that it takes place in San Francisco. I was pleasantly surprised by the tone, which seems just as eager to tackle Grace's crush on her brother's friend Milo as the issue of various mythological demons cropping up in the Castro. Narration jumps between Grace and Gretchen in the beginning, allowing you to see both of their perspectives, which gives nice perspective -- and eventually allows Childs to do a fun twist which caught me slightly by surprise (in a good way!) and I'm pretending that it hasn't been spoiled for you with other reviews. Grace is obviously the "straight man" character and so provides the reader with the chance to be oriented in to this world while Gretchen provides attitude and knowledge. Later, you meet another important character who didn't seem to get the same careful depth as Grace and Gretchen, but the series is young, there will hopefully be time for that. The important note is that here, they are all distinct characters and don't immediately mesh together, and their differences will likely fuel many bits of dialogue in the books to come. I only hope Childs continues to let each character to continue to develop in an independent fashion as they grow, rather than falling prey to any easy shortcuts like allowing stereotypes to take the place of character development, which would keep them sounding different but deny them any depth. Given the care that Childs has shown to the characters thus far, though, I don't think she's in any danger of that.

I always appreciate when authors who use mythology are inclined to let the stories stand without wild adjustments -- or if there are adjustments, for them to happen in relation to the more modern setting rather than repeat "no, the history books got it all wrong!" over and over. Not that Childs doesn't make any adjustments... she tweaks enough to accommodate for her additions to the storyline, but there's no feeling of deep, egregious wrong or outrageous liberties being taken with the myths as most folks know them. I frequently found myself thinking that this book reminded me of Percy Jackson... only it wasn't trying so hard to be funny and it was a bit more grown-up (only slightly, as we're aiming for teens instead of tweens, but I imagine this novel would be totally acceptable for tweens, too). There's a definite girl-bent that will make this a hard sell for male readers, though it's refreshing to have a story where the romance is on the lighter side as opposed to being the sole focus with some other storyline details tossed in. Some interesting young men that factor in as romantic interests for the girls and I think we can bet that they're all more than they seem at first glance. (Indeed, they somewhat fade in to the background before the ending of the book, so I hope they come back with beefier storylines or some ability to contribute to the larger goals in the book.) It looks as though real romance or male character development will happen as the series unfolds, for Childs isn't rushing things there and I suppose I prefer it this way. Better to take it slow than create false drama to liven things up. All in all, Sweet Venom is a fun romp and a quick read -- a delightful beginning-of-fall novel as you look to curl up on the couch with something light and entertaining as the back-to-school crush might load one's plate down with heavier tomes. I'm certainly looking forward to the next in this series, as I think these Medusa girls have some very amusing storylines ahead of them.

Full disclosure: I don't work on this book, but it does factor in to my professional life. My review is my own personal opinion, but weight this knowledge as you see fit.

8.14.2011

Cinder

Okay, I'm going to level with you. This is a cyborg Cinderella story. There's just no mincing around the simple fact that the most economical way to describe Marissa Meyer's YA novel Cinder (Lunar Chronicles #1) is to admit that it's "a cyborg Cinderella story." When a friend handed me this galley and described it as such, I winced. I say it even now and I wince. (The cover sure doesn't help here, either. It's dreadful.) But wince away, because Cinder is much better than such a simplistic summary would suggest, delivering a strong heroine, an interesting futuristic world, and a plot that weaves in subtle-but-not-too-contrived nods to the original Cinderella story.

Linh Cinder is a gifted mechanic working a stall at the market in New Beijing, the capitol city of the Commonwealth. She also happens to be a teenage orphan and a cyborg. An accident at the age of eleven killed her parents, wiped out Cinder's memory, and left her as a part human, part robot creation, with both flowing blood and electronic wiring. Following that accident, Cinder was taken on as a ward to the Linh family by Linh Garan, but unfortunately Lihn Garan died right after this act of kindness and as a result, Cinder's been treated like a servant by Garan's wife Linh Adri and her two daughters, Pearl and Peony (well, by Adri and Pearl -- Peony is Cinder's only human friend and actually seems like a decent sort, if a bit silly). Since Cinder is a cyborg, she is a second-class citizen in everyone's eyes and she's actually considered the property of Linh Adri, so all income earned by Cinder in her market stall goes straight in to her wicked stepmother's pockets. Additionally, as a cyborg, Cinder could be drafted in to become a test subject for the government's research to find a cure to Leutmosis, a disease that has been ravaging the country for over a decade. It's luck alone that has kept her name from being called up, though Cinder is aware that the only reason Linh Adri hasn't "volunteered" Cinder for the draft testing is because they need her income from the market stall.

The novel opens with Cinder working in the market (well, sitting in her stall while dealing with her own too-small robotic foot that hasn't been upgraded since she was eleven) when an unlikely client shows up -- Prince Kai, the eighteen-year-old prince that will very soon become Emperor. Cinder recognizes him immediately (beyond her computer identification, her stepsisters are obsessed with the prince, along with practically every other single female in the Commonwealth), but he's dressed to blend in and is seeking the services of the mechanic Linh Cinder, of whom he's heard excellent things. Surprised to find that the teenage girl before him is the famed mechanic, the prince shifts in to pleasant bantering with Cinder as he requests that she fix his tutor android without wiping its memory. Cinder can tell that this isn't simply a sentimental request to restore the tutor droid, but takes on the job and says she will try to have it completed before the upcoming festival in two weeks. Naturally, things happen that delay this critical fix, though this doesn't stop Cinder and the Prince from running in to each other repeatedly. Prince Kai's father dies and he must prepare himself to become Emperor... which primarily means preparing himself to face down with the Lunar Queen, the power-hungry ruler of the strangely evolved race that lives on the moon. Cinder's beloved stepsister Peony contracts leutmosis after going out on an errand with Cinder and, blaming this tragedy on Cinder, Lihn Adri volunteers Cinder for the cyborg draft. Cinder does not die, but instead becomes a very interesting test subject to a rather interesting research doctor at the palace and I'll stop there before I summarize too much, but just accept that (in Cinderella style), there's a coach and a dress and a ball. Of course, this book is only the beginning of Cinder's story. Indeed, this series is slated to feature four books and while I can't quite conceive of what, exactly, will possibly occupy our time for long enough to take four books, I'm very interested to see what the next book has in store.

By far, the best thing to recommend this story is Cinder herself, a resourceful heroine who's been trampled upon for most of her life and will find herself in somewhat impossible situations... yet rises to great challenges to do what she can for those who care. She doesn't have much self-confidence, but is convinced that if she (with Iko in tow) can just get out of the Commonwealth and start somewhere new, like Europe, then she might have a short at a decent life, free from Linh Adri's control. Iko feels a little like an over-the-top Disney sidekick, with her vibrant personality and her own robotic crush on the prince. I wasn't terribly sold on Prince Kai's interest in Cinder, though I appreciate that they have multiple meetings, so it's not just a one-shot deal where he sees this slightly dirty mechanic and becomes smitten just because she's not some palace girl throwing herself in his path. The Lunar Queen is rather evil for evil's sake, so I'm looking forward to future books where we'll inevitably gain more information about the Lunar race. So yes, indeed, it's Cinder carrying the story, and yet I didn't mind that all too much. I'll definitely be reading the next installment to see what happens to Cinder and I'll be keeping my fingers crossed for deeper character development for those in the cast beyond Cinder.

Please note: this review is based off an ARC.

8.07.2011

Divergent

As the hot YA book of the summer, Divergent is a fast-paced and very interesting dystopian fiction from so-young-it-hurts Veronica Roth. Fans of the ever-growing dystopian genre will appreciate that, while many tried-and-true elements are here, Roth manages to keep the story fresh and fascinating. A perfect summer read, I highly recommend this as a great book to include on any weekend beach getaways. Oh, and it's set in a future Chicago, so folks from the Windy City will likely enjoy this even more than others.

Beatrice Prior lives in a Chicago where factions determine the kind of life you lead. Each faction highlights a particular virtue, suggesting that its members value this virtue above all others and it is how those members are defined -- Abnegation (the selfless), Candor (the honest), Amity (the peaceful), Erudite (the intelligent), and Dauntless (the brave). You may be born in to a particular faction, but that doesn't necessarily mean that's where you'll cast your lot when you turn sixteen and make the biggest choice of your life. Beatrice and her twin brother were born in to Abnegation; for Beatrice, the question of leaving her family is too painful to even really consider, but when Beatrice undergoes the dream test that is supposed to confirm the predictions of where each person will end up, Beatrice's test results come up shockingly (and dangerously) inconclusive. With this information suddenly placing the weight of the decision entirely on her own shoulders, Beatrice makes a surprising decision -- and, incidentally, so does her brother, though their decisions leave their family scattered in ways they never saw coming. There's little time to mourn what must be left behind, though, as Beatrice is whisked off towards initiation rites that leave her gasping for breath and horrified that she might not measure up, and so be cast out to become Factionless. As Beatrice struggles with what her inconclusive test status might mean for her, she throws herself in to the initiation rights and renames herself "Tris." She makes friends and enemies, and even takes tentative steps towards something more with one of her instructors, a rather withdrawn young man known as "Four." This is definitely the first step on a long road for Tris, but Roth presents a fast-paced and compelling world, riddled with interesting choices for people who believe they have none.

There are a large number of dystopian novels out there these days, but Divergent definitely one of the better ones. Granted, it is still one where, at this point in the game, you just kind of have to accept the societal structure (seriously, HOW would we progress to a point where these factions would form?), but once you've done that, you can enjoy the fascinating details and repercussions of focusing on one value. Tris is a character that audiences will love and her "divergent" nature presented right up front is an interesting concept. (Most books would let her whine and wonder if she's different before confirming it was late in the book, if ever.) While you know she's eventually going to be fine (or at least still be alive at the end of the book), its quite interesting to watch her friends and try to understand their trajectories towards success or failure within their faction. Roth doesn't shy away from killing characters, folks, so be prepared. The inevitable romance with Four still has a few tricks up its sleeve, I think, and I'm betting we can count on Roth to make sure that there's no such thing as smooth sailing in Tris and Four's future.

Overall, Divergent is a great summer read if you're ready to just enjoy something and not overthink it. Since Veronica Roth is so young, I think we can expect to see a great deal of YA lit from her in the future. Fingers crossed that it's all as good (if not better!) than her debut.

Please note: while I do not work on this book, it does factor in to my professional life, so weight my review as you see fit.

7.27.2011

Bumped

In the midst of all the dystopian novels that are out these days, Megan McCafferty's Bumped separates itself from the pack with an amusing blend of quirky humor and a world that is frightening not only in its differences from our current world, but in its hyper-intensified take on the familiar.

Let's start with the changes: a virus that seems to affect almost the entire world population has resulted in fertility taking such a nose-dive that most adults are sterile by 18 or 20 -- which means the baby-making has to happen early or not at all. In response, religious groups pretty much marry girls off as early as possible, but the rest of the world is starting to warm up to a different, more capitalist approach: pregging for profit. Teens themselves might not be ready to be a parent and raise a baby, but they COULD offer it for adoption... and a cash incentive from potential adoptive parents (or, say, the prospect of a free ride to college and a car) means that more and more girls are looking to get "bumped" early on.

Now let's shift to the eerily familiar -- though technically we started on "eerily familiar" when we introduced the capitalist greed element. Technology has made leaps in communication avenues (there exists an online system of communication called MiNet accessible via contact lenses where blinking cues control the program). Parents push their daughters into the idea of pregging for profit (the same way they already push extracurriculars, except now pregging is in addition to those sports teams and orchestra performances). Oh, and high school is still a cliqueish hell on earth, but that's kind of an "always has been, always will be" thing.

Melody's parents are economics professors, who long foretold of the day when a teenage girl's fertility would be the most valuable thing on earth. So Melody, herself an adopted child, was raised with the knowledge that she, too, would join the ranks of pregnant teens -- but she would do it as a professional (Reproductive Professionals are know as RePros). The first in her school with an agent and a contract to preg for a wealthy couple, Melody made professional pregging a widely accepted option at her school -- to the point where the professionals and the amateurs actually experience some tension. Melody, meanwhile, may have started the debate but can't really enjoy full participation in the argument... as she isn't pregnant. Her wealthy couple is dithering on male gene choices, so Melody is stuck with her own nerves about them wasting her valuable time to get bumped before the virus renders her sterile... and that's on top of the general nerves that accompany bumping at all. Her super pregnant best friend is slightly useless for all this stress, which would normally send Melody to her other best friend, a guy, but things have started to get slightly weird between them and Melody's not sure what to do with that, either.

Now, let's switch to Harmony. You see, Melody and Harmony are identical twins, separated at birth. Harmony was adopted in to a cult/commune religious community and it appears that when she learned about her twin, she simply went forth to try and convert her sister to the path of righteousness... but it's quickly apparent that Harmony is not quite as simple as all that might suggest. In fact, it appears as though she fled her beloved community in order to find her sister and very little proselytizing is going on, though Harmony does spend a lot of time marveling at the society and technological advances. Melody is slightly appalled at Harmony's presence, because it devalues her own stock on the RePro market if there's another person out there offering the exact same genetic material. Plus, to have one's long-lost twin show up on one's doorstep is not exactly normal. Inevitably, the fact that they are identical twins leads to all kinds of mix-ups and confusions, particularly when Melody is offered the chance to bump with the world-famous Jondoe... but Harmony is the one he finds waiting at Melody's house.

This may be a lot of information to take (indeed, the first 20% of the book has a rather steep learning curve as you dive in), but if you can handle a complicated world (and a WHOLE LOT of new vocabulary and slang), then you'll find that Bumped is shockingly deep in its assessment of the issues that arise from this world. McCafferty somehow strikes a fantastic balance between light-hearted humor and intense philosophical thought when it comes to the choices teens make. And that's not just limited to her world, either. The question of when to have sex and with whom and for what reasons. The idea of doing something because society (including one's parent) says it's the right thing to do, even when you're not sure it's the right decision for you. What to do when faced with unspeakable heartbreak and tremendously difficult decisions. Pretty deep for a YA novel that's core premise involves having sex and getting pregnant. Given that premise, parents may not think this a book for very young teens, but it's also not explicit or graphic, so I wouldn't really worry about it too much. Besides, it might even remind girls that sex is a complicated subject and shouldn't be something they rush in to without thinking of the consequences, both physical and emotional.

While you might grow a bit weary of the slang that the book creates (and you might have to keep reminding yourself exactly which twin is which), you'll also find yourself seriously thinking about the plot of this book (and the shocking cliff-hanger of an ending) for a long time after you set it down. Bumped is funny and thoughtful -- a combination that will keep you devouring page after page, desperate to know what decisions Harmony and Melody will make as their lives get even more tangled up. Now we only need to wait and see what interesting issues will arise in the sequel, Thumped, because even if certain plot points will be obvious, I would bet that McCafferty still has some surprising and fascinating things up her sleeve.

Full disclosure. This book indirectly factors in to my professional life. This is a personal review, but feel free to let that info factor in to what you make of this review.